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September 12, 2010

The Oblivion Diaries Part 0 – Introduction

Somewhere along the way, I fell down the rabbit hole. The point of this series of articles was originally meant to be two-fold. First a diary of playing through a heavily modified version of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Secondly, to document the mods I used and offer a guide on installing the same ones so that other people could play the same thing.
View from outside the Sewers

The thing about Oblivion is that it’s hugely modifiable. I remember when I first played it around four years ago, the first thing I did was install a very early user-made mod that ‘fixed’ the interface. The game had been released on 360 and PC at the same time, but the interface was scaled for people playing it on the sofa. Not for someone with their head about 40cms from the screen.

Since that time a whole host of mods have been created, numbering in their thousands, so before I start this diary, I am going to list out the ones I’m using. I’m not, however, going to explain how to get them all working together. See, the original plan had been to choose a small number of specific mods and play just with those, but the problem is that the more you read about the mods available, more and more catch your eye and before you know it you’re down the rabbit hole with around 100 installed. You’ve searched out compatibility patches to make everything work together, learned how to use BAIN to make installing easier, got your head around a bashed patch and started pyffi-ing your meshes to improve performance. See, the thing is, if you just want to use a few mods with Oblivion, it’s a piece of cake. But you never do. You start seeing more and mods that you’d like to try and things snowball. And then making them work together gets quite difficult. If you really do want to try it for yourself all I can do is suggest this site.

It’s interesting how modding communities develop. I first tried to do this about two years ago, and the big thing then was getting your ‘load order’ right. See, Oblivion is fairly mod friendly, mods are packaged in to ESP files, and you can load them in any order you want. Later ones override earlier ones. Back then, the big challenge was getting the load order right, often involving compatibility patches (ie. Mod B overrides parts of Mod A, but then compatibility patch Mod C overrides very specific parts of Mod B with the bits of Mod A you want to keep). This is a thing of the past. An amazing piece of software called BOSS basically sorts everything out for you, along with helping tag things correctly to make a ‘bashed patch’ which is a sort of catch-all compatibility patch. Sort of.

While the load order issue is basically solved, the challenge that remains was working out a correct ‘install order’ for the mods. See, while the ESP files themselves can be loaded in whatever order, a lot of the resources they use will over-write the original Oblivion files, or the files of other mods. Last time I tried this, it was a nightmare, as while Oblivion Mod Manager was great at helping you install and uninstall files, it didn’t keep track of the order leading to all sorts of issues. For example, if the first mod I installed had 10 textures files, then the second had 5 texture files that replaced half of those, then when I uninstalled the second mod, the 5 replaced files from the first mod wouldn’t be returned. Another amazing utility, the BAIN part of Wrye Bash, removes any worries about this sort of thing at all, by keeping a virtual install order which you can tweak and then fix the installed files whenever you want. It’s a lovely piece of software that makes this entire thing manageable.

The second reason that I’m not going to go in to how I set this all up in detail is performance. I recently upgraded my PC. It’s an i7 920, 6gig of RAM and a Radeon 5850. It’ll run pretty much every modern game at full detail without breaking a sweat. Oblivion brings it to it’s knees. I get around 20fps outside and in cities. Some of you may blanch at that, but the fact is, most combat and actual action gameplay takes place in dungeons and other interiors where the performance is a lot better, so it’s something I can live with. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the best looking games ever made with a few visual mods, as the screen-shots I’ll include with this diary will attest to. But it still stutters, even running from an SSD.

So, here’s a whistle-stop tour of the main mods we’re using:

GRAPHICS
QTP3 Redimized Reduced
The most popular of the texture packs for Oblivion, makes pretty much everything more detailed and nicer looking.
Bomret Texture Pack for Shivering Isles
Same sort of thing for the expansion.
Landscape LOD Textures by Xerus
This makes the distant lands look a lot nicer.
Detailed Terrain
An improvement on the terrain in the game.
Koldorns Ayleid Ruins Textures
Specifically makes the ruins look nicer.
HiRes Oblivion Textures
None of the other texture mods affect the actual Oblivion realm itself, so this one improves that.
Brumbeks Sky Pack and Improved Sky Textures
Make the sky look nicer, both during day and night.
Really AEVWD
Stands for “Almost Everything Visible When Distant”, this makes things appear when looking in to the distance much sooner, rather than popping in as you approach them. It’s a huge performance hit, however, so I’m only using a few of the modules – the base module, which just improves the existing distant objects from the game, and the Ruins and Forts add-ins. After installing this, it won’t do anything without first running it’s friend TES4LODGen. There’s also a version for the expansion.
Better Cities
Rebuilds all the cities from the ground-up to have better and more interesting architecture, along with some neat additions.
Unique Landscapes
What Better Cities does for the cities, this does for the rest of the world. Gives each part of Cyrodill it’s own distinct feeling, making exploration a lot more interesting.
All Natural
Adds loads of new weather types, and also includes Real Lights, which attempts to use natural lighting throughout the game ie. candles and such rather than fake invisible lights – a huge performance hit but makes indoor scenes look incredible.
Enhanced Water v2.0 HDMI
Nicer looking water.
Animated Window Lighting System and Chimneys
Adds chimneys and windows that light up when it gets dark.
Rainbows in Tamriel
Rainbows after a storm.
Storms and Sound
Makes storms look and sound better.
Elven Maps
Make the maps a lot nicer. There’s another one for Shivering Isles too.
Eyecandy Variants Expansion
This improves the female body types in the game to make them look better. The odd thing about Oblivion is that every male and every female uses the exact same body type. There are millions of possible variations for faces when you’re creating a character, but other than height, weight, and muscles, you can barely change the body type. This mod actually lets you choose between a C-cup and and E-cup female body. You can guess which I went with. You can also choose the appearance of downstairs too: underwear or various shaving options. It’s kind of creepy. The mod also reworks all the original Oblivion armour to fit the new body. There’s also a seam reducer fix and some bigger textures.
Roberts Male Body
Same thing, but for men. 4 different types of body, but we went with Muscular as it’s the most compatible. Allows some choices in the downstairs area, but mostly on what underwear (if any) you want. No penis-size selection. Clearly this is sexist. Also requires another mod to rework the armour
Loading Screens Themed Replacer
Because if we’re fixing everything, may as well make the loading screens nicer. And the main menu while we’re at it.
Clocks of Cyrodiil
Better clocks! No really. This is how crazy and deep the Oblivion mod scene is. There’s a mod that makes the clocks look prettier. And read the right (in game) time. Along similar lines Book Jackets.
Oblivion Stereo Sound Overhaul
Not really graphics, but this improves the in-game sounds.

