Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dear FPS's: Please don't do these things

1. Unlockables

If I wanted to play an RPG, I'd play an RPG. The draw of multiplayer FPS's is the level playing field. The only difference between a new player and an experienced player is skill. Having to grind in an FPS to unlock the best weapons ruins the fun.

Biggest offender: Battlefield 2142. In this game, there are 4 classes, but they all start out with a gun, a pistol, and a knife. You have to unlock grenades, you have to unlock class features like med packs, defibrilators, you have to unlock the better weapons, and you have to do this with points. What's more, it doesn't happen even remotely quickly. Here's why it's worse. If you're starting out in this game, you're competing against people who not only have played the game a lot, but have all the best unlocks, making the gap between you and them even wider.

Moderate offender: Team Fortress 2. This isn't as much of a problem in TF2, because the default weapons are useful. The unlocks usually have some defecit to balance out their advantages. For example, Natascha, the unlockable minigun, has a 25% slowing effect on whatever it hits, but it does 50% less damage. Here's the problem. The two ways to get the weapons are to either grind achievements (which never, EVER come up in regular play), or just wait for them to be randomly found. This promotes a different kind of grinding, however. People either elect to sit in an Idle server, or use an idle program (which valve frowned upon, and invalidated all unlocks gotten by that method), rather than just enjoying the game.

Lesser offender: Battlefield 2. This game had 7 classes, but unlike its sequal, all the specials of each class are unlocked right out of the gate. The only unlocks are a different primary weapon for each class. The unlocked guns aren't much different from the defaults, however, and not having the unlocked weapons isn't really a defecit. Each class can still perform its duty, regardless of weapon.

2. No spectator mode while dead

If I die, I do not want to spend the 15 or 20 seconds before the next spawn staring at the sky, ground, or a black screen. If I'm not alive, I want to be looking at other people who are alive. If I am not bored, realism is an appropriate sacrifice.

Worst offenders: The Battlefield series. I know you're looking at the sky because there is a chance you may be revived, but it is no less disorienting to be thrown back into the action from a spectator's view than from a view of the sky.

3. Shitty lobby systems

Lobbys aren't a bad idea. They give you time to get a game set up, and you can start the game when all your friends are in. Furthermore, matchmaking for pubs on some games is a great idea, and properly implemented, works very well. But a lack of options can make this system maddening.

Worst offender: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. This game is banking on multiplayer, as the single player campaign is 6 hours long at most. So thanks, InfinityWard, for removing dedicated servers and making all multiplayer work on a lobby system. The wonderful thing about dedicated servers is there are infinite options. People who own the servers choose the settings that fit the server's playstyle, and also can administrate the servers to get rid of hackers and douchebags. Now that's all gone. This also means pings will inevitably be higher and more eratic. Worse, players surrender control of their gaming experience.

Moderate to Lesser offender: Left4Dead and Left4Dead2. Lobbys are a good idea for pubs and friend-only games here. The problem is, you can't control which server you play on, so you may end up on a strangely modded server, or a server with different than usual settings. If you want to connect to a specific server, you have to mess around with configuration files and the console, which is a lot of hoops to jump through to play the damn game on your own server. My friends and I usually end up hosting locally and waiting 3 minutes for the pings to calm down.

4. Regenerating health

I'd love it if a game would come up with a good system for dealing with getting wounded. I don't know why we can't use health packs anymore. Sure, picking up a box with a red cross on it and having it instantly restore your health is not very realistic, but neither is crouching in a corner and sucking your thumb until your vision clears. It breaks flow.

Worst offender: Any curent-gen game.

So there's a list of four things that annoy me. I'm off.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Atheism and the Internet

Let me preface this article by giving you the point of view from which it is written. I am 22 years old, and I am a Christian. If asked for a denomination, I'd cite my background as a Presbyterian and a Covenant, but say that I am non-denominational at the moment. I believe in God, and that he is still around. I believe in Evolution, as I do not think we have brains that we are not supposed to use. I believe that a good deal of the Bible is a metaphor, and taking it as literal historical fact will only lead to trouble. I believe in Jesus, and I believe that our responsibility as Christians is to try to be more like Christ. I dislike religious extremists, and I don't think "God told me to" is an excuse to commit atrocities. I have friends of quite a few different religions, including atheists, and I don't think that being a Christian says I can't be friends with them.

Alright, there's where I'm coming from. Here is today's rant.

