Monday, March 29, 2010

critics, e4, and the curse of trailers

"Why would you base your decision to see a film on the opinion of a critic?"

This is a question that has been asked of me more than once by several people. They point out, quite reasonably, that there is no guarantee that said critic will be correct. I might well enjoy the film anyway. Its true, I might, and if I had infinite time and money, I'm pretty sure I'd see practically every film that was on. I don't, however, and must make targeted choices. What do these people base their opinions on? Trailers. Trailers are the devil, as I shall expound later.

A good critic should not just give you their opinion for a film, they should also give their basis for it. If you understand them, and a good critic should be able to communicate effectively, then you should be able to appreciate whether you'll agree with them. This won't always work- you can see cliches as fun or awful, depending on your particular take, and two very smart people can see very different things in the same film. Still, good reviews (I should really seperate critisism and reviews, which are seperate things), should give you an idea of what someone would like or dislike about a film.

Trailers do none of these things. Trailers are DESIGNED to misleading, and, even worse, they can often mislead you in the wrong direction. Trailers are designed for a demographic, and to appeal to that demographic only, to the point where they can be actively offputting to people not in that demographic.

e4 is my favourite example. As far as I can tell, they assume their audience are half wits who find the twaddle they consider "humour" amusing, to the point where they will undersell perfectly good shows. Watch a trailer for any of e4's comedys, and find me a bit where they actually manage to indicate any of that shows merits. Quite frequently they will simply take snippets from the show and pretend that they are having a conversation. This might be fine to someone familiar with said show, but to someone new, they have utterly failed to give me a reason to watch the sodding thing.

A case in point is the Big Bang Theory. I had assumed from the trailers that it would be devoid of laughs, so imagine my surprise when the other night I decided to settle on an episode. Heaven forbid... it was really quite funny! It wasn't the greatest example of comedy ever found by any means, but it was enjoyable, and certainly a lot better than certain other imports. Thanks to e4's genius, I had been denying myself a perfectly good show.

Trailers are the devil. They will mislead, and they will not help. Avoid them at all costs.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Immigration and all those other fun social issues

I'm of the opinion that the worth of a human being is roughly equivalent no matter where they come from. I would tend to value people I know more, and people I love even more, because I have some kind of emotional connection there, but other people? Well a stranger from Africa is just as strange as a stranger from Europe. I suppose the latter is more likely to speak my language, but I'm not convinced that gives them more value.

Countries are, of course, a fiction. The borders of nations are arbitary, decided by the course of rivers, diplomats drawing lines, and armies marching to war. My connection to England is an accident of birth. Countries are, in general, useful fictions- its good to have an adhesive notion that keeps civillisation together, as civillisation is usually a positive force.

So, onto immigration. Is a British person more worthy of a job in Britain than a person from, say, China, who has flown here to take said job. I wouldn't say so, and, in the balance, can we say a net harm has been done there? I would agree that it is not useful to bring more people to this country than it can sustain in the long term, as that would end up being unecessarily harmful- if there are positions available elsewhere there is no need to overcrowd this country. Of course, this is not the case. Our country needs to grow in population, to support itself in the way it is accustomed to, and immigration is an important part of that.

An important addendum to this is when does this stop? At some point our population pyramid IS going to get messed up, so we have more people above retirement age than we can sustain. What ARE we going to do? Because growth cannot happen indefinitely- we are on a planet of finite resources and space, and eventually, even if it is not for another century, we will run out of room. Are people planning for this? Is there a solution to having to having more people requiring support than there are working? Can there even be a solution? I don't know, but I'd be interested to find out.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A defence of violence in media

So I've linked to this on facebook, a rather depressing and infuriating segment from that hallowed font of wisdom, Alan Titchmarsh. Distressingly, despite Tim Ingham's reasoned argument, Peasgood is happy to make some moronic sound bites. Video games, are, of course, as rated as dvds, and as such, should not be in children's hands. Now they will, of course, find their way into the posession of minors, either through adults ignorance of their content, or their approval (more on this later). However, the notion of infantalising media so as to protect children is a disturbing one.

Censorship is a frightening thing. I'm of the opinion that the only content that should potentially be censored is that that is clearly slanderous and misleading, that distorts facts and tells lies. Such media is not defensible, unless it has some artistic context that indicates that such slander is not true (satire comes under this). Art produced illegally- by performing illegal acts, should also be restricted for obvious reasons.

Censoring media for violence or extreme sexual practices (which is something the BBFC does do) is not something I approve of. Who are we protecting with these methods? Yes, children should not see such extreme things, but stopping adults seeing something simply because children shouldn't is, again, absurd. It may be that not many people want to see such extremes, but i'm not sure we have a right to stop those people from seeing it.

