Friday, June 29, 2012

Thoughts on gaming and Skyrim mods

I spent about twelve years not playing computer games. My hours in front of a computer were much better spent producing text and improving my craft, but that video game ban started to give way a  little when I moved to Portland and discovered that gaming has become a social thing. Among the circles I hang with, guy and gal geeks play competitively or even more often cooperatively, so I started gaming to be social.

At that same time, back when I was first starting to obsess over how much literary science fiction's fan base has shrunk and how poorly science fiction novels sell, I kept hearing the words Mass Effect, Mass Effect, Mass Effect being uttered by fans of the genre, including many who had long ago stopped reading SF novels.

Being true to my work ethic, I avoided the Mass Effect games until some Portland friends were kind enough to whack me over the head and point out that I was being an idiot. Why not stop focusing on what people had ceased doing and instead take a look at what they've taken up in the meanwhile.

And of course I fell in love with Mass Effect 1 and 2. They were everything that science fiction should have evolved into, rather than taking its tragic 1990s detour into cynicism and hyper-character focus at the expense of optimism and big ideas. So when Skyrim came along I didn't fight too hard to resist the urging of a good friend and jump into the fifth game of a twenty-year old franchise that I had no experience with.

Why a fantasy game? I grew up reading fantasy along with science fiction, and I would love to write in that genre at some point in the not too distant future. And so of course after having had it pointed out to me, continuing to look at what millions of fans are interested in seemed like a no brainer.

What's really impressed me about Skyrim so far isn't the game itself, but rather its ongoing evolution. Eight months after its launch it has a  much richer and more developed feel to it thanks to the efforts of a loose community of independent moders that the game's makers have wisely chosen to aid and encourage.Visually, audibly, and game play-wise Skyrim has been much improved by the offerings of these individuals and small teams, as aggregated and made available on and Steam's Workshop.

Colors have grown deeper, the vegetation more lush, and the surfaces of both still and moving bodies water more realistic, with better sun glares and ripples. The audio background is much more alive with everything from added flocks of birds and bird calls to the supernatural moans and the shifting of the earth in haunted tombs. Modders have also greatly improved the magic system with spells that let magic-wielding characters do everything from call down meteorites to summon a significantly wider variety of interesting servitors.

What's improved most of all for me has been the ability to add more background and supporting characters to the game play experience. Like many game worlds, Skryrim felt sparsely inhabited at first, and my lone-wolf protagonist and a single companion could traverse the realm without seeing any evidence of the civil war that was central to one of the main story lines. 

Mods like Warzones - Civil Unrest have added epic battles between fractions in that war as well as bandit hordes drawn to or fleeing from the chaos. These battles reflect the progress of the war based off the protagonist's success or failures. Still other mods have given players the ability to assemble small bands of allies to accompany the protagonist on his or her adventures, as well as being able to mount those friendlies on horseback. 

Lastly, I've enjoyed the mods that improve the quality of the supporting characters, by giving them unique skill sets and altered appearances to help differentiate them and make them more interesting companions who compliment the Dragoborn. May favorite among these is Void Craft's House Carls mod, which improves appearances, behaviors, and skills. 

Of course, not everyone uses or writes mods to help bring out Skyrim's essential flavor. There are mods that enable world fusion by adding arms and armor and monsters from a dozen or so fantasy anime series, the Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones and...My little Pony.

Oh the carnage.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thoughts on the evolution of human thought

Out of all the recent articles and brewhahas in evolutionary biology, the idea that the climate turmoil of the past three million years has been a strong selective force for larger, more complex brains is the most interesting to me. Those pesky Himalayas growing to the point they started to have a major impact on global weather patterns, as well as other, sundry changes to a planet that had been growing colder and dryer since around the time of the dinosaurs meteoric downfall. 

That's not to say it's the single factor that made us what we are. There probably isn't such a thing. Still, it looks like an interesting and potentially important factor in our evolution, both as primates and as omnivores.

Brains, after all, are a risky evolutionary gamble. They are hugely expensive in terms of calories in, require specific vitamins, and they generate a lot of waste heat, which can get an organism killed in the tropics. So the unprecedented behavioral flexibility and the ability to create large, non-kin based societies that our associative cortex and advanced social emotions grant us come with significant risks. That said, behavioral flexibility seems like it would beneficial trait in a world where species were being subjected to repeated ecological disruptions on an evolutionary time scale.    

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

ME 3 Meh

Well that was quick. Just a few hours after the "extended cut" ending went live for download the videos were up on YouTube. After having watched all four, it's still an underwhelming end for what had been one of the most breathtaking science fiction trilogies in recent years--both from a technical standpoint as well as delivering a weak emotional impact. 

Technically: The quality of art in the 'clarification' montage is weak in quality, and the still images are almost identical for all three of the main endings. While the accompanying narrations do help to differentiate the endings, they still fall well short of the sixteen "wildly divergent," "non-bespoke" endings that the developers hyped.  