There are a lot of very vocal atheists on the internet. I don't know that they're the majority, but they sure are loud. The atheism board on reddit has over 64,000 subscribers, and you'll run into vocal atheists no matter which parts of the internet you frequent, be they news sites, online games, forums and imageboards, etc. I'm not planning to start a theological debate here, but I would like to point out a few observations I have made in regards to the attitudes of some internet atheists.

Many atheists associate atheism with intelligence, as though only smart people can be atheists, or all atheists are smart. They speak as though being an atheist puts them in a select group of smart people who haven't been taken in by "The God Delusion." Often, they'll make sweeping statements about society as a whole, like "It's 2009 and we still have 'In God We Trust' on our money. Society has a long way to go."

Intelligence and Atheism are not mutually inclusive. Really, it's true. Stupid people can be found in any cross-section of individuals, regardless of creed.

Somehow, the words "Christian" and "Creationist" became synonymous to internet atheists. Again, the two are not mutually inclusive. I got as annoyed as any atheist when I heard about the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Teaching the Bible's creation story as literal truth is doing children a disservice. Teaching that one man and one woman were literally created fully formed, and populated the entire planet without inbreeding is silly. Evolution is widely accepted as scientific fact, and many Christians accept it as true as well.

Some internet atheists are the rudest and most offensive people I've come into contact with. On a few memorable occasions, when they found out I was a Christian, they immediately reached several conclusions (I am stupid and/or weak, I was tricked into believing from an early age, I am a Creationist, I am a hypocrite) and launched an attack on my beliefs. Now, I don't mind having my beliefs questioned. I did quite a bit of that myself, and if my beliefs didn't stand up to questioning, I wouldn't still have them. I do mind having my beliefs attacked, unprovoked, and being put on the defensive in an argument that I didn't start, or want to have in the first place.

For the constant cries of "don't force your religion on me," some of these internet atheists are sure obnoxious about forcing their beliefs on others. They raise a fuss about "Under God" in the pledge, about "In God We Trust", about "God Bless America". Christianity, Islam, and the rest of the world's religions, do not have a monopoly on ignorant, extremist points of view. Several atheists I have spoken to are of the opinion that religion as a whole, and the concept of a supreme being, are harmful to humanity, claiming that religion is nothing but a tool of social repression and control.

Essentially, almost all that ends up being posted on internet atheist hangouts are rage-inducing news stories about extremists, pedophiles, fundamentalists, things that make organized religion look bad. The comments on said stories and the other posts comprise one big, pointless circle-jerk of self-congratulating lines, boiling down to "Look how stupid, hypocritical, and backwards religious people are." They blame religion for the Westboro Baptist Church, for ignorance, for the pedophiles in the Catholic Church, for the Dark Ages, for hate crimes, but the problem isn't religion. The truth is, those things frustrate Christians just as much as atheists, moreso in fact. Every rational Christian out there is frustrated, embarrassed, and angry, not just because of the event itself, but because of the damage it does to the world's view of Christianity. For every atrocity, there are thousands upon thousands of good people trying to make the world a little nicer. But hey, that's not news.

Anyway, to wrap all of this up, I'd like to see a bit less aggression from the atheists of the internet. This article isn't going to change anything, but it's been on my mind lately, so there it is. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

This Month in Movies


So a few weeks ago, I went downtown to hang out with my Ukrainian buddy and his girlfriend to celebrate our mutual employment. We ended up going to see Surrogates, and here are my thoughts on it.

Here's the premise. Mankind has perfected robotic technology, and 99% of the planet now live their lives through robots called Surrogates. Plugged into an interface and sitting in a chair, they control their robotic self as they do all their daily tasks. Crime rates have plummeted, and Violent crime is nearly non-existent. Until, that is, the son of the inventor of surrogate technology is killed by feedback from his surrogate being killed, which is supposedly impossible. Bruce Willis plays an FBI agent investigating the case.

My biggest impression of this movie was wasted potential. There were flashes of true brilliance here, that a bit more polish could have brought out. There were a lot of really great things that the movie touched on, that, had they done a bit more with them, could have really made an impact. For example, at the beginning, there's a scene where the afore mentioned son of the surrogate inventor goes to a club. Obviously, it's populated only by surrogates, and the whole scene suggests the dissociation between these robots and the people behind them. Not only can the person behind the machine be anybody, but they treat the surrogates quite recklessly. There is absolutely nothing remaining of the whole “body is a temple” idea.