OVERHAULS
Unoffical Oblivion Patch
Oblivion was a very buggy game. This fixes around 2000 of those bugs. There’s also an update, one for the expansion, and one for the DLC. These are hugely recommended for anyone playing through Oblivion again, or for the first time.
Oscuros Oblivion Overhaul v134b5
This is the biggy. The original Oblivion was odd, in that monsters would level up as you did, so you could go anywhere and get a fight your level. Which sounds good in theory, but also means there was rarely any challenge, and conversely once you got ridiculously powerful, so was everyone else, so there was no fun stomping on easy stuff. This changes all that, giving everything in the world set levels, making Cyrodill a much more dangerous place. Also adds a ton of new armour, weapons, dungeons and quests.
Martigan Monster Mod
This complements OOO by adding in a few tweaks of its own and a whole host of new monsters to fight.
Less Annoying Magic Experience
This reworks the magic system to be, well, less annoying. Adds in some fun new spells and boosts magic power a little, but only to bring it in-line with everything else. Gets rid of pointless spells like buffs that only last for 3 seconds.
Race Balancing Project
By the same author, reworks the existing races and adds in a bunch of new ones. I’ll be playing as a Hidden Elf, added by this mod, in these diaries.
Darnified UI
A hugely developed and tweaked version of BT Mod, the original UI mod I mentioned in the introduction.
Oblivion XP
The other oddity of the original Oblivion was the abusable and near broken levelling system. This replaces it with a traditional XP bar and rewards for killing, completing quests and so on.
OMOBS
A rebalance of all the weapons to make everything from OOO fit with the old stuff from the original Oblivion.
Deadly Reflex
Adds a new special attack key, a kick key and a dodge button. Between them you can pull off all sorts of new attacks.
Common Oblivion
Adds a load of little changes and helps other mods work together.

QUESTS – I won’t write too much about these, as I’ll detail them as we come to them in the diaries.
Frostcrag Reborn
A reworking of the Mage Tower DLC to make it a lot bigger and more fun, with a nice new dungeon.
The Aylied Steps
Solving the mystery of an ancient teleportation system
The Lost Spires
Joining the archaeology guild
Windfall
An adventure in an all-new town
Blood & Mud
A complete re-working of Bravil, turning it in to a genuine slum and hive of scum and villainy.
Cybiades
An adventure on a nearby island, recognisable from an older Eldar Scrolls game.
AFK Weye
A revamped version of Weye, the suburb outside of the Imperial City walls, with new quests.
Et in Arkay Ego
Title is in Latin so must be cool.
Kragenir’s Death Quest
A quest designed to send you in to those dungeons you might otherwise not bother with.
Hoarfrost Castle
A new castle with a dark secret.
Tears Of The Fiend
An epic story about a demon.
Thievery in the Imperial City
Missions based around stealing stuff. In Imperial City.
Integration – The Stranded Light
A collection of loosely linked quests addressing some unanswered questions.
Kvatch Rebuilt
Kvatch is destroyed early on in the main quest (spoilers!) but this mod allows you to participate in it’s rebuilding.

I’m also using a whole bunch of ‘delayers’ which stop these quests from popping up right at the start of the game, and make them appear naturally instead.

