Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sometimes, a Tease is Oddly Satisfying

Okay, I love Mass Effect. The game is a western RPG at their finest, even though the majority of the game's free-roaming exploration was pointless filler. I played through the game twice and kind of wish I hadn't loaned my copy to a friend so I could play through it again after watching the newest teaser for Mass Effect 2.

It's no secret that Mass Effect 2 has been in development, Casey Hudson and the Bioware team have been talking about it for as long as they've been talking about the first game, but given the massive dev time and ambitious nature of Mass Effect 2, it's awfully surprising to see teaser trailers already.

But I'll shut up, if you haven't seen it yet, here it is:

(Spoiler Warning: There is a very small spoiler to the end of the first game contained in this teaser. It won't tell you exactly how it ends, but it's certainly a clue.)


Sorry, fangasm.

-That Guy

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Dwarven Druid

As you may remember, I recently joined a friend's Dungeons and Dragon's campaign and it turns out that he is a huge junkie for back stories. Well, he recently challenged all the players to come up with back stories for our characters and I gladly took him up on it. While he was probably only expecting a brief description of where we came from and our general motivation, I decided to really dive into the story and make it a narrative. Anyway, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out so I decided to share it.

“David!” King Relhan called towards his keep as he saddled up his horse.

A young human page came running out of the barracks carrying his weight in hunting gear.

“Yes my lord.”

“Any news of the woods?”

David began to strap the gear to the king’s saddle as he spoke, “Well, Pippin and Isaac…”

“Please,” The King interrupted, “don’t call them that.”

“I’m sorry your highness.” David stammered for a second, “The falcons have returned my lord, and it would appear that the deer are running.”


Not only was David King Relhan’s personal page, but he was also the keep’s falconer and handler of the hunting dogs. It was a widely held rumor about the town that David was even able to commune with the animals, the rumor began when David began calling each of the animals by name.

“My lord,” David said, “I don’t think we should ride out today.”

The king leveled his brow at the page, “And why is that?”

Realizing that the king would never believe his reasoning, David resigned himself to silently strapping the spears and arrows to the king’s saddle.

The king rode out with his hunting party as the sun was still approaching its zenith. David rode behind the king, but before the small squad of guards and a cluster of hunting dogs jogged at his horse’s feet.

As they approached the nearest wood, one of the dogs ran out ahead of the party and into the woods. Relhan’s kingdom was renowned for its well disciplined animals. Where most kings would only take a single hunting dog, for fear of the animal’s natural pack mentality taking over, Relhan was able to bring up to three or four on any one hunting voyage without worry.

Relhan pulled back an arrow and waited for the dog to flush out its quarry. David fiddled with his reigns anxiously, nervous for the coming strike.

A doe came bursting out of the woods no more than fifty yards away from them. The king loosed his arrow and it struck true into the creature’s flank. As the arrow hit, David clenched his jaw and ducked his head as if to resist yelping in pain himself. Relhan and the guards paid him no mind, as they watched the doe bolt back into the cover of the trees, leaving a trail of blood that the dogs quickly ran to follow.

“That’s how it’s done boys!” Relhan bellowed back to his guards.

The party spurred their horses to a gallop into the woods, following the trail of barking.

They raced between the trees, their horses moving with the casual grace of creatures familiar with their surroundings. Given Relhan’s appreciation for the hunt, these woods were a kind of their second home.

The barking stopped ahead of them, making way for an eerie silence. The men continued in the direction, too drunk with the excitement of a fresh kill to notice.

They found the body of the doe lying in a beam of light cast from an opening in the canopy above. The arrow rested on the ground, the tips still coated in blood, and a short, cloaked figure was kneeling over the doe with its back to the party. The dogs had all stopped around the scene and were intently watching, they didn’t appear startled in any way.

The men stared on in frightened puzzlement for a moment as the figure moved its hands above the flank of the infirm animal and before the men’s eyes, the doe stood up and trotted off into the wilderness. The cloaked figure watched as the doe disappeared into the woods.

“Excuse me.” Said the king, trying to sound as regal as possible despite being a bit surprised at the situation, “But who exactly do you think you are.”

The cloak figure turned and pulled back his hood, revealing himself to be a tan-skinned dwarf with a short beard and jovial eyes, despite obviously being weary from years of travel in the wilderness.

“My name is Mitleanu. And I am merely a concerned wanderer.”

One of the guards spurned his horse forward with a new-found indignation, “Who are you to poach in the king’s forest!”

“Poach?” Mitleanu chuckled at the man, “I assure you I’m doing quite the opposite. That doe was pregnant. If anything, I am doing you a service.”