Unfortunately, this idea is essentially abandoned, or treated as less than important. One of the things I would have liked to see a bit more of was uncanny behavior. A few actors really had that down, behaving subtly off, and producing a sense of disquiet, or wrong-ness, but for the most part, this was also neglected, which was really too bad.

Anyway, It wasn't bad, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend it. Might be worth a rental or a download.

One movie, however, I can recommend with every fiber of my being, and that is...


Zombieland is the most fun I've had at the movies in years. In fact, its hard to remember any movie I've seen recently which had the pure entertainment value that Zombieland offers.

Here's a quick rundown of the "plot." Without dawdling, we are plunged into a zombie-infested world with a wonderfully creative introductory sequence in which Columbus, our main protagonist, explains his rules for zombie survival. Shortly, we are introduced to Tallahassee, another survivor, although he doesn't so much survive as thrive. A line that comes close to summing up his character is "Momma always said 'Everyone's good at something.' Who'd have thought my something would be killing zombies?" Our two other main characters are Wichita and Little Rock, two con-artist sisters, heading for California.

I've heard this described as a video-game movie not based on a game, and Left4Dead: The Movie. Both are not too far from the truth. Zombieland's audience is clearly the gamer generation, as is apparent from the tone of the film.

Zombieland approaches zombie-killing with a sense of determined glee, as if to say, "you and I both know zombie-killing is awesome, but just in case anyone is in doubt, watch this!" The movie is, without a doubt, a comedy, and yet it never falls into the trap of becoming campy. It's violent and gory, but never dependent on violence for shock value, or slapstick.

Thankfully, since we're a ways into the zombie apocalypse, we don't have to deal with the bane of my existence: stupid people. Why? They're all dead! Woohoo! Our 4 main characters are interesting, and together carry a sense of charm that allows the audience to easily connect to at least one of them. Know how in most zombie films, there's an idiot you hope is the first to get eaten? Not here.

Above all, the movie knows what kind of movie it wants to be, which is pure fun and entertainment, and it does that so well, I am almost mad at it. I laughed and clapped throughout the entirety of the movie, and I was physically incapable of stopping smiling after I left the theater. It's funny, scary, heartwarming, and awesome.

See this movie. Do it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I love my friends

Megaera24: well, to put the icing on the cake
[bd]tehMati: there's cake?
Megaera24: it's cake of PAIN
Megaera24: and SUFFERING
Megaera24: iced with agony and frustration

Mati: NO! Just because the prefix exists, doesn't mean that you can just SLAP IT ON any word and...

Ubu: I have left you for another, Mati. Together, our love will destroy POINT C...

Fluffy's mom "Your name is Fluffy? You're not really a fluffy."
Fluffy's mom "Oh, well that's more like it"

tehMati: fuck
tehMati: we've got a mouse
Ario: at least its not a huge king rat
Ario: with a crown on his head
Ario: those dudes are trouble

Ishikawa: I'm like a goldfish. A cunning gold fish.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Some Thoughts on Harry Potter # 7

Let me preface this review by saying that I enjoyed all the books, and enjoyed the ride. That being said, here's what I thought about the 7th volume of Harry Potter, which I finally got around to reading (yeah, slowpoke.jpg, I know). There are spoilers here.

The book was quite a bit longer than it needed to be, mostly because the main characters have no initiative whatsoever. None. They literally spent months sitting in tents in the woods. Instead of looking for horcruxes, they talk about where they might be. How amazingly useless. Instead of trying to gather some information, or doing some research, they sit in tents and waste amazing amounts of time. The plot always has to come and find them, never the other way around. In fact, the reason it was so easy for Dumbledore to keep running things after his death, was the main characters never do anything unless they're beaten into it by the plot-bat.

Voldemort and Snape were both right when they said there was nothing special about Harry. He sucks at magic, and even in the face of actual necessity, he doesn't try to improve. None of their time in that infernal tent was spent trying to learn new things, just rehashing old information. He's pretty damn useless.

Harry has some damn useful friends, though. The supporting cast are the ones I actually want to know about. Their stories would be really interesting. I want to know what Bill and Arthur Weasley have been doing. Tell me about Neville and Ginny, tell me more about the rest of the Order. They are the ones that take initiative, they are the ones who move the plot, who fight the battles.

And seriously, did I miss something, or why do our dear three dense drop-outs have to wear the necklace, instead of just keeping it in the bag? Must we really rip off Lord of the Rings that much? If we know that it makes us irritable, don't wear the damn thing. Seriously.