OTHER TWEAKS
LowTriPolyGrass
Makes the grass look a bit worse. Grass is a huge performance hit and doesn’t look that great in my opinion (more like shrubs, than grass) so I use the version of this that makes it shorter and less resource intensive.
Persuasion Overhaul
Makes the persuasion less of a minigame and more a matter of judging personality.
Legendary Abilities
Along with Elys Uncapper lets you take skills to 200 and level up to 100.
Dude Wheres My Horse
Tells you where your horse is. As I get lost.
ChaseCameraMod
Stops the 3rd person camera making me feel motion-sick.
Auto Book Placer
Lets me line-up books nicely on the bookshelf.
Quiet Feet MAX
Animals don’t make walking noises, which helps fix some of the stutter which is down to the crappy soundcard support.
Streamline
Using it for it’s more reliable AutoSave function, and for fogging out things in the distance to reduce pop-in but still keep the view distance decent.
Bag of Holding
As I’m a pack-rat.
SM Plugin Refurbish
Delays the start of the DLC until a sensible time, rather than them all popping up at once.
Optimised Distant Land MAX
Optimised meshes to increase performance.
Keychain
Makes key management easier.
No More Annoying Messages Lite version
Removes the “Loading area” message.
Stealth Overhaul Redux
Tweaks the stealth system.
Super Hotkeys
Better hotkeys.
Menu Escape
Keyboard shortcuts in menus.
Map Marker Overhaul
More flexible map markers.
Universal Silent Voice
Not all mods have voice acting. This stops the text going past in seconds without mod-makers having to provide empty MP3 files for every line of dialogue.
Oblivion Stutter Remover
Helps stop the game from stuttering as much.
Oblivion Script Extender
Without which half of these mods wouldn’t work.

So there we go. In the first part proper, we’ll have a brief look at why I chose Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul, Martigan Monster Mod and Oblivion XP, have a closer look at what they do, and look at how that impacts the game. Then we’ll look at the character I created and watch her take her first few steps.


May 12, 2010

Thoughts on the big news of the day

So EA are going to start charging second-hand buyers an extra $10 to play their games online: http://www.ea.com/news/online-pass-for-ea-sports-simulation-games

Here’s what I said about it somewhere else in answer to the question “What else can EA do?”

How about adopt an approach to games that is actually profitable and works? Interesting, isn’t it, that EA can’t make a profit whereas there are a fair few indie developers that do.

The approach the big publishers take these days goes something like this:
1. Make loads of really expensive games.
2. As long as they look like they’re going to be good, spend that same amount again on marketing (this is true: 50% of the average game budget is spent on marketing).
3. Accept that most of these games will make a loss, often a huge loss.
4. Hope that a few of them get reviewed and recognised as AAA titles which will then make huge profits.
5. Hope that the profits from 4 exceed the losses from 3.

Now I’m sorry, but I don’t have much sympathy for that approach. How about EA make smaller games which cost a quarter as much and sell them for half of the price, so they’ll undercut the second-hand market (as they’ll be selling for DVD prices) and make modest profits on every title.

Of course, they won’t do this, because doing this means they’ll never see the huge shareholder dividends when they make that one game that launches a whole franchise of new AAA titles. But they’re gambling. That’s their choice. Don’t defend them for it. They could be a profitable company, they’d just rather take a chance at being a hugely profitable company instead.

And I say all this as someone who: a) only ever buys new games, b) has never sold or traded in a game in my life, c) never plays boxed console games online and d) has a Gold sub just for Catan, Carcassonne and Magic.

The industry is broken, yes. And second-hand sales are out of control, granted. But the solution is to fix the approach. Make games cheaper or offer incentives (like the initial form of Project $10) to buy new rather than penalise second-hand buyers.

And while people are talking about being ‘fair’ to EA and such: no. The world doesn’t work like that and EA doesn’t work like that. They’re imposing on your ability to sell on something you legitimately bought, a practice that happens in no other industry. It’s against a right enshrined in US law at least. It impinges on our capitalist rights. And while it might not be fair, don’t you for a second believe that EA are some fluffy bunny that bring hope and joy everywhere. I bet the people working in their disc-pressing factories aren’t paid a ‘fair’ wage. A lot of the developers they acquire aren’t treated ‘fairly’.

EA are hardcore big-business capitalists, and I don’t have a problem with that. Just part of that is accepting that there is a second hand market and not trying to tread on it. And we should all be fighting for that as our capitalist rights as consumers, because while it might be a better world if we all did, you can’t expect EA to treat you or anyone else with the same ‘life is fair’ ‘do the right thing’ attitude as some people are suggesting we treat them.

Dean can’t even bring himself to write about the real news of today, though at least he’ll be better off with the 10k income tax threshold. As a friend put it on Twitter “It’s a tax cut, they just had to be persuaded to give it to the poor.”


April 03, 2010

On the side–benefits of World of Warcraft and the travesty of 'background' TV

I spent four hours on World of Warcraft today. Note that I specifically don’t say “playing” World of Warcraft. See, what I actually spent that time in-game doing was killing a few hundred ogres and looting beads of their dead corpses. Except in game terms these ogres were very much beneath my attention. Way back when the first expansion pack had just come out, they were a challenge. An interesting fight. Now, 15 levels and some years later they’re a joke. They die in two hits, and even if I just stand there and ignore them they’ll take about half an hour to kill me. All I’d do was run up to one, hit the 3 key on the keyboard twice, then right click them to loot the beads. Then move on to the next. By the time I’d killed the last one, the first one had been replaced. I then repeated this for around four hours.

Contrary to what some may claim, this mindless ‘grinding’ is not all World of Warcraft is. Generally, fighting in the game involves picking the right moves at the right time – it’s an interesting balance of planning, adaptation and reaction. Played properly, it’s a very interesting and compelling game. Thing is, there was no reason for me to be killing these weakling ogres at all. In story-terms, handing the beads over to a certain organisation would make them like me more, and so I’d then get to buy one of their elephants to ride about on, and could add “the Diplomat” to the end of my name when it appears for others to see on screen. But the elephants are just like any other horse/tiger/ram that you can ride about on. And the title merely tells everyone else how much spare time you have. All this time spent didn’t actually advance my character or make her anymore powerful or skilled.

