Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

But Video Games are going to make us all asocial shut-ins!

Seriously impressive teamwork. This game looks hella fun. Now I just need a few more friends who game and a few more hours in the day to try this out…

The Game I Wanted Instead of Ryse: Son of Rome

Ryse: Son of Rome wasn’t a terrible game. The gameplay was engaging and frictive. The co-op arena mode was pretty cool, even if too easy and poorly scaled. The graphics and set pieces were beautiful. But I can’t help but couch those compliments as damning with faint praise when I consider what it got wrong and the amazing game it could have been.

To start with, let me give an incomplete list of things Ryse: Son of Rome got wrong that particularly annoyed me:

  • If they meant Marius to be the actual, historical Gaius Marius, they fucked up literally every part of his life story. Literally.
  • If they meant otherwise, then Marius was a pretty significant dude in Roman history, and stealing his name for an unrelated character is a bit weird.
  • Damocles wasn’t Roman, but Greek.
  • Ditto Nemesis
  • Neither Barbarians nor British Celts sacked Rome during Nero’s reign, and Boudica’s rebellion never got out of the British Isles.1
  • Where the hell did Brythonic tribesmen get elephants?
  • Why have a ‘y’ in the name, when Rise: Son of Rome is a perfectly compelling title?
  • Come to think of it, why the colon? Why not make “rise” an imperative and have the infinitely better title Rise, Son of Rome? Seriously, who uses a horrid subtitle when they could use the noble comma of direct address?
  • You’re only calling it the testudo because you think “form the tortoise” sounds dumb.
  • S.P.Q.R referred to the Republic, not the Empire that followed it and over which Nero presided.
  • Nero was only thirty when he died, not the doddering old man the game portrayed him as.
  • They got everything about Boudica wrong except for her name. Boudica is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of the world. She’s also one of the most effective female military leaders the world has ever seen. To completely ignore her story and instead make her the servile daughter of a fictional king is a disgraceful decision on the part of the developers.2

Now some of you in the audience might object to me carping about the history portrayed in the game on the grounds that it’s “just a game” and that they need to take liberties for the sake of drama. I say fuck that noise. Given that the amount of research required to get the history right (or at least square it with their desired plot) could have been done in a long weekend, I think it would have been a reasonable request that they squeeze said research in during the years-long development process.

Besides, the Roman Republic and Empire were so drenched in drama and packed full of interesting characters, that it would take a hack or a charlatan not to find in them a half dozen stories better than the plot of Ryse: Unnecessary Subtitle. I mean seriously, you want Marius as a main character? Great! Tell the compelling story of the actual Gaius Marius’ rise to greatness, consulship, complacency, revival, and betrayal. And better yet, tell it through the eyes of his protege turned arch-rival Sulla. Or maybe show how both men eventually sacrificed everything to achieve their goals, both dying sick, burned out husks not long after they got it. Show how the war between these former allies shattered Rome and set the stage for the fall of the Republic.

Or, you know, just lazily slap together an anachronistic, anatopistic plot about a legionary out for revenge. I guess that works, too.

So the creators could have found a better plot for the game, but it’s that last bullet point up there that really drove home to me just what an incredible opportunity the developers missed. The betrayal of the Iceni by the Romans and Boudica’s subsequent exacting of bloody vengeance is an incredible story and would have made for one hell of a video game, certainly a game far better than the one they delivered. It’s one of the most compelling stories in history. A brief recap might be in order.

Boudica was the queen of a Brythonic tribe living in East Anglia called the Iceni. At the time of Nero’s rule, the Iceni had been subjects of the Roman Empire for over a century, having surrendered to Julius Caesar in 54 BCE. When Boudica’s husband Prasutagus died, he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and to his wife and daughters. It wasn’t unheard of at that time for client kings to leave their kingdoms to Rome if they had no heirs, or wanted to win favor for their people, or wanted to screw over political rivals, or any number of other reasons. But the accounts we have suggest Prasutagus intended the Kingdom to be run and ruled by Boudica and her daughters.