The guard stammered in confusion and retired back to the line of speechless grunts.

“Well Mitleanu,” Relhan said, “I am displeased at the spoiling of my hunt today, but I suppose your actions were in the best interest of my lands. Also, that is quite a gift you have for healing.”

“It is merely my way of thanking the earth for providing for me good sir.”

“To whom do you swear your allegiance?” Relhan asked.

“Merely to Obad-Hai and the wild.” Mitleanu replied. As he said this, he looked past the king to David and saw the visible excitement that had been painted on his face. “What is your name.”

The king was taken aback, but he pushed his horse aside to allow Mitleanu a clear line of site to David.

“David, good sir.” He lowered his head in reverence to the dwarf.

Mitleanu chuckled, “Now cut that out, I’m no more royalty than you.”

“I’m sorry sir.”

“My name is Mitleanu, I don’t know why you humans are always so formal, but please stop this ‘sir’ nonsense.” The dwarf wasn’t scolding the page, in fact, he was smiling as he said this, as if in response to a joke he was telling himself. “So, David, I can see how animals are so friendly to you. You can hear them too can’t you?”

At the mention of his talent, David stammered in suppressed joy. The king scowled slightly at the mention of his keep’s supernatural fears.

Mitleanu addressed Relhan, “You don’t understand this gift. His potential is far greater than you allow, I can tell merely by the way he rides, almost in shame.”

“Could you…” David started, but then sat back in his saddle, remembering his place.

“Go on.” Relhan said, reluctantly.

David started again, “Could you teach me?”

Mitleanu’s eyes smiled, “Of course I can, if your lord will allow it.”

Relhan assessed the dwarf up and down, “I will allow you to take David as your apprentice in whatever arts you work, but only if you will swear allegiance to me and join the ranks of my army’s healers.”

“I swear fealty to none but the earth itself my good king.” Mitleanu replied, “But for as long as David is in need of instruction, I will heal your men.”

“I suppose that will have to do.” Relhan replied.

Mitleanu stayed in Relhan’s fortress for many months, teaching David to tune his mind and spirit with the wild. Rumors abounded in the keep about this mysterious dwarf that kept taking the king’s page out to the forest for days at a time. Neither David nor Mitleanu even cared though, as David’s natural talents bloomed before Mitleanu’s eyes. David learned to properly enunciate the sylvan language he had been instinctively using to speak to animals, and Mitleanu also taught him the druidic tongue.

Given Mitleanu’s solitary lifestyle, he was grateful to have a student and, more importantly, a friend. In the nights that they both dined in the great hall, they sat by themselves lost in conversation slipping in and out of various languages without a second thought. They were truly inseparable.

One day, Mitleanu woke from his bunk to find his barracks completely empty. The army was amassing in the courtyard with King Relhan at the head, wearing his ornate plate armor. David was fastening the king’s weapons and shield to his saddle.

Mitleanu ran up to David and the king nodded in greeting at his approach.

“What is going on?” Mitleanu asked, both to David and the king.

“We got a message early this morning to muster our troops.” Relhan replied, “There is going to be an assault against the demon lord Graz’zt, led by a group of adventurers whom I hold in very high esteem.”

“Why was I not awoken with the rest of the troops?” Mitleanu asked.

“Because it will be at least another hour before the troops are ready to move, and you don’t have any gear to ready.” David said. “Besides, we tried at first but you sleep more soundly than a boulder.”

“Your services will be needed dwarf.” The king said, “The healers are going to form a unit of their own at the back of the column, near the supply carts.”

The army marched for a few days as fast as they could, but since they numbered over 10,000 the march was slow and tedious. After a few days they finally arrived at Glamsden keep, home of Barthwick Glamsden and countless heroic tales. The army made camp inside the outer walls of the bailey, and settled in for the night.

Mitleanu sat on a sidelong log outside the healers’ tent and warmed his hands by the small fire. He could hear the sound of boisterous laughter coming from the keep as the dwarven army drank away their nerves about the upcoming battle. David approached and sat next to him.

“I hear we are to attack tomorrow.” David said.

“I’m not surprised.” Mitleanu replied, “We were the last to arrive.”

“Mitleanu,” David asked, in a tone that betrayed his young age, “have you ever been to battle?”

“I have combated many things in my time. I have fought rot, plague, the machinations of hunters and those who wish to bend the wilds to their will.” He paused for a moment. “But I have never seen battle like we will tomorrow.”

“I never thought I’d see the day when I was more experienced than you.” David chuckled nervously.

“I suppose being a king’s page, you have ridden into a fair number of conflicts.”

