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I went and saw the movie Brave tonight with a group. The story wasn't very interesting, but there were a few funny moments, and it was certainly very pretty. Minor spoilers follow.

In the car riding back, we had a discussion about the stupidity of one of the central conflicts of the story. The princess is being presented to the sons of three noblemen, who will then compete to win her hand in marriage. We discussed how this is a terrible choice: choosing any one angers the others and causes either disunion or warfare. Monarchs don't usually marry their senior/inheriting children to their subordinate nobles, and this is one good reason why.

But what if the monarchy is elective? What if, on the death of king Fergus, the next king will be chosen by the clan leaders? The movie doesn't discuss this possibility, as there really is no place for political nuance in a Disney comedy about a girl's adventure with her mother. But that sort of political structure would make the betrothal tournament much more sensible, as both sides have something to gain from the arrangement. Merida's family gains ties to either the next king (and a young man that succeeds at feats of arms against his fellows is certainly setting himself up as a good candidate for this rough-and-tumble kingship), or someone who might support their clan's candidate's claim to the throne, especially if that claimant is his wife's brother. On the other hands, the winning clan chief gain greater access to the currently reigning king, who could grant them various sorts of favors, and possibly even give his son-in-law advice or political experience that could also benefit his subsequent candidacy for the throne.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

I'm going to say a lot here, but it all boils down to one conclusion: fun, but forgettable. 

This game bills itself on being a epic fantasy RPG where the action is intense and the player has a great deal of freedom to create the kind of character build they want within the traditional warrior/rogue/mage framework. Unfortunately, while the game doesn't fall completely flat, it doesn't exactly deliver on that promise, either. The combat is fairly fun: most of what I did was hack at things, frequently interspersed with the rolling dodge to either avoid enemy attacks or get into range of the next guy after finishing one off. However, I hit something of a problem about halfway up the level progression: the game got too easy. This is certainly better than being too difficult, but by the end of the game, continuous upgrades to my weapons and especially armor had rendered me all but invulnerable. My health bar barely ever flickered down from full during the entire final level, including the boss fights at the end. And when it did get hurt, I regenerated so quickly that I was usually healed up again before the next shot. While it's kind of nice to stride the earth as an unstoppable colossus, it isn't exactly a tense or engaging gameplay experience. 

The world, as the marketing blurb mentions, was designed at least in part by the famous author R. A. Salvatore. I did find bits and pieces of it interesting, as I usually do, but by and large it's pretty forgettable. There are two varieties of white humans, and two varieties of dark elves. The elves in particular earned my ire because everybody in the game except me seems to be able to tell members of the two groups apart at first glance. In addition to this, there are fae, which are distinct from the elves and are representations of various sorts of natural magical forces. The fae, at least, are very distinct, both from everything else and also between the two major varieties you encounter.

Minor spoilers ahead, not that I think most of you should be concerned. Thematically, the game is supposed to be about fate, death, and rebirth. The main character has, through experimental arcane processes, just come back from the dead with a handy dose of amnesia to explain why they don't know anything. The character is "outside fate", the only creature or spirit in the world that is. As such, you have the power to change the world and the way things will be, especially important because fate has not been kind to the world at large. This doom has been widely prophesied: there are a group of people in the world called fate weavers that can read destinies, knowing with accuracy what will be. In the game, these characters provide a handy service: they can "unbind your destiny" for a fee, which lets you rebuild your character, almost from the ground up. This allows players to change their character to explore different play styles and correct for any mistakes while learning the game. I actually used this twice, and the first time in particular it was very handy. However, the fluff of the game is that for most people, fate weavers have no power to change things. One of the earliest re-curring characters you meet is a fate weaver morose about his impending death. The obnoxious thing about this is that I as a player have no power to know what I'm changing, except when the game tells me because it's relevant to the main plot. If I, say, meet a gnome on the road who is trying to stir up shit between some ogres and fishmen, I don't have the option of realizing that he will succeed anyway and going on to something more important. Sure, eventually the game brings out the "you've screwed everything up so much that now fate reading doesn't work" excuse, but that isn't until almost the end of the game. 