The whole captured by the death-eaters event felt very contrived. It made me think of running an RPG, when the GM thinks “Well crap, they're getting nowhere on their own. Time to bring out the rail-road tracks!” I really enjoyed the break-ins at the Ministry and Gringots, because our dear main characters were actually doing something. And hey, an exit on a dragon is stylish.

I was a little perplexed by the casual use of the unforgiveable curses. They were not arbitrarily unforgiveable. Total control over someone, magical torture, and instant murder are horrific things. In a non-magical setting, the imperius curse is the equivalent of holding someone’s children hostage, and forcing them to do your bidding. What, suddenly because there’s no law against it, it’s ok to use it liberally to get your way?

The ending, however, was awesomesauce. That is how a showdown should go. Again, I more admire the supporting cast than the main characters. Neville, the Weasleys, Lupin and Tonks, and the Hogwarts teachers are properly badass.

But here’s a question? Why is the killing curse outlawed? Surely, killing is what should be outlawed not the curse itself. Shooting, stabbing, or cursing, the person is still dead. This is something of a gun control question, but here it’s slightly different. Anyone with a wand can perform the killing curse. Making it unforgiveable just ensures that criminals are the ones who will use it. It’s like giving someone a gun and saying “if you shoot anyone with it, that’s a life sentence, but its less evil to club them to death with it.” And if it’s arbitrarily ok to use the imperius curse now, we may as well pull out all the stops. These things only popped into my mind while I was thinking a bit more in depth about them. I didn’t consider the hypocrisy until I started writing this.

They may as well rename this book “Just as Planned.” For my appreciation for the supporting cast, I do not like Dumbledore, or what Rowling did with him. I don’t mind having him die, but I do mind him still running the show. He’s arrogant and presumptuous, acting as though he believes he’s the only one with a brain in his head. Unfortunately, he is right, but it’s mostly his own fault. Rather than teach people to be self-sufficient, and to think for themselves, he teaches them that they are incapable of acting without him. Then, he moves them around like pieces on a chessboard.

All that being said, however, I enjoyed it as a whole, despite my complaints. It was a pleasure to see the characters grow up, and the whole thing was well put-together. Good stuff, I suppose.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Favorite Games 5-1

5. Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines

This game is an underrated gem. When it came out, it was quite buggy, and had issues with some computer hardware. My buddy Gene, who originally showed me this game, was playing it on what at the time was a graphics card that resembled the monolith from 2001, and yet he could hardly break 20fps. The game also was released right around the same time Half-Life 2 was released, and it got very little press.

This game is a prime example of a western rpg title at its finest. Under the hood, the game uses White Wolf's world of darkness system, and the game is set in the same kind of world. This game also has one of my favorite portrayals of vampires. Although they are as varied and as humans in terms of personality, they all have one thing in common: the beast inside that demands blood. And while it may have been ok to chow down all the time a few hundred years ago, now humans have things like napalm, and shotguns, and so forth. Enter the Camarilla, a government which claims every vampire as a member whether they want to be or not, with strict penalties for anyone who violates "The Masquerade."

The best thing about this game...well, one of the best things about this game is the voice acting and the character design. Jack, Nines, Jeanette and Therese, they're all some of the most memorable video game characters ever. They move, they gesture, their faces change with their emotions, and when Jack howls with laughter, you believe it. The strange thing is, since the characters are so memorable, it makes the world more alive. The world seems more open than a lot of modern "open world" games. Play this. You can get it off steam pretty cheap.

4. F.E.A.R.

I never was a fan of most horror movies, mostly because in most of them, everyone is so terribly, terribly stupid. I like to be scared a little bit, though. I'm also an action movie junkie. I love gunfights, and explosions, and manly things like that. F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is a quite enjoyable mix of action and horror. There's a creepy little girl who psychically murders people, there's a crazy psychic guy commanding a battalion of super soldiers who likes to eat people, and there's you, who's job it is to go right into the middle of it all.

When you're not scaling the walls in fright, the firefights are spectacular. The enemy A.I. is actually good. The soldiers will move to flank you, and don't miss a whole lot. The encounters are well put together, and while the environments get a bit stale at times, the combat happens in enough different ways to keep you interested. The horror sections are very well done, with classic bleeding walls, excellent sound design, flickering lights, etc. The game does look a bit dated, though, so for a pretty new look, check out F.E.A.R. 2. It's pretty much the same, gameplaywise.

