April 2010


Some dude named Ryan Iverson has a series of YouTube videos where Werner Herzog deconstructs children’s books. You may never look at Where’s Waldo the same way again:

So I’ve been reading through all these heavy political blogs lately.  But never mind that!  Here’s two videos shot by Muppet Movie director James Frawley as camera tests, with Jim Henson and Frank Oz ad libbing.  It’s all good, but don’t miss Fozzie and Kermit in the car, and later on Kermit breaking it to Fozzie that he’s not a real bear.

Getting the challenge level right in games is very tricky.  Or to put it another way, it’s frigging broken in Dragon Age Origins.

Ideally, you’d want a slowly rising difficulty curve, maybe with some long plateaus and spikes for intermediate bosses.  Many games do this quite well.  With puzzle games you get increased challenges as you master the mechanic (e.g. Portal); with shooters and RPGs you get better skills just as you get more powerful enemies to use them on (e.g. Bioshock).

It’s trickier to get this right in a more open-ended game.  Oblivion levelled up all the monsters along with you.  This annoys many people terribly, but I can see why they did it– it maintains the challenge yet allows you to do quests in any order.  (I generally avoided levelling up too fast, and this seemed to avoid any real problems for me.)

Fallout 3 got a little unbalanced at high levels; I think it’s the most fun below level 10 or so.  Mass Effect was also on the whole a little too easy at high levels.

Borderlands just assigns fixed levels to quests and most monsters; some random enemies also level with you.  It mostly works, but the difficulty of a given quest can be very unpredictable, even if you’ve played it before.  Some bosses are absurdly easy, some are absurdly hard.  The game is at its most fun when you’re at risk of death, and with the DLC it’s possible to outgrow most of the quests, though there’s something fun to do for an awfully long time.

Dragon Age Origins is really frustrating me right now; it feels like no thought was put into a reasonable progression of challenge.   If you wander around accepting side quests, you’re going to run into many things you just can’t do.  The game apparently expects you to start with Redcliffe.  That’s fine.  I thought I’d knock off some side quests from there… if the main quest at this point is geared toward level 6, surely the side quests are aimed at a little less than that.  But:

  • One quest depends on finding 3 people; one is in a location that will be unavailable if you wait too long; one is in a location that’s only available later.  Huh?  How are you supposed to know this?
  • In Denerim, I got into  a fairly difficult duel merely by walking past a dude.  (Apparently you can decline it… only to run into him randomly later.)
  • I kept running into chests that Leliana can’t open, in places I’m not likely to go back to.  This made it impossible to finish one particular side quest.
  • One guy offers you some roguish quests– only apparently he doesn’t offer you a set of stealing quests unless you have that skill when you first meet him.
  • A one-off bandit encounter led to a new quest… cool… I went to the Deserted Building and discovered that, as the wiki puts it, this is “one of the more challenging fights in the game”.  Again, huh?

Much of this information is available in the wiki, so you can maximize playability by studying every location and quest in the wiki ahead of time.  Only, jeez, that’s annoying and stupid.  I’m far from a stickler about doing it all myself, but I’d like to at least maintain the illusion that I can figure out the game without taking a course in it first.

If the game insists on so much random level dependence, it should grab an idea from Borderlands and offer in-game level assessments.  (Quests are color-coded by difficulty level, and you can see enemies’ levels.)  That would have eliminated most of these frustrations without requiring constantly pausing the game to check the wiki.

Also, I’m still not seeing the attraction of the combat system.

I just read Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell, which is about how Rome fell.  Apparently it’s become a little controversial to say that it did… new studies emphasize the continuity of daily life and institutions and like to talk about “transformation”.  Goldsworthy take the reasonable position that this revisionism has gone too far: Rome’s decline really was a disaster, though a long drawn-out one.

Historians can have these debates at all because there’s so much that we just don’t know about Rome.  We have no economic statistics, so we can’t really say what happened to living standards.  We can’t say what the size of the army was, or what government revenues were, or what size the cities were, or how big the Germanic tribes were.  There are periods for which we have good histories and some where we barely know what was going on.  Archeology helps, but by its nature it’s anecdotal… we can look at particular sites or shipwrecks, but hardly have a picture of the whole empire.

Still, it’s pretty clear that between 200 and 600, western Roman urban civilization collapsed.  Wide-scale trade dried up; cities grew smaller or were abandoned; living standards declined; Roman engineeering was lost.  Europe in 600 was less populated, more rural, poorer, ravaged.  The main caveat is that this process was slow, and particular events such as the fall of Romulus Augustulus in 476 were just landmarks along the way, not sudden catastrophes.  People didn’t forget from one day to the next how to build a watermill or maintain a standing army.  But over the whole period, these skills were indeed lost.

