Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bringing a PS3 Slim PSU Unit Back To Life

AKA, just another regular Saturday. With a pinch of electrocution.

Lately we'd been deprived of our regular dose of Sony. Not that it was that shocking or painful or even mildly upseting. But looking at what few Blueray disks and PS3 games we had kind of pressed the issue that we might have to fork out some €300 for a new shiny brick.

The problem with it was, and I'm sure it's widespread, after a few seconds of being turned on it would inexplicably turn off. And not gently. Instead of just turning it's shy green light to a shy red light it would completely forfeit any semblance of effort and turn everything off, system, fan, light, pathos. Once this happened nothing would turn it back on except unplugging the power cord and plugging it back in. It only managed to stay on for such short periods of time that it couldn't possibly be overheating. I mean, I know overheating. I once had a competer that reached 90ºC and started blaring a siren. I needed a toddler-sized fan pointed at it the few times I dared to turn it on. Also, I own two 360s, and boy can those guys heat up a place. My point being, I know overheating and this wasn't it.

I looked at it pensively, stroking my chin with my index finger. Out of my lips came those famous last words: 'You know,' I sang, a smile peering through my pressed lips, my eyes glistening with curiosity. 'We could try opening it up. I mean, it can't get any worse.' So, after we came home from shopping and I retreated to the kitchen to concoct a chocolate mousse and fruit salad (my Mother's Day gift for tomorrow) Mike set about dismantling the beast.

It was apparent even for me that we were dealing with a PSU problem (PSU standing for Power Supply Unit). Luckily, the PSU is the most easily accessible part of the machine. That said, it must be noted that, although he is a brilliant software developer he is not as well versed in electronics. And the most I ever did was fix VCRs that had tapes stuck in their heads. We opened, blew on it (obviously), tapped it, reversed it, pressed it, looked intently at it. But, try as we may, the thing would still turn off arbitrarily. At a point it was so upset with us that it shocked Mike into submission. He still claims his arm is numb.

Right when we were at the end of our rope (and patience) we found this video of this amazing guy that magically solved all our problems. Here, let me share it with you.
Now, I'll be as responsible as Lucas (who I'm sure is a wonderful man but whose pronunciation of "Slim" just drives me crazy) and say that there is no guarantee this will work for other people. In fact, messing with anything's power unit is a VERY VERY BERRYBIGBAAAAAD BADBAD IDEA. But hey, we're crazy people here. And the country's approaching bankrupcy. This is no time to be throwing away perfectly good bricks. So we followed Lucas' instructions to the letter and voilá.

It now stays on for periods of time longer than 7 seconds. Next step? Well, we had previously tried to "restore database" and it turned off mid restoring. This probably screwed something in the... uh... database. The whole system was fried. So we downloaded a system update from taht series of tubes known as the interwebs and formated a USB flash drive to install the update from there. We did what we were supposed to: format to FAT32, placed the update in the PS3/UPDATE folder but, lo and behold, another setback.

Data is corrupted. (80023121).
Huh. Well, having just overcome hardware DEATH, surely this wasn't so hard? Surely? .... Turns out, this is a widely spread problem that Sony has failed to solve. And can you blame them? they're too busy playing dare with hackers. In fact, people everywhere are chugging around €150 to replace their systems because this is something that cannot be overcome and they apparently cannot do an online update. But we could. Maker be praised!

It works now. It's siting there in the corner. We're exchanging timid but compromising glances. Too bad all my saves are gone. Saves from Valkyria Chronicles and... well... those are really the only ones I'll miss, to be honest. Good news is, I'll finally be able to try out Battlefield Bad Company 2. I'm a little late, I know but you have to give me points for cheating hardware DEATH.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The Phoenix Wright series is, as the name hints, about an attorney at law. You play the part of Phoenix himself and you accompany him from his first case as a defense attorney. The premise of every case is always that your client is innocent. From here you get to investigate crime scenes, present items to witnesses and police detectives to try and gather information to build your case.

The judicial system in the series is singular. Every trial must be wrapped up in three days from its beggining and only the prosecution can call forth any witnesses. Which means only you, as the defense, get to cross-examine witnesses. Most often than not one of the witnesses themselves is the killer (yes, you only deal in murder cases).

Oh yes, there will be boobs.
It is a japanese game afterall.

The first Phoenix Wright was originally for the GBA and they ported it to the DS. As a special treat, they added a brand new case to play after the credits. This case is easily as long as the rest of the game with all its cases put together. They also present some new investigation tools which I thoroughly enjoyed like luminol and testing for fingerprints. They did this to show ways the touch screen could make the game more interesting and immersive and they did that. They accomplished it brilliantly. Too bad they forgot about it for all the rest of the series. It's like he suddenly forgets he can test for prints. Ok, so he gots bonked in the head in the first case of the second game but his memory returns eventually. And the first case is actually the second case! Oh nevermind.

The game does a real good job at making you relate to Nick. He's more than the sprite that plays out your actions. Since your first case you get the feeling that this guy has feelings, has friends, had a life before you showed up, has secrets, has quirks. The game was beautifully adapted and translated into English. Considering it's a game that depends solely on text to get you through it, a bad translation could've broken it for all of us but they took special care with it, one can tell.

