Saturday, September 22, 2007

Recently Played: Bioshock (PC)

I recently finished playing BioShock.

Overall, it is an excellent game, probably the best game of the year so far. That said, I keep thinking back to my previous gaming obsession, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and somehow it was never quite as captivating. I logged over 100 hours in Oblivion and mostly stopped playing in order to get some sort of a life back (World of Warcraft players, I salute and pity you). BioShock clocked in at probably one fifth of that time, but somehow there was never that compulsion to play, that planning your life around figuring when you can get back to the game.

What's good about BioShock? The graphics are amazing, certainly. The Big Daddy is simply an awesome character, perhaps one of the most memorable characters I have seen in years. The setting is very cool, an underwater city in 1920s art deco style. The sense that Something Very Bad has happened is ever-present - there is scarcely any part of the city that is not falling apart in some way, leaks and rubble everywhere. Thinking back on the sterile environments of most games of even a few years ago really makes an impression as to how far games have come even recently.

Still, I just don't feel as excited about the game as I think I should. Maybe it's because the story gets a little derailed after the main plot twist (and the story was a little confusing to begin with). Maybe it's that the final boss battle is such a departure from the rest of the game. (Really, the ending of the game is a bit of a letdown.) Maybe it's because the game takes control away from the player at some key moments, most notably at the end. Really, the places where control is taken away are exactly the points in the game where giving player a choice would have made the game great. (Note to self: After the final big boss battle, do not take control away from the player and end the game immediately.)

Maybe it's because, despite one attempt at allowing the player to make a moral choice, the game forces you to do some rather questionable things in order to advance. That linearity to the game is really the biggest weakness. At the end of each level, the game's transportation system will allow you to travel to any of the previous environments, but there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to do so.

All of the ingredients are there to have an open ended game with multiple solutions to each problem (the easy, evil road, or the hard, good road) but they were never executed on. I really have to suspect that that is the game that was originally designed, but could not be achieved for reasons of money or time. Being a game developer I have an immense amount of sympathy and understand as to why those things may not have panned out as expected. Certainly the pressure to get the game out the door, especially one as good as this, would be immense. Maybe I'm just disappointed that what could have been an all-time classic (as I would expect Oblivion to be considered) will go down as one of many games-of-the-year that are all too quickly forgotten.

Buy it, enjoy it, just don't expect it to change your life.

See also: Zero Punctuation Review of BioShock

Thursday, September 13, 2007


So, I missed posting anything on 9/11, partially because Real Life interfered, as it often does, but also because there wasn't much to say.

The usual questions were raised, should Canada fly its flags at half mast on Sept. 11, etc.

Yes, people died. That is by definition tragic. Many, many, many more people die every day, in even more heartbreaking circumstances.

Really, 9/11 was a tragic event with really, really good marketing. The western world's response to it would most accurately be described as over-reaction. The terrorism catch-phrase makes a lot of people a lot of money.

I think what we should remember is that our world changed that day. We need to remember what it is like to live in a world that is not controlled by fear. We need to remember that any of us could die at any time, although the odds may be against it. We need to remember that we will all die, eventually, and that that is a good thing. We need to remember that trading freedom for safety is neither a fair trade, nor a feasible one.

We need to remember that life before the world changed, in hope that our children or our children's children may find it again.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Pessimist's Theory of Happiness

The Pessimist's Theory of Happiness states that happiness can neither be created, nor destroyed, but can only move from on person to another. Put another way, there is a constant amount of happiness in the universe, and the only way to get more happiness is to take it from someone else.

OK, I just made that up. Well, not just, I came up with it some months ago, but that's not the point.

Of course the Optimist's Theory of Happiness states that happiness can be created willy-nilly without any particular consequence.

Somehow these theories make me think of conservatives and liberals, respectively. There is perhaps some validity to the Pessimist's version. For instance, if you raise taxes to provide services, sure somebody gets the service, but everybody also gets taxed more. Similarly, if you're rich and can convince the government to give you a tax break and pass the cost on to everyone else, you can manage to extract happiness from them that way. Of course, then you get into the Laws of Happydynamics, and see that when bureaucracy manages happiness, some of that happiness is irrecoverably lost to ambient heat.

