Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rambling - Olympic Sound Discs

To push gaming boundaries, or not?

Personally, I think this is a question that must plague all the top game development studios on the market today.  It is a problem that I think can make or break a studio, in both directions.  They might decide to push the envelope and do something never before seen in the genre of the game they make, earning the ire of fans who fear change and demand games that are more like others.  Or they might decide to play it safe and make their game quite similar to others of the genre, thereby angering the player-base who accuses them of being lazy.  In essence, I think it becomes a gamble on which side of the player-base they are more likely to rile depending on which path they decide to follow.

On one hand, the players who become angry when a game turns out to be drastically different from another in its genre are, I think, the vast majority of the player base.  They are those I referred to in a previous blog; gaming doesn't mean the world to them, but it's something they do and so they want it to be enjoyable.  Yet since they don't surround themselves with all things gaming, every time they play a game they have to relearn how this new game plays.  They are not interested in the nuances of different game mechanics, all they know is that when playing a game that is too different from others in the genre they have to spend time just learning how to play.  Learning the way a new game works is boring and annoying to these people, because they just want to have fun shooting, adventuring, flying, or what have you.

On the other hand, I think those players who crave innovative gameplay, the ones who chastise game companies for doing the same thing that other games of the genre have done before, are at the heart of gaming.  I, for one, count myself among this crowd.  Gaming is something to which I devote the significant majority of my time, effort, and resources.  When I play a new game I genuinely want to see new game mechanics because I find it entertaining to think about how those mechanics work with others, and how they're different from the way games of that particular genre normally do things.  For us, learning how to play a new game that's different from other games of its genre can often be part of the fun.  When we encounter game mechanics too similar to those other games of the genre, it appears to us as if the developers didn't care about their game enough to experiment, and just pushed out "another clone," to use a derogatory comment.

So to which group should the developers cater?  The first group is, in my estimation, the one to which is generally deferred in the vast majority of situations.  By simple virtue of their greater numbers, the casual gamers and hobby gamers carry enough monetary weight that either developers have no fiscal choice but to listen to their wishes, or the production studios that own said developers make it a requirement.  If they don't keep the majority of the customer base happy, a studio might simply wither away and die.  They are, after all, in the business of being in business.

Yet the second group is one I believe remains important to the developers simply because, in a sense, they're the same.  I don't doubt that there are some game developers who are only in the business because they see it as a burgeoning industry where fortunes might be made.  Yet I fully believe that most people who get into the gaming industry do so because they love games, they love gaming itself, and they want to be a part of it.  For this reason they can identify with those of us who crave new and innovative game design, because they want to see it too.  When they play new games from other studios, and when they make games themselves, it's more fun if the game mechanics are new and interesting.  So to avoid developing new mechanics for their games risks angering and alienating the core of the player-base that is, frankly, more identifiable with the development team.  They're the ones who follow specific careers, who genuinely care about the work the developers are doing.

So what you do?  Do you aim to please the people who genuinely love your work and care what you do, but whom are not numerous enough to support your business?  Or do you aim to please the people who don't really care about the love you put into your work and just want to play a fun game, but without whose money you cannot remain in business?

There are studios that manage to walk such a fine line, angering the smallest number of players possible.  I am continually impressed with, proud of, and happy for them.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Content - Crysha Zaram

Born in the fall, in the year 163 AR, Crysha is the eldest child of two mages.  Her father, Petor Gregor, and her mother, China Zaram, are both mages of considerable skill in good standing with their community.  Before Crysha's birth their village, a small but growing community called Stern's Crossing, served as a trading point among the other communities of the region.  Resting at the intersection of two large rivers, where the River Frost merged with the much more powerful Tamalaht River, Stern's Crossing quickly became a haven for merchants who traveled up and down the two waterways.  Once a major road was also established through the town, the little community grew very quickly.

