Monthly Archives: November 2011

Exploring Skyrim, continued.

 

No “real” post today, as I don’t have much to write about that others haven’t already said about Skyrim. (Instead, I’ll be covering some different topics tomorrow, and later this week). I did however want to share some pretty screen shots, without the HUD and all that silly stuff in the way. I’m something of a nerd for nice screen shots. Hopefully you are too.

Money — a moral issue?

Do you think about how you spend your money? Do you think about how your spending affects others? Should you spend money on others? What do we owe others, assuming we owe them anything?

How we answer these questions will inevitably vary, but I find that many Americans — including myself, until recently — have simple ways of answering. They usually include phrases like, “I owe you nothing, you owe me nothing”, “Don’t tread on me”, and “Just leave me alone”. These answers aren’t wrong; rather, they are too quick — too unappreciative of the type of world we live in. Yes, independence is a crucial value to have, but in our rapidly growing world, we must become more aware of our interconnectedness, and interdependence.

Drawing by Peter Jellitsch.

When I was a student, I worked hard, and worked on my own. I rarely partnered up with people for study sessions. I lead the way when it came to group projects. I listened to others when they had problems in their school or personal life. I even managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude, with two degrees under my belt. Does all of this mean I’m an “independent person”? Absolutely not. I relied on my parents for financial help, my friends and family for fun, and my teachers for my education. Everything I have, I owe both to myself and to others. In the midst of adopting this mind-set, I came across one of the most powerful and intellectually convincing essays I’ve ever read: Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, which provides a Utilitarian perspective on how we should spend our money.

To provide a quick and messy background, Singer is what we philosophy-nerds call a utilitarian. Utilitarians believes that morality is about producing the most amount of happiness — or contentment, pleasure, et cetera — for the most amount of people. What is ethical, in a Utilitarian framework, depends on the consequences or outcomes of a moral dilemma. For example, a utilitarian probably wouldn’t agree with the statement: “Killing is never ever acceptable, no matter what the circumstances”. It depends, they would say.

So then, what’s all this talk about maximizing happiness have to do with money? Well, Singer tells us by summing up his piece “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”:

If you are like me, then your reaction to this video — at least on an intellectual level — should have been fairly dramatic. As silly and sheltered as it may sound, I had never thought about how I spent my money until I read Singer’s work. Sure, I thought about saving money up for different things, or how I should plan for later life, but never how my spending — indeed, all of my behavior — may fail to help my fellow-man. I would pass homeless people without giving them money, and justify it by thinking, “they want to be homeless”, or, “they aren’t starving”. (There is some truth to these two thoughts, after all). However, trying to justify my lack of donating to charities wasn’t so easy. What could I possibly tell myself, knowing that only a few dollars might help save a child’s life? The answer? Nothing. There isn’t a thing that can justify my lack of donations. The myriad of justifications I’ve heard for not donating to charity always sound tired, unconvincing, and ill-reasoned.

Many respond to Singer’s views by saying that they deserve to keep all of their money, and no one has the right to tell them otherwise. I’m not sure about this. Even if you legitimately worked for everything you have, couldn’t some of it be used to help others? Is it ethical to keep all of your money, never donating a dime? Some claim they don’t donate to charities because of their inefficiency. But, honestly, how inefficient must they be to stop you from donating? Even if 99% of a charity’s donations are wasted, that still means 1% could be used to help those desperately in need.  Isn’t donating worth it, even if one hundred dollars are lost for every one dollar spent? The only real justification I see for “failing to help”, is if you are already helping as much as you can. I know that not everyone has money to spare. The overwhelming majority of people have expenses in their lives that have to be dealt with before they can consider charity. However, for the minority wasting money on vacation cruises, overtly expensive food, and excessive fashion, there is no excuse.