A question asked in this video by Titchmarsh is why Tim Ingham enjoys violent content. Ingham hedges a little, and talks about the players place in the narrative. This is probably true, of, say, call of duty. There is a clear plot goal, and you must kill enemies to do so. There is not much (at least in the first modern warfare) reveling in the death of your opponents, instead merely defeating those things that get in your way. The point he missed is that games present challenge- the challenge is to defeat enemies here, by using a simulation of real life combat, and the joy is, of course, in the challenge. Again, no reveling in violence.

So do we never revel in violence in media? Of course we do. In Evil Dead 2, there is a moment in which an absolutely absurd amount of blood pours out of the wall at our hero, Ash. in context it is absolutely hilarious. Just as with the knight in monty python, and the enemies with their limbs in Kill Bill, we are enjoying the violence here, primarily because it is such surreal excess. The vomiting scene in Team America isn't funny because he's vomiting, its funny because he is vomiting a ridiculous amount. A simple joke, but a funny one none the less.

Note that in many ways these jokes are meta jokes on violence- they play with your expectations as to what would happen when something nastily violent happened, and take to extreme levels. In the relief of that tension comes laughter. Such humour depends on an expectation built from media where violence IS taken seriously of course.

Can violence become uncomfortable? Of course it can, but that line is different for everyone. What might be a ridiculous black comedy for some becomes just disturbing for people who find any level of violence unpleasent. Final Destination is very clearly a black comedy- see the scene in the kitchen. The manner of the death is absurd, yet a tiny bit unpleasent along with that- the reactions feel real, despite the absurdity of the situation. For me, that was enough to make me feel put off, but for those with more experience with gore in horror, it was undoubtedly rather amusing. After all, none of this is REAL. We are reminded of this by the filmmaker, who cleverly points out the absurd, either in the situation or in the gore presented, which draws us out of the narrative enough to be sitting beside him, and realise quite what he is saying.

There are, of course, violent films that revel in their violence without giving the audience an excuse to escape. There are no winks at the audience, no attempts at humour. We are simulating someone's death. Taboos are made to be broken, and thats what film makers do. With us being desensitised to violence (watch Clockwork orange again and count how much violence is actually shown. Now watch a more recent violent film), some film makers still want to horrify. Are they reveling in the pain, or forcing us to acknowledge that this pain exists? I don't know, and it probably depends on the watcher.

To decry such expressions as meaningless is dangerous. I don't consider myself the arbiter of taste and decency, and neither should anyone else. If I have a line I don't want to be crossed in films, then I simply will stop watching films in which that line is crossed. Not all forms of entertainment or art are for everyone, and nor should they be, but to decide that ones limits on the acceptable are the same as everyone else's is incredibly dangerous, and exactly what the censors of this society would like you to think.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 22, 2010

Roleplaying:My campaigns

[Yes, more self indulgence. Thats really what blogs exist for...]

I blogged about my campaigns at the time, so I'm going to be a bit more focused here- a brief summary of what happened, what I was going for, and my favourite and least favourite moments.

My first ever campaign was in Dark Heresy, a system I'm not terribly fond of. It followed some acolytes eventual fight against a daemon that had plagued their inquisitor for quite some time. As it was my first campaign, I was eager to try new things, so there were several distinct mini-arcs which only tied in to the main plot tangentially. Most of the campaign was getting the inquisitor the kit he needed for a ritual (which, of course, went horribly wrong).

The good My favourite part was definitely the player's attempting to acquire an aspect warrior, imprisoned for illegal fighting in one of the richer estates. The method of acquiring said warrior was left open, and my players managed to rise to the challenge admirably. A particular moment I liked was when I threw in a random npc as decoration, then Nick chose to question him in a way I didn't expect, which worked really rather well.

The bad The opening adventure didn't quite work- I liked the idea of an assassin stalking the players, but had a hard time thinking of a way to kill the bastard. I needed a few more ways for them to defeat it than the vortex grenade. I really need to a sample adventure doing this sort of thing, to get an idea of how to work it properly. The final session was excessively long (also apparently under fluff there are only, like, 10 sisters of battle, but 40k fluff is so impossibly stupid i'm willing to ignore it), as often happens in my campaigns.

The next campaign was a mini-summer arc, which then turned into a published adventure. The summer arc was an idea I'd had in my head for a while, born of my collecting blood angels when younger. The idea of a blood angel who embraced the red thirst they were supposed to fight, but was not necessarily a minion of chaos, seemed fun to me, with a Chaplain attempting to hunt him down, and the inquisition getting in the way.

The good This campaign was in many ways the most open I've made. The players were plunked into a city with a specific objective and left to get on with it. They did have a contact in the administratum (ah, now that was a joy to run!), but were mostly on their own. The clues were there, and thanks to the Blood angel actually trying to attract attention, weren't too hard to track down.