In the dangerous world that is Esaria, a town of merchants and traders who service the entire surrounding region is a very tempting target indeed.  Gnolls, trolls, kobolds, and other monsters of all types made increasingly frequent attacks against the little community as it became wealthier by the year.  Yet the citizens of Stern's Crossing were not about to leave their home or give up their hopes for prosperity.  They raised their prayers to the goddess Kelana, the Warior Queen, She of Blades, and their prayers were heard.  Champions, priests, and Holy Speakers of Kelana flocked to the defense of this faithful community.  With these faithful warriors, and the courage of the citizens themselves, Stern's Crossing weathered one attack after another.  For years they remained strong, building defenses, and the community grew into a full-fledged merchant town.

True problems arrived, however, in the form of a dragon.  As they so often do.  Armored in crimson scales and breathing flames that obliterated entire groups of brave defenders, the dragon people simply called Red Glare demanded the town swear allegiance to him.  For months this went on, and the dragon continued to slaughter and make his demand.  It was a small group of heroes, Petor Gregor and China Zaram among them, who stepped forward to defy this new tyrant.  Though many of this brave group died, so too did the dragon who had brought such terror and death to the people of Stern's Crossing.  Petor and China, two of the three survivors, were showered with praise and reward.

It was into this situation that Crysha was born.  She was expected to follow in the footsteps of her parents and become a mage herself, but this was not to be.  Though she was a very bright girl, not surprising given her parents' sharp minds, Crysha proved to be entirely uninterested in anything related to study.  She preferred to play outside, or chat with her friends, or daydream...anything but read musty old books.  In short; Crysha just didn't have what it took to be a mage.  The knowledge of bending arcane magic to mortal will, to channel it through a mortal vessel, required a dedication and interest in the craft that Crysha simply lacked.

Her parents had two other children, both boys, and these two followed nicely in their parents' footsteps.  Toren and Auden Gregor both took to the art of magic readily enough, only adding to Crysha's parents' frustration that she simply did not have the mindset to study magic.  Yet it was with the birth of their final child, Crysha's little sister, that everything changed.  Little Azraele Zaram took to magic like a bird to flight, and was studying at a level higher than her brothers at an age younger than when they had even begun studying in earnest.  It just seemed the girl's mind was built specifically to wield magic, and she progressed by tremendous leaps and bounds.  Crysha, delighted to have a little sister and overjoyed that she had such a talent for magic, felt vindicated.  To her, this was simply Kelana's will; any aptitude that Crysha might have had for magic had been instead passed to Azraele.  All was right with the world, for the eldest sibling.

With this change of events, Crysha settled down to live a life happily without magic.  She learned the trade of a blacksmith, despite her parents' wishes that she take up a less dangerous profession.  To help her build her skill, she has even taken to learning a bit about swordplay, so she might understand her craft that much better.

Thus does the world find Crysha Zaram in the year 181 AR.  Eighteen years old, working for the local blacksmith--a cheerful mountain dwarf named Dietrich--and happy with her life.  She dotes on her little sister, recently turned eleven, and is making a name for herself as a blacksmith.  Crysha sees a bright future for herself, with a promising career in a profession that her community values greatly.  Like many others who live in this period, she has no idea what the future holds for her.  She might flee, if she did.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rambling - Crumbling Banjo Bombs

I will endeavor, while writing this, to refrain from descending into fanboy ranting and raving.  I have specifically striven to avoid blogging about Mass Effect before specifically for that reason, but this time I can't not write about it.  Mostly because this time, rather than flailing my arms in excitement and screaming the glories of this game, I have something specific to say (I'll try to keep the flailing to a minimum).

I have a bone to pick with Bioware.  By far one of my very favorite development studios, Bioware has had their money in my pocket since I first played Baldur's Gate.  I have happily played each of the Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter, KoTOR, Jade Empire, and Dragon Age.  With Mass Effect, Bioware absolutely stole my heart.  It is a setting that has struck more than one chord with me; I love the characters, the technology, the history, the themes, the races, I even love the politics of the Mass Effect setting.  Yet most importantly, I love Mass Effect for its refinement of the type of game that KoTOR first hinted at.