Prasutagus’ will was ignored. The Roman govervor, a man named Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, ordered the land occupied. The Iceni were enslaved. The local magistrate, a procurator by the name of Catus Decianus seized Boudica’s estate and all the holdings of the Iceni. Boudica was publically flogged while her daughters were raped in front of her.

And keep in mind the Iceni had been Roman allies for over a century at this point, so this wasn’t just a brutal invasion, but a betrayal as well.

None of this broke Boudica. When the Roman forces were pulled away from Icenian lands to wage war in Wales, Boudica gathered what remained of her army, rallied allied tribes in the region, and began one of the most successful anti-Roman uprisings the Empire ever saw. Before it was over, she’d sacked a number of major Roman towns, including London and Colchester. At Colchester, Boudica’s advanced forced the Roman survivors into the great temple of Jupiter. Boudica ordered the door barred from the outside and the temple put to the torch.

Next she marched on London and sacked it, too. She butchered the Roman civilian population, going so far as to stake their mutilated corpses up for public display. She then apparently turned west, perhaps to meet the main force of the Romans as they came back from Wales. Boudica’s troops, while numerous and effective gorilla fighters, lacked the cohesion and strategic discipline of the Roman legions. We don’t know exactly what caused her to ultimately lose, but sources suggest that it was some combination of Suetonius’ clever strategic placement of his legions at their final battle as well as spectators and the rebels’ own baggage train blocking their retreat. Suetonius, though easily cast as a villain, was a brilliant military leader and intentionally stationed his troops in close ranks in a narrow valley. The tight Roman formations easily held their own against the loosely grouped, long-sword-wielding Celts, who were better equipped to fighting in open spaces or in single combat.

The result was a complete route for the British forces. Boudica’s army was scattered, and the rebellion over. And while we don’t know for certain Boudica’s fate, most sources have her and her daughters killing themselves, rather than falling into Roman hands again.

Now doesn’t that sound like it could make a hell of a game? I mean, sure, maybe take minor liberties and let the player ultimately win in the end, but personally I like games that have the courage to tell tragic stories.

Let me play Boudica, cutting a bloody swath through Imperial Roman Britain. Let me play as a widow to a dead husband, mother to abused children, the vengeful leader of a bloodied people, herself beaten but not broken by the grasping and arrogant hand of Rome. The story comes to us already complete with villains and set pieces. Catus Decianus, the greedy, grubbing procurator who defied a Brythanic king’s will and stole his land from its rightful heirs. The brilliant, but entitled and arrogant governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, who returns to ultimately crush the Icenic rebellion.

Let me play some of the great battles of the uprising. Let me lead early commando raids against small Roman contingents in the broads of East Anglia. Let me gather the local tribes and throw off the shackles of the legionaries that were left to hold the region so that the governor could subjugate other peoples on the opposite coast. Let me play through the great siege of Colchester, and have the decision of what to do when the Roman civilians, the complicit supporters of the regime that butchered my people and stole our lands, flee to the temple of their Gods. I mean, hell, that one choice if played well, would itself have infinitely more excitement, gravitas, moral tension, and dramatic satisfaction than the entirety of Ryse.

That’s the game I really wanted to play: Rise, Daughter of Britain. I didn’t want to be some growling, poorly-written centurian. I wanted to play the vengeful hand of a wronged people. I wanted to play Boudica. I didn’t want to fight for the Empire, I wanted to fight for the Icenic Rebel Alliance. And I wanted to fight as their queen.

1 Given that Boudica and Nero existing at the same time would be literally the only thing the game got right historically, I’m assuming all characters portrayed are meant to represent their actual historical personages. I consider this an act of charity, as it appears to maximize the historical accuracy of the game.

