Monday, April 25, 2011

Mmm... Filler

Some games have a serious problem. They hide their best parts behind mindless tedium.
A few examples:

Dragon Age: Origins- The Deep Roads
The Deep Roads is, doubtless the longest, most tedious, repetitive section of Dragon Age. At least to me. I purposely leave Orzammar for last just because of the Deep Roads. For those not familiar with the Deep Roads, let me describe them. Grey or brown tunnels, stretching endlessly, filled with monsters that you have to kill. This section, as the Spoiler Warning crew mentioned, can easily take 8 hours.
There are some interesting quests in there, but for the most part, the Deep Roads is delicious, delicious filler. What we really want to do, is get to the climax of the area. A high school student that paid attention in English can tell you that a good narrative has a build up, and then a climax, followed by the denouement, or simply the wrap up.
Where each of these falls in the book depends on the style, the story and the writer. It's also worth noting that too long of a build-up gives us a bit of a Charlie Brown effect. We're ready to run up and kick the football of literary climax, but the author keeps pulling it away. Now imagine that the first section of the book isn't even build-up. It's all flat. Where most of the other quests have you getting to the fun bits (the Fade sections, exploring ancient ruins), when you're doing the Orzammar questline, you're rather stuck.

First, you have to earn the trust of one of the guys who wants to be king. This, on its own, takes a good few hours as you need to go through a dungeon filled with rogues and criminals.
That done? Good! Go find us our genius! You wander through the deep roads, kill a bunch of stuff. Not fun. Bored yet? No? Go do the same thing only it's twice as big and fight a boss monster! (This is actually the good part.) Are we there yet? NOPE! Navigate the trap infested corridor, choose which side you want (dwarves v. golems), fight it out and then return to the guys.
So what we really have is a lot of failed attempts to build momentum here. Half the problem is that Orzammar is made up of no fewer than five different areas. Most of the time, the game will have you running from one end to the other. That's usually two loading screens per fetch quest, repeated at least once. I like that the area seems to be a living breathing city, but there are other ways to suggest that than by making me run through this place a few dozen times.
When you're choosing a noble to side with? That's building a bit of momentum that is instantly destroyed when you have to go and clean up the criminal element of the city. First you need to find someone who'll talk to you about the gangs, then you need someone to give you a special token to get into the hideout, then you start beating up dudes. For about an hour.
And you still aren't done. Orzammar takes two-thirds of the the game the first time you play it.

Mass Effect 2- The Scanning Mini-Game

I can't speak to the mini-game from the player's point of view, only from the point of view of having watched someone play. There's a reason that Spoiler Warning turned the probing mini-game into a Q&A series. It's boring. You need these resources to upgrade your ship, which you need to get a good ending (ie. One where 95% of your crew isn't dead). It's tedious and repetitive. Pointlessly so. This didn't need to be there.

Sims Medieval- Responsibilities and Resource Points
I was tempted to say Sims Medieval- The whole game, but that would be wrong. The Sims Medieval is a Sims game. Like the other Sims games. Only you're in Generic Fantasy Europe and you have sims. You can only control one or two of these (I think three is the most I've seen possible at once) sims at a time. These are your heroes. They all have little archetypes that they fit, you have your monarch, and a spy and a wizard and a knight and a bard... Here's the problem. You have to build up their numbers.
When you first start the game, you have to make your monarch (or use one of the premade ones but who does that? That's like buying a box of cookies for the cardboard and plastic) and run through a brief tutorial.
Once you finish the tutorial, you get "Resource Points" with which you can make another building, RTS style, which will unlock a new hero. Maybe. Depending on which building you build. The problem is that the rewards for completing the game's quests (Resource Points) don't scale, while the cost of building new buildings to procure new Sims does. This is a problem.
The other problem is the responsibilities in the game. Each sim has a set of responsibilities that they need to complete each day. If you're the king it might be holding court and listening to petitions. If you're a knight, you could be training someone to fight. These have a time limit. If you don't complete them, your progress on the quest goes down. A lot of the time, the quests themselves have filler, by making you walk back and forth from A all the way to Z. And the responsibilities aren't well explained. If you don't know where to find sagewort or how to make a potion?
It's a lot of mucking around to get to the good part, which is the questing and making new sims. After having played this for a few hours, I've found I want to be able to make my Sims more frequently. It's like they know they don't have a solid game, so they're filling it up with sand. Actually, I'm pretty sure that's what happened.

