Times Scanned

December 20, 2014

The Fleet Burns

This blog was an experiment, and out of all of the blogs that we started back in 2010, this one has survived the longest.

Of course, I use the word "survived" loosely. It was most active during 2011 and 2012, even after the "great culling." I've barely touched it during 2013 and 2014.

Yet here we are at the end of 2014, and still find myself returning to it. I know I promised more blog posts, but I'm beginning to see why professional bloggers begin to, well, hate their blogs: constantly keeping up that kind of content output is extraordinarily tiring. And I didn't reach it that often.

You may notice that "The Fleet" box to the right is now empty. As the blogs we started got deleted, I slowly removed them from the box. Once we had 6-7, and they closed until we had three left - and none of those had been updated in a year.

Sometime tells me the great blog experiment may be ending soon. I still want to post game reviews here, but I don't beat them nearly as quickly as I used to.

Until then, I remain.

September 29, 2014

Rebeating Oblivion

I'm back!

NDK 2014 was awesome, by the way, thanks to the presence of a few choice people.The thing I was worried about never came to pass, and so I think I finally closed another chapter in my life. So there's that, anyway.

In my current group, the phrase "rebeating Oblivion" refers to the practice of beating a game - in this case, Elder Scrolls V: Oblivion - a second time after you've beaten it once already, when you could be doing something more productive, like beating a game you haven't beaten yet.

I've notice that I've started to become antsy when I'm not in the process of making progress on a game. The reasons for this are many: for example, it could be a realization that I'm getting older and thus don't have as much free time as I used to, and so I need to feel like I'm doing something new and "more fun." Yet I tend to re-start a great many games I've already beaten before, and these projects all usually tend to fizzle out, which leaves me back at square one.

So I need a system. Many of you are familiar with the fact that I keep a backlog over at Backloggery, which is a site intended to keep track of games you have or have not beaten. Every so often I toy with the prospect of using it again, simply for my peace of mind and as a goal to work toward. Each time, however, I run into a problem.

I seem to have some variety of OCD. I don't think it's a particularly crippling form of it, but it's present. I first noticed it back in 2010 during my "Rage Steve" phase, during which I organized my book, game, movie, and strategy guide collections alphabetically by system. This has since relaxed somewhat to simply being alphabetically organized. To save space, I created something called an "overflow box," which holds copies of games/books/movies I already own. You can probably see where this is going.

What determines if something goes into the overflow box? At first, the newer versions of a game could stay out on the shelf, while the older version went into the box. For example, Chrono Trigger DS stayed on the shelf, while the SNES cartridge went into the box. This raised two problems: what if I wanted to stream the game? I can stream the SNES version, but I can't stream the DS one. The second issue was how is this reflected in the backlog? Does beating the SNES cartridge mean I've beaten the DS version as well? If the DS is the one on the shelf, do I leave the SNES version off the backlog? That seems wrong, given an iconic game such as Chrono Trigger, though part of me recognizes that this is my "gamer peen" talking, as Tom would put it, but it still eats at me enough that I can't just ignore it.

So, I need a new system.

The first draft is like this: in cases where games are straight ports of an older game (like remade for a newer system or part of a collection) the newer game stays on the shelf and backlog, UNLESS the newer game adds a significant amount of gameplay to the game - then the older game is kept in the backlog as well, to reflect the legacy aspect of the game. The example here is the Chrono Trigger example given above: because Chrono Trigger DS adds a few new dungeons to the game, both games can live on the shelf.

In cases where one version is on the PC and the other is on a console, then the version that works best gets to stay. For example, Skyrim is more stable on the PC, whereas Fallout 3 and New Vegas are more stable on the 360.

Once that was settled, I needed a refine my system for when to mark a game's completion. If you've never been to Backloggery's site before, you can mark games in a few different ways: Completed. Beaten, In Progress, Unplayed, or Null.

In my system, games that do not have a clearly defined beginning or end - which is to say, games without a story, like sports games or pure multiplayer games (MMOs), are marked as null. Beaten games are games where I have seen the ending credits, but have not completed DLC/anything else in the game I want to accomplish, whereas Completed games are marked as such when I complete all DLC/other goals/whenever I feel the game is finally "done."