3. Resident Evil 4

I literally cannot count the number of playthroughs this game got in our dorm at college. We picked it up for the gamecube about halfway through Freshman year, and played it through so many times, I'm surprised the disc hasn't worn away to nothing. Not only did this game show off the graphical potential of the gamecube, it was pretty much perfect. I've never played the other Resident Evil games, as they came out in an era where I did not own a console, but oh man, is this game awesome.

You play as Leon S. Kennedy, a survivor of the Raccoon City incident, and you carve a bloody swath through a bunch of tentacle-monster-infested Spanish peasants, the attached evil cult that's kidnapped the President's daughter, and some giant tentacled monsters. I literally do not have any criticisms for this game. A lot of people whine that it made a mockery of the survival-horror genre, but they can go die in a fire. This game is frantic, frightening, and most of all, fun. Get this game. If possible, for the Wii. The controls are actually really good.

2. Anything by Valve

If I wasn't allowed to make a blanket statement like this, this list would have a lot less variety. These guys have yet to make a less than stellar game. Half-life, HL2, Portal, all fantastic. This company is doing it right. I could go on forever on how much I love these games, but other people have already done it, and anyone who says any different is a fool.

These guys really know how to make games. Not just how to make a game, these guys know how to make an epic experience. Valve, do not change a thing. Except your slow release schedule. But I'm willing to endure that as long as you keep up the good work.

1. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

I made it pretty clear in one of my earlier posts how much I love this game. I've never been able to be as completely immersed and invested in a video game as I am in this game. Seriously, play it. Do it. Now.

If you have trouble with the dated look, download Better Heads, Better Bodies, and get Morrowind Graphics Extender. Seriously, It's the best game I've played, and to this day, I often find myself with a desire to wander Vvardenfell.

There you go. Top 10 list done.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Favorite Games 10-6

I said I might do one of these, and right now, I can't think of anything else to write, so here you go. Disclaimer: These are single-player games. This is not intended to be a list of the best games ever, it is a list of the ones that are most memorable and enjoyable to me.

10. The SSI Gold Box Series

Let's start at the beginning, back when my family had just gotten our first computer. It was a Packard Bell computer, with about 2 megs of ram, and about 125 megs of hard disk space. It ran Windows 3.1, and mostly existed for my dad's work, and the adult Sunday school lessons he taught. I loved everything about it. I loved Gorillas, the BASIC game similar to scorched earth. But this game was my first PC title, even though it was given to my dad one Christmas.

I mostly refer to Pool of Radiance, the first game in the series. The game was about a group of adventurers (you) who arrive in a town called Phlan. The town is a small settlement on the outskirts of a ruined city, and the start of your adventure is clearing out the ruined areas of the city. The game is still worth a look, even if you don't get a nostalgia trip out of it. It's a great AD&D sim, if nothing else. Hell, when I started it, I had no idea what 1d20 or THAC0 meant. To be fair, I'm still hazy on THAC0.

9. Heroes of Might and Magic

In particular, numbers 2 and 3. My friend Rich and I would play these games for hours. The general Idea of the game is you are a hero in command of an army. You capture various cities, and recruit troops for your army, and then go take over the rest of the world. HoMM is one of those "just one more turn" games, after which you look at the clock, and 3 hours have gone by.

Number one was good, but I missed it the first time around. Number two was awesome. Number 3 was the best. I like to pretend that they never made a HoMM 4. HoMM 5 was pretty, but just not as awesome as 3. That may be the Nostalgia Goggles talking, though.

In number 2, the map of choice was easily The Great War, a massive 6-player slugfest. Rich and I played that in Hotseat mode for hours on end. It's one of those childhood memories that I look back on quite fondly.

8. Battlezone II

This was the first game I got for our "new" Pentium II 450 mhz computer. It was at the same time, my first real FPS and RTS (I played things in a strange order). I often point to this game as a great example of genre-stretching. Back then, I often described this game as "Command and Conquer, except you get to drive." You play a soldier in the International Space Defense Force, fighting a conflict with the Scions, an alien race.

While the plot is certainly passable, it was the gameplay that really gave me the warm fuzzies. The game seamlessly blends FPS and RTS. You command the construction of buildings and units, all while piloting a vehicle of your choice in order to combat the scion forces. Brb, reinstalling.

7. Star Fox 64

Admittedly, there arent very many console games on my list, mostly because I didn't own a lot of consoles, and especially not in the eras they came out in. I got my first NES in a rummage sale for 3 dollars, and my N64 when it cost 25 bucks. But that's where friend's houses come in to the picture. Andy, Rich, and Drew, you know who you are if you actually click on links I send you, were more fortunate than I in the console department. Rich's N64 in particular saw a lot of use, between various 007 games, and spectator Ocarina of Time, and this game.

