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The Elder Scrolls Online goes public

I'm pounding along a hallway in the Wailing Prison, Coldharbor, leading an old blind man I know only as The Prophet to a Daedric anchor portal. Coldharbor is the realm of the Daedric Prince Molag Bal, a nasty piece of work whose list of titles begins with Lord of Domination and goes downhill from there, ending with King of Rape. We're both on the high end of Molag Bal's Most Wanted list, so we need to leave now, while the Lord of Cruelty is distracted by a prison riot. The Prophet claims he can get us back to Nirn, the mortal world, by piggybacking on one of Molag Bal's Dark Anchors, gigantic structures of chain and ironwork that are intended to terminate the existence of said mortal world by winching it into a shotgun marriage with Coldharbor, at which point Molag Bal will be able to have his wicked way with it.

The Daedric Anchor Portal that leads out of Coldharbor back to the mortal world.
Goodbye to Coldharbor -- if the portal doesn't glitch, that is.
We arrive at the anchor portal without much fuss, and after a few preliminaries The Prophet invokes the aid of one of the gods with a prayer (a good prayer too, for those of you who shudder at characters named The Prophet and religion in games in general), and takes off into the air to be sucked into the portal and ejected somewhere in Nirn. After filling my pockets a bit fuller from the odd selection of supplies available – raw chicken meat? – I try my own takeoff. I rise to the portal, touch it....and the transfer fails, as the game helpfully informs me. I then fall a couple of hundred feet to go splat on the metal floor. That wasn't in the script.

Fortunately, in The Elder Scrolls Online, death has an almost farcical impermanence. Besides, strictly speaking, I'm dead already, since Molag Bal has stolen my soul for his own dark purposes. I resurrect and try again. And again. And again. Nine times in all, before someone in chat suggests I quit the game and restart it. Then, and only then, it works and drops me back onto Nirn, in the city of Daggerfall, where I wake up in some nameless resident's house. The Prophet appears to me as a projection, and confirms that one of his fears has come true – the two of you have arrived in different places. So, he sends me off to keep myself busy confounding the agents of Molag Bal while he sorts out his side of the story.

Here I am in Daggerfall, with no idea where anything is, only a few supplies, and even less money. So what do I do first in my new career as a warrior for righteousness? Steal everything that isn't screwed down in the house I arrived in. And then go across the street to clean out the house there. And then visit next door, like Santa Claus in reverse. And clean out anywhere else I please, for that matter, even the Cathedral. No one seems to care about me disappearing into residences not my own and emerging staggering under a load of loot. And then I sell it all, sometimes to the very merchant I've stolen it from, which gives me enough money to get on with. I go looking for trouble, or in game jargon, “quests,” and find it, of course....

Raging Elf granny in the ESO character menu. You talk back one more time.....
The ESO editor allows you a good deal of flexibility in creating your character. Here's my raging Elf granny. Don't talk back to her.
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I'm sad, and angry. Mostly angry, actually.

I spent last weekend watching Elder Scrolls Online turn into Elder Scrolls on Life Support right in front of my eyes. It was that bad. Still a beta, the hopeful were typing into chat. Still a beta. What do you expect?

Error message after server crash, Elder Scrolls Online MMO
Ooopsies!
Well, from a beta for a game that is scheduled to go to market in less than a month, I'd expect it to run. And all too often, it didn't. Or it ran right off a cliff.

More on this, and why it would be a tragedy for gaming, below under the orange bundle of jute....

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Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 03:45 PM PST

Home is where the heart is

by sagesource

Opening screen for Gone Home, showing a portrait of the house with a single lit window, against a purple night sky.
In the morning, you can tell me your dreams.

You think you know where Gone Home is going before it's five minutes old.

The wide-eyed innocent protagonist – Katie, a girl in her early 20s, just back from a trip to Europe. The setting – a large old house in the countryside, miles from anywhere, poorly lit with mysterious echos. The time – one-thirty in the morning. The weather – gale-force wind and pouring rain, floods predicted. And the hook, so to speak, why all these things are so ominous – the girl's entire family, her younger sister and her parents, have vanished. On the front door there's a note from her younger sister, Samantha or Sam, saying that she's gone, she won't be coming back, and I love you but please don't try to find me. This doesn't look as if it will end well.....

