Archive for the ‘Off-topic’ Category

VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR PREY, BIOSHOCK SERIES AND SYSTEM SHOCK SERIES.

It’s hard sometimes to go back and remember what it felt like when you were first playing a game you loved. The memories tend to grow on us and also subsequent playthroughs and press coverage change the way we view the game later. I can however, remember almost exactly what it felt like to experience the major plot twist in each Shock game. Whether it was revelations about Shodan in the original series, or the secret of “would you kindly?” in the Bioshock series inspired by System Shock, they always leave an impression.

So anyone going into the very Shock-like Prey would expect a major twister in there somewhere. The game does not disappoint, well actually it does. Prey completely drops the ball on timing, if not content of the major plot twist. I’ll get back to this later, but first I want to explain how important the timing has been for each past game. If you think back to the final act of each Shock game, then remove the story parts, you will probably realize something: on the surface they’re kind of weak. It’s really hard to come up with good challenges for the player once they have all the best upgrades. So the final acts of these games often just involve throwing lots of the toughest enemies at you, in difficult situations. Since you are just trying to chase the plot at this point, it totally works. Then at just about the point where you would get sick of it, some amazing revelation happens, followed by some mind-blowing cutscenes.

This is pretty much the final act of every game ever ending with Shock, as well as the similar Deus Ex series. We expect it at this point. I guess Prey does not end with Shock or Ex, so maybe it’s just me that feels it carries this heritage. Regardless, Prey totally botches its late-game reveals. The plot twists taking place at the end are really predictable and accompanied by some awful room-clearing segments that feel straight out of Aliens: Colonial Marines (no, that is not too harsh). The boring, kill waves of enemies gameplay is actually not that different from the end of the previously mentioned games. It’s just that what is happening to drive you forward is nowhere near as interesting.

And then, after you have spent 10 minutes watching the credits and debating with yourself if you just wasted your time, the post-credits scene has a totally awesome plot twist. Like, after many people probably pulled the disc out and returned it to the store. As cool as it was when it finally happened, that is almost tragically bad placement. Making me play through a nearly worthless 2 hours at the end that almost made me hate a game I was loving, then finally, if I watch the credits, blowing my mind. Makes no sense at all to me.

I often wonder what games looked like in the minds of their creators, at various stages of development. I wonder how many huge cuts and changes completely altered the final experience. Prey made me wonder this intensely. In the end, the alarming and exciting twist came too late to save my experience of the game. I would have almost preferred to have a shorter game that didn’t include the extra tedium.

Regardless of how it happened, the timing of the major plot twist made all the difference in my gaming experience. It took Prey from what I would have called the next Shock game, to something I will probably move on from quickly.

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“This, is the arm. We made it out of the money the studio sent us.”

I recently got around to watching the new Twin Peaks episodes and while I loved the raw David Lynch on display, they added to a sinking feeling I’ve had recently. I’m also going to lump Alien Covenant and the recent X-Files continuation in as well, since I saw them recently and contributed as well.

You see, I’ve had this growing unease while watching the rebirth of some of my favorite series and it can be summed up pretty simply; I don’t think these guys can tell a story anymore to save their lives. While they expertly show us the beauty of the camera, they seem to struggle to fit even 10 lines of meaningful dialogue into a scene. What’s worse, when they do get heavy on the exposition, it seems to range from creating holes in their own canon to outright breaking the mythology of the series (that’s you X-Files). As a fan, I haven’t just been hanging on all these years to see more of your amazing cinematography. I WANT TO KNOW WHAT WAS GOING TO FUCKING HAPPEN. That is why we have been buying your DVDs and keeping those royalties flowing all these years. Not to give you time to find ways to build steadycams out of bamboo.

As an amateur writer myself, I generally take the side of the creator and say “it’s their thing, they can do whatever they want if people buy it”. We can come to an extreme though, especially in the case of the Alien prequels or the X-Files, where you basically just throw out the window everything the fans loved about the story. That isn’t good in any sense of the word. It’s just kind of selfish and egotistical and makes me want to remind them that creation is a life of sacrifice and selflessness. You give everything of yourself to influence people’s hearts and minds for what you hope is the better. Even if your purpose is just entertainment, you need to at least deliver that. Art that is entirely selfish has no place being paid for by others.