Yes the game is super immersive, imho, and I can get lost playing it for hours on end and, yes, you can relate to Nick, the nervous attourney but at times you really wonder: what in the Maker's name is going on in Phoenix's head?

Most of the times one of two things happens: you've figured everything out and Phoenix is bluffing his way through the trial, Objecting to everything just because he can, reassuring you at every turn that he has no idea why he's doing the things he's doing. OR, Phoenix gets a sly grin splattered across his face and announces he's figured everything out while you still have no idea how or who did what when. Still, things usually end up ok and if they don't, well, the game let's you save at any time.

The world in general liked Phoenix Wright, as did I, and the Tubes is full of parodies and spoofs and homages and yaoi fan fiction. (Just search for Phoenix Wrong to get a few thousand resutls.) This, however, is the one I always liked the most.

Oh and they're apparently making a Phoenix Wright vs Professor Layton game. How awesome/weird is that?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

It's Not Just You

So, during our vacation we were discussing the course of videogaming. Where we see it heading and if we like it or not.

It was a conversation that triggered pretty strong views or maybe it was just the smell of the ocean that riled us up. We, as a whole, are quite discontent with games and it's not just us. It's not just us that's tired of games. Games, apparently, are also tired of us. They're trying to reach a new audience, encompass the world. ore shum thinke...

View during said conversation
The point came up that being a gamer is fashionable nowadays. Not as mainstream as, say, having a Facebook account, but closer to... say... having read a book in the last year. "Why did everyone start playing WoW? Because all their friends were doing it." I'm not going to say I agree fully with this statement but it raises a valid point. Did a lot of people become gamers just because everyone else was doing it? Is it like smoking? Or complaining about the government? Or jumping off a bridge?
Another factor that might have helped gaming become more mainstream were tutorials. there was a time when you were dumped in a game with very little knowledge of the workings of the game. You'd first experiment all the buttons, finding the one that brings up the menu, tweaking any settings the game has and then reverting them to default just in case... It was a journey of discovery, it added to the mistique of the game, being uncharted territory that you had to brave and tame. It made it, for me at least, more enjoyable. There was a learning curve that began with remastering the controller and not just having your charaxcter(s) apply different skills/abilities at different times to achieve a purpose.

Nowadays you'll not only be presented with a picture of your controller with arrows and a description of what every button does but you'll probably won't get to dive in the game proper before you conquer one or three hundred tutorials. It's like you're a toddler and the game really doesn't want you to get hurt. Where were they when I first played Mario?

The point was then raised that we are, in fact, living a vicious cycle. Developers notice that other developers are lowering their standards (or broadening their sights, trying to lure in new players) so they, in turn, lower theirs to try and lure in more people by helping them every step of the way until they feel safe and confortable wrapped in the blanket of assisted playing. Players, having been dumbed down, now expect new releases to guide them through their first steps.

So where does that leave me and others like me? I don't mind dying a few times if it means you'll stop calling me dumb. I don't mind a bit of an initial challenge. Its not like we were spewed out of our mothers' bowels knowing how to walk and talk and wipe our own asses but nobody took me aside for the first months of my life to tell me what my legs were for or what this communication gig was all about. I experimented, tried and failed and, in the end, I think I did alright. It took a fucking long time and I'm not done learning yet but the ride was worth it. It was a challenge.

We didn't come to any real conclusion. It was just a state of the nation kind of thing. We can't expect the gaming industry to alienate new prospective players just because we know what an analog stick is for but it doesn't mean we like being reminded of it every single game. It makes the brain lazy and pretty soon we'll have to go back to Brain Age.

I'm going through the Phoenix Wright series again on my DS. I'm completely hooked. In fact, I'm gonna play some right now while I sigh of relief that I don't have a credit card registered in the PSN.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Viva a Revolução!

Lisbon border. Interestingly enough,
the old city walls are before this sign. Are we losing ground?
Aaaand we're back!

And what a day to be back! It may not mean much to the rest of the world, possibly just a footnote, but today was a magical day some 36 years ago. It redefined what it means to be portuguese, added a flavour to the nation. It also created some bad habits and "the little people" seem to always confuse "employer" or "state" with "enemy". Or maybe it was the fascist regime that did that. Oh well. Hey, they made a movie about it and that's what I've been watching. It has that guy in it. You know, that guy that was in the new Fast&Furious thingy. Oh and Fabienne from Pulp Fiction.

I could go on and on about it, how the people came together to overthrow a fascist regime without killing anyone. Well, killing very few people. And not counting the thousands that died as a result of civil wars breaking out on freshly decolonized countries. My point being, it was awesome and my mother was there, handing out soup from the hospital to the military. A great time to be alive. Wish I'd been there to see it.

I'm pretty bushed from all the packing and unpacking and now I'm gonna play me some Katamari. We played (and even debated O_O) some games during the course of our short vacation and I might be covering some of it later.
São Pedro de Moel
I took some neat photos too. A lot of countryside. I love the countryside. More like I love the country. We had 2 days of british weather but it was a sunny 20º-ish for most of the time. We had a barbecue and everything and strolls by the beach and some epic fail moments.

Here's the song of the day. The song that kickstarted said revolution.

You can go back to googling the royal wedding now. Byebye!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rainy Beach

Thanks to a series of holidays before and after the weekend, my next few days will be spent in a beach house trying to get some color on my legs (I'm acquiring caucasian-legs syndrome. Dreadful). Even if the weather isn't very conducive to sun bathing, it being only around 20ºC. Oh well.