The bad Once again, the final session. It was another "players need to kill hideous monster" thing, this time with an npc telling them a plan- I maybe should have given the players more agency here. They still had agency in how they chose to lead the blood angel to the factory, but maybe they could have come up with a better plan? As it was they managed a spectaculor failing of driving rolls, then a detonated frag grenade did them more damage than the space marine, at which point the psyker managed to keep the hulking monster busy by making him... trip over several times, at which point the npc pretty much had to save them (she was originally going to live). Maybe I should just stop being obsessed with the notion of a boss monster. Is it always necessary? I don't know.

(to be continued)

Labels: ,

What is a child

An excellent article on the legal absurdities we have created in order to "protect" children


Friday, March 19, 2010

Roleplaying- how much is too much

I am a sucker for punishment, and find myself drawn into the order of the stick forums. There an argument has continued about the Stormwind fallacy. Other than the tiresome nature of needing to give certain "fallacies" names, its a bit flawed. Its essential thesis is to argue that roleplaying and optimisation are seperate things, and thus do not effect each other.

This requires a careful definition of optimisation. An "optimal" character usually means one who is optimal given constraints. One classic example of D&D abuse is Pun-Pun, a kobold with the powers of every single god ever. No player would try to run Pun-Pun, for obvious reasons, but one could argue that in power terms, that character is optimal. Usually optimisers want to make their character as mechanically effective as possible without irritating their dm, and possibly sticking to a character concept.

So whats wrong with that? Well often it creates characters in the wrong order- the character is created to look at a particular mechanic, and then a back story is layered over the top of that. Ideally, if one was creating a sentient being, one would start with the character and make choices that make sense for the character. The point being not to make an ineffectual character- most people are good at what they do after all- but that most people do not always take the "optimal" choice. They are held down by society, their own personal distractions, and other things that stops them taking the perfect feat or spell at every level.

Of course, once you start playing it might not matter- a good enough roleplayer could probably justify a character who has taken those optimal choices, and might even make an interesting character out of it. I haven't actually seen that happen, but I'm sure it can.

The question remains, of course, does it matter? If I create a barely roleplayed character because I like to hit things, why should anyone else care? Well, obviously it depends on your group. A poorly roleplayed stereotype won't fit in terribly well with a more heavily roleplayed character, but the same happens if the situation gets reversed. As long as the players are happy with what they are playing, it doesn't really matter.

It does seem to me though to be slightly missing the point- the unique selling point to roleplaying games for me is the roleplaying: I can get joy in tactical builds in other games designed for that. One could argue that D&D is sort of set up for such tactical builds, and that is one reason why I am more inclined to play in games where optimisation is not really effective or even possible.

So yeah, do what makes you happy, of course- the game part is always more important than the roleplaying part, but it might be worth giving oneself over to a character once in a while (I do indeed give in to the allure of mechanical characters as well, in case you are wondering).

I'm aware that this essay may come off as slightly patronising- I don't intend to pretend to be the arbiter of all knowledge, even if I come off that way.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Roleplaying, characters I've played-part 2

The summer time brought two of my favourite characters so far.

for Nick's WFRP campaign we created character in their second careers. Both Ant and myself ended up with Vampire hunters, who had reached the career in different ways. I played a halfling with absurd ranged prowess, and Ant a human killing machine. We decided that we probably knew each other, and indeed Gollina, or girl as she was to become known, the baber surgeon would probably have helped us out in the past. Our names? Max and Felix.

It occured to me that the career of vampire hunter was a little strange, especially for two characters who had never been to Slyvania. After a bit of improvisation in one session between Ant and myself it soon became clear. Max and Felix were idiots. Exceedingly dangerous idiots who would kill anyone at the first sign of being a vampire, but idiots nontheless.

There was a reasonable indication that the campaign was meant to be dark. And dark it probably was for anyone who met Max and Felix, who brought destruction in their wake. Including:

-Killing an old man for the crime of shooting at us when we broke into his house. He was probably evil
-Killing a mayoral candidate with poison given by his clearly criminal opponent. He candidate was probably evil.
-Finally encountering a vampire.... and allying with it, declaring it a force of utter good. The vampire was definitely evil.

Max and Felix were astonishing fun to play as- absurd beings who were not actively malevolent only because they simply were not smart enough to be so.

The other character played over the summer was Isawa Chomei, who I had a lot of fun with. One of the cute things about L5R is that you can roleplay a character who has absolutely no desire to be doing their current task, but is compelled by society. In other campaigns this often doesn't make sense- why wouldn't they just leave? In Rokugan the social structure is such that if your superiors tell you to do something you pretty much have to do it.

This led to Chomei. A lecherous shugenja, he was a bit of a court mandarin, spending most of his time socialising, and making friends with women. Sadly, he was also married, and his wife got increasingly frustrated with him, causing several scandals at court. So Chomei was sent away from his beloved Phoenix lands, and forced to help an Emerald magistrate. This set up a lovely tension- my character was genuinely ready to run away during the final fight of the campaign, because he was tired of having to fight people all the time (being a Tensai he had appropriate spells despite not being a fan of fighting- he knew all the water spells he needed to), and also he had tried to sleep with the nemesis of the campaign... All in all, a fun character play.