I loved this game, and it's still very playable today, thanks to its arcade-style gameplay. You can burn through the campaign in no time if you know what you're doing, but for some reason, it's always fun. There are multiple pathways you can take, adding to the replay value. For all the games that are serious business, this one has a kind of classic charm that is irresistible.

6. Chrono Trigger

I debated for a while between this game and Final Fantasy VI, but finally landed on this one. While FFVI is my favorite Final Fantasy game, this game trumps it fairly easily. It's the best JRPG I've ever seen, which is a bit worrisome, because it came out in 1995.

Where to begin? The story follows Crono, who is technically the protagonist, and 6 other unique characters, on a journey across the world and through several time periods, in order to stop a great evil, Lavos, from destroying the world. The game features multiple endings, and actions taken in the past will affect the future.

The battle system is something I continue to hold up as innovative and awesome. Gone are the random encounters with monsters when traversing the world map. You can see, and potentially avoid every encounter, meaning when all you want to do is go from point A to point B, you won't be interrupted by a random encounter. Environments are clever, the time travel and connections between the eras are well presented, and the whole game is pure awesome in a genre that has since lost its way.

Anyway, there's 10-6. 5-1 coming eventually.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Not-so-open worlds, and the Uncanny Valley

If I were to make a top 10 list of my favorite video games (which I may do in the future), The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind would easily have the top slot. The sheer amount of time I put into the game guarantees its position, but the game is nothing if not deserving.

A friend of mine described Morrowind as a "single-player MMORPG," and this is not entirely inaccurate. In fact, the game shares many similarities with MMO's, from the unrefined combat system, to the massive set of skills, to the quest-oriented gameplay, to the natural barriers. In fact, the biggest difference is the lack of other idiots. Pic related.

Few other games boast the scale and pure ambition that Morrowind represents. The world is alien, with strange creatures, buildings that are grown, not built, and giant insects used as transportation. The world had its own history and legends, if you cared to know them, and more than enough to do if you didn't. There were 3 joinable great houses, 8 joinable Imperial guilds, 3 joinable Morrowind guilds, 3 vampire factions, and a massive array of side-quests. If you wanted to do the main quest, you could, and if you didn't, no big deal.

The reason Morrowind trumps modern open-world games, is that it is truly, truly open. No other game allows the same measure of freedom. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded. You can open any door if you have the skill to do so. You can levitate over obstacles, if you have the spells or potions. You can go anywhere, and the only limiting factor is if you can survive it. You are even free to mess up and make the main quest impossible.

Ok, enough of me praising Morrowind, let's tear into some other games, namely The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3.

Now, I'm mostly a PC gamer. I'll use consoles on occasion, but for the most part, my favorite games and my favorite kinds of games work best on the PC. PC aficionados often refer to Oblivion and Fallout 3 as being "dumbed down for the console idiots." I'm guilty of having said this. However, it's not true. May I remind everyone that Morrowind was released for the Xbox and PC, and although the interface was better on the PC, the game was the same. Oblivion and Fallout 3 were not "dumbed down for the console idiots," they were just dumbed down for idiots.

I won't attempt to identify the source of this unfortunate phenomenon, but I will point out some of its effects. The decline of adventure/puzzle games like Myst, the addition of compasses or arrows pointing to your next objective, the addition of journals and hand-holding in-game tutorials, these are just a few symptoms of this strange blight on modern gaming. And along with them comes the shredding of my beloved freedom.

It's story time. I was exploring (well, graverobbing) in the Ashlands, when I found a tomb with a 100pt. locked door. I marked the location, and ran back to Ald-ruhn and got an Open Lock 100 points spell made at the mage's guild. I had a 3% chance to succeed in casting this, because my Alteration skill was so low. Then I recalled to the tomb. After trying about 20 times, I succeeded in opening the lock, and inside, I nearly died to a clanfear and daedroth. There were some dead bodies, and another 100pt. door. Inside the door were a few more daedra, and finally, behind the last door, I found a dead guy with a note on him.

The note was to the dead man's brother, and it detailed the last hours of the man's life. The man, named Tyronius, had been a smuggler, who had been double-crossed by a necromancer, who decided he would like the payment he'd given them back. The 3 bodies I found earlier had been Tyronius' friends, and all had died to the undead creatures the necromancer called Goris had sent. The note ended with a plea for vengeance. I took the key from his lifeless body, and headed for Tel Mora, the city mentioned in the note.

