Halloween: Genuinely Creepy Games

There are lots of horror games out there, but horror doesn’t necessarily equate to scary or creepy; werewolves and vampires are too well-known to provide much if any lingering shock, and zombies, though they can be scary, aren’t scary because of what they are, but rather how they got that way, and how other characters react to them. Take Resident Evil’s zombies as an example; the dead walk, which would be a bit of a shock if you didn’t look at the cover of the game, but it doesn’t last. That the dead can actually move surprisingly fast, or are difficult to re-kill, or ambush you… that’s definitely a shock, but again it doesn’t last long after combat, aside from making you a little more paranoid about ambushes in future, which is something, at least. Why the dead walk is a lot scarier to think about, in this case, than that they’re walking towards you.
I suspect vampires and werewolves would be more frightening if humans showed a paranoid ‘it could be any of us’ reaction to them that lasted longer than however long it takes for the resident vampire/werewolf hunter to turn up. Oblivion almost makes it with one of its sidequests, but there’s hardly enough bloodshed, even if you’re ‘wrong’.

There aren’t many games out there that achieve genuine creepiness. Even less that I’ve played, as a lot of them don’t fall into genres I play often. I have, however, played a couple, and they’ve all stuck in my mind for various reasons. Naturally, to spoil these is to ruin these, so you’ll just have to take my descriptions and my word for it, and check them out yourself.

Knytt Stories, by nifflas (An Underwater Adventure, by nifflas)
An Underwater Adventure is one of nifflas’ official expansions, part of the A Strange Dream pack of levels. They’re all very well made, as you could expect from the person who created Knytt Stories, along with Knytt and Within a Deep Forest.
An Underwater Adventure is a distinctly different telling of how the world was saved from Dr. Cliche’s plan to freeze it solid, though anyone who played Within a Deep Forest beforehand will keep spotting tiny things reminding them of the original tale.
Best Played:
After playing A Strange Dream for practice. Within a Deep Forest isn’t necessary, but it can’t hurt, as that’s also a good game.

The John DeFoe series, by Yahtzee
The John DeFoe quartet, also known as the Ch’zo Mythos series of adventure games – I think that one sounds better – is comprised of 5 Days a Stranger, 7 Days a Skeptic, Trilby’s Notes, the three countdown text adventures (available on the 6 Days a Sacrifice page), and 6 Days a Sacrifice, in that order. It’s the only entry on this list that obviously set out to sit firmly in the horror genre from the very beginning. In my opinion, the best games are Trilby’s Notes and 6 Days a Sacrifice, but the first two games are still perfectly creepy by themselves.
Best Played:
Late at night, when you’re the only person around.

Yume Nikki
This one’s difficult to describe. Imagine you can almost dream lucidly; you remember everything about your dreams, and though you don’t have control over the dream itself, you feel as if you’re entirely awake, within that dream. Wouldn’t that be rather strange? Dreams and nightmares are half-digested fragments of reality and imagination, and we dream or nightmare every single night, rarely remembering it all once we’ve woken up.
Yume Nikki is another person’s dream; someone unfamiliar, whom we know next to nothing about.
Best Played:
In small doses… and, sadly, with Japanese language support. You need that as a minimum to get the thing running.

Portal
In general, AI are creepy, no matter where they appear, whether they’re on your side or not. ADA, SHODAN, GlaDOS, Durandal, Tycho, Leela, HK-47, C-3PO, Kryten… even if by some fluke they’re going right, there’s usually something unsettling about them; they’re far more intelligent than the meat talking to them, and the only thing keeping them from going insane is their programming. Far be it for a human to look at themselves in the same terms and notice they’re not too far different. Known AI, like robots, if they look or act human in any way, tend to fall within the uncanny valley.
That’s prejudice, for the most part, but insane AI is still creepier than sane AI, assuming the sane AI isn’t out to kill you anyway.
Best Played:
With cake, taking the time to really listen to everything GlaDOS says.

Missing
When people abruptly go missing… it’s right to worry about them, about whether they’re okay or not.
Best Played:
All in one sitting; go ahead, it’s short. Not as short as my description, but… anything else I could say would spoil it.

Immortal Defense
This game is absolutely amazing. It’s from the same people behind Missing, above; put very simply, it’s a ‘tower defense’-style game with a wonderful plot to it. You’re given reasons for what you do, above and beyond your points total.
Best Played:
Mission by mission… by mission… by mission… there are a lot of missions.

All the games on this list have something in common; whilst some of them may provide short shocks, they all left me with an unsettling feeling, and things to think about, that lasted long after I quit the game for the night. Much better than that pure adrenaline fight-or-flight reflex.

Mass Effect: Alien Species

I think I like Mass Effect’s aliens. They’re not all ‘forehead’ aliens like you get in Star Trek.
The Asari are a big disappointment, being the blue-skinned
really-close-to-human-looking race. They aren’t that bad when you look
at the information about them, but physically they’re a letdown.

The Turians remind me a little of Alien Soldier, and the…
bone/mandible things bordering their mouth begin to look quite
insectile once you notice them moving as a Turian speaks. Salarians,
meanwhile, look a little like thin, stretched-out Asgard with different
skin colour and texture.
From the non-Council races, the Elcor are one of my favourites;
elephant-gorillas that take a long time to finish speaking, and specify
what tone they’re talking in beforehand. It’s quite amusing watching
one talk with a Volus, which look like cute little Big Daddies in their
suits. Hanar are also very nice, looking like tall jellyfish, or
colourful tiny versions of Morrowind’s big Stilt Striders. The Geth
just look like Star Wars droids, though I suppose it’s a vaguely
sensible shape if you have any tasks that need a humanoid form. Then
there are the Krogan. They’re something with a hunchback between
lizards and birds.
Oh, yeah. Also, the Keepers. Green six-limbed (quadrupedal) things that
are apparently bugs, but something tells me they look similar to
something (bipedal) from Star Wars, or something else.

