Sunday, 20 October 2013

"Except that bit. I don't want that bit."

So, I'm a fan of Doctor Who (Blog post about that probably coming soon, since it's just over a month to the anniversary). The Doctor is currently on his eleventh incarnation. And one will quite often come across other fans who love the show, but there will be one of the eleven Doctors that they just don't like. Not consistently though, a different one for each fan, I'm pretty sure I've come across One, Two, Six, Eight, Nine, Ten or Eleven as the one Doctor a person doesn't like.
I'm also very much into Gilbert & Sullivan (as someone once put it to me, a "Gilbert and Sullifan"). And to a perhaps even more pronounced extent I find that many serious G&S enthusiasts dislike one specific show, out of the thirteen surviving Savoy Operas written by the illustrious pair. But again it varies. For some it's Pinafore, for some it's Patience, or Ida, or Yeomen, or Utopia, or Grand Duke, but there almost always seems to be one.
I'm sure there are other similar examples.
Me? I like them all, in both cases. I have preferences, of course, though I might find it hard to pin them all down definitively; there may be aspects of some which don't appeal to me, which I have issues with. But there isn't one which I dislike as a whole.

And I can't really understand this sort of attitude. I mean, one thought which I've had before in the G&S context is "If you dislike it, why are you doing it?" It's less of a point with Doctor Who, although one does sometimes come across people who seem to watch the show only so they can then criticise it on internet forums (On the other hand, if they want to do that, it's a valid if unusual pastime). But I've had cases of doing a G&S show and hearing someone backstage talking about how the show is rubbish, at which point I just think "Well, why are you here then?" With Doctor Who, there's always a chance that things will change and go back to something you appreciate more. With Gilbert & Sullivan societies, you're a member, you'll find out what the next show is by email or whatever, so if the society's doing the one show you don't like, why not just take a few months/year off?

Back to my not understanding. What's the reason for this? Is that one instance really so different to the others that it warrants a completely opposite reaction to the rest? Because I'm not talking about people who just kind of like most but then dislike one. I'm talking about people who really love most of them, and then seem to possibly even hate that one in particular. And while there are obvious variations, I would think that the similarities were still enough that a real polar opposite reaction would be highly unlikely. So what is it?
In a lot of cases, I suspect it's just that they overstate it. That they pick out a couple of issues they have and then blow them out of proportion; possibly with the help of others who place extra significance on them criticising any element of it given their usual all-consuming love for the works. And then also if those are their issues and the rest is just OK, then they're unlikely to bring up that the rest is OK, but will talk much more about the things which stand out by dint of being less good (in their opinion). Or, in some cases, they may suffer from the terrible problem of judging relative to their expectations rather than objectively. That is, because they love all the others, they tick all the right boxes and are amazing etc, that is their standard for the works, and so when they find one instance which ticks one or two less boxes, they treat it as seriously sub-par, awful, terrible drek, etc, when in fact it appeals to them less than the others but still considerably more than the majority of similar genre works out there.

The other thing I don't get though, is why it seems fairly consistently to be just one. As I said, I have issues with various if not all of the Doctors and the G&S shows, despite loving all of them. There are always aspects I can pick out as perhaps not being quite as I would prefer it. So I find it strange that in a lot of cases of people who otherwise seem to feel similarly to me, their issues are only enough to mount up to a dislike in one instance, while the others remain in the domain of "Fantastic with a couple of minor problems."
It just feels very much like an arbitrary decision, and reminds me more than a little of about the first 15 seconds of this video:

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Posthumous but not post-humorous

For want of a better title, have a terrible pun.

So something which has always struck me in a lot of media is the difficulty of dealing with the deaths of characters. Finding the balance between what is narratively satisfying and what is starkly real and shocking.
To explain more precisely, if a character dies, you kind of want them to finish their character arc first, and then live long enough to say something very characteristically them so you feel a sense of resolution. On the other hand, sometimes a character death is there partly to be a shock out of nowhere, and indeed, in real life people don't necessarily die at the optimum time in terms of their personal narrative, so you may wish to portray that sudden-ness and pull out that shock value on an unsuspecting audience.
A possibly related point to this (though I won't know for sure until I've finished talking about it) is that of course in some cases characters who do get the sudden unexpected deaths are just bit parts and background characters, which gets you your sudden-ness and shock without throwing up potential issues in your general narrative because those characters aren't the focus of it, but on the other hand this can be criticised for that very reason - that these characters are denied their own stories to be turned into sudden death fodder (Such as the ever ubiquitous example of the Star Trek redshirts).