Horror movie cliche in Gone Home -- the family portrait hanging in the main hall.
When you see the family portrait in the front hall, you wonder how many of them will have "X" over his or her face by the end....
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Spoilers. Many. But not enough to spoil the experience, as you'll see.
Opening of the museum section, which discusses how the game was developed as part of the game. The triumph of meta.
You are a man named Stanley, in a first-person video game named, appropriately enough, The Stanley Parable. Stanley has an apartment, a wife, and a job that completely satisfies him. He works in a large company and types single letters into a computer all day in response to instructions that appear on his screen. And Stanley is happy.
Push 8 to Question Nothing message on screen of Stanley's computer.
It's only a job....
Until one day, with no warning at all, the instructions stop coming. Stanley is not happy. He sets off in search of an explanation for the change, only to find that every one of his co-workers has inexplicably vanished. So Stanley begins searching for them as well.

A friend helps him search, not a person, but a voice in his head. The voice is avuncular, perfectly modulated, and very British, and it frequently professes a desire to help Stanley understand and deal with the unusual situation he finds himself in. It suggests the path that Stanley should take, and modifies his environment to a limited degree, but it cannot control his actions. At critical junctures, it has no alternative but to trust Stanley to "do the right thing."

The narrator admits that he is dependent on Stanley to make the
Use the Force, Luke!... er, Stanley....
You see, Stanley has free will, including the freedom to ignore the voice. If Stanley exercises his free will in ways that coincide with the advice the voice gives, it is highly gratified. It demonstrates to Stanley that, horror of horrors, he has been under the control of others all his life, and if Stanley continues to trust the voice and accept its suggestions, it finally leads him out of his grim office building into the open air and sunlight, where he can live a life that is authentic, based on his own freely made decisions. However, if Stanley makes decisions that go against the advice of the voice, it becomes upset, and then irritated, and then angry, and then despairing. Finally, more often than not, it abandons Stanley to die in some dark dead end, or dumps him into someone else's game, or loses its temper and goes Groundhog Day on him, leaving Stanley back in his office staring down an empty corridor, about to set out in search of his co-workers.....
The empty corridor that begins The Stanley Parable.
I do hope you get it right this time....
Well, that was a pointless little rebellion, wasn't it, Stanley? Did you bugger-all good, didn't it? The voice cannot control you, but it can call you to account pretty damned quickly, can't it? Wouldn't it be better to just listen to what you are told, and be free? But in that case, freedom turns out to consist of absolute submission to the demands of another. There's something wrong there, even though it's a familiar situation. "O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom...." (Book of Common Prayer).
Poll

Many game companies make their development tools public and allow their games to be modified so long as the results are not sold for profit. Is this "make anything you want from our stuff but don't make money from it" approach to copyright practical?

48%12 votes
20%5 votes
12%3 votes
4%1 votes
16%4 votes

| 25 votes | Vote | Results

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Sat Oct 26, 2013 at 09:19 PM PDT

Narrative in video games

by sagesource

The opening splash screen for the video game / narrative
When it comes to telling a story, what can a video game do that is impractical or impossible in a poem, a play, a novel, a movie, or a TV series?

Nothing, I'm sure some people would say -- usually people with a startling ignorance of games. But I have a certain amount of sympathy for them. The unique strength of video game narrative is at the same time one that is fiendishly difficult to exploit fully. It would be possible to author a game that was on the artistic level of a major novel, but the amount of time and talent that it would require might well make it impractical. At the very least, the novelist would have much the easier time of it, even if we compare only the narratives and leave out the increasingly formidable technical knowledge and apparatus needed to create a modern video game.

So, what is this tantalizing strength in video game narrative? Look beneath the squashed sweetroll to find out....

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A word after a word
after a word is power.

Margaret Atwood, "Spelling"

To what extent are the different parts of a person's life, art, and thought independent of each other and capable of being evaluated in isolation? In one sense, of course, they must be kept distinct, or we fall into the error of ad hominem argument. We cannot say that Wagner was a bad musician because he was a raving anti-Semite, for instance. But having recognized his anti-Semitism, we can then question how it may have found expression in his music; we can look at Alberich muttering over his bullion at the beginning of Rheingold, for instance, and wonder how much of the power of that scene derives from its evocation of an ancient prejudice.