So, aside from the Asari, Mass Effect was a very good effort towards creating aliens that don’t look human. There are probably a few more out there that I haven’t encountered yet, but I’m not all that far in as yet.

Random: just-a-minute.org

I don’t know why, but the voice reading the meditations at this site reminds me of GlaDOS, minus the random changes in pitch.
I’m fairly certain it’s because the voice sounds very artificial, and pretty closely hits one of GlaDOS’ three pitches. Even though it tells me to relax, I really don’t think I’d be able to, even if I did this kind of thing by listening to a voice and following instructions, rather than reading a book and meditating in silence.
If I could stand to meditate in the first place.

Fictional Languages in Games

So I’ve been playing Aquaria recently; it’s a great game, equal parts Metroid and Ecco the Dolphin, only without the unfortunate problem of drowning if you can’t find a pocket of air.

Something I’ve noticed is that the world has its own alphabet; messages scattered around various areas of the world. Symbols outside the entrance to Naija’s home, symbols on a slate of rock at the entrance of the city of Mithalas.
I just spent around fifteen minutes to half an hour decyphering it. Most of it. I figure the earliest it’s possible to do so is in Mithalas Cathedral; earlier on, Naija translates the Mithalas sign for the player, giving us the meaning of the symbols representing ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘h’, ‘l’, ‘m’, ‘s’ and ‘t’, but within the Mithalas Cathedral there’s a long message in a room with a save crystal that happens to be just about decypherable with only those known symbols, and a lot of logical guesswork. From seven known symbols, you end up with twenty-two symbols out of a possible twenty-six; the remaining letters never appeared in the message, and might not be used at all, for all I know.
I love those kinds of puzzles. The Mithalas Cathedral message – not the only one in there, but the only sufficiently long one properly translateable, as the other one has a corpse in front of some of the letters – is essentially the Rosetta Stone for the Aquarian Alphabet.

Aquaria is by no means the first game to have done this. Years ago, there was a series of platformers named Commander Keen, the eponymous protagonist basically being a kid whose cardboard box rocket actually worked. The Standard Galactic Alphabet showed up on signs all through the games, and the player either had to cheat and look online for the key (…I was only around ten at the time, I didn’t like these puzzles then) or completely decypher it from nothing, as I’m reasonably certain Keen never read any of the signs for us. He wasn’t supposed to understand them, either.
Perhaps more famously, Final Fantasy X had Al Bhed. Unlike the other two written languages mentioned here, though, they didn’t bother creating a new set of symbols, and just used the standard alphabet; it was pretty obvious it was just substitution when you were looking at it in text. The Aquarian Alphabet and the Standard Galactic Alphabet are basic substitution disguised with an alternate set of symbols, but they’re still just substitution. Final Fantasy X did go that little further and create rules for when certain words were translated or not, and how to pronounce the resulting mess of letters; it did sound like a new language, at least.

There are a couple of games to create (very small) constructed languages, with a small set of (known) words. Ultima Underworld had the language of the Lizardmen (22 words known) – and, come to think of it, the Ultima series had no less than three alternate alphabets AND the runes for magic, too – and Breath of Fire IV had you trying to talk to the Pabpab (27 words known); in these cases, a translation guide was always provided by an NPC.
Or the manual, in the case of Ultima’s magic runes. Those are an interesting case; each spell’s combination of runes roughly describe the effect of the spell.

Creating a language – complete with syntax – is a very difficult undertaking, so it’s no wonder the attempts at new languages are often very small. It’s far easier to just encrypt a message through substitution, whether replacing letters with your own scribbles, or with other letters.
(That’s how you decypher substitution with the English alphabet, by the way; assign every letter a number or non-Roman-alphabet symbol and work it out from there, as trying to decypher messages in a jumbled Roman alphabet is trickier, as you can lose track of what you’ve guessed and replaced thus far.)

So why the bother?
An alternate alphabet is the perfect way to sneak messages to the player; if it’s not necessary to translate it to proceed, at any point, then players who simply don’t care for the puzzle of decyphering such things can simply ignore it and get on with the game, whilst players who do love the challenge can spend time on understanding the meaning of each symbol.
Aquaria uses its alphabet to deepen its world. The message I spent time translating in the Mithalas Cathedral foreshadows the plot of the game, but doesn’t give too much away; it supports a conversation Naija has with someone else soon afterwards, if you complete that area. But in another place, the message scrawled into a wall hints at a fun though pretty useless recipe… and, again, shows someone yearning for ‘escape’. The same alphabet is present not only throughout the City and Cathedral of Mithalas, but outside Naija’s home, on the walls of caves, and under statues of ancient gods. Hence why I call it the Aquarian Alphabet, rather than the Mithalan Alphabet. It’s not, up to where I am, necessary to know the alphabet to continue, but it does add a lot to the world.
Meanwhile, Commander Keen’s Standard Galactic Alphabet, as far as I recall, usually described more concrete elements of the game; ‘pit ahead’, or ‘die commander keen’, for example. SGA’s purpose was primarily to look futuristic, and secondarily to point out things to canny players who could read it; it was rarely or never written by any character in the game’s past, as the messages in Aquaria are. They were really messages from the game and designer; sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile… a proto-GlaDOS.
Finally, in FFX, the Al Bhed language served to highlight the difference between the Al Bhed people and all other peoples in Spira; even the Guado, Ronso and the Hypello people, some of the less human-looking groups in the game, spoke Spiran. Through diligent searching, a player could find a Primer for every letter of the language, causing Al Bhed to be automatically translated in messages; even more diligent searching at the beginning of a game could reveal the method of transferring all those Primers to a new game, so you could understand all the gibberish at the beginning. As always, understanding the language is never necessary for much, and in Final Fantasy X, collecting all Primers is more of an easter egg or useless bonus, as most are pretty deviously hidden and some permanently missable. It’s a sidequest, though the translated language does tell you a little more about the Al Bhed talking, at least.

