The other night, after 5 years of putting it off, I finally completed Mass Effect. I see now why it’s so well-regarded.

Briefly, here’s what I think was awesome:

  • Elegant and succinct core plot. Mass Effect’s core plot was actually rather short; about 8 hours of play by my count. This kept it sharp and elegant. It employed some classic tropes, making it accessible, but did so with nuance and context so they seemed new and vibrant. It captured grand scope while remaining anchored in the motivations of individual characters. I’ll refrain from any more detail in case there’s anyone else left who’s not played it.
  • Sharply defined and well-rounded characters. Each of your team member’s motivations and background were unique, and the game wasted no opportunity to expand on these through background dialog, interjections, and excellent character driven side quests. Most other NPCs, too, were detailed in a believable way that made it easy to empathize with them and thus care about the eventual fate of them and their world. This also made side quests feel far less arbitrary and repetitive, despite the limited range of quest activities (kill this, talk to this guy, get this thing) and the frequent re-use of interior maps.
  • Excellent integration of PC customization. So many games let you customize your character’s appearance, background, and other attributes, then limit the impact of those choices to purely mechanical or cosmetic effects. There’s nothing wrong with either; character optimization is, after all, a valid element of play and a lot of fun. Furthermore, mechanical changes implemented well can afford different styles of play that lend a lot of depth – Deus Ex is one of the better examples of this. Mass Effect, however, does the best job I’ve seen in a CRPG of adapting the world and the plot according to those customizations by changing NPC interactions, providing different side quests, and, moreover, by reminding you of your choices at relevant points throughout the game instead of letting them fade away into irrelevancy.
  • Strong setting and backstory.The setting, as developed in in-game dialog and the game’s codex of background information, was coherent, internally consistent, detailed, and mostly plausible given current scientific understanding. Even the three notable exceptions of mass effect (necessary for FTL travel and comms, artificial gravity, and other space operatic tropes), biotic abilities (basically magic), and tech abilities (basically technology that’s indistinguishable from magic) were well fleshed out and justified. Two design details I really liked:
    1. Frequent opportunities to learn more about the world by interacting with computers and other objects, thus drawing you into the setting by reinforcing the feeling that you’re not just playing a game, you’re exploring a world.
    2. The detail, plausibility and novelty of many of the planet descriptions, and the look and feel of the planets you could land on really helped to establish a sense of place for the galaxy as a whole. Driving around lava plain looking for mercenaries is cool, but driving around an alien world with highly active geology caused by tidal effects from a nearby gas giant is way cooler. Maybe I’m just a nerd.
  • High production values. This one’s straight forward – if you design your world with care, but present it poorly, few players will ever take the time to appreciate it. If, however, you employ attractive and above-all consistent aesthetics throughout, in audio, graphics, and UI, it becomes much easier to appreciate the experience as a seamless whole and thus become immersed in it. Mass Effect does this well.

Shepard as I saw her

Nothing is ever perfect, though. I have the following critiques:

  • Failure to capture or emulate scale.  Space… is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.It’s hard to believe, then, that all of galactic society is governed by a council of three. Or that the capital of the galaxy has exactly one trader, one med clinic, one banker, one dance club, and one seedy bar of note. Or that ambassadors would be satisfied with one room embassies. Or that there’s only 60 star systems in the galaxy. Or that all of the interesting features of a planet can be found in square patches 5 km each side. This is a classic problem for game designers – reality is big and complex, but your game has a limited budget, so you have to take shortcuts. There are strategies, however:
    • Allude to greater things. Players don’t need to see or interact with all of the parts of some system, but the presence of those parts should be acknowledged. Instead of forming a council of three, Mass Effect’s council members could have been presented as their spokes-aliens. Depict mass deliberations in the background of a scene, and have them occasionally consult off screen colleagues, and you’ve got something more believable. Add a sub quest that deals with alternate factions within the council, and the rest of the council feels real. Don’t dwell on it, but allude to its complexity. Mass Effect’s elevator newscasts are an excellent example of just this – you get the feeling that there’s a real news-hungry populace out there, eager to know what’s happening. But you never see them.
    • Don’t be limited by travel distance. Sure, travel helps players establish a graphical sense of place, and driving and navigation tasks make for fun game-play when done right. But in most games, travel is a means, not an end. Instead of trying to fit all meaningful resources into a single traversible environment, planets could have been represented as a globe or world map with places of interest marked. Planetary scale would seem more realistic and planets could be re-visited without repeating travel segments, and driving could be reserved for when it serves a dramatic or atmospheric purpose; approaching key installations, for example, as in the core plot. Weirdly, they got this right for planetary systems, but not for planets themselves. The same approach would have worked well for the citadel, too, and even reflects human behavior – most of us have a small number of favored stores & restaurants, ignoring the rest except for special occasions.  The same might apply to traders, med clinics, and other services.
    • Procedural generation. The most direct way to create a feeling of vastness is to actually provide it. Elite 2, for example, included a mind-bogglingly vast array of stars (100,000+) to visit in a game only 400 kB in size. Sure, 99.999% of these worlds were irrelevant, but they were there, and you could visit them, if you wanted. This made the universe seem real and huge, dispelling the feeling of game world as sandbox that so often becomes evident when you look back from the end and see that you’ve explored everything, done everything. Obviously, procedural generation needs to be supplemented with actual design, but this could be limited to customizing 50 or so important star systems. The key challenge here is keeping the UI uncluttered and keeping the player from getting distracted.
  • Uninterruptible animations. Games are interactive experiences, and interactivity is dependent on a sense of control. Unskippable cut-scenes and animations may be warranted in certain rare situations, but surely elevator animations are not. The only value I got out of elevators was from the newscasts in the Citadel, and even these only occupied 50% of the animation time. I really don’t understand why designers persist with this particular class of mistake.
  • Quest interiors. Mass Effect’s many secondary assignments involve visiting facilities on a variety of star systems throughout the galaxy. Disappointingly, only four fairly basic designs were used to represent these: the cargo ship, the above ground building, the below ground building, and the mine / cave. Slight variation was created by rearranging furniture and cargo, but the simplicity of these interiors really undermined the otherwise excellent senses of place created throughout the game. This was particular jarring in comparison to the detailed and diverse environments used for primary missions. Templates are a great tool for building large numbers of environments, but rather than whole area templates, they probably should have used room templates (a la Oblivion), as it’s much easier to explain regularities at that level (standard habitat construction components, for example).
  • Collection Quests. I understand why designers include collection quests, but I still don’t understand why they do them so badly. Their strength is that they appeal to our intrinsic motivation to complete easily measured tasks, and in doing so cause players to explore the world much more thoroughly. Their weakness, however, is that they can flatten the delight of exploration into an exhaustive grind. Instead of telling players ‘you must walk all over every planet to complete this quest’, games should tell players ‘keep your eyes open for hints about where to find these things’, then give them reason to trust that they’ll have ample clues to find them all, with perhaps some gradient of difficulty for the players who like searching for all of the eggs. It’s far more interesting to chase down rumours about the location of hidden artifacts than it is to drive back and forth looking for blips on your radar.
  • Inventory management. As previously mentioned, character optimization is a core aspect of RPGs, and that includes inventory optimization. On this front, however, Mass Effect fails:
    • Aside from a few special upgrades, all items in Mass Effect are labeled Name – Model, with name affecting the look of the item, and model the power. So, a suit of Onyx-I armor from the beginning of the game looks identical to a suit of Onyx-IX, but is much weaker. Upgrades, then, are a colorless matter of incrementally improving certain attributes, to the point that I found it more interesting to find a different but worse suit of armor than an purely better one. Furthermore, several makes and models were strictly better than others, meaning that whole sections of the inventory tree could be safely ignored. As a result, inventory optimization shifted from an exploration of cool things I could trick out my character with to a dry task of making sure all of the numbers were optimal. Borderlands provides a far better example of inventory optimization in an action RPG; another relevant consideration is the idea of ‘incomparables’, as explained in this episode of Extra Credits.
    • Inventory management is an element of gameplay best thought of as a task. You have specific goals in mind, specific choices to make, and can ignore much of the rest of the game while doing them. Like most tasks, then, the UI for managing inventory should be focused on helping you complete that task by providing relevant information when it’s needed and limiting the time delay and effort associated with each action. Mass Effect’s base inventory UI isn’t bad, but it’s not great – it only lists 5 items at once, for example. Where they really drop the ball, however, is in shopping for the rest of your team. You’re only able to modify team inventory when that team member’s with you, or when you’re on the ship (when that team member is not with you). Problem is, when you’re talking to a merchant, you can only compare their wares against the equipment of team members who are with you. So, you’re either reduced to taking your team to the merchant in small groups or writing down the key stats of their gear and managing it by going to their lockers in the ship. Managing this sort of information by hand is not fun and is precisely the sort of thing a good UI is meant to obviate.

All up, though, Mass Effect was excellent, and good motivation for me to move on to the next one.


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Took a break to play Jonas Kyratzes’ recent short game “The Fabulous Screech“.

The Fabulous Screech - copyright Jonas Kyratzes

Play on Kongregate!

It was very sweet, and characteristically humorous, but sad. Without wanting to spoil it for anyone, let me just say that anyone who owns a cat will be able to relate to the main character, the eponymous Fabulous Screech, a cat who runs a circus featuring trained humans. Who knew they could talk!

