June 28, 2015

The Walking Dead

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About 2 hours before completing The Walking Dead my opinion of the game changed, again, for the second time. At first I liked it, then I found it disappointing, but by the end I had grown an appreciation for the game. It is very enjoyable and has probably the best story in any game I’ve played. Overall, I say it is definitely in my top 10 games (since restarting gaming in 2011), but not the top 5. Still a very good game.

The Walking Dead is a Telltale game based on the comic book of the same name (which now also has a TV series based on it too). For those not familiar with Telltale’s distinctive style, it is a story game where the player is given a choice of various dialogue or action options. The game then promises that other characters will remember those responses and act appropriately (a little message often pops up like “Kenny will remember you supported him”). These interactions are interspersed with point & click puzzle scenes and quick time events. The games are told in an episodic manner, each episode rising to a crescendo and often a cliffhanger for the next. The first episode of a game is often available for free download if you just want to see what its like – The Walking Dead episode 1 download is here. Telltale games’ art style is usually comic book like (so this one fits in great with the source material).

At first I was amazed. I was making these decisions and they were affecting the story! Imagine the number of possibilities. Then by the second episode I realised that I wasn’t really changing anything. The game may tell me that people would remember, but it didn’t seem to make any significant difference. This is understandable. It would be a programming and artwork nightmare to allow a significantly branching story. Instead the game branches out for no more than a few minutes and then returns regularly to known narrative chokepoints. The main story beats (about one every 30 minutes of gameplay) are fixed. Furthermore, these moments are binary, the same two possible choices are always presented regardless of previous actions. When it became clear to me how the game was working under the hood I was greatly disappointed – it is not what I though was promised. It is definitely not a choose you own adventure. This combined with the point & click sections of the game being either very easy or devolving into annoying repetitive “hunt the pixel” puzzles and the always irritating quick time events (some of which are designed to be failed) started to put me off. However, the story was good, and its not too long (each episode being around 2.5 hours) so I thought I’d keep going.

I’m very glad I did finish it. After a few more episodes (including the obligatory and cliched cannibal encounter) I began to see the point of the game. It is not supposed to be a complex and branching story at all. That conceit exists just to get the player involved and connected to the characters. The real game is all about those binary story beats. They are actually moral conundrums. The rest of the game and its faux decisions are just trying to make the player care enough to consider them properly and weigh the possible outcomes. They are decisions like who gets food, or how much effort you make to save someone’s life in the face of personal danger. Big questions, often with no good outcomes, just equally bad, but slight different consequences. Such questions are easily dismissed within most games. People die in games (and other forms of entertainment) all the time – so what. The “trick” of The Walking Dead is to add in all the other stuff around those decisions to make the player take it seriously. And it works – largely. Most of the time I did weigh the options carefully. In the end I didn’t even mind the quick time events, they served to add some sense of jeopardy and action into the story – stay awake! I also liked that at the end of each episode the big decisions you made were highlighted and compared to other players’ decisions. On average I went with the same decision as the majority, but a few times I was in the minority. This mechanic allows the player (me, at least) to rethink their decisions when the pressure is off and consider other points of view – I stand by all of them!


June 22, 2015

How to lose a customer

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Imagine the scene: a person sits at their computer, credit card in hand, about to happily pay money for a service they previously used for free. A minute later, the credit card is back in their wallet unused. They curse the service provider and vowing to never pay them money. They furiously research alternatives to the service, it doesn’t take long to find something suitable.

This happened to me last night. I have used Dropbox (no link as I don’t want to give them even a small amount of Google link karma) for some time and recently exceeded my space allowance. Fair enough, time to just pay them the money and become a proper customer – their service had worked very well for me. Navigating to their payment page I saw the cost was a reasonable 99 US dollars, so I filled in the form. As I have a UK credit card, I switched the country to the UK. And then the price changed to 79 British pounds. Huh? 79 GBP is not 99 USD, it is 125 USD. Dropbox wanted to charge me 25% more for not being American. The air turned blue with expletives I don’t care to repeat. Come on Dropbox, are foreign customers that much more expensive? Does it really cost that much extra in net traffic fees to send all my data to the NSA? If it was just a few percent extra I wouldn’t care, transaction costs and currency fluctuations could explain it. But 25%, no way!

