The Altered Scrolls, Part 7: We Make a Special Trip, Just for You

By Rutskarn   Sep 19, 2015   Video Games 145 comments

Sometimes you’re at a used bookstore and you pick up an old paperback fantasy novel you’ve never head of. You’re not even sure why you buy it–maybe you like the cover, or the summary on the back was well written, or it’s on-sale for something confrontationally cheap like a nickel or a petition signature. Nothing grandiose. Nothing you can really point to later.

You don’t read it right away, because it’s not that kind of purchase–you just throw it onto the backseat of your car and forget about it for a couple days. Later you’re getting out of your car and you remember to  bring it in and put it on your desk. Then one day you sit down with your lunch, realize you left the Comic History of the Peleponnenisan War you’d been reading at home–and with nothing else to read, you grab the old paperback and flip to page one. You put the book down on page seventy. From that lunch break onwards, you’re pushing through this book like it’s your job.

It’s good–but it’s not really that it’s good. It’s that it’s weird.

The hero is born in a village that isn’t burned down by orcs. Magic rules are patterned around some obscure historical mystic tradition that doesn’t comfortably conform to established conventions or even vocabulary–spellcasters aren’t wizards, but byrzkars, and that’s somehow relevant instead of annoying. Elves aren’t haughty fey, which would be cliche, or evil celestial beings, which would be edgy cliche–they’re some third choice that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything anyone’s done with elves before. But it works. It feels alive and organic and fresh and you find yourself transported–and why should you be surprised at that, when transport is supposedly the aim of fantasy? How jaded were you–and how has this book gotten past it?

It’s kind of like you showed up to watch a stringed instrument contest. For hours you hear everything from Jim Croce acoustic guitar to twanging Southern six-string riffs to wailing glamrock solos to doom-shaken death metal crunch. And just when you’re trying to figure out where on the sliding scale of soft folksy guitar to ear-splitting electric guitar your tastes lie, some guy comes on with a cello and effortlessly changes the context of the entire show. That paperback fantasy novel probably won’t end up being your favorite ever. It may not be the first book you recommend to people. You may not even seek out other work by that author. But years later, if you come across the spine of that book on your shelf, it’ll all come rushing back. For better or for worse, that book was different enough to stick with you to the grave.

Give it time, and that’s exactly what Morrowind is. It may not be your favorite videogame, but give it time and something about it will crawl into your brain and refuse to leave.

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Knights of the Old Republic EP12: That’s No Moon…

By Shamus   Sep 18, 2015   Spoiler Warning 98 comments

Link (YouTube)

Seven minutes. It takes nearly seven minutes of unbroken dialog to resolve the end of this promised land quest, which is an optional quest with no connection to the main plot and which is rendered entirely moot shortly thereafter. For contrast, Shepard is only dead for three and a half minutes of screen time in the opening of Mass Effect 2.

And now, a collection of Star Wars quotes that people never realized are actually about our character’s ass:

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Knights of the Old Republic EP11: Swoop, There it is

By Shamus   Sep 17, 2015   Spoiler Warning 138 comments

Link (YouTube)

It’s odd to come back to this game after so many years. Watching Josh fiddle with the level-up choices, I can remember struggling with decisions that seem obvious now. The whole D20 thing was largely opaque to me, since it had been almost twenty years since the last time I had contact with that sort of game.

BioWare went from these number-crunchy tabletop adaptations where understanding D20 mechanics is almost a prerequisiteThe only saving grace is that the games tend to be easy. If the game required a competent build, I never would have made it through., to “baby’s first RPG”, which is just industry-standard action gameplay with a very mild dose of stat-boosting built in. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like they sailed right past the sweet spot without ever hitting it.

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Mass Effect Retrospective 14: Lord of the Retcons

By Shamus   Sep 17, 2015   Mass Effect 223 comments

Here is the final post on Mass Effect 1. And really, this post is more about the gap between the first and the second game. I know people rag on the ending of the third game, but for me the shift from ME1 to ME2 is where the entire world of Mass Effect fell apart. From there it was just a matter of waiting for the mistakes to take their toll.

So before we get into Mass Effect 2, let’s talk about the difficult work of connecting sequels by examining Lord of the Rings. Not because LotR is an unimpeachable work, but because it’s well-received, well-known, and we collectively have the benefit of decades of hindsightAlso because it gives me an excuse to link to the following CGP Grey videos, and they are really, really good..