Like other RPGs, Mass Effect allows you to craft your own version of the story that Bioware wrote.  They form the setting, create a broad narrative, and allow you to choose the details of that narrative.  Yet Mass Effect went farther than other RPGs in the creation of Commander Shepard, in a way I talked about in a previous blog, and the result is fantastic.  Commander Shepard becomes the personality you want them to be as you play.  There is certainly a broad framework of character already developed, but like the broad narrative in which Bioware lets you choose the details, the character of Commander Shepard is a personality that you can shape to such an extent that he or she becomes your own version.  Often, this can vary quite significantly from other peoples' versions of the character.  Gender, race, and class aside, Commander Shepard's variations exist, throughout the course of the game, on a range from murderous to beneficent.

At the risk of being That Gamer, I can tell you a bit about my Commander Shepard.  Please, bear with me for just a little bit here.  Samantha Lynne Shepard (yes, I gave her a full name, I do that I'm a storyteller) is two years younger than her service file indicates, since she joined with an altered ID to get away from a difficult life on the streets of Earth.  She had no family there, just a small group of friends, and she did what she had to survive; even killed her first person at the age of twelve.  The Navy was her escape.  She made good as soon as she was possibly able, and hasn't looked back since.  Not long after joining, her unit was wiped out on Akuze, and she survived through sheer tenacity, natural ability, and a big mountain of luck.  She's a good person, always ready and eager to help out people at the bottom rung of society, with whom she identifies.  At the same time, she's got a mean streak a mile wide, and never hesitates to make bloody calls in the moment when necessary.

Sorry to put you through that, but I just wanted to specify what Bioware did when they formed Mass Effect in the way that they did.  My Commander Shepard is a specific personality when I play that game.  To me, this is one of several ways to make a game, and it is among my favorites.  I am quite fine with playing a game such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which Adam Jensen is a defined character with a specific history and personality.  I like Adam, I thoroughly enjoy that game, and I like the way Adam is presented.  At the same time however, Samantha Shepard is as much a legitimate character to me as Adam Jensen.  And I'm not the only one.  I have met many other fans of Mass Effect who have specific visions of who Commander Shepard is to them, and their version of the character is as legitimate to them as mine is to me or Adam Jensen is to any of us.

Then I read this.  Most of it sounds great; specifically that it's an original story and not a rehash of the games' story.  Yet where they fail, on a staggering level, is when they specify that the movie will focus on Commander Shepard.  The specification that Shepard will be male in the movie is entirely irrelevant, even if I wasn't already a member of the FemShep fan club.  This is a bad idea on a level so much larger than the FemShep fans struggling against the BroShep majority.

I don't know the details about who decided at what point to make Commander Shepard the main character of the Mass Effect movie.  It may have been Bioware, it may have been Legendary.  In either case, the end result is the establishment of a "canon" Commander Shepard.  Since the game's inception there has been that short-haired BroShep glaring sternly at us as he went about his adventures in the game's advertisements.  With that I am absolutely fine; it's difficult to sell a game, especially an RPG, without an identifiable character that people can recognize and associate with said game.  Yet every single aspect of the Mass Effect universe has been carefully built to encourage us to develop Commander Shepard as our own character.

The books don't specify anything about Shepard.  The comics don't specify anything about Shepard.  The Galaxies game didn't specify anything about Shepard.  Beyond the use of an identifiable face with which to sell the game, Bioware has specifically avoided saying or publishing anything that would impinge on the character that customers have created in their own playthroughs.  Each time they did so, they strengthened the legitimacy of the character each of us has created.  Every instance in which Bioware specifically took efforts (even making their own work more difficult) to avoid specifying any details about Commander Shepard, they specifically validated our own versions of the character.

