Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire – Same, same, but different

So I’ve been playing a lot of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire lately. A lot. Like I’ve been forgoing food and sleep in order to get an extra hour of sailing around a digital archipelago hunting pirates and a dead god that’s stolen part of my soul while also flirting relentlessly with a yellow sharpshooter and her bird (apparently they’re a package deal and I’m cool with that) before work. And, seven – sorry, eight – dozen hours of gameplay later I am still loving it.

And that’s a bit of a surprise, because I didn’t enjoy the first Pillars of Eternity this much. Now don’t get me wrong, it was a great game, they did an amazing job with it. It never quite managed to hold me all the way to the end, though. As great as the lore and world-building was, so many of the quests seemed a bit standard, and often felt oddly lacking in nuance and consequence (who cares which faction you side with in Defiance Bay, if everything goes down the same anyway?) The characters and their arcs were great, but controlling them was a frustrating affair at best and more than once a rage quit at worst. I wanted to know what happened next, but the combat encounters stopped being fun a few hours in and never really started again. So I stopped.

But Deadfire is different, without losing what I liked so much about the first game. The lore, if anything, is even richer. The various factions are big and established, with their own longterm goals beyond your own quest to deal with a newly arisen god, and internal disagreements on how to reach those goals. The non-player characters are a delight, and form their own relationships as your quests go on (everyone wants to be Xoti’s mate). Best of all the combat has been cleaned up. It’s no longer about resource management, as you hoard magic spells for the next possible battle and a lot more about placement and tactics. A little less micromanagement and a lot more fun. Yet, it’s still basically the same combat system.

There’s this wine I love from Jasper Hill Vineyard, a gorgeous fiano, that’s produced under the label ‘Lo Stesso.’ The name comes from an Italian phrase that translates, more or less, to “Same, same, but different.” The idea is that it takes a fairly traditional Italian grape, and adds an Australian twist to it. Keeps those old world flavours, but finishes with new world textures. And it’s fucking delightful. Like Deadfire. Same, same, but different.

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View from this side of the Ocean (29/4/18): Haha, yeah.

From the beginning I want to make it very clear that, no matter the circumstances, I think that the tampon tax is stupid and should be axed. In Australia, that means the 10% Goods and Services Tax (GST) which is levelled on anything deemed non-essential.

Which is odd considering that tampons are pretty fuckin’ essential to most women.

So Bill Shorten, leader of the federal Labor Party in opposition, has come out and said that they will remove the GST on sanitary pads if they win the next election (which they most likely will, according to current polling). Tanya Plibersek, deputy leader of the opposition, and Catherine King, shadow health minister, will spearhead the initiative provided Labor win, formally launching the policy today. Awesome.

Federal Liberal MP Sarah Henderson and the Liberal Women’s Council Victoria called on Scott Morrison, the Federal Treasurer, to dump the tax last year, so there’s a push within the government itself to support the initiative (if only to shore up a little support with women). Joe Hockey wanted to ditch the tax back in 2015, but Tony Abbott, PM and ‘Minister for Women’ (hahahaha), overruled him. Apparently at the time he said that: “We have to broaden the tax base, not start carving out politically correct exceptions.” Seriously, fuck that guy.

There will be some pressure on Malcolm Turnbull to support this issue. Will he? No fuckin’ idea if I’m being perfectly honest. Mr Turnbull would be wise to earn himself some goodwill amongst women by supporting the issue, but a number of members of his party seem to freak the fuck out at the thought of doing anything that might have any sort of positive effect on Australian women. Because fuck socialism, apparently. So we’ll see. I’d reckon Mr Turnbull’d be inclined to, but we’ll see.

And yeah, I’d reckon that a fair bit of Labor’s play in the issue is shoring up their own female vote against any turn towards the Greens, but one of the major political parties has made this policy and that is bloody fantastic.

What I really like about this particular policy though, is where Labor plans on making up the GST shortfall. They haven’t released full costings yet (and that is always a concern), but Labor reckon they can make up the shortfall by applying GST to services and products that the “Chief Medical Officer and National Health and Medical Research Council believe are not supported by scientific evidence.”