I have two current characters. One is a zealot of Ulric. I have to say, its not a particular stretch for me to play boisterous over the top characters, although this is my second religious fanatic. Albert is a devout, loud man, prefering to go the straight forward way. Sadly he has been forced to take the path of deception recently, and feels a bit bad about it. Still, he is in Estalia now, and is a friar, his goal is clear. Defeat the forces of evil, certainly, but bring the cult of Ulric to Estalia as well! I'm liking Albert a lot: he's no idiot, even though he can act like one occasionally, and is a lot of fun to play.

Finally Jake is the first WOD:mortals character I've played. Its really fun to play a vanilla human- its possible to apply real life experience. Having initally thought of an idea of a lazy student who was funded by his parent, I discovered everyone else had gone the same route.... A little more thought gave me a boxer who wanted to be famous. After foolishly indulging in match fixing he has been asked to quit, and has gone back to the course he dropped out of at university, media studies. Seeing an opportunity to be on television, even if its only internet television, he jumped at the chance. He has since encountered disturbing things- not a man to think about the supernatural, Jake has never really defined his belief in the strange, but is forced to deal with it now. He's a man who will tend to stoop to violence without too much trouble, after all its what he's done for most of his life, but isn't necessarily bad natured. He has a foul tongue, but thats more due the company he used to keep. He's a bit lonely now- most of his friends were in boxing after all, and he finds the lazy students he's been saddled with mostly frustrating. Still he persists, hoping for a way out of his situation.

I hope this round up of characters was vaguely interesting- there was no point behind it, maybe to organise my own thoughts on playing characters. Roleplaying is something that comes mostly naturally to me,

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Roleplaying, the characters I've played-part 1

So, this will be a splendidly self indulgent post, as I review through characters I've played as, both in one shots and campaigns. We will ignore npcs for the purpose of this, as my npcs are rarely as fleshed out as a pc (most npcs have "plot" motivation, rather than character motivation).

I first roleplayed when I was around 12-16, playing every thursday afternoon after school for an hour, with a teacher as a DM. It was a fun experience, but I really didn't do a tremendous amount of roleplaying. Never getting beyond level 1, I tended to play wizards who really had very little do after casting their spell for the day. We seemed to face overwhelming encounters that butchered us all. I'm not sure anyone ever leveled.. all in all it was a little sad as an experience.

While at Bath I didn't roleplay at all. Bath doesn't have a games society. It does have a sci-fi club. To my mind the societies at Bath were a little less vibrant. There were some good political societies, and I do miss that scene a little. Oh well.

When coming to Southampton I looked ahead, and was pleased to see a gaming society. It seemed like an opportunity to meet likeminded people, and also to roleplay again. I am quite good at having infeasible amounts of knowledge about cultures I don't actually participate in, but its more fun to actually be participating in them.

My first ever character of note, then, was Borthas. A character for WFRP, he was an entertainer, barely an adult (aged 16!), he was swept up by events into a fight against a conspiracy to summon a powerful daemon of chaos. As he progressed, both he and I became more outspoken, as I became more comfortable with roleplaying and the character I was playing. I like to ground characters, at least first characters in a system, in stereotypes. So Borthas was a typical member of the Empire- racist, a devout follower of Sigmar and with strict notions of justice for mutants and criminals. I had no great notion of the character initially- his siblings had gone to fight in the Storm of chaos, leading him with an abiding hatred of the forces of chaos, and anything associated with them. Typically characters need to grow with the events that happen to them, and Borthas was exactly this. After a while playing him, it was fairly clear as to what he would do in any given situation. One of the most unfortunate aspects of his character was his prejudices were often proven correct- the wizard DID betray the party, and the halflings WERE serving bad food... As for the countess of Nuln... well...

Along the way were a couple of one shots. Its pretty hard to get past just a simple concept in one shots, and on reflection I do think its best to try and come to a one shot with a good idea of who your character is, as you don't have time to learn during the session, and shifts in your personality will be more noticable. So I played a reserved mage who had little to say (and tried to kill a lunatic paladin who was getting in his way), and an infuriated monkey samurai who had to deal with the most sociopathic bushi anyone has ever encountered ever. Both were little more than basic ideas. The Monkey worked fine for the session- there weren't many situations where his choices weren't obvious, but the mage could have used more thought.

Kakita Mito was next. A kikata duelist, he was, perhaps, the least equipped for the intrigues of Winter Court than any of the others there. This campaign ranks as one of my favourite that I've played in so far, being almost entirely based on intrigue and discussion. The ONLY fighting occured in the confines of duels (which I enjoyed, but wished there were a few more options to make them more tactical- Mike has made some changes to the dueling system to make it more system, however), which Mito was tasked to do. Mito's character was entirely changed by a roll for random generation. With the result of driven, I decided I needed to completely change many of the characters drives. Still brash and jealous, Mito's main goal now was to find some way to kill his ancestor who had dishonoured his family. Assuming that the reason I hadn't just gone myself yet was that my great uncle controlled a fortress in the shadow lands, I would need to gain enough political favour to gather an expedition. Having been outwitted in the courts of the crane (having focused most of his life on begn a duelist, Mito hadn't had much time for the intrigues of court), he had learnt more, enough that he might survive winter court.

