I’m nearing the end of my thesis. After I finished my literature review chapter I did an audit of what’s remaining. I rediscovered some parts of chapters I had left ‘for later’, things that I didn’t feel like writing in more detail at the time. Having expected to be wrapping things up by now, I’m strongly yet ineffectually rebuking my past self for my inaction. Instead of methodically checking references, spelling, grammar and fonts, I’m frantically writing, splicing, deleting and correcting.
Don’t leave things for later.
One of those things is my EVE Online chapter, which needed a lot of work. In the course of patching up the holes, I’ve been observing how much EVE has changed over the last year. Having not played it much since my corp lost its wormhole, I’ve missed a fair bit. DUST 514 is no more, Valkyrie and Gunjack are released but unattainable (VR hardware is not cheap), and EVE being what it is, both the game and its players have continued their evolutions. EVE is no longer a familiar place in a distant sky.
Don’t leave things for later.
Games change, they grow old, they die. They get reborn as curios, as museum pieces, as academic objects of study. Or they’re forgotten. I stumbled over the Microbee Software Preservation Project while I was researching dead and dying games for a paper on Microsoft Flight. I had pretty much forgotten about the Microbee until that point, but I had been thinking for a while that a preservation project for Australian video game music would be a worthwhile endeavour. Who else would do it? There are Australian game preservation efforts, and video game music preservation efforts, but not much overlap. And game hardware is the limiting factor—the computers that run them, and the disks and tapes the software is stored on. These are becoming rarer each year, and while much has been preserved by fantastically awesome volunteer types, there is still a risk that much could be lost.
I haven’t had much time for gaming lately, but here are some notes on some of the games I have been playing.
To Be or Not To Be
My wife and I have both been playing this adorable little choose-your-own-Shakespeare-adventure mobile game by Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics) and developed by Australian company Tin Man Games. It’s brilliant. I must admit that I’m a Dinosaur Comics fan (though I’ve been trying to read through to current day for several years now) and I’ve noticed that it reads enough like DC and has enough DC in-jokes that I suspect people who haven’t read DC might not get what’s going on half the time. But it’s a refreshing take on Shakespeare and I like how they’ve implemented the music: simply, but responsively enough for the kind of game it is, and it’s really quite pretty.
I’ve jumped back in to EVE recently after a disheartened absence following my corp losing our POS in wormhole space. And now that I’m back in highsec I’m really paranoid. In w-space you get used to spamming the scanner to make sure you’re not about to be killed, and it’s not a habit that’s easy to let slip — nor is really the kind of habit that you should let slip, because in EVE, as in Game of Thrones, everybody is going to die all of the time. Except that in EVE, “everybody” is you. The relatively chilled highsec music doesn’t really allay any of those fears, and I’m a bit surprised at that. I may have been subconsciously expecting highsec to be like a warm fuzzy blanket after the cold emptiness of w-space. I guess losing a ship full of stuff in your first trek back in the game shatters that expectation. Oh well.
I think, also, that knowing that the whole CODE. thing happened while I was away from highsec makes me expect a whole lot more ganking than before. So far, I haven’t seen any (except for the aforementioned gank I experienced that was unrelated to CODE.), but I’m keeping my eyes peeled.
Maybe now that VR is a thing and we’re all wearing headsets we can figure out a way to read brain activity to determine emotional state and adjust music accordingly. This would almost certainly be terribly annoying (particularly if you’re multitasking) but if you’re fully immersed and expecting to be ganked it could enhance the heck out of that paranoia.
As mentioned very briefly in an earlier post, I’ve finally got through Skyrim‘s main quest. Such dragons! And it’s such a beautiful game world. I really enjoyed Blackreach just for its unexpected vastness and the prettiness of all the shiny things. So many shiny things.
