A Prescient Message

Shane Koyczan is a spoken word artist that has been around for a number of years now. He has released about 4 albums of work, some that are with and without musical accompaniment. I've been watching with interest as the music portion of his presentations have continued to evolve. Early in August he released his latest (and I think strongest) compilation titled Silence Is A Song I Know All The Words To.

This week he released a video that has been mapped to one of the pieces on that album. The title of the poem is Troll. This video is landing at a time where this problem in the world of games is coming to a very public climax. Originally I believe this was written in the wake of Amanda Todd, but having it come out in the middle of a conflict where individuals are being targeted with such a venomous fervour is almost too coincidental (though it is only a coincidence).

The main message to take away is hopefully one where we can all learn to not be so instantly awful to each other. We all seem to agree that this medium is our preferred form of interaction, it seems so counter-intuitive to be this awful to people we share a love like this with.


Growing Up

Any subscribers that have watched the recent Lantern Run, and then read the subsequent posts by Ryan already know what is going on. The short of it is, he said something in frustration that he immediately realized that he shouldn't have, and then apologized. It was that simple. To my mind, the reaction is more meaningful than the event in this case.

The problem, as is always the case, the community of people that decide to react in the worst way possible to the event. In actual fact, not even the event... the response to the event. Horrible, ignorant, little shitty people decide to express themselves and demonstrate their qualities to the world. Congratulations for that.

That kind of thing exemplifies why I am the kind of person that hates using forums. I'm still not always grown up enough to recognize idiocy and stupidity for what it is, and let the world decide for themselves that what was said was a marvelously stinking brain turd. It's the internet, and a lot of bullshit here is simply that.

Usually the argument for counter reaction to that stuff is that we should grow thick skin for words. My counter to that counter is that if you decide to use your free speech to say something stupid, than you're going to have to accept that you will need to deal with the consequences of saying it. Free speech is the right to say what you want, not the right to say what you want without consequences.

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Not at all gaming related

I'm completely blown away by this story:http://www.cbc.ca/m/touch/politics/story/2011/10/21/raitt-air-canada-flight-attendants.html

It's incredible to me that such a thing is even being suggested by the federal government. This is the kind of statement we always think is behind the decision making process of the conservatives, but that none of them would be brazen, or stupid enough, to suggest it.

Well now it's finally here. The conservatives want to have the discussion of what is more important: our rights as citizens, or the economy. Our rights as free people, or a system that favors fascism (according to General Smedly Butler).

It's been my belief for a long time that our political system-- constitutional democracy--and our economic system--"capitalism" (more like oligopoly)--are diametrically opposed to each other ideologically. One is a system that says (or at least strives to) say that all citizens shall be treated equally, and the other... isn't.

The short end to the discussion is "no, the economy is not more important than our rights as Canadians." A decision that would say otherwise calls the charter of rights and freedoms into question, as well as endangers the sovereignty of Canada.

Our day to day lives are being impacted more and more heavily by artifacts of our economic system than our political system. Our economy has been increasingly forced open to policies being set by other nations, and also increasingly being opened up to scrutiny and litigation by foreign nations (softwood for example... or the recent admission that Canadians don't actually want new rules for Digital Rights Management).

It's our responsibility to fight for the rights we've been given. If we're not willing to stand and take responsibility for them, that's when our governments give them to someone else to handle. Let's not let them make our economy more important than us.

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Forever and a Day

I'm an impatient person as it turns out. Last week I pre-ordered and pre-loaded Duke Nukem Forever on Steam. On Thursday I received a fairly large patch for the game, which is what reminded me that it was in fact released in other territories around the world on that day. I couldn't wait until Tuesday with the knowledge that the final product was out there... I really wanted to actually play the game. So... let's just say I found a way (a fact for which I do not feel at all guilty... I bought my copy, and I'm not returning it).

