Monthly Archives: October 2008

Fallout 3: Tales from a Confuzzled Beginner

“Needs more tutorials.”

Now there’s something I don’t find myself saying every day, but if ever it was appropriate to utter the abominable sentence above, Fallout 3 is the place to let it slip.

The game exudes an atmosphere that I want to soak in through every pore.  I want to explore, to discover, to roam, and to grow.  But all of that is sadly difficult when I’m this bloody confused.

I’ve certainly played through my fair share of games that took handholding to the extreme.  It’s rarely, fun. A bad tutorial can sour the beginning of a game for a new player.

On the other hand, a good tutorial section can seamlessly introduce players to the world, the story, and the game mechanics while providing a gripping opening scene at the same time.  Metroid Prime, for example, teased players with its exciting space station start, complete with full weapon set, puzzles, enemies, and an escape sequence.


Fallout 3 comes maddeningly close to this ideal latter scenario.  The opening moments, from birth through childhood and to adulthood, provide the perfect backdrop to let players create their character and stats while introducing the story world and basic mechanics.  The problem is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

There are numerous aspects of this expansive title that are not introduced or explained to the player by the game (not to mention others that are explained much clearer in the manual, as I found out the hard way too late for it to do me any good).

When that vault door slams shut behind the character, the player’s digital avatar isn’t the only one left stranded by herself in a barren wasteland.  The game seems to abruptly stop teaching the player at about this point, right when the information is needed the most.

Once I found my way to the first settlement and had a couple of quests to my name, I hit kind of a wall.  I didn’t know how to make money.  I wasn’t entirely sure where to go.  I was too weak to explore just about anywhere (or, seemingly, travel to complete one of my quests).  Meanwhile, the game just sat back and quietly snickered at my ignorance, offering not so much as a hint of a helping hand.

It doesn’t help that the game is too hard for my tastes on normal difficulty.  I have since turned it down, without shame I might add, in hopes it would help my experience become more enjoyable.  My fingers are crossed.

It also doesn’t help that the game is set up to force me to make decisions long before I’m ready to make them or can understand their implications.  This bugs me in every game that does it, and it seems particularly common in these open-ended RPGs (such as, oh, I don’t know, Oblivion, say).

How the hell am I supposed to know which of these 27 categories to put my points in?  I haven’t even played the stupid game yet.  I don’t know what they do, what I like, or how I want to play.  How many points should I put in each category?  Is this too much?  Should I spread them out?  Is that bad?  Will this hurt me in the end game or does it not matter much what I do until later?  Can I change it?

And so on.

For me, the beginning of Fallout 3 has been marred by this lack of information.  I spent far too much time simply figuring out what to do instead of enjoying the gorgeous world and fun game play.  I still can’t help but be nervous that I’ve made some grave mistake in character planning or action that I won’t find out is going to totally screw me until about 30 hours in.

Hey, it could certainly have happened in Oblivion.

I’m anxious to get over these problems so the game can solidify itself as one of my favorite games of all time as I’m sure it eventually will.

In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go study the instruction manual and buy a strategy guide.

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t.A.T.u. – Minus the Blippy

When a band decides to pursue the path of change with a new album release, the trail is always fraught with danger.  It seems that t.A.T.u. have attempted to brave this tricky task with their newest album, Happy Smiles (or Vesyolye Ulybki for those of you who can’t read Russian and would rather look at a jumble of incomprehensible letters than read the outlandishly stupid English title).  The end result, despite the stupid name, is a more serious and mature effort than their previous albums, but one also lacking the poppy fun that was their signature.


There is a part of me that can see the good in this change.  It’s something new.  It’s no longer needlessly overproduced.  They have slowed the tempo, delving into a more minimalistic, melodic style.  It is, dare I say it, (slightly) more unique than their generic techno-pop of old.

t.A.T.u. actually manage to sound human on this album.  Being able to tell a real, live female is singing the tracks is a major shift from the computer-aided fakery I was used to from them.  That’s not to say the outside aid has disappeared from the vocals, because it hasn’t, but it’s less obvious, obnoxious, and ever-present than before.