Emotionally: There's still a real lack of gut-level, feel-it-in-your-heart payoff. The secret to the series for me and many other players is how character driven the trilogy is up until its final fifteen minutes. The relationships that a player's male or female Commander Shepard can form with a wide cast of supporting characters are both amazingly executed and very much the major draw that pulled so many guy and girl gamers into this hard science fiction franchise. While this time around the endings at least show us those characters surviving in the long run and inform us that Commander Shepard's final decision did not kill trillions of individuals and destroy civilization as we know it, there is still nowhere near enough material to give us a feel for the characters' lives. Especially for the life of whichever individual the player chose as his or her love interest. One or two cheap still shots can not wrap up attachments formed over 100+ hours of interactive game play. 

Given the heroic, cut-scene endings of the previous two installments I'm still very much at a loss as to why the developers did not work to create an emotional spectrum of endings, rather than focusing on three possible resolutions to a conflict introduced in the final minutes of the series' last act, all three of which involve the sacrifice of the protagonist--a sacrifice that came out of left field for most players who had been told by the developers multiple times that their choices would shape outcome.* 

Unfortunately, the emotional impact isn't anywhere near satisfying enough to justify the time investment of re-installing the game just to watch a so-so montage. 

*Yes, there is the four second cut scene of the breathing chest plate in the destroy option, but with the developers unwilling to commit to showing Shepard alive and fans uncertain if that section of armor actually belongs to Shepard, there doesn't seem to be much payoff for most players. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Evolutionary biology's raging controversy

A great article in which the eloquent and erudite evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker (yes, I am a fan) lays out his take on the current civil debate over whether our biology and minds are shaped by the selection of individual "selfish-genes" a la Richard Dawkins or by the survival selection forces generated by small groups of humans in competition with one another.

The False Allure Of Group Selection | Conversation | Edge:

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In a way, it's a sign of progress to see this kind of conflict and public airing of grievances within the evolutionary biology community. One that would have been difficult to picture earlier, given that the field has been under siege since it first emerged under the rubric of social biology during the 1970s. For nearly four decades now, academics strongly opposed to the idea that biology makes significant contributions to the content of our minds have accused evolutionary biologists of everything from being crypto fascists and unrepentant misogynists to being out right advocates of genocide and defenders of corporate interests.

All of which is gruesomely absurd. Like most scientists in the US these days, evolutionary biologists tend to be the kind of moderate, secular leftists who spend way too much money on Italian-themed coffee drinks, which they consume while driving their Volvos to the university and listening to NPR in the morning. Their work thus far has presented complex and nuanced views of humanity, in which nature and nurture are intertwined, and altruism and the mechanisms of socializing that grave rise to cooperative societies are both the result and answers to survival dilemmas.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Out on the Oregon Coast

Where yes, there are actually sunny days.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

California's super volcano

Long Valley caldera GIS database

'via Blog this'

The massive Long Valley caldera volcano is located about two hours south of where I grew up in Reno, and not far from Mono Lake, Yosemite National Park, and Mammoth Mountain. It's a fascinating place to wander around and see the formations of heat-fused ash and other scars that hint at the enormous scale of an eruption that buried much of the Southwestern US under silicate ash 750,000 years ago.

Welded ash formation from the Long Valley caldera's VEI7-scale eruption. USGS photo, pubic domain, via USGS.

USGS image, public domain, via Wikipedia 


Bishop (Long Valley caldera) and Yellowstone ashbeds, USGS public domain image, via USGS

Part of the reason I'm so fascinated with these large "super volcano" calderas is the sheer scale of these monsters and their potential for rapid, global climate change. Another is the apparent role they've played in human development: from the Toba eruption that may have given rise to the first racial groups among bands of survivors isolated for hundreds or thousands of years, to the Campi Felgrei event that may have killed much of Europe's neanderthal population and cleared the way for Homo sapiens to dominate that continent. 

That role in shaping humankind is one I'm very anxious to get back to addressing in my novel Ashlands--a Great American, Post-Yellowstone road trip novel set around the year 2050. A raft of other projects has pushed that one back repeatedly over the past year. 

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

RIP, Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury dies; sci-fi author wrote ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ ‘Martian Chronicles’ - The Washington Post:

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It's been years and years since I read Fahrenheit 451 or the Martian Chronicles, but I can still recall scenes and images from those books with cinematic intensity. Whatever else he was, Bradbury was a writer who could evoke places and times that have never been, but make you feel as though you'd been there and lived through them--whether it was walking through an eerily empty nighttime suburb where television long ago subsumed the lives of ordinary humans (a terrifying prospect back in mid-twentieth century America), or if you were somehow a lone survivor of an atomic holocaust seeing the silhouettes of vanished people seared into the side of a lonely, automated tract house.  

Monday, June 04, 2012

Why is there only one human species? - BBC News

BBC News - Why is there only one human species?:

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An interesting article on what's believed to have been a combination of climate shifts and supervolcano eruptions that led to the global dominance of H. sapiens. Several prominent paleoanthropologists believe that a series of dramatic climate changes that hit the planet over the past three million years also helped to provide an evolutionary selective pressure that drove the adoption of larger brains and more adaptive behavior in our species.