I'm sure it won't come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers or played the demo that the game is pretty average. It functions as a competent shooter that is saddled with, what feels like, indie studio production values. I'm reminded of this every time that I see a character (or air ship) follow along rigid and angular animation pathways. It's also evident in the slapdash attempts at cinematic presentation, or when they attempt to pad out gameplay with turret sequences that feel straight out of the old Incoming games. Elements like this make the game average... but I don't think it makes it terrible.

The urge for many people I think is to hate this game for even existing. The all encompassing average nature of the game certainly doesn't go very far with people who demand every play experience in their lexicon to be of the most ultimate quality imaginable (a sentiment that I empathize with, and cannot fault a person for). For Duke Nukem Forever the line is very abrupt... it is either a 9/10, or it's shit.

My own time with the game so far (I haven't completed it yet) has been entertaining. It's not a great game, but I'm still having a good time with it. The only real exception for me is the existence of a strip club level that takes that one small section of The Red Light District level in Duke 3D, and blows it out of proportion to the extent where it feels uncomfortable. There is a gameplay reason for it to exist as it is an area full of ego boosts, but in my mind they would have been better served putting more of those into *actual* levels.

When the game actually gets into the action... I'm having a good time. It's punching all the old buttons of early action games that I still enjoy in the same manner as I still enjoy top down shooting games. They're attempting to throw a lot of different types of action into their level chunks, and in some cases it feels really neat to have levels that are designed around being both small and large. Some basic vehicle sequences and those turret sequences, and you have a decently proportioned game.

If there is one thing I have a problem with... is that the action doesn't feel as furious as it used to. I remember level kill counts showing me hundreds of kills. In this game, there are large sections of levels where you should be expecting action... and yet there is almost none. It felt very strange to me. I am not at the end of the game yet, but Duke Nukem 3D had you fighting the hordes from the first level. I'm not on the hardest difficulty level... and maybe that adds more enemies instead of just making them hit harder.

Unlike other games in the past like Blacksite: Area 51 or Army of Two, I'm actually having some fun with the game. Maybe you won't feel the same way... but all of the clues are literally in the trailer whether or not this game will be for you or not. Play it or don't play it... just be realistic about what it is you're playing (or not playing). Duke isn't going to set the world on fire this time around... but if he survives this invasion, I will be interested to see what happens next.

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The Five Month Stew

It's been about five months since my last entry that I claimed would be "placeholder for now." It's about as good a time as any to get back to that entry, and in some ways it's an even more poignant time to finish it off. 
I went on a major tear in the fall of last year after the relaunch of www.gog.com. There were a lot of games that they were releasing (or had already released), that I either did not have the opportunity to play in the past, or had my copies go missing/get destroyed. I was very pleased by the notion that the majority of these games work flawlessly after an install on Vista64, and a great deal of them have seen updates from the community that have improved the visuals, and expanded the scope of the campaigns.  

The Descent

The first series that I delved back into were the old Descent games from Parallax (and Outrage/Volition later on). If anything, this was one of the more refreshing throwbacks that I hit on during this time. So many shooters these days are super serious, with lots of scripting, and story thrown into them. I like a lot of story, but for anyone that has played through Bulletstorm knows... the attempt to cram a story into an action game can be met with extremely mixed results. I was pleased to get back to a game where there was just a tonne of game in there, and then little bits of story to give it all a context. It was a nice reminder that systemic design is still compelling. 
This is one of those arguments that I see pop-up every time a game like Serious Sam has another major release. There are invariably a lot of people who criticize those types of games for being nothing more than a shooting game. You shoot your way through seemingly endless numbers of enemies for a very long time. In a day and age where scripting and story sequences have become part of the standard lexicon of the genre, it can be frustrating for some people who find a lot of their enjoyment value comes from those aspects of games. I think Borderlands did an excellent job of showing people how this kind of design can be leveraged well to this day.  