I've been moving towards a point, ever so slowly.
The point, which prompted me to make this blog post, was that I realised an instance where these issues are somewhat sidestepped, in a book series of which I am inordinately fond - Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. In Discworld books, of course, characters do often die suddenly, and sometimes without getting much time on the page to establish themselves as characters. But then, in a large number of cases, they are allowed a certain amount of easing of the passing, a certain amount of resolution, posthumously, because Death turns up to collect them, and we are allowed to read this posthumous conversation.

This means that the sudden deaths are still there, and they still have the same potential impact on the other characters in the story, but we as the readers get the more hopeful feeling that everything is basically alright, because we see that it's not all over for them, and that their concerns in life are not necessarily their concerns after death, so resolution of all those concerns feels less necessary.
And then of course another theme fairly common in Discworld in general is various means by which ones illusions are stripped away and you see things clearly. Dying is one of the more common instances of this, and this makes for interesting reading as we can compare the reactions of different characters as they experience this newfound clarity.
Contrary to my title, often these scenes are not actually humorous. In fact they can in many cases be wuite touching. But I wanted to make a terrible pun.

The particular case I was noting this in is Small Gods. So I'm going to talk more specifics, ergo there will be spoilers.
If you have not read Small Gods, please do so. And any other Discworld books you can get your hands on, in a sensible order (You may find this helpful). You can come back and read the rest of this blog post later.

Alright, I assume everyone still reading has read Small Gods.
So, it's interesting noting, as I say, the different reactions of people who have their illusions stripped away upon death, particularly in the context of Small Gods and its attendant theme of religious morality and so on. Because on arriving in the desert, the illusions are gone, and it's all down to what they believe (I think it says as much at some point in the book). What they really believe, in their heart of hearts. And you compare that between theose who've been somewhat uncertain throughout their life, having to deal in practicalities which took them outside of the religious rules they were supposed to obey; and Vorbis, who had certainty you could smash rocks on as he lived by those rules. And Brutha, of course, who was somewhere in between.

I think it's particularly noticeable if you put the passages side by side.

General Fri'it:
"There were no lies here. All fancies fled away. That's what happened in all deserts. It was just you, and what you believed.
What have I always believed?
That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out alright.
You couldn't get that on a banner. But the desert looked better already.
Fri'it set out."

Private Ichlos:
"Ichlos looked at the sands stretching away. He knew instinctively whathe had to do. He was far less sophisticated than General Fri'it, and took more notice of songs he'd learned in his childhood. Besides, he had an advantage. He'd had even less religion than the general.
... [snipping out some less relevant bits]...
Ichlos set out. On the whole, he thought, it could have been a lot worse.

In both cases, clearly, a fairly quick dose of clear introspection is enough for them to feel that they had nothing in particular to be ashamed of in going to be judged. They've done right by their own standards, and so carry on as they would have in life, setting striaght out on the important task at hand - to whit, crossing the desert.
By contrast...

"Now he had to cross the desert. What could there be to fear-
The desert was what you believed.
Vorbis looked inside himself.
And went on looking.
He sagged to his knees.
'Don't leave me! It's so empty!'
...[more snippage]...
'Yes. Yes, of course.'
Death nodded. IN TIME, he said, YOU WILL LEARN THAT IT IS WRONG."


"'Ah. There reall is a desert. Does everyone get this?' said Brutha.
'And what is at the end of the desert?'
Brutha considered this.
'Which end?'
Death grinned and stepped aside.
What Brutha had thought was a rock in the sand was a hunched figure, sitting clutching its knees. It looked paralysed with fear.
He stared.
'Vorbis?' he said.
He looked at Death.
'But Vorbis died a hundred years ago!'
'He's been here for a hundred years?'
'Ah. You mean a hundred years can pass like a few seconds?'

Obviously there's more to it if you read the scenes in full, such as the fact that in line with one of the things I said in my sort of preamble, Private Ichlos isn't a character until he dies, but is granted more of a narrative identity in his post-death scene ("Now he was more than just a soldier, an anonymous figure to chase and be killed and be no more than a shadowy bit-player in other people's lives. Now he was Dervi Ichlos, aged thirty-eight, comparatively blameless in the general scheme of things, and dead.") But I picked out the sections I felt were most relevant to simply comparing the four of them. Well, mostly the first two and Vorbis. The section of Brutha's was more for its inclusion of Vorbis, and for his very astute observation. At which end of the desert are you judged? The simple inference once you consider the question is of course that you are judged at the end of the desert at which you start, and the judge is you yourself, once you've had your illusions stripped away to give you that clarity (An idea which has been used elsewhere of course, including being revisited in a much later Discworld book, and also it happened on Red Dwarf).