What do they mean by that? Well, homeopathy, iridology, kinesiology, naturopathy, pilates, reflexology, rolfing and shiatsu would all have GST added to the price. And seriously, why has all of this shit been GST exempt? Who the flyin’ fuck thought that goddamn healing crystals should be GST exempt while sanitary products that half the adult and adolescent population NEED are not?

So yeah, so far I’m chalking this up as a victory of common sense over bullshit. Let’s see where Aussie pollies go next with this. Here’s hoping they do the right thing.

Good art in gaming

So recently (as in over a month ago – I moved recently, give me a break) Cary over at Recollections of Play (great blog, check it out) posted an answer to the question, “are video games art?” The short version being yes, and the long answer being maybe if video games can be considered more than their code, cartridges and consoles. She raised some excellent points about how we define art and how that affects our views of what is and is not considered art. Great post, MS DOS is brought up, check it out.

Thing is, however, I’m not a big fan of the question.

Are video games art?

I hear or read this and my first response generally falls along the lines of, “Fuck off son, we’re doing this again?”

I mean, it’s been eleven years since Roger Ebert declared that “Video games can never be art” and seven years since he wrote an extended article on that subject, in which time we as a community have written millions of words that amount to “what the fuck did Roger Ebert know about video games anyway?” (something that Ebert himself reflected on only a few months later). Art is an experiential thing. Without an audience, without emotional interaction, a painting is just paint, a sculpture is just broken rock and a video game is just code. If you’re not part of the audience then you have no right to judge it either way, and those of us who do experience it – those of us who make emotional connections and find our thinking being adjusted – have generally come to the conclusion that yes, video games are indeed art (at least as much as any other narrative media). Much like hardcore pornography, it’s hard to define but we generally know it when we see it.

So, are video games art?

Well, yeah. We’ve all pretty much agreed on that right?

Now, before I go on I want to make it abundantly clear that I don’t think there is anything wrong with having this discussion. Such weighty concepts as the definition of art should be constantly debated, lest our culture stagnates or some fuckwit compares Justin Bieber to Tennyson or Shakespeare or Kanye. Nor am I saying that the opinions of those who disagree – those who say, “no actually, video games are not art” – are wrong. To the contrary, that’s a perfectly valid thing to believe and I’d love to hear your arguments as to why. There can be no debate without respectful opposition. I mean, I’ll probably still end up telling you to fuck right off, but that’s just how I converse with everyone.

No, my problem is not that people keep trying to answer the question, it is that we as a community keep asking it. Over and over and over again. Even after all these years we seem unable to move past it, and that’s a problem because this is first year – first semester – Bachelor of Arts shit. Philosophy 101. The introductory chapter of that far-too-expensive textbook.

So what question should we be asking? Let’s start with “what makes a video game good art?” and go from there.

Let me put it this way: we don’t have a video game equivalent of the film Citizen Kane, often called the perfect movie, something that was pointed out by Roger Ebert himself. But then again, how the fuck would we know? Citizen Kane is considered a masterpiece because enough people – whose opinions we as a culture consider to be expert – tell us it is a masterpiece. They tell us that, according to the technological limits of the time, the direction and photography is perfect. They tell us that the acting is incredible. They tell us the script is superb. They tell us the story is incredible. They don’t tell you that you need to enjoy the movie to recognise it as a masterpiece (I personally think it is boring as fuck), but recognise it as a masterpiece you must. They have criteria, which the film in their subjective but educated opinions meets, so it is a perfect film.

We need our own. Narrative, gameplay, mechanics, style. What boxes need to be ticked, what weight should we place on the importance of each, and does a good game necessarily need to be good art? If we don’t figure this shit out then we won’t know when that perfect game comes along, or if it already has.

So yeah, video games are art. Now let’s start arguing about what video games are good art.