What was even better about Descent 1 and 2 at the very least, was that there is a very nice group of people who have written a renderer for the game, and updated some assets that let them run very nicely in 1080p. Strangely Descent 3 is more difficult to get running as well, but still possible with a little bit of tweaking. Make no mistake... they will still look old, but they'll look GOOD and old. =) 

Playing a Role 

During this time, the people at GOG.com also released a lot of older RPG's from the infinity engine era. I had played only part of Planescape before I had a hard drive nuke itself, and I had loaned my discs to someone who has now fallen off the face of the earth. It was at this time, I decided I should finally get my way through Baldur's Gate 2 and the expansion... so I dug my discs out, and set that up again as well. I also re-purchased a copy of The Temple of Elemental Evil from GOG at this time as well... which now sets the stage for my next series of comments. 
I really enjoy the old Bioware/Black Isle Infinity engine RPG games. There was always something about them that bothered me in the end however... and it revolves around the combat engine. The overhead view certainly allowed for a tactical approach to the combat, but the real-time nature of the systems were, to me, inherently at odds with the turn based nature of Dungeons and Dragons. Combat quickly became a very confusing mish-mash of clumped sprites with the textual feedback of the proceeds scrolling wildly by in this tiny window that not at all useful for providing me with anything valuable. This leveraging of a turn-based system bolted on over top of a real-time system continued through all of Bioware's games from Neverwinter Nights to Dragon Age: Origins.  
I'm willing to accept that the source of my discomfort might come from my early interactions with the old SSI gold box games like Curse of the Azure Bonds. In these games, the combat is laid out on a terrain where each character makes their own turn, and movement is as important as attack. This to me was also one of the defining systems of the later Black Isle RPG of Fallout and Fallout 2. One of the best implementations of a turn-based systems in an RPG to me has to be The Temple of Elemental Evil. The game is very buggy, but the combat system stands as one of my favorites to this day. 
It's my conjecture that a properly designed turn-based system is far better for the style of RPG that Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age: Origins were trying to be, rather than duct taping a turn-based system onto a real-time system. The normal argument is that pausing with the spacebar allows for this, but that's not really true. Issuing combat commands using the pause system does allow for a certain amount of strategic planning. Turns happen so quickly in these games however that it is very easy to let several turns slip by before pausing again to issue orders. This also degrades the value of movement, as it can happen so quickly that actions like attacks of opportunity no longer play any (apparent) role. 
Visually speaking... I also think the real-time system looks a little ridiculous. The combat animations just play themselves off over and over again and inevitably make the combat feel like it has little impact. In their defense, building an animation system that could react quickly enough to player/AI input in a believable manner is extremely difficult... but a problem that could be solved with a turn-based system. Each combat move is now given more gravitas, and would also allow them to design animation interactions that look better and more exciting.  
I did not include Dragon Age 2 in that list, as to me... Bioware has finally decided to implement a combat system that is better suited to this real-time mode that they have been working with for so long. In essence, the combat system in that game feels more like something that you would find in an MMO with a reliance on a fewer number of quickly recharging skills (per character), and faster activation of those skills. It still requires a certain level of tactical execution (if... you turn up the difficulty on the PC anyway), but to me it isn't as compelling as a proper turn-based system would be. I'm certainly less angry than some people are about this game... but still disappointed by their decision to re-brand the series so soon (and since the first one was successful). 

Strategic Escape

There were many more games that I dove back into through this period. I finally found a good method to re-connect with Jagged Alliance 2, re-installed my copy of Homeworld 2, and worked my way through the old X-COM collection. This blog entry is already extremely long... and probably is acting as an excellent demonstration of the sorry state of my life. I've got my partner, my work, my music, and my games... so I don't have a whole lot of other great things to discuss. Look on the bright side... I'm not polluting the boards with long diatribes about public policy and the way we need to better leverage our local markets/producers to combat corporate consolidation.  