Blog Stats and the ‘Search Engine Terms’ (AKA, Aunt Lio Answers…?)

I check my stats often. For this blog, I mean. I check a lot of stats normally, but they’re usually in whatever games I’m playing; my levels in Destruction, Restoration, Mercantile and Stealth, for instance.
Wordpress blog stats, anyway. How many people visited; usually an increase of some kind after writing a long, essay-length piece, like my last post (18 ‘today’, or yesterday by my clock, when I write this). Masses of people searching for impressions of Portal: Prelude on the 11th, most hitting my review/rant.
There’s also more constant traffic, rather than traffic depending on what’s currently popular, to play or talk about; usually at least one person daily looking for something about Blaze & Blade, who may or may not be someone I know. Likewise Etrian Odyssey, but no one’s commented on those posts, sadly. I love chattering about those games.
I’ll post more soon, promise. Etrian Odyssey 2 is on the top of my ‘must plaaaay’ list, and shall be returned to after I beat Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations. Which is much, much easier, but I don’t play that game for the difficulty.

I like it when something I’ve written gets seen; I think everyone feels at least a mild sense of achievement when they do something they like, other people witness, and no one disapproves without reason. Mostly, though, I check that page to see how people found this lair. Whether it’s something I wrote that they’ll be interested in, or they found it by mistake because some of my tags matched their terms.
Quite a few search terms seem to be more active queries, and I always get the urge to answer those. Which is really why I’m making this post. The five I got today range from random things to some of those actively questioning queries, and one recurring query – the one about Etrian Odyssey and its password – so you’ll see a nice selection.

To the adventurer who asked about ‘blaze and blade canyon path’…
I think it’s a bit of a tedious area, but that’s partially highlighted by that collapsing bridge right at the start. It looks like, for once, you’re going to get a quick path – you know they might take it away after the boss – but, no, you have to walk the long way both times. I wouldn’t mind it if, say, the long path led to something interesting, like an optional cave or somewhere with history, or… well… anything. But it doesn’t, and there opportunities have been lost.
What do you think of the place?

To the guildmaster pondering the mystery of the ‘etrian odyssey password’ – and, uh, everyone else turning up here since I first posted about the game…
I had the same problem, I think. Hit select when on the menu, after loading a save, and you’ll get the option screen with the password available. The one from the game’s main menu is a nasty red herring, and I’m surprised it was left in on that particular screen, considering how many people it’s confused.
I abstractly knew I should have checked the manual, but I didn’t, either. I thought I had to beat EVERYTHING to get the password, and thus all my headaches over fighting Primevil. Then again, it gave me something to do while my foot healed, so anyone finding this post from now on should know they’re not alone, and that I probably went through more thanks to my own idiocy anyway.

To the possible member of the Hunter’s Guild, Pioneer 2 Chapter, wondering about ‘the ruins 2′:
Ahh, sorry you didn’t find what you were looking for, if my guess on the above line is correct. Completely coincidentally… or not, as that game really does share a lot of qualities I love with Blaze & Blade, including a whole boss in Ep. 2… I’m rather fond of PSO, and I’m disappointed that PSU wasn’t quite as good, in my opinion, trading the whole ‘item collection’ thing for a ‘make your own’ mechanic that’s implemented in a worse manner than Monster Hunter’s.
Ahem. PSO, Ruins 2. Where enemies come in nigh-neverending waves, and a humble FOnewearl on her tod has to inhale most of her ‘fluids to deal with each room. Which is all well and good, since the value of the loot by that point tends to exceed the cost of the ‘fluids, but it does get a little ridiculous, thinking about it. Still, it’s a beautiful, if deeply frightening place.
‘Revolution to the origin PART 2′ is one of my favourite musical pieces in that Episode, discounting the boss themes, thanks to the strings right at the beginning. Manic strings. Glee.
This probably didn’t help you at all, whatever you were looking for, but if you did play Phantasy Star Online, I hope this provokes fond thoughts of Ruins 2, rather than nightmares.

To the gamer… um… hmm. I’m running out of synonyms for ‘aski-’ okay, I’ve got it.
To the gamer seeking a ‘rpg fantasy first person’… which technically was what I was writing about in my last post, but probably wasn’t quite what you were interested in…
Oblivion’s good, seriously, even though I can find enough things to poke about it to write an article like that. Morrowind is also good if you don’t mind older graphics, and is available in a single box with both of its official expansions from, well, anywhere that sells games. Even Tesco.
I also mentioned the Ultima Underworld pair of games, spinoffs from the successful Ultima line of PC RPGs, which were good enough to keep me playing even though I sucked horribly at them. They’re proto-Oblivions, if you think Oblivion is a good game.
On the consoles, you might want to try finding the King’s Field series of games on the PSX and PS2; I never played them, aside from Eternal Ring, a sidestory. Which I never got far in, but was enjoyable like Ultima Underworld 2.
Um. Other than that, I tend to go for anything that isn’t first-person, I’m afraid. You’re asking the wrong person. Do you know of any good games I might want to try?