To talk even more screwed up, one of the central points of the game is that the fae can't really die: as a magical part of the world, they'll eventually reincarnate if their bodies are destroyed. But the game really goes back and forth on this: most of the time they can't, except the sometimes where they can. This really came to a head for me in one quest line, where they talk about "the fall of the house" just because all of the members get killed. But it doesn't carry any dramatic weight, because they never explain that there is anything stopping the slain members from reincarnating. Disjointed moments like that spring up all over. 

Dialogue in most of the game is a chore. The main character is a mute, which is something that I find increasingly difficult to excuse, especially given the fairly sizable list of voice actors for a game of this size. Also, even when you're given a choice in dialogue, it's usually not an interesting choice. I learned that the "persuasion" skill, as in most games, is absolutely critical since so much of the time both of the standard options don't actually get you anything, but a successful persuasion might. The main members of the supporting cast are especially bad at conversation: I never saw a reason to care about them (it doesn't help that one of them is effectively a Sidereal Exalt, who mostly exists to move the plot), and some of their characterizations don't make sense. 

Artistically, the game favors the big and the bold. Sometimes, this works: I especially liked Rathir, one of the two biggest cities in the game, which is supposed to be impressive. Sometimes, the game sacrifices function for form, especially in a non-combat environment. The best example of this is the last house in the game, which has basically I all of the services I wanted in the same place, but unfortunately that place is the size of Versailles, and most of the services are in different wings. So if I wanted to get a curse removed, make a magical gem, and then make that gem part of a magical weapon, I'd have to go to three separate wings. That's a substantial amount of time commuting. Other places are like this as well: they're gargantuan just for the sake of size. 

Not that the game really does anything small. At the end of the game, not counting a few tasks I hadn't completed, I had completed about 175 quests. And while I was doing almost every quest that I came across, there were at least two whole quest lines that I didn't touch. Even so, that is a whole hell of a lot of running around. 

I have to go, so I guess I'll leave this as is. I'm not sad I played it, and I certainly got good value out of the game, but I can't really recommend it. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Apparently I have another post in me today. I'm as surprised as you are. 

Realizing I haven’t posted about Skyrim probably should not surprise me. It’s hard for me to say that I’ve “finished” Skyrim, when I know there are substantial portions of the game that I haven’t touched and may never actually play through.

That said, my hour commitment on my primary character (yes, I have more than one) is easily over 100, so it’s probably fair to say that I’ve done enough to be able to talk about the game. Also, with something new coming along all the time, I might as well do it now.

I really liked Oblivion, and I’m going to draw on my experience with that game extensively in talking about Skyrim. Generally, Skyrim is better: it is obviously the more recent game, and feedback from Oblivion has obviously been used to improve Skyrim. Fortunately, the same things are still good: wandering around, seeing pretty landscapes, getting savaged by bears, dungeon delving, etc. In fact, there are some ways in which they’re slightly better. That most dungeons will tell you when you’ve cleared them is a great feature: one of the most annoying things in Oblivion was deciding to go clear out a dungeon, only to get there and realize that I’d already done that one (there would still be monsters, but I’d always rather clear a new dungeon that go through the same place again).

Although I didn’t go all-in on crafting, the alterations to the crafting system are appreciated: having to lug around the heavy gear was one of the reasons I never did alchemy in Oblivion. It was also nice to see some of the crafting benches in places like dungeons, where they were in theme with the inhabitants: necromancers tend to have alchemy and enchanting benches, while bandits might have a forge. Sometimes people will even be using them when you get there (which I especially like since I tend to play a sneaky archer, and someone distracted using a bench will quickly add a long, feathered ear). My favorite of these is the cooking hearth: unfortunately, I wish there were more recipes, or that there were recipes for higher-level characters. Once you’ve leveled your health a bit, it gets to the point where eating absolutely everything you can reasonably carry might restore a substantial portion of your health, but only once and no guarantees. My primary character carries a few items of food, but that’s for narrative purposes and not because I am expecting that to help me out when I get hurt.