For better or worse (which is to say, better), the duo’s trademark high-pitched caterwauling has also disappeared in favor of a lower-key (again, more human) approach.

On the other hand, that old generic techno-pop of theirs sure was catchy.  This new material seems to have lost a little something by comparison. Happy Smiles is somber and minimalistic.  Their first album was largely electronic instrumentation only, just like this one, but it was blippy.  They’ve stripped all of the blippy out of this release.  What’s left is more mature, but less fun.


Happy Smiles is bookended by its most memorable pieces. Beliy Plaschik and You and I hold up the front lines as the first two songs on the album, as well as the only two that really even remotely resemble prior albums.  Indeed, You and I fulfills the requisite role of the new version of the All the Things She Said/All About Us formula, and it succeeds dutifully, almost managing to fade into mediocrity, but the changes to come on the rest of the album lend it a greater importance than it might have otherwise had.

Vremya Luny, placed second to last, provides something different.  The sound is almost rock with even a tinge of industrial.  t.A.T.u. has used guitars before, particularly on their second album, but this has a different feel to it.  It’s a welcome and highly listenable change, marking one of my favorites on the album, though it probably would have been better served earlier in the lineup to give the plodding pace a little kick in the pants.


I will freely admit that I tend to be biased against slower music, but I did enjoy a lot of these tracks despite their slower nature.  I’m not sure how much I’ll end up going back to the album as a whole in the long run, but there are some beautiful, well-done songs here.

Still, as a whole, the disc needed some pep to it.  It could have used more songs like Vremya Luny.  There’s a lot of good stuff here, but energy is hard to come by and somewhat unevenly distributed when it does appear.  The album drags by the end as a result.  The severe minimalism of most of the tracks doesn’t help, either.  Even just a song or two closer to their older style might have livened the proceedings up a fair bit.

Happy Smiles is a change that is handled well and ultimately manages to impress, but fans of their prior work will feel a distinct void where the peppier, livelier tracks used to be.  What’s here is good, but some otherwise memorable tracks are lost in a middle section that’s too flat for too long.


Happy Smiles, oddly, is not a happy disc, choosing to slow things down and introduce more mature, melodic elements.  It works better than I would have thought, but I still can’t help but miss the catchy tunes I liked so much from their first album.

What can I say?  I miss the blippy.

And seriously, what the hell is up with that cover?  Really now, t.A.T.u.  That’s just hideous.

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Wallpaper Concoction

There is a particular type of desktop wallpaper that I seem to like very much which is not overly easy to come by on the expansive Interwebs.  Good wallpapers are hard enough to find, much less ones that fit my rather strange tastes.

The particular style in question is that of minimalism.  I like to have wallpapers that are little more than a splash of color and a logo of a favorite band.  Maybe a little bit more if it’s really called for.  It depends on the situation.

What can I say?  I’ve always liked logos.

Needless to say though, most wallpapers, and especially those centered around bands, tend to be overly complicated.  It’s as if the makers are trying to show off their terrific Photoshop skills.  Instead of producing something that one might actually want to, you know, keep on their desktop.

This combined with the fact that I have some rather obscure musical tastes makes this style of wallpaper rather hard to find.

Well, luckily I just happen to have a copy of that little Photoshop program and I know what a couple of the buttons do, so I occasionally like to mess around with it.  As it happens, a minimalistic style requires minimalistic Photoshop skills, which suits me just fine.

There’s no worry of my 133t skillz getting in the way of this image because, quite frankly, there’s little skill involved in making the thing at all.

I might choose to fancy it up a bit in the future, should I see a need and actually learn how, but for now it suits my strange tastes just fine.  A name, a logo, and a couple simple pictures (distorted a bit for effect; hey, I never said it had to be totally boring).

Simple as it may be, I’m rather fond of the thing.  I guess making something yourself tends to do that to you, no matter the medium.

Anyway, I’m off to go logo searching.  I’d like to make a few more of these.  Maybe if I work at it enough I can build up my skills until I can make overproduced, busy trash like the rest of the wallpaper makers out there.

I can dream, can’t I?