To the hunter wondering ‘how to kill a cephadrome with a bow’… and this was the second query in the list, but it’s long enough and detailed enough that it might be a bit much for someone not playing MHF(2) to skip past, so it’s here at the bottom.
Exactly how you kill a Cephalos with a bow, really. But just stopping there is a bit cheap. Cephadromes, like their smaller kin, are weak against Ice, so take your trusty Blango Fur Bow * for this trip, along with two less than as many Sonic Bombs as you can pack; Cephadrome really aren’t any trouble to take down with one or two Bombs, once you get the hang of it, but it’s always worth taking as many as you can the first time, whilst you learn when you can safely fire or not.
Presumably you know the range of your bows. If you don’t, take a trip to the Snowy Mountains and snipe some Popos; knowing how far you can stand from ANY Wyvern or Primatius boss is essential, and it’s even better when you know just how far away to stand and fire from to hit, say, a Yian Kut-ku’s ears. Knowledge of your weapons is essential; take some stones and practice throwing those if you’re not sure about Sonic Bombs, either.
That out of the way, actually taking down the Cephadrome. I recommend taking the Sonic Bombs from the supply box every time, as if you use only one of them, you’ve gotten a free Bomb in addition to saving the ones you made yourself. Take the rest of the stuff as you feel necessary, down a Cool or Hot Drink, whichever’s needed, and head out to the desert. Virtually every time I’ve taken this mission, the Cephadrome’s been on this screen; its fin is larger than those of the Cephalos, and if it IS there it tends to start trying to knock your feet out from under you almost immediately. Run to the centre, wait a little, and go search for it elsewhere if you don’t hear the ‘something big’s watching me’ piece.
Once you’ve found it… it’ll still be underground. What you’re aiming for when you toss each Sonic Bomb is its fin, and that usually means timing a throw to coincide with the fin missing you as it rushes past. The range of the soundburst a Sonic Bomb produces is about the size of a hunter, but if you get  it right on the fin the Cephadrome will react without fail. If you hang around long enough without doing that, whether because you keep missing or because you’re out of bombs, the Cephadrome’s fin will dip beneath the sand, and shortly afterwards it’ll arch its head out and spray sand at you. When the fin disappears, just make sure you’re moving, and this shouldn’t hit you; it’s a good opportunity to spike it in the head with a few arrows, or a better opportunity to throw a Sonic Bomb at it than as it goes past, as there’s less chance it’ll move out of the range before it goes off.
Having convinced the Cephadrome to please surface, it’ll flop around for a bit, just like Cephalos. Make sure you’re not standing in front of it, and throw off charged bowshots at it. Always fully charged shots unless you’re almost out of stamina, or have to dodge NOW, as uncharged shots do much less damage than fully charged ones.
Eventually it’ll stop thrashing, and get to its feet. This is very important; do not stay in front of the Wyvern. Never stand in front of any Wyvern without being in the middle of going to stand elsewhere; it may make hitting the head, or head and then straight through the body to the tail with a Piercing bow that much easier, but almost all Wyverns’ most devastating attacks can only be applied to a Hunter standing right in front of them. Hunters who stand still in front of Wyverns get spat, burnt, poisoned, bitten, stepped on, jumped on and shocked to failure. Not simultaneously unless there are some REALLY unfair missions out there, though. At this point in the game, you’re still able to easily heal the damage you’ll take there with Potions and other restorative items, but by the time you reach Red Khezu, you can get KO’d from full health instantly that way. Get out of that habit now and you won’t do stupid stuff like simultaneously wear Lightning-weak armour AND stand in front of Red Khezu later on.
Ahem. Ranting about my own stupidity aside, you can rather safely stand at a nice range from Cephadrome just slightly away from dead ahead; directly facing you is bad, facing 10 degrees away is pretty safe, as its sand breath, though it possesses a very long range ahead of the Wyvern, is much more a line than a cone or quarter. Work out what’s safe; it’s nasty, but it shouldn’t be deadly if you’ve picked decent armour. Bows are probably one of the best weapons to use against Cephadrome, as its weakness is its neck, and all its attacks save spitting sand fall much shorter than the comfortable range. Take your time aiming, try to make most of your shots fall against the Cephadrome’s long neck – preferrably whilst its spitting, as it should know better than to  leave itself open like that – and practice using rolling rather than running to dodge, if you feel like it. If you’re using any form of the Blango Fur Bow, the Cephadrome shouldn’t take long to fall, but just use a Sonic Bomb to convince it to surface properly again, or practice quickly aiming with the bow as it pops out of the sand; you’ll want to be good at that for a certain later Piscine Wyvern or two…
Oh, and remember to watch out for the Cephalos that may be lurking, depending on the area. They’re easy to dodge if you move every so often, but they’re an irritation, nethertheless.
I know that was long, but I don’t believe in knowingly being vague; Cephadrome was the first Wyvern I ever managed to take down, and I never managed it without a bow, so I never got further than the piscine livers quests in the original game.
As a very happy bow-using hunter, I hope this advice helps you… if you ever return here. Not likely, I know, but if you ever come by in future, tell me how it went!

That was fun. And I really don’t mind comments, even if it’s about how my opinions differ from yours. I don’t know everything, and I enjoy rambling and listening to people ramble about this stuff, so TALK, darnit. And post if these help!

Hypothetical Ideal Game: First-Person RPG Edition

I’ve been playing a bunch of different games recently, like Oblivion, Two Worlds, Dwarf Fortress and Mother 3.
Well, for a given value of ‘recently’, I suppose.
Oh, and Atmosphir. I got into the beta. It’s great, though since I’ve been playing Oblivion lately, there’s one thing about the controls that I keep tripping over. That’s more because I’ve been playing Oblivion recently than any kind of fault in Atmosphir, though.