After a few Silt Strider rides, I arrived in Tel Mora. I searched 3 tombs before I found the one my key fit. I drew my axe and went inside. There I found Goris the Maggot King, and Luven, one of Tyronius' dead friends, now raised and standing alongside Goris. The fight was brief and brutal. Goris began summoning bonewalkers, which I ignored. Striding past them, I smote him down with three hits from my axe. Then I turned and put Luven out of his misery. I took my prize, the Bow of Shadows from its resting place, and stepped outside, feeling accomplished.

It's important to note that Morrowind has a journal, which logs quest information so you can refer to it if you forget where you're going. Not once during this story was my journal updated with any information, and yet, it was something I felt needed to be done. When it was over, I felt that I had avenged Tyronius' death, even though I had not known him in life.

Here's the problem. I have no stories like that for Oblivion. I could rage for hours over the smaller skill set, fewer factions, etc, but the biggest problem is, in Oblivion, simple exploration is meaningless. It's nothing but grinding, pure and simple. There are no unique items, no mysteries to unravel, no lore to learn. In Oblivion, bandits are nameless bandits, necromancers are nameless necromancers, and vampires are nameless vampires. There is never a feeling that there might be a story here.

Ok, on to the Uncanny Valley. If you're not familiar with the term, it was introduced in 1970 by a Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who hypothisized that as a robot becomes closer and closer to the likeness of a human, an almost human appearance causes a reaction of revulsion from an observer. Have a graph, lifted from Wikipedia.

Morrowind's NPC's had a few things they could say when you were near them, but all of their dialogue was in text-form. You could ask them who they were, about rumors, or local services. You could ask their opinions on factions, or other people of note. For those who can't read anything longer than the back of a cereal box, this was tedious. For the people who matter, it was great.

When I heard that Oblivion was going to be fully voiced, and that some high-profile voice actors had been hired, I thought it was fantastic. Surely this would make the world more vibrant and alive. Conversations between NPC's also sounds great on paper. Supposedly, you were supposed to pick up quest information by listening to people converse.

In practice, however, neither of these things work. At all. It seems that Bethesda hired one voice actor per race, and each character responds exactly the same way to any given question, so that a beggar and a noble have the same thing to say, in the same voice, about the same topic. Furthermore, the characters don't...move. They stand stiffly upright, look you dead in the eye, and refuse to gesticulate any sort of emotion. It's creepy. Here's an example. The first video is one I just made, of a beggar in the Imperial city. The second is from a game called Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, released almost 2 years before Oblivion. The difference is astounding.

On to Fallout 3. It was an improvement in many ways. I enjoyed it immensely, and still do. The weird thing is, It uses the same engine as Oblivion, and suffers from many of the same problems. Animations are unnatural, the pathing is terrible, and the nameless raiders and mercs still evoke no emotion.

What Bethesda managed to do is put some of the fun back into exploring. Finding out that the raiders in Springvale school were trying to tunnel into vault 101, or that one of the vault's experiments was trying to make artists and musicians into killers, actually makes you want to look around, to just wander the wastelands.

But the biggest thing that made exploring fun was the connection the player feels to the world, and this was something completely absent in Oblivion. The connection is apparent as soon as the player exits the vault where he grew up, and can see a destroyed world, with the spire of the Washington monument in the distance. But it's not just a destroyed world, it's your destroyed world. The sight of the Washington monument, this instantly recognizable landmark, instantly establishes a bond with the ravaged landscape.

But of course, both of them suffer from "Oh, sorry, even though you have maxed out your lockpick skill, you can't go in here because this is a magical quest door!" syndrome. Oh well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer Reading (and Listening, and Watching)

Hi any and all, welcome to The Mark Story. Many years ago, in high school German class, a fine gentleman by the name of Adam Schreiber suggested that title for my autobiography. It will work for a blog, though.

Right then. Summer reading.

1. World War Z by Max Brooks

Most recently and most highly recommended is World War Z. I've never seen zombies approached in such a well-thought out, literate, and fascinating manner.

The book is narrated by a UN inspector, charged to write a report on the Zombie Wars. After having his report mercilessly cut down to the cold, hard facts, he protests to his boss, arguing that the human elements of the story are the most important. His boss responds, "Write a book."