 
Where does that leave me? Ethics is about applying standards to yourself — not just others. Since familiarizing myself with Singer’s work, I’ve started donating to both homeless people and charities, though in small amounts. My income doesn’t allow me to donate anything substantial — though that may be what I tell myself to feel better. I think Singer’s position is correct, but I don’t think we should expect anyone to donate every bit of surplus they have, leading some sort of ascetic lifestyle. I’m much more devoted to pragmatism than to utilitarianism, and I think that people should try to do their best. Singer himself admits that he could be doing a lot more, based on his level of income. Given the average American’s level of income, it is likely that we can help out others and purchase many of the things that make us happy. We may even end up consuming less, which would be beneficial to everyone. Personally, I’ll be saving up for these nifty headphones, but I’ll also be donating some money, where I can, and when I can.

Ending the post with these pretty headphones seemed less depressing than a picture of a homeless person.

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Eve online: a new player narrative

(Recommended listening for this post).

Between Skyrim, Orcs Must Die!, and picking up Serious Sam HD for a ridiculously low price, I thought I would have my hands full… but the social side of me has been craving something game related, and so I decided to try Eve Online. At its best it has been described as beautifully complex — at its worst, “spreadsheets in space”. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The technical will be tackled later, because the first thing I noticed in Eve is how fucking great it looks. If Stanley Kubrick had the opportunity to make a game, it just might look like Eve.

Everything. Looks. Stunning. The character creation is immensely detailed and elegant, which is a pleasant surprise. After all, most of the time you are flying around in a ship, not walking around your hangar and captain’s quarters. Still, being able to walk around adds a nice level of immersion. Back when I first tried Eve, you simply popped into the universe as a ship, bound to it forever, never able to leave. The most you ever saw of your character was an avatar in the top left screen, which made you feel more like some weird automaton, rather than a pilot. This time around was quite different. I was able to customize my character to a wonderfully excessive degree, and had a chance to see all those customizations as I strolled around my quarters.

Though the game is really fucking complicated — or at least it seems to be, so far — the tutorial eases you into things excellently, without making you feel like a useless newb. The loving A.I., “Aura”, guides you through the beginning of the game. She kindly teaches you about ships, combat, the market, missions, weapon fitting, warp drives, webifiers, wormholes… the list goes on. If Aura isn’t enough for you, the game automatically puts you in a channel called “Rookie Chat”. The channel is  filled with thousands of other rooks being helped by a few hundred natives. The same questions are inevitably asked over and over again, and after a while its nice to find yourself answering and helping others. Everyone that I have chatted with has been very helpful so far, with most my questions being answered immediately. The silliest ones, (e.g., how do I shoot), are inevitably answered quickly. The more complicated ones don’t have straight-forward answers, and often involve a nice debate between veteran players. This is the mark of a good sandbox, or, do-what-you-like, type of game. It’s almost frightening how many things you can do. You can run missions, incursions, rat, explore, wormhole, grief, pirate, gatecamp, ninja-loot, gank, ransom, roam, scam, steal, mine, chat, loan, trade and build. You can do a lot more too, but I’ll spare you. Besides, I don’t even know what half of the previous terms mean.

At the moment, I’m just doing the simple beginning missions; they reward you nicely with some cool ships, and make you feel strong and accomplished. (Notice the key word, feel). There are people that have been playing Eve for years, and I’m not sure if there is any real way of “catching up” with those players. You see, Eve doesn’t work through the standard gain-experience-level-up formula. That would be too simple. Instead, you purchase the skills you wish to train, and select “train” — or something like that. In other words, the only thing stopping you from having a particular skill is the money you need to buy it, and the time it takes to train it. Skills are trained while you are off-line too, so there’s no need to just keep Eve running 24/7. I’ve heard that it’s entirely possible to be flying a decent PvP ship in a month. I’ve also heard there is no way to ever catch up with the veterans, and so there is no point in even playing Eve. Again, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle —  hopefully closer to the former.
As of now, my goal is to simply stay on track with my missions, and get into a Corporation that can teach me the ropes. There are many “rules” of Eve. The most common is, “If you can’t afford it, don’t fly it”. In other words, expect to get blown up. I assume I’ll be losing  at least a few ships when I start PvPing, so I’ll have to have some back-up cash before I get really involved in it. Another rule is to never trust anyone. As some of you may have heard, the largest virtual heist of all time took place in Eve. It’s a hostile universe; people want to blow you up and steal your stuff. But, that’s OK. The universe in Eve is big, and beckons to be explored.