Why did it happen?  Goldsworthy isn’t bold enough to reduce it to a paragraph or two, but I am: the Romans never got the hang of monarchy, and mostly destroyed themselves in civil war.  The height of the empire was the period of the “Five Good Emperors” from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, from 96 to 180; each emperor was carefully chosen and adopted by the previous one.  It’s not hard to blame Marcus Aurelius for spoiling the pattern by choosing his own son Commodus, who proved to be corrupt and arrogant.  A state can survive one or two such nincompoops, but not a succession of them… see also the later Yuan rulers of China.

The real trouble started later, however– from 217 to the end of the Western empire, there was rarely a period as long as a decade without a civil war.  Many emperors were usurpers, and none got through his reign without facing internal challengers.  Civil wars devastated the country, sapped and corrupted the soldiers, reduced troop strength along the frontiers, and impelled emperors to isolation and paranoia.  The barbarian invasions didn’t show an increased foreign threat so much as the loss of the ability to address it. 

(Some Tea Partiers who fantasize about a coup d’etat would do well to learn this lesson.  Want to destroy America?  That’s the royal road.)

Rome both needed and feared a large standing army.   In its heyday the army was probably hundreds of thousands strong; but armies were increasingly localized, and vitiated by the civil wars and the difficulty of payment.  Emperors learned not to allow rivals access to large forces; but that meant that the entire empire could no longer be run by just one man.  By the late 400s no one in the west could maintain even a few tens of thousands as a standing army– Justinian’s reconquests in the west were won with forces well under 15,000 men.

People love to compare Rome to the current contemporary superpower, but from this and other accounts, the region most similar to the late Western Empire is Africa– a region where power is easily seized by force, where leaders can be completely crazy,  and where officials are so thoroughly, hopelessly corrupt that ‘normal’ economic development is impossible.  (‘Normal’ is in scare quotes because arguably the typical case in history is precisely that endemic corruption, not those fortunate times and periods with honest governments and honest businessmen.)

I decided to get one new game, and since I was a little overdosed on Mass Effect, I bought Dragon Age Origins. 

It’s pretty good, full of the usual Bioware goodies: big ol’ world, excellent voice acting, interesting characters, romance.  It’s basically– and surprisingly for a 2009 game– medieval KOTOR, with better graphics.  Also it’s huge, did I mention that?  I’m some pitiful fraction of the way through it; this is just a set of first impressions.

Nothing acessorizes like blood

First, some stuff I like about it:

  • Pretty girls.   This surely isn’t that hard to do, but compare Oblivion.  You can make your character quite good-looking, like mine above.  And then spend most of the game covered in blood.
  • Auto screenshots.  Nice idea.
  • Leliana’s accent.  Some quick Googling shows that many people hate her.  Well, tough.  It’s different and I like her somewhat flippant tone.
  • The dog is fun.
  • I hate to have to pick between companions, which says something about their attractiveness.  I like Morrigan and Sten though at this point the feeling is not mutual. 
  • No Good ‘n Evil moral system, thank the Maker.

And plenty of stuff I don’t like:

  • The combat.  I hope it improves at higher levels; right now it’s mostly “watch the health bar and quaff health potions when needed”, which is absurdly dumb.  This is a huge step backward: in Jade Empire you had to at least dodge and move around a lot, and Mass Effect required actual aiming.
  • It’s 2010, can I please jump and get over curbs? 
  • It’s really annoying to have locked chests above your skill level, in early places you won’t be able to get back to. 
  • Sloooooow loading.  Getting into a house or a dialog takes an eternity, such that I start to dread doing it.
  • In-game characters hawking paid DLC?  Tacky.
  • I love a sandbox game, but it seems hard to do much without reading the wiki.  Example: what looks like an easy, early side quest (finding recruits for the Irregulars) requires access to an area you can’t enter till far later in the game.  But in fact if you started it too late, you couldn’t access one of the recruits anyway.  This just seems clumsy.

There’s also stuff I’m unsure about… there’s things like runes and training I haven’t even got to yet.  And I still feel I have little idea on what weapons and armor to shoot for.

One in a series of posts where I gawk at what Amazon does to market my book. But hey, it’s news you can use! The LCK page on Amazon now has a Look Inside section. Basically, you can read the introduction and the index. 

Kudos to the first person who locates the joke embedded in the index.