That Mordin Moment: The Unusual Case of the Singing Salarian

To the tune of: The Element’s Song by Tom Lehrer

It’s 2010 and my jaw is hanging like it’s been wired open. I can’t believe what I’m watching on screen. The wise-talking pensive scientist / special operative who’s been fighting robots and aliens and stuff at my side, is… singing. And, in the deep darkness of the far future, in the lab of my one-of-a-kind spaceship in uber science-fiction action-game Mass Effect 2 what he’s singing is… Gilbert & Sullivan? Particularly a parody of a Modern Major General.

It’s 2007 and I’m munching on a buffet at Bioware’s offices in Edmonton, Alberta. Their headquarters are a great solid block of a building, enclosing a wide covered plaza, and along one side of it are tables and a buffet. Opposite me, chewing lugubriously, is Drew Karpyshyn, chief writer for Bioware, and author of numerous pulp sci-fi novels and script. Like the rest of the guys here, he’s something of a shtarker – if, as I naively imagine must happen all the time in Canada, the whole building gets routinely buried under a mile of snow, these guys would survive on built-up buffet-generated body-fat for weeks before they had to start eating the QA team.

I look around at these guys and, while they seem smart, I’m, as always, a little disappointed with the atmosphere. Like all their compadres I’ve visited, the location of this group of North American developers is clinical and dull – 3D Realms had a bunker that was tedious cubicles inside, Blizzard’s base could have been in a Reading business park, Monolith and 2K are buried in silent office blocks in the suburbs… only EA (the campus in San Fran, or their recently-abandoned UK riverside headquarters) seem to have had a sense of the grand scale of what they’re building; these are the people building the future of the mind and they’re doing it from cubicle farms and bedrooms, enlivened only by merchandised cartoon dolls on their desks and the same sort of pop-culture posters on their walls their grandfathers would have stuck up during the war. Drew seems pleasant and bright, but not the image of wild-eyed writer I’d have expected.

Yet Drew, or one of his colleagues, wrote that scene. Someone in that company is aware of 19th Century British comic opera, well enough to write a parody of it (even including references to “patter” and the traditional updating of the song to current cultural events). That same person is also confident enough of their audience, confident enough of their own abilities and has enough confidence from their team, that they’ll put it into a wildly-inappropriate genre video game, but in a perfectly appropriate context. The moment doesn’t just work in the context of the character as an arbitrary grab at giving him depth – it works within the internal history of the game, with the character’s development from a simple doctor to something halfway between Mengeles and Einstein, and within the character’s motivations and especially his dark secret. It’s up there with Andrew Ryan’s Teetime and Modern Warfare’s helicopter crash – but better executed, less po-faced and completely tangential to the plot.

Internet culture talks often about the moment some piece of media “jumped the shark”; I’d say that Mordin moment, is the inversion of this, the moment when games stepped up from being puerile, simplistic and arbitrary constructs of a moment’s pleasure, to fully-fledged self-sustaining, confident and internally coherent worlds of their own.

Added Extras

(This is a response to Rob Fahey’s Special Editions piece on
To the tune of: Yo, Ho – Disney

There are three things that are going to keep gamers buying games rather than pirating them. Those are community play (achievements, online play, friend lists, chat, etc), fear (in my opinion, generally inducing negative emotions in the general population is something to be avoided as much as possible) and bonus content, such as DLC and Special Editions. Special Editions, in particular, are the future of boxed games..
A 1C Shop in Moscow

Why? Let’s look at Russia. Russia was the scourge of legal games until very recently, but 1C have (almost single-handedly) managed to turn that around. They did this through two methods. Firstly, they persuaded the government to deal with high-street game piracy – where normal shops preferred to sell copied games because the unit cost was better and the packaging was nearly as good. The government cracked down on both consumers and vendors.

Secondly, they made their own games nearly the same price as the pirated versions, with much better packages and started their own chain of shops, selling legitimate versions of games from all round the world – which were all rebranded as 1C-published products. Gradually, as physical piracy died off, they raised their prices back to a more-reasonable profit-maximising level – but nowhere near the prices in the rest of the world. (As an aside, one could argue that Russia has reached a fairer price-balance than the rest of the world; we’re unable to get game prices lower because product differentiation means price competition doesn’t work between publishers.)
Special Editions therefore have a threefold appeal – they stymie piracy,  give the end-user physical bonus content, normally accompanied by unique game content, and give the publisher a large premium compared to the digital version (which might be sold solely by the increasing numbers of independent developers in the future). I don’t see non-Special Editions surviving the next ten years.
MMOs sell more special editions than other genres.

