Thursday, December 31, 2009

Listen to Me Talk.

The Active Time Babble podcast at has a new, long interview with me. There's a lot of stuff about Avernum 6 and a few tidbits of information about the new game I'm working on. Just the thing to help you not work.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

MiniReview - Dragon Age: Origins

I really did want to go on a bit about Dragon Age: Origins. Over the years, I've found that I've gotten pretty tired of computer RPGs. The single-player ones only rarely have any surprises, and MMORPGs only want to eat my life. And yet, I found Dragon Age to be entirely enchanting. Bioware is very, very good at what they do.

The plot, at its best, has this epic Lord of the Ringsy feel, in a good way. The voice acting and the writing are marvelous, and the game is frequently hilarious. The side chatter from your group when you take all of the evil characters out with you is worth the price of admission.

But the thing that struck me most is the role-playing aspect. (I'll have some very gentle spoilers in this bit.)

Attempts at having role-playing in computer games are frequently and justifiably mocked for giving facile choices between "Angelically Good" and "Absolutely Evil". When you find a hungry puppy, you can either crush it with a cinderblock or buy it a house of its own. There is no middle ground. And yes, Dragon Age has some of that.

But what impressed me is the number of situations where there are a lot of options, none of them are very good, and you just have to muddle through. For example, in one part of Dragon Age, a young, magically skilled boy has been taken over by a demon. He's been merrily trashing the countryside. It's a crappy situation, and you have to help them out of it. You can off the boy. Or let the mother sacrifice herself to enable you to challenge the demon. Or travel to the wizards' tower to maybe get a way to expel the demon, losing valuable time. And, should you challenge the demon, you can kill it or, in return for one of several lavish rewards, let it stay in the kid, hidden.

When I reached this point, I didn't see a perfect option. I had my own, "OhgodohgodwhatdoIdo?" moment. And my choice was, in retrospect, not a great one. But there is little I love more in an RPG then when I'm forced to stop, gobsmacked, and go, "Wow. I'm really on my own here. I'd better think about this ..."

Similarly, late in the game, the country is without a leader and you have to figure out who will end up king (or queen). This leads to a brief, marvelous series of conversations, full of power politics, ugly compromises, and the constant awareness that there is no "right" choice. That you can maneuver things so that you end up on the throne only adds to the awesomeness.

And, just before the endgame, when it seems that horrible sacrifices will happen, one of the characters approaches you and makes an offer that ... well ... I wish I had the audacity to put something so spectacularly bizarre and twisted into one of my games. (I really don't want to spoil it. And yes, I did take her offer.)

I tried to play the game as a goody-two-shoes. But Dragon Age has a way of making sure no good deed goes unpunished. By the end of the game, I was acting a whole lot more evil. Sometimes, evil just works better. And I think, more than anything, the way the game got me to smoothly and naturally make a shift like that says a lot about how subtle the "good" and "evil" choices within can be.

So I recommend it very strongly to anyone who likes computer RPGs. Just one warning. Normal difficulty can be pretty darn tricky, especially on a console. I love my XBox, but it's not really made for precisely controlling a group of four characters.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Big N00b Visits Las Vegas

(Please be warned that this article might have more adult content than other articles on this blog. For that reason, it should not be read by anyone below seventy years of age. Everyone else should go somewhere more family-friendly.)

I have long been in love with the concept of Vegas. I love games. I love theatre. I love math. And Las Vegas is a city that is built on games and theatre (of a sort).

And, even better, it is an outpost in the middle of a desert that is built entirely on the concept of punishing people for being bad at math. How could anyone not be thrilled by this?

And yet, my love has always been from a distance. I studied probability for too many years to be able to kid myself even the slightest about the end result of most any gambling endeavor. I learned to count cards while playing blackjack and started to get the hang of it, but that felt too much like work for me to want to keep at it. I already have a job.

So I stayed away from Vegas for over a decade. However, since my wife had never seen it, in all of its gaudy splendor. It really is something every American should experience before death, so we went for a few days. We didn't gamble (much). We just took in the experience. These are a few observations about my stay, which might aid and amuse those who aren't so familiar with the place and are planning to go.

Vegas Is Fun

Las Vegas, as it exists now, was constructed by some of the smartest, savviest people in the world, using many billions of dollars, in order to be the most fun experience possible for the largest number of adults possible. They have succeeded. I don't care how superior to it you think you are. If you have a few hundred bucks to burn, Vegas will provide you with two or three days of enjoyment, crass or sophisticated. There are some really smart, funny shows and some restaurants that are fantastic by even the most picky standards. You don't have to gamble a cent.

However, Vegas is a money town. If you have no money to spend, it hates you and you suck. There are free entertainments, but not many of them. It's not New York City or Paris. Even a city as legendarily expensive as London has awesome things to do for free. In Vegas, nothing is cheap except the escort ads they pass out on the Strip.

Some Things Are Cheap

It is possible to get hotel rooms for very cheap, as long as you avoid the luxury joints. For example, as of this writing, you can stay at the Hooters Casino Hotel for $29 a night. Oh, and the Hooters Casino Hotel is a thing that exists.

Valet parking at casinos and hotels is always free. Since most of the tourism in Vegas involves driving to various hotels, this is awesome.

You can occasionally still find dollar shrimp cocktails, if you enjoy frozen shrimp and vomiting. If you are determined to pay bottom dollar for seafood in the middle of a desert, you deserve what you get.

Vegas Is a Hotel-Based Ecosystem

For most tourists, the Vegas experience involves going from one enormous, mind-bogglingly expensive hotel to another. Most of these are on Las Vegas Boulevard South, also known as The Strip. It is also where restraint and moderation went to die.