Lord of the Rings

Link (YouTube)

In the first bookYes, Lord of the rings is a single story broken into three volumes of six books, but if you jump in and try to correct people referring to “Three Books” then you are officially the Most Annoying Person Ever. This is simply the most convenient and accessible way of discussing the story. Go away. the author presents an intractable problem: The Dark Lord is coming for his ring, and we can’t possibly hold off his armies. We can’t hide the ring, because it needs to be looked after to keep it from getting itself found by the enemy. We can’t hold onto the ring, because it will consume whoever holds it. And most of all we can’t USE the ring, because that would both hasten the corruption and act as a beacon for the enemy.

We can’t use it, hold it, hide it, or destroy it. This is quite a pickle we’re in, Mister Frodo!

Let’s imagine an alternate world where JRR Tolkien, for whatever reason, was unable or unwilling to continue Lord of the Rings beyond The Fellowship of the Ring. So the sequel is handed off to some different writer. Let’s call him George.

George looks back at Fellowship, skims the few notes Tolkien left for him, scratches his head, and comes up with his own version of The Two Towers: In it, Frodo meets another wizard named (say) Yandalf, who explains that no, Gandalf was wrong. The One Ring can totally be used to destroy Sauron, as long as the person wielding it is virtuous enough to resist corruption. Yandalf decides Frodo is worthy, so he teaches him to use the ring. Frodo gets all kinds of amazing super powers and raises an army. With the Ring he compels orcs to join his side, and when they join him they become niceI hate this story, but if someone decides to make it I hope you at LEAST have the decency to cast Peter Dinklage as Badass Frodo..

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Knights of the Old Republic EP10: Mission Edition

By Shamus   Sep 16, 2015   Spoiler Warning 146 comments

Link (YouTube)

I’ve never betrayed the Hidden Beks, but I assume that even if you do, you still end up having to participate in the Swoop Bike race.

So the Beks have this unstable engine that might kill the driver. It’s so dangerous that Gadon doesn’t want any of his people to use it. Then the Black Vulkars steal it, and THEY don’t want to use it either. So the two sides are fighting over an engine that neither of them want to use. And even though you’re demonstrably stronger than either gang, they somehow strong-arm you into driving this thing, which even if it doesn’t kill you is still probably cheating. You do this in order to win the swoop bike race, even though you don’t care who wins, because it’s supposedly the only way to reach Bastila.

The game doesn’t explain why you couldn’t simply attend the race as a spectator / interloper. I get that Bastila was in an undisclosed location, but I imagine everyone knows where the race itself is held. Seeing as how you’ve just wiped out one of the major gangs in this city, it’s reasonable to assume you could simply free her via direct assault. And even if that’s not possible, it seems like it would be easier to free her after the race. One gang or another is going to win her, at which point you can recover her without needing to pilot a rocket bomb through a rigged race.

Maybe you’re doing it this way simply because it’s less violent? But then you end up having to kill people anyway.

And then Bastila frees herself. And then she mocks you for your trouble.

So you have to fight a war to recover an engine nobody wants, to win a race you don’t care about, to free a woman who doesn’t need your help.

This entire quest is a stupid, irritating, horribly contrived slog that clogs up the story right when things need to get moving. For the purposes of the plot, the writers ought to get us to Dantooine as fast as possible so we can introduce the actual main elements of this story. There’s lots of time later for arena fights, swoop-bike racing, and gang politics. But of course you can’t come back to this place once you leave.

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Experienced Points: Why Do Games Take Up so Much Space?

By Shamus   Sep 15, 2015   Escapist 83 comments

My column this week talks about game sizes (in terms of disk space) but wait don’t hit the back button yet it’s more interesting than it sounds I promise. Also, it’s better punctuated than the previous sentence, so do give it a try.

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Diecast #121: Mario Maker, Metal Gear, Mad Max

By Shamus   Sep 14, 2015   Diecast 92 comments

Direct download (MP3)
Direct download (ogg Vorbis)
Podcast RSS feed.

Direct link to this episode.

Hosts: Josh, Rutskarn, Mumbles, Campster.

Episode edited by Rachel.