I propose to do something of the sort with a much-praised text from early China, the Daodejing (Canon of the Way and its Power), also known by the name of its supposed author, Laozi. To avoid this brief note turning into a dissertation, I will be making several time-saving assumptions: that the text we have today dates from several centuries before the unification of the empire under the First Emperor of Qin in 221 BCE, that it has been transmitted more or less faithfully, and -- most controversial of all -- that it comes largely or entirely from the brush of a single author, whom for convenience we refer to as "Laozi."

In brief, I will be suggesting that the political thought of Laozi was retrograde even for the author's time. I believe him to have been a reactionary nostalgic for the return of a past that never existed and never could have existed, in this bearing something of a resemblance to a number of much more recent political figures. He was a very unfortunate innovator in that he seems to have been the first writer in ancient China to advocate not only consciously lying to the common people but also deliberately and systematically undermining their capacity to detect and counter these lies. He has one set of rules for the "enlightened," and quite another for the commoners, which again sets him apart from other thinkers of his time and place. In short, I believe his political thought to be both impractical and malignant.

Should these conclusions affect how we see the more famous, "mystical" side of Laozi? This is a question that each reader must answer for him/herself. Being by nature highly resistant to the truths or delusions of mysticism and spirituality, my own feelings on the matter are not directly relevant to the questions discussed here, and so I have restricted them to a few remarks at the very end.

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Gravity's Rainbow, which appeared in 1973, was Thomas Pynchon's second published novel and the one that established the literary fame of this paradoxically publicity-shy writer. It shared the National Book Award in 1974, and was recommended for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but failed to receive it on the grounds of obscenity. Today, the coprophiliac passage that outraged an influential member of the Pulitzer board seems relatively tame; modern readers would be more likely to raise eyebrows over some of the other sexual scenes, which include detailed depictions of intercourse with a girl of eleven or twelve and fantasies of sex with a six-year-old. The fact that these passages passed without comment while coprophilia as part of the character development of a figure afflicted with intense self-loathing and survivor guilt was considered outrageous sheds an interesting light on how our attitudes have changed in the forty years since the book's publication.

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Sun Mar 17, 2013 at 06:07 PM PDT

The more things change....

by sagesource

This being St. Patrick's Day, or thereabouts, I thought I would reproduce below one of Mark Twain's lesser-known writings, "Letter Read at a Dinner of the Knights of St. Patrick," March 16th, 1876. There have been a number of mournful pieces appearing over the last few months, with the general import that public life now is uniquely corrupt, or more corrupt than it has been in the past, as if money had been invented yesterday and influence peddling this morning. You didn't notice? It's always been more or less like that. This doesn't mean it has to be like that, or will be like that in the future, but it does suggest the past was no paradise, and that positive change in the future will be slow, incremental, and frequently halted or even reversed, rather than sudden and complete.

Now, without further comment, I yield the floor to Mr. Twain....

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Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 04:15 PM PST

Shooting oneself in the foot

by sagesource

Remember how the NRA tried to make excuses for guns themselves and blame just about everything and everyone else in society for gun violence after the Sandy Hook killings?

They were particularly hot against "violent video games," which the inimitable Wayne LaPierre called "a corrupt shadow industry" that was inciting the youth of the United States to mindless violence.....though strangely enough, as some of the irreverent and well-read impudently pointed out, the youths of all other countries where the same games are played seem to be largely immune to these dire effects.

So guess what the NRA did today?

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PC version reviewed. Some spoilers below, so beware.
Sunset over the Wrenhaven River, the road to most of your adventures.
Sunset over the Wrenhaven River.
"Hah! I shit bigger than you!"

The city guard at the foot of the lamppost has just stomped another wandering rodent into a red smear. He hesitates for a moment, then resumes his patrol up the deserted street, eyes peeled for more. If he should have the misfortune to run into a pack of them, they'll probably eat him alive. At the top of the lamppost I perch, like some improbably large crow, silently thanking heaven for the rats that keep everyone's eyes glued to the ground. High in the air, I might as well be invisible. The citizens of Dunwall, the crumbling London/Edinburgh plague pit where Dishonored is set, don't often look up, so unless I do something noisy like fire a pistol, I'm relatively safe.