Throughout the Mass Effect games, we are given choices.  Each choice shapes the character we are playing, specifies who they are and makes the story more our own.  It could be argued that this is simply a game mechanic meant to provide us with a bit more of an interactive and therefor entertaining experience.  That argument fails however, as soon as you carry a save game from ME1 to ME2, and subsequently to the upcoming ME3.  Your choices span an entire trilogy of games, a feature largely unseen in the entirety of the video game industry.  This elevates the choices from a simple entertaining aspect to a fundamental feature of the series, perhaps even the setting, as a complete whole.  It makes those decisions important.  Now, with the introduction of a single specific version of Commander Shepard our choices are being made null.  You chose to save the council?  Too bad, FilmShep killed them.  Yet you killed the Rachni Queen?  Irrelevant; FilmShep kept her as a pet.  Who died on Virmire?  Doesn't matter, FilmShep already made that choice for you, the decision you made had no effect.

On a different level, using Commander Shepard in the movie is also a disservice to the setting, and the character, in their own right.  The threat that Commander Shepard faces in the existing trilogy is a very specific, well-crafted saga with a beginning and an end.  To stretch that story beyond its intended length just to put it in a movie would cheapen it.  To invent a whole new story for Commander Shepard to be involved in would risk making the whole idea ridiculous.

Yet most importantly, there is a larger aspect to this decision.  Beyond my hurt fanboi feelings that they're nullifying my character, beyond the ridiculousness of giving the galaxy's savior yet another galaxy-ending threat to defeat, is the fact that Mass Effect should not be about Commander Shepard.  Not if they want to make the setting last.  The Mass Effect setting is rich, intricate, and has the potential to become a Science Fiction setting on par with Trek, Wars, or B5.  Yet this cannot happen if the only thing with which the general public identifies is one specific character.  The setting must be presented as a setting itself, not a story about one individual character.   If too much emphasis is placed on Commander Shepard, then if Bioware ever does attempt to make the setting into a legitimate sci-fi franchise the public will be much more reluctant to accept it without that character.  They won't see it as "that sci-fi setting" but "those movies and games about that one dude."  Much like the reaction that many people had about Halo: ODST.  "How can you call it a Halo game?  There's no Master Chief."  People identify such an iconic and central character as the setting itself, rather than as a part of that setting.

I'll stop rambling now, I just had to write this.  I doubt anyone at Bioware or Legendary will see it.  Even if they do, I really don't think it will have any effect whatseover.   I wish it would.  I wish they would see it, understand my point and the place of genuine love it comes from, and agree with me.  That won't happen, but I just wanted to say my piece.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

So ten years ago, I was still actively serving in the US Navy.  Stationed in Atsugi, Japan, I had been out of the United States since leaving in very early 1999.  During the later half of 2001, I was planning to take some leave (military's word for vacation) back in the states.  Though I'd taken leave multiple times before since enlisting, this was to be my first return to the country itself.  I planned on visiting my friends, catching up on things, relaxing and then heading back to Japan.

The trip itself was problematic from the start; my card was declined and I had to convince Bnak of America that I was indeed the one who had tried to make such a purchase, and then as I headed for the airport a typhoon threatened to shut down all air travel.  It was fun, though, to walk through the streets to the airport through powerful winds and rain.  However, as I'm sure anyone reading this can guess, the true significance of this trip was yet to occur.

I boarded my plane without any real incident, and everything was on course to land in Seattle as scheduled.  The majority of the flight was completely without incident.  Then as we neared the end of the flight however, and in fact had already been informed by our pilot that we would not be landing in Seattle but would instead be rerouted to land in Canada.  His voice was casual, and his words were carefully chosen, but only an idiot wouldn't see that something was very wrong.  Flights, to my knowledge, do not get rerouted to other countries entirely, they just get rerouted to other nearby airports.  The only reason, I could see, that an incoming international flight would be rerouted out of the country entirely would be if all air traffic in the country had been completely shut down.

Being that air traffic in the entire country was apparently shut down, it was easy to deduce that something was extremely wrong.  Like on a national scale, kind of wrong.  Perhaps I jumped the gun, I can at least admit that, but at the time I realized that anything on a national scale for which they would shut down air traffic meant that all military personnel on leave were likely to be recalled.  Which meant, if I didn't want to get charged with dereliction of duty or worse, I needed to get in touch with someone who could tell me about whether or not I needed to return early.