What’ll happen next? I think Digital Editions from large publishers might start coming with the option to buy the physical edition at a much reduced cost. If that seems like it might encourage cost sharing, so that one friend buys the game online and gives his physical copy to another, which obviously would reduce developer profit then I think Special Editions will be turned into Collector’s Sets – no actual copy of the game, but all the accoutrements of a Special Edition.

For example, I love Cryptic Comet’s games and would buy a fan kit of theirs – especially if it included a physical board game version of their virtual board games. But I wouldn’t buy a cheaply packaged disc that was at a premium over the online price, to cover the publishers’, distributors’ and sales’ costs. I think as the market ages and gamers get more aware of the structure of the industry, they’ll start choosing to buy products online, direct-from-developer more – though the community tie-in appeal of vertically-integrated products like Steam (problematic because of its tying of content delivery to community function) may perpetuate the standard publishing model.
What doesn’t work:.
DRM: If it’s hackable, it’ll get hacked.
No Protection: Demigod got killed by a self-created DOS attack from its attempts to monitor
Always-on connections, like Cities XL tried and Ubisoft (that perennial DRM experimenter) will try soon, annoy gamers enough that hacks are always made to get around them. (And are easy to hack, as the Hamachi-play with Demigod at launch showed).
Staggered Releases: game releases have to be simultaneous worldwide, otherwise even gamers with good intentions will download full games in lieu of downloading the demo – then not buy the game.
UPDATE: Just saw that Capcom are only going to publish Yakuza 3 as a special edition in the UK. Proved right within ten minutes? :-S

Through Looking Glass, Darkly.

Having launched the Official Xbox 360 Magazine, it would be surprising for me to say that I’m platform agnostic, but possibly more surprising to say that I’ve been a PC gamer all my life. PC wasn’t my first love – that was, of all things, the Acorn where we played multi-player Risk in school lunch breaks – and I didn’t have any games systems myself until a very late purchase of a Master System 2.

I just used to watch friends play them on their systems, Amigas and Commodores, sitting in rambling old farmhouses or sprawling detached houses that the wealthy of South Manchester splurged their money on. In our lovely semi, we did have games, though where we bought them from I don’t know. However, my brother and I only played them on my mum’s office computer (that was when she moved from the Chinese restaurant to a marketing job, so we got to swap ‘eating custard tarts while waiting for her after school’ for ‘waiting for her while playing Monkey Island and Wolfenstein 3D’.) We had to battle the system administrator, who would delete them each time we installed them – we became experts at guerilla warfare, the multiple ways of hiding files amidst other files, through archiving, fake names, even file-duplication to mask directory sizes, or leaving decoy directories in the relative open.

Monkey Island
I remember the feeling of getting when we got a PC of our own, Christmas 1990, the joy of it sitting there, buzzing, in the gently-collapsing flat-roofed room we called a conservatory (because it had a screen door and was really badly insulated, so it must be a conservatory). We didn’t really know what to do with it, but it came with some very basic games – the pinball was good, but nowhere near the wonders of Wolf 3D. Then one night, a boyfriend of a gay friend of my mum’s brought us round Ultima Underworld II. For me, in memory, that’s a bright day. (The couple split up soon after and my mum’s friend, a sweet joyous genius, went gradually mad). I loved the game, still dream of it, and have a little memory palace built into my head from it (more on which another time).

Later on that little system was riddled with more viruses than Larry the Lab Rat. The early days of computing’s dark side consisted of dodgy floppy discs or rotten modem connections, that transmitted filth faster than virus-checkers could catch it.  I continually upgraded that machine over the years, until it barely resembled the original system, and was heavily over-clocked. Parts of it survived in my later PCs until fairly recently – the last thing to go was the floppy drive, kept on until it filled with dust and the air rusted its lungs.

System Shock

We played through the demo of System Shock over and over on that machine, that joyous space horror sim plagiarised by Dead Space recently until we finally got the full game for a birthday or Christmas. Again I feel trauma at my lack of memory of all these things, because the Other Reader remembers everything – she knows every present and every party from every birthday, and I just have this looming, horrifying mist in my past, that gets closer year-by-year and that raises concerned tears in her when it’s mentioned.

