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Diecast #222: Birthday Week

By Shamus
on Monday Aug 20, 2018
Filed under:
Diecast

This is a special episode of the Diecast. If you’re looking for the usual brand of complaining, analysis, commentary, and complaining, then this is not the episode for you. Here I sit down with my wife Heather and we talk about our shared gaming history and how it impacted our relationship.


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Hosts: Heather and Shamus. Episode edited by Issac.

We weren’t really working for a fixed list of topics, so no show notes this week.

One final note is that this was recorded with Heather and I sitting at the same computer with an open microphone. Normally I do the show via VOIP and everyone has a key for push-to-talk. The setup we used this time means you’ll hear a little more background noise. So if you’re curious why you can hear my sniffing or the THUD of me setting down my silo-sized drink, now you know.


 
 
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DDOS’ed

By Shamus
on Sunday Aug 19, 2018
Filed under:
Notices

Last night I uploaded some updates to the site theme. A little while later, the site went down. On the control panel I could see my CPU and process usage were both pegged at 100%. I naturally assumed the outage was related to the changes I’d just made. I spent hours fussing with things, trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. I finally reverted everything and discovered that the problem persisted.

I reached out to support and they determined I was experiencing a DDOS attack, and the site update was unrelated. Lots of unrelated IP addresses from around the world were all hammering away at the WordPress login script, probably trying to brute-force using common passwords. It’s a hopeless effort on their part. My blog password is in excess of 128 bits, which means the sun will burn out before this botnet cracks it. Still, they managed to overwhelm the site and take it down. So I guess technically this wasn’t really a DDOS. It was a hack attempt that accidentally became a DDOS due to my site being a little undermatched for this particular botnet.

I’m reasonably sure this DDOS isn’t the first. You might remember my adventures with 1 & 1 Hosting. What I think was happening is I was getting slammed with this same botnet. Instead of notifying me or investigating, 1 & 1 just took my site down until the bots gave up and left.

I’m experimenting with a cloud service to distribute the load. This is supposedly a really good defense against these sorts of things. I don’t know. I guess we’ll see if / when this happens again.


 
 
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Grand Theft Auto IV: A Criticism of Criticism

By Shamus
on Friday Aug 17, 2018
Filed under:
Retrospectives

Like I said last week, Grand Theft Auto IV is a deeply flawed game. And yet it also landed top marks from critics. How did this happen? How did such a hodgepodge experience wind up being lauded as one of the supposedly best games of all time? Sure, it has great technology. But the graphical technology was undercut by the drab visuals and the more robust gameplay systems were undercut by the straitjacket mission design. Shouldn’t those sorts of shortcomings be reflected in the critical reception?

At the end of my retrospective on Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, I suggested that the generous review scores were the result of a lackluster game suddenly finding itself in tune with the national zeitgeist, and the tight review schedule preventing deep analysis. I’d like to circle back to that article and explore this problem in a little more depth.

When it comes to the problem of obviously flawed games being awarded near-perfect scores, I think the most incisive take is the one Campster gave way back in 2011:

Continue reading »


 
 
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The Witcher 3: Racism and Fantasy

By Bob Case
on Wednesday Aug 15, 2018
Filed under:
Video Games

We’ve now arrived at the part of the series where I talk about – well, it’s not quite the elephant in the room. It’s maybe something like the hippopotamus in the room (hippopotami, while smaller than elephants, are still pretty big). You see, when The Witcher 3 was first released, there was nary a person of color to be found anywhere in the game. Some in the games media noticed this, among them Tauriq Moosa, who wrote an article for Polygon titled “Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and Gaming’s Race Problem.

I’m not aware of any reliable statistical measures by which one can measure the size of an internet brouhaha, so I usually just eyeball it: the brouhaha was medium-sized, and, as brouhahas go, I think it was more productive than most.  Any time a hot-button issue like this gets raised, some percentage of the arguments that follow are made either in bad faith, at cross purposes, or both. Accusations of racism unavoidably activate people’s defensiveness, and, well, you know how the internet can be.

I’m aware that as a white person, I risk making a hash of this, but the only other option is to not talk about it, which can be harmful for its own reasons. Paraphrasing the many objections to the absence of people of color in The Witcher 3 is a tricky business, but paraphrasing one of the most common defenses isn’t. It goes something like this: “Why would you expect there to be people of color in the game? It takes place in a setting based on medieval Europe, and partly on Slavic mythology, and it’s made by a developer based in a country that’s overwhelmingly white. There’s no sinister motive here.”

I happen to agree that there’s no sinister motive. I don’t think CDPR’s developers ever sought to deliberately exclude non-white characters. But I also think that racism isn’t only gauged by intent – it can also be gauged, and perhaps more accurately gauged, by its effect. Meaning something can be racist by accident. If anything, it’s more common than being racist on purpose.