Now I just need to figure out where to start...

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Steam sales, Orcs Must Die!, and Cave Story

It’s that time of year again, where Steam bombards us with amazing sales, enriching our silly gaming lives while destroying our bank accounts. I passed up many games, mostly because I shouldn’t be spending money right now, but I had to grab Orcs Must Die! and Cave Story.

There is something so satisfying about tower defense games that isn’t captured by most other “casual” games. Maybe its because I’ve been playing heavy games like Skyrim and Limbo — or, maybe its because I love relieving stress through button-mashing and orc-slaughtering — but I’m really enjoying Orcs Must Die!. The game takes aspects of a typical tower defense game, (e.g., funneling masses of enemies into traps), and combines them with a fast-paced, third-person shooter vibe. You can select a certain number of items, (traps, power-ups, or weapons), before each match.

Glancing at the level list, I assume I’m about half-way through the game, which is kind of disappointing — not because I’m going through it so fast, but because it hasn’t been challenging at all. I suppose this is typical of these types of games, and does add to the easy-fun-smash-kill nature of the game. Still, I wish it were a bit harder. In the beginning levels you don’t even need to use items if you spam your cross-bow enough, and a particular power-up which lets you throw orcs by the dozens into pits of acid is extremely overpowered. If you time it right and position your character well, you can more or less kill all Orcs in a particular wave — racking up ridiculous combos. The game is mildly amusing, but I’m not sure why they made your character a thick-headed bro, considering it’s us nerds that are playing it.

White on white violence is common in Cave Story.

Cave Story is very different from Orcs Must Die!, (obviously). It’s a homage to all those old, wonderful SNES games with flat graphics, but well-rounded stories. The first thing I noticed about Cave Story is its music, which has been changed from the original release, (though you have the option to revert to the classic graphics and sound effects). To be honest, I’m not one of those nerds that’s into 8-bit — or even 8-bit sounding — music. (The exception being covers like this). Cave Story’s music is very different, though. For whatever reason, it immediately grabbed me, and made me feel nostalgic. I don’t think it has to do with my age, as I grew up playing Playstation and N64 games, not SNES games. The music in Cave Story also varies nicely, which is an accomplishment given its 8bit-ness. When you are in combat, there’s usually some drone-like percussion sounds tapping along, allowing you to get into the rhythm of jumping, shooting, and jumping some more. While wandering around, talking to characters, and uncovering the story, the music dots along with lighthearted pings.

Creepy guy as final boss? Hopefully.

The combat in the game is fairly addictive, too. How well you do depends on your own skills. While good dexterity and timing are helpful, Cave Story also rewards you for how much you play, allowing you to “level up” your weapons, and find powerful items. (Though, if you take damage, you can potentially de-level). As far as the story goes… I have no idea what is happening. Apparently there are talking bunny-creatures, (some violent, some friendly), a robot thing that has tried to kill me, and some guy that keeps trying to talk with me over IM chat. Like I said, I have no idea. I’ll probably figure it out more as I go along, but I had to take a break because the controls are murderous. The default controls require you to use “a”, “s”, “z”, and “x”, which is absolutely horrendous. Thankfully, you can change the controls, so I won’t go on a huge “terrible control” rant. I’m actually just lazy. Once I change the controls, I’ll boot the game back up, and see how it goes from there.

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Limbo

I recently had the joy of playing through the surreal, dread-filled, puzzle-platformer, Limbo. Potential players should note that the game might be more accurately described as some sort of experimental art piece that happens to be playable. The puzzles in Limbo, while varied and interesting, seem more about creating the atmosphere of the game than making you feel clever and accomplished – though they certainly do that too.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

To create its atmospheric presence, Limbo relies on making you feel alone and melancholic, rather than merely showing you scary or depressing things. Still, the imagery in this game is forceful. You will come across people that have commit suicide, drowned, or simply rotted away, never finding their way out of limbo.