Time will most likely be spent playing board games and getting drunk and not having access to this series of tubes we call the interwebs. Fun. Fun. Fun. And it's not even Friday.

Here's a picture of my finger catching a bit of sun.
See you next week.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gorgeous Katamari

A few years back one of my friends introduced me to a life-changing game: Katamari Damacy. It's fucking brilliant. Yesterday, while I was surfing around Xbox Marketplace desperately searching for something new to entertain me, I found myself torn between spending €30,00 on either Beautiful Katamari or Army of Two. I already had a history (a good one) with Katamari soooooo...

In case you've never heard of it, Katamari games are all about rolling shit up in a big ball. Granted, it doesn't sound very interesting, especially when you start the size of a golf ball and set about rolling up pennies and candy and the odd small rodent. But pretty soon you start engulfing household pets and babies and, before you know it, you're gobbling up small children and motorcycles. The game really comes to life when you cross the threshold into buildings and blimps.

Yes, you can start off rolling up pens scattered across the bedroom floor and end up amalgamating the Big Wall of China and Mount Rushmore. I think that at the end of a game I once rolled up the entire Milky Way. Which was nothing short of awesome and filled my heart with a sense of achievement few games ever did. All the while you go about your business cheered on by intensely joyful japanese anime-style songs which can be incredibly addictive. Katamari is a very happy-go-lucky game. Unless you fail at making a big enough ball of crap. Then the King gets angry. You won't like him when he's angry. Well, actually you probably will.

The setting of the game, however meaningless it might be, is... novel. You're the son of a narcisistic God that has the power to create and destroy everything and always refers to himself as a plural entity. Possibly because he made everything and can be thus considered to be everything. Or something. His favorite past time is belittling your attempts at creating big enough Katamaris for him to turn into planets. He knows you'll fail and he makes it a point to tell you just how bad you suck. I love him.

Don't be fooled by all the different Katamari games out there. They're always the same. Nothing ever changes in Katamari because nothing ever has to. You have a ball and you have to roll shit up with it until you're big/hot/pretty enough to make the King satisfied. That's it. The controls are a bit counter-intuitive but you get used to them after a bit of failing. Learning to dash is a big step forward towards rolling up the world.

There's only one down-side to Katamari, for me. I get physically ill whenever I play it. The constant rolling about and shifting views make me nauseous and I need a break after a while lest I vomit all over myself.

But it's totally worth it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


There's no real point to this today, just thought I'd jot down what I spent an obscene amount of time surfing the web for yesterday, lest I forget one day.

Most of my time was spent going through Tvtropes so, if you're as obsessive about this as I was, there you have it.

Wilhelm Scream

First heard it in A New Hope. I archived it in my head under "foley scream" and have since discovered it's a stock sound called something like "man gets biten by aligator and then he screams".

Police Radio

Like many others, I first found this one while playing SimCity 3000. Ever since then I've heard it everywhere. I couldn't even begin throwing out examples.

Howie Long Scream

Similar to the Wilhelm Scream, only, when I first heard it I thought "why are there TIE-fighters in this movie?"

Like me, there are many others whose dreams have been haunted by these sounds. There's also that one annoying baby laughter, that screeching cat, the playground noise, the metalic door opening... you know the ones I'm talking about. It's just good to know that I'm not, in fact, losing my mind and assimilating sounds in a perfectly identical way when I hear them.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fun With Doritos

The most fun I had all weekend (gaming-wise, that is) was playing Doritos: Crash Course.

D:CC is, in essence, a platformer. It should be noted before-hand that I hate platformers. I suck at them. If there is a pit, I will fall head first in it, if there is a monster, I will try to befriend it. Mario, Sonic, Samus: I hate them and they hate me (well, Samus and I saw eye to eye in Metroid Prime). But I had no idea what D:CC was until I played it and I was pleasantly surprised.

Doritos: Crash Course is brought to us by Chilean minds. I didn't even know Chile made games. But apparently they do and I even like them.

I spent most of the weekend downloading demos for the Xbox, a recurring ritual I undertake to see what's out there without having to commit to anything. I downloaded D:CC because... well, because it's free. Which was the only reason I donwloaded Doritos: Dash of Destruction in the first place.

I didn't like Dash of Destruction. If I remember correctly you can play as either a T-Rex or a delivery guy/gal/person and the objective is to either elude the T-Rex or catching the delivery character. It wasn't really my thing but Mikey hastily unlocked every achievement on it, he had so much fun.

As I said, platformers aren't my thing either but D:CC didn't seem to care. On loading up a single player run I was greeted with a very "American Gladiator" inspired set, on the middle of which was.. me. Well, not me exactly, but my avatar. I knew nothing about the game so I most certainly wasn't expecting that. And then a countdown and I was still unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. Suddenly I find myself dashing and jumping crazily and carefree over gaps and dodging balloons. I found myself smiling through fiercely clenched teeth. My squeals of frustration caught the atention of the male who proceeded to mock my failed attempts to catch that rope or jump that far.