Once in a lifetime laundry lessons

So I moved about a three weeks ago. It’s been a bit stressful, partly because it was shorter notice than I was expecting and partly because the only furniture I had to take with me was my bed. I’ve basically started from scratch, and honestly moving to fucking Canada (and then back to Australia twenty months on) was easier, if only because I booked the tickets months in advance and gave myself time to plan. But it’s done now and I love my little apartment. Will love it even more when my new couch finally arrives.

Funny thing though, moving. It’s full of very specific lessons that you probably will never use more than once a decade, if ever. Such as when you’re buying a washing machine.

Yeah, I bought a washing machine. A decent washing machine as well, as far as I can tell. Not one of those fancy fuckers that somehow manages to iron your clothes while it’s removing stains, but one that doesn’t seem to tear apart clothes or walk itself across the room while it’s spinning. A decent washing machine. With short pipes.

That’s the first lesson I learned. Manufacturers assume (not without reason) that the taps, outlets and waste points are going to be right next to where you’re putting the machine. So this means if said taps are more than, say, a metre away they’re not going to reach. No big deal, nothing that a trip to the hardware store can’t fix.

So I hooked it all up, plugged it all in, went for a walk back to the hardware store and picked up a clamp so the extension was properly sealed over the appropriate waste pipe (lesson number 2 learnt – always buy a clamp). Realised they’d sent me the wrong fucking washing machine. Gave the company a call, was told that I could keep it if I wanted. Did a quick Google and discovered that this was a probably a slightly better machine than what I ordered. Decided to keep it. Wondered how the bloody hell these people were still in business. Figured the answer was probably “because the internet” (lesson number 3 – the internet). Ran a quick fifteen minute cycle to clean the machine out.

Then I finally did some laundry. And that’s when I learned the big lesson. Never put whites through as your first load in a new machine.

Now I searched the inside of the washing machine before I switched it on, but I apparently missed the silicon pack hiding in the barrel. I’d run desperately low on the clean white shirts I’m required to wear to work, so in they went, and out came the murder evidence.

Seriously, they were streaked and splattered with lines and splotches of vibrant red, as if I’d been finishing each shift by bottling all the customers I didn’t like. As if I’d been out American-Psychoing hookers, hobos and coworkers without wearing the appropriate raincoat or protective smock. As if I’d seen seen the re-animated body of Jackson Pollock working a canvas with a can filled with what may or may not have been red paint, raised both arms and cried “have at it!”

Fuck my life, is what I’m trying to get at.

I needed the shirts the next day, so I pulled out the gel pack and resisted the urge to take it outside and peg it at a moving vehicle. The stain removal spray came out, the shirts went back in with my hopes and prayers. And to my surprise most of them came out passable clean. A few faint marks on the sleeves or hems, where I could hide it, but otherwise clean and white. Except for one, which still looks like Exhibit A two more washes later, and which I’ll have to soak in some proper stain remover. But that’s okay.

So life lesson learned. Never put your whites in first when you’re breaking in a new washing machine.

But when am I going to use that information again?

Hopes, dreams and more than a few memories: On Age of Empires 4

I must have been ten years old when I was given the Age of Empires deluxe pack. I can’t remember if it was Christmas or my birthday, but I remember it was my Aunt who gave it to me. First game, second game and their respective expansions across four CD-Roms, an artbook and a manual. Goddamn, remember when there were manuals? Lotta kids don’t.

It’s what we had before wikis were a thing, children.

Anyway, I played hours and hours of those two games, especially the second. The first was and remains a classic, of course, but Age of Empires II: Age of Kings stands in my mind as the pinnacle of real time strategy games, something that I reckon a lot of people would agree with. And it wasn’t just me: my parents played almost as many hours as I did (mum, in particular, was fucking ruthless). I remember watching that opening cinematic for the first time, the excitement and joy, the exuberance at what I was going to be able to do. What I would build and what I would destroy. The theme became a key part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

After Age of Empires came Age of Mythology. Again I found myself disappearing into an epic world of Ensemble Studios’ creation for days at a time, leading armies of Centaurs, Valkyries and Anubites against the poor bloody infantry of my many, many enemies. The first time I watched a cyclops pick some unfortunate pixel bastard up and toss him across the map was pure magic. It was about this time that my brother started playing video games – too young to fight a campaign, he’d park himself on the scenario creator and put together epic battles of blue versus red. Christ, I wonder if he remembers that. He must do. I should ask him one of these days.