This may seem kind of strange to keep here as a blog post, but I think this is really more for my own edification and reference. However, I'll still welcome any questions or comments below.

Until then, I remain.


September 11, 2014

The Crisis of Change (NDK 2014 musings)

I guess this blog has become more of a "let's rant about random shit when I feel like it blog", instead of a regular thing. Which is okay, I guess, because the posts feel more organic.

There is a problem with trying to hook up too many good things. Certain things, it turns out, ae not like Voltron - the more you hook up, the worse it gets.

As many of you know, NDK is upon us once again. This is an event I've been attending since 2004, and has long been one of the highlights of my year. No matter what else happened, I'd have NDK: a glorious weekend of nerding out and simply enjoying my culture, and while some years were better than others, it was generally a positive experience.

Until 2012.

In 2012, the con itself was fantastic. I had a a few friends there, I got to hang out with people I hadn't seen in a while, and immersing myself in anime/video game culture is never a bad proposition. And she was there.

As many of you know, I had a brief foray into a relationship toward the end of 2012. I won't go into the details here, as I believe I've blogged about it before and, frankly, I respect her privacy on the issue. There's a lot of dirty laundry that is best left buried at the bottom of the hamper. The short version is that one could view NDK 2012 as sort of the beginning of that relationship.

I had finally got into a position where what I had really wanted was accessible - someone to share my passions and hobbies with, and NDK was the perfect expression of this ideal. We liked many of the same games, and introduced each other to our favorite anime series'. We even talked about cosplays we wanted to do together.

And then, in the blink of an eye, it was over. And as the relationship died, so did NDK.

Cons have a tendency to be a very adrenaline fueled event - with anything of this nature, there are always these moments where you hit a slump before the next wave of energy kicks in. It's strange - these "slumps" are some of the most profoundly lonely moments in my life, because I'm surrounded by people like me, but all of them are taken or not interested or... whatever. You're not alone, but you're isolated. These generally tend to hit around mid-day, and you can recover around dinner time.

I had remembered that every con has these moments, but didn't fully appreciate what that meant until one of these moments arrived at NDK 2013. The experience very nearly destroyed me, because not only did the feeling of isolation kick in, but now I had the added realization that I once had what the solution to that problem was, but lost it. And even worse, she returned in 2013 to the event I had introduced her to, with the guy she had replaced me with and would eventually marry. The slump reached an exciting new low that year - I spent most of it sitting on a balcony in the atrium of the Denver Tech Center Marriott brooding.

If you're unfamiliar with the layout of the DTC Marriott, it has a large atrium where some of the rooms have their balconies. These rooms are highly coveted, because you can sit on the balconies of these rooms and essentially see part of the con below, because Artists's Alley is positioned in the atrium, and many of the panel rooms can only be reached by moving through this large space. And so I'd sit on this balcony, and every so often I'd see her move through the atrium, dragging this guy around behind her. Much the same way she dragged me around the year before. And... it really, really sucked, but anyone who has been in a relationship and then lost that person knows how I feel, and this story is not unique.

Time heals most wounds.

It may not seem like it, but this blog post isn't really about my suffering in 2013. Or maybe it is, to some extent. I think it's just a musing on how trying to merge two really awesome things together can backfire in unexpected ways - my failed relationship essentially ruined NDK for me.  Maybe Wasabi-Con is the answer - it's smaller, the rules aren't as strange, and... she probably won't be there, flaunting her new husband around in my face as a constant reminder.

I'll still be attending NDK, but we don't have a room there this year. I can't stay steeped in that environment like I used to. And who knows? Maybe some day I'll be able to enjoy NDK the way I used to be able to, but I'm also nearing 30. I don't want this part of my life to end, but there may be no avoiding it.

Until then, I remain.

July 1, 2014

Cupping the World's (foot)Balls

Lethargy.

So, as many of you are aware, the World Cup is happening right now. And while the football/futbol/soccer fans of the world are glued to the TV sets/giant outdoor screens/computer monitors, I wanted to mention something.