Now I don’t want to be too harsh and say ‘how dare they’ or some such other entitled crap. It is their thing and they can do whatever they want with it. As a fan though, I have to just ask why? Why not just tie up the loose ends people want resolved in a manner that is reasonable, while still being unexpected?

I started this article talking about Twin Peaks and I do want to mention that I think it’s the least offensive of these examples. While it is true that I’ve seen about 10 minutes worth of plot in 4 hours of screen time, what filled the other frames was often breathtaking. David Lynch has not only wowed me with some unconventional film-making, but also an unexpectedly excellent performance in the cast. I never would have imagined that the creator’s silly character on the show would deliver my favorite scenes in front of the camera as well. His awkward compassion is 4th wall breaking and makes me appreciate the depth of the man on yet another level.

That being said, I think he’s being pretty damn lazy moving the plot forward and it makes me wonder if the cause is stubbornness, delusion or just plain lack of story ideas. I wonder that much, much more so with the other two examples. With Ridley Scott’s recent films, I often wonder if a bunch of producers are trying to wrestle him to the ground and failing, as he crawls to the mail slot to dump his demented final cut. Covenant was another breathtakingly beautiful film, that made absolutely no sense, even to someone who has also read the novelization and seen every theory video. With the X-Files, I often wonder if Chris Carter just passionately hates us all and wants us to stop liking the X-Files. It’s just that awful (except the Lizard Man episode of course).

I really do want to say that I feel terrible even writing this. These guys literally built my childhood and it’s really difficult being so critical of their work. It’s also really difficult to watch their work recently though, so I kind of feel obligated. Like a friend that doesn’t want you to drive home drunk anymore. Maybe the creators of these properties are just playing on some higher level that I am incapable of comprehending. Maybe these films will be like the works of Nicola Tesla, unappreciated until decades after his time. It kind of feels like they are just screwing around though and blowing millions of dollars to do it.

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If you haven’t played the new Prey yet, I highly recommend it. Especially if you are a fan of Bioshock. This should come as no surprise, as Arkane Studios developed Bioshock 2. They also developed Dishonored, which is a lot like Bioshock as well. So it shouldn’t seem strange for the game to share a sort of central DNA at all.

There was this one moment though, when they made the ol’ “door code is 0451” reference. It could just come as a nod, as it appears in several Warren Specter games and most of the games inspired by them. It started (as far as I know) with System Shock and has been in Deus Ex and several other games in series Specter started or inspired. So it’s kind of like the Warren Specter fan in-joke at this point. It’s originally a reference to Fahrenheit 451, System Shock is full of sci-fi references.

It got me thinking though, that Prey is a LOT like Bioshock. I mean, sure, so is Dishonored, but Prey is A LOT A LOT like Bioshock. Not just gameplay, but pacing and plotting as well. It made me wonder a bit if 2K was originally planning to go a Call of Duty route and have two different internal studios make alternating Shock games. After all, Arkane had already made the well-received Bioshock 2 and the sleeper hit Dishonored, so it makes perfect sense. Then whatever happened at Irrational Games, causing them to be dismantled. Somehow that resulted in the death of the Bioshock series (at least for now) and suddenly there was a Prey remake in development that had nothing to do with the original Prey.

It may all just be coincidence, but it seems a bit too well-timed. Right about the time you would think a new Bioshock game would have gone from planning to production, the Bioshock brand dies and there’s suddenly a very Bioshock-like game going from planning to production. It worked out perfectly timing-wise for Bethesda, as their prolonged struggle developing Prey 2 had just resulted in cancellation. Since the game we now know as Prey suddenly bust onto the scene as an in-development game, it seems odd that they would have been writing and designing it alongside Prey 2 as a plot reboot of the series. The original Prey 2 was intended to continue the plot of the first game, so another game coming out a few years later and undoing all that would be total nonsense.