Survive he did. Mito remained true to my initial vision of him throughout- the stuck up, honour ruled, driven bastard, who disapproved of others, and became jealous of those he felt bested him when they shouldn't (leading to an obsession with Go, then helping bring about the destruction of a poor Phoenix duelist...) He was a fairly simple character to play, happily alienating his allies as he acted the "perfect" samurai...

Steven was a promethean tammuz. Prometheans are kind of interesting to roleplay. They are effectively blank slates- they have in built skills (which may or may not have been inherited from their previous bodies, the rules are distressingly unclear on this), language and understanding, but little concepts of social norms, morality, the way to act in any situation. Steven was a tammuz, so intrinsically opposed to notions of servitude, something he was forced to struggle with throughout. He didn't get a good start- his first lesson was that of vengence, from his insane creator, and he was angry initially, determined to right what he perceived as wrong. As he grew and learned, he became calmer, and his initally demand for wrathful justice mutated into the desire to protect those who had become his friends- particularly Judy (Gemma's character, I think the name is correct?) whom he failed once before. Following this path went well for him, he felt that following the path of righteousness would lead him to humanity. There was a dangerous moment when he became connected to power- the staff of the first golem threatened to corrupt him, but he managed to resist, and used it to defeat Osiris in the end, and got his progeny (something he had initially resisted, but gave into when he realised it was the only way) to return the staff.

Promethean is at the same time an excellent system to roleplay in, and at the same time frustrating- its really not clear how much of who the character is should be decided by experience, by the type of promethean they are, and who they were. I guess its left up to the player, but it'd be nice to have a little more guidance on that.

Right, this post is long enough for now, and takes me up to the summer of 2009. Concluded in next post.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Neptune's Pride

Neptune's Pride is an online strategy game. Set in space, it is very simple- every 24 hours, every star that has economy produces 10 currency for each level of economy, and each star with industry produces each ships for each dot of industry every 12 hours. You can move your fleets to capture new stars, by spending 25 to buy a carrier. A carrier can hold any number of ships. The ship can jump as far as you have range technology, and move as fast as you have speed technology. You research a rate proportional to the amount of science you have. When combat happens its all a numbers game- your attack is your weapon tech, your health is the number of ships, with the defender striking first and getting a bonus point in weapons.

You can exchange many things in the game- tech, stars, fleets and money, but you can never have a full alliance. As most combats come to a numbers game, alliance is necessary.

The game plays... strangely. As mentioned, production is slow, as is fleet movement, so you initally only need to check once or twice a day. However, once conflict begins its important to not miss any times- if you have ships sitting idle while your enemy assaults you then you are going to lose a lot of ships. This is extremely frustrating. The clock is always running. You cannot miss a day and hope to succeed, which means that despite there being precious little to do, you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time on the game.

In the end, this feels like a failed experiment. A mix between real time and turn based, it just doesn't succeed for me. Still, it is in beta currently, and I have only played the free version. Maybe things will be different in future...

Labels: ,

Monday, March 15, 2010

Roleplaying and the nature of evil

[I've got in mind a handful of roleplaying posts to make, this is the first one.]

One of the greatest mistakes ever made in D&D was the alignment system. Defining a character as good, neutral, or evil, is just an astonishingly stupid thing to do (lawful and chaotic slightly less so, but still). Why?

-It strait jacket characters into acting in a certain way, simply because of an alignment choice
-It encourages meta thinking rather than character thinking. Your character performs an action not because they are invested in it, but because they are "good"
-The nature of evil is nebulous, and encouraging players to take it as alignment produces a host of raving lunatics.

What is evil? I originally wrote this with a rather emotive example, but have decided to withdraw that. Hitler is the obvious example for evil. Yet he, as far as we know, did not believe his actions to be evil (he had some screwed up notion of manifest destiny and seemed to believe that he had only been wrong in thinking that germans were ubermen). He had rages, certainly, but could be kind, apparently had a form of love, and was certainly charasmatic enough to charm those around them.

Simply put, human beings are complicated. You can be hideously horrible to some people, and delightfully pleasent to others. Even sociopaths can be charming, although they live effectively amoral lives, and will kill without compuction, many of them are smart enough to realise that while they find no value in morality, others do, and its worth pretending that they do (this is similar to the realisation Belkar came to in Order of the Stick recently).

A completely untrustworthy lunatic who acts "evilly" at every opportunity will soon be unplayable. Not only does a character make little sense, they simply do not play well with others.