ANYWAY, whilst playing Oblivion, I remembered when I was writing about Two Worlds and how it’s not as good as that game in certain areas. I mentioned that Two Worlds was actually superior to Oblivion in one area; its weather, specifically the mist and fog effects. I don’t remember if I saw it raining in Two Worlds, but Oblivion‘s rain is pretty close to how depressing rain is where I live, at any rate. I was thinking, ‘Oblivion would be better if it had Two Worlds‘ weather…’

The logical extension of that thought is, ‘what would my ideal first-person RPG be?’ This is one part praising certain mechanics or elements of specific games that I happen to like, and another part game design, as I try to explain WHY I like them, and why they fit in.
Currently, my idea of the ideal first-person RPG sorta goes like this:

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (base game) + Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul (yay, difficulty!) + Two Worlds (weather effects) + Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (the soundtrack) + The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (general character of the region)

Oblivion because… well… it’s Oblivion. It’s the best (read: only) first-person game, RPG or no, I’ve actually played and done well at, aside from Morrowind. I played the Ultima Underworld games years ago, but didn’t do anywhere near as well with them. It’s a great game that allows a number of different ways to be played, even without modding it, which is another brilliant feature, that really extends the playability of ‘Oblivion’… even if it’s not quite Oblivion any more, afterwards.
So Oblivion is the base game, here, but that doesn’t mean all things listed after it simply modify as detailed. Oblivion‘s good enough to play by itself, and if there were a mod to, say, quietly filch Two Worlds‘ weather, I’d jump on it and probably never let go, but I’d (probably) really like an entirely new game that took all the good features of Oblivion, then added the stuff from the other listed games. Oblivion‘s just the game I think has the most great features of the lot; requiring a small amount of skill from the player even IF the character’s skills are all at 100 – Speechcraft (not much skill, admittedly – I should seek out one of those mods sometime…) or Lockpicking (the ability to recognise when a tumbler will ‘stick’, either by sound or sight – try guessing which is easier for me, huh? – if you don’t just have the game autoattempt it for you) – for example.
This isn’t an exhaustive list; games that illustrate what I’d love to replace a given element with don’t always come to mind, if I’ve even experienced anything like what I’d like to see in the first place.

One ever-so-slight ‘problem’ I had with normal Oblivion was that it wasn’t much of a challenge; I invariably play a mage, and Destruction is a very efficient school of magic for exploding stuff, even if you never find the (celebrated) Enemies Explode spell. Without changing anything, it’s pretty easy to get far into the game and still only be using Weak Fireball, Shocking Touch and Cold Touch, two of which you start with if you pick Destruction for a major skill. Normally, like Morrowind, most enemies you encounter are based on your level, so unless you really neglect your offensive skills, you can always (easily, in my experience as a mage) beat anything you encounter, except bosses. It makes the game a little more… I don’t know. ‘Swashbuckling’. ‘Movie-style dramatic’, rather than dramatic because it really was a close fight between that Bandit and me.
Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul drastically changes things; I routinely find myself running away from things like Minotaurs, Trolls, Bandits and Mystical Imps at level 1 – stuff you either shouldn’t be seeing for a long time, or weren’t a challenge originally. Highwaymen are still rather wimpy, though.
Probably doesn’t help lighten difficulty any that I pick the Atronach birthsign for both of the mage characters I’ve played with this mod, which adds something else to difficulty with not being able to rest to recover magicka between fights, but triumphing against a Troll because you fought intelligently rather than just tanking it and poking it with Flare, thanks to the health even a mage has after enough levels, results in a sense of achievement I otherwise just don’t get from the game. Oblivion’s natural difficulty – or lack thereof – isn’t something I noticed as a problem in the first place, but I really don’t want to go back to that now that I’m playing with OOO.

Two Worlds‘ weather effects. The game’s fog and mist effects just look that real. I’m really not sure how they got that so right, and yet a lot of other things in the game, like… well, character models… look so odd.
Then again, years ago I was impressed about how realistic Final Fantasy VIII‘s graphics looked compared to FFVII‘s. Graphics aren’t that major a thing to me; I honestly prefer sprite-based or ASCII graphics to 3D stuff, and wish more games followed the examples of Breath of Fire III and BoFIV. They’re just… part of the game, and I don’t understand how graphics can be anything from a major concern to everything, as some people on Guild Wars seem to me to think, from what they say about World of Warcraft’s visuals. Part of me still suspects they just don’t want to admit they don’t want to pay continually for a game after they bought it. ’cause I’ll happily admit I don’t enjoy that model.
Graphics will rarely turn me away from a game. Far more important is whether I like the plot and gameplay mechanics. All the same, having Two Worlds‘ weather effects in a game like Oblivion would be nice.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. This is just a really nice game in general, and it’s what I was playing when everyone else was playing Diablo II, I think. Even with really strange graphical problems due to using the same graphics card as came with the ancient computer that was mine at the time, I loved it. Still do.
So, the music. Arcanum gave us a decidedly-fantasy world in the throes of an industrial revolution. Steampunk with magic. Well, magic-punk with steam power? Not magitek-punk, as magic and technology do not get along. Well, to get to my point, the world in Arcanum was decidedly Victorian, or just teetering on the edge of a Belle Époque if some of the problems in the world ever cleared up, and Arcanum‘s soundtrack, similarly, was in the style of the era, or close enough to my ears. Go ahead, download and listen to it, as Sierra and Troika Games put it up for download years ago. It’s the kind of music you can see (hear?) being composed by people living in a world like Arcanum‘s.
Oblivion, whilst it has orchestral music, doesn’t have anything that stands out; for want of a better way of explaining it, it’s modern orchestral, of the typical kind of pieces composed nowadays… for videogames, as I admit I haven’t listened to many other new orchestral pieces composed for different reasons and audiences.
I like it, but it’s the same as so much else that I have no reason to listen to Oblivion‘s music in particular; Arcanum‘s soundtrack I still keep going back to, and that music’s getting close to a decade in age. There are good modern-orchestral pieces that stand out – anything by Masashi Hamauzu, or Hitoshi Sakimoto, but they both compose pieces so different that they probably wouldn’t be considered the same genre, anyway – and then there are pieces that simply stick to the conventions and do nothing new.
Both Arcanum and Oblivion have large and pretty-detailed worlds, but Arcanum has music that matches its world, or what we’d expect from that world, from history. Oblivion‘s music is pretty generic. Though I admit that also matches Oblivion; see my next, and final, point for today.