"Can I join?" he asked after he managed to control his manic laughter. The game features a multiplayer split-screen mode so I gave up my attempts to not get squished by an entire corridor and we proceeded to mock each other's arm flails.
The game isn't very long (about 15 courses total, I think) but it doesn't need to be. It cuts you some slack, meaning that, if you really can't get past that hurdle you can always just skip ahead. Of course, it'll dub you a chicken and rob you of a course completion time but you can still continue to have fun without having to give up just because your fingers have cramped up sufficiently that you just can't get that particular timing right.

And our fingers did cramp up. It had been a while that a game had provided so much entertainment for so little money.
Can you find the cat?
Because it was the first thing I saw when I looked at this wall.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Burlap Underwear: It Chafes

During the course of last week I've seen an increasing amount of people calling it quits.

Rift, for me, seems to have gone the way of Aion. People flocked to it with sparkling, hope-filled eyes and dreams of a better future. They opened the gates to a new world and, for a while, they made their best to adapt, to fit in, to discover the wonders they hoped to find. People were depending on Rift to take them into its loving embrace and carry them to a land of pixelated bliss while a choir of angels sang of their future exploits. Or something.

You see, we came from all walks of life (or games), carrying with us the desire to see aspects we loved from these games seemlesly integrated in a new and fresh body in a pretty dress. Is it any wonder must of us were disapointed?

Have a giraffe
I certainly was. My time in Rift was mainly spent near the loom in Sanctum, going through the most absurd rotation. I'd purchase or leech crafting materials to make pants; I would then destroy said pants to make room for more pants and to accrue more crafting materials; I would sell these second crafting materials to acquire money to buy pants-building materials and make even more pants. I found myself on this detestable loop of WASTE, on the losing side of a battle against burlap. I thought "what am I doing with my life? Is collecting 6 Goblin bladders for a lazy NPC really how I should be spending what little time I have on this earth?" It's just not for me. Which is not to say it's not for the rest of you. There are peolpe who love crafting pants. And even wearing them. Others like to pierce their geintalia for aesthetic purposes.

Trying to please both Greeks and Trojans is the worst thing a developer can hope to achieve. No two people will love the same things the same way. Maybe if they're twins. And the thing is air. Including everything people have ever praised about your competition doesn't sound like a good idea. Maybe that's why Trion didn't do it, which would explain the lacking PvP.

My next statement is possibly the most agreed upon by people in the know: Trion didn't fail but they didn't spectacularly succeed either. They tried to provide an alternative to the biggest hook in the sea and, as far as I know, they did so well enough (not counting the whole persistent queueing problem, that is). Or am I wrong?

My next statement is fact: I'm an immature player. I am EA's dream gamer, if you will. My brain is completely receptive and succeptible to marketing ploys and consumerist drives. Just a few minutes ago I blurted out "by the way, we forgot to buy that new Mass Effect DLC that just came out." The obvious response to this was an amused "what, is it mandatory? Especially after all the poor reviews?"

See what they did to me? That's downright scary.

Luckily, I took Friday to catch up on my Zero Puntuation reviews. Not only is it good practice to keep my English ear functional but it also promotes the critic in me. I don't have to love the games I like and I don't have to like what everybody else does. It's not that I didn't know this but I sometimes get swept by hypes and popular opinion.

Conclusion? Nothing I haven't stated before. I'm not sure, as of the now, of what I'm looking for in a game but I'd be a fool to restrict my views to popular trends. I do know what I did like and even love and I feel the increasing need to go back to the games that made me feel proud of calling myself a gamer. As opposed to, say, a pants weaver.

For a common goal.

I won't be going back to WAR in a hurry but, the truth is, I absolutely loved that game. It had its faults (and it seems to be growing them like tumors as time goes by) but it made me feel things (non-romantic or sexual things) that no other game has. It made me feel like a crucial cog in the machine; it also made me feel like an extra in a big theatre production. It made me feel like nothing I did mattered, at times. I mean, how many times can you kill a King? And, fucking hell, I miss a screen full of Cold Ones and screaming Choppas, bright lights and my character's pelvic thrusts.

And maybe, what I miss most of all, is the second M in MMORPG. I miss it being multiplayer, in the sense of playing with/against other players, not that some other people just happen to be playing it at the same time and you might cross paths on your way to the loom/workbench/drugstore. I don't see anyone grouping up to go kill those 20 pigs for that shady old man by that wagon. Not that you can't, but it's just not a worthy goal you can bond over.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dragon Age: Legends: My Friends Aren't Good Enough

For people who do not yet know, Dragon Age: Legends is the Facebook installment of the Dragon Age franchise. What self-respecting game doesn't have a Facebook counterpart these days? BioWare and EA2D like to brag about how DA:L is the "first real game on Facebook". I don't necessarily agree with this statement but more on that later. Perhaps a bit of insight on the game is in order.

I'm not really sure where DA:L sits in the DA timeline. I don't think it matters. As per my understanding, the basic story is that you were a kid that unwittingly helped destroy a great evil in the past. You made friends with a Viscount and off you go exploring. You are presented with a map where you can have encounters. These encounters are either battles or loot (at least so far). Interacting with these encounters costs energy. If you ever played a Farmville style game on Facebook you will be familiar with this concept. Energy is regenerated over time (about 1 energy every five real-time minutes) and encounters cost an average of 5 energy. Pretty soon you are also granted a small keep to act as your base. The mechanics of this castle are pretty simple, though. You build worker rooms and crafting rooms. Workers are used to craft potions and bombs. You can also build taverns to keep your workers happy (because booze makes everything better) and expansions to... build more worker rooms and crafting rooms.