This is just my newest industry conspiracy theory, but I have a strong sense about this one. Not the least bit because I was part of a very active thread on the Bioshock forums, right before the collapse of Irrational, where we fans suggested the moon or a space station as the location for the next game. The title Lunarshock was floating around and I personally was pushing for it to be a secret Russian station abandoned on the dark side of the moon. Prey is on a space station and not exactly following the most popular ideas on that thread, but the connection is unmistakable. Everything from an alternate history where JFK survived, to a more System Shock like gameplay was discussed at length between developers and fans. This was in 2013, right about the time the seeds for Prey would have been planted.

Believe what you will dear readers, but you read it here first.

I have created a petition for an Armor movie.

Posted: March 8, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

Change.org petition for Armor movie.

I’m pretty much out of ideas on this one.  This is my last ditch attempt.  I’m hoping that all of the people who have emailed me and commented about Armor over the years will sign this.  Maybe a large expression from fans will be enough to make this happen.

 

True Guru Tips for Buying Computers and Parts

Posted: January 31, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic, Technology

There are many articles that discuss commonly held wisdom about buying and selling electronics.  I have written several myself.  This is going beyond that to the realm of instinct and “kicking the tires” so to speak.  If you’ve read all the basic stuff about “do not buy below (A) graphics card for gaming at (X) resolution” and all that, this is the guide for you.

 

Read, read and re-read the full listing before buying.

I know this doesn’t seem like an advanced tip at all, but I want you to really let it sink in.  Even I have allowed myself to be duped by an incorrect listing and then been tempted to be that asshole complaining about it in the reviews.  Trust your common sense madam or sir, you know there is no such thing as a GTX 960 with 2048 shader cores.  Do not let your greed to find some impossible deal trick you.  Because you will have just fooled yourself.  You have done the basic research, you knew better, you just hoped against hope you could game the system.

Now this totally goes both ways.  There are totally such things as “unicorn parts” and if you think you have found one, try to verify by part number or reviews and BUY IMMEDIATELY.  Allow me to give a couple of examples I have bought.

The first was a Geforce GTX 460 that was some sort of odd developer edition.  It was overspecced over OEM in every way (more cores, faster speeds etc) and yet it had only one 6-pin PCIe requirement.  If you are familiar with the Fermi series cards you know this is effing nonsense.  Yet it was, and the results are still on some forum somewhere as the internet went from suspicion to awe as I was like “wtf is this thing!?”  It completely outperformed everything in range at significantly lower wattage.  No idea where it came from, but so glad that some e-recycler got ahold of it somehow and put it on eBay.

The second was a completely unlocked Haswell revision b CPU for testing.  It said right on the die cap that this was absolutely not to ever leave the Intel factory.  Some enterprising gentleperson in China went through some epic adventure to get it out, as evidenced by the battle damage on the cap.  It still booted just fine though and I gave them terrific feedback.  This is one of the chips they use to test what the released ones will be set at.  Every single setting of the CPU is unlocked, because the techs at Intel need to be able to toggle every switch for testing.  With the right custom bios, you can turn on and off some very interesting features on these.  You can also overclock the hell out of it on good cooling, which is all I cared about.  I guess I shouldn’t recommend that you try to get one of these, because Intel would probably have me killed if I still had it in my possession writing this.  But if you, wink wink, nudge nudge happened to find one, it was like eating gelato in a computer part.

 

Sometimes refurbished is good!

I frequently say the biggest problem with computers now is they aren’t made with love, by human hands.  That sounds corny, but it’s as simple as the guy in the factory pulls a big level that dunks the heatsink in thermal paste and slams it on a laptop logic board.  That is no way to apply paste, plain and simple.  Many of the problems that cause all of those angry reviews come from the simple byproducts of automation.  It makes total sense, they can sell it much cheaper and when you return it, they just have a tech open it up and fix a simple problem and it never happens again.  They can just re-sell it for a little less as refurbished and it’s usually only a small percentage that actually have issues.