The warrenlike reputation of the hotels is accurate. Once inside, it is impossible to find anything without walking through the casino eight times. There are no windows and no clocks. There will be shiny things and people carrying open drinks and lit cigarettes. Coming from Seattle, which is basically Communist Russia with more salmon, seeing people actually smoking indoors without shame is marvelously exotic.

When touring the Strip, I strongly recommend visiting The Venetian. It is very nice, with murals, marble, and a shopping mall with an indoor canal. It is also the only hotel on the strip that is actually less touristy than the real-life location it is based on.

The Planet Hollywood Resort, also on the Strip, features a Pleasure Pit. Basically, it's like every other set of gaming tables, except that all of the dealers are young women in lingerie. So, if you ever dreamed of visiting a place called the Pleasure Pit, I regret to inform you that it contains far less pleasure than you hoped for. Though it is wonderful to find any place that makes Hooters look classy.

Oh, Yeah. Some People There Will Sleep With You For Money

One feature of walking up and down the Strip is that guys will constantly be trying to stuff thick packs of cards into your hand. Each card bears clip art of an attractive young woman, an improbably low price, and a phone number. Dial the number on the card and a woman who looks nothing like the picture will come to your hotel room and charge an amount nothing like the listed price to give you an experience nothing like what you were hoping for. Alternately, you can collect several handfuls of these cards, stack them up, and pretend you're about to play the most awesome game of Pokemon evar.

You can also find thick magazines full of escort ads. These work just like the cards, only there's many more pictures of women that look nothing like the women you will get. Also, the descriptions of the escorts within are frequently awesome. Actual example:

"I'm half Japanese and half American. People call me an Amerasian. I am independent and an Amerasian. I am independent and available to entertain you."

In other words, Rain Man is now a Vegas prostitute. Please try to be done quickly. She gets really upset if she's not out of there before Wheel of Fortune is on.

You Can See Shows

There are many shows in Vegas. There are shows that feature magicians, ventriloquists, singers your grandmother loves, and, of course, boobies. All shows in Vegas are 90 minutes, on the dot. Because why would anyone ever have a show last for more or less than that? It would be unthinkable! A 92 minute show? An 88 minute show? Pure anarchy, I tell you!

Happily, you can always go see Cirque de Soliel. They have six shows on the Strip as of this writing, soon to be seven, and only a few of them suck. I saw Mystere and Ka, and both were great (the former far more than the latter). They also feature isolated moments of quiet subtlety, and elegance, because someone in Vegas has to.

We also saw Penn & Teller, which was a great show. A lot of remarkable bits and well worth the large cost. My general opinion of magic shows is the same as my view of improv comedy: Neither should be performed by anyone under any circumstances whatsoever. But I'll make an exception for Penn & Teller, bless their cynical, arrogant, atheistic hearts.

One More Thing, Which I Think Says a Lot About the Whole Tenor of the Experience

I saw one bar (in Mandalay Bay) which featured a 100 oz. daiquiri for $35. What sort of person sells that? And, my God, who would buy it?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Why the People on Your Side are Always Ripping You Off.

Recently, one of my friends was trying out my newest game (which is awesome). He called me out on something that has annoyed him in such games since the beginning of time ...

The following is a perennial complaint that I have had with these kinds of games since the beginning of time; Here I am, going around killing monsters, rescuing people and finding desperately needed stuff. I keep running into fellow government employees, who need my services, who will not teach me important skills unless I massively overpay them. Their excuse? "I have expenses". F*** that. At the very least you need a better story, or a sub-plot dealing with the massive corruption within the system. Just saying.

(I have added *'s to swear words to maintain my blog's family qualities. Show it to your kids!)

Now, this was a friend, not a beta tester. If it was one of my friendly, volunteer beta testers who was bitching me out, I would have come up with a very calm, polite, non-profane response. Since this was a friend, I felt no such limitations. I thought the answer was simultaneously amusing and enlightening enough to be included here.

This is awesome! Of all the things that are completely unrealistic in the system (Like that you can't climb a ten foot wall, or that you can use MAGIC), you get angry at the one thing that basically corresponds to how things work in the Actual World.

For example, suppose you work in some government agency. Say the Department of the Interior. And you need to mail out a thousand letters for some reason or another. So you put them all in a big box and you take them to the post office and are, like, "Please mail these." And the guy behind the counter will say, "You have to buy stamps." And you'll say, "But we both work for the government! It's all the same money! So help me out!" And he'll be, like, "You have a budget. And we have a budget. You can't use our resources without sharing your resources. So f*** you! Pay me!"

Or, more to the point, look back at your military history. When our big, fat, rich country goes to war, in the chaos of the thing it's inevitable that some soldiers get too much of one thing and others don't get near enough. Thus, bartering occurs. (To see a lot of this, I highly recommend Generation Kill by Evan Wright.) Say you're a marine and your night vision goggles ain't working because you never got batteries. And you see someone from the next battalion over carrying a crate of the batteries. And you're, like, "Hey! I need batteries! Give me a few of yours!" And he's, like, "Cool! Our machines guns don't work because we don't have enough grease. Give me a can of grease." And you're, like, "But we're both fighting together! On the same side! Semper fi! Ooo-Rah!" And he'll be, like, "Yeah. Ooo-Rah. F*** you! Pay me!"

Or you're a guy in a fantasy world, and you see some archer training her troops, and you're, like, "I see you're all busy and stuff, and you don't know me from a hole in the ground, and you have work you need to be doing and defenses that need shoring up and maybe you want to sleep sometimes, but you should drop everything now in order to give Bow and Arrow Lessons 101 to my sorry ass. OK?" I'm sure you can see where this is going.

"F*** you! Pay me!"

I hope that this brings some clarity to this perplexing issue.

Also, game balance, need to give you something to do with money, blah, blah, blah. This is my main justification, and I'm sticking with it.