The pattern of my memories runs pretty awry here, so I’m not sure when Ultima 7 came in, but it cracked my heart into little shards. It was so open, so much more free than the games that preceded it and succeeded it. I’d never played anything like it, but I’m sure we played it after Ultima 8.
This, Ultima 8, was the final ground-breaking title we ran on that computer, the first game we bought on release. For some reason the computer had moved to our divorced dad Dimitri’s (nicknamed ‘Meet’ and ‘Dim’ like a character from A Clockwork Orange) flat, where it sat in our little bunk-bedded room and we wrote newspapers about trolls on his Amstrad (my first steps into journalism). Ultima 8 was bought after much brow-scratching, saving and worrying from all of us, including Meet. We’d just been gouged to have the computer upgraded, and all of the specs matched – except we had no graphics card and were never going to afford one (I borrowed one at university, eventually, in 2000, to play Black & White, and ruin my degree a little more).

But Ultima 8 wouldn’t start. I jiggered and poked at EMM386 and MEMSYS, and something, something sparked. In the depths of the machine the hard drive chugged and chugged. But nothing. We gave up, we reset, I changed settings. For a long Saturday, my 15-year old self scratched at the innards of a computer he barely understood. Then he abandoned it, leaving the hard-drive churning.

The flat was situated on top of Manchester’s Arndale Centre (later to be blown up when the IRA bombed Manchester, so that we could see down from its gardens into the gullies between the shopping blocks, to see the shattered buses and abandoned bags – the flats were knocked down because the blast had sheared their top floors sideways), and it was built upside down, so that the bedrooms were on the ground floor and the sitting room had a balcony looking over Strangeways prison. We went up there, and sat around, and watched the pigeons, and looked for wrestling on the TV.

Then, downstairs, there was a noise… a strong, strange, dissonant chord, a high keening noise, follow by low bells and rough thunder. We ran down, two steep steps at a time, bouncing off the walls for speed. We jammed ourselves into the room, and watched the then-amazing opening cinematic, as the echo-heavy Guardian stretched a rendered-hand out and turned it…

Most of these games were made by one studio, Looking Glass, or Origin. I miss them.

Moral Incontinence (akrasia) and Technology

To the tune of: Akrasia by James Falzone

I have a problem with tech – I’m morally incontinent (stop your giggling at the back, Jenkins!), in that my mind is slightly spoiled so it strongly seeks pleasure, even when I know that the good thing is something else. Plato called it ‘akrasia’, and it implies a lack of moral control.

This has been a problem since my university days, when I couldn’t be dragged away from my computer, by hell or high water. It used to sit on, in my room, 24 hours a day, normally with the door open so anyone who wanted to use it could come in. When it came to exam time, I would ceremoniously take the power cables and give them to a trustworthy friend (normally Philomena Keet) who hid them, sometimes for a week, sometimes for an entire three months (as during my final exams). That’s the only reason I passed my exams, a perverse strength in my recognition of my weakness.

Persuasively dissuading.

To counteract my enervated tendencies, which continue to this day, I’ve started using an application on Chrome called StayFocusd. It allows you a maximum of ten minutes a day across all the sites you flag as time-wasters, at which point it blocks you from accessing them for the rest of the day *and* flashes up a screen-wide question: “Shouldn’t you be working?” Simple, but highly effective – especially if you absentmindely wander to sites you shouldn’t when your computer has a ‘thinking moment’.

That’s not all that’s wonderful about it. It also prevents you altering it’s settings during your allocated time, by popping up several dialogues if you try and increase your allocation. Then, when time has expired completely, you can’t remove the blocked sites from the list, or access the options at all.

It’s only flaw – as a Chrome extension, it’s too easy to switch off entirely.

Buying Books: The Perils of Nabokov

To the tune of: April March – Poor Lola

You are browsing the second-hand books in a small town’s famous covered market, waiting for the other reader to finish whatever the other reader is finishing, when you happen across a book. It is amongst the Books You Normally Read and The Books You Like The Cover Of, a most fortuitous placing, and it is a Book You Always Wanted To Read as well as a Book You’re Ashamed You’ve Never Read, and possibly a Book You Pretend You’ve Read.

It is Lolita, a book you are so familar with that you can trip the first three syllables of the book off your tongue, Lo-lee-ta, in a self-pleasing parody of the book’s first line which, again, you’ve never read. You’re excited, because you’re a fan of Nabokov, and you’ve never found this in a second-hand bookshop – whether through the prurience of proprieters or the retention of readers, you don’t know.

However, and there’s always a however in your Calvino mental life, there’s a reason you’ve not gone out of your way to buy this book in the past, though you’ve always been interested in buying it. That’s because, even though this is a classic work of literature by the greatest writer of the 20th Century, since the pornographers degraded the name Lolita and since the advent of a frothing, scare-mongered disgust in your country regarding the book’s subject, you wouldn’t want to be seen with the book in public. Especially if you’re a funny-looking person relative to the people around you, you wouldn’t want to be tarred with the Humbert brush.

