Hiatus: What Have I Been Doing (Part 1)

It seems like forever since I have made a post here, and a quick scroll down confirms it. In fact, it has been over a year since I last pressed that terrifying Publish button, though not for a lack of things to say. My Drafts folder is bursting at the seams, with dozens of disparate thoughts stitched together like Dr Frankenstein’s Monster. So what HAVE I been up to? That is a good question that I had to ask myself in earnest the other day.

First of all, I just recorded another exciting* podcast with the venerable Evan Forman over at Necessary & Sufficient; this time on the names we give things that fall from space. You can listen to it here.

Ok, so recording that podcast took just over an hour. What have I been doing with the other 8759 hours in the year? My research has been keeping me busy, and I guess sleep has to account for somewhere between a quarter and a third of those hours as well. I bought myself a brand spanking new keyboard (the music kind, not the typing kind) earlier in the year and have been slowly getting back into writing some music, something I might talk about later, but there is one particular time sink (154 hours so far) that I am all too aware of. This is partly because Steam keeps a record, and passive-aggressively reminds me everytime I start playing it.

It is called Kerbal Space Program.

Kerbal Space Program

Trying to describe Kerbal Space Program to people is actually somewhat difficult, as I have found out on numerous occasions. The best I can think of is if “Lego: NASA Edition” was made by Pixar. The game essentially revolves around controlling a race of creatures called Kerbals, building up a space program and exploring their solar system. The Kerbals themselves are adorably charming, seemingly only capable of two emotions: wondrous curiosity, and crippling terror. Their space program is remarkably advanced, given their blatant disregard for safety and borderline suicidal approach to progress.

The game is still in its early stages, no where near a finished product, and yet it is already so compelling that I think about it when I am at work, I even occasionally dream about it. So the question is, apart from the Kerbals’ intrinsic charm, why is it so compelling?

The game has no objectives, no set goals, and no victory conditions. The solar system is essentially just one gigantic sandbox for you to play in. At first this notion is nearly crippling, you have no idea what to do first. It turns out that space is in fact quite big!

So lets start small. When the space race was in full swing, the early attempts were simple payloads, tiny satellites that only stayed in orbit for a matter of days. It should be simple to put a small probe into orbit, right?

Nope!

“Nope!”

Ok, so maybe rocket science is actually kind of hard. Who would have thought. After several more attempts (where: several = 13**) I finally managed to get this tiny, simple craft into a stable orbit. It is badly designed, highly redundant, and serves little to no actual purpose. I was ecstatic!

Achievement Unlocked: Stable Orbit

Achievement Unlocked: Stable Orbit

This was just the beginning, of course, and over the coming weeks I want to cover some more of my thoughts and adventures with Kerbal Space Program. There is also another big event that I am bursting at the brim to talk about, and that is PAX Australia, however for now I am going to leave you with this amazing fan-made trailer.

You can buy Kerbal Space Program from the developers, or if you prefer to keep things on Steam, it is available there as well. There are also free demos available from both sources. Once again, I warn that the game is not a finished product, and is undergoing constant and regular updates, but for the price I can not think of a better way to spend 154 hours… and counting.

*Exciting for me; I love doing these podcasts and I am genuinely honoured every time I am invited back as a guest. Whether or not you find it exciting, well, you will just have to listen and see for yourself.

**Maths is also hard.

Tamriel and Tattoos

Skyrim Launches in less than a week, and I think that to say that I am excited is a whole level of understatement that has never been seen before. One day, centuries from now, lingual scholars will wonder whether anyone was truly excited before. For me, Skyrim isn’t just a game, but the continuation of an experience that has spanned decades. The Elder Scrolls have been like a second home for me, a world so rich and detailed that I have literally spent hundreds of hours (and quite possibly over a thousand) exploring. To give you an idea of just how much depth this series offers, in the third game Morrowind, there are 300 unique books scattered throughout the game world. Each book has excerpts that are fully rendered, most averaging 20-30 pages long. Oblivion increased this number almost twofold again, giving way to an actual library of texts, each meticulously detailing aspects of the rich history and cultural make up of the different races and settlements of the setting, a landmass known as Tamriel.