But you see, if you asked me what I did in those four hours, I wouldn’t have said “played World of Warcraft”. What I actually did in that time was catch up on a few podcasts and listen to some albums I have to review. Understand: I’m easily distracted. Typically my only podcast and music listening time is the half hour to-and-from work every day. Don’t get me wrong, I have music on a lot, I’m just not always really listening to it. It’s pleasant background noise, not the focus of my attention. And while that works with an album you know well, it doesn’t if you’re trying to pick up on specifics so you can write about it.

I can’t just sit down and listen. If I sit at the computer I to listen I’ll end up feeling compelled to check my e-mail and Facebook and Twitter. And once something catches my eye that’ll have my attention and I won’t be able to tell you a thing about what I’m meant to be listening to. Likewise if I sit on the sofa I’ll just get restless and my mind will wonder. If I lie down, I’ll probably fall asleep. I very much struggle to just sit and listen.

To digress a little, I’m aware that’s not entirely normal. Or at least, I seem to be lacking the ability to properly listen and do something else at the same time. I think for this reason I’ve never understood people who want to put the TV on ‘in the background’. Either there’s something worth watching on, in which case you sit down and watch it, or there isn’t, in which case the TV can stay off. For the same reason I get remarkably wound up by people that insist on talking over TV shows. Just, no. We’re watching it, and unless your comment on it is utterly hilarious or hugely incisive then wait until the adverts or the end. Watch now, discuss later. The fact that TV has reduced itself to making shows designed to be watched ‘in the background’ is a fucking travesty. People like me think the X-Factor is shit because when we ‘give it a go’ we actually watch it. The millions of fans that love it some much all get a bunch of friends around, order in food and enjoy each others company while keeping it on ‘in the background,’ only stopping to pay attention at the ‘important’ bits and just talking over the boring stuff. They might be talking about the programme, but they’re still not paying attention to most of it. Under those circumstances, I can see it might be fun, but it’s not the TV show that’s doing the heavy lifting here.

As an adjunct to this, I imagine that people actually watching a show properly are a lot more likely to be attentive during the advert breaks. We basically need to replace TV ratings boxes with mind-scanners that also measure a person’s attention level. Suddenly those 800,000 people entirely engrossed in something like The Wire become a lot more attractive to advertisers than the 8 million half paying attention to X-Factor. The BBC also need to start taking this in to account and not use ratings as the sole arbiter of what is deemed ‘popular’. Again, just because more people have been sat in a room while Any Dream Will Do was on than have been during The Thick Of It, I’d argue that we should be counting the latter group as 2-3 times more important as they’re actually engaged with the show.

But to bring things back around to my point, while I’ll sit and watch a TV show as otherwise I just can’t enjoy it, I fail when attempting to do that with music. The lack of a visual component just throws me – I’ll happily sit focused on a concert DVD without issue. What doing something mindless on World of Warcraft does, is occupy my mind just enough that I can focus on the music or podcast. My hands, eyes and brain have something to do, but it’s not something distracting enough that it pulls any attention away from my primary activity: listening. And of course, at the end of it all there’s a small sense of achievement that I’ve done something, even if it’s utterly pointless.

It’s an odd reflection on my generation that multi-tasking is so hard-wired in to our brains that many of us now require some sort of outlet for excess brain-power if we want to accomplish simpler tasks.


March 07, 2010

On Portal and spoilers

I’m trying to blog more often these days even if they’re not so long, just to get something down. Was hoping to do my big mega-post about Frank Turner and my break-up today, but that was somewhat derailed by ending up speaking to said ex for about five hours on MSN messenger. SPOILER: she has a new boyfriend.

So with that awful link out of the way, on to the topic at hand. I’ve always disliked spoilers: knowing what will happen in a TV show or film takes a lot of the fun out of it for me. There’s something about a real surprise that is always awesome. I remember way back when most people didn’t download TV, I’d seen the Buffy episode Seeing Red – it’s the one where Tara gets shot and killed. What was interesting was that I went to a Buffy convention a few days later, and they had the episode and were projecting it to a room full of a few hundred Buffy fans, none of whom knew what happened except for us and a few others. Everyone cheered when Tara appeared in the titles, and the palpable shock in the room when she was killed was electric. It was odd, knowing what was coming and seeing other people react.

Anyway, the second part to this is the game Portal. It’s a brilliant short game that involves puzzles based around shooting out two portals from a portal gun. Enter one, you leave from the other. The true genius in the game comes from Newton. Conservation of momentum. So if I jump off a ledge in to a portal on the floor below, I’ll fall in to that portal and then get flung out of the other one at speed. It’s a game I’d been looking forward to for a long time, and I played it within a few days of release, and found it utterly lovely.

These days, you can’t move for Portal references on the internet. “The cake is a lie” became a geek catch-phrase, and the thing Portal is most known for is that it ends with a Johnathan Coulton song, Still Alive. It’s an awesome song that reflects the events of the game, but I’ll wager that most people who play Portal these days will have heard the song before, seen it on YouTube, even played it in Rock Band, before playing Portal. I’m contributing to that by talking about it here, but it’s been three years now.