There's been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the World Cup, something about how Brazil, which is functionally a second, if not third world country, can spend the money to build or renovate all of these stadiums when it can't really feed its own people.

Football/futbol/soccer is not for eating.
I enjoyed the last World Cup in 2010 immensely, and more or less had ESPN on the TV for the full month, more or less. I like the event and spectacle of it all,  (2014 hasn't been much different) but these are legitimate concerns, and they keep coming to the forefront during this entire event. I can't really blame them.

No blood for oi- world cup.
 However, there's something we all need to consider. At the beginning of ESPN's World Cup segments, you may see this kid:


Look at that expression on his face, as the World Cup stadiums all shoot their magic into the air. He knows what is coming. This is the most glorious global event that will happen in years. He is in awe. He is ready. If the World Cup was not being held in Brazil, he wouldn't even exist.

Do we really want to take this away from him? Yes, people are rioting. Yes, people are starving. But look at him.

I say let him have his World Cup. Let him have his awe. Let him root for the Brazilian national team. He needs this. What we don't want, however, is for Brazil to win, because then he'll just turn into a smug asshole about it all. "Hey, I'm the kid from the ESPN World Cup bumpers. Did you know we won?"

Yes, ESPN World Cup bumper kid. We're very happy for you, ESPN World Cup bumper kid.

"Go home, Neymar."
"But I am ho-"
"Get fucked, Neymar."
It will be doubly delicious if Brazil makes it to the final, only to get bodied by Argentina, because Argentina has Messi. Messi is football.

Well, shit. We give up. It's over. Forget it. Hell of a roll, guys. Hell of a roll. Damn.

That being said, the US national team plays Belgium today, and while I'm reasonably certain they'll win (unless Bradley is shit again) it won't matter, because Argentina is the next team they play. (Argentina also has a game today, but they don't really consider it a game. It's more of a nice exercise period.)

However, given my residence in this country, I have to leave you with this:

The only thing I don't understand here is why the cat also has a laser.
 Satire is dead

January 20, 2014

Rust and DayZ

This post is more of a larger examination about how I feel about games like DayZ, Rust, and to a lesser extent, Minecraft.

These three games are all examples of a true sandbox genre, where the game's developers don't make any attempt to impress upon you a story or reasoning for your character to be within that game world, beyond maybe a general theme like "survive the zombie apocalypse" in DayZ, or simply "survive" in Rust and Minecraft. Instead, they simply give you a game world and leave it to you to make your own story.

In Minecraft, there's more of a focus on pure creation.  If desired, the unpleasant elements like enemies (and in certain cases, other players) can be left out entirely. Minecraft isn't really the focus of my ideas here, but we can come back to this later.

In games like DayZ and Rust, however, these elements are a part of the game. In fact, it's a focus. There's no single player DayZ (unless you end up on an empty server) and Rust is focused around a person's interactions with other people.

It is in these interactions that we can see the best elements of humanity come out: people work together, sacrifice for each other, protect each other, and generally try to bring some semblance of order to a game world. Those of you who know me well enough can guess that I'm probably sitting in this camp - if given the option, I prefer to play cooperative games over adversarial ones, and I find very little enjoyment in game modes like team deathmatch or capture the MacGuffin. In Minecraft, I usually want to help someone build something cool.

For every person on the "good" side, though, there seem to be a few on the other, not-so-good side.

These are the people who troll others on DayZ - who hold up a loner at gunpoint on the road, force him to give them all of his items, and then execute him with a single round to the back of the head. DayZ is fairly realistic as far as games go, and one well-placed round will kill your character. There are no re-spawns, requiring someone who has died to remake the character and start over from scratch.

Or, in Rust, it's the guy who builds a larger house around the smaller house of a rival so he can't leave, or the guy running around and shooting people with an assault rifle while they can barely scrape together enough hides to make a loincloth.

The primary defense you'll hear here is "it's just for fun," or "it's just part of the game, don't take it so seriously." And while, yes, it is just part of a game, and conflict can be interesting in certain contexts, those games are vistas in which people are allowed to do unpleasant things to other people with very little consequence.

Most people are familiar with the "Greater Internet Fuckwad" theory, originally posited by Penny Arcade: (nicer versions include "Jerkwad and Dickwad.")


