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So Long, and Thanks for … Nothing, Really.

Yesterday I received in the mail a handwritten letter of thanks from my company’s district manager, more or less for doing my job; my insignificant pissant project management job.

Today I quit.

Predictably the friends/family reaction was pretty resoundingly negative, but I guess I had that coming since quitting your job in the current American economy is pretty let them eat cake.

In between calling me out on my colossal brattiness and assuring me I am now fucked, financially, folks also kept asking, over and over, some variation of “I don’t understand. What happened? What did it? What was the last straw?”

I’ve been bitching about my job for 2 years, and certainly recent weeks have provided plenty of potential flashpoints, but there really was no last straw.

Outside of maybe the hand-written letter. When you think about it, how existentially terrifying: a personal commendation for helping to maintain the status quo at an enormous goddamn Fortune-Top-50-Most-Admired-Companies motherfucker?

Augh.

In related news, I’ve reconsidered my stance on commissions to illustrate your self-insertion slashfics, guys.

I Guess You Had to Be There

So between my Mass Effect fanarts and my Dragon Age slashfics I think I’ve established I’m down with BioWare. This goes further back – I really liked KoTOR (though few games are as overrated) and Jade Empire (underrated) in between.

But all of this belies a secret shame: I have never played Baldur’s Gate.

I try to rectify this every so often, usually right on the heels of beating another new BioWare RPG when some douchbitch somewhere inevitably starts speaking in hushed, exultant tones about how this most recent game pales relative to its legendary forebear.

A little backstory: when Baldur’s Gate came out I didn’t have a PC capable of running it and didn’t follow PC gaming whatsoever because of this. And, full disclosure, I don’t think I could have seen past how fucking goddamn ugly it is, anyway, relative to the 3D JRPGs then exploding all over the 32-bit systems in the wake of Final Fantasy VII.

Now I’m older, better adjusted to Western RPG tropes, in possession of a PC that can comfortably run the bleeding edge games from the close of the last century, and man I still can’t fucking play Baldur’s Gate.

I want to like it; I want to experience this epic goddamn story people are still reeling from over a decade later, but Jesus Christ this game is so ugly, so slow, and so fucking dry I have never managed to make it past rummaging through haystacks for that stupid cunt’s book and what-all-else in that little castle ward, that little yard you start in. It ends with me saying “Fuck this” and playing King’s Bounty every time.

It’s crazy. I could probably plug the fucking SNES port of Drakkhen in and play and have fun with that, right now, and be just as entertained by vomiting dragon-princesses and just as horrified by that goddamn Shadow Man as I was when I was 10. But there’s the thing; I played Drakkhen when I was 10.

I don’t think you can ever really appreciate an old game unless you experienced it in its first iteration. All those career retrogamers? Rich kids who owned all this crap the first time round.

Speaking of Sovereigns

If you’re old and nerdly enough to have been a Star Trek: TNG fan around the time of First Contact’s theatrical release, and mentally disciplined enough to clearly remember those days unclouded by the embittered haze drawn over them by shit like Voyager, you might be able to conjure up the old friends sensation of seeing such well-established characters again onscreen, or the chills you got from those first, requisite pans along the length of the new, Sovereign-class NCC1701-E.

I’d forgotten what that felt like; how deeply media can tap into feelings of nostalgia, familiarity and, put simply, happiness to see someone or something again.
If it wasn’t obvious, yes, I am finally gonna ramble about Mass Effect 2, but I’ll try to minimize redundancy with what the entire rest of the internet already said a month ago; maybe focus on its story and the ways in which it is still an RPG rather than cry a river about how its predecessor’s hideous inventory management is gone or celebrate how much better the shooter aspects stack up to actual shooters this time. Or not. We’ll see how I feel in a few paragraphs.