Let’s rewind a couple sentences: “…and it never happens again.”  This is the part that’s important.  When you buy a device that has been properly refurbished, you are getting a device that has been opened up by a person more qualified than anyone involved in manufacturing it.  They have actually touched it with their gloved hands and even the laziest tech will usually blow out plastic shavings and do other basic fixes, without even mentioning it.  This means that you have a device that is actually less likely to ever fail again than the other units that didn’t fail.  The other units could still have a wire that is too close to something, it just didn’t fail within warranty.

This goes very counter to common thought, that if there are a lot of refurbished models available, it must be garbage.  That really isn’t true anymore.  Most problems with electronic devices these days are caused by minor things that can be easily fixed.  Oftentimes manufacturers will even go to the effort of refurbishing (though not actually having to fix anything) units that have been returned for any reason.  It’s pretty rational really, you say you just returned it because you didn’t like it, but maybe you just cleaned up the cat vomit really, really well.  Might as well have a tech open it up just to be safe, don’t want to be that really, really horrifying Amazon review.  This goes like any of these, just do your research and read as many reviews of the refurbisher as possible.

 

Never trust reviews by people who sound like jerks.

Unreasonable people generally behave unreasonably.  That’s not some deep wisdom, it’s just the obvious.  The people who have emotional outbursts about a Chromebook not having a DVD drive, are usually the kind of people that put diesel in their gas car and blame the gas station.  You have nothing useful to learn from these people in this situation.  Focus on the reviews that calmly and rationally cover the pros and cons of the device at hand.  They are unfortunately few and far between sometimes, but keep looking and you should find a few.

On the flipside of this, if you are reviewing something, try to be rational.  Your personal emotions about the situation are irrelevant to anyone but you.  What matters is how long you used the thing and how it functioned during that time.  The purpose of reviews is to inform other potential buyers, not vent at the manufacturer.  At best the only company employee who will read it is an intern and you may get a canned response.

Also nobody cares how you feel about the brand in general.  This device was probably made in a different factory than the last device you bought by that manufacturer and the company has probably changed hands five times.  Brand loyalty or hate is the most irrelevant, stupid thing you could waste your time on when we are talking about the product itself.  I want to just hammer that home with the example of my wife’s 2014 Macbook Pro 15.  It’s the fully loaded one with all the bells and whistles.  Now you may have your gripes about Apple in general, but I’ve taken apart a lot of their devices and they are usually pretty good about engineering.  The late 14 MBP15 has the huge design flaw, in that it is incapable of using its own dedicated GPU by the laws of thermodynamics.  I kid you not, we’ve replaced the logic board twice, it’s just that simple.  You start using a 3D application, it overheats.  Every. Single. Time.  That is the sort of thing you should be specific about in a review.  It’s only the model with dGPU and it’s not nearly as common on other years.  People need to know that someone at Apple messed up on that model and that they should buy a different one.  Not that all Apple computers are bad, because the 2011 iMac 27″ is still trucking fantastically right next to it.  I’ve experienced the same with Asus, HP and Dell, brands I generally really approve of.  Every brand makes a few lemons, but there’s a reason that those companies are the big names; they generally make products people really like.

 

Be aware of what sacrifices are necessary.

Owning technology has laws, much like gravity and magnetism.  These laws are things like your technology will only be as good as you put time or money into it.  This is an absolute, unbreakable relationship that can only be cheated in one way, which I will mention later.  You either have to put time into researching and maintaining everything yourself, or you have to throw money at it.  You either have to know exactly what you can get away with cutting corners on, or you have to just buy the most expensive one and trust the warranty.  You cannot expect to just spend ten minutes browsing Amazon, order the first thing that looks too-good-to-be-true and hope it turns out well.  You will probably end up with a laptop with a keyboard in a language nobody speaks.