For the most part, I think this theory largely appears to be true; though it's changing as the internet evolves. The integration of our "real life" identities into sites like Facebook, and then using Facebook to interact more and more with the internet at large is slowly eroding on the anonymity aspect of the theory. Within these circles, I think people are more prone to be civil, although you still end up with some who simply do not care.

However, in many forums, sites, and games that still exist in the Wild West of the internet, the frontier that Facebook and other sites haven't quite gotten to yet - people are only known by the handle they choose, and there aren't really any consequences for being a dick apart from getting that handle banned from the site/game. They can simply make another and go back to whatever it was they were doing. For these communities, the theory is still in full effect: if there isn't a fear of reciprocity or reprisal, some people are going to be assholes simply because they can, and because nobody can stop them.

In a game like DayZ or Rust, and even Minecraft, where the game is designed to be lawless and open, the effects of this are obvious. The defense of "well, he/she shouldn't have been traveling alone" (which is sadly used still far too often in our world) implies that "might makes right" is the only measure of ethics and power.

"I don't act that way in real life!" is something that is often said by people who play games this way. Of course they don't - as a society, we have laws and we have police officers to enforce those laws. It's why people go to jail.

In many cases, games give us useful windows for experiencing things that we wouldn't otherwise. DayZ gives us a chance to live during the aftermath of a zombie outbreak. Rust gives us the change to experience almost a quickened snapshot of human evolution. And a lot of those people are using those games in positive ways.

But, just as a thought experiment, what about the people who use that freedom to inflict harm on others, where the game's objective is not explicitly to "kill the other guy?" What does that say about them, especially if they give the excuse "it was just for fun?" What does it say about the guy who burns down my house in Minecraft because it's "fun?"

January 6, 2014

Gone Home (PC)

Welcome to 2014! In an effort to get back into writing again, I think I'll be posting game reviews of the games I beat this year. This was something I had intended to do in 2013, but the general insanity of the year had prevented that. Hopefully I can make this work.

(Warning: this review contains minor spoilers. If you haven't had the chance to play the game yet and are interested, go buy it off of Steam. It's not very expensive, and it's very short. This is a story that I think that most people really need to experience.)



Admittedly, I'm a little late to the party. Gone Home was released in August, but I didn't buy it until November, when Steam did their fall sale, and then it sat on my hard drive until the new year. It'd be safe to say that I was putting it off, but I was finally able to play through the game.

It was totally worth it.

In Gone Home, you play as Katie Greenbriar, a 20ish-year old college student returning home after a year studying abroad in Europe, and find yourself deposited just inside the entryway of the new house your family had moved into while you were gone. It is this house that serves as the setting of the entire game, and progress is made by exploring each room of this surprisingly large house.

The game is set in 1995, and the house has been meticulously decorated/created by the developers to truly fit the time period - VHS tapes of the X Files and Walker Texas Ranger make up the bulk of the family's entertainment, your father has found work writing reviews of VCRs and LD players, there is a large room of the house dedicated to storing vinyl records, there are a bunch of cassette tapes in the house, though these are mostly Sam's (Katie's sister), and the 90's flavor of alt punk is quite apparent in her room. The SNES is a major fixture of Sam's life, as it turns out. The nostalgia is quite strong in this game, even for someone like me who was born in 1985 and doesn't remember the first part of the 90's all that well.



When Katie first arrives, however, all of the lights are off, areas of the house have been ransacked, her entire family is missing, and it's up to you to figure out why no one is there to greet her.

Gameplay

I'll be blunt - the game plays like a first person shooter. Katie moves about the environment using the WSAD keys. There's a little dot that represents where's she's looking, and positioning this dot over items will enable her to interact with them by pressing E or clicking on them - she'll pick up an item, read a newspaper clipping, press a button, or open a door. For items that are picked up, moving the mouse around will spin the object around to let you get a better look at them, and pressing the right mouse button will zoom in - either at the object she's holding, or at whatever the dot is hovering over. It will be very familiar to those who play FPS games frequently, and novices will likely pick up the controls fairly quickly.