It won’t take more than 20 minutes to play, and though it’s point-and-click, it, like Jonas’ other Lands of Dream games, is the sort where clicking inspires curiosity, not frustration, as almost every visible feature in every scene is clickable, and every clickable feature is visible.

Anyway, go play it. And click on everything. God’s bookshelf is particularly interesting – I was not surprised to learn he’s a Carl Sagan fan, and it was moving to see how all the other gods sent him birthday cards like that – there might be a culture war here on Earth, but it’s nice that all the various deities can be above all that.

PS – for those who read my last post on patronage, Jonas operates under another variety of patronage that you might find interesting – for a small fee, he and his wife, Verena, create pages of an encyclopedia detailing the Lands of Dream, dedicated to and based on guidance from the contributor. I gave a while back, and got in return the World Mushroom, an entry that captures some of things I treasure rather excellently. For a little more, he’ll even frame and send you the original.


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Went to Yakima a week and a half ago to taste wine. For those who don’t know, it’s a wine region in south central Washington. We were in Zillah, a bit south of Yakima proper, where we visited six different wineries and tasted about 30 wines.

Grape hyacinths are the closest I got to taking any photos of grapes

Before talking about the wine, here’s my rating scheme. Each wine gets between one and four marks, meaning:

  • Four: “Great, I’ll look for this one”,
  • Three: “Nice, I’ll buy this if I see it”
  • Two: “OK, well, I wouldn’t turn it down”
  • One: “Hmm, yeah, maybe I’ll just have water”

This scheme is purely subjective and quite simple, mostly because I’m not terribly good at the descriptive element of wine tasting yet. Nonetheless, it forces me to think a bit and make some sort of judgement, which is really the whole point.

Anyway, on to the wines – here’s what caught my attention:

  • 2008 Two Mountain Riesling: Nice and light, comparatively dry in that it didn’t have a lot of residual sugar, but with sweet honey and floral flavours to make up for it. They noted peach, apricot, and overripe grapefruit in their description, but I could only get peach. They also mention minerality, but I can’t actually distinguish that. Slightly higher acid than normal, too, making for an interesting variation on the riesling theme. Of all the wines we tried, this was probably the best suited for warm summer nights because it was so refreshing. Three summer parasols.
  • 2005 Two Mountain Vinho Vermelho port: This was a find; 100% Touriga Nacional grapes, but with a lot less of the deep musty flavours that some ports wallow in. It was very similar to thick dessert wines and muscats in that it was almost like drinking honey or nectar except, unlike them, it had the complexity and length that makes port worth savouring. Despite being a very young port (only 2005!), it tasted as if it had been in the barrel for at least 10 years. Unfortunately, though, it was fairly expensive ($47), so I wasn’t able to afford any.Four drunken bishops.
  • 2007 Hyatt Black Muscat: Normally, muscat grapes are normally used to make dessert wine; in this case, they were used to make a rosè. Most wines also don’t taste a lot like the grapes from which they’re made; unfortunately, this one did. This doesn’t mean it was boring – in fact, muscatelle grapes have a very interesting flavour that is reminiscent of wine even when fresh, and when my father used to grow these at home, my sister always referred to them as the ‘gross grapes that taste like wine’ and refused to touch them. I, however, loved them, and stole them whenever I had the chance. So, while I was underwhelmed by this wine, I can’t say I didn’t like it. It just wasn’t what I expected from a muscat. Two splodges.
  • 2006 Hyatt Winter Harvest White Wine. Ice wine, divine. With a relatively high amount of residual sugar at 315 g/L, this was as thick and rich as anything else I’ve tried, and, with lots of stonefruit flavours, it was just what I like in an ice wine. Unfortunately, at about $28 for a 375ml bottle, it was too expensive for me. Three fruit salads.
  • Wineglass Cellars. Unfortunately, I lost my sheet of notes from here, which is a pity, because the staff here were some of the most friendly and talkative of the whole trip, and I recall liking several of their wines quite a lot. There were a couple of interesting ones, too; a Sangiovese Rosè, and a Cabernet Franc, both of which I’ve not really tried before. They also had a barrel tasting of 2008 Pinot Noir or Zinfandel that was quite divine. Kicking myself about the lost notes, but will be looking out.
  • 2005 Bonair Grand Reserve Merlot. We tried merlots at each of the wineries we visited, but at Bonair, you got a limited number of tastings, and I didn’t choose this one. However, I stole a sip from someone else’s glass, and learned enough to know this was probably the best merlot of the day, and I missed out. Pity, that. No rating.
  • Paradisos del Sol Angelica G. This was a charming and strange winery complete with random animals and eccentric owner who was really passionate about explaining the tasting of his wines, right down to providing appropriate things to eat with each one. Angelica G was code for a Gewürztraminer dessert wine served with brandied pears. Quite wonderful. Three pears.