However it isn’t just the in game literature; the setting itself is a vast series of lands, covering thousands of square kilometres between the games, and within this are desolate settlements, bustling cities, ash volcanoes, forrested valleys, murky swamps, and snowing alps. Every location has a beautiful and gradual transition, every rock is appropriately weathered, every plant thoughtfully hand placed. The world feels alive, and that is probably one of the reasons I spent so much time escaping there, at a time when the real world just didn’t seem to offer me anything worthwhile. Fortunately for me and those I care about (and who care about me), those dark times are in my past now, but sometimes I wonder whether or not I would be here, and who I am today if it were not for Morrowind and that second life I led there.

This is why, several years ago, I decided to get a tattoo of the sigil of Alduin as depicted from Morrowind. Alduin is a prominent reference throughout The Elder Scrolls lore, known by a different name to each of the races of Tamriel, but sharing a common description; the Dragon-God of Time. So imagine my surprise and unbridled joy when it was announce that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would feature none other than Alduin him/her/itself!

The tattoo itself has a story as well. It was done by the amazing Marc Pinto of Primitive Tattoos. Marc has done my other inking work, all of which is done in the traditional Japanese technique called Tebori. In contrast to “Western” tattoing, Tebori is done by hand, using a sharp implement to push the ink under the skin.

As no machines are involved the whole process is very quiet, so much that you can hear the sound of the implement piercing the skin; this is called Shakki, an onomatopoeic description of the noise it makes, and is deceptively relaxing.

Tebori is a time consuming technique, but the final results are most definitely worth it. I find that the ink stays darker for longer, the lines are more crisp and suffer edge-bleeding less, and the shading that is employed is far more uniform and smooth.

A good Horishi (trained artist) is hard to find, as the training alone takes years of dedication and commitment. An Uchideshi (apprentice) will work under a strict regimen, hand making the needles, the ink (Sumi), and keeping the studio clean and ready. At any one time, there are only a handful of artists trained in Tebori, and Marc Pinto is truly a phenomenal artist whom I have a great amount of respect and admiration for.

This particular piece took about 4 hours to complete, and the experience was amazing. The ultimate irony was that the chair had no head rest, and so my neck was sore and tired from holding it at an awkward angle. This complaint coming from the person who is having thousands upon thousands of needles puncturing his skin and depositing activated carbon underneath it.

The result was incredible and I was superbly happy with it then, as I am now. People often ask me what the tattoo is (as it is my only visible one when I am fully clothed), and often I tell them that it is either the Sigil of Alduin, the Dragon God, or the Akaviri Sigil from Morrowind (this is a long held debate among fans of the Elder Scrolls, but I won’t go into it here). When they ask why I would get a video game tattoo, often while smirking, I tell them that to me The Elder Scrolls are more than just a game. They are a symbol of creativity, dedication, and most of all they are a reminder that no matter how difficult things might have been, or how difficult they might be in the future, I was able to get through them.

So finally, I would like to say Thank You to Bethesda, and the team behind all of the Elder Scrolls games. You might not realise it, but you have indirectly helped to make me who I am today, and I cannot express enough how much that means to me.

-Tim

 

Audiological Tributes

I must be completely honest and admit that my MP3 Player (or DAP if you are feeling politically correct) probably has a musical dichotomy that sits at about 40% songs and 59% music from video games. The residual 1% is podcasts and audio-lectures, but that is a whole other story. When I realised this shocking fact yesterday morning, I wondered if it was really necessary to have so much ambient, lyric-less music on a device that I primarily use to distract myself from the world at large. However I also realised that, of the vast repository of video game music that I carry with me every day, a decent portion of it is not actually ambient, and some isn’t directly from the game at all!

As it turns out, some of the tracks that I listen to the most often are in fact tribute songs to games; not cheesy parodies that reference someone playing the game, but real and genuine songs that reference the world that the game takes place in. I suppose it somewhat shocked me to realise just how much this happens. In fact The Witcher (in its secondary incarnation) comes with an entire album of such tribute songs written by bands who genuinely love the world described by the books and game. One of these bands is a very famous Polish metal group!

While heavy metal might not be your cup of tea, the album is laced with samples from every genre from Reggae to A Capella to Grunge Rock to Classical. The fact that so many artists were inspired enough to write music based upon the world of the Witcher was astounding, but it doesn’t stop there. The cross-pollination between gaming and music runs deeper than you might initially think, though the parallels have precedence, especially in the realm of movie-song tie-ins. Another favourite of mine is the closing credits track to Mass Effect, a song by post-punk group The Faunts called M4 (Part 2):

This piece does not just play over the credits, but the theme and mood of the song perfectly compliments the final moments of the game in such a way that rarely leaves me with a dry pair of eyes. In addition, if you listen carefully during the bridge/outro, the melody line is eerily reminiscent of the Mass Effect theme music itself! The two work together so well, using similar instrumentation and cadence that manages to extend your immersion well into the credit sequence as you reflect on what just happened in the games final moments. This is a perfect example of game development at its finest; dare I say a work of art.

Of course, another example that immediately jumps to mind is mildly camp rap that plays over the closing credits to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This one… I’m not so proud of, but a scientist knows he must not introduce a selection bias when presenting data.

There is, of course, one more venue that I have not yet discussed, and that is the fertile plains of homebrew musical recreations and craftings that grow at the holy mecca of OCReMix.org. I have not omitted it by accident, nor out of spite. I plan on talking about that very soon in Episode 3 of the Anchorage Podcast (coming soon!); three episodes down and two to go before I have my 5 episode buffer that I believe will allow me to continue posting them on a regular schedule.

Lastly but not leastly: Please take a brief moment out of your hectic life to vote for me here at the iiNet Top Geek competition! Shameless self promotion? Sure, but it is my party and I will cry if it so pleases me.

Do you have any favourite game soundtracks? Do you ever find yourself listening to a soundtrack outside the act of gaming?

Post below or to corsair@corsairsanchorage.com

Defining Shepard – Part 2

While an interesting point was raised in talking about the emotional bonds that seemed to have formed between myself and the Commander Shepard of my “Mass Effect Universe” as distinct from the individual and separate universes that exist around other the characters created by other people, someone pointed out to me another interesting point. I am going to paraphrase in order to mitigate the implied (though mostly sarcastic) hostility:

“Why do you always play as a girl?”

To save face here I am going to first of all admit that, while I do have a tendancy to create female characters, I am fully capable of playing my own gender in RPGs and in fact do so on a more than regular basis. I cannot deny that female characters make up a large fraction of my gaming avatars; some recent example come to mind*:

From the depths of Ferelden:

Vaera of the Dalish

From the mines beneath Torchlight:

Vela the Vanquisher

Leading the armies of Chaos:

Vaera, Disciple of Khaine

Why then did I chose a female Shepard in a game that is so deeply engrossing and personal? When faced with this question in the past, people often fall back on the argument of:

“Oh, I just wanted to see the Shepard-Liara romance scene in all its intended glory

This might be all well and true for some people but I have to admit that I do enjoy playing a game with a strong female protagonist. Unfortunately, games designed with a strong female protagonist in mind often fall short of the experience that I was seeking in the first place, purely for the fact that the gender of the protagonist plays some vital and attention-worthy role in the story. In my mind a strong character should be able to stand up on its own as either gender and still evoke the same emotions and responses from the audience/player. This is one of the many things that Bioware games do often and to great effect; one of the reasons that I continue to seek out their games like rare and precious gemstones in oceans of useless soil and dirt.

This does not answer the initial question posed; what is the attraction in playing a character of the opposite gender? I honestly do not believe I can give a satisfactory answer here. Why do we enjoy movies where the lead role is a gender other than our own? I dare say the vulgar repetition of bland male action heroes would eventually render audiences immune to the stories being told, in the same way that a man (or woman) forced to eat a prime rib-eye steak for every meal of his (or her) life would soon crave a breast of chicken like a newborn child craves oxygen.

Yet movies are passive and the adventures that the characters eke out are vicarious at best; gaming brings you one step closer in a way that helps you better bond with the protagonist in question. Furthering my own dilemma as presented here, many of my female characters reside in the highly social realms of Massively Multilpayer Online games. So why then would you chose to indulge in a cross-gendered avatar, especially when social interactions play an important role in the game.

Personally the answer is simple: I enjoy it and I find the change both refreshing and comfortable. I know that some people I play with will flat out refuse to play a female character for the exact opposite of these reasons; ultimately it comes down to personal taste. I would love to hear from any of you in your opinions on playing characters of another gender, both good and bad, and to those of you who emailed me in response to my last post: Thank you and I hope you continue to enjoy my ramblings.

Which brings me to ask you, kind readers:

How many of you play characters of an opposite gender? If you do, what are your reasons, and if not then why?

Comment below or email me at corsair@corsairsanchorage.com

*These are the three games that I could find screenshots for. I feel sorely remiss that I cannot find an image of my Age of Conan character, Ynnifer. That red haired scoundrel :P

Defining Shepard – Part 1

Serendipity is a beautiful thing.

When I woke up Wednesday morning the day was looking up; it was my first day off in quite some time and I rejoiced at the thought of being able to sleep in, have a nice lunch for a change, and maybe even spend a couple of hours up-side-down on a couch reading a book (my preferred reading position). In the space of six hours I received two phone calls that would change everything: someone had broken street-date on Mass Effect 2, allowing me to convince the girl behind the counter at EB to hand my copy over “nice and slow-like”; and the framers had worked their magic on my lithograph over two weeks ahead of the expected schedule. One 15 minute journey later and my addiction had reached a beautiful critical mass.

Critical Mass Effect Mass Effect Signed Lithograph

In the months since December of last year I have immersed myself so deeply within the world of Mass Effect, in preparation for the prodigal sequel, that it has started to affect me on a fundamental level. Just the other day I legitimately pondered the required energy to significantly remove the gravitational influence of a pulsar, and began a rough calculation until reality came creeping back into the foreground of my thoughts. I dare say it will not be long before I start demonstrating the positions of known Mass Relays at the Planetarium and am subsequently fired for the preaching of gross falsehoods. I listen to the soundtrack to the first game whilst reading the novelised prequels, and when I shut my eyes I sometimes inadvertently visualise the spinning Mass Relay loading screen.

The degree to which this game has entrenched itself into my cortical lobes gives us the context we need to continue. You see, every time I search for Mass Effect on the Internet, read about it in a press release or through one of my many aggregated RSS feeds, or even talk about it with other sapient beings, something strange happens. I get confused and disoriented! All of a sudden, the world has turned topsey-turvey and I grasp blindly as my brain tries to piece my shattered world back together.

To the rest of the world,

Shepard looks like this

Which is confusing because for me,

Shepard looks like this

The blatant identity crisis would be understandably crippling for Shepard herself (himself?), yet somehow I find myself thinking for her whenever confronted with this discontinuity. Seeing a male Shepard is like looking into a mirror and seeing someone else’s face staring back, even though the face is an avatar for an imaginary character. There is no logical reason why it should unnerve me so much, and yet I find it physically distressing to see “John” Shepard conversing with the Normandy’s crew instead of “Jane”.

While I applaud BioWare for their efforts in creating a game that is (largely) gender-independent in terms of character interaction and development, I find it incredibly interesting to note how severe my reactions are to resulting conflicts created in both the game’s advertising and general public discourse. The role of gender in a games avatar is a topic for another day, but for now I would love to know:

Do you ever find yourself identifying with a specific portrayal of a character in games, books, film, etc.?

Have you ever encountered this alienation when encountering a non-idealised version of these characters?

I would love to hear your comments below!

Shameful Nostalgia

Stop the press: two posts in as many days! I am sure this is some kind of record, though to be frank I cannot muster the courage to actually check through my past posts for the dates.

While it is no secret to those of whom I see on a regular basis, I may as well come clean with the rest of you. I have started collecting Pokémon cards. I say started in the most poetic sense possible, as of the 600+ card collection was purchased during the early months of 1999 when it was first released in Australia. The more correct term would probably be ‘resume’ or even ‘continue’; sometimes I like to pretend I have dignity. When a friend oh-so fortuitously came across a set of the cards I was immediately reminded of the healthy stack of cards sitting in a shoebox in my wardrobe. Urged by carnal powers stronger than any man has ever faced, the cards were sought, dusted off, and brought to bear the harsh light of day once more. It was immediately apparent that the dusty old ripcurl packaging was no throne for my Pokémon and thus began the quest for a more fitting container. With Pokéballs in short supply (I blame the recession), small plastic forcefields would have to suffice.

My Hideous Addiction

With my accomplice trainer (whos identity has been expurgated* at his request) at my side, each Pokémon was lovingly acknowleged and cared for, catalogued and stored away. It is our common goal to one day catch them all.

[segue] Speaking of catching them all [/segue]; wanting to keep updated on some of my favourite webcomics, I have found myself checking my Twitter account more often. I created my account sometime during the Triassic period, only ever having made a single “Tweet”. The original account was made for an experiment I once ran in the name of science; an attempt to use a series of Twitter accounts for in-character banter between Dungeons and Dragons sessions, allowing my players to enjoy an expirience above and beyond normal character interaction. Interestingly enough, the user name I managed to acquire tends to attract the attention of those who believe they are getting something else entirely. My ‘followers’ are an interesting bunch, that is for sure.

With the account in my possession, and keypresses of F5 occuring at an alarming rate, it was an obvious (to some) descision to start making posts of my own. Ergo, if you are a purveyor of ‘Tweets’ like some I know, hit me up  on the site and see if anything I say is worthy of reading.

https://twitter.com/#!/DungeonMaster

*Word of the Day: I refuse all and any who judge me for its usage!

Apocalyptic Censorship: Fallout 3

St Michael slaying the dragon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Lawrence OP

For those who missed my earlier explosion of rage, I will quickly sum up the state of play as it stands before moving on. Yesterday it was announced by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) that Fallout 3 would be refused classification in Australia. The lack of an R18+ rating for games in Australia has cost us several titles over the last couple of years. Everyone remembers the outcry when it was found out that GTA IV, a game with an equally rabid fanbase, was refused classification. Now I’m no fan of pointless repetition, and if you want to hear a rant about the inconsistancies in the rating boards idea of what exactly constitutes an R18+ verus an MA15+ game, then Kotaku has a couple of posts with the basic facts laid out for easy consumption. If you want to read poorly worded articles on how this will push users to torrenting games, Shamus may be your man. I will however give you the original leaked paper from the OFLC that states exactly why the game was too heinous for human consumption.

OFLC Fallout 3 Refused Classification OFLC Fallout 3 Refused Classification

What I havn’t seen anyone talk about, however, is just how this effects us as a consumer. I have no doubt that many will simply wait for the revised copy, the censorsed copy, that no longer portrays the gritty feeling the developers set out to convey. Honestly, it is like watching Snatch with a bleep track. The whole ordeal becomes light hearted and fivelous because there is no longer any depth. Yes, I am one of those self professed twats who stands resolute behind the notion of “Games are Art” but I at least like to think I’m one of the more rational breeds. The other half will no doubt torrent the uncensored (International) version, and probably would have regardless for myriad reasons.

However, there are enough of us who actually want to buy this game, be it for moral reasons (not me), or maybe they have an insatiable lust for limited edition boxsets of things (yes, that one is me). Either way, the only avenue here is to import the game from an overseas supplier. The only thing about this, and it is almost always overlooked; Importing an RC rated product of any form is a breach of Federal Law. We are not talking “I download my mp3’s” illegal, either. This is a physical product that must go through a customs check before it reaches you. What is more, breaking this law can result in anything from a $110000 (yes four zeros) fine, to 5 (five) years in Ye Olde Gaol. When you look at it under this light, you suddenly realise the implications of what is happening here. It makes you wonder just how far you are willing to go for a game.

*Edit* I just wrote a letter, and Kotaku is right. The only way this changes is if someone actually says “We are not OK with this”.