The point is, I didn’t know that song was at the end. I didn’t know it ended on a song. And the surprise inherent in that was wonderful. It seems the majority of people I talk to ended up only playing Portal because of the internet buzz around it (and because most picked it up almost for ‘free’ with the Orange Box). That buzz gave away this wonderful moment, that when discovered on its own made it almost the perfect game. Even though knowing the song doesn’t impact the game at all, it’s entirely after the fact, over the credits.


February 20, 2010

On Mass Effect

I’ve just finished the first Mass Effect game for the second time (no ME2 spoilers please, am just about to start that now). While the driving around random planets in a tank with bad controls was as annoying as before I enjoyed this play-through a lot more than my first one a few years ago.

The major difference was that I was playing a female Shepherd. The game gives you a choice of sex for your main character, but the script for each is virtually identical. So other than affecting who your character can get romantically involved with, that choice shouldn’t make any difference.

Oh but it does.

Despite the box art and all the promo shots, it seems clear to me that the game was written and directed with a female protagonist in mind. From the very first scene, where Shepherd strides purposefully through the Normandy, something about the way it is presented just fits a female character better.

Then there’s the morality system. The game eschews Bioware’s traditional light/dark or good/evil dichotomy and instead uses a system of paragon/renegade. Neither is evil. Shepherd is more tightly defined as a character than that: you can’t have her shoot civilians for no reason then go and side with the baddies. Instead your choices revolve around how you get the job done: whether you’re more Jean-Luc Picard or Mal Reynolds. Crucially, they’re measured separately, so while enough of the moral choices you make are mutually exclusive to stop you maxing out both aspects of Shepherd’s personality, you’re not punished for being somewhat inconsistent. Whereas the first time I played Mass Effect I followed the Paragon route almost exclusively, this time I knew I wanted to be primarily Paragon, but mixed things up a little.

See, with female Shepherd, that makes sense. With male Shepherd, it didn’t. The reason for that: voice acting. Don’t get me wrong, the male character is perfectly well voiced, but he sounds like either the action hero if you play Paragon, or a snarling space-thug if you play Renegade. Both are decent enough, but if you try and mix the two your character starts to sound more than a little schizophrenic. The female Shepherd is more subtle, less extreme, so taking different approaches to different situations works a lot better. You can believe that she’d go from offering to help to threatening someone in the course of a single conversation. That frees you up to play a much more interesting character.

So instead of just picking the top-right Paragon response every time, I thought about my Shepherd, her background, and how she’d react. She was ‘raised’ on Earth in an inner-city slum, later joining the Alliance only to get half her unit killed on Torfan. That’s one of a number of backgrounds you can choose for your character. On top of that I built her personality: she feels guilty over Torfan, even though she did what had to be done, so now she strives for redemption, and to do better in the future. As such, she’ll help out strangers, she feels she owes the world that much. But at the same time, she has no truck with criminals – she won’t just forgive everyone and give them all second chances. As such while she goes out of her way to aid and help the innocent, she let Wrex execute the crime lord Fist, helped Garrus track down and kill a doctor that had been harvesting body parts, and made sure the scientists that arranged for a thresher to kill some soldiers so they could study got what was coming to them.

She also doesn’t have much time for politicians. She’s career military, with a great respect for both her commanding officers and for those who serve under her. As such she’d be rude as hell to Udina but would never dream of talking back to Anderson. Interestingly, this also meant she started off as quite sympathetic towards the Council; after all, once she was made a Spectre she was under their direct command. They were her CO. She got a bit frustrated with them towards the end of the game, but still saved them in the end.

Building up that sort of complex personality was something that just worked better with a female Shepherd, and I’ll be interested to see where staying true to that will take her in the somewhat bleaker Mass Effect 2.


October 29, 2009

Why Rock Band matters

I know a lot of people reading this blog don’t care about video games, but you might find this interesting

My copy of Beatles Rock Band arrived today, to go with the dirt-cheap 360 I got yesterday. Don’t care overly for The Beatles but it’s the only way to get the far superior Rock Band 2 drums in the UK at the moment. I loved Guitar Hero on the PS2. I remember loving it as a concept with Guitar Freaks on the PS1, where all you could play was bizarre j-pop on import. It’s a fun party game, and I’m not going to deny I’ll happily spend an hour of the evening playing it on my own to try get five stars on some song or other. But there’s more to it than that.
Beatles Rock Band
Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been huge success, especially with the ‘youth’ of today, and that’s something that really matters and is really worth thinking about. It’s generalising for sure, but young people today engage with music differently to even my generation. It started with Napster, it currently ends now with Spotify and Bittorrent: there’s so much music out there, legally or otherwise, that the music collections of young people today are ridiculously huge. I’ve spoken to people that download every top 40 album, most get listened to once, if that, but they have a massive archive just sitting there. People will listen to random playlists on Spotify instead of the radio. Taken together with the loss of Top Of The Pops and Later turning shit, this has an interesting effect. Young people, these days, are exposed to far more music than we ever were. In some ways, this is a great thing. But it’s also a great loss. Remember those ‘difficult’ albums? You bought them as you loved that one single but really didn’t get the rest of the songs on the CD? But dammit we paid £12.99 for it we’re going to listen to it at least nine more times. Sometimes it turned out that it was shit all along, but many times the songs were hiding their true beauty and brilliance behind an off-putting façade that you had to work past.

But would we have done all that if we didn’t pay for it and every other song ever released was available to us? And so many young people today exist in this world of ephemeral musical tourism, never listening to a song more than once, letting the music wash over and through them but never truly engaging with it. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs to be honest.