This picture comes from a book called the Cosmographia, written in 1544. On the far left is a Sciapod, from Ethiopia. They have such big feet because they use them like umbrellas to escape the hot Ethiopian sun. Second from the right is a Blemmyae, from India. His face is in the middle of his chest because he has no head. Scholars now believe that 16th-century European depictions of non-Europeans may have contained inaccuracies.

This picture comes from a book called the Cosmographia, written in 1544. On the far left is a Sciapod, from Ethiopia. They have such big feet because they use them like umbrellas to escape the hot Ethiopian sun. Second from the right is a Blemmyae, from India. His face is in the middle of his chest because he has no head. Scholars now believe that 16th-century European depictions of non-Europeans may have contained inaccuracies.

The idea that everyone of consequence in medieval Europe was white is neither accurate nor politically innocent. It’s an idea that has, over the centuries, been deliberately crafted by a relatively small group of people, and then spread through unconscious habit by a much larger one. I have neither the time nor, frankly, the qualifications to make this argument comprehensively, but I can link to a website that makes it far better than I can: this series of articles by The Public Medievalist, which is also the source of the image above.

Continue reading »


 
 
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Significant Zero

By Shamus
on Tuesday Aug 14, 2018
Filed under:
Column

A week ago I mentioned I’ve been reading Significant Zero by Walt Williams, the lead writer of Spec Ops: The Line. It’s the story of how he basically blundered his way into game development at 2k Games, bullied his way into the writer’s room, and burned off a couple of years of his life in self-imposed perma-crunch. Along the way he got to work on games like BioShock 2, Prey 2006, The Darkness, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, and a bunch of other stuff.

I’ve since finished the book, and it’s been eating at me. It was at various times educational, humorous, frustrating, and sad. I want to talk about this book, but not in a “book review” sense. I really just want to respond to some of the events, but I can’t do that without spoiling a few bits of it. So that’s what we’re going to do.

I read a lot, but I don’t read a lot of books. I have no idea how typical this book is in terms of autobiographical post-industry confessions. The last book I read on this topic was Masters of Doom, which is a really different sort of work. MoD is an almost fawning look at a couple of industry veterans, written a few years after the events in question. Significant Zero is alternately self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing, covers the recent past, and is centered on the author.

This is the account of one person and their journey through this meat-grinder of an industry. Obviously there are at least two sides to every story and this book only gives us one of them. When you’re condensing a decade-long adventure down to under 300 pages you’re going to have to make some pretty drastic edits. It’s entirely possible that, consciously or not, the author made selective edits or embellishments that will bruise the truth. There’s no way to know if this is the case, but I’m not going to cover the following paragraphs in qualifying asterisks saying “allegedly” and “according to the author”. So for the purposes of this article, we’re going to take everything the author says at face value.

I don’t want this to come off like I’m judging poor Mr. Williams. I’m not trying to shame him. I’ve never met Walt Williams and even after reading this incredibly candid book he still feels like a mystery to me. I’m just using his anecdotes as a jumping-off point for talking about how messy small-scale interpersonal drama can directly influence the large-scale technology products we build.

Here are some of the emotions I was feeling as I read:

Continue reading »


 
 
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A Lazy Sunday Post

By Shamus
on Sunday Aug 12, 2018
Filed under:
Notices

Don’t be confused by the title. This is not a post for a “lazy Sunday”, implying this is something to be read sometime in the late afternoon, before you’ve changed out of your pajamasWho wears pajamas these days? When people who wear clothes to bed refer to “wearing pajamas”, they usually mean sweatpants and a t-shirt. As far as I can tell, the days of specialized bedclothes are just about over.. What I’m actually saying is that this is a low-effort post intended to go up on Sunday.

Here are a bunch of random announcements:

Continue reading »


 
 
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Grand Theft Auto IV

By Shamus
on Friday Aug 10, 2018
Filed under:
Retrospectives

Grand Theft Auto IV is the highest rated entry in the franchise, which is bizarre to me since I think it’s the absolute nadir of Grand Theft Auto. The virtues of the series (the open world sandbox) were more restrained, while all of the worst faults (a heavy focus on a no-fun story that tries and fails to be a movie) were stronger.

The tone is even more self-serious than what came before. The world is drab and joyless. The driving and shooting are “realistic” by way of being sluggish. The lead character is a mope that doesn’t seem to enjoy anything the game asks us to do. Many of the supporting characters are grating. The missions are more scripted than ever, keeping the player on an even tighter leash in the service of set-piece driven mission design spiked with DIAS “gotcha” moments. The mechanics are cluttered with shallow, frivolous side activities like bowling and dating that don’t make use of the open world that is the strong point of the franchise. The gameplay / story dissonance is more noticeable than before, thanks mostly to the fact that Nico Bellic’s personal goals are completely at odds with the typical “boss of the week” mission structure.