So where is the social factor of this social network game? According to the devs themselves: 
Our core social feature in Legends is borrowing friends’ characters to fight alongside one’s own character in combat. As one’s friends level up their own characters, they make the game more fun by providing new skills and stronger characters to use. Unlike most RPGs, players of Legends will be able to try out the entire skill tree depending on how their friends upgrade their characters. Borrowing a friend’s character also provides that friend with a small gold bonus, which creates some interesting dynamics - encouraging players to have the most appealing characters (to earn more gold) while also giving veterans a charitable reason to bring along low-level friends they want to help.
What was the predictable outcome? Posts on the app page being flooded with comments of people saying simply "add me". We all know that "Facebook friends are not necessarily one’s actual friends". Just look at anyone with a friend count higher than 50. There aren't enough hours in the day for you to be an honest-to-God friend to over 50 people. In DA:L, like in other Facebook games, the more friends you have playing it the better items you are able to puchase and the faster you advance.

So how is that different from any other Facebook game? What makes it a real game? Does it have a compelling story? I haven't noticed. The afore mentioned Viscount sends you strolling around the countryside killing darkspawn to find his friends. Is it the gameplay? Well, there's not much more to it than a turn-based battle system with a small base with limited upgrading capabilities. It's a bit more envolving than bursting clusters of same-colored bubbles or stroking and selling farm animals but it is not so revolutionary that it can claim the title of real where others supposedly cannot. What do they claim, exactly?
Legends, on the other hand, was always built like a traditional game in which the player is presented with a series of interesting decisions, many of which might close off other options. Furthermore, your choices greatly affect your performance. A poor player can easily die many times in combat. A good player will do better, level up faster, and be rewarded accordingly.
No, but seriously, I have made no decisions whatsoever. Unless you're counting deciding where to place that furnace. It might be that I'm too low-level and am yet to reach a critical plot crossroads but if you're showcasing this game as being real for the fact that your decisions matter, give us the chance to make said decisions early on, no?

The developers apparently forgot to factor in the known ingenuity of Facebook players and watched in disbelief as players started befriending strangers to advance quickly in their playground, completely trouncing over their "balanced" system. So they came up with a Guild system. In short:
To fix this issue, we are creating a new system - Guilds. A Guild is a select group of 16 friends who are playing Legends. The player can only borrow characters for combat from this group of 16. (...)
(...). This feature creates some interesting social pressure, forcing players to choose between using their friends with the best characters and using their actual best friends.

A lot of players rose up against this but not in defense of their false-friends. It so happens that, like any other non-real game, DA:L has a store where you can exchange crowns for better items. Crowns, obviously, are that special currency that appears in the game once in a blue moon but is available to be purchased with real money. Apparently (and I have no proof of this because I'm only level 7) the game reaches a point where it is extremely hard to advance without having enough crowns to buy decent equipment or being able to recruit crown-geared "friends". If they limit your friend pool to 16 people and you like to play this game enough that you actually want to advance in it, who do you think you'll keep?

And what if you're like me and have no friends that actually play "the only real game on Facebook"? The only reason I even created a Facebook account was out of peer pressure. A few girls I ended up spending my days with desperately needed more people to feed their pigs and chop down their trees. They're FrontierVille die-hard loyalists. They have no idea what half the game's missions ask them to do, they just click the Publish button and enjoy the bouncy sparkling experience stars. They don't know what Dragon Age is. The friends I do have that know and like Dragon Age don't have a Facebook account.
Moreover, we want players to be interacting as much as possible with their real friends, as these are the most important social bonds tying the player to the game.

So where does that leave me? With two Facebook accounts, playing with myself. I'm bored enough that I have resorted to this kind of masturbatory gameplay to pass the time. One account is named "The Imaginary Friend" and the other "Brave Gonad". I will hop from one to the other, thinking how sad it is that I'm my only real Facebook friend. I'm too shy to ask random people to be my "friend". And all my other friends are


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Accidental Educational Gaming

English is not my native tongue and it shows. I once might have thought that it didn't but with age comes experience and experience begets wisdom which, in turn, promotes humility. You reach a point in life when you realize there will always be more to learn and you'll never have enough time or will to know it all.

Still, my English is better than most around here and I've had more than one teacher asking me if I was sure that I had never lived in an English speaking country. In a way I had: the world of multimedia entertainment.

When I was a young girl, cartoons were rarely subbed, especially the interesting ones like Captain Planet (he'll bring pollution down to zero one day, I know it) or Thundercats. So, from a very young age, I started absorbing this strange language they used, trying to understand what they yelled as they vanquished evil or died trying. Which is only natural considering that most of the known world speaks at least two languages. Most of humanity is bilingual. Smaller comunities in remote places will speak the language dictated by their governments along with the language taught to them by their parents.

I spent a few years majoring in linguistics. If nothing else, it helped me understand that linguists aren't the old sticks in the mud people take them to be. They, more so than other breed, preach that (much like magic in Dragon Age) language exists to serve man, not rule over him. A language's first and, arguably, only purpose is to help convey information. Therefore, groups of people that need to communicate will use a language to do so and they will do it in the most economical and eficient way possible. What this means is that the linguist in me is more prone to showing the finger to so-called grammar nazis than at people who spell things incorrectly.