But Skyrim, much like Oblivion before it, is easy. Don’t get me wrong, I sort of like making my character near-invincible just by existing. My sneaking skills are top shelf, which is sort of weird for a battleaxe-wielding, heavily-armoured Nord. But quite aside from the fact that my character is a sneaky beefcake, the missions just don’t challenge. Over Christmas I watched my bro-in-law play Bloodborne quite a lot, and played it a little myself. Learning enemy moves, jumping out of the way in the nick of time and spending hours trying to beat one boss are par for the course. Then I came home, jumped in to Skyrim and accidentally became Archmage of the Mages’ Guild. A few quests and then suddenly the Archmage dies, all the mages avenge him, and they tell me that I’m Archmage… because the guy with the battleaxe is clearly the best mage. Never mind that he can only cast Apprentice level spells. A mere technicality.
But the game is pretty and the music is nice, both of which Skyrim a lovely place to explore. And those dragons are really quite good dragons.
I’ve finally managed to borrow a PS3 and get stuck into DUST for a while. As an EVE Online nut, I’ve been hoping to do this for quite some time. And also as an EVE Online nut, I’ve heard plenty about how it’s not really all that great a game.
It appears to have come a significant way since its release in terms of having bugs removed. I’ve still found a few glitches where the game can’t decide on your exact location, but they’re usually resolved once someone forcefully respawns you. There are also a few glitches with using a keyboard and mouse instead of the typical controller setup — sometimes the keys it tells you to use just don’t work, and sometimes it tells you to use a controller button instead. I’m using a keyboard-mouse because I’ve not been able to get used to aiming with the PS3 controller (the sensitivity always feels wrong to my XBOX-trained hands).
But chief among possible grievances is that the game types seem extremely limited. (I should say at the outset that I’ve not joined a major player-owned corporation, so there might be things I’m missing here.) There are three game types for regular matches: “Ambush”, which is your standard kill-everyone mode with a time limit and a ‘clone limit’ of 50; “Domination”, which is a standard King of the Hill mode and which has a ‘clone limit’ of 150; and “Skirmish”, which is a multiple hill variant of “Domination”. That’s it. The ‘clone limit’ mechanic (each time you respawn you start in a new clone of yourself — a technological link back to EVE that’s fictionalised in the novel EVE: Templar One if you’re interested) and the abstracted victory conditions add unpredictability to the end point of the match; the match ends either when your team’s out of clones or when you destroy the opposition’s Mobile Command Centre by maintaining control of an auto-firing cannon for longer than the other guys. And despite taking place on differing planets throughout the EVE game world, there are a fairly limited number of maps. Perhaps humans in the distant future take the term “parallel Earth” a little too literally and just terraform planets to look identical.
What soon becomes apparent is that DUST 514 relies not on variety but on unpredictability, setup, strategy and cooperation in equal parts to make gameplay interesting. In hindsight, and being an EVE Online nut, I should have expected this from CCP (who develop both DUST and EVE) because it’s rather similar to the EVE philosophy. Setting up a dropsuit fit is almost absurdly similar to fitting out a ship in EVE, even to the point of using many of the same fictional technologies. As an EVE nut it’s sort of comfortingly familiar, but I’m certain that non-EVE players would find the translation of EVE‘s steep technical learning curve into the FPS genre a bit odd.
As for cooperation, it apparently happens sometimes. There are up to 16 players per side, which is enough to pull off some expert manoeuvres if you’re more coordinated than the other guys. This happens, though most games seem to have one or two organised squads and a much larger crew of lone rangers. I’ve never heard any comms on the chat channel for the entire team, so I’m guessing the squads use their own comms channel. Good one, guys. While this makes strategising fairly challenging, there are enough support roles built into the game to make tacking yourself on to someone else’s strategy a moderately rewarding play style. You can be a medic if you want, reviving your incapacitated team mates to prevent using up valuable clones. If you’ve got the skills, you can be a heavy gunner, or drive or fly a vehicle. Haven’t played around with those myself, don’t have the skills. What I have been mucking around with is being a sniper.