Over the course of the next while, how long exactly I don't remember, I watched the landscape change considerably.  By the time the flight ended, we were in Yellowknife, Canada; a town so small that at one point during my stay I walked around the entire downtown area at a leisurely pace.  For the time being however, I knew that I was in an airport and might be able to find some form of communication to anyone else in the Navy.  Again, I may have jumped the gun, but to me it was quite obvious that this situation was likely to be rather urgent.  So with that in mind, I flagged down a passing stewardess.

"I'm in the US Navy," I said as calmly and quietly as I could, "and I think I might need to get in touch with them as soon as possible.  Do you know if I'll be able to do that?"  In hindsight, I understand that the poor woman had likely already been informed of what was happening in New York and why we had been rerouted.  She was likely, as were many people that day, extremely emotionally distressed.  I doubt she even really heard what I said.  With a brief few words she brushed me off, but mere moments later she returned and asked me to follow her.

At the front of the plane, just near the exit, waited a Canadian fireman.  The stewardess brought me to him, and I repeated my statement that I was in the US Navy and wanted to get in touch with someone in that branch.  He listened to me speak and yet, just like the stewardess, I don't think he heard a single word I said.  His response was to hold out a steadying hand and, with a concerned expression, inform me that I should calm down and return to my seat.  This set off at least fifteen warning bells in my head.  The stewardess and fireman were both clearly shaken to their cores and they were informing me, a person not prone to outbursts of any sort at that period of my life, to calm down.  I had specifically kept my voice quiet and calm to avoid exciting the other passengers on board the plane, yet they were informing me that I needed to calm down.  This, more than anything, confirmed to me that something was very wrong.

Once I returned to my seat (unescorted, if  I remember correctly; the stewardess remained up front with the fireman), I waited with the other people for them to let us off the plane.  As they did, it was unsurprisingly in groups since this little airport was never intended to support a plane the size of the one in which we arrived.  When my group of the plane was finally allowed to disembark, we filed out in lines to board a bus at the base of the plane's stairs, which took us on a very brief ride to the other side of the airport.  Our bus pulled up near a row of collapsible tables, where waited a row of customs officers.

Two local policemen boarded the bus, looked over the crowd, and asked that everyone please file one by one off the bus.  Then he pointed at me and said "sir, I'd like you to remain on the bus."  Everyone else left, filing past the two policemen who kept their eyes on me, and once I was the last person on the plane the two officers asked me to come with them.  Outside the bus, I found myself directed to a table set aside completely from those other tables to which the rest of the bus passengers were lining up.  My table, instead of a customs officer, was manned by two more police officers.

As I stood, flanked by two police behind me, the two police officers across the table went through each and every item in my carry-on luggage.  They flipped through my D&D books, one of the officers even mentioning to the other officer "note the name inside the cover."  Which means, to my continued amusement, that the name J.L. V'Tar exists somewhere in a police report in Yellowknife, Canada.  They rifled through my clothing, my bathroom items, absolutely everything I had with me.  I will give that they were very polite (they were Canadian, after all), but that didn't make me feel any less insulted.  Still, I do understand now, and I suspected then, that they were acting out of considerable fear.

Once I had been properly identified as Not A Terrorist (though I do understand that with my heavy black boots, black pants & long black shirt, coffin-ridden belt, strange ankh necklace, and long black trench coat I stood out among the other passengers), I was allowed to rejoin the others filing into the airport.  We were put on another bus, which brought us to a building that felt to me like a newly constructed, possibly even unfinished, hotel or conference building or something.  I still feel bad for the people working in that building, who had to deal with this massive influx of jet-lagged, confused, frightened passengers.  As I don't remember anything particularly significant about it, I can only assume those workers did a wonderful job.  I don't remember the room that I was given, which also indicates it was in no way problematic.

What I remember most vividly, of course, is the footage of the attack.  I first saw it at a local bar in Yellowknife, crowded and noisy as it was with locals as well as passengers from the plane, on a large television set against the back wall.  People crowded around the television, but they also clustered in little groups around the bar.  I don't remember much of the people or what they were saying--my disconnect and eventual implosion were beginning around that period of my life--but I do remember the general sensation of fear.