“Well, I have.” David said, “But only skirmishes between feuding lords or the occasional bandit raid, nothing like this.”

“Be careful out there.” Mitleanu said through moist eyes. “Unlike me, you’ll be in the middle of harm’s way.”

“Master,” David said, “I know.”

Mitleanu and the other healers had set up an infirmary behind the amassed armies on the plains of Cem’Dal and found hours passing as the injured human, elf and dwarf soldiers seemed to steadily stream through the tent’s flaps.

Every time a human solider came through the door, Mitleanu held his breath until he could see their face to confirm that it wasn’t David. The entire day passed without any sign of him.

As the day was wearing thing, all of the healers were feeling exhausted and almost defeated when a messenger burst through the door shouting, “The army of Graz’zt is broken and fleeing! We have won the day!”

The human healers all cheered, but Mitleanu cared less about the army and more about his pupil. The human healers all seemed to have a new found spring in their step and were working with smiles on their faces where once they were somber. Mitleanu stepped out of the tent in hopes of finding some word on David.

Just as he did, King Relhan rode up to the infirmary tent. His armor was flecked with blood, both red and black, and he had a large cut that had severed his plate and bit into his side.

“Mitleanu!” He called, “We have won the day!”

“I heard,” Mitleanu replied as Relhan dismounted and allowed the dwarf to lay his hand on the wound, “any news of David?”

The king’s face grew long with newly realized grief. “I’m afraid he didn’t make it.”

Mitleanu was barely able to finish the healing as he was overcome with grief.

Relhan saw this and said, “You have done well in my service, but since you never swore fealty, you are free of your duties.”

Mitleanu was able to choke out the words, “Thank you” between tears and he retired from the battlefield.

Mitleanu wandered the forests aimlessly as he had done before, but in it he no longer felt the wild kinship as strongly as he had before. He spent many nights in meditation and prayer, often surrounded by the beasts he and David had come to admire together. During this time, he discovered the ability to change his very shape to that of the creatures around him. He found the shape of the bear to feel the most comfortable and natural. He often stayed in the shape for days at a time in hopes of finding the joy he had lost as a dwarf.

Many years passed in solitude. Mitleanu found that he missed some of the smaller comforts that Relhan’s keep had allowed him and he decided to build a home. He dug a small hut into a hill and fashioned a door and furniture from dead wood that had fallen from nearby trees. After many years in his hut, he found joy again in the wilderness around him and the sharp pain of David’s death blunted.

One day, as Mitleanu was lighting a fire and sitting back to meditate, he heard a knock on his door. He was taken off guard and was startled at first, but he rose and opened the door to find a world-weary rag tag group of travelers.

“Hail,” said a human ranger, “we are adventurers passing through and we saw the smoke from your chimney and were wondering if we may join you for a meal.”

“By all means.” Mitleanu replied, glad to see the company.

“My name is Talyn,” the human said, “this is Dim, Flash, Irus, Werdal, and Rhena. May we ask how to address you sir.”

It had been so long since Mitleanu had even given his own name much thought, and at hearing the word ‘sir’ he was reminded of his old pupil with distinct clarity.

“You may call me David.” He said.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Of Art and Games

Okay, we've all heard the arguments saying that games can or can't be art for a myriad of reasons. The arguments all seem to stem from people's personal definitions of the word "art" and "game". Personally, I don't see what all the fuss is about since it's all an argument over pointless semantics.

No matter what your thoughts on the games as art argument, there is a title out there that is being advertised as both and for damn good reason. I'm talking about The Graveyard, a title by Tale of Tales that puts you in the shoes of a nearly expressionless old woman as she ventures through (you guessed it) a graveyard.

The gameplay itself is borderline non-existent, but what play there is is simply brilliant. You walk the woman down a long pathway surrounded by gravestones, each with its own distinct look and shape, and you are first confronted with a basic feature of her movement. She is obviously frail and incapable of moving quickly, beyond that, if you move in a straight line too long (three or four steps) she will develop a visibly uncomfortable hitch in her walk. Guiding this old woman down the path feels very much like walking with a grandparent or elderly friend in their last few months.

And in that long trek, you will feel a range of emotions. First, frustration at how slowly you are forced to travel, but that will give way to a kind of quiet pity. It is easy to recognize the truth behind this fictional character.

At the end of the path she sits on a bench and the player sees a close-up of her face for the first time as a song begins to play in the background. The song sounds like an old-world tune that is no doubt reminiscent of the songs this woman heard in her youth. As the song unfolds, you are treated to various pictures of the graveyard intermixed with the opaque image of the woman's face.