Right now “RPG” is maybe the most nebulously-defined genre in games, and while I don’t have the insight (or the time) to wade into the popular shitmire of trying to codify it, I’ll dip a toe in: role-playing games really ought to give the player some opportunity to, you know, play a role; something undisputed, formula-adherent RPGs (Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, etc.) have been behind the curve in respective to their western counterparts. I’m not saying there’s no place for games like FFXIII anymore or even that we ought to stop calling them RPGs, but the things that really drew me into FF when I was younger were stories dense with character interaction, freedom of exploration, and player-controlled character growth. In the 8- and 16-bit eras, when I didn’t own a competitive PC , those games were standouts. But skipping ahead, FF, despite its cyclical reinvention of itself, has changed very little — if anything, it’s actually been simplified, eliminating impediments to story pacing at the cost of exploration and openness. It’s one way to tell a story, I guess, but after finishing ME2 I don’t think it’s a necessary evil.

ME2‘s pacing is almost flawless, and BioWare didn’t sacrifice much to achieve it. Since the game’s overarching goal is team building and your would-be team is just sort of scattered around the galaxy, you’re free to jet from cluster to cluster more or less as you please, doing things in your own time. In reality the entire game is a series of side-quests, but every side-quest is treated uniquely and with the same sense of gravity; it’s never just “Folks we can land here. Prepare for more miserable off-roading followed by clearing some pirates out of another prefab shed.” You’re never left sorting through 16,000 pages of redundant, mostly-useless equipment found in said sheds or allocating skill points mid-combat; essential micromanagement is saved for downtime between missions. And so are loading screens.

You’re also free to skip half these missions and jump straight to the endgame at a pretty early juncture, but doing so has some weighty repercussions. If your crew aren’t all individually loyal, if you didn’t spend the time and resources to upgrade your ship, the suicide mission that was made the focus of most of the game’s advertising has the potential to be just that. Every member of your crew, as well as Commander Shepard him/herself can die in the end run if preparations aren’t made or the wrong decisions are, and as a result the final mission builds tension like no single player game I’ve ever experienced.

The tension’s really helped out, though, by one of the most standout soundtracks in recent memory. Very little of ME1’s vintage 80s synth-sci-fi sound is left; replaced by or incorporated into a huge, cinematic-sounding score from Jack Wall. The Suicide Mission theme has been in my head for weeks.

One of my favorite lines in ME2 goes something like “[Archangel] scares me. He’s managed to get the pole out of his ass but now he’s using it to beat people to death.” It’s a fitting summation of the ME1 to ME2 progression.

I am genuinely stoked to see how BioWare wraps up this trilogy, especially on the heels of such an open-ended second installment. It’s exciting stuff. Thanks, Canucks!

Don’t hold me to promises made in the heat of the moment

… but I think Mass Effect 2 might be one of my favorite games ever. Period.

More on this later, I’m sure.

Recipe Time

My family’s ancestral cracker cookie recipe, taken verbatim from an Email from my mom:

Cracker Cookies

Don was just attacked by a frozen chicken.

42 soda crackers
1 C brown sugar
1 C butter
6 oz. choc. chips
6 oz butterscotch chips
Chopped nuts – Like a handful or so

Anyway it says 42 soda crackers, but I never counted and you have to make ’em fit your pan (pan with sides)
It says buttered jelly roll pan, but we have cookie sheets. And you arrange the crackers and have to break some.
Heat butter and br. sugar, boil 3 minutes. Pour over crackers and bake for 5 min. at 350.
Put chips on hot crackers and WAIT a minute til you can spread ’em out-then sprinkle with nuts.

Now the old recipe says remove from pan immediately to wax paper, but a different one says cool 1 hour in pan then remove.  You have less waste with the new method I think. And it seems to work fairly well. I also think we should try lining the pan with foil maybe & see if we can get it off the foil or not. Cleaning the pan is a bitch without a dog washer.

I Found My Car

car

Specced for “Awesome Blue Smolder”

In the wake of Dragon Age Cate and I were having a giggle over how those people in the rendered trailers and TV spots have nothing to do with the in-game characters, save unnervingly emitting the same voices.   This turned to wondering why, when that Warden’s eyes are always smoldering supernatural blue in these things, Gray Wardens in-game don’t display any clear differences from normal dudes.  In turn this had us thinking there ought to be a Gray Warden-specific talent string you could invest in with the Warden and with Alistair, one of which ought to be “Awesome Blue Eye Smolder.”  Doesn’t even have to do anything else; we’d spend a point there, regardless, just to differentiate.

But the disconnect between that prerendered ad material and the actual game got me thinking again about how irritating that kind of thing is.