But on the other hand, there is Rock Band.

Rock Band says “you’re not going to pass this song on Hard on the first go, you’ll need at least three. And if you’re even thinking of getting five stars on it be ready to spend at least half an hour playing it over and over again.”
And suddenly these people that wouldn’t normally listen to a song twice are listening to a single track on repeat for ages in an attempt to master playing the guitar solo on a plastic instrument. They’re listening to it. They’re engaging with it. And what’s more they’re even more engaged with it than we were. When you’re playing Rock Band, it’s just you and the music. You can’t play Rock Band and cook dinner, or play Rock Band and browse the web. On harder songs it’s difficult to play Rock Band and have a conversation. All those usual distractions when you put a CD on are gone, the game demands you engage with the music.

And of course, what you are doing in the game impacts upon the music itself. Unless you’re a musician, there’ll be certain things in songs you just don’t pick up on. You won’t realise how elegant a certain guitar solo is, or spot a lovely bit of symmetry between two riffs, or a strangely different drum beat. But the Rock Band player will. Because he has to learn how to play them, albeit in an abstracted way. He’s not only now paying attention to the song, but also to it’s structure, it’s form.

I really wish I was a massive Beatles fan because if I were, Beatles Rock Band might be the single greatest thing ever. I’d be happy for years if a James Rock Band was ever released.

Yes, Rock Band is a fun game, and a laugh with mates. But it’s also an entirely new way of experiencing music, and one that stands apart from MTV-isation of modern music, of it’s relegation into a background track for our lives, one that says “no, you will fucking pay attention to these songs because music fucking well matters”.


August 16, 2009

Booth Babes, Lust and The Online Ultra–Gent

Or: Tim Minchin Said It Best (And He Normally Does)

Well, this entry may well get me labelled as misogynist, but hey, I’m already a racist and a heathen so why not go for the set? Besides, I haven’t blogged for nearly a month so some controversy will get the hit count back up.

So the other week there was this thing called Comic Con, a big geek-o-palaza, the mecca for fans of comics, video games, TV and movies. At these sort of conventions, companies will often employ “booth babes”: hot women dressed in skimpy costumes designed to draw the attention of the masses to whatever product they’re promoting. To do this, some times the “babes” are dressed as characters from the anime show or comic, and other times they’re just wearing small bikinis because it’s mostly a male audience and if one thing will get a man’s attention, it’s boobs.

The use of booth babes (sorry, I’m going to stop putting it in quote marks – I know it’s a derogatory description but I have to use it another ten times or so and it’ll just get messy otherwise) is most common in the promotion of video games, and they’ve been used at video games industry shows like E3 for years. So it’s no surprise that the following flyer came from Electronic Arts to promote a game called Dante’s Inferno (no, really, but that’s an entire other blog entry).

Flyer

Let’s get one thing clear. The wording on the flyer is unfortunate. Specifically the phrase: “commit acts of lust”. But it’s fairly clear if you take more than a cursory glance at said flyer that this phrase is just a section heading, and the “act of lust” it refers to is taking a photo of yourself with a booth babe. This is something that happens all the time anyway, and is part of what these women are employed to do.

The online media went nuts, and said that in fact what the flyer was doing was encourage attendees to grope the models in an attempt to win prizes. Now, okay, I can see how you could possibly misinterpret the meaning of the flyer, but would you not think twice and maybe look again? Who would think, upon reading and misinterpreting it “Oh, look, we just sexually assault a few women and we can win a prize, lets go!” Okay maybe some Comic Con attendees would. Bad example. But the vast majority of well adjusted people would realise that it wasn’t an open invitation to grope booth babes.

Like I said, the wording was unfortunate, but I haven’t seen one confirmed (or even alleged) case of a girl being touched up because “the flyer said it was okay”. I have seen reports of women, both booth babes and just regular convention attendees, being groped at Comic Con. It’s not okay, but it happens every year, and is a result of the lack of understanding of basic social decency possessed by a sizeable majority of Comic Con attendees. Likely the same ones that protested the coverage of Twilight at the convention, on the basis it attracted too many teenage girls. Because girls smell, natch. And when I say protested, I mean that literally. Something should be done about this, but I’m not sure what exactly. My point is only that I somehow doubt a badly-worded flyer would be the catalyst in turning someone who wouldn’t ever grope a girl in a crowded public place in to someone who would.

So that’s the background. Mass online media hysteria ensues, but it’s in the comments threads of posts like this that things get really interesting. Because there’s a whole host of people, generally men, decrying the whole idea of booth babes altogether, and saying they should be banned entirely. Again, let’s put aside the fact that, at Comic Con, they may have a point. It’d be sad if everyone else had to suffer because of the socially retarded, but until we can figure out a way of filtering them out it might help matters. Instead let’s stick with considering booth babes where they’re most often used: games industry trade shows. Because these commentators want them banned everywhere. They feel that they objectify women, that the women involved won’t enjoy being gawped at, and that it puts off women from getting involved in gaming.