You’ll find rampant symbolism in Limbo, and there is quite a lot of theorizing about what it all means. Some of Limbo’s recurring themes include: tires, corpses, machinery, cogs, a gigantic spider, water, and an eerie hotel sign. In the beginning of the game your character crosses a lagoon on a boat, conjuring up imagery of crossing the River Styx. The hotel sign that your character must jump across seems to signify transience – staying for a while and then moving on – i.e., being in limbo. I’m not sure what the spider meant, but it was pretty fucking scary.

Of course, Limbo isn’t without its flaws, and I wouldn’t call it a “masterpiece”. If Limbo aims to be a game that is about aesthetics and experience, then I shouldn’t be worrying about controls and timing issues – and I found myself doing that quite often. The game gives you no instructions on how to play, presumably because overt instructions would ruin the look and feel of the game. This would be understandable if the player was only using the arrow keys, but the “control” key is used to interact with the world. As you may have guessed, I just pressed buttons at random until I figured this out. Turns out, random button mashing ruins the immersive nature of a game much more than a “press control to interact”, message would have.

On a related note, it’s often unclear what you can interact with. For some items, (e.g., boxes and levers), its obvious, but for other items, (e.g., random logs on the ground), it is very difficult to tell. Just about everything in Limbo is a simple silhouette, making it sometimes hard to distinguish between what’s the background environment, and what is an object you can grab, move, pull, or push.

There were a few points I got stuck – not because I couldn’t figure out a puzzle – But, simply because I didn’t know what I was supposed to be interacting with. There were also many points where I knew what I was supposed to do, but I just couldn’t do it. The most frustrating example that I can recall has to do with striking a lever just at the right moment, climbing a particular cog, and then jumping from the cog to a ladder. I struggled with this – embarrassingly, I might add – for a good ten to twenty minutes. I’ve heard many players complain about issues like this as well, which makes me think there is something wrong with Limbo, rather than something wrong with me. In short, games shouldn’t sacrifice functionality and playability for aesthetics, and Limbo is guilty of this quite frequently.

In Limbo, you'll "use" the disturbing imagery to make progress.

And yet, even with its flaws in functionality, Limbo is still an amazing adventure. There are so many moments where you find yourself just staring at the screen – not because you are confused by a particular puzzle – but because you are in awe of a particular moment. I found myself asking, “How is it that a game with no color, simple silhouettes, and no dialogue, be so impactful”? I’m still not sure, to be completely honest. Perhaps it has something to do with the sound effects of Limbo. At first, I was disappointed with Limbo’s lack of consistent music, (especially since I recently finished Braid). I thought, “…They are just being pretentious and lazy.” After about thirty-minutes in, it was clear that I was wrong. The music of Limbo is the snapping of traps, the fascistic clanking of cogs, and the dull buzz of insects, humming tirelessly about corpses. When music is used, it is refined and ambient. The scarcity of music makes many instances of the game much more memorable than they would have been, had there been a continuous soundtrack. I imagine that I’ll enjoy the sound effects and art direction even more on my next play through.

Limbo is a short game, but a fulfilling journey. The surrealism and calm of the forests fall victim to mechanical puzzles and machinery, which finally give way to alien gravity-mechanics, making you feel ephemeral, and almost angelic. Just when you feel like you are beginning to understand the world of Limbo – both functionally and philosophically – you are violently thrown out of it, and the game “starts over”. You’ll have to play it to see what I mean, but you won’t regret it if you do. Just remember, hit “control”.

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Exploring Skyrim, Part 1

Today’s blockbuster game titles aim to be epic, but very few succeed. Opening a game with a flashy pre-rendered cut scene and dramatic music — usually involving opera singers for some reason or another – doesn’t make a game epic. What makes a game epic is finding yourself in a grand narrative, with a deep and fundamental sense of purpose driving you throughout the game.

Skyrim is a game that reminds us of what epic means. It does so excellently, and immediately. Skyrim’s spiritual predecessor, Oblivion, opened with the player awakening in a prison cell, presumably awaiting his execution; in Skyrim the game developers found a way to make the opening even more visceral and dramatic. When the player starts the game, the title “SKYRIM” fades into view in cold and stark type, mirroring the landscape you find yourself traveling in. Before long, it is clear that you are being taken to your executioner. Your hands are bound, you cannot move, and you do not speak. All of this creates a sense of helplessness, and allows you to listen to the tales of the convicts you are traveling with. Your convicts-in-arms reveal some of the backstory of Skyrim, including a sort of cold-war between the native Nords and the Romanesque Imperials – a topic that will be more adequately examined in a later blog post.