2 And no, Boudica didn’t wear a single leather strap over her breasts and flip around wielding a couple of fucked up falchions. We have descriptions of Boudica. She was a fucking a titan. She was a badass. She was infinitely cooler than some psychotic pixie with a belt over her tits. She was a brilliant leader, both civil and militarily, and lead from the front with sensible attire and suitable armor, and with a fucking spear in her hand. Read what Roman historian Cassius Dio had to say about Boudica:

…the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Buduica[sic] a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women. This woman assembled her army, to the number of some 120,000, and then ascended a tribunal which had been constructed of earth in the Roman fashion. In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours[sic] over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire. She now grasped a spear to aid her in terrifying all beholders and spoke as follows:

“You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery. Hence, although some among you may previously, through ignorance of which was better, have been deceived by the alluring promises of the Romans, yet now that you have tried both, you have learned how great a mistake you made in preferring an imported despotism to your ancestral mode of life, and you have come to realize how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery…”

XBox, Occupy Free Time

So between visiting my folks over a few glorious, fun, relaxing days over the holiday, then working part of the weekend, and now getting both an XBox One and a Playstation 4 on the same day, the amount of time I’ve been allocating for blogging has dropped precipitously. As I’m sure my audience has noticed.

But fear not, while I’m talking to my console1 and butchering barbarians in Ryse: Son of Rome, you lot can be playing with this fun little quiz I found for you all. Basically, it gives you a Google Streetview scene to explore and you have to guess which of three neighborhoods in London you’re in. My best score was 6/10 which is not to shabby for someone who’s never actually lived in London. It’s a pretty slick piece of work and worth checking out, even if you know nothing about the City and surrounding environs.

1 The voice controls work way better than I thought. I was sure they’d be gimmicky and stupid, but it turns out they’re awesome. Accurate, intuitive, handy, and oh so futuristic. Microsoft has set a high bar for voice controlled electronics.


I just finished The Last of Us, and I offer it as proof of my long-held assertion that video games can be capital-A-Art. To any who doubt it, I will henceforth simply say ecce pathos and hand them the controller.

Like all good art, the game is driven by its characters. The protagonists, Ellie and Joel, are the two most compelling characters I’ve found in video games. In the span of a few hours, the player is introduced to these two rich, multi-dimensional characters well enough to know them intimately and to truly identify with their motivations. The plot then proceeds to strings these two characters up between two poles: the monstrosity of infection and the monstrosity of self-serving human nature.

In a way, The Last of Us serves better as a protracted ethics thought experiment than anything else. Ellie and Joeal are not just walked through a few scenes of moral ambiguity, but are pitched headlong into a morally ambiguous world, and let to play out their fate in the absence of any clear good at all. The choices they make are the often difficult, but wholly necessary conclusions of their well-explored personalities and the positions they find themselves in. The resulting grim calculus is portrayed aptly and unflinchingly. At no point do their actions feel untrue to their characters, even when those actions feel deeply uncomfortable.

The gameplay itself is also excellent, but almost entirely beside the point. The characters in The Last of Us, as in all good fiction, are the focus, much to the game’s benefit. The dialog is tight and feels completely natural. The voice acting and mo-cap are both top-notch, making the characters to feel not just well-articulated, but fully human.

I highly recommend the game, not just to gamers, but to all fans of narrative fiction.

MSI GT70 First Impressions

I recently, after several months of miscellaneous frustration with my old laptop, sprung for a new MSI GT70-0NE. (PR Sheet; Amazon detail page). Despite some disappointing service from Amazon (first time in 8 years) which got it to me a few days later than I expected1, I’m completely thrilled with my decision.

First off, I won’t be saying much about the hardware specs, because this thing is a straight up beast. If machine were any more beastly, it’d be living in a Cretan labyrinth. Once I got it set up and drivers installed2, everything I threw at it ran at full video settings with nary a dropped frame. I’ve also had none of the cooling issues that some other folks reported, even under high load. Then again, when I’m gaming or doing intensive work, I usually have the machine on a fan-cooled laptop stand, so it’s possible that helps as well.

The fit and finish of the machine are superb. Looking at the form factor and physical design online it looked a bit gimicky, but in person its stealth-fighter lines and variable-color backlit keyboard actually look pretty sweet. The keyboard itself, by Steelseries, feels great. The keys have a pleasing slightly sticky friction and, with a few minor exceptions3 that I’m quickly getting used to, the layout is great. The screen is clear and has excellent viewing angles. The audio from the speakers alone is remarkably good for a laptop, but that’s kind of damning with faint praise. Your external speakers or nice headphones are still going to give you a much better listening experience.