It is -not- a twitch title, despite how the game may look at first blush. I'm not spoiling much by revealing this, but there is no combat, no quick movement, and no need for quick decision making. It's an exploration game that is meant to tell a story and immerse the player in the experience, first and foremost, and uses atmosphere to great effect.

I want to take a step back here and talk about the unknown for a second. There's a group of reviewers and critics online who feel as though they were lied to, and were expecting more of a horror experience, in the vein of Amnesia: Dark Descent.

I think a major underlying theme of Gone Home is the fear of the unknown. The house starts off almost totally dark, and the darkness retreats as Katie finds and turns on light switches and lamps.  As I mentioned, the beginning of the game is extraordinarily creepy - there are loud cracks of thunder, some lights will flicker on and off , branches scrape against windows, and the house settles frequently and shifts in the wind, leading to all sorts of creaking noises. Sometimes, it even sounds like there may be someone else in the house - noises like furniture scraping in far-off areas, keys jiggling in locks and the like are heard fairly frequently in the earlier sections of the game.


I think some of these noises play on the theme of the unknown. Katie is a 20-21 year old - arguably barely an adult - who is now stuck in this giant house by herself and something strange -if not outright terrible - has happened. What if some noises are the creation of Katie's imagination? They seem to disappear when Katie has mostly explored the house, and I don't think that's an accident.

Sound

The attention to detail in the sound effects of the house and the objects inside of it, as I've just mentioned, is absolutely fantastic. Katie makes footsteps as she moves around, and some areas of the house creak and shift as she moves through them. The effects do a wonderful job of pulling you into and immersing you into actually being inside of this huge, creepy house.

There isn't a lot of music. Most of it is in the form of these little cassette mix tapes of bands from the "Riot Grrl" movement of the 90's that you can "use" on the various tape players to play them. It's not really my style of music, but I found myself listening to each tape at least once to feel a little less lonely (and also to see if anything secret was hidden on them.)

There is a bit of voice acting from three different actresses - Katie (played by Sarah Elmaleh) has a short piece at the beginning of the game that she leaves on an answering machine (the 90's, remember?) and a third character, Lonnie (unknown actress), leaves two voice messages. Sam (played by Sarah Grayson) has the bulk of the work, as she narrates her journal entries.

Story

This isn't Katie's story. We get a few hints about her personality from the phone message that serves as the game's introduction, and there are a few postcards found around the house that she sent home from Europe, and she'll even share her thoughts (through text) about certain objects when moused over, but that's about it. All we really know about her is that she's been in Europe for the past year.

Instead, this is Sam's story, which is ultimately a love story. It's told through narrated journal entries addressed to Katie and are triggered by examining certain items in the house. It begins as a standard teenage angst tale, until Sam meets Lonnie, a JROTC student set to go into the military.

The trouble is, Lonnie's female.

The central themes to this story are ones of love and acceptance, as well as navigating the tumultuous waters of homosexuality in a time when many people feared or outright rejected it. It's about a person's first love. It's about someone struggling to figure out who she is and what the future means. It's about someone weighing her obligations and what's expected of her against what they want. It's about wanting to be accepted by one's parents in a time where misinformation about how you are was destructive.

The girls spend a lot of time together and explore the house, leading them to discover a whole bunch of secret passages and hidden rooms that connect different parts of the house, which Katie stumbles upon later. It's in these hidden areas that we see their personalities shine through. They do silly high school things. They make a Riot Grrl fanzine. They build a couch fort. They go ghost hunting. Sam describes their "first time." (Interestingly, Katie will automatically put this letter down after about 10 seconds - regardless if you've finished reading it - and will refuse to pick it up again because it's too personal.)

They simply enjoy each others company and maximize their time until the inevitable end of that period of life comes to an end at the end of the school year, when Lonnie ships off to basic training.



There are a bunch of side stories: Terrence, the girls' father, used to be an author whose books never quite panned out, leaving him reviewing VCRs. Jan, their mother, is a park ranger - while she's successful, she seems to be infatuated with another man. The house itself was referred to as "the psycho house" in the town and was owned by Terrence's great uncle - Oscar Mason - who apologizes for a "past transgression" the rest of the family never forgave him for, and left the house to Terrence in his will.