If you want to play an evil character, you need to think what has driven such a person to the extremes they go to. Look at, for example, the Operative in Serenity. There is a man capable of acts of utter evil, who has been completely indoctrinated to believe in the world he is building by his acts. We know that he will go to any length to defeat his enemies, often depraved ones, but can also be entirely charming whenever he needs to be. So you need to decide what drives your character. What is their motivation, their goal in life? What lines will they cross, and why? Who do they trust, and who do they hate?

Playing an "evil" character should not be a target. Ideally one should come up with a character concept of someone who happens to be "evil". Someone who, for whatever reason, has made choices almost all of us would disagree with, and is willing to keep on making those choices.

More than ever, as an evil character you really need to think "whats my motivation", something that should be on every roleplayers mind when their character needs to make a choice of any kind. When an evil character is about to do something wrong, you do need to question why- it can't be just because they are evil, it has to be something that drives the character to perform that particular act.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Reviewing games before the end: Asssassins Creed 2

I really must stop doing this. I get excited about something I'm enjoying, and review it before its finished. Just as with Arkham Aslyum, the ending feels a little sloppy.

Its still very good, but a disappointing amount of the game is spent in Venice. The game will occasionally cut off parts of a city until you reach a certain point in the plot, which is mostly fine, but they do it with Venice 3-4 times, which is just insane. Rather than crafting a new city, they merely slightly expand Venice, which is just disappointing. In addition there are some really bad missions in Venice, some involving suddenly forcing you to acquire new skills, and some that just weren't thought through (capture the flag indeed!). Its interesting to complain about a game being too long, but the game does seem to drag in Venice, in terms of plot too, with more and more npcs introduced.

Now for some plot spoilers.

There are some irritating hanging threads in the Venice plot. There seems to be a building up that Ezio has become so obsessed with revenge he will kill anyone, which is never adaquetly resolved, and a potential romance with Rosa is just utterly ignored. The ending was.. well silly, and I expected it to be, but I was a little surprised when Ezio was surprised that he was an assassin. Mario told him so bloody ages ago, if anything I was rather surprised that the game inexplicably got rid of Mario, only to have him turn up (oh, and every npc you have met so far is also an assassin). The final section of the game was surprisingly fun- infiltrating rome was fun, if a tad too easy, but the final fight was stupid, as boss fights usually are. Take the sword fight, where apparently Ezio has created the magical ability to make 5 of himself. huh? This, relatively tricky, fight, then turns into a fist fight, which you'll just win, because no-one is good at fist fights.

I also have to complain about the structure of the final fight. You dive down and assasinate Borgia. But he survives thanks to wuju magic. So you fight, and kill him, but then he survives due to wuju magic, and stabs you, and leaves. You then get up, surviving due to wuju magic, go into the room, and declare that it is over. Apparently it is, as Borgia has discared all his weapons for some, inexplicable reason, and then you have the fist fight.

Then you discover the sun is going to explode. Sigh....

The very last section, going back into the real world for the credits was absolutely fantastic, a brilliant idea that was well executed.

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 11, 2010


A film trailer for all time

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A strange moment in gaming

In Baldur's Gate 2 you can romance some of the other characters in your party. This is a smart idea- it allows more attachment to the non-player characters, and makes you care more about the story. Its not brilliantly scripted, but its a pretty good effort, and somewhat fun. If you continue your romance with one of the characters, in the expansion she becomes pregnant, and eventually bears the child, provided you play for long enough.

Aerie (the mother of your child), calmly explains, having become pregnant, that while her unborn child can be killed along with her, the magic that will bring her back to life will also bring the fetus back to life. Well, thats ok then.

When the child is born, it then becomes an inventory item. Thankfully you can't equip it...

Labels: ,

Why so cheap

Dear expensive restaurants everywhere.

I am paying a small fortune to eat your cuisine. No doubt your chef is extremely experienced, and your food will taste delectable. So why do you feel the need to penny snatch? When I ask for water, I want goddamn tap water. I don't want to have to spell it out to you to prevent you charging me for mineral water, I want freaking tap water. If you fear that some of your clients would be offended by being brought tap water, you could always ask them.

And why, god why, do you feel the need to give me a morsel of bread with my soup. Bread improves soup. Its great to have a decent chunk of bread to absorb my soup- I do not believe I am alone in my regard. If it really sets you back that much, then charge more for the soup- its already outrageously expensive anyway! Even worse is those of you who, instead of just providing bread while I wait for my starter, actually have the cheek to charge for the sodding thing!

Also, and this is a more general outcry, but what happened to mints at the end of the meal? Bah.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 08, 2010

Difficulty and Assassins Creed 2

I've blogged on this subject before, but thats not going to stop me doing it again. Quinns, the 5th member of the 4 member blog rock paper shotgun. He has different opinions on difficulty to me. He points out that in Assassins Creed 2 it is very hard to fail, at least in combat. I too, only died while jumping, and never in combat.