We’ll take those in reverse order. There’s a point to the latter one: gaming is a hugely male-dominated hobby, and the industry itself is even more gender-biased. But there’s a chicken and egg situation here. Is the industry male-dominated because booth babes put off women? Or are booth babes such an effective marketing technique because the industry is so male-dominated? Honestly, there probably is a small causal relationship, but there are far more compelling reasons that the industry is so male-focused: it’s origins in the early computer scene, the fact that it’s easier to make games where you go around killing stuff than interesting narrative-driven pieces, and so on. It’s another thing I could write an entire blog on. Suffice to say, if you did a study to find the top fifty reasons there aren’t many women in the games industry, I doubt “booth babes at conventions” would even make the list.

The next point is my favourite. That while some of the booth babes might be models who enjoy the attention and the chance to improve their portfolio, in an attempt to break into the serious modelling business, others are just hot college girls trying to earn a bit of money. These girls, we’re told, will hate having to spend the day in tight fitting bikinis so men can gawp at their boobs. My response to this is clear and considered: boo-fucking-hoo. So they hate their job? Who doesn’t? And for a pretty college girl, it’s not like standing on a convention floor for the day is the only way to earn a bit of money. Yes, there are issues at higher levels with businesses taking pretty girls less seriously making it hard to get ahead. But at this level? At the “I just need a bit of cash for tuition fees / text books / beer” level? The pretty people have the advantage. Bar work, waitressing, even working the tills at Tesco – sure, they all require some simple skills to do, but beyond that an employer is more likely to employee the prettier person, because most of this part-time stop-gap work is customer facing, and customers prefer to be served by a pretty guy or girl. Employers know this, and act accordingly. In fact, bar work is almost identical to being a booth babe: both jobs involve being charming, chatty and appropriately flirtatious towards customers you might not be able to stand the sight of. The difference is bar work means getting to wear a lot more clothes and getting paid a lot less money. And pulling pints.

See, the booth babe that hates being ogled at a convention will equally hate spending days scanning barcodes at Tescos, and she’s smart enough to figure out that if she’s going to be doing something she hates, it may as well be one day in a bikini than twenty sat the supermarket tills, since they’ll pay the same. Other girls will decide that showing off their body isn’t worth it and go for the waitressing job instead. Which is fine, but let’s not delude ourselves in to thinking that booth babes are booth babes because they have no other options. Booth babes are booth babes because they’d rather do that than the alternative. The alternative being what the vast majority of us who don’t have stunning good looks and massive boobs have to do anyway.

So to the final point, it objectifies women. Well yes, it does. Though let us also remember that, while less common, there are also booth hunks, dressed up as Conan or whatever. And they are there to be objectified. In that context, at that point in time, they’ve basically entered in to a contract for their bodies to be exhibits of art. And they’re very pleasant to look at, and I’ll enjoy the view. I won’t act inappropriately but to be frank, nor will I try and connect with them on a human level. Because for every creepy guy that goes up there and just asks them out, makes a filthy comment or propositions them, there’s another creepier guy that goes up to them and makes a light-hearted joke like “don’t you get cold?” because that way they think they’ll come across as sympathetic and nice and not a slobbering oaf and so might get to fuck them. It’s two sides of the same coin. There’s probably one or two genuine people there that really are just trying to be nice, but there’s no way the girl can tell them apart and so no booth babe is ever going to end up making friends with a convention attendee. It’s far too much of a mine-field; given the vast majority of men talking to them will just want to get in to their pants. Especially the ones acting like they don’t.

The nicest thing we can do is objectify them. That’s what they’re there for. That’s their job. Be polite, be courteous, treat them the same way you would anyone else, and enjoy the view. They’re wearing that skimpy bikini because they want to attract your eyes: first to their boobs, then hopefully to the product. This crazy idea espoused by some that we shouldn’t enjoy what’s being shown to us, and that they will avert their eyes in the face of cleavage, I find frankly unbelievable. I like looking at boobs. So does every other straight male on the planet. I don’t apologise for this, and when presented with a situation were boobs, legs, and pretty faces are all being presented to catch my attention, with a clear invitation to view, I’ll have a good look. So will everyone else. Even if it doesn’t work in getting us to look at a product we’d have otherwise passed by.

This is what annoys me the most about these male internet feminists that have cropped up in all these comments threads. All men like looking at attractive women. They all like it more when said woman is wearing skimpy clothing. That’s not objectifying women, that’s normal. The aesthetics of it make us smile and the sexy element turns us on just enough to be pleasant but not embarrassing. It’s if we start judging women only on those looks, outside of this very limited context, that makes it objectification. The vast majority of us can tell the difference.

It worries me that some men seemingly find it necessary to emasculate themselves, to refuse to look at booth babes, to argue that they should be covered up. To me, that sounds more like misogyny – to deny a woman from profiting from the fact that she’s hot. I wonder if they’re the equivalent of the guy that pretends to be nice and friendly to pull the booth babe. But it’s an internet comments thread on a gaming blog; I doubt any booth babes are reading.

I like to see myself as something of a feminist. There are clear issues, even in the western world, with male-female equality. In less developed countries it’s far worse. We should draw attention to this and do something about it. But if being a feminist means cutting off my penis and pretending I don’t enjoy looking at hot girls in skimpy clothes then I have to pass, as I can’t bring myself to be that much of a hypocrite.

Minchin said it best
Dean thought this was a lot of text, but felt that putting up a bunch of booth babe photos to break it up would undermine his point somewhat


February 21, 2009

Game Review: Bully for Wii

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

There are a couple of valid criticism labelled at the Wii as a whole. First is that tons of its games are just a bunch loosely collected mini-games. The second is that those that aren’t are often just lazy ports from other consoles.