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Wavering Republicans

What, exactly, is it that the Republican party stands for these days?

I make no bones about the fact that I am a fairly liberal-minded person, but I mean that question in the most sincere way possible. I have managed to completely lose track of what my opposing party claims to stand for.

At one point I thought I had it basically figured out. They were the party of consistency. They wanted things to stay the same as they had always been. They were in favor of a strict interpretation of the constitution that would read it exactly the way the founding fathers had written it, rather than reinterpreting it for today’s climate. They were in favor of giving more power to the states than the federal government. They tried to keep government in general as small as possible.

While I naturally did not agree with most of these positions, I at least knew what they were. I knew what I was opposed to. It made sense.

It doesn’t make sense to me any more.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that I no longer had the slightest clue what the Republican party as a whole is now in favor of. Some remnants of their prior positions are still there, certainly, but a lot has changed recently and I know not exactly in what direction.

I have some hunches as to the path they have moved toward, but my thoughts seem overly cynical. I don’t wish to immediately assume the worst about the Republican party, even if I happen to largely disagree with them.

Still, the more I look at it, I can’t help but see a party that seems to be moving away from the people and toward the interests of big business. I can’t help but see party that is no longer concerned with keeping government small and has instead racked up trillions in debt and lead some of the largest governments in U.S. history. I can’t help myself from beginning to think of them as increasingly self-interested and money-minded.

I am curious as to whether my perception is skewed by the politicians running the party. Maybe they are the self-interested ones while typical Republicans remain more traditional in their conservative views. In a case like this, it’s somewhat hard to tell. I certainly hope that is the case.

Admittedly, the Democratic party could rightly be accused of being a little muddy itself these days, but they at least seem to be moving in a fairly clear, if overly broad, direction. While their individual policies and what the party as a whole stands for might be less clear than in the past, it’s still relatively safe to peg them as the party of the middle class, the party of change, and the party of modernization, among other things.

The Republicans’ seeming move toward the interests of big business disturbs me for a number of reasons. The simplest of these is that I disagree with this approach and think that the average people of this country should always come first. It’s already quite apparent that those with stacks of cash have far too much control over our government as it is, Democrats most definitely included, without having an entire party shift into becoming champions of the elite.

The other primary reason this change disturbs me is that I can’t help but feel unsettled by the undulations of a once clear competitor. Surely there must be other Democrats confused by the movements of their opposing party as well, just like me. Surely there must even be Republicans that are not entirely happy with the apparent drift of their own party away from the ideals they thought it upheld.

Such a change has wider implications as well. The small-government Republicans of old provided a healthy balance to the Democrats. As liberal as I may be, I’m still certainly not comfortable with the idea of the government pushing itself into every aspect of American life or spending itself into an irrecoverable debt, so having the Republicans on the other side was even somewhat comforting. I knew I could count on them to hold my own party back from going just a little too far.

We’ve now maxed out the national debt clock in New York. Our government is bigger than ever. Neither party seems completely willing or able to deal with either of these problems.

A political party has changed and a balance has been lost. I’m not sure where the Republicans have drifted to precisely, but I hope they can soon see past the appeal of the open wallets of the elite and the business class and return to the values they once upheld.

Who would have thought that, in the span of a relatively few short years, the anti-change party would become almost completely unrecognizable from its former self?

Go figure.

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Philosophy in Abstraction

Why are all philosophy classes a giant load of nonsense?

Every course I’ve taken in the discipline feels like such wasted potential.  There are so many fascinating questions and issues to explore in philosophy.

What does it mean to be beautiful?
How do we know what we know?
What is human nature?
How do we assign value to things in our world?
What are the consequences and implications of the way humans communicate with one another?

Image from Telstar Logistics via Flickr Creative Commons license

Image from Telstar Logistics via Flickr Creative Commons license

Yet every philosophy course I have taken buries these issues in jargon and pointless theory.  The key questions the courses purport to discuss are swallowed alive by a circular quicksand of useless arguments about arguments.

I don’t come to philosophy wanting to study the egomaniacal freaks who come up with this detached academic babble.  I want to discuss the significant issues that make up the forgotten backbone of the self-interested theory machine that modern philosophy instruction has seemingly become.