Morrowind. This one’s a doozy, the most difficult one to explain in the current not-short-when-explained list. It’s also the one that takes the award for ‘most impossible to add to Oblivion without it not being Oblivion any more’.
The region of Tamriel Oblivion takes place in – Cyrodiil – is… well…
It’s pretty typical. Plainsland. Forest. Swamp. Mountain. Snowy mountain. A typical checklist of terrain. Ancient Ruins dotted around the place. A city, a bunch of towns, and many small assorted villages and hamlets – actually, the city, towns and villages aren’t a problem; they’re great. They seem just the right distance apart. It’s just everything else.
Don’t get me wrong; Oblivion has a great world, but there’s still something about it that just seems ‘typical’ or ‘generic’ to me. It probably comes from living somewhere that’s actually quite like it; the UK and other pretty-closely-associated land. We have plains (most of the countryside, or at least most near the roads), we have rather boggy areas (anywhere it rains, it seems, but we have proper wetlands, too; look at Ireland), we have mountains (Scotland), and we have woods and forests, too (though not as many as there used to be). It’s too familiar, even if I’ve never been to a proper wetland, just live in a land where it’s usually more or less wet, or normally only go past a lot of the countryside in bus.
Morrowind‘s ‘world’, Vvardenfell, is swamp and ashen wasteland, and not all that much else. I never really got a feel for Cyrodiil whilst ambling around trying to save the world; even in the midst of an invasion, it still looks like idyllic rolling plains, quiet forests, cold mountains and altogether-too-damp swamps, all drawn from a UK template. I don’t know. It just never clicked as more than a place, somewhere that could be real, for all the similarity to the UK-and-company I listed above.
Vvardenfell always seemed hostile. Partially because it was; I’m reasonably certain Morrowind is tougher than Oblivion for more reason than only my lack of experience at first-person stuffs when I first picked up Morrowind. But also because that part of Tamriel was always dark and overcast, in my memory, with storms of ash. It wasn’t just hostile to you, it didn’t like the NPCs either, and they knew it too. It had things like Cliff Racers, and whilst not exactly liked by any player, they did add to the overall atmosphere of hostility Vvardenfell always had. And though Vvardenfell was actually bigger than Cyrodiil, it didn’t have a great amount of variation in the terrain; some people see this as dull, others (me, at least) as a bit more realistic – the UK doesn’t have a lot of swamp, I think. Is Cyrodiil where a lot of different terrains meet? I think so, and it’s not helping Cyrodiil grow an identity for itself.
Vvardenfell also had ancient ruins, but they didn’t stick out so much; Ayleid ruins in Cyrodiil look like they’re self-cleaning, for all the wear they’re supposed to have gone through since the Ayleids were forced from their throne, and it’s really difficult travelling far without tripping over one or another, but the Chimer ruins in Vvardenfell were actually pretty difficult to find, due to Vvardenfell being huge and Morrowind not giving us a map like Oblivion did, but also because they were covered in ash. I’d at least expect Ayleid ruins to be heavily overgrown or buried by now, but… only the one, and that’s in the latter case.
In short, Vvardenfell has a personality. And Cyrodiil, though it has a personality, has a much weaker one. I liked how the Oblivion Gates altered the landscale in a very localised area; maybe if older ones affected a larger area? Maybe if the area affected was more than just a few metres from the gate, but spread out – effects getting thinner – for a much further distance? Cyrodiil just doesn’t hang together as well as Vvardenfell does, and it’d be difficult to change Cyrodiil that way, as part of the problem is Cyrodiil itself.

That’s all that comes to mind, at the moment; for this hypothetical maybe-ideal first-person RPG, I mean. I have ideas for more articles on this theme, and I’ll hopefully get around to writing them at some point. And continuing with the Blaze & Blade articles, miniviews-in-many-formats, and anything else of which I made a short series.

General Update

So tired… I think I’m proof that 7am mornings are bad for one’s health.
I also managed to lose my glasses, but I’m apparently due an eye exam anyway, so… eh, even if I don’t find them, I’ll work on solving that soon.
Oblivion’s finally installed, as I started wanting back when I was trying to play Two Worlds. Complete with Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul, too. Might post on that sometime.
Also been playing Battle of Wesnoth recently. That’s a good game, too. I don’t know what it is about turn-based strategies, recently, but I’ve even been looking at ways to make them – Sim RPG Maker 95, which won’t test things properly, and a set of scripts for RMXP, which actually started and let me do stuff before it crashed. Right now, the scripts are looking more reliable.

(Review) Portal: Prelude – Torture

So, yeah. Portal: Prelude was released recently – yesterday? – and thus far, opinions about the game seem to be in two camps.

First, there’s the camp that sail through. This seems to be populated by veterans of Portal‘s advanced maps; they have the absolute precision required to beat certain maps.
Then there’s the camp I’m sitting in, populated by people who can’t make the jumps, maneuvers, or aim the portalgun in midair whilst being fired on by at least two turrets in a window of opportunity lasting less than a second… in the first chamber.
I don’t doubt they had some people test the game, but my guess is that their sample group wasn’t exactly representative of Portal’s entire audience. It’s been mentioned by one of the designers on the mod’s forums that none of the testers got stuck for more than ten minutes, but isn’t that too long anyway? If I was attempting a puzzle for ten minutes straight, I’d quit the game for then and do something else to take my mind off things.