Returning to my initial point about narrative satisfaction, anyway, the two soldiers and Vorbis are excellent examples of it. Fri'it was plucked out of the storyline somewhat abruptly. There's a certain amount of shock value to his death. But he has his chance to make his peace on-page after his death. Private Ichlos was a non-character, he was there purely to be shot and killed for trying to follow his orders as a soldier should and for no fault of his own, but posthumously he was granted some identity in the story. And then Vorbis, the villain of the piece, again died very suddenly, and his death was almost brushed over in the ensuing reascent of Om. It would be easy to feel that it was somewhat too good for him, and that he didn't really receive a proper comeuppance. But that's because his comeuppance was then in the posthumous scenes, in his sitting in despair in the desert for a hundred years that passed like infinity, to be eventually... I suppose almost granted absolution by Brutha, the book's protagonist, at the end. It highlights the difference between the two of them, as well.

Anyway. Small Gods is still a very good book, very interesting, I'm sure someone into philosophy and ethics and theology and whatnot could have a field day with analysing all the different atitudes and ideas expressed just by Vorbis, Brutha and Didactylos. But I'm more into narratives, and this was the thought which really jumped into my head as I was revisiting the story.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Expanding Steam Universe

So, Valve put three announcements out... last week? Two weeks ago? I dragged my heels a bit with regard to getting this blog post out, but whatever, I still have opinions. Of course the whole thing, as it says, is aimed at bringing the Steam experience to the living room, though I think some of it will probably have applications elsewhere as well. So onto the announcements.

Announcement 1 - Steam OS

Steam gets its own operating system. Makes sense - the typical living room gaming machines are consoles, and they also have their own fairly simplistic operating system designed to let you get at your games, update them, get more games, etc (I have very little personal experience with it as I'm part of the PC Gaming Master Race and the newest console I have is a PS2, which just goes straight into games from the discs). If one has a computer in the living room hooked up to the TV its presumably being used as if it was a console, so why not just make it entirely gaming dedicated?
That said, I wonder if there will be more to this SteamOS. I mean, it is apparently based on Linux, which is of course used as a standard operating system by a number of people, so I wonder if it would be possible for me to hypothetically just replace Windows with SteamOS once it's available. I mean, if it supports a word processor and a web browser, then along with gaming that accounts for about 90% of my computer use. And since the OS is designed around Steam and therefore around gaming, presumably I would have less issues with superfluous background processes using up the computer power which I could really use for making my games run smoother. Just random musings.
Actually, thinking about it, one of the things they say is "Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want." So I imagine that even if SteamOS as released doesn't work as a standard operating system for non-gaming purposes, I'm pretty sure within a week or so of its release some enterprising gaming enthusiast will have modded it so that it is. So, yeah. I'm quite interested in the possibility of getting a computer to run on SteamOS, given the claim that "In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level." i.e. hopefully it will make my games run better? As someone with a not-very-good computer which isn't really built for gaming, anything which gives me a performance increase sounds like a pretty good idea.

They also sneaked four smaller announcements into this big one. In-home streaming isn't really a big deal to me, though I can see how it could be handy for some people. The stuff about bringing media stuff online so they can be accessed with Steam and SteamOS could be interesting. It certainly does seem to lean somewhat towards supporting the idea that SteamOS could be or become a regular operating system with more functions than just letting you get at your games. And then, well, family options actually is kind of just an extra detail of family sharing, which they had already announced, but which is a very neat idea. The ability to lend your games to people could work out very nicely.

Additionally, of course I was following threads talking about this on forums I frequent. This was said by Kaneco on the forums:

"This is what stood out more for me... These will enable and even encourage all kinds of publishers from indie to AAA to develop and publish games to a new system that has no associated costs besides the development.

Xbox and PS charge very hefty fees iirc, often discouraging indie or smaller developers to publish their games.

This will result in one of 2 things, steamOS gets a huge catalogue of games from the start and lots of gamers start moving to steamOS as the home entertainment system, or the current existing systems (ps / xbox, etc) will have to change the way they do business to compete with steamOS and don't lose costumers to a far superior platform (at first glance). Either way its a win-win situation for us costumers."

Seems like a good point to me.

Announcement 2 - Steam Machines

a.k.a. the Steam Box. This had been talked about somewhat for a while before this announcement, but the new point brought in here which as far as I know had not been hitherto mentioned was the plurality of Steam machines - if you want an XBox or Playstation of whatever brand/number they're up to at the time of your purchase, that is your only option. The Steam Machines, by the sound of it, will basically be like gaming PCs, and just as customisable and variable, so you can get one which suits your own personal requirements with regards to quality and price. The only question is how they'll stack up pricewise - if they cost as much as a good gaming PC, then why not just get a gaming PC? In which case, they wouldn't really be able to compete with the console market, which is the obvious goal, so they'd just get the same PC gaming audience they already have. On the other hand, if they can offer a decent experience at a comparable pricepoint to the XBox One and PS4, then  they could make quite a splash.