Finally came Age of Empires III. Fuck me dead, the base game came out in two-thousand-bloody-five. That’s twelve years ago. I’m getting old. Anyway, whereas the first three base games (and their expansions) from the franchise were instant classics, AoE III was not. Now I’m not denying a bias on my part, I was deeply disappointed by this game and its expansions, but it received mixed reviews across the board and hasn’t found its way onto any “best ever” or “most influential” lists that I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I played through the game. I built up my home city, burned my enemies’ colonies and bought all the expansions hoping that it would get better, but it never did.

For me, I think the most disappointing thing about it was the campaign, a fucking ridiculous tale about multiple generations of a family fighting an evil secret society that wants to obtain the fountain of youth. No, really, that was what the campaign was about. Compared with the simple yet stunning campaigns of AoE II, which allowed me to follow in the footsteps of William Wallace, Atilla the Hun, Joan of Arc, Frederic Barbarossa and Saladin, it was ridiculous and riddled with cliches. Even when AoE III‘s second expansion, The Asian Dynasties, brought the story campaign back to actual history, they failed to understand that a bit of solid voice over work, a decent script and a couple of sketches will create far more emotional investment than watching a tiny rendered figure, indistinguishable from all the other tiny rendered figures around him, committing seppuku ever could. Whereas Age of Kings cemented in me a love of history and will forever stand as one of my favourite examples of the possibility of interactive education, AoE III will forever stand as one of the games that left me the most disappointed.

Regardless, that last expansion was released in 2007. Microsoft would announce the closure of Ensemble Studios a year later, and one of the greatest franchises ever (despite a disappointing younger sibling) seemed to go out with a whimper.

Then 2013 came and an HD version of Age of Kings was released through Steam, to much fanfare. Not only that but two new expansion packs, The Forgotten and The African Kingdoms, have since been released. I can tell you right now, they hold up. But they weren’t a new game, and it didn’t seem like we were going to get one.

Until now.

Ye-heh-eah you gorgeous bastards! Ten years on and being developed by a different studio, but I haven’t been this excited about an announcement trailer in I don’t know how long.

Months. Years maybe. Man, I used to get so excited about new releases. I mean, I still do, but I’m not quite the rabid fanboy I used to be. Is that another sign of aging? Shite, it probably is.

Moving on, with Ensemble Studios no longer being a thing the reins have been passed over to Relic, famous for the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes franchises. Considering that this is really the only information we have so far, we really know fuck-all about the game. I mean, yeah, we don’t know the era or the art style, but we also don’t know much about the mechanics beyond that it will be an RTS. Of sorts. Whereas you know more or less what you’re going to get with other studios (you know roughly what a Firaxis turn-based game will look like, or how a Creative Assembly grand strategy game will work), Relic constantly shake up the formula, even within the same franchise as is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the profound difference between the first Dawn of War game (which had fairly standard RTS base-building and resource collecting mechanics) and the second (which played more like an isometric action RPG). In all likelihood Relic won’t shake up the classic AoE formula that much, but we can’t be certain.

I’m excited to learn more though. To find out how the mechanics will work, what era/s the game will be set in and how the campaign and single player will work. Who will I be able to play as and who will I be able to crush.

But as excited as I am, all this is tempered by the fact that I probably won’t be able to play it, at least not soon. I’m a Mac user, y’see, and this is a Microsoft game. There is every chance that this game will not be released on my platform of choice, at least not until well after the initial release. Yes, yes, I am aware that there are emulators and Bootcamp, but the former is generally pretty shit while my computer is getting too old and fat to adequately run the latter. It might be released on the X-Bone, but my experience with Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 on the 360 was not a positive one. So yeah, bit of a mood killer that. Almost as bad as how old I’m feeling as I write this.