Quite obviously, the player is not executed; instead, a dragon causes a bit of a ruckus, allowing you to flee. (Surprise, surprise). You can choose whether or not you wish to follow the Imperials that took you captive, or the friendly Nord that you were captured with. For most players, this won’t be much of a choice. All but the most random Nord-despisers will choose the likable Nords over the annoying and militaristic Imperials. This may not seem like a big deal, but it does foreshadow a problem I have run into within Skyrim. The problem is, it feels as if many of your choices don’t ultimately matter.

To be fair, the lack of substantial choice is symptomatic of most games today – the notable exceptions being the Mass Effect series, and Dragon Age. Your actions outside of the main quest line of the game — e.g., whether or not you want to be a murderous member of the dark brotherhood, or a fighter in The Companions guild – don’t affect the main story line. There is little to no cross-over between the various quest lines in Skyrim, which makes the otherwise amazing and immersive world feel a bit inorganic, and stale. The game developers have implemented what they call “Radiant Storytelling”, which will change the world based on your actions. This makes random side quests more dynamic and potentially changing, but important quest lines like the ones mentioned before, will remain the same.

On a less comprehensive level, dialogue choices rarely have any significant effect on the ultimate outcome of a particular quest and story, and much of the dialogue appears to be filler. This isn’t to say that the voice acting in the game isn’t quite good. What this does mean is that you will find yourself selecting boring dialogue options such as: “What’s next? What now? Where should we go?” and the unimaginative “remain silent”. Unless you are immensely devoted to every NPC’s story, you will probably find yourself mashing buttons, (or keys), just to get to the end of a dialogue scene.

Still, it is easy to forgive Skyrim for occasionally falling flat with dialogue and quest choices. The game more than makes up for these flaws in both the quality and amount of content given to the player. The sheer number of NPCs with unique story lines and quests is almost intimidating. In Skyrim, you truly feel as if you are exploring a world, rather than a game. Besides the smaller fetch-quests and the main story line quests, there are also extensive side-quests. These usually involve in-game factions like the Thieves Guild or the College of Winterhold, (a faction geared towards magic-users).

Additionally, and rather amazingly, the three character archetypes – warrior, thief, and mage – are generally balanced in terms of gameplay difficulty. As one would expect, Warrior builds are the most straight-forward of characters. Thief, (read sneak), based characters are a bit more complicated to play than warriors, while mages are generally the most complex. There is a crucial and odd difference between magic users and warriors or thieves. Warriors and thief characters only have to focus on a handful of talent trees in order to be effective. As a mage, it is all but essential to grab Destruction, and very worthwhile to spend points in Conjuration, Restoration, Illusion, and Alteration. Still, what Mage’s might lose in devoting points into a single tree, they gain in versatility.

To nitpick, some skill trees could be simplified or made more worthwhile. Skyrim is a game built around combat, which means that many players, including myself, will doubtless ignore constellations like “Speech” or “Alchemy”. Sure, these perks have their uses in some cases, but I want to kill stuff. I much rather spend my time lighting enemies on fire or bashing in skulls than sitting at an alchemy table combining ingredients.

Thankfully, the wonderful thing about Skyrim, is that you can do what you want. If, for whatever reason, you do want to sit at a table combining ingredients all day – as opposed to traveling around an epic world slaying dragons – you absolutely can do that, or just about anything else you want to do. If you see a rugged and tranquil mountain in the distance, you can climb it. If you wish to kill everyone in a particular town, you can. In short, if you want to be coaxed away into an immersive, compelling, and dragon-filled world, pick up Skyrim – assuming you haven’t already.

I’ll continue to explore the world of Skyrim, and will be writing follow up posts soon.

Thanks for reading. Keep on playing.

Andrew

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