When I approached the bar, before I could even ask for a drink, the nice young man behind that bar plunked a very large drink in front of me.  "It's on the house," he said with a look of concern, and quickly moved on to one of his other considerable number of customers.  A tiny gesture, sure, but it's one of many similar gestures I remember around that period, as people simply felt bad and wanted to do something, anything, even if it didn't really seem to matter.  I thanked the lovely bartender, but then as per my usual I didn't interact with the people around me.  Instead I nursed my drink, and a couple others as the night wore on, just watching the footage on the television.  I have vague memories that the bar had internet access, and I believe I may have done something on the livejournal account that I kept back then.

I don't remember exactly how long I stayed in Yellowknife.  I believe it was at least two days, though it may have been three.  Again, as usual, I didn't interact with anyone during my stay there.  In hindsight this was likely one of the things that bothered those around me.  Ignorant and frustrating though I may find it, most human beings apparently find it strange that I don't want to interact with everyone around me at all times.  So they found it odd that, while they were running around in a near panic discussing, spreading, and exacerbating rumors or all different colors, I remained aloof from all of them.  I remained quiet, I caused no trouble, I simply read the copy of Alice in Wonderland that I had in my coat pocket.  Which again, given its incongruity, was likely something that aggravated the people around me.

Yet once the stay was over, I had my first genuine offense in the post-9/11 world.  As we all waited in the airport for the bus that would take us back to our plane, I was pulled aside by either a policeman or a security officer, I don't remember which.  What I do remember is where they took me.  Off to a little area out of view of the other passengers, I was met by a man wearing a pilot's uniform.  He identified himself by name, though I don't remember it, and informed me that he was the co-pilot of the plane on which I had arrived and would be leaving.  Though most of the conversation is lost to me, I clearly remember a few certain images.  He looked like a ridiculous 60's caricature by his uniform, his stance, and his glasses, as he informed me "I'm an officer in the Air Force reserve.  I've heard reports that you've been disruptive on our stay here."  Disruptive?  I read a book!

I informed this member of the reserve that I was a member of the active, and that I had been in no way disruptive.  He pretty much ignored me, except by acknowledging my status as active military to say "I'm giving you a direct order to behave for the remainder of our journey.  Is that understood?"  I was, and still am, exceedingly confused and aggravated by this.  Yet given the mood of people, and the circumstances, I didn't doubt for one single instant that this ridiculous man would make good his threat to leave me behind.  So I bit my tongue, I figuratively bowed my head, and I said "yes, sir."  I still had been given no opportunity to contact the Navy.

The rest of my brief leave is pretty much just a collage of short memories.  I think my cousin James picked me up and drove me to stay with my friend Kenneth.  I remember I stayed overnight in Ken and Nathan's apartment, and to no surprise I learned in the morning that I was being recalled.  There was a brief moment of stupidity perpetrated by Ken, Nathan and me that morning, but that's another story.  The next bit I remember is being at Christelle's place, where she graciously allowed me to stay until my plane back to Japan left in the morning.

I do, however, vividly remember one bit that happened that night.  There was a couple who lived above a couple floors above Christelle somewhere, I was never certain where.  At one point I remember I was outside, and one of those two young men was collapsed on the sidewalk outside the building, wracked with sobs from which no one could apparently calm him.  To my understanding not only were a number of his friends on one of the planes that hit the buildings in New York, not only were they on that plane specifically to come visit him, but he had paid for their tickets.  I remember that well.  I sometimes wonder what happened to him after that.

The next morning, my flight left the states, and I returned to Japan.  I learned many things during that strange little adventure.  Among them I learned how disconnected I had become from those around me.  I also learned that I simply do not fit with most people; by simply doing nothing, I can be accused of being disruptive.  Most importantly however, I learned just how ruled by fear people really are.

So yeah.  No point to this post, really.  I was planning on restarting my blog anyway, and here we are on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Why not tell my part of the story?  So there it is.