Anyway, I’m still happy to see one of my favourite franchises, the series that more than any other got me into gaming, is returning; I’m glad to see it given to a studio with such a fantastic pedigree; and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to add another AoE game to the ‘Best of…’ lists. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Old School Movie Reviews: Hot Fuzz (2007)

So it was my brother’s birthday recently so we had a bit of a thing tonight to celebrate. We all gathered at the family house, mum made sushi and dumplings, and we all sat down to watch a movie together. Since it was my brother’s birthday he chose the film, and thankfully he has pretty good taste in movies, picking the second in Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy,’ Hot Fuzz.

Let me just come out and say that I fucking love this film, and I think everyone should watch it. It’s a masterpiece of clever ideas that are executed perfectly, and not just by the headliners. Pegg and Frost fit their roles perfectly, but so does everyone else in the cast (Timothy Dalton, in particular, is bloody excellent). Edgar Wright, who directed and co-wrote, does an excellent job at both, providing a clear vision and a brilliantly cohesive narrative out of what is a bit of a convoluted script, but I expect a lot of the credit for that should go to his DoP, Jess Hall, and Film Editor, Chris Dickens. The parallel scenes of Pegg and Frost’s characters bonding over movies while another character is murdered is perfectly cut together.

I think what really impressed me about Hot Fuzz with this most recent viewing was the way it managed to be gruesome without ever being gratuitous. Blood and gore is played for laughs, certainly. There are decapitations, stabbings, and one bloke gets his head crushed by a giant stone spike. But they never spend so long on the gore that it becomes uncomfortable, so the film is able to maintain its humorous tone despite what happens with a bear trap. If you’re making an absurd, violent black comedy, this is the standard you should look towards.

So yeah, watch Hot Fuzz if you haven’t already. Watch it again if you have.

I’d absolutely watch that: A quick thought on M*A*S*H

So I’m at the bar and staring at a few gin bottles and for some reason my mind wandered across to the show M*A*S*H (possibly because of all the recent talk about North Korea and Kim Jong-Un’s continued testing of bigger and better missiles and talk of a possible US military response, possibly because we’ve got a Korean bartender and two Korean cooks who are just awesome, and make the best fucking fried chicken you’ll ever taste). My mind goes to weird places sometimes. Anyway, I’ve had to explain to someone recently about how gin is grain alcohol that’s had juniper berries added somehow (generally infused). That without juniper berries it’s just not gin, it’s vodka. At this point I remembered Hawkeye and Trapper (later B.J Hunnicut) had a love of dry gin martinis, going so far as to keep a gin still in their tent, and a question occurred to me: where were they getting their juniper berries?

Seriously, where were they getting their juniper berries from? They’re in an army hospital a few miles from the frontlines of what was a massive fucking war, often struggling to get supplies and equipment even through the black market (in fact that was the theme of a couple of episodes if I remember correctly), and juniper berries are not native to the Korean peninsula. But they clearly say they are drinking gin martinis and, as I’ve already mentioned, without juniper it’s just not gin. It’s vodka.

What I’m getting to is that I would totally watch a show about a Korean black market juniper dealer braving snipers and shelling to ensure that US army doctors can enjoy their dry martinis without having to resort to using vodka (like peasants). We can call it SM*A*S*Hed, or something less stupid and copyright-infringing, and it can be about more than just juniper. Maybe he also smuggles peat to a Scottish tank crew? Maybe he’s struggling to fill and then transport a big order of sugarcane to an Australian warship with a monopoly over the supply of rum to the rest of the allied fleets. There’s a lot you could do with this. Give him a dark yet hilarious past and a sassy cockney lesbian business partner and I reckon you’ve got television gold.

There you go Alan Alda, I’ve done the hard work for you. Now make it happen. ‘Cause I’d watch the hell out of that.