But it’s not the puzzles. I think the problem is that the designers of Portal: Prelude got things the wrong way around; Portal had puzzles; spotting the answer was the difficult thing. Portal: Prelude, on the other hand, has what are for me very difficult maneuvers and tricks; the answers are very obvious – you can very easily tell you need to take out the turrets before you can get to the exit, though it’s just a few metres away, but that’s not the same as doing it.
Note: I only reached part way through 02 before giving up. This is not actually representative of the rest of the game, but judging from the moaning on the forums*, it’s a good guess.

There are a couple of other things I found irritating, but they pale in comparison to the sheer frustration this game caused me. Not even the final boss of Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, a hideous monstrosity entirely dependent on sheer luck to defeat, forced me to give up so quickly or risk hurting myself trying.
Frustration of this kind makes me feel sick to my stomach, and it’s a horrible feeling. I don’t want to risk it… or even go through it for a game like this.
See, nothing about Portal: Prelude makes me want to stick around, so I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all important. The two humans… using synth voices in English… are nowhere as compelling or interesting as GlaDOS. What GlaDOS has isn’t exactly charisma, but it’s something - maybe it’s her insanity…? – and these two technicians just don’t have it. Not even slightly. The two puzzles I managed to solve – I’m not counting the test chamber, as that almost happens automatically – demonstrate two things puzzle-wise:
1. How to kill a player (me) over twenty times with the same set of blasted turrets, and…
2. Crouching? What? Crouching in the middle of a jump? Chell never needed this; Portal never even hinted it would do a thing. Apparently you get a hint about it… in 03, though.
I understand understanding we don’t want to go through learning to use the portalgun again; we have proper Portal for that. But…
Why. So. Difficult?

For nine months’ worth of work, it seems like a waste; I estimate this mod is unplayable to a moderate-to-large portion of the people who played and enjoyed the original Portal, either due to the lack of anything compelling from the original game to keep players’ interest, or earnest frustration reaching breaking point at being unable to solve something no matter how many times you quickload, maybe tweak a portal’s position, and try again. Even someone who reputedly breezed through the advanced maps had problems.
If the target audience of Portal: Prelude was purely the ‘hardcore’, solved-every-advanced-map crowd, then the designers succeeded. If the audience wasn’t just the ‘hardcore’, they made serious mistakes; underestimated the difficulty of the maps, severely overestimated the appeal and drive to continue through hardship and rampant death on the part of the players, I don’t know. Mistake, or mistakes, plural.
But, since they don’t rely on this mod as their significant source of income – though they have set up a donation page since so many people asked** - they can make whatever they want of it, without fear; they don’t have to appeal to a wider audience, or even think about being appealing at all.

It’s tempting to think they never did, in the first place.

Verdict:
AVOID!

* To be fair, it’s more-or-less balanced on the forums; some love it, some hate it. Some think it easy, more (?) think it difficult and/or impossible. Some write rave reviews, slightly more write ‘what Portal: Prelude did wrong’/condemnation. I figure whatever I have to say has been said there already, so I’m posting here instead.

** Needless to say, I haven’t donated. Plus, who knows that they didn’t plan it after all, and would have put the page up even if virtually no one asked? That’s just my Internet skepticism and cynicism, though.

Finally have a copy of Trials and Tribulations, yay

So Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations was finally released in the UK yesterday, almost a full year after its release in the US.
I finally got my copy from Game, but I’ve had it on preorder since sometime around Christmas. Before I wised up and started ordering imports from Play-Asia where possible. Since I get reward points from Game, I’m not happy with cancelling orders once I’ve made them. So at least one friend of mine has had a copy of Trials and Tribulations for about half a year already.
At least he had the sense not to taunt me about it.

Moral of the story:
Get DS games on import. They’re even much cheaper on import at the momentl, anyway.

A (potential) solution to (some) spam

Introduction

A part-preventative, part-reactionary ‘solution’. Obviously it isn’t an entire solution, but it is a possible method of limiting spam generated, at least until the inevitable workaround is developed.

Remember when Googlemail was only available to people who had been invited? If you wanted a Googlemail/GMail account, you had to know someone who was giving away invitations to the service. You also had to have a non-Google e-mail address to receive the invite, but that’s not relevant.
Towards the end of its not-exactly-open-beta period, users could hand out up to 99 or 100 invites to friends before they couldn’t send any more, or needed to wait for Google to hand out more. We still can, but now people can sign up for GMail without needing to go through another person, and that’s probably simpler.

There isn’t any way for users to see the ‘family tree’ of their GMail accounts – the account that spawned their invite, the account that spawned that accounts invites, all of that accounts spawned invite. Maybe Google doesn’t track it, and even if they did, some of that ‘family tree’ probably wouldn’t be visible to users; seeing one’s ‘direct descendent’ invites is all well and good, as is being able to see who the ‘parent’ account was, if a user forgets either of those, but should a user be able to see all other accounts born from invites spawned from that parent account, or children accounts? Probably not; for a user, the most this should provide is a reminder of what invites they’ve sent out, and whose invite – if any, now that people can sign up without them – they accepted for the account.

So, about that spam solution.