That’s an interesting thing to comment on in the Elder Scrolls, and Skyrim in particular: carrying weight. Generally, I find that I try to maximize the amount of value I can carry away from a given dungeon, which means there are things and categories of things that I don’t pick up. Expect at the very beginning of the game, I tend not to loot most enemy weapons or armor: unlike Oblivion, the armor and weapons of most enemies don’t become more valuable as you level up in Skyrim: most of the Draugr will be swinging the same kinds of weapons, worth the same amount of gold, whether you’re level 14 or 40.  Bandits will still be wearing leather and iron at high levels, etc. So generally I only tend to pick up things that either meet a certain value to weight ratio, or that I find interesting for some other reason (books are a good example of this). This becomes more difficult later on: the game does not let you drop or get rid of “quest items” from your inventory. I understand why this is the case: the designers don’t want the player to lose something that they’ll want later. However, it’s also annoying, since some of those quest objects can’t be removed from your inventory even after the quest is completed. My primary character has to lug around a 20 lb. Elder Scroll forever, now, even though I’ve already used it for its intended purpose. It seems like I could leave that on a shelf in my nice safe house without too much of a fuss.  

While I liked the aged look of the old map in Oblivion, I also appreciate the more detailed map in Skyrim: it is nice to look at a map and be able to identify ruins because the distinctive arches are represented on the map. Cloud cover and the map being darker at night are less exciting features.

But the biggest surprise for me in Skyrim was the social nuance. I had expected things to be fairly straightforward (as Oblivion is), but I was pleased when I discovered that big issues like the civil war are actually complicated. NPCs frequently have complex motivations for why they support one side or the other. And then there’s Markarth and the Reach: in a game that prominently features a faction devoted to Nordic exceptionalism, I was very surprised to see the Nords depicted as corrupt conquerors, ruling and exploiting lands that have their own cultural identity. To say that the storyline about the Forsworn pissed off is the best possible thing I can say: it was an impressively detailed moral grey in a world I had expected to be black and white. The only faction that seems to be completely straightforward are the Thalmor: they are exclusively mustache-twirling villains that pop up to harass the PC.  

I appreciate the revamped leveling system (thought the old cards depiciting the abilities were more interesting than the constellations). The bar is more satisfying to fill, and getting an automatic free health/stamina/magic refill when you trigger the level up has helped me out of a tight spot more than once. The perks are nice, and especially as a high level character I find I want more and more of them.

But Skyrim does have a problem, which leveling up reveals: while you can use any combination of gear and abilities in Skyrim, if you want to push yourself to high levels you must be everything.  Dan made this clear to me when he reached the maximum skill level in one handed weapons, therefore doing far more damage with them, and switched to two-handed, instead. Once the skill was maxed out, it would no longer help him level up, and he was willing to accept a less preferential weapon (both by play style preference and mechanical benefit), in order to continue to have the swings of his weapon add to his character growth. For someone like me, who resists doing that for my primary character (as an archer, I haven’t been building the stamina necessary for sustained melee combat) that means that my level growth has slowed now that I have maxed out my primary combat skill. It’s still possible, it’s just slower than I would like.

This also comes across in how the character is treated: since you can go through any number of paths, the game has to assume that you can and will go through all of them with the same character. This feels very bizarre to me: the savior of the world feeling equally obliged to become head of the cloistered wizards and the assassins for hire. I tend to build a particular concept of who the character is and try to stick to that as best I can…which is never perfect given the limited flexibility of dialogue options. To a large extent, I blame Bioware for this: from games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I’ve come to expect more freedom in how I create a narrative sense of my character than Skyrim allows. Effectively, because the PC could really be anything, the game has to treat them as nothing: they’re the least interesting character because they can’t have a personality.