Baseless Commentaries

I was reading an article this morning on Joystiq that was discussing the multiplayer mode in Dead Space 2. In that article the author, David Hinkle, makes this statement in his very first sentence: "One thing that hurt the sales of the first Dead Space was its lack of multiplayer." That's a fairly bold position to take as he provides zero information to back this claim up. I'm certainly not in a position to know with 100% certainty either, but I've seen no data that would begin to suggest that the lack of multiplayer is what caused the slow sales of the first game. I think Dave might need to go watch what Doug Stanhope has to say on this topic (with particular attention at the 2:05 mark in the video). 
This isn't something that is unique to people who write about games, though there are a lot of bloggers that do this with startling frequency. I'm hesitant to continue this entry myself as I'm starting to fear that I will be proving my own point. I'll have to come back to this later when I have time to back up what I'm saying with the examples that I've seen.

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Dragon Age: Clarification

I felt as if I might throw down a few more thoughts on my stated feelings regarding Dragon Age in a slightly more expressive and cogent form than a status update. I will state for the record, that these are opinions and feelings that I have based on my own experiences with this product. It is by no means absolute; any feelings or opinions that differ on the matter I view as being valid points of discussion, and not violent assertions of my stupidity. All that I ask is this viewpoint be something participants in any ensuing conversation will agree to before engaging in dialogue.
The first statement I want to clarify are my feelings regarding the combat system. My issues with the combat system are by no means singular to Dragon Age: Origins. In fact, the combat system that exists in that game has been used in many of the games from Bioware for years now. When they say that this is a return to form, they are not incorrect. They are absolutely returning to a form that they have been using since the beginning of the infinity engine. I learned to enjoy the system after a little while, but as a person that engaged in the original SSI goldbox turn based combat system, I was also annoyed by it. 
The core of my annoyance stems from the mish-mash of real-time and turn based mechanics, and the failure of the AI to engage in organized combat. You can pause the game and issue orders, but even if you supply a movement order, it is likely forgotten a few seconds later and all the characters on the map rush into a blob around a few characters. This conglomeration makes the management of battle problematic, especially when there is no clear end to a turn for characters, and once a command is complete they will return to a default state and likely move themselves back into harm's way before you can manage their turn. What we get is a system that is poorly tuned for good tactical management, and too slow for exciting real-time engagement.  It is true that you can configure the AI to perform a set of tasks based on a situation, but I don't want to code a set of generic responses. I want good, manual control, over all the players on the field. 
There have been games to implement a combat system like this before. Troika released The Temple of Elemental Evil, which is fairly broken, but the combat system worked pretty well. The original Fallout games also had a very good turn based system that allowed for much better strategic use of party skills, and movement. I suppose it's really the movement part of the equation that bothers me the most about Dragon Age. The amount of times I need to pause the game and re-issue orders to ensure they're being carried out is aggravating. Added into that, the nature of the combat also provides poor information feedback based on my actions. The circle beneath enemies, in reality, is actually probably the best method they could have come up with... but I still don't like it. Give me a grid based battle field, and turn-based mechanics please... or just develop your real-time combat system (which it looks like they're doing with Dragon Age 2. Perplexing... they pitch the original as this return to form. It sells well which gives them an indication this is what people want, so then they change it again to make it more like Mass Effect. Bizarre). 
I'm also going to go on record about their characters. I feel this is fairly consistent with most of their protagonists in Mass Effect as well, but I am absolutely confused about the praise for their implemented voice actors. The delivery is all over the map. Some of the characters *are* actually pretty good in these games, but the main characters are usually bland and lack oomph. Beyond the delivery, the written dialogue is often incredibly corny, and the branched systems that play out are rarely believable. 