I think the way DUST does sniping is the biggest surprise I’ve had from this game. I’m actually better at sniping in this game than at regular soldiering (at which I’m fairly woeful). But I couldn’t possibly attribute this to my own skill. DUST‘s small collection of maps and game types hides the fact that the maps are far larger than would normally be required. When you’re a regular soldier, you find the space between your initial spawn point and where all the action happens quite annoying. But when you’re a sniper, the exceedingly generous amount of land surrounding the battle arena provides you with a plethora of tiny hiding places. Judging by the number of gullies, small mounds and structures along the ranges of hills at the periphery of these maps, I’d say the maps were designed partially with snipers in mind. You’re never safe anywhere, of course, but many of these hiding places are sufficiently far from where anyone would normally be looking that you can get a few kills in before you’re noticed. And when you are noticed, it’s usually by another sniper. Although sniper rifles seem underpowered, they’re still useful enough to provide support to your team mates closer to the action.
What’s more, in typical EVE-like fashion your setup plays a significant part in your sniping effectiveness. You could choose to buy-to-win through microtransactions, but who’s that much of a schmuck? It’s all about the slow grind. Skilling up, buying new gear, modifying your dropsuit to be less scan-able and boost your damage, and all the while honing your actual skills of aiming and finding good hiding spots. I dare say that to most FPS players this would be tedious, but to anyone familiar with EVE it’ll feel fairly natural.
But then, I suppose that’s one reason why DUST hasn’t really worked. It’s an FPS that appeals more to the players of a relatively small and infamously slow MMORPG than to regular FPS players. That DUST doesn’t bore me is probably more of a testament to how engaging a game EVE can be than to any particular qualities of DUST itself. DUST ostensibly builds a playable game from very few conventional FPS elements by adding a few RPG-like elements to the mix, along with its much-touted ‘orbital strike’ mechanic (which, by the way, I’m yet to see — I’ve seen “warbarge strikes” but they’re apparently weaker than a proper orbital strike by an EVE player, and I’d honestly be surprised if anyone in EVE was bothering). But underpinning those RPG-like elements is the RPG they were borrowed from. Take away that RPG, its world, its technologies, its story, and DUST would be nothing.
I should be bored. I’m not sure I should even be professionally interested — the four instances of music I’ve found in the game are basic loops that seem unrelated to the music in EVE. But, just like in EVE, I’ve kept returning just to see what will happen next, and whether the latest tweaks to my setup will give me the advantage against strangers in far-flung corners of the galaxy.
Wow. Busy semester. I’ve never been a particularly good blog updater type, but my tardiness has been quite annoying this time around. Here are a few things I’ve been meaning to write about.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to give the same paper in two very different contexts. Once via Skype to the Ludo 2014 conference in the UK, and once in person to an in-house symposium for students at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The excellent folks at the Ludo 2014 conference set up a Google Hangout for a few of us long-distance “attendees”, in addition to Skype link-ups for presenting conferences. Really nice of them to do both, as it allowed me to sidestep that pesky other-side-of-the-world thing, and not just to say my piece and then leave. I could engage with the conference and the other speakers despite being at home in Sydney, which I found quite rewarding.
Presenting a paper via Skype is actually quite challenging. With the audience on the other side of the world, the Skype window small enough on my screen that it doesn’t obstruct my paper, and the low-fi sound quality of Skype, there’s remarkably little feedback to be received. No turning pages of notebooks to be heard, no amused grins or muted chuckles at jokes, not even a bored expression to let you know how you’re going. You’ve just got to forge ahead, trusting that your microphone isn’t broken and that Skype hasn’t dropped out and left you with a frozen image or something. And you notice all this in your first ten seconds, and by twenty seconds in you realise it’s going to be like this for the next twenty minutes. But then they clap politely at the end, you realise it all went fine, and you answer some questions while breathing deeply and pondering a walk to the kitchen for a large glass of wine. Giving the paper in person at the Con felt substantially easier, but I’m grateful for the chance to be able to present to Ludo 2014. I think being able to telecommute is a pretty important skill for someone conducting research in such an isolated country.