Continue reading »


 
 
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A Few Minutes with the Bethesda.net Launcher

By Shamus
on Tuesday Aug 7, 2018
Filed under:
Random

According to CNET, the Fallout 76 beta isn’t coming to Steam. Instead, the PC version of the beta will be exclusive to Bethesda’s own platform on Bethesda.net. Everyone is up in arms about the beta not coming to Steam, but I think they’re overlooking the bigger bombshell:

Bethedsa has their own platform?!?

Sure enough. I go to the site and there’s a link for “download the Bethesda Launcher”. How long has this thing existed?

According to the FAQ, the beta is available to people who pre-purchase the game. So you can pay up front to be a QA tester. On the upside, they’re promising your progress will carry over to the full game at launch. On the downside, this means at launch you’ll be entering a PvP realm where some people have several weeks of head start.

I’m always conflicted when I hear there’s a new game platform on the PC. I like having another competitor to Steam to work against their market hegemony and encourage them to not take their customers for granted. At the same time, it’s annoying having to manage yet another account and maintain yet another launcher. It’s more convenient to have all your games in one library. Also, the idea of a game launcher from Bethesda Softworks is mildly terrifying. Skyrim is the jewel of Bethesda’s works, and it was still counter-intuitive, occasionally broken, and janky as hell. I can only imagine what their launcher would be like.

I don’t care about Fallout 76, but I am curious what the Bethesda launcher is like. So let’s try it…

Continue reading »


 
 
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Diecast #221: Formative Games, Mailbag

By Shamus
on Monday Aug 6, 2018
Filed under:
Diecast

The mailbag is now empty. The email is in the header image if you’ve got questions for us.


Direct download (MP3)
Direct download (ogg Vorbis)
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Hosts: Paul, Shamus. Episode edited by Issac.

Show notes: Continue reading »


 
 
Comments (132)



You Okay Buddy?

By Shamus
on Sunday Aug 5, 2018
Filed under:
Random

I’m currently reading a book – a gift from a reader – and I’d like to share a quote with you:


Creating art is hard, even painful. Writing, in particular can require days, if not months, of solitude, doubt, and struggle against your better judgement. To be good, you have to put in the time and effort. You have to consume the work of others, both good and bad. You have to write, then revise and revise and revise and revise until you can accept it is time to let go. Most importantly, you have to sit down every day and punch yourself in the face repeatedly, hoping in the end you will come out the winner in a fight against no one but yourself. You can teach yourself to live this way, but it does not come naturally.

That quote is from Walt Williams in his book Significant Zero, an autobiographical journey through the videogame industry. Walt here wrote Spec Ops: The Line, and this quote gives a pretty good clue as to why it felt like: PTSD: The Game. If this is his creative process, then it’s no wonder the game was a descent into madness.

I’m about halfway through the book at this point, and it’s pretty amazing. On this site I’m usually raging against the dysfunction among the leadership of the major publishers, but this book is more focused on the dysfunction at the level of middle management.

Another fun fact? Spec Ops starts off with a rail shooter-style helicopter battle with confusing dialog and it doesn’t totally fit with the rest of the game. I always wondered what the deal was with that. According to the book, late in development some ninny in management decided that the game needed to open with the helicopter section, even though that works directly against the slow-burn opening the game is designed around. The strange dialog in this section was the author’s protest against this decision. Williams deliberately made it so this bit couldn’t fit into the continuity of the rest of the story. It was a middle finger to the dumbass that decided to destroy the intended pacing and tone because they thought gamers are too dumb to appreciate a slow opening.

For the record, I’ve never found punching myself in the face to be at all conducive to writing. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I find the process to be enjoyable and sometimes even cathartic.

Editing, on the other hand… editing sucks.


 
 
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Grand Theft Auto: Cleaning Up The Hot Coffee

By Shamus
on Friday Aug 3, 2018
Filed under:
Retrospectives

I guess we need to talk about this. It was a big deal back in 2005 when the story broke and it got Rockstar Games in a lot of trouble. Since we’re doing this retrospective I figure it’s a good time to revisit what I said way back in 2006. At the time, the thing that infuriated me about the whole story was the fact that nobody reporting on the issue knew what in the world they were talking about from a technological standpoint. On the other hand, back in 2006 I made some assumptions about how this content came to be, and a lot of those assumptions turned out to be incorrect. In a lot of ways, I was giving Rockstar way too much credit.

EDIT: After posting this, I’m really unhappy with the tone and the focus of this post. I wanted to talk about the Hot Coffee controversy, Rockstar’s boundary-pushing, and the 1993 hearings. But then I spent most of this post picking on the content and tone of a short leaked internal memo. That’s not really fair and it’s not meaningfully tied to the intended topic. Also, picking on people for stuff said in private is a dick move.