I was pleased to see that home ownership is now better than ever. The addition of bookshelves, for easy and convenient storage of the unique and/or interesting books acquired during play, and various sorts of weapon and trophy racks, helps you customize dwellings more than ever. I do so obsessively, caring about the order of books on the shelf, the placement of food on the table, and many other minutiae that I assume most players don’t care about. My biggest gripe is how unfortunate it is that the most convenient city, Whiterun, only has the “starter house”, which while cheap is cramped and ugly.  

So, to wrap this up, Skyrim was as good, and maybe better, than I could have hoped for. Give it a try, then you can make sense of all those “arrow to the knee” memes. 


Mass Effect 3

Before starting the final missions of Mass Effect 3, I took several days away from the game. While it was sort of obnoxious to have the game unfinished, I didn’t want it to end. The Mass Effect trilogy is such an astounding product that is was tough to realize that it was finally over.

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In conclusion, I’m glad I didn’t miss the Mass Effect trilogy, and I'll be curious to see what comes next from the company that made it. I have to thank Genghis for giving me the opportunity to play the games. Even if the destination was a little bit of a let down, the journey was well worth the effort. 


Can you still wait by the phone when it's a mobile?

Over the last couple days, I've started to turn into a nervous wreck. By next Tuesday, transformation should be complete. Unless, of course, I get The Call. Specifically, in this case that would be the call from the University of Wisconsin program I applied to, and is probably my best bet at getting into a major, prestigious program. According to the information sheet that they gave me, interviews start next week and carry on through the 20th. So right now I am holding out hope that they don't even contact students until either later today, tomorrow, or Monday. In the meantime, I need to really start work on my next application...though if I can't even get an interview at WI, I really don't think I'll have a chance at Minnesota's B-school, where I'll have to compete against way more people. 

I knew, back when I had so much hope in Nov-Dec, that this was a possibility: that things wouldn't work out and that I would have to fall back on my tertiary option. But it's still demoralizing to have to really stare that possibility in the face. 

It ultimately might not matter...after all, multiple people have said that once you have a CPA, the rest of your educational background quickly fades in importance. Still, if I was sure it didn't matter, I wouldn't be trying to do things this way. 

<EDIT 2/3/12>
It turns out it was an email, not a call. Even so, I GOT IT! ...I responded within 10 minutes with the requested information. I might be a little relieved to have that anxiety over with.

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

According to my reading list, I completed this book on December 1st of last year. That feels like quite a long time ago, and I can't say that searching my memory has yielded an incredibly nuanced narrative review. But I still will try to do something.

My overall sense of the book is that it's too disjointed. Hessler is trying to string together ~4 different narratives across a broad spectrum of Chinese society, switching back and forth from chapter to chapter. At the end of the book, I wasn't sure that the stories had much to say to each other: the story of the scholar that committed suicide after the "Great Leap Forward" and the story of poor migrant teachers from Sichuan don't really interact. 

The framing device is Hessler's life, as he either pursues information about the scholar, corresponds with his former students, or the like. So, while the chapters all have title headings and a certain subject, there is also a sense of chronology: what happens to him first usually occurs earlier in the book. The problem I have with that is while it occasionally does lead to some good insights, Hessler also winds up as an alien: he isn't, and can't be, Chinese, but he isn't an American anymore, either. He's caught in this lonely area between, and as much as I like privacy, I don't know that I can understand that position, especially not seeking it out as he does. 

But, as mentioned, the book has a lot of redeeming stuff, too. I think a lot of his insights, especially about Chinese bureaucracy and nationalism, are spot on. Perhaps the highlight of this is fairly early on, when he chases and beats up a man that breaks into his hotel room: afterwards, the chinese authorities insist it must have been a child or wasted drug addict, because they don't want to admit that some foreigner beat up a healthy chinese man. 

Also interesting is the archeological information he collects about China's past, and serves as both the titular draw and the liner notes, periodically injecting itself while usually remaining in the background. He's also very conscious of how China is using, or trying to use, that history. 

So, as I've done with some books before, this one ends up neutral. Reviewers seem to love it, but I can't say I share their enthusiasm. 

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Or, how I died a lot and didn’t get an explanation.