If you are an average consumer, your only hope to get a really good deal on current technology is to really read up on it and catch a good sale.  If something looks too cheap, it probably has some major flaw.  If something is much cheaper than others of the same thing, it is probably damaged in some way or being sold for parts.  It is possible to save money over just buying the first thing recommended to you, but it will take time and effort.  I know how it feels to get something super cheap on Amazon or eBay, but I also know how it feels to find out it’s the wrong thing and I only have myself to blame.  The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you are a master scammer, you are probably not going to game the system all that much without someone realizing it.  Don’t be too quick to think you’ve outsmarted people who have been separating people from money for a long time.

Finally, if you are not the average consumer, you may qualify for that method of cheating the system I mentioned above.  Guess what?  It also takes work.  If you become a top-tier tech, you will have the ability to make machines do things that the average user could only dream of.  As a general rule, any system I build beats official benchmarks of the same parts by 15% or more.  It’s not magic, I just do 100 things or more to optimize performance that take years of experience to learn.  So you are avoiding the work each time you buy something, by investing it up front with knowledge.  There is no easy path to this.  If you just try to copy what an expert does, you will have catastrophic failure like Mickey in Fantasia.  There is no way around learning the hard way when it comes to technology, but I highly recommend it.  If you are passionate about your technology, you truly cannot buy the peace of mind that comes from building and caring for your own devices.  You can also get a $500 computer to out-bench a $1000 computer if you know what you’re doing.

 

Never, ever feel rushed.  There is always another deal.

It’s easy to get caught up in sales and rebates on sites like Newegg and Amazon.  That’s the whole point.  They are trying to convince you that today’s deal is something special, when a simple graph of their prices would show that everything goes up and down constantly.  The other thing to be aware of is that new parts are releasing constantly.  This not only gives you more options, but also causes the previous parts to drop in value.  The older parts are still just as useful as they were before the new thing arrived, so it often saves you a lot to go with the previous model.

There is a flip side to this as well.  If you keep hesitating, waiting for the next deal or new product, you don’t have a system the entire time you wait.  People have a hard time understanding this, but the most cost-effective way to PC game is to build a new mid-range system every 6 months to a year.  If you build it yourself, it will be worth at least what it cost you 6 months later.  You just need to build it barely powerful enough to run current games well, knowing that you won’t have it in a year.  So the cycle pays for itself and you spend absolutely nothing but time and the effort of building a couple of PCs a year, which I find relaxing.

 

 

I think that about wraps up this edition in this long-running series.  I may think of a few tips to add later.

 

 

 

 

If you are into pretty much any popular fiction of any medium, you are probably familiar with the term “shippers”.  These are fans who want to see certain characters in their favorite franchise hooked up romantically and will often go to great lengths to push that desire on the community.  This has gone to almost ludicrous levels recently with fanbases like Harry Potter, Doctor Who and now the popular game Overwatch.  In a surreal reality, fans even threaten to boycott a series to realize a fantasy.  That sentence was so much fun to write.

Most people giving this topic any press coverage are focusing on “are these people pathetic?” vs “how much say should fans have in creative process?”.  That is largely ignoring the psychological implications of this phenomena.  When you remove all of the context and semantics, what people are doing is a negative and by my definition evil process of thought.  That may sound absurd, but consider this:  That character is the brainchild of a writer, who imagined them with a gender identity, sexual preference and their own ideas of what they are attracted to.  Although that character is not a person, with rights to autonomy and choice, they are a statement of an individual that was created by a person.  So if we assign that character temporary personhood (just for the sake of this thought exercise), what you are doing is forcing choice of partners on this person to fit your own desires to empathize with them.

Now, now hold on!  This is just harmless fantasy and these are fictional characters, not people!  So it should be safe, right?  I guess so, if you think that any sort of fiction is okay, even if it clashes with our societal ideas of morality.  Now I don’t want to create a straw man argument here and debate whether there should be rape simulator games or games that let you kill children.  The point is that if you believe it is different because it is fantasy, just be aware that you are fantasizing about forcing gender and sexual identity on people, as well as arranging partners for them.  It is absolutely true that these are fictional characters and nobody is harmed.  The emotional need that you are seeking to satisfy though, is the same as that felt by a parent who doesn’t approve of their child’s sexuality or choice in partners.