First of all, while he dismisses it, one can make the game harder if one wants to, by setting challenges- never buying medicine, for example, would make the game much more difficult, and would be terribly easy to impose: improving your armour only does so much, as you can take a lot of damage quite quickly in this game, its just you can heal it faster than you lose it. If a game is too difficult, however, there is absolutely no way to make it easier- most games don't even come with cheats these days (for, as far as I can tell, little reason).

Second of all, is a game hard if you can't fail? Well obviously a game in which you can fail is often hard, but it can also be frustrating. Having to repeat oneself will necessarily take you out of the role you are playing, and remind you that you are playing a game. One of the smartest parts of Assassins creed 2 is that while there is a whole bunch of gamist interface, its actually explained by the story- you are in a simulator, experiencing the past through a machine, and thus have these interfaces added for you. So failure does remind you that you're playing a game (although its reasonably well integrated), and repeated failure is frustrating.

Well note that the game DOES have repeated failure integrated into it. The platforming sections of the game, where you need to climb high, are classic platforming. You usually won't die if you fail at a point, but you'll usually have to start again. The platforming is the best built part of the game, and its no surprise the designers focus on that.

The combat, however, isn't so great. As I mentioned in my review, its kind of dull, and each combat resolves into the same moves, unless you choose to use smoke bombs etc to kill the guards. Its still actually challenging. You don't die, but you do need to kill these guards to proceed. In fact, combat is essentially turned into a puzzle here- you're not going to be destroyed, but you need to find a way round your enemies defences if you want to keep going. Whether thats done by fighting, running, or using smoke bombs/ pistols, its an interesting dilemma. Would this be improved by failure states? Maybe. In occasional combats it might make sense for some of your solutions to be bad, and those might result in failure, but I don't think it ruins it- if combt isn't working, then the game lets you try something new, rather than force you to restart, go to the same combat, and try something new. It's an interesting style of game design, and, to my mind, better than forcing the player to keep doing the same task over and over until they have read the designers mind, and acquired the muscle memory to perform the particular task.

Assassins Creed 2 will not send you back to the start again very frequently, but it does challenge you. You must fight to progress- there is no easy button to get past (contrast to MGS3, where a legitimate tactic at easier difficulties is to just run away from guards until you trigger a cut scene). I honestly think this style suits the game as it is intended to be played.

Labels: ,

Grah politicians rah!

We do stand in danger of losing the woods for the trees. Simon Jenkins wrote an eminently sensible comment (the man varies from being utterly correct on politics and disastorously incorrect on science), which I broadly agree with. Political funding, as it now stands, distorts our political system. The politicians are not reliant on the people to get funding, and are stead fast in not wanting that to happen. It'd certainly be harder work, and it might force them to be- gasp- more democratic! The conservatives get their money from wealthy donors such as Ashcroft, a person who is clearly going to have an undue influence on politics. The person with the purse strings often does. Labour is equally beholden to the unions, which really aren't a terribly democractic way to get ones funding either.

This is important, this is vital. Changing this would make politics fairer. It would vitalise politics, because fund raising amoung ordinary citizens would be completely essential if there was a donations cap.

Sadly, we get focused on other things, such as politicians riding first class. Apparently, after politicans have undoubtedly abused the funding system they had, they should therefore be given practically nothing. These people are meant to be running the country, I don't think its too much to ask for them to be able to work on long train journeys. The anger people have is incoherent and unfocused, and too easily distracted and stirred at obvious targets- we obssess over Fred Goodwin rather than the entire system which means that the richest remain rich even in such a crisis.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 05, 2010

Half Life 2 and the silent protagonist.

For me, Half life 2 is still the best single player first person shooter. In terms of level design, variety, invention, its just superb. Compare the experience of Ravenholm to the assault on Nova Prospect, the fight on the bridge to the final strider battle. What half life manages to do with its resources is nothing short of incredible. I've experienced good FPS, but nothing with the scope and inventiveness of HL2. Fear is enjoyable, but the level design is samey and the enemies mostly identical (more health does not a different fight make). By having three different enemy types, and each of those varied as well, HL2 has a massive toolkit to create varied fights.

Its storytelling is also incredible. For the most part the story is told in game, and the characters evoke an emotional reaction which can be difficult to elicit. Yet, as you might be able to tell from the title of this blog, there is a major issue. The protagonist never speaks. Never. It made sense initially, as in the original game you barely had any interactions with anyone. Yet it has got more absurd as you continue, to the point where you spend an entire episode hanging out with Alyx Vance and don't say a word. Are you actually mute? Is you character vocalising but the player isn't allowed to hear? Its a problem, because it strains believability to think that Gordon can talk, but just doesn't.