I hear someone at the back shouting that, "money does not equal happiness." Perhaps not, but at least we have standard units of currency. What is the standard unit of happiness exactly? "I'd like one decagrin please." Money is irrelevant anyway, it's just a way of keeping score. The point is that a lot of people obtain their happiness by extracting it from others.

Now, on the other hand, there are people who create stuff that make a lot of people very happy. There are many wonderful authors who have written things that have surely made many people very happy, surely significantly in excess of whatever struggles were required to create it. That is one of the cool things about creating - it seems at least possible that you are increasing the total amount of happiness in the universe, while all the consumers / non-creators are busy just moving all of the happiness around until we achieve apathy-death.

Unfortunately, I don't recall if I actually had a point when I started writing this post. Certainly one has not arisen as quickly as I would have hoped. If you have any happiness you could send my way, perhaps I could find a way to wrap this up more satisfactorily. Thanks!

Friday, September 7, 2007

What are we?

From time to time I think about our (that is, human's) place in the world / universe.

I remember being in elementary school, and we were being taught to classify things into "natural" and "man-made." At the time this struck me as an exceptionally stupid way to classify things, because people are as much a part of nature as anything else. Really, despite our manipulation of tools and our invention prowess and communication abilities, we have more in common with squirrels than bacteria living in under-sea volcanic vents do. I'm not really an environmentalist,
but man-made is not a natural classification for me.

Let me get to the point: We are animals. We are made of atoms, just like trees, dirt, rocks, and fuzzy bunnies, and everything else that is not hard vacuum (and even then quantum mechanics makes that a bit iffy, but that's not the point, not yet anyway). We are not special in any universal sense. We are special in a personal sense, possibly, but ultimately we're just a bunch of stuff crawling around on the surface of a rock orbiting a giant fusion reactor. As I heard someone say (quoting someone else, I believe, and I'm not going to track down the original author right now): We're just a bunch of cells that decided to be "us" for a while.

Now, those sorts of thoughts probably freak out the religious among us, who regard humans as exceptionally special. I think it's pretty cool to think of a person as a bunch of single-celled organisms that got together and created a person, but maybe I'm just weird that way.

There's a quote from the TV show Babylon 5 suggesting that we are the universe attempting to understand itself. When I first heard that, I thought it was pseudo-religious garbage - the universe "intentionally" creating people to help understand itself. I realized recently that's not really what it means. We actually are a part of the universe. We're a bunch of supernova remnants. We are just a chunk of the universe. And we are trying to understand the universe. Yes, we literally are a piece of the universe trying to understand the universe (i.e. itself). That doesn't imply intent, creation, or anything else, that's simply a statement of fact.

I'll have to think more about what that means, but it seems a very interesting way to look at things to me.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

So, I was thinking....

I make games for a living. On one hand, it's very rewarding, because at the end of a project there's actually something that you have created that literally hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people will enjoy. I have wondered with increasing frequency over the years whether it would be more valuable to put my skills towards things more obviously beneficial to the health and welfare of humanity.

In the end, though, I have brought a lot of joy to a lot of people over the years. I do this better than I do anything; it is quite possible I do this better than I will ever be able to do anything else. I can sense myself casually drifting to the point where my experience often interferes with my ability to try reckless new approaches to things. I'll fight that as long as I can, but my days of being able to change the world are probably numbered.

What does the betterment of humanity mean exactly anyway? For a lot of people, I have made life more enjoyable. I'm sure for some, I have made life worth living, if even for a short while. There are other things I could do that might save lives, but saving a life is not the same as making a life worth living. What a drab place it would be if everyone worked only to keep everyone else alive, only to have them inevitably die at a later time anyway.

We often forget that we will die. We more often forget that we should die, to make room for new people, and more importantly, new ideas. Saving lives has become and end unto itself, grown from this forgetfulness, until we have forgotten how to live.

So I will continue to do what I do. I will continue to touch people's lives in the best way that I can, and hopefully make us all better for it.