They could make an especially big splash because they're blurring some boundaries. Credit to gr8stalin on the forums for the insight, but this one I'm going to put into my own words.
So. There are a few reasons why the term 'PC Gaming Master Race' gets thrown around. There's the fact that mouse + keyboard is a superior control mechanism for certain types of game (more on that further down the post), and in any case nowadays you can use a controller with a PC, whereas you can't use mouse + keyboard on a console as far as I'm aware. Then there's the fact that PCs get used for so many other things as well as gaming, whereas cosnoles have fairly limited non-gaming functionality. But possibly the biggest point is just the variety of games available. There are a lot of games for PC which you can't get on console, and while there are games which you can only get on one brand of console but the other, a large proportion of those games will later be ported to PC (the ports vary in quality, but they happen). And the SteamBoxes/Steam Machines, despite being consoles, still act like PCs. Or possibly they act like consoles but are still PCs, either way.
The point is, on the console game market, Sony and Microsoft can force people to buy their console to play certain specific games, and cut out their competition. But if those games get ported to PC, the SteamBox can probably run them. If they want to cut out Valve they have to lose the PC market for these games entirely, whereas if they want to keep that PC market by having the games ported, then they enable the SteamBox to become a superior choice for variety of gaming, because it will be the one available console able to play (nearly) everything.

Announcement 3 - The Steam Controller

I've seen several people say the Steam Controller looks weird, or ugly, or like it'll never work. Most if not all of that I think is just down to a stick-in-the-mud mentality - they think it won't work because it doesn't work like the kind of controllers they're used to. People see buttons labelled A, B, X and Y and assume they have to be used regularly, when in fact on the Steam Controller it's expected that those controls will be used for things you want available but not so much in the heat of the moment. They see a controller without an analog stick or a d-pad and say "THEY CHANGED IT NOW IT SUCKS."

So here is my more measured opinion. One point - buttons on the back, so your third and fourth fingers on each hand can actually do something rather than just sitting there holding the controller. Personally I don't see why they don't have four buttons back there instead of two, but it's still handy. Now the big thing, of course, is the touchpads. This is the big potential stumbling block. If they work well, then the controller will be the best controller around in my opinion. If they don't then it won't. But I saw an article recently talking to some game developers who had a chance to use the controller and they were positive about them, so I'm inclined to be positive as well (Here's the article I read, you can find others if you just google game devs steam controller or something).

Let's look at this from the two opposing points of view - coming from a more standard controller and coming from keyboard + mouse. Controller first.
So, as I said, people are bothered by the lack of analog sticks or d-pad. But the thing is, both of those things can be easily replicated by the touchpads. Apparently the touchpads, in addition to just being touchpads, can be effectively divided into multiple buttons. Assuming there's suitable feedback so you can feel when you're pressing one of these imaginary buttons (which apparently you can, due to the haptic feedback which they apparently put a lot into for this reason), the touchpad is now a d-pad. But then when you need it to be a touchpad again, it can do that as well, which an actual d-pad cannot. Similarly for analog sticks. Then, buttons. There are six available to your fingers, and in a lot of games you'll only need one touchpad for movement, so the second can quite possibly be turned into more buttons. The big stumbling point I suspect would be fighting games, because they rely on some very precise button presses. So it's possible that even with the haptic feedback, a touchpad wouldn't be able to adequately replicate just having buttons for a fighting game. But any other genre of console game I don't see why the Steam controller shouldn't just be superior.
Now, coming from the opposite direction of mouse + keyboard. There are two main reasons why m+k is a superior control system for certain types of game. Firstly, hotkeys. If there are numerous actions you want to have fairly quick access to, without having to navigate through menus to find them, a keyboard is better because it has several times the number of buttons that any controller does. This is still the case with the Steam Controller, but they have substantially mitigated it with the addition of the back buttons, the touchscreen, and the ability to use the touchpads as multiple buttons as well as as touchpads. Secondly, the mouse is a much better precision tool. In many games you will use the keyboard to move and the mouse to aim or move the cursor (depending on the type of game). If you try to do this on a controller you use one analog stick for one and the other stick for the other. Now, the movement is alright. But the aiming simply doesn't have the same potential for a quick response. If it's, say, a turn-based strategy game, then yes, an analog stick can be used to move your cursor around just fine. But if you're operating in real time, then time is a factor. The amount of time you take to move your cursor or crosshair with an analog stick is based on the length of time you hold it in the relevant direction, whereas with a mouse it's dependent on the distance you move it, which allows much more precision at speed. Making a 180 degree turn in an FPS, say, may take several seconds with an analog stick, but with a mouse it can take a fraction of a second. Of course you probably could switch up the sensitivity such that you could turn that quickly with an analog stick, but that would then require inhuman levels of accuracy to hold the stick only for the very precise fraction of a second you wanted, lest you accidentally turn your back on an enemy who was only slightly to your right. Whereas with a mouse it's much easier to just move your hand more or less depending on the circumstances. So, with regards to the Steam Controller, there are trackpads. Now trackpads come as standard on laptop computers as a mouse substitute. They're not great, but they work, and apparently these ones are much better. They'll still be limited - the trackpads are significantly smaller than any mousemat, and that's a very small area in which to try and be precise with your movements, but it's a step in the more effective direction. I don't think the Steam Controller stands a chance of replacing keyboard + mouse as the most effective input method for games like first person shooters which require that level of high-speed precision and turning. But it'll be streets better than anything with analog sticks, and it should be just fine for anything where you need that precision in a smaller area.