Say Google decides to track e-mail account ‘families’, if they don’t already, as detailed above. Say, also, that Google can peer at the activity of any GMail account; what percentage of the outgoing material from any account matches definitions of spam, malicious content (viruses, scams, et cetera), or other undesired uses of an e-mail account, for example. If Google determines that a specific GMail account is being used for spam, they can temporarily suspend privileges, permanently suspend privileges, just remove the account… whatever they do normally, in such a case.
Now, as GMail families are tracked, Google can also examine other GMail accounts spawned from the account-determined-to-be-spamming; examine what proportion of outgoing material in those accounts is spam, malicious… whatever. Determine what proportion of descendent accounts are spam-generating. Google could also check whether the ancestors of the account originally identified as spam-generating are also generating spam; they can examine the entire family of accounts, and do whatever they want to all of them.

Key to this method is making signing up through an invite more painless than signing up without; if Google can more easily track spamming accounts if they’re all related, and it’s not more difficult to get a non-invite account (an account without a parent) then this won’t make it any easier to deal with spam. Spammers will just use less invite-spawned accounts and more parentless accounts, instead. Removing the ability to sign up without an invite would be even more problematic, as GMail is used in part thanks to its accessibility; a lot of today’s users signed up without an invite.
So, make it more difficult to sign up through the GMail site rather than through another GMail user’s invite; more checks and requirements for people signing up without an invite, and assume invited users have already been ‘checked’ by the inviter? Or otherwise invited despite knowing the intentions of the invitee, thus colluding with the invitee (spammer?).

Problems

Well, for starters, implementing the entire system if the key components of the solution aren’t already in existence. Even if the results of any changes made aren’t to be seen directly by users, it is still a lot of work planning, coding, testing and introducing any changes into any system. Then making use of it, and maintaining it. More work at GMail or any other e-mail service using the idea.

This system is partially only as strong as GMail’s non-invite signups are; it plays on the thought that spammers will tend more towards the easier method of getting new accounts  (from invites) rather than go through the tougher, more difficult method (from the site).
Spammers are likely to use both methods of signing up for accounts; both invites from other accounts, as it’s easier, and parentless accounts from the site, as they have no family full of also-spamming members for Google to hold against them… when they’re formed, at least. This system has the potential to deal with accounts from both origins, but there’s going to be a greater delay in detecting parentless accounts, unless GMail starts with a bias against them. The further down a ‘pristine’ family tree you are, or the longer an account goes without generating spam or invites to accounts that DO spam, the more ‘trusted’ an account is considered to be? ‘Trust’ is a different system indeed.

Any reduction in ease in signing up for a non-invited account is likely to reduce the number of legitimate users applying for GMail accounts. It may be made much easier, comparatively, to get an invite from a friend than to sign up ‘normally’, but there is always the chance that an individual does not know a user with an available invite, and would choose to use another e-mail service rather than deal with GMail and the process of signing up sans-invitation.
To really stand a chance at reducing spam, though, this method would have to see use in multiple e-mail services; if it’s just GMail that does this, what stops spammers from using Hotmail, or any other service?

False positives; say a random legitimate user is altruistic, and gives his or her invites to anyone who asks nicely and doesn’t ‘seem’ to be a spammer. Say a large proportion of that random user’s invites do, in fact, end up in the hands of spammers, and spawn much junk e-mail spam and invites to accounts that further spam. In such a situation, Google might decide that legitimate user’s account is actually owned by a spammer purely for the purpose of spawning more accounts that could be used to spam, even if outgoing traffic from that account appears legitimate. A false positive.
Likewise, ‘negatives’ where an account appears legitimate, but exists only to produce invites that go to spamming. Inaccuracies have always exists in any system designed to detect spam, whatever the means they use to detect it; GMail’s filters occasionally let spam through, and the university IT service flags the random legitimate messages as possible-spam – just adding something to the subject line indicating such, and I don’t filter out spam based on that, thankfully. In this case, Google could check how much outgoing mail such an account generated over time since the account was formed, and compared it to how many invites have been sent out over time… and see whether e-mail activity and invite-spawning activity matches, possibly determining whether the apparently-legitimate outgoing e-mail really is legitimate, or is just a few token pieces of ‘I’m a legitimate user, me’ e-mails designed to make Google think that.

A black market in invites from not-spamming, not-related-to-spamming accounts? It’s been an age since I last invited anyone, so I’m not sure how it’s handled, currently. Can invites sent to a person be distributed by THAT person to someone else? That’s a big hole, if they can…
Linking invites to the e-mail address they’re sent to? I’m soon to run into my idea-quota for the day.

Lastly, the inevitable workaround. I don’t know what this will be, but it really is inevitable, however it happens.

Miscellaneous Stuff

This is something similar to CAPTCHAs; those (usually – there are the ‘pick a cat’-type CAPTCHAs that don’t involve as much text, and there are the ones that ask you to type out all letters from a set marked with some impossible-to-distinguish tiny icon that looks just like another icon you’re not supposed to type; I like the first variant, and detest the second as I keep failing those) distorted, obscured, difficult-to-read sections of text you have to type out in order to get accounts at forums or e-mail services nowadays, in addition to countless other online services. It’s just a method or tool for preventing or limiting spam, both relating to initially picking up an account, though this method doesn’t explicitly involve anything even humans have difficulty reading. This post was inspired by news that, recently, a number of CAPTCHAs have been broken; Google’s CAPTCHAs, Microsoft’s Hotmail CAPTCHAs, even the ‘pick a cat’ CAPTCHAs.
The idea wasn’t inspired by those – I came up with that years ago, chatting to someone else about possible other uses and ramifications of GMail’s system (back then) of gaining new users (‘our users give invitations to potential users – we get limited vetting at no extra cost AND a slight in-group mentality’ … or something like that; A-Level psychology and communications studies courses are still affecting how I think about these things).

If anyone’s still reading this mess of text pretending to be essay-like, have a cookie.

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