I’m unhappy with the tone of this post and I’m sort of on the fence if I should leave it up. I feel like it needs a re-write. I could take it down, but I’m not sure that’s the right move either. I don’t like the idea of leaving this up in its current state, but I’m not sure it’s worth re-writing to post again next week. Maybe I should spike the whole thing.

On the other hand, it feels sort of craven to silently delete the post. And if I take it down but leave an announcement that I took it down, then it will drive people crazy because they’ll be even MORE curious what it said.

So I guess I’m leaving it up, but I want to make it clear I don’t really stand by what I’ve written here and I’ve sort of ruined the interesting discussion (talking about adding salacious content at this point in history) to spend half the article arguing with a memo that’s been taken out of some larger context and was never meant for the public anyway.

Sorry. I mess up sometimes.

Disclosure: Nearly all the facts I’m about to share come from this excellent Eurogamer article: Who Spilled Hot Coffee? which details the mechanics of this controversy and how this content wound up in the game. Also, I’ve never downloaded the HC mod myself, so the images below were lifted from Google image search and the Eurogamer article.

Continue reading »


 
 
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The Witcher 3: Kaer Morhen Part Two and Bald Mountain

By Bob Case
on Thursday Aug 2, 2018
Filed under:
Video Games

Last post I covered most of the Kaer Morhen sequence, and called it “Part One” even though “Part Two” is really its own sequence. (Hence this entry’s awkward title.) This is where the game makes an important transition from being one about Geralt to being one about Geralt and Ciri.

Geralt remains the player character 90% of the time, as he did in the first part of the game, but the narrative (of the main questline at least) makes a passenger of him much of the time – it’s Ciri, as often as not, who’s making the decisions and moving the plot forward. While this is happening, the game does something very clever. I’m going to be coy and not tell you what it is yet, though I expect many of you have already guessed.

But I’ll give you a clue and say the first part of the clever thing involves a snowball fight between Geralt and Ciri. The Elven Sage, Avallac’h, is one of the few people who understands how Ciri’s powers work, and, in a bit of a disorienting time skip, we learn she’s been training with him long enough to become frustrated at her own lack of progress. She vents to Geralt, and hidden behind an innocent-looking dialogue option is the option of having a snowball fight with her.

(Ciri, incidentally, is a terrible snowball fighter. She takes way too long to put a snowball together, doesn’t know how to lead a dodging opponent, stands in one place for too long, and doesn’t make any decent attempt at evasive maneuvers, despite her teleportation ability! I personally was disappointed with her on Geralt’s behalf.)

It’s the first of several choices Geralt can make on how to interact with Ciri, which will become important later. It’s also a good tonal antidote to the darkness of Vesemir’s death. CDPR has demonstrated several times that it has a better grasp of tone than most developers. In lesser hands the entire Witcher franchise might have ended up mired in an endless swamp of grimdarkness. Instead, it makes good use of variety and contrast.

Yen can't fool me. I know an incoming group of quests when I see one.

Yen can't fool me. I know an incoming group of quests when I see one.

Some dialogue during this section sets up the next few quests: recruiting members of the Lodge of Sorceresses and finding ways to undermine the Wild Hunt. But first the game takes an unexpected left turn – a long, mostly on-rails run of encounters that I personally found rushed and disorienting. First, Ciri wakes Geralt up and tells him that she knows where Imlerith is. Imlerith is the member of the Wild Hunt who killed Vesemir, and a character I was barely familiar with at all up until this time during my first playthrough.

Continue reading »


 
 
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The Plot-Driven Door

You know how videogames sometimes do that thing where it's preposterously hard to go through a simple door? This one is really bad.

 

Object-Oriented Debate

There are two major schools of thought about how you should write software. Here's what they are and why people argue about it.

 

Netscape 1997

What did web browsers look like 20 years ago, and what kind of crazy features did they have?

 

Spoiler Warning:
Mass Effect 2

What happens when you take a smart game with bland mechanics and turn it into a bland game with servicible mechanics?

 

Artless in Alderaan

People were so worried about the boring gameplay of The Old Republic they overlooked just how boring and amateur the art is.

 

Secret of Good Secrets

Sometimes in-game secrets are fun and sometimes they're lame. Here's why.

 

The Middle Ages

Would you have survived in the middle ages?

 

id Software Coding Style

When the source code for Doom 3 was released, we got a look at some of the style conventions used by the developers. Here I analyze this style and explain what it all means.

 

Final Fantasy X

A game about the ghost of an underwater football player who travels through time to save the world from a tick that controls kaiju satan. Really.

 

Dead Island

A stream-of-gameplay review of Dead Island. This game is a cavalcade of bugs and bad design choices.

 

The Best of 2011

My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.

 

Spoiler Warning:
BioShock

A confusing game that's really smart for a shooter, but kind of dumb compared to its RPG-focused forebears.