As the song finishes, you then have to pick the woman up and walk out of the graveyard. You are presented with the long walk again, but this time she is facing you directly. Again you are faced with her obviously painful gait and it is an entirely different experience.

As you walk out the graveyard gates, the screen fades to black and you get a kind of 'game over' screen. I only played the trial version, but the full title introduces a chance that the woman will actually die before your eyes.

Whether you call The Graveyard a game or not, you can't deny that it is, in fact, art. And like all good pieces of art, it is provocative and thought provoking.

-That Guy

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dwelling in the Myst

When I was growing up, both my parents spent a ton of time at their respective jobs. My mother ran a day care center out of our home which offered her the chance to take care of me and my siblings while still earning some much needed income. My father, on the other hand, had a soul-destroying rat race job that had him flying all over the world on business trips throughout the vast majority of my childhood.

I loved my father. I still do, he's a great guy who was willing to do whatever it took to keep his family in a comfortable home so that his children could grow up in a safe, loving environment. I have a lot of respect for what my parents went through during those years, but it didn't change the fact that I barely knew my father.

I don't remember if it was a present for some gift-giving occasion, or an educated impulse buy, but during one of his elusive months home, my father purchased a copy of Myst. He and I installed it in our relatively new family PC and spent the whole night just walking about the main island and drinking in the (then) unparalleled visuals.

After attempting to solve a few basic puzzles, it became apparent that we were going to need pencils and a notepad before continuing. Within a few days it became a tradition, one of us would man the helm and steer our voiceless, faceless avatar through the intricate D'Ni landscapes while the other would steer the pencil over the yellow legal pad, recording every pin and valve of each puzzle.

Given my dad's stressful job, he enjoyed going for long runs or throwing the baseball around in the back yard to relieve stress. Well, my younger self was more content savoring the moments when our second-hand television was free so I could play Primal Rage or Super Mario World. So my father and brother got to bond over a baseball, but by the glow of a monitor, my dad and I found our common ground.

One of the most memorable nights was when we set about exploring the tunnels beneath the mechanical age. In a small mini-sub that ran on tracks, my father and I cruised about a submerged ruin and listened to sonar beeping and static crackling over the submersible's on-board radio.

We moved between track intersections with the casual mouse clicks that defined the game, each intersection produced a different tone as we engaged our on-board radio. I proposed that we should probably follow the sound, if it grew weaker from one point to the next, we should back track and take a different route. My dad seemed to nod at the possibility, but insisted that we navigate each and every tunnel. We went back to the beginning, turned the legal pad to a fresh page, and began drawing a map.

Our radio crackled as we moved further and further away from the exit and each new chamber and intersection we came to looked almost exactly like those we had seen before. But we had a purpose and a direction; and with each new line on our legal pad we could avoid completing our goal for another few minutes.

We didn't discover any epic treasures along the way, we didn't find any shortcuts or magic potions, but after a delightfully long evening we did end up with a full map of the tunnels.

And while it turned out that the loudest, most pure sound in our radio was indeed at the exit and my hypothesis had been correct, my dad's method meant that I got to spend a night exploring a submerged underground labyrinth with my dad.

And let's be honest, what eight year old kid wouldn't want that?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

About the Game

I watched it, you watched it and even your mom watched it. Trust me on that last one, I was with her.

I'm talking, of course, about The Super Bowl. While I wouldn't usually blog about an American football game, seeing as I primarily talk about nerd topics, this one was just too damn good not to.

As a Minnesota Vikings fan, I really couldn't care less about the two teams involved, although one of my best friends is a Steelers fan, so I found myself rooting for them but only in a half hearted kind of way. I have to say, American football is best watched when you don't have an emotional connection to either team because you're able to appreciate good play regardless of who benefits without having your heart broken.

But even though I ultimately was rooting for Pittsburg, I have to admit, after Larry Fitzgerald's massive touchdown catch that put the Cards ahead by three with 2:30 remaining in the game, I couldn't help but do my Benadict Arnold impression and switch sides. When you see an underdog team pull off a comeback that remarkable, you can't help but have their back.

Ultimately, I'm not mad that Big Ben and the Steelers have immortalized themselves as the greatest team in NFL history. I'm actually really happy for them, although I do kind of feel bad for Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner. Well, Fitzgerald mostly 'cause Warner has enough hardware already.

So, to the hard-fighting underdog Arizona Cardinals I dedicate this terrible visual pun:

Best of luck next year, and I hope you get as far as the NFC Championship game where you are beaten by a slim margin by the Minnesota Vikings.

-That Guy