The machine came with Windows 8 installed, and remarkably little non-Microsoft bloatware. There was the obligatory Norton Security bullshit to uninstall4, which has gotten slightly more annoying to do on Win 8. But other than that, the MSI-branded apps that were installed all seem at least nominally useful. There’s a WiFi network monitor that I probably won’t look at again, but which was at least interesting to poke at, and a slick app for customizing the coloration and pattern of the LED-backlit keyboard.

A little over 24 hours in to owning, the MSI GT70-0NE is an awesome machine, and I’m thrilled with my purchase. It’s definitely premium kit, but if you’re someone like me that spends the majority of their waking hours on computers, you’ll definitely appreciate the killer hardware, top-quality interface components, and excellent fit and finish, all with a minimum of cruft or headaches. Highly recommended.

1 If you ever want to see the most pathetic frustration, tell a nerd his new toy will arrive on Saturday, then make him wait until Monday. To say that I’m spoiled by fast shipping rates would be a charitable understatement. “Had to wait two extra days for a laptop” isn’t even a first world problem, it’s a zeroth world problem.

2 I did run into one minor issue where the first-time setup for the drivers failed to correctly install the WiFi driver, leaving me unable to connect to any networks. Uninstalling and re-installing the driver fixed the issue completely, however.

3 This is the most minor of all minor grievances, but the right shift key is too short and abuts the up-arrow, resulting so far in frequent frustrating mistakes whilst editing text.

4 Norton has managed to suck even more on Windows 8. It won’t actually let you close the pesterware dialog, only letting you select “remind me later”. What it really needs is a “Fuck off, uninstall yourself, and never darken my door again” option, but then I imagine that’s a bit long to fit on a standard dialog button.

Festival Weekend, Interim Report

This weekend, I have the excellent problem of having passes to both Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), and Bumbershoot. Both have, thus far, been incredible. At PAX, I got to see the Protomen (who are also playing this Monday night at El Corazon) performing Friday night, along with rapper Megaran, with whom I was previously unfamiliar. The Protomen gave an incredible show, equal parts musical drama and rock concert. The parts were perfectly cast, but I was especially impressed the Dr. Wily character, a handsome, dapper fellow who played his part with effortless charm, reminiscent of the devil in “Young Goodman Brown”.

The band were energetic and talented, with unbelievable stage presence. The multifaceted Kilroy character managed to rile the crowd and elicit script-perfect responses from them by barely saying a word. The vocal talent in the band was nothing short of incredible and the raw energy was positively electrifying. If you have a chance to see the Protomen in person, I highly recommend that you do.

As a side note, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a rock show that was simultaneously so polite and so raucous. When a roadie offered a set list to the crowd, someone fairly far back in the pit shot up their hand and said “ooh, me!”. The roadie handed the list into the crowd, who immediately and without fuss passed the list along to the young woman who’d been the first to claim it.

That may not sound like much, but I’ve been to shows where dumping a set list into the audience would have resulted in actual murder.

Saturday wandering around PAX proper was a little overwhelming. I was in full nerd culture saturation, between the incredible cosplay, the myriad vendor booths, and hordes of like-minded geeks roving around. Everyone was friendly and positive, and I don’t know that I’ve seen a more life-affirming crowd in recent years. There’s something about the earnest passion of nerddom that makes it almost impossible to have a bad time.

I got a chance to play a few new / unreleased games.

Ryse: Son of Rome, despite the enraging typo in the title, seems like a well-made, gritty fighting game. Assuming the campaign itself is compelling, I can see it being an awesome title. The co-op mode that I played pitted myself and another player (random dude I met in line named Jared; hey Jared!) against barbarians in a massive Colosseum. The game made self-conscious light of the setting by constantly reminding us of how entertained the crowd was, and by having an announcer (whose almost-comical British accent struck me as unnecessarily anachronistic) give gruesome color commentary. At one point a shield bashed an axe-wielding barbarian into a wall and then, in sports-replay-style slow motion, stabbed him in the stomach and throat. The announcer exuberantly declared “He was made to end lives!”