Show notes: Continue reading »

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Bad and Wrong Music Lessons, Part 6: “House” Music

By Shamus   Sep 13, 2015   Music 50 comments

It’s been almost a year since I did one of these posts where I infuriate music nerds by explaining everything simply enough for you to understand, but just wrong enough to be really, really annoying.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am both a music snob and a music slob. Some people have deep, broad tastes. They appreciate everything from classical to metal, and know lots of obscure things about everything on the spectrum. My tastes are narrow and shallow. I basically only like electronic music, and I only like the catchy mainstream stuff. I’m not particularly knowledgeable. I can’t explain the musical roots and influences of an artist or genre. My talent for music appreciation begins and ends with, “This sounds catchy. I’ll listen to it until I’m sick of it.”

So reading music lessons from me is like getting lessons in movie production from somebody who only watches Michael Bay movies. It’s not that I can’t teach you anything, it’s just that there are literally tens of thousands of people in the world who could teach you orders of magnitude more.

But as luck would have it, I run this blog and not them, so you’ll have to settle for the flakes of knowledge I manage to glean from Wikipedia and my own misguided experiments. Today’s lesson – which has already been obnoxiously spoiled by the post title – is on the genre of “house music”. Here’s an example of the form:

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Knights of the Old Republic EP9: Garbage Computer

By Shamus   Sep 11, 2015   Spoiler Warning 217 comments

Link (YouTube)

I don’t know what it is about this game that lets it get away with so much. The combat is wonky, the game balance is way off, the moral choices are both idiotic and frequently negated, the dungeons are long and repetitive, the first planet drags on forever, you’re not allowed be be a Jedi until you’re forced to be one, a couple of the characters are pointless, and the hats are humiliating. But I still love it.

I think it comes down to the same reason I love Mass Effect 1: They nail the tone I’m looking for, and a couple of the characters are outstanding. If you get those right, you can apparently fumble nearly everything else.

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The Altered Scrolls, Part 6: Combat and IPISYDHT#2

By Rutskarn   Sep 11, 2015   Video Games 67 comments

You know the drill. Just like last time, post your questions about Daggerfall below and I’ll go through and answer them.

But first, a sample of gameplay:

I’m not sure how long I’ve been in this dungeon for. A couple hours? It started out as a series of narrow sloping tunnels and then turned into a giant cavern…full…of…towers? Which is odd, because I’m relatively certain this was supposed to be a fort. Also I was sent here to kill orcs and this place is chock-a-bursting with werewolves.

Oh, it’s a room full of chains and torture devices. This can’t be that other room full of chains and torture devices–there were two half-naked female corpses in there from the assassins I killed–so this means I am, in fact, finding new areas. That’s a huge relief. Let’s check the map just for the hell of it.

Now, from this chunkily-rotating jagged 3D map of a winding multilevel dungeon with only one isometric angle that refuses to load anything but a very tight locus of content, I can conclude that I am currently in a dungeon. From this data point I can further induce that I am sick of the dungeon and that I want to leave.

I found a chain and clicked on it. Now I’m levitating. I’m not sure how that works, but I can use it to get down into this little pyramid thing. How will I get *out* of the pyramid thing? I couldn’t guess. It’s quite possible that I’ve just completely screwed myself and that there is no earthly way for my character to get out again. It’d be one thing if there was a vertical wall to climb, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

A monster type I’ve never seen before is shooting spells at me. I kill it. It would seem that it is not, in fact, an orc.

There is definitely no way out of here.

Hey, on the bright side, now I get to go back three hours ago. If I’m very careful, and follow my notes precisely, maybe I can get lost in the same direction as last time.

I am neither careful nor precise. I wind up down a different passage and end up in another big cavern. Across a giant gap I can see more towers, more tunnels. I am sick at the prospect of having another complex the size of the one I just clambered out of to explore, and begin to reflect on the many ways this game resents my not being a wizard who can teleport himself home immediately. Oh, and here’s a spider that I have to wrestle my camera to an awkward angle to kill. Interesting nature fact: spiders are not orcs.

You know, if I’m down here much longer, this quest is going to expire.