Getting back to the point; I remember a few epiphanies I've had while learning this bizarre non-romance language. One day, around the age of eight, I was opening the door to our building when I suddenly realized the difference between "he" and "she". That was some hurdle to overcome, let me tell you. One other time I assimilated the meaning of "on hold" while playing Command&Conquer, its subtle difference from "hold on" despite both using the exact same words. What this means is that, without any effort on my part, entertainment was teaching me. And not through any special tv show like Sesame Street or a game that said "Educational" on the cover. The simple fact they were there and that I was using them opened the door for knowledge to be imparted unto me. I guess that can happen with everything.

This process continues today. I am perfectly able to understand a game from start to finish but, through force of habit, I'll usually turn on all subtitle options. Not only are we accostumed to watching every tv show with subtitles (even if we usually don't read them) but having a written auxiliary helps with memorising the correct spelling of more unfamiliar words. This alone has cimented a few rules like the difference between "your" and "you're" or "then" and "than". They're also a good source of idioms and sometimes I'll even pause the game to digest a witty pun, ending up grinning and finger-wagging a "I see what you did there" at the screen.

This has very little to do with the point, doesn't it? Well, apart from language skills, videogames have taught me a few lessons. Mostly about the importance of friendship, the power of a selfless sacrifice and how to efficiently dispose of a zombie. Oh, and that ugly children can be dealt with by removing the doors from a small room with a fireplace and plenty of rugs. All valuable life lessons. 
I'd play that.
By the way, I hear World of Tanks is out. I wish I liked tanks and guns and stuff. I'm more of a hack and slash girl, myself. Although if I think about it, I loved Ring of Red, Front Mission 3 and Valkyria Chronicles. Hmm. I might like tanky things more than I realise.

Now excuse me while I go come up with a coherent reason as to why someone would make another kill their own parents.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Playing God, For a Change

I've spent the weekend completely preoccupied with coming up with a structured plot. From my perspective, being an ST (you can call it Storyteller, Game Master or Dungeon Master even; it all amounts to the same) is much like being a gamedev. Only, instead of having to code and build a somewhat static environment you're free to to just type a few things up and unleash your world on your target audience. It will be them that shape where the game heads or, at least, how it gets where I want it to. Plus you don't have to be at the office on time. But you also don't get paid. Maybe it's not like it at all. Hmm.

Oppositely from a dev though, an ST must constantly adapt and change the world as things progress. MMOs today might launch a new patch or an update or even an expansion somewhat regularly (or, if they're really short-sighted, they do nothing forgetting that to stagnate is to die).

My point being, maybe that void that needs to be filled in my gaming needs will never be filled by videogame entertainment. Unless, of course, they assign a different developer to each player, to shape the world as they make decisions and push against what has been established so far. So maybe I should stop hoping for revolutionary games and turn my attention elsewhere.

That said, I've been playing tabletop RPGs for some ten years but there are still things I haven't seen done or tried or explored. I've had a blast with every chronicle but I decided it was time to try and make one of my own to expose me and others to different views, approaches and even creatures. Let's just hope this endeavour doesn't die on the shore.

If you've never had the pleasure of trying this kind of game let me throw you a few notions. Forget about nerdy fat guys playing in their parents basement. Today's roleplayers have lifes, jobs and kids. Just like other gamers. They gather around a table with sheets representing their characters instead of a controller and a screen and make decisions based on what the Overlord (yeah, I like that term better) tells them. The Overlord plays God as in he/she controls the environment and NPCs. Players speak out their actions instead of pushing buttons. There are rules, of course, and they depend on what particular system you've chosen to play. We stick to White Wolf's old World of Darkness d10 system. It's more pickup&play than a d20 system, imho.

oWoD has a lot to explore. It's set in the modern world (take that with a grain of salt. Most of the books were written circa 1995) which makes the setting more familiar to most people than medieval dragon slaying. This does not by all means restringe gameplay to the modern era. No, they've provided settings and rules spanning from the Dark Ages to today. You can choose from playing a vampire, a werewolf, a mage, a scientific disbeliever, a demon, a ghost, a faerie, a hunter or just a mere mortal in the middle of all these interesting and cuddly creatures.

This has made for some interesting stories over the ages. Some I've experienced. Some I can't even remember but I'm told happened and I'm inclined to believe them. Like that one time when a couple of Victorian Age mages sat down with a boy who was the reencarnation of some poweful spirit or other to enjoy one of those new fangled "ice-cream" things. Commence a 30 minute debate about who's paying the bill. Exit scene with two mages and an ice-cream splattered child running for dear life. Sometimes players decide to abandon the plot completely and go "look for the Plague". And when that fails they decide to "invent the Plague". Others go meet important figures and "accidentaly kill them". Anything can and usually does happen when you present players with the ultimate sandbox.