Image from Álvaro Herraiz via Flickr Creative Commons license

Image from Álvaro Herraiz via Flickr Creative Commons license

If only some of these theories would at least be applied clearly to real-world discussion at some point the situation would be a lot more tolerable, but they never are.  I just can’t believe that this endless cycle of learning about arguments that argue about arguments is truly necessary to delve into the philosophical questions that surround human life.  Why sidestep the real issues by learning about theories instead?

I’m not claiming that these theories have no value at all.  They just need to be brought down out of the clouds and grounded in actual, practical discussion so the focus shifts back to philosophical issues and away from the niggling details of theory construction.

Maybe this is just my isolated experience or perhaps I’m simply missing something, but my sneaking suspicion is that pretty much the whole of philosophical instruction is this way today, at least to some degree, and this should just be filed in the bursting folder of issues that I have with the modern educational system.

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An Ugly Betrayal?

It’s not often that I wish a book had been less enjoyable.

“Yeah, that was so awesome, but you know what would have been better?  If it had sucked a little more.”

Yet Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, has placed me in just such a position.

[Note: I’ll try my best to keep away from overly specific spoilers, but you might want to avoid this if you’re still planning to read it.]

I have a mind like a vulture.  It naturally seems to take everything it comes across and pick it apart until there’s nothing left but rotting remains clinging to the bones.

In slightly less frightening language, that means I’m naturally analytical.  When I experience something, I can’t help but analyze and criticize it.  It doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying myself, contrary to what it may seem on the surface.  I just can’t help myself.

Even a mind as ruthlessly picky as my own occasionally gets so swept up in an experience that it manages to forget itself for a moment.  Sometimes, every beautiful once in a while, something comes along that just has that magical, ethereal quality that sucks me in despite my brain whimpering in silent protest that it wants to find something to dislike.

Uglies was just such an experience for me.  Whether it’s truly worthy of such praise is an entirely different topic.  All I know is that I couldn’t help but fall completely in love with it and, damn it, that’s just fun every once in a while.  I can’t be sarcastic and analytical all the time.

The problem I now face is that Uglies has done its job too well.  The author has made me love the character and agree with what she stands for and what she ultimately becomes by the end of the book.  I felt as if I have journeyed along with her, seen her change, and felt real emotion as to what has happened to her as the pages turned.

What’s the problem with that?

It’s not a problem in and of itself.  When the author decides to take book two of the trilogy and turn it so completely on its head that it resembles its predecessor in name only, however, it begins to become an issue.

Or at least that’s the fear I have of it at this point, having read the first few pages, the synopsis, and nothing else.  Let’s just say that at this point I really hope I’m wrong.

The character is unrecognizable.  She is a different person; one that I don’t like and wouldn’t read about if I was not invested in her tale already.  She has, in fact, become a character that fires up that analytical part of my brain again and makes it scream at me to put the book down, to read something else, to choose something less repulsive to my tastes.

This is more painful to me than simply picking up a book and not being interested.  I have come to care about this girl.  I like her.  I want her to succeed and get what she wants.

Now, the author is telling me that, to experience that satisfaction, I might have to sit through a large chunk of book where I have to bear this wonderful character being someone completely different from herself.

The friend I have made in the pages of the book has been wiped away and replaced with someone unfamiliar and unappealing.  That’s not just off-putting; that borders on insulting.

It’s like watching a close friend change before your eyes and being unable to stop it.  You feel helpless and saddened, but you still can’t help but care about the person even though you don’t like what they have become.

Say what you will, but I have come to care about this young girl and the fact that the author might be turning her into this foreign entity for the selfish purpose of fleshing out his story world makes me angry when I can’t help but think that there might have been a way to do it without sacrificing all that he did so well to build up in the first book.

I hope that some of my fears are proven wrong.  I have not read the book and I don’t want to judge it prematurely.

But Scott Westerfeld damn well better make it worth my while in the end.  My stupid brain has chosen this series to become irrationally attached to and I’m going to be rather miffed if he doesn’t provide a good payoff.

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