The Wolf Among Us
This game (well, the first four episodes of it at least) is superb, almost to the point of being annoying. Having recently spent a considerable amount of time analysing L.A. Noire and a considerable amount of effort trying to place it within the noir tradition, it grates to see a game that fits the tradition so easily. But it only grates a little, because it’s awesome.
And something I’ve noticed about this game is how surprisingly well the music works considering it’s the second least noir thing about the game (after the fairytales). It’s very synthy, and more “artificial” than “gritty”, but to my mind it fits the game rather well. I’ll try to figure out why when the fifth episode comes out
The Walking Dead
Never shed a tear in a video game before. That’s something new. I’ve recently bought Season 2 in the Steam Summer Sales so no spoilers.
My corp and I have moved out into wormhole space (as of a few months ago). EVE feels and sounds quite different out there. It’s got a brooding, ominous soundtrack – at least for the first little while, then the distinct lack of variance becomes the crushing loneliness of empty space. I’ve been listening to New Eden Radio a lot, put it that way. I know that nullsec has an adaptive soundtrack that gets “darker” according to the number of ships killed in the last 24 hours, but I’m yet to see whether wormhole space has a similar mechanic because there’s nobody there. And, to be fair, when there is someone there it’s usually me that’s on the dying side.
I’ve never gotten into Skyrim as deeply as I got into Oblivion, but I’ve been playing it sporadically lately and am yet again impressed by how beautiful a world it is. Top marks.
A friend got me on to EVE Online a couple of years ago. Despite an apparently widespread opinion that it’s a spreadsheet simulator, I quite enjoy it for its Star Trek-on-nerd-steroids vibe. Outer space in RL is awesomely beautiful, and EVE has enough simulated space prettiness to satisfy APOD cravings while you go about your particular flavour of business. And whatever your business you need that eye candy to get you through it, because EVE is one of the most prolific learning curve generators I’ve ever encountered. There’s a steep learning curve to every action or profession you undertake in EVE; the game can be simultaneously tedious and engrossing, but the time in/knowledge out ratio is unparallelled.
Every six months or so, EVE is updated by an expansion. These usually include some kind of story-backed changes to the game world (read: different ways to kill other spaceships) along with various alterations to the mechanics of gameplay. One of these expansions came out in November 2012, just a couple of months ago. I didn’t get a chance to play EVE until after Christmas, but when I did I noticed quite a lot of things had changed, and I was pleasantly surprised that the dull and discordant theme music from the previous expansion had been replaced by a new theme with spirit. There’s a new main theme tune with every expansion, and sometimes they’re not so amazing.
EVE (like most MMOs I’m sure) serves you up enough hours of play to make the in-game music far more familiar to you than any of its title themes. Usually it’s the title theme which sets your emotional compass when you launch a game, and the title theme of a new game in an RPG series can put you right back in the world even before you’ve started playing. But in EVE the function of the title themes is almost cursory compared with the homeliness of the synth pad-driven background tunes. The vast majority of the visual elements in the game today have undergone some kind of change since I started playing two years ago, but the music has not. It welcomes you back into the universe while you’re adjusting to other things, subtly going about the business of holding the whole game together.
Strangely, there’s far less music fatigue than I’d expect. The tunes are full of melodies and harmonic variations, so the game’s creators seem not to have attempted to avoid fatigue too hard. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt only to a certain point, beyond which familiarity is a comfortable state of equilibrium. I could never say the music doesn’t get boring, and it’s hardly mistakable for Koji Jondo or Jeremy Soule, but it accompanies you through tough learning curves and space battles and somehow earns its place. Though the universe of EVE can be a dangerous place to fly, it always sounds a little bit like home.