"I'm going to kill you!" 
"You don't want to kill me, that makes you  a bad person." 
"... You're right. I should go home and be a good person. Thank you!" 
In a way this is an over-simplification of their dialogue, but strangely enough, I've had *many* encounters in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series that play out basically like that. Not only is the implementation not believable, to me it detracts from what it was they were trying to get across in their games. They want to give the player this idea of choice, and to an extent this is true. The end result of a situation is usually the same, but the means of getting there are different.  
Good: "You know, you should just give me that thing I want because you want to be a good person. Like me!" 
"You're right! Here you go. Thank you stranger! I'm going to remember this!" 
Bad:"You're going to give me that thing I want because if you don't I'm going to murder you" 
"Whoa ok!  Please don't hurt me, here you go! I'm going to remember this stranger." 
After awhile, all these interactions begin to feel like a distinct formula. Like there was a form a designer had to fill out with discrete fields that would provide the information each department needed to insert into a field in the code that allowed the conversations to play out in a standardized format. I can appreciate the complexity of the job, and recognize that if you're going to implement a system as large as it is in these games, that it almost becomes necessary. What I would argue than, is that this is similar to Bethesda's approach with The Elder Scrolls
Each game in The Elder Scrolls series has become smaller in terms of the size of the world. The big jump from Daggerfall to Morrowind was the reduction in landmass, and the removal of randomized dungeons for better hand crafted spaces. I would assert that every time they have made their game smaller, they have made it better. I can appreciate why Bioware wants to make a game with a lot of dialogue and interactive sequences. I would make the suggestion to scale back their system, much like Bethesda did. Reduce the number of interactions and choices, but make them much better. It is *extremely* difficult to achieve this goal, but I would argue the outcome is better for the player in the long run. It might make it so that a lot of content will be locked off for an entire play through of the game, but what makes choice so good is that it has a real effect on your experience that you *must* live with. This was the big difference, for example, between System Shock 2 and BioShock.  The latter let you make changes to your character almost on the fly, while the former forced you to make tough decisions and then live with the consequences for the duration of the game.  
If you wanted me to be honest about it, I think Dragon Age: Origins is better than Mass Effect has been in terms of how your choices can affect the outcome of the story, but it still feels as if we are at this point in divergent storytelling that hasn't moved much beyond Baldur's Gate 2 (Heck... I might even argue Ultima VII). There are examples which show pockets of movement, but there is very little that I could hold up to someone and say that *this* is the one which pushes the idea of choice and character interaction beyond anything we have seen before. Maybe I'm waxing over something that has been really important, but I'm open to the argument if one wishes to make it. 
The other issues I listed in my recent status update in regard to plain looking models and strange graphic choices I think are the low hanging fruit of the argument. Anyone can load up the game and see the low resolution textures, bland blood spatter texture overlay that is far too grandiose for a lot of the early battles with rats, and strange sense of scale (some of those door knobs are MASSIVE) deter from the graphic style. Beyond that, there is a rigidity in the design of the character models that has the effect of making most characters in the game look almost the same, with the same general lanky body shape. In all honesty, it wasn't too much of a detractor for me, but it was something that compounded along with all the other issues I had with playing this game.  
That sums up a lot of my feelings on this topic. I certainly don't want to give the impression that I feel as if people who like this game are somehow wrong, or that this game is terrible. I do not think the game is terrible, but it *isn't* what I wanted out of a PC RPG that was claiming to be going back to a more hardcore set of rules. 