We want the people we care about to make choices that we approve of.  A lot of us care about Tracer and Mercy almost as much as we would a pet or a family member.  That may seem strange, but can any one of us not name a fictional character that we identified with more than anyone we knew?  It’s because good writers have a lot of empathy and are very good at writing characters anyone would want to care about.  At the end of the day though, those characters and their personalities belong to them.  We all buy in little parts when we shower those creators with our money, but the important things like love and sexuality should rightfully be theirs, because that character is a part of them.

Hopefully I have managed to poke a hole in your mental fabric that will take some thinking to fill.  My objective is not to make people feel guilty, as there is once again no harm done here.  They aren’t real people.  I would prefer that we, as a society, learn to open our minds and allow ourselves to empathize with characters less like ourselves.  Be okay with a character not doing what you would have them do.  A series of books that did that for me was the Godspeaker trilogy by Karen Miller.  The first novel is told from the perspective of the character who becomes the villain.  You don’t know this as the reader (unless you read it after the whole series is out I guess), so it makes the first book painful to read.  You see the horrible things that happen to her and she becomes more and more twisted and bitter.  By the end I was like “I hate this character, I hate this book!  Why did you recommend this to me?”  The person who did so just smiled wryly and handed me the second book, insisting that I try it out.  A few pages in, I realized that in a masterstroke of writing I will never equal, Miller had created a villain more real and hateful to me than any other ever could be.  I truly grew to hate her, just as the characters in the story, because I watched her change into someone I could no longer love.  That betrayal to my desires as a reader was so real to me, that it created empathy for those I hated, changing me forever as much as Stranger in a Strange Land or God Emperor of Dune.

Because fiction isn’t just imagination, it changes who we are and who we can empathize with.  For me it has been for the better.  My hope is that as fiction expands into new mediums, it can lead to the same growth of the soul that books have given me, not a new way to fantasize evil.

Another sad update for fans of Armor by John Steakley

Posted: January 19, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

My regular readers are probably not aware, but besides the normal content about gaming and technology, I also carry the torch for fans of an obscure sci-fi novel.  I wrote an article about Armor years ago and the response was overwhelming.  Steakley’s philosophical space character drama apparently has a huge following of cult fans (at least partially due to being on the recommended reading list of many of the nation’s military academies).  Steakley unfortunately passed away a few years ago, apparently having the rights to his novels and potential film adaptations buried with him.  Over the past 5 years I have made repeated efforts to contact anyone related to Steakley’s estate or publishing contracts.  The response has ranged from none to canned emails.  I recently made an attempt to contact DAW publishing, which was the subsidiary of Penguin that last published Armor in paperback.  Previously I had attempted to contact Penguin, the Sy Fy network and the law office where Steakley’s will was filed.  I got my most useful (though still useless) response yet.  An only half-canned response that at least uses proper nouns, while still informing me that Steakley had passed away, which I made very clear I was aware of in my initial message to them.  This is the response I received:

Dear Ryan LeCocq:

 

John Steakley unfortunately passed away in 2010. He had not completed a manuscript for a sequel, to DAW’s understanding, so we do not expect to be able to publish a sequel.

 

Film rights are with the author’s estate, and DAW unfortunately does not have any information on those negotiations. Obviously, we would be delighted by a movie adaptation as well.

 

Thank you very much for writing in, and thank you to you and to all the fans of Armor for reading.

 

All best,

 

The DAW Team

 

So there you have it, the most recent in a series of dead ends.  I am willing to keep trying, but I have run out of people to bother.  If we’re going to make any progress, it’s going to take some input from you the fans.  Someone out there must know something about the man who wrote this book.  I know he was a mysterious loner, but nobody goes through life without a trace.  Just find me a relative or a past lawyer or something and I will at least convince or bribe them to make some sort of statement to the fans.  If it is in any way possible to make more of the drafts for Armor 2 available or renew negotiations for a movie, I will gladly start the ball rolling.