Bully brilliantly manages to flip both of these criticisms around and provide something truly unique.

It’s a game with a long history: originally released on PS2 under the title of Canis Canem Edit, the game has been re-worked for both the 360 and the Wii and given back its original title now the controversy has died down. For the record, you don’t play as a bully, you fight them. The media missed that little fact in their outrage.

What’s brilliant is that Bully plays like it was made for the Wii from the ground up, in many ways it’s a perfect fit. Because at its core, Bully is just a collection of mini-games, but a collection that is strung together so very well you don’t even realise.

There is no primary mechanic in this game. There’s no one thing you spend most of the game doing. An arguement could be made that the fist-fighting fits this as it features in a lot of missions, but at most it accounts for 30% of your play time. About the same amount of time is spent travelling from place to place or racing on skateboards or bikes, while the rest of the game involves taking photos, sneaking around, mowing lawns, delivering papers, throwing stink bombs, boxing, collecting things, playing drums and so on.

Bully throws you into a boarding school environment and lets you do whatever you want to. Going to one of eight different lessons starts a mini-game, which vary from playing dodge-ball in gym class to Brain Training style quizzes in Maths. Or you can skive off entirely and follow the storyline missions, do some side-quests or just go off and explore. On the other hand, attending the lessons and doing well will grant you special abilities which benefit you in the rest of the game.

Bully has one of those mindless collect-em-up subquests where you have to collect 75 elastic bands hidden throughout the world. I normally hate that sort of thing. They’re practically impossible without using a walkthrough or guide. Except in Bully, complete a certain geography lesson, and the approximate location of all the remaining ones is added to your map. So now if you’re in an area for a mission, have some time to kill, and see there’s a band nearby, you can search that area for a quick diversion.

It’s that sort of pacing that also makes Bully such a brilliant game. You get up just before school starts in the morning, and have to be in bed by the end of the night or you’ll collapse. This provides just the right amount of structure in the otherwise free-form game. You can start of in class in the morning, go out on missions of lunch time, head back to class if you’re nearby when afternoon lessons start, stay out and skive if you’re not. The evening is spent with either continuing on missions or doing some sub-quests before heading back to your dorm for the night.

Or perhaps you really want to do both classes that day so spent lunchtime around the school grounds searching for collectables. Since each day isn’t particular long either, it has that brilliantly compulsive “just one more day” aspect that will keep you playing until 4am in the morning.

With all these opportunities for choice, Bully could be a disaster. Sure, you could try and ‘power-game’ it, ignoring the main storyline and doing all the of the classes as soon as possible, but the positioning of each element and the pacing of the game pushes you away from that and actively encourages you to spread your time around, to the point that when you finish the main storyline, you’ll have done a good chunk of the side-quests, but still have a few things to finish off afterwards if you so wish.

Despite it’s brilliance, Bully has been mostly over-looked when it comes to ‘must-have’ Wii games, probably because it’s seen as being ‘just a PS2 port’. But the fact is, the game is far more at home on the Wii that it ever was elsewhere. The piece-meal, mini-game centred approach, with multiple mechanics that all use the Wii controller in a different way is what the Wii does best. The controls are nearly perfect, with the one exception of it asking you to hit + and – at the same time – try that without hitting the Home button (wonderfully, the same section on the PC version asked you to press mouse wheel up and mouse wheel down together).

There’s probably not enough new stuff in this version of Bully to make it worthwhile if you’ve played it on the PS2, but if you haven’t played it at all it’s complete must-have for the Wii. An exceptional game that proves that the words “console port” and “mini-games” don’t have to spell failure for the Wii.


June 02, 2008

Terrorists Fallout With Daily Mail

I don’t normally post silly things from elsewhere on the Internet here, nor do I mock The Daily Mail much, but this was just so special and not particulary widely reported that I had to share.

The Mail piece in question is here

So far, so weird yes:

“This computer generated image posted on terror forums depict what would happen if a nuclear attack took place in Washington D.C”

The article leads you to believe that the terrorists have created this piece of artwork in order to further their terrorists aims.

Turns out though, it’s a little familiar to a certain bunch of geeky PC RPG gamers that were around in the mid-90s. Specifcally, the ones that played post-apocalyptic RPGs Fallout 1 and 2. More specifically, those following the development of the long awaited sequel Fallout 3.

Here’s a preview image from Fallout 3 from popular gaming site (please give me a job) IGN

Oops.


May 31, 2008

On Video Games

I’ve been playing video games practically all my life, so it’s rare I find something new. But the past couple of days I’ve been missing the great stealth action of 60s-style spy thrillers No One Lives Forever 1 and 2, so decided to try out the Splinter Cell games to see if they offered something similar but in a modern setting.

They do, and they’re quite fun. But they also do something else: give me a gigantic headache. Now I’m not saying they’re too complicated and my head hurts thinking about them, in fact they’re quite fun. But I’ve played through half of the first one and after half an hour I develop an awful migraine. I’ve played literally hundreds of games, and this has never happened on a regular basis before. I guess for my health, I’m going to have to stop playing. Which is a shame as I’ve been enjoying them. I think it’s something to do with shifting between the high contrast black and white nightvision and normal, fairly dark modes. But testing this theory would hurt so I doubt I’ll bother.

It’s odd, I always knew games could cause such reactions in some people, but I figured I wasn’t one.


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