I’d heard a lot about this game, and the series it has spawned, but never more than see a few screen shots until some generous roommate plopped it down in front of the Ice Box’s entertainment center.

Were some of the cinematic set pieces pretty awesome? Yes. Did they do their archeological homework and then adapt it to their story? Yes. Is it fun to shoot people with a Desert Eagle? Yes. Would I buy it or its sequels? Absolutely not. 

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But now I can’t help but notice the irony that I spent roughly 4 hours writing and revising a post about an 8-10 hour game. I’ll make the weak excuse that I forgot my bag at home today, and so I can’t do anything really productive, even if I had wanted to. Even so, that’s ridiculous.

So, bottom line: for all of its pretty scenery, Uncharted winds up as Jack of several trades, master of none. You can do worse, but you can also do much better. It’s short, so if you’re interested in playing it, rent or borrow it. 
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The Age of Comfort by J. DeJean


Age of Comfort, as a history of design, was a slight deviation from my norm, and a welcome one. While it is a history, it’s a history of comfort and privacy and their conceptual and practical evolutions, something that most histories don’t spend a lot of time discussing. DeJean makes a very strong case that the changes in furniture, clothing, and architecture from (roughly) 1670 to 1750 in France changed those standards of living dramatically, and for the better.Collapse )
In any event, I learned too much not to recommend the book, especially to people that have some interest in the history of decoration but otherwise limited experience on the subject.

The Oracle. By William Broad.

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So, The Oracle left me with the feeling that I was caught between two larger ideological movements that are both at least somewhat detrimental, in addition to whatever benefits they provide. I can definitely recommend to those that like learning about ancient Greece, enjoy a story about scholarly collaboration, or who are interested in a well-written critique of scientific excess. I'm definitely glad I read it.

American Colonies by Alan Taylor

I bought this book for the usual reasons: good reviews, good blurb, and a decent design. But apparently I should have been looking more closely, because what I didn’t see were the words “The Penguin History of the United States”, or “Volume 1”. Had I known that, this book would probably still be on the shelf at the bookstore. I didn’t really want what
was supposed to be the first volume of a general history, I wanted a self-contained work.

This isn’t to say that it was all bad, or that I didn’t learn anything. But the book has another big problem, and that was that a lot of the material was familiar. I hate sounding like a broken record, but the big stuff that would shock those brought up on jingoistic history was already covered by Lies My Teacher Told Me, but in a more condensed and gut-wrenching fashion. The first few chapters of this book, when the brushstrokes on the author’s narrative are particularly broad, are really, really dull if you’ve read Loewen.

The first chapters also introduced something of a quandary that lasted throughout the book: the author frequently would gloss over or not go into much detail on a topic where I knew there was more to the story. This was just annoying at first, because I could reference other sources (not just LMTTM, but also The Oxford History of the British Empire) to fill in the bits that I knew were missing. But it became more of a problem when I got into material that I didn’t really know (for example, about the French colonial efforts in Canada). It wasn’t that there was obviously something missing, the story did make sense as presented. But just as I had discovered earlier that the book hadn’t told the whole truth about some things, I wondered if I was only getting part of the story about the topics being covered. The end of the book wasn’t much help: there are no notes, only a bibliographic list organized by chapter, and by topic within the chapter. Besides specifically frustrating, that just strikes me as a little sloppy.

As far as readability goes, the book gets an “ok”. Not gripping, not usually exciting, I am skeptical the book will hold much appeal to those who aren’t already interested in history…though, if this is the first time someone is reading about the dark underside of the history they think they know, maybe they’ll have a different reaction. The chapter sections are generally well divided: its broken up by area and also time period, which does keep you refreshed about the various interconnected areas of North American colonization as the book progresses. The book also has frequent section breaks within the chapters, which I found very convenient since I still do a lot of my reading at work.

So, where I wind up after reading it is that I have certainly learned things, and the book might turn out to be handy for reference in the future. But I also have some doubts that the book is truly definitive about any of the history it covered, and because of that doubt I can’t recommend it. It gets a wary “ok”, and neither more nor less than that.