Never will I be a paying Dropbox customer, never will I have a nice thing to say about them. It took barely a few minutes to find a competing service to use instead. I don’t need them and will transition to other systems. Another company for the companies of which I am not a customer list.


June 15, 2015

Ancient Warfare Magazine Podcast

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Available from iTunes and from its own site

The Ancient Warfare Magazine Podcast, as the name implies, is produced as part of the bi-monthly paper magazine of the same name. I’ve never read the magazine, so I can’t comment on it. One episode of the podcast is released for each issue of the magazine (although normally a few months later) and on the same topic, such as the Gaius Marius, Logistics or the Seleucid Empire at War. However the content is never just a repeat of the articles. Instead the podcasts assumes the listener has read the corresponding magazine, or is at least familiar with the topic at hand and then starts from there. The format is a roundtable discussion for around half an hour, going wherever the conversation leads. Production values are high.

This is not a basic history of events podcast. Listeners will need a good understanding of ancient war and battles just to start. For instance in discussing the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, no mention is made of the battle or it’s result. Instead there is debate on why Arminus decided to go from ally to enemy of Rome, and how the battle caused terror in Rome despite its distance. The podcast on the Hellenistic Successor States assumes listeners know the difference between the Greek Hoplite Phalanx and the Macedonian Sarisa Phalanx. Talk on Caesar’s campaign’s barely mentions his battles or career. It focuses entirely on his self-aggrandisement and how he made his own luck partly with well-trained, experienced and trusting soldiers – postulating he had no grand plan, but just took advantage of situations as they occurred.

The discussion is normally quite interesting. There is a strong focus on Greek, Hellenistic and Roman history, but not overwhelmingly so. Other western and near eastern cultures are also represented. I would guess the is roughly proportional to how much the remaining sources can tell us (which is predominately Greek & Roman as they tended to write things down). However, it is disappointing that there is no mention (so far) of cultures far from the Mediterranean – India, China, or the Americas. Often some surprising thoughts come up. That the uniform of a Roman legionary was anything but uniform (despite what the movies and TV show), with the men modifying or replacing their equipment as they saw fit. The huge advantage in steadfastness and maneuverability that came with professional soldiers, be it Alexander’s phalanx, Athens’ rowers, or Rome’s legions. How many generals had an Alexander complex, comparing themselves to him (Caesar and Trajan) or mindlessly aping him – the successor kings even copied his slightly twisted neck. I was also surprised to discover that Sargon claimed to have just over 5000 soldiers when he conquered Mesopotamia – armies were clearly much smaller 4000 years ago.

An informative discussion-based podcast on narrowly focused (warfare based) topics for listeners who already know the basic details.


May 31, 2015

Hill Station Signature

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When recently in Vietnam we mainly ate streetfood (it is very good!), or food provided as part of an organised tour. So there was not much opportunity to try out local fancy restaurants. However, we did manage to have dinner at Hill Station Signature while in Sapa.

Located on the top of a ridge near the centre of Sapa, this restaurant must have great views of the valley during the day. Although at night the valley is very dark, so we could see little – not a huge problem as we had spent the day hiking in that same valley. The cuisine is inspired by the local Hmong and quite different to traditional Vietnamese food. The decor is quite trendy, lots of space. Some of the tables have seating on the floor rather than chairs. Cost is fair for expensive than other places in Sapa, but about the same a Hanoi restaurant (and a great deal cheaper than London!) – our bill came to around £13.

Unfortunately I was ill at the time we went and so could taste very little of the food. Luckily, my partner was willing to describe the food…

We shared black pudding, a pork dish and the trout. The black pudding was a bit of a surprise. The flavour was good but it was cold and soft. I like my back pudding hot and a bit crispy on the outside (I’m a big fan normally but couldn’t finish this). The trout was beautifully cooked, moist and flaky. But the star was probably the pork which was tender and juicy and came in a tasty sauce mopped up with white rice. We drank local beer. Despite the disappointment of the black pudding (which I’d been looking forward to all day) it was a tasty meal with well cooked quality ingredients and I would gladly go back if I find myself in Sapa again.


May 20, 2015

Vietnam

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I’m just back from a very enjoyable week’s holiday in beautiful northern Vietnam – a few days spent in each of Hanoi, Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay.

The best photos from the trip are in a short slideshow available here.