Consider Phlebas remains for me the gold standard of Culture novels. So stand by for comparisons to it and complaints that Banks didn't just reproduce the exact same plot. But anyway, The Hydrogen Sonata is another book set in the Culture Universe. That means space opera and fast talking AIs.
The Hydrogen Sonata is about one Vyr Cossont, a member of the Gzilt civilisation in their final days. The civilisation as a whole is preparing to Sublime, that is transcend the physical universe. However with just a few days to go before the big event a dirty secret threatens to emerge that could wreck the whole affair. So it's up to Vyr and whoever she happens by to figure out the secret, decide whether to let everyone know and not get killed by the entire army that's after her.
The Hydrogen Sonata can be viewed as a topic book. It takes a particular topic, the process of Subliming, and demystifies it. In previous Culture books Subliming was mentioned and those who had done so were cosmic forces interacting with the mundane world only through visions or occasionally supernovae. Here we get to see it happen and realise the people who undergo it aren't ascetics or mighty beings, they are really just people. All the other topics around subliming are mentioned. Those who choose to remain behind, what happens to all the technology, how people live out their remaining days when there's a definite end to civilisation. It's a monumental book that succeeds in digesting this vast setting concept and boiling it down for us. There's very little to beat the opening of Hydrogen Sonata, as Vyr walks through a near abandoned city, her home city. Later on she visits a party boat representing the other extreme, a massive celebration of life before it ends as we know it. There's pay-off for it later on too.
Unfortunately it's like the plot gets in the way for the rest. Vyr is whisked away and at the same time thrown out of her own story. Various other characters take over, especially the Culture who are only tangentially involved. They're not bad characters, even the antagonists get Banks careful development to the point where you can understand their motives. The problem is they just end up spoiling the mood of Vyr's story. Her ending is the real ending but it's crammed in amidst endings for every character we met, so the effect is lost. The ending is in many ways similar to Consider Phlebas. A lot of people die for dubious achievements and we're forced to ask if anything the main characters did really mattered.
The Hydrogen Sonata is almost two books. One a very interesting look at the end of civilisation through one of its members, the other a lot of people trying to out-maneuver the apocalypse. Perhaps it would have been a better book if it had just been one or the other. Looks like this sonata should have been a solo.
Consider Phlebas remains for me the gold standard of Culture novels. I loved the protagonist. I loved the story set against the backdrop of a major interstellar war. I loved the depressing ending. I even love the cannibalism. So a true sequel has a lot to live up to. Look to Windward both achieves and fails this for highly personal reasons. So let's jump right in shall we?
Look to Windward is set for the most part on the Masaq' Orbital. It's just another Culture ring that orbits space and is home to billions of people. The events of the novel are set around an anniversary of sorts, light from the detonation of two stars blown up at the climax of the war from Consider Phlebas is finally reaching the orbital eight hundred years later. It's a cause for celebration and reflection. To complicate this an emissary is arriving from a species just recently recovered from a civil war. A war the Culture caused. So Culture citizens have cause for reflection on sins long past and sins recent. As the emissary arrives Culture delegates, the Homomdan ambassador and others plan and worry their way through daily life and the anniversary. But the emissary has a secret. He's on a mission of vengeance. The Culture started a war that killed five billion of his people and he's going to repay them, life for life.
Look to Windward is a very standard novel in the Culture setting. That's not a putdown. It's a portrayal of the setting in a time of peace, when people's greatest concerns are whether they'll go skydiving or lavarafting tomorrow. Banks goes so far as to have sections entirely of dialogue, drowning us in irreverent concerns of background characters. The main characters engage with all of this to varying degrees. Ziller, the outcast composer revels and detests it but appreciates the culture. The Homomdan ambassador, representative of a people who fought against the Culture all those years ago participates with some bemusement. And then there's Hub, the massive computer who runs the entire Orbital. The novel meanders with these characters and others, even as it slowly builds the tension with Quilan.
Quilan, the emissary sent to kill. He is in a sense the main character of the piece, even though he's the antagonist. His story is the very beginning of the book and his history is a sharp contrast to the ease the others exist in. It's a testement to Banks' skill that he uses such a bold idea and makes it work. You engage with Quilan, you learn his assignment as he does, in the end you even sympathise with him, even as he readies to commit mass murder.
There's a lot of twists to the story as it goes on, some you see coming, others you may miss. The resolution was too neat for me, though looking back there was a blink and you'll miss it Chekov's Gun. The book is a true sequel because it is about the grief and loss that comes after war, whether that war be recent or long ago If there's one narrative compromise that sticks out, it's that these people need therapists.
In short, A worthy follow-up to be sure.
For the young devil in a hurry I provide these useful notes which may serve one to the purposes of success, should one find themselves on a prime plane in dialogue with forces of the planes above.
Always remember that while we may hold dear these tenets and execute them to the fullest, our counterparts can be less wholesome in their dedication. Plan accordingly.
After these come the