If gladius-related murders spike in the months after Ryse: Son of Rome‘s release, we’ll have a definitive answer to the linkage between violent video games and crime.

I also got a chance to play Divekick. As promised, when I lost at Divekick, I was immediately arrested for losing at Divekick. Fortunately bail was reasonable.

The other festival going on this weekend is, of course, Bumbershoot. I didn’t actually go to any of the Saturday shows, my time being wholly consumed by PAX. The highlight of Sunday for me was Bob Mould’s set. He played a great mix of songs, including tunes from his time with Husker Du and Sugar. The energy of the set was amazing, driven by Mould’s impressive lyrical force and by the drumming of Jon Wurster who is, for my money, one of the best drummers in rock today.

One downside of the festival this year is that they’ve moved the Main Stage indoors, greatly limiting capacity. In previous years, they’ve utilized the football field, which provided ample room for remarkably large crowds. Trying to pack the same volume of people into Key Arena doesn’t seem workable, and I saw several instances throughout the day when they had a sign up indicating the main stage was at capacity. To be fair, the quarter-mile-long line queued up for headliners that night dissuaded me from trying my luck (I’ve already seen Ra Ra Riot and Death Cab for Cutie many times over), but I imagine that there are a lot of people who got turned away from seeing some killer bands because of the switch to an indoor venue.

On a final note, I saw Allie Brosh’s (of Hyperbole and a Half) presentation. She was “in conversation with” Ellen Forney, a writer and cartoonist. They both had some very interesting things to say about their work, but it was an odd choice by the presenters to put the two of them together. The “in conversation with” (really a pretentious way of trying to avoid a capital-I-Interview) format only works if the two people know each other well or at least have talked before, but the two had (my Ellen Forney’s own on-stage admission) never met before. Conversation is a personal art and throwing two random people together (even two smart, talented people like Brosh and Forney) is unlikely to result in scintillating conversation. The results in this case were a little stilted and awkward, by no fault of either presenter.

But I was still very impressed with Brosh’s insight. I was particularly interested in her comparison of her work to stand up comedy. She described her use of images as a stand in for the physicality, timing, and affect of a stage comedian, which makes a great deal of sense to me. This point was especially clear during the reading with which she opened her presentation. She read her piece “The God of Cake”, with the images projected behind her. Her pacing of the slides definitely added to the humor, in much the same way that Dylan Moran or Jimmy Carr’s pregnant pauses do.

So with one day left in the long weekend, this has already been a series of red letter days. I’ll be capping it off tomorrow by seeing Alt-J, MGMT, Mark Pickerel, and Bassnectar.

One hell of a weekend in one of the greatest cities on earth. Thanks, Seattle!

Spoiled by Video Game Technology

Me, on putting in the disc for my first DVD-based game, circa 2004:

“Oh man, a 5 gig install? That’s tons of data! This game must be awesome!”

Me, on putting in the disc for Defiance:

“WTF?! It requires install. And 5 gigs? Fuck, this game better be worth it.”

Forward Unto Dawn

Forward Unto Dawn is a live action series prequel to the upcoming Halo 4. It’s insanely well done and, with five 15-20 minute episodes planned, almost ends up being the live-action movie a lot of Halo fans have been hoping was in the works.

Halo is one of the most compelling Sci Fi franchises of the past decade and I’m stoked to see it done in live action and more over to see it done so well. The trailer’s embedded above and includes a link to the first episode in the video.

“I’m just gonna…couch.”

In honor of today’s release of the third and final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy:

(Mildly NSFW for scantily-clad, digitally-rendered Miranda)

“I will not be told where to stand”

Seeing as how I just got my awesome “We Keep You Safe” Protomen shirt in the mail, I thought I’d take the opportunity to post of my favorite Protomen tunes. Insanely good Prog Rock based on an amazing video game franchise? Don’t mind if I do.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.