Dear Game Developers: If you don't have a whole game, perhaps you should finish making the game.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Discrete Skills

The problem, I think with the divide between gamers and non-gamers is the skills required to play. Not Leet skills, or even mad skills, just the basic tool-use that you've likely acquired between the 1980s and now. Gamers might see each individual game as a rehash of something they've learned somewhere else. Even the vague differences in the shape of a controller don't matter much.

I've only got a gamecube and a handful of games on hand at the moment, but let's say you're playing Halo? You run up to a guy, strafe around behind him (making sure you keep him on screen) and melee him to death. To you, this might be a single skill. Two at most. The ability to get close to an enemy and kill them without firing, or dying yourself.

To a non-gamer, trying to do the same thing is several discrete skills. Separate things they have to learn.

The first thing isn't the controller. It's the screen. What do all the little blinking lights mean, which ones are you supposed to shoot. I got my exposure to shooters in Goldeneye. As much as people may argue, shooters have not changed significantly since then.

Once they know what the game is telling them, they have to be able to tell the game to do things. This means using the controller. I started playing games on an old NES system in a basement in the late 90s, and on my cousin's N64 when I would visit them. Holding a controller properly (so you can reach all the buttons) and knowing where the buttons are is more difficult than you might think.

An NES controller had an A and B button, a four ways you could push the D-pad, as well as a start button and select. Jump forward to the Super NES, another two buttons next to A and B, plus two shoulder triggers, start and select. From eight to twelve buttons.

Another jump forward to the N64! Six buttons on the one side (A, B, and 4 C buttons) a 4 direction D-pad, two shoulder triggers, a start button and a Z-button on the underside, as well as an 8 direction analog stick. This puts us at 22 possible "buttons". Adding to this that the basic shape of the controller has changed and we're now working in three dimensions.

Sixth generation consoles!
The Gamecube: two analog sticks (8 directions each) A, B, X and Y buttons, two shoulder triggers, a Z button located above a shoulder trigger, the D-pad and a start button. 28 "buttons".

The XBox: A, B, X and Y buttons, a d-pad, two analog sticks, start/select, two shoulder triggers and a black/white button pairing. The analog sticks "click" to add an extra button. 32 "buttons"

The Playstation! (Dualshock controller) Two analog sticks, four shoulder buttons, a four button set on the left and right sides, start and select. 30 "buttons".

That's between 28 and 30 discrete inputs. We're not even going to get into the fact that an analog sticks can tell the difference between the force being used on them, or combinations of buttons. Now imagine you haven't played a game before and you have to figure out how to use this monstrosity, and you have no idea what you're doing.

So now you've learned the hardware. Time to learn the software!
Just to list the things that people might take for granted that they've learned:
2D platforming
3d platforming
Fine-motor skills
Tropes (it's glowing, so shoot it, lots of ammo here: boss battle)
Circle strafing
Basic game puzzles
Basic game cues (red arrows denote where I'm getting shot from, blood on the screen means I'm getting shot)
Use of cover
Button combinations

Circle strafing is a tricky one, I think, for new gamers to grasp. I really got started playing video games on a gamecube I got for christmas, it is also my gaming system while I'm away from home, so I'll use it as an example.
In Metroid Prime, you can lock on to an enemy using the left shoulder trigger. While locked on (holding this trigger) you can circle around the enemy by tapping the B button and pushing the control stick in the direction you wish to circle. In some cases, you are expected to fire while circle strafing. For a new gamer, this might be overwhelming.

I intend to take the time to introduce a non-gamer to gaming at some point in the future, so we'll see how the discrete skills approach works.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I hate misandrists

I have spent the last three hours in a presentation about partner abuse.
I have decided, as a result, that western culture has a rather serpent-like tendency to be misandrist.

Not familiar with the word? Let's look at it for a minute!

The hatred of, or pathological aversion to men.

Well, Nonesuch! you say, from where do you draw this conclusion?

I'm glad you ask Timmy!

This presentation had three guest speakers, two of them were women. One of them was a victim of domestic abuse which, don't get me wrong, is terrible. The other woman was the exectutive director of a local women's shelter who, following her piece, showed us a 17-year-old abuse victim's bit of movie maker work, which denigrated men.