How does one resolve this? It seems a betrayal to have your first person character speak with a different voice to yours, but the alternative is just as ridiculous. Half Life has always led you- player agency doesn't really exist at all- indeed theres no real indication that Gordon is at all invested in the conflicts he's involved in, as the only reason he shoots at one set of people is that they're the ones attacking him. All the way through he reacts, and yet is considered a revolutionary hero. I suspect this issue isn't going to be resolved for episode 3, but one does wonder if Half Life 3 might be being held off for the specific goal to get voicing to a point where we can use Gordon. After all, L4D has suceeded in doing so.

It must be noted that Gordon not speaking is less insane than the protagonist in Fear, who fails to mention to his special operative team... well... anything whatsoever. Worse special agent ever?


Thursday, March 04, 2010


Reading this book, I began to wonder about Robert Harris' other books. Were Enigma and Fatherland actually good, was my memory incorrect? Because this book certainly wasn't working. Set just before, and during, the eruption of Versuvius, Pompeii is an incredibly well researched piece of fiction, tracking a character dealing with his own personal crisis as the world falls apart around him. Certainly the central idea is an interesting one, but Robert Harris fails to do anything of note with it at all.

We follow an engineer, who appears to have had a lobotomy at birth. I assume so anyway, as thats the only thing that can explain his actions. Despite knowing that speaking out of turn to the rich and powerful men he meets could result in his death, he does it anyway. Technically one could argue that he does so because he finds them despicable, and is heroic enough to tell them so, but to be honest it just makes him seem like a moron. He's a dull protagonist, and while he cares about what's happening, I never felt like caring about him, or the woman who he supposedly falls in love with. The narrative takes place over four days, so theres no time to develop any characters, which is disappointing. The bad guys remain bad, the good guys remain good, and the events continue to splutter to their conclusion.

The eruption, when it comes, injects some much needed urgency to this story, but the first 200 pages are just a chore.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Assassins Creed 2

Another review before finishing a game, but this one is a little more justified, as Assassins Creed 2 is a rather larger experience than Arkham Asylum. A comparison between the two games isn't particularly fair- they have different goals, but generally speaking Assassins Creed 2 is better (more on this later).

This is a game into which some serious effort has been put into making things fun. The main focus of the game will be jumping over roof tops in gorgeous looking levels set around Italy. The controls for this are intuitive and easy, and mostly work exactly as you wish. There is a plot, and while it is your usual conspiracy theory nonsense, the writers understand that the best way to sell a ridiculous story is by making good characters who you care about, and make sure they believe in the story. Ezio's path of vengence is plausible and interesting, and he guides you through the story deftly.

The game is delightfully non-linear in a pratically perfect way. From a few hours in you are able to go off and do your own thing, completing the hugely enjoyable additional tasks that the game sets you along the main plot. When you do get to the plot, the missions are varied and fun for the most part, and can be approached in varied ways.

One of the smartest pieces of design in this game is the many tools it gives you to complete your objectives. If you want to sneak, you can clamber over roof tops, taking out guards before they can say anything. Or you can mingle with crowds, darting between one and another as you approach. Or you can throw money which can distract guards. Or you can hire groups to distract these same guards. Or you can throw a smoke bomb. You could even leave a body a little way down the road and they'll go investigate...

And, if you really want to, you can fight them. Sadly this is the clunkiest part of the game. Theres a lot of options there, but they mostly boil down to holding block and counter attacking at the correct moment, which results in a kill. Arkham Aslyum has a similar system, buts its far more fluid and easier to track when a counter attack should be made, making combat seem more natural and fun. Still, as mentioned, combat doesn't have to be a chore- you can always hurl a smoke bomb and kill people in the confusion, or get hired help to engage them and then stab them in the back.

Spiderman 2 was another game which really captured the joy of darting round a city: its one of the greatest things to do in a video game, but the game play was never integrated into the main plot. Assassins Creed does it perfectly. It really is just a fantastic game.

Other than the combat there are few frustrations. The context sensitive jumping can be annoying occasionally, when you cannot persuade Ezio to do something you yourself would be capable of doing, or he enthusiastically leaps off a building rather than continue climbing as you had intended. You load back fairly quickly, however, and quickly become strong enough to surive all but the most easy of falls. I suppose one might argue that the game is a little easy, but who cares when its this much fun?

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Emotional Cues

You're watching a film, or a television program. Its an emotional moment, your buying it, being drawn in, possibly even becoming a little dusty. And then here it comes. The music, the goddamn music, telling you you should be sad. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, otherwise a fine little film, is often utterly despoiled by the music cutting in, over heaping moments that really don't need to be over heaped. Battle Star Galactica also has this problem, with celtic music coming in at every single moment.

Long running series have a serious problem with it becoming a pavlovian thing- in Buffy there was the "Buffy and Angel" tune which would play, and make me want to die. Its exceedingly frustrating. Music isn't always bad, of course, but when its hitting you round the face and declaring that you should be feeling a particular emotion at some point, then that can be exceedingly frustrating.