And now, your questions:

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Knights of the Old Republic EP8: The Sewer Level

By Shamus   Sep 10, 2015   Spoiler Warning 132 comments

Link (YouTube)

We have a wookie with a life-debt. We have giant slug creature that’s named “Something the Hutt” who runs some sort of shady enterprise. Later we have a Jedi council led by a little Yoda guy. We have a doomsday space station, Jedi in brown robes, a spaceship named in the form of “Adjective Bird”Yes, ‘Millennium’ is clearly being used as an adjective in the case of Han Solo’s ship, even though the word is normally a noun. This is not a nit worth picking., a sidekick astromech droid that speaks in beeps, and yet another trip to Tatooine.

They call this the “Expanded Universe” but in a lot of ways it’s more like the “Expended Universe”. All the ideas are worn out and used up. They take something done in the movies and simply repeat it. Why invent new planets when we can keep going back to Tatooine? Why invent new crime bosses or new designs for Hutts when we can just make a never-ending series of Jabba knock-offs? Why create a new alien sidekick when we can repeat the “Wookie with a life-debt” gag?

Having said that, I admit it’s a difficult problem to solve and I think KOTOR actually does fairly well. Yes, they lean on some really iconic, trope-y ideas, but they also invent new stuff. Manaan, Selkath, Juhani, and HK47, are new. The Malak / Revan dynamic is nothing like Vader / Palpatine. Canderous feels Star-Wars-ish and he’s not just a lame copy of Han Solo. The Ebon Hawk looks and feels just right without being a lazy copy of the famous Corellian freighter. Calo Nord looks a bit doofy, but he feels like he belongs in this universe and he’s not a stupid Boba Fett knockoff.

Writing Star Wars is hard. You need to come up with something new and different, but it also needs to nail that particular tone and style of Classic Star Wars. That’s not easy. Partly it’s hard because actually expanding on the work of other writers while maintaining a consistent feel is challenging workIt’s probably more difficult than simply writing something original. Not only do you have all the normal obligations of pacing, plotting, and characterization, but you need to be able to understand and mimic the sensibilities of another author.. The other reason it’s hard is because nobody really agrees on what ingredients give Star Wars its identity. Which explains why so many authors copy the obvious superficial elements of the universe and then totally whiff on the tone.

You could make the case that KOTOR is both more original and yet more true to the original trilogy than the prequel movies are. I realize that sounds sort of heretical to claim that KOTOR is somehow “more Star Wars-y” than real, official, actual Star Wars, but that really is how it feels to me.

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Mass Effect Retrospective 13: Plan B From Outer Space

By Shamus   Sep 10, 2015   Mass Effect 166 comments

Before we move on to Mass Effect 2, let’s talk about what what we might expect to see as someone who just completed the first game and had no idea where the sequels were going to go.

The Plan is to Come Up With a Plan Later

Saren performs an emergency RENEGADE INTERRUPT on himself.

In the past I’ve said that BioWare’s problem was that they didn’t have a plan for Mass Effect. After re-playing the first game and looking back at the arrangement of plot elements, I have to say it’s pretty clear I was completely wrong. Somebody did indeed have a plan. No, they didn’t know the secret behind the Reapers or how the heroes would stop them, but they did have a framework to build on. They had clear direction for the story. The first game spent a lot of time establishing a very particular arrangement of elements and characters to facilitate the quest-driven nature of this series. It was ideally suited to explain why a squad of three people on foot was the best way to solve the problem of genocidal machine gods.

Reapers are an unbeatable race of machine gods that are coming to wipe out all life. However, it’s completely up in the air as to how long it will take them to get here. More importantly, we have no means to fight them. This creates questions in the minds of the audience, and those questions perfectly line up with the needs of the plot and the motivations of the central characters. Shepard’s last line in the game drives this point home, “The Reapers are still out there. They’re coming. And I’m going to find some way to stop them!” The final line of the game explained what the sequel would be about.

Prothean ruins are scattered throughout the galaxy, and they hold secrets that can advance the plot. They can have technology which grants us new weapons. They can have a VI like Vigil that can bestow explicit information, or they can have beacons that dispense vague hints. They can have hidden mass relay jumps to secret locations. They can appear on distant uninhabited worlds, be found near colonies, or be hidden beneath existing cities. Most importantly, they can hold as much or as little about the Reapers as the plot requires. Basically, they give the writer the excuse to send us anywhere. They can design a variety of fun quests, set pieces, and locations, and then just stick a Prothean ruinBy “Prothean ruin” I mean any item from any of the previously reaped races, even if it’s not necessarily Prothean in origin. or artifact nearby to give the plot a reason to go there.

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