But, here, the book has practically fallen into your hands. And you know it’s a great book, and he’s a great author, and you know your own reticence is silly and irrational. It’s just a book, with a plain cover and small text. You’re treating it like Mein Kampf. You’ll just wander over to the bookseller’s office, buy it quickly, and be done with this overthinking. Or perhaps you should pick up another book or two, to hide it?

You look up. The nearest Mac-wearing bookseller has already noticed your hesitation and she is a she, and is pursing her lips at you curiously, while you been stood there lost in thought. If you’d actually been browsing the book that wouldn’t have been a problem, but you’ve been standing, lost in thought,  and partially blocking the isle with your bags (I neglected to mention how weighed down you are with the accoutrements of two people, so that your every move is a collecting-heaving-shuffling-dropping motion). Now she’s caught your eye and smiles welcoming. In a moment she’s going to ask you if you need any help.

The moment is at hand. Before she can speak you collect and heave and shuffle and drop so you’re next to her, book in hand, asking politely for this one please. She smiles, glances at the book’s title, and changes her expression as she asks for the money. The smile’s still there, but you can’t tell if there’s confusion or disgust behind it, for the moment, as you hand over a note. By the time she has shuffled into the small office, found your change and extended her arm through the door, her smile has gone completely to be replaced with a intense stare with the bowed eyebrows you think are associated with curiosity. You leave, rapidly, and wait elsewhere for the other reader.

It has been three months. You’ve still not opened the book.

Veni, Vidi, Validity – Blue Monday and Valid Arguments

(This post to the tune of…)

Professional statistics-mangler Professor Cliff Arnell is conquering the news again today, for his yearly profile-raiser about this being the most depressing day of the year. As Ben Goldacre has pointed out, he was paid to produce this research by Porter Novelli, a PR firm, who pitched the idea and date out to several academics back in 2005, to persuade people to buy holidays from a client of theirs. However, as any fule logician knos, merely because something has dodgy premises, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true – and vice versa, just because something is right, doesn’t mean that it was arrived at validly.

Admittedly, Arnall’s premises are totally flawed. His first assumption is, not only that depressive the  measurable, but that it’s the same for people all around the world; his statement is so all-encompassing that the ridiculousness of the equation he came up with isn’t really undermined by his self-deprecating honesty in saying “I’m only doing this for the money” – essentially he’s renting out his qualifications to the PR firm. The travel firm had chosen this date because it was the date they wanted people to start booking their holidays, and it was a cheap way of getting lots of national newspaper coverage (compared to advertising).
There’s an argument about validity here – arguments can be valid, but not true, and statements true, but not valid. Cliff Arnall’s argument is valid like so;
1: The day that maximises this equation is the most depressing day
2: January 18th maximises the equation.
C: Therefore January 18th is the most depressing day.
Sadly, his first premise is false, as his equation is utter bollocks, but there’s a second point – it’s possible to have a true conclusion even when all the premises are false.
1: Everything that has either Perpetual Yeast or Infundibulum Baking Soda in rises every day.
2: The sun is 90% Perpetual Yeast.
C: Therefore the sun rises every day.
So this could be the most depressing day, independent of his nonsense – and it has to be admitted that this _is_ a tremendously depressing day in Britain, the day when the glow of the holidays has completely gone and the grind of the next 11 months becomes apparent. Doing a quick straw poll of Facebook and Twitter, there’s significant number of people (above the normal monday whingers) complaining about this being a rubbish day/week. I’m not going to claim that this is statistically significant – just that my experience seems to bear up Arnall’s arbitrary claim. This could, of course, be because those people have seen the Blue Monday coverage in the news, and they’re highly impressionable.
There’s also the point that even if this is the most miserable day of any year, which I doubt considering the snowbound depression many people were in early in the year, or the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, or the tube attacks of 2007, even if it was for Britain, it’s not for the rest of the world. As Goldacre has said, seasonal suicide peaks vary from country to country and there’s been no consistent findings amongst studies. Of course, again, one shouldn’t link suicide peaks to depression peaks – though our intuition is that the two should be linked, the connection isn’t necessary, especially not when talking about the population at large. Many people were depressed when, say, England lost the cricket, or the Princess of our Hearts forgot to put her seatbelt on.
Cliff Arnall is wrong on so many levels; moral, factual, mathematical; that one should really just ignore him, but the total invalidity of his premises sadly doesn’t invalidate his conclusion.