Adorable. Just wanna get a kleenex and wipe the edges of his mouth
saying "there now, all better."
More than with any videogame character, players tend to get extremely involved with characters they get to create and incarnate. I've had a few, myself. From the crazy cab driver vampire to the finnish green-eyed black guy called Hill. Once I was a small vampire woman with delusions of grandeur who ended up becoming ruler of a city and demanded a throne made entirely of phonebooks. Another time I played a Nosferatu based on the Mouth of Sauron called Sirius Mann. He was actually quite friendly. During the Dark Ages I was a vampire bred from a line of soldiers who was aptly called Curtis E. Foot. Curtis went on to carry a big two-handed sword and repel guards as other party members went off with relics from roman catholic churches. In Rome.

I guess you had to be there.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Steps and Storytelling

There's something that tends to annoy me to varying degrees in videogames. Stairs and their steps. Sometimes I wish that climbing and going down stairs was more realistic. Usually they'll just continue the run animation straight up/down what is basically a ramp with the skin of steps. In some games the running will be a bit slower in an attempt to simulate real life. Others disregard this completely figuring that if your character has the stamina to run their way through the plot, they might as well be able to run up them stairs.

I've seen games trying to tackle this problem. They will make sensibly sized steps and have their characters actually climb those steps one by one or two by two like regular people. I think Metal Gear Solid 2 did this but, seeing as my stealth skills, as Bart once put it, both suck and blow, I never played it enough to be sure. Problem with this is the game starts looking more like an exercise video and less about whatever the game might concern.

I'm not sure I'll ever be happy with the way these developers nowadays deal with the issue of ascending and descending a series of steps. Then again, if I want realistic step-climbing I could get off my shapely ass and do some climbing myself.


For all my complaining about the restrictiveness of games, there's one opportunity that has presented itself plenty of times over and I've always dodged. Much like I always do. It's been a long time since any of us have played a pen&paper chronicle and we've been jonesing for it. If you're looking for a sandbox game (from the perception I have of this genre which I'm still not sure is accurate) what better game than one you make yourself?

Nothing restricts your actions apart from the Storyteller. You want to climb that wall, go ahead and try. You want to kill that cat, go ahead and try. You want to be that cat, go ahead and try. It is possible that my cringing when faced with restrictive gameplay stems from my days as a WoD player, particularly Mage, where if you want to do something you just have to invent a way to accomplish it.

So. I keep going on about how I like making shit up but never before have I taken the mantle of ST. As in real life, I've been pretty content to just be a participant rather than a shaper of events. But I think I'm finally ready to go under the scrutiny of uncooperative players. There's just some things I'd like to throw at them.

I think I might even have come up with a plot. A somewhat interesting one at that. Possibly. Only thing now is, without knowing what characters the players are going to make, they all seem kind of unimportant at this stage. Well. We'll see.
Christopher Shy was kind enough to illustratea lot of things
for World of Darkness and the world is a beter place for it

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Baldur's Gate: Killing Me Hardly and Repeatedly

I played a little D&D in my time. I have no outstanding memories or funny anecdotes from those sessions. I just remember that creating a character took a reeeally long time. And advancing your character took a reaaaaally long time. In regards to that, Baldur's Gate does not disappoint.

Expo98 and one if it's feet splashing things.
Baldur's Gate was released in 1998 by Interplay, forged by the creative minds at Bioware. I was too young to be interested at the time, even more so considering the blandness of the cover. Yes, I was a shallow little thing back then. More busy splashing my feet at the international fair and enjoying the sunshine with my equally shallow friends than actually delve into a story-rich AD&D based RPG. For shame.

A few years back I found one of those 4-in-1 boxes containing BG, it's expansion and BG2 and it's expansion in a bargain bin. I bought it, went home and shoved it in a shelf. It's just one of those things that a gamer just knows he/she has to have. It's a piece of history. Doesn't mean I ever played it.

Flashforward to a few days ago. I had just finished my second run through Dragon Age II and I was reading a lot about how it was dumbed-down, how it was a stain on BioWare's pristine record. So I decided to start from the beggining and picked said box from the bottom of the shelf, jumped through some hoops and some loops to get it installed and running and gave it a go.

You know how they say that games today just hold your hand through them from start to finish? Well, Baldur's Gate takes your hand and slaps you around with it.

Take Dragon Age II, for example (it's the only example that comes to mind actually, what with me having played so much of it recently). From the moment you gain control of your character you are presented with a tutorial phase and every action you can take is explained in detail by an intrusive oversized square on the top right corner of the screen. If you're unlucky (or Mike) you'll keep getting these tutorials when you're midway through the game. Bugs suck. My point being that the interface is explained step by step so you know what you're doing and what every single button has to offer.

Baldur's Gate starts off by telling you your short life's story. You're an orpahn raised by this mage person. And now he says you have to go so... go buy shit. Suit up. Gird your loins. Things of that nature, generally. The interface is pilfered with icons you won't at first recognise with what little old spoiled me took as a RTFM statement. It was strangely refreshing. I consider myself intelligent enough to, within 30 seconds of picking up a new game, realise that the analog stick is for moving. Baldur's Gate gives you credit and is merely littered with other mage like characters that explain to you what basics of AD&D you might not be familiar with.

Killing you in the streets.
Quite literally.

So I start walking around, performing minor tasks like locating rats and destroying books (or was it the other way around) and finally I decide to proceed with the plot and leave town. After the untimely demise of my adoptive father I am reunited with my childhood friend, Imoen. This is quite possibly the most annoyingly-voiced character in the game but she has quite the fan base so I might as well shut up about it right now.