The darkest part of the game has to do with a revelation that the player can completely miss if they aren't paying attention, and the discussion of it is outlined well here, (major spoilers) and this sheds a lot of light on where Terrence is coming from in his dealings with Sam.

However, the game isn't without hope, and as the player draws closer to the end, things recover a little bit. As for Sam and Lonnie? Well, I won't ruin the ending - as I've mentioned, this is a game that needs to be experienced by gamers and non-gamers alike. I will mention that when the player finally gains access to the attic, it is one of the most tense moments in the game.

I think this speaks to the strength of the writing, and what a successful, if not at least interesting, experiment this game is, because of how well the things that are told to you mesh with things that are simply implied. I was a little bit scared of the darkness toward the beginning. I smiled when I saw the SNES cartridges. I scoured the whole house looking for every shred of information. I was actually invested in what was happening. I felt for the characters. I was driven forward because I wanted to see what happened next. And yes, I may have teared up a little at the end.

Gaming doesn't see a lot of these sorts of experiences that speak to what the medium is capable of doing very often. And  when these kinds of experiences pop up, we should pay attention and think about them.





September 27, 2013

The Problem with Streaming

As some of you know, I do a fair bit of video game streaming: you can see me struggling through anything from computer games to console games on my stream over at twitch.tv. I best reason I have as to why I do it is that I find it fun and to connect with other, er, video game enthusiasts.

I originally started back in 2010, and it was a significantly different culture back then: twitch.tv was still a part of justin.tv, most of the people who streamed were from backloggery.com (which is a site that, as the name implies, helps you track a game backog) and streamers mostly seemed to stream for fun.

League of Legends was around, but let's be honest: the game that really re-launched E-Sports here in the U.S. appears to be StarCraft 2. LoL may have eclipsed it in terms of popularity, but SC2 definitely set it off. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 2010, I streamed a far bit. At first it was more simplistic games, like the Mega Man X series and shorter games I could generally beat in one sitting, but soon I was branching out to longer games, like Link to the Past and Super Mario RPG. Each time I streamed, however, I would easily reach 25-35 viewers at any given time.

In July of 2010, StarCraft 2 launched, and E-Sports sort of started to take off, but it really didn't get huge until 2011 or so. My streaming slowed down in that period, and I would very rarely would break 8-10 viewers at any given time.

Streaming sort of became a monstrosity during 2012. It even got so large that justin.tv decided it needed to spin its gaming division off into a separate website - hence the arrival of twitch.tv. Every StarCraft II player has a twitch account. Any time a new game launches, we see hundreds of twitch channels devoted to playing the game. Now, when I stream, I typically hover at about 5 viewers - though my popularity is slowly beginning to rise, because I try to put a quality stream together. Most of these streams are just sort of slapped together.

There are a few reasons for this. The barrier to entry for streaming isn't quite what it used to be. Streaming computer games simply requires streaming software, and Open Broadcaster Software is currently the best because it's easy to use and free. Any good computer headset can be used for commentary (which is crucial.). It's honestly not -that- hard to put together a stream.

The more important reason is money.

Twitch.tv has a partner program they started a year or two ago. If a streamer reaches a certain threshold of viewers, streams consistently, and can repeatedly draw an audience, Twitch may grant that streamer partner status. It's similar in the way YouTube has their partner system, in that a streamer will gain a cut of any advertising revenue that Twitch may make off of that stream, and they also give control of when to play ads to the streamer (Ads typically play for a viewer as they enter a streamer's channel.) Twitch is, in effect, playing people to play video games, and this is every gamer's dream.

This has led to over saturation of the streaming market. Most streamers do it now in the hopes of becoming a partner and making money - the problem with this is that if most of the audience becomes streamers, the audience basically disappears. Twitch's chat services on the channels can oftentimes simply stop working, and our dashboards and viewer lists can't keep track of changes in real time anymore. And deity help you if there's a StarCraft II or LoL tournament happening - Twitch is essentially crippled for all other users during that time. Streaming is becoming harder and harder to actually do.