Using my Blink ability, a short-range teleport, I cross the street to another street light, from there to an air conditioner on the side of a building, and from there to a third-floor balcony. No one has seen me yet, but I don't know who's behind the balcony door. It turns out to be two more guards, with their backs to me, discussing a body on the table before them, the man I've been sent to find. Before they can turn around, I shoot both with sleep darts and they topple. I toggle my Dark Vision ability and look through the walls and floor to see if anyone else is there. Two guards on the floor below, but they can be ignored. I pick up my snoring victims one by one, and toss them on a table in the next room. If I don't get them off the floor, they might be eaten by the omnipresent rats before they wake up, and the game will count them as my kills. This is not a good thing. For a stealth assassination game full of inventive ways to eliminate your enemies, Dishonored has a remarkable distaste for blood.

The Dark Vision ability in action, showing the shapes of a guard and a wolfhound, and their cones of vision, through the roof of a building.
The Dark Vision ability at work. The shapes of a guard and a dog, and their cones of vision, as seen through a roof and wall.
I've been sent after the body on the table by a local gang leader, who wants to know what happened to his scout. In return, he's promised to find me an easier way to reach my real target, a high-class whorehouse where I have to do away with two of the patrons, the Pendleton brothers. Later, the gangster offers to eliminate the two himself, without killing them, in return for another favor. I accept, since that's two fewer kills to my account. Later, he lets me in on what he's going to do with them:

See, them Pendletons got these rock mines. Have hundreds of souls working down there, half a mile deep below ground. So I'm gonna shave their heads and cut out their tongues and put 'em in one of their own stinking mines! Then they gonna see life from a different angle.

Which is what your character is doing, though a bit less painfully, seeing life from a different angle.....for details, follow us below the orange springrazor trap.....

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Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 11:48 PM PDT

A love hate story

by sagesource

Analogue: A Hate Story
Christine Love

Here’s the situation.

There is a teenage girl, Korean, and it’s the twenty-fourth century or thereabouts. Humankind has begun to reach out to the stars, but the secret of faster than light travel hasn’t yet been discovered, so the only way to make the trip is to go for the long haul. She and several hundred thousand other people from Korea are in this enormous “Generation Ship,” the Mugonghwa, living out their lives there in the hope that their distant descendants will arrive somewhere new that they can colonize. She was born on the ship; she'll die on the ship; and her great-great-great times ten grandchildren will finish the journey for her.

Still, life’s not bad. There are a lot of people there, a city in space, with a modern society and all the latest amenities. Her father is the ship’s Chief Engineer, and she hopes to follow in his footsteps, or at the very least do something interesting with her life. Get educated, have a career. Maybe get married, but there’s no rush and no pressure, least of all from her parents....

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If you had to nominate a candidate for a feature, situation, or character that would have been better left out of your favorite video game, what would it be?

I'm thinking here not of poor technical implementation, but more of the irritatingly offensive or stupid, stuck into the game because in someone's mind it made the game more edgy, exciting, or controversial.

My own candidate here would be the Dark Brotherhood torture chamber in Skyrim. As what is basically the murderers' guild, the Brotherhood can't avoid living in the shadows, and some of the Brotherhood quest line is ostentatiously horrid (though hardly unique; murdering a bride at her own wedding banquet, for instance). But that's what they're there for.

All the same, the torture chamber you can set up in the Brotherhood's new headquarters at the end of the questline, complete with prisoners chained to the wall ready to have the location of their treasures beaten out of them, seems to cross some sort of line. First, you can't even be "nice" on the game's own terms -- there is no way to release the prisoners if they 'fess up. All you can do is kill them. Second, hurting them (and healing them, for that matter) counts as combat practice and increases your skills, which is silly as well as offensive. This is why you won't kill them -- endlessly bringing them to the point of death and then healing them is too profitable. Third, it reinforces a dysfunctional social myth that torture is an effective way of extracting information -- all of the news you receive is valid and profitable; you aren't, for instance, led into any traps.

So what's your nominee for the Shouldn't Have Gone There award?

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