The book is told through interviews, although the narrator has hardly any lines. Interviews with a Chinese doctor in the earliest identification of the zombie virus, a US soldier about the military's first and unsuccessful stand against the zombies at Yonkers, a refugee from India during the Great Panic, are just a few of the stories told in this book.

Read it, it's excellent. There's an audio-book, and the production is good, but it's abridged.

2. Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

While I'm not a big fan of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books, this book scratched an itch for me. What itch, you ask? I'm glad you asked. Warning: Incoming Rant.

Twilight is a blight on American culture. I haven't read the books or seen the movie, but I've seen their impact. As a result of Twilight, the image of the vampire has been wimpified. Yeah, I can make up words. If I remember correctly, vampires are supposed to be creatures of darkness and violence. Vampire stories should be bloody and frightening, not sparkly versions of the latest teen drama.

That's where this book comes in. It's about vampires, humans, and a steam boat. It's bloody, full of suspense, and a fantastic story of friendship. It's a great antidote to the poison that is Twilight, and worth a read.

3. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Beginning with Storm Front, The Dresden Files tell the story of Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional Wizard. Thus far there are 11 books in the series, and I've only read 4 of them. Those 4 have been fantastic, and I look forward to the rest of them.

The first, Storm Front, begins with a mysterious, gruesome, and obviously magic-related death. Dresden is hired by the police as a consultant. The second, Fool Moon, is about werewolves. The third, Grave Peril, is about ghosts and vampires. The fourth, Summer Knight, is about Fairies. These are gross simplifications. Read them, they're very enjoyable.

Perhaps I'll write more on these later. They're a lot of books, and I haven't read them all, but I most definitely want to. Give them a shot, I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Right then, on to Music.

1. The Killers - Day & Age

Not a bad album, but I could listen to Spaceman on loop for a very long time.

The Killers haven't always been a band I'd recommend. They've had the odd good song here and there, but the majority of their previous music just isn't all that great in my humble opinion. Well, that's not entirely accurate. It's more accurate to say I haven't liked their previous singles. I dislike the entire concept of singles. It annoys me that a band will work hard on an album, and the radio will play one song from it.

One of the things I miss was a few years ago when a local radio station, Q101, went "on shuffle." They played a very wide range of Alternative, and it was rare that you'd hear the same song repeat itself during a day. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Oh well.

2. Mahler

Gustav Mahler is my Dad's favorite composer, and he's my favorite too. He wrote 9 completed symphonies, and there is not a one of them that does not stand the test of time and repeated listens.

A few years ago, a friend and I went to see Symphony no. 2 in C minor, also known as the Resurrection, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Before this point, while I was fine with symphonic music in theory, in reality, I didn't have the patience or the desire to sit still for an extended period of time and just listen. It was Mahler that ended up changing that.

If there's one word I would use to describe Symphony no. 2, it would be "glorious," or maybe "majestic." I remember turning to my friend after the show and saying, "If I went deaf now, that'd be ok."

I recently listened to Symphony no. 9, which is quite different than no. 2. My father describes it as "a peaceful death." I don't know if I would have come up with that on my own, but you never know. The sense of longing at the end is nearly overpowering. Good stuff.

There's more music that I've listened to, but nothing that really sticks out right now. On to movies and stuff. Well, one show, really. I watched quite a few movies this summer, but they all pale in comparison to...

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Gurren Lagann is, without exaggeration, one of the best things I have seen in years. I don't know how I missed this when it was coming out, but I've been kicking myself for not finding it sooner. Words that describe it include awesome, manly, epic, and many others.

It's far from your typical giant robot anime. Yes, there are giant robots, and yes, giant robots are cool, but the show isn't about robots. The show is about people reaching for the impossible. Living their entire lives underground, they reach for the surface. Finding the surface an inhospitable place filled with giant robots driven by beast-men bent on their extermination, they don't just reach for safety or a hiding place, they reach for a world where they don't need to hide, smashing through obstacles with pure willpower.

The thing that makes Gurren Lagann so enjoyable is its charm. This is a hard thing to define, but I'll try. All of the characters are likable, even when they logically should not be. If I put a name to it, I'd call it "Isaac and Miria syndrome," after the two characters in Baccano! who by all rights should be terribly annoying, but end up being one of the most fun and memorable duo's I can remember. The characters are all over the top, all with exaggerated quirks and what should be almost obnoxious personalities, but they all have a sort of charm to them that manages to resonate with the viewer. Combine this with very stylized artwork, the joy of battle, and the raw ambition of the show, and you have an end product that I don't mind calling my favorite show of all time.