Of the wineries, Paradisos del Sol had the most character, Wineglass the best wine-conversation, while Silverlake and Hyatt tied for both most commercial winery and cheapest wine.


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I’ve heard of colour affecting mood, but not performance. Interesting paper in last week’s Science on several studies examining performance and creativity in various tasks when using a computer with different background colours. It seems surprising to me that they were able to get significant differences simply by changing the background colour, not the content, or anything else.

Existing research reports inconsistent findings with regard to the effect of color on cognitive task performances. Some research suggests that blue or green leads to better performances than red; other studies record the opposite. Current work reconciles this discrepancy. We demonstrate that red (versus blue) color induces primarily an avoidance (versus approach) motivation (study 1, n = 69) and that red enhances performance on a detail-oriented task, whereas blue enhances performance on a creative task (studies 2 and 3, n = 208 and 118). Further, we replicate these results in the domains of product design (study 4, n = 42) and persuasive message evaluation (study 5, n = 161) and show that these effects occur outside of individuals’ consciousness (study 6, n = 68). We also provide process evidence suggesting that the activation of alternative motivations mediates the effect of color on cognitive task performances.

Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Ravi Mehta and Rui (Juliet) Zhu (5 February 2009) Science [DOI: 10.1126/science.1169144]

Why am I posting this?
I’m interested in pretty much any verifiable means of enhancing human cognitive performance, even if they seem a bit odd. If background colour affects us sufficiently that our performance and mood changes, I have to wonder what would happen if our whole vision was tinted. And, what does my green screen background colour mean? Interesting, if kooky-sounding, idea for augmenting reality. Brings to mind the general idea of using AR as a simple means of interposing image processing between the viewer and the viewed. Could be particularly useful for people with various vision deficiencies and colour blindness.

Also, interesting point about likely variation between North American students (as interviewed in the study) and students of other nationalities.

via Cosmos


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Just had a chance to play with the new Adobe Photoshop Express – a really simple version of Photoshop that runs in your browser. For brevity, I’ll call it APE.

In reality, it’s not a lot like Photoshop, but rather like Picasa, the desktop photo organizer application from Google. It has a similar (if slightly more limited) feature set, and a similar usage metaphor – you use it to manage a series of galleries / folders full of images, and are able to quickly pop open any one of them to quickly modify it.

So, the pros:

  • You can link it into your photo galleries on Facebook, Photobucket, or Picasa. That is, you tell it how to log in to you account on one of these services, and can then use it to manage and edit your photos within. Since APE runs entirely within Flash, it’s a lot more responsive and easy to work with than doing so directly with the web interfaces for each of these tools. Plus, you can batch update captions, which is often quite time consuming. You can even use it to transfer images between different gallery services (Facebook, Picasa)
  • It’s entirely browser and Flash based, so you can run it on any OS with reasonable Flash support, and you can access it from anywhere. In comparison, Picasa runs on the desktop of a particular machine, and is only available for Windows (though presumably that’s something Google plans to address).
  • It’s really convenient to upload and manage small numbers of images. You can do this in Picasa through the web interface, but you have to fiddle with the image locally first. It just feels a bit smoother doing this in APE, then dragging it into whatever storage space you’ve chosen.

And the cons

  • It runs entirely online. Before you can edit your images, you have to upload them. It’s fine for working with small numbers of smallish images that are already uploaded on a nice fast server somewhere, but there’s no way I’d be using this to manage my images when I retrieve directly off my camera. Obviously, it’s not really intended for this, but this is an important part of my photo management process, and so is worth mentioning.
  • Though managing galleries is faster than using a service’s web interface, using it to edit images is definitely not faster than editing them locally, for obvious reasons – everything is either processed rather slowly by flash, or pulled down the intertube.
  • You have to remember to pay close attention to the terms and conditions – I’m fine with them, but you’ll need to check for yourself if you’re doing anything particularly sensitive.

For me, it’s a nice tool for managing small amounts of images; for example, the screenshots and snippets I put in my blog. It’s also nice as a bridging tool between the three gallery services it supports. I’m not likely to use it for managing large photo galleries – Picasa trounces it there. But, it has a niche, it’s really easy to use, and doesn’t cost anything. So, it’s definitely worth taking a look at..

Try it out – there’s a ‘test drive’ demo that’s gets you in to try it out quickly. From there, it’s easy to join, and doesn’t appear to gather piles of personal information.

vector: Daily Bits.


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