All-in-all, I, who have never bothered to play any PC game with a controller (screw you, Super Meat Boy, I am offended by your messages telling me my keyboard is an inferior form of input for you), am considering that I may well want to get one of these once they're available, and I may well use it.

So, anyone reading this have any opinions they want to share? Anyone want to tell me I'm an idiot and clearly don't understand anything about the subject on which I'm speaking? Or agree with me? Leave comments if so.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


No, not the excellent card game in which you do your best Dr. Frankenstein impression, my blog. My blog is alive. I bet you all thought that just because I hadn't posted anything in the last three or four months that I'd given up. Not so! In fact at several points in that period I started to write blog posts, it's just that I'm a bit rubbish at times and thus never finished them. I might revisit them at some point. Or not. Anyway.

Right now, I'm hoping to get back to  more regularly posting, along with more regularly doing various other more productive things. I went through an extensive phase of failing to do anything much, but I feel like I've found my work ethic again. Turns out it was behind the sofa this whole time! (I've wanted to make that joke for years, but I've never found my work ethic sufficiently to feel it was justified)
Hopefully this flurry of productivity (if such it can be called, because at the moment my progress has been more of the slow and steady variety) will last. I'll do my best to make sure it does, because I know I tend to feel better as a person when I'm actually doing things. A productive mindset leads to a good outlook and suchlike. I think I'm rambling, and I was sure I had some more actual substance to put into this post, but all that's coming to mind is basically a reprise of my post about how beginning is the hardest thing. I mean, the fact I was sure there was some substance to be put into it was the only reason I started writing it, 'cause I've always been fairly against the idea of making blog posts consisting of just "Haven't made a post in a while, will make more soon." I feel there should be something more to it.

So, my work ethic which I found down the back of the sofa (though not really). I really can't pinpoint when it went away, though I'm sure I used to have one, like, when I was in middle school. Of course some of it comes down to what feels compulsory and what doesn't. When I was in school, lessons felt compulsory, so they'd provoke me into forcing myself not to be lazy and to go to school. At uni, lectures never had the same feeling of being compulsory, so I had bad attendance. Or, well, actually I suppose it's down to making a commitment, that can also work. If I made a commitment to someone that I would do something, then I would do it, because I didn't want to let them down. Regardless of the difficulty I had getting out of bed for lectures, I would drag myself out excessively early to help out a friend. And I always go to rehearsals (sometimes I'm late, but that's an entirely separate point), because I've made a commitment about it. Other things, though... they're all kind of self-imposed. They're not compulsory and I haven't made a commitment to anyone other than myself, which doesn't carry the same weight with regards to changing my attitude and overcoming my lethargy. I could probably spin that into some self-aggrandising thing about how I'm really selfless and care more about other people's things that my own, but to be honest I think it's more that I don't want to face people's anger or disappointment or whatever. Whereas if it's just me then I don't have to explain myself, and whatever explanation and reasoning I come up with will be acceptable because it's mine and it's me giving it to myself.

So, yeah. Anyway. Hopefully I'll post more. Probably about video games for a few, because while I was failing to do anything productive I found them to be an excellent procrastinating tool. And also I'm hopefully going to keep working on other projects and stuff, including I plan on making videos of things regularly (hopefully, assuming I can keep thinking of things to talk about). That I've already started. In case anyone reads this who doesn't keep track of either my facebook or my posts on GitP, here is the video I made.