When games looked like FFVII and everyone’s in-game models had inscrutable juggling clubs for hands it made sense to cut to a prerendered sequence to nail the action and emotion of an important turn in the story.  Anymore, the stuff is unnecessary — character models have expressive, articulate faces these days, and seeing an in-game model react believably to a situation just feels more “alive” than notchily cutting to a prerendered sequence handled by a different team with characters, lighting and environments that look similar, but different.  FFXII was a stunning example of this; the in-game models were phenomenal-looking for a PS2 game and featured some of the broadest emotive capability I’ve ever seen, and yet the game frequently jumped to wooden-looking FMV where Balthier was suddenly Asian and bleached his hair.

Going out of your way to create things that rupture suspension of disbelief is stupid.

Leaky Boat to Legend

So I’ve finished Dragon Age: Origins.

It is the kind of game I used to hate.   Rough around the edges, with a bland western fantasy aesthetic and character building lifted wholesale from D&D.   I grew up on kawaii bullshit and pretty protagonists that could effortlessly punch through schools — getting to where I’d even look at unapologetically western games built around what PC gamers have come to love and expect versus what I cut my teeth on as a console JRPG kid has been a long and roundabout road.  Meandering through Elder Scrolls games, full loot MMORPGs and casual stabs at P&Ps (not to mention hurtling toward 30 and getting tired of the kinds of interpersonal melodrama and teenagers with attitude that typify Japanese RPGs) I eventually found myself at a vantage point from which I could appreciate a game like Dragon Age.  Summarily, I pulled my head out of my ass just in time.

I played DA:O alongside my sister, with she on the PC version (which I’ll hereafter refer to as the One True Gospel) and I on my PS3.  The version disparity dead horse has been beaten elsewhere but the game can’t be discussed without this coming into play.  Moreover, I think shit has been grossly understated elsewhere.  DA:O does not come in PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 versions;  DA:O is a PC game with bullshit, awkward, phoned-in console ports that just happened to be simultaneously released.  People talk about how the 360 version has ugly textures but preferable, steady framerates, the PS3 version is notchy but features better textures and colors that pop more (what) and the PC is the standout, with its capacity for zoomed-out tactical views and a slightly more elegant interface.  This talk is garbage.  Simply put, the game looks like absolute ass in its console incarnations.  I say this not as a graphics whore, or someone who doesn’t get Bioware RPGs;  I say this as someone who’s played the game on both a PS3 and a modestly endowed PC.  The PC version is actually attractive. The textures are appealing, the vertigo-inducing shimmer nonexistent, the lighting natural.  The tactical view is nice, but nicer still is a bright, responsive UI that puts everything at your fingertips and looks decent doing it.  Where the PC menus are dark-on-white and recall venerable tomes, the game’s console counterparts are dark and twisted, light-on-black Moonsiders crippled by some of the worst interface lag I’ve ever seen.

Now, remember: I said up there that I myself finished the withered and reviled PS3 Dragon Age, not the sainted PC version.  Even so, I am reminded what fandom feels like; it’s been awhile since playing through a game left me with a genuine pit of regret in my gut that my time with it was over. 

Every version of the game is plagued with niggling faults and outright bugs.  Bafflingly long load times, frequently fucked-up event queuing, easy-to-break NPC AI.   Outfits like Bioware (and Bethesda, and others) are never taken to task for this stuff because stupid oversights are easier to forgive in the face of scope and ambition, and DA:O is all about both.

The character interractions are a goddamned joy.  I think George was starting to feel genuinely annoyed with my attachment to sometimes-lion, sometimes-emokid Alistair.  I spent the endgame in impressively rising dread at whatever might come between the latter and my character, and in fact had to rollback to a previous save a couple times to ensure I was able to pull a happy ending from an awesomely nuanced shitfire of circumstance.

I was used to rolling back to a previous save, though. DA:O is not a brutally hard game, but it doesn’t pull its punches, either.  Encounters are tough, frequently requiring you to rethink your strategy and approach them from a different angle, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.  They’re more or less finite, too, so grinding out a few more levels to overpower a boss is generally not an option.

And now pardon an abrupt end to my rambling but I have to close up shop for the night (I’m writing from work) and head home so I can get back to that second playthrough.