Following this, I was in a round table discussion led by a female, where the person sitting next to me could not keep their mouth shut about their father and other less than admirable examples of men.

Let me make this perfectly clear to people. I have no problem with women. Anyone who harms their spouse/partner/whateveryoucallit should be strung up with their own innards. That isn't right.

A colleague of mine witnessed a guy strike his girlfriend after I might note, she would not let him go past her.

Now. I was not there. I did not witness this. But in most people's minds, since the lady was on the ground, it was the dude's fault. You really need to wonder? Why did he hit her? What brought it to that point? People typically do not hit people for no reason.

I hear people speaking quite audibly behind me in the hallways, about their stupid boyfriends.
I'm hoping to make it quite clear: These people are squeaky wheels. So of course you hear about them. You don't hear about people who are perfectly fine.

In my own experience, women can be incredibly unpleasant people, emotionally abusive and whatnot. I don't hold that against anyone. If I think you're an idiot, it's because I legitimately think you are an idiot.

I implore people not to lump their bad experiences with one person of a gender onto the entire gender. I am not a rapist, a domestic abuser, an alcoholic, a male chauvinist or similar, so don't treat me like one, and don't treat my fellows like one.

Unless they deserve it. In which case, kick them in the balls for me.

Monday, April 11, 2011


I enjoy jam. It's sweet and delicious, and you can use it in so many ways. Unfortunately, I have to walk to the grocery store and I'm a student. A friend got me to buy a bag of frozen berries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries for making smoothies and milkshakes because I don't eat especially well.

This week I discovered another use for those berries.
Jam is essentially crushed up bits of fruit, the juice and sugar. So I'm making up breakfast, I've got scrambled eggs, hash browns and toast. I'm out of butter, and my jam is upstairs. I open the freezer to put the bag of hash browns back, and spot the bag of berries. I've almost reached the end of the bag.

"Hey me! Jam is just crushed up fruit and stuff, throw those in the pan!" So I do it. Jam also has sugar and pectin (which is what makes it happy and more solid). I have a bunch of brown sugar in a bin, throw that into a cup with some water to dissolve it and toss it in the pan. Boiling it down to increase the sweetness. Pouring the resultant sweet, sticky mess onto some toast makes it delicious.
Hot jam. This is my new favourite thing to put on toast.


A course, or even basic learning about ethics seems a little weird.
Marking someone on their ethics seems wrong to me.
Whether or not something is ethical is subjective. It is true, that some ethics are widely shared by cultures, not killing people, not stealing, but when we're getting into case studies, having right and wrong answers for the subjective ethics of a group of students is wrong.

Suggesting that something is more or less ethical is fine. Telling someone that their code of ethics is wrong, is in and of itself, unethical. At least by my system.

Ethics studies are silly.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Curry-beef, veggie bean monstrosity.

It's better than it sounds.
I cook experimentally, when I don't know what I want to eat. The result is either utterly horrible or bloody delicious.
This evening's dish started out as baked beans in a pot, on the stove.
Poking through the freezer I found the last of my pre-portioned ground beef, and the bag end of a mix of frozen veggies. So I toss those in the frying pan together on high.

I find a jar of curry powder in one of the cabinets, and once the meat has started to cook, I throw that in with some salt and pepper.
Mix it up and add soy sauce. With the beans still cooking away. I add some basil leaves to the mixture, cook it up a bit more, and then throw the beans into the frying pan and turn the heat down by a third.

There's still some beans in the bottom of the can (they always stick there) so I toss some vinegar in to get them out. No sense wasting food, I'm on a budget. Add a handful of brown sugar and throw that in.

Mix it all together and serve it up. With a bit of brown toast. I haven't tried it, but it might taste good on top of rice. Or replace the beans with rice? I'm not sure. I'm certain it could be kicked up in some way.

Disclaimer: This isn't a recipie. It's guidelines. You could, in theory, achieve the same dish by following this vague set of instructions. Or at least one very similar, but if you really want to cook? Live a little. Deviate from the guidelines. Don't like curry? Try chili powder! Add more spices, less spices, make it with chicken instead of beef. Throw the veggies and meat into the beans. Do what you will with it.