Not for public consumption

I would attach this blog post to a forum... but I'm too chickenshit to read even *one* stupid fucking response. My exposure to the Halo community suggests there are far more than just one blithering idiot among the ranks. 
I just read a story on Joystiq from Comic Con where the guys from 343 Industries went on the record as saying they're continuing the Master Chief story. I'm sure there are some young male wastrels out there who had to immediately go and find some tissue paper (or change their shorts) upon reading the news. I'm not going to go into a diatribe about the quality of the games... I'm sure you can already draw your own conclusions based on what you've read in the preceding sentences so far. My concern is more basic than the expanse of the actual games in this case. 
My query is this: what is the big draw of the Master Chief character that draws so much adoration? There is very little in the games that-to me-justify raising this character to the iconic status that it now possesses. Through all of these games he doesn't say very much; his general look is bland (to say th least); there is no evidence of facial or vocal expression in the character; what backstory exists for the character has to be gleaned from places *other* than the game (which is significant insofar as there isn't anything about this character that is interesting enough to make me want to read a 200 page book about his adventures). As far as I'm concerned... the Master Chief could just be a floating gun and I likely wouldn't notice.  
I'm completely lost on this topic. It's baffling to me that something so vacant of character has somehow become one of the primary character icons that personifies this industry for the general communal mindscape in modern society. It makes no sense to me... I wish someone could explain it to me. 
(Addendum: I don't know why I would be so surprised... looking at the general design that was present in Oni, it should come as no surprise. I would like to say that Myth or Marathon were examples of transcendent design... but in reality they really werent;. Myth was likely the game that had the most character... but most of the character designs were based in the tried and true fantasy lexicon. There wasn't much about it that would set it apart from a generic cartoon... like the dungeons and dragons cartoon)

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Last Gasp Before Sleep

I thought I would do something stupid and try and stay awake until the release of Limbo this evening. I've been doing some forum surfing during the waiting period (between rounds of Alien Swarm) and it seems as if the 1-2am release time has been missed quite frequently as of late. Please don't misunderstand me... I'm not upset; feeling anger over not being able to play a game at 2am is ridiculous. I'm just disappointed.  
I went on a bit of a bender and bought a full three music albums the other day. I picked up Orchestrion, from Pat Metheny; Compass, from Joshua Redman; and VOCAbuLaries, from Bobby McFerrin. As is often the case, the two albums I was expecting to buy are the ones I've spent the least amount of time listening to. So far, I've spent a lot of time digesting the material in the Bobby McFerrin album. To date... Bobby has never let me down. =) 
Bobby's latest album is a bit of a return in a sense, and a departure in another. Many of his albums are stuffed to the brim with adventurous improvisation and solo vocal virtuosity. In the case of this latest work, the music on this disc is-in my opinion-some of the easiest for listeners at large to grasp. There are just some really good tunes on this disc... and the songs are made up of actual WORDS (if you've listened to a lot of his music... you'll know that this is a rarity). The experimentation in this case is the vocal arrangement's that are wrapped around the tunes. There are some really complicated and intricate harmonies that go along with the these tunes, and with as many as 50 voices on some of the songs, they sound incredible.  
Compass from Joshua Redman is a really interesting saxophone album. In the EPK that you can find on youtube, he talks about the interesting arrangement of recording with a double trio, and that he feels that this kind of thing hasn't been done before. Right off the bat... I can tell him it has. The Bloomdaddies are an excellent example of a group that played with 2 sax players, 2 bass players (on occasion), and 2 drummers. Add into that some crazy effects work to create their soundscapes, and you have a band that is arguably just as adventurous as this one. Where this group stands out however is their dedication to really pushing the boundaries of improvisation and form. These guys are on the top of their game... make no mistake. 
Orchestion is an album I was dubious about from the get-go. Please make no mistake... I'm an enormous fan of Pat Metheny (though in recent years, I find myself listening to his music less and less). The primary conceit of this album is that he has rigged a plethora of instruments with solenoid's, and then is then triggering them to play by some means (I don't know how) so that he is, in effect, at the helm of a giant one man band. The concept and execution is impressive... this is undeniable. The problem I am having is that I am not feeling a great deal of attachment to the actual music. As many people will likely say... there is a bit of a formulaic or robotic quality to some of his music. His creating a giant touring acoustic drum/harmonic machine that bends to his will does nothing to alleviate this notion. Pat is an impressive player... and I am desperately looking for another reason to feel some emotion about his music again (I'll take another Beyond the Missouri Sky any day of the week). 
That's about it. The time is almost 3am... if Limbo isn't up I'm doing the smart thing and going to bed. (actually... the smart thing would have been to go to bed hours ago. Cut me a little slack on this occasion though please. It's really hot in here)

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