After this point you are told... just about nothing. There are a few people waiting for you in a tavern up north and way further up north there's the city of Baldur's Gate. At this point you might suddenly remember the name of the game so you figure Baldur's Gate, with a quick detour to pick up a few party members, seems to be a good choice. But you can't get to Baldur's Gate; there be bandits on the roads.

You're basically free to go do whatever you want while picking up one deranged mage after the other. There is a defined plot but it's not as straight forward as what we're used to these days and the journal is more like, say, a journal than actually a handy indexed summary of available quests.

After eight or some hours of play I dinged level 2. It was quite a shock. Not that it took eight hours but the fact I hadn't noticed eight hours had gone by. Not that I didn't work my ass off for that level. Believe you me, I did. I must've died some 20 times and "cheated" my way through the first boss I encontered in a mine. Games today make progression seem much easier. You are rewarded with a new level and the chance to further customize your character within the first hour os so of gameplay. Not only because it makes you feel like the time you've spent so far has actually accomplished something but it also gives them the chance to throw another tutorial at you. The Leveling Up tutorial. Once I leveled up, I didn't get to choose anything. Or maybe I got to allocate another point in weapon proficiencies. I can't remember.

What I can remember is this. Baldur's Gate is fucking hard. Thank the Maker for that quick-save button. It makes every battle count. Every pack of wolves I mowed down made me feel better about myself. Every pack of kobolds that interrupted my nap in the wilderness was a worthy challengeto my skills.

'Make no mistake,' the game yells at you. 'This game is about you. If you die, I'm outta here no matter what pansy ass minions of yours might still toil against my evil spawn. You're the hero. Deal with it.'

Baldur's Gate has battered me into submission. I've been spoiled by these new fangled ressurection spells and lenient combat engines. BG slaps you around with a trout until you realise that you're in the big leagues. In the words of someone who once commented on the importability of Shepard from Mass Effect 2 to 3 in case he had died: "As in real life, the main downside to death is the inability to keep on living." I know what game taught them that.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ultima Online: The MO Experience

I keep telling people that the first mmo I played was WAR. This is not entirely accurate. WAR was the only one that I played actively for more than a few months and paid substantially to do so. But before it, there were others.

The issue came about as Mike and I, when we weren't yet sharing a dwelling, were looking for something to play together on those long winter nights. Or perhaps it was the summer or the middle of spring. Regardless of the season, we spent our nights alone and, for avid gamers such as ourselves, regular chat facilitators just weren't cutting it. So we delved in the realm of F2P mmos. We spent a lot of time playing on a Ragnarok Online server but, after a while, we got bored of that too. So the three of us (for yes, there was a third person to our party) decided to try something different.

Mike had been an avid UO player in his younger years and we heard numerous stories of great times had by him and his crew. So we decided to give it a go.

Since that time, however, every computer I had used to play it has met an unfortunate demise, envolving heat, beeping (supposedly from the motherboard who did not appreciate said heat) and, in some extreme cases, an axe. Meaning that all screenshots I might have taken during that time went with them. Luckily not all computers met with equally gruesome fates and some shots of screens were saved allowing us to reminisce about the good times we had.

Me being returned half my shit after I died

One of the few things I remember about UO is the backpack. I remember my inventory was much like my own bag in real life. There weren't (as there aren't) any defined spaces for you to put things. As long as you're physically able to lift it up and carry it about you can go crazy. I'm sad that this concept was lost. No matter how inconvenienced I may be, I would like to be restricted from carrying around 42 halberds as easily as I would 42 trinkets. It just makes more sense. And sense adds to immersion. And immersion adds to... hours flying by while you play.

One other thing that I remember the game doing right was the option of taming your own horse. In recent games (read WAR and Rift, dunno about all the others) everybody is "born" with the ability to ride a horse and I get that. All these characters were probably born in a stable anyway, given the setting they're spawned into. But if riding an equine/bear/insect/turtle is such a basic skill, couldn't we also be given the chance of taming the beasts ourselves? I mean, that's more content to entertain us right there, right? I'm not saying remove mount vendors completely but at least give us the option to bypass them. And crafting! You could actually gain muscle mass by mining. I didn't get much for my time spent crafting in Rift except a bag full of burlap shoes I was never going to wear. After all that sewing I could've at least earned some dexterity points, no?
Horse taming amidst corpses of some sort.

In time we retreated back to Ragnarok. I think we all missed the first M (the one that stands for Massive) since there were only three of us playing at the same time in that particular server. But I'll never forget a few things we did there.

One day, I was so in character that I suggested we "go talk over there, so we can sit down on those benches." Only once or twice did I feel like moving my doll around to a more comfortable position during my two years of playing WAR and I never even sat down in Rift. It says a lot that, after only about a week in the game I was so lost in it that I was looking for agreeable places to have a chat in.

UO wasn't and isn't perfect but a lot of people loved it for very good reasons. If I understand this sandbox concept well (which, I'm afraid, Is still a bit alien to me) this was a good example of it and one that captivated and entranced many. It was a good game and many people miss something remotely like it. Most likely, recent games like it exist but just aren't public enough for lil' old me to know of them.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Where'd He Go? D:

Where'd my Buffalax go?

Buffalax was my youtube hero. Apparently Bollywood took him down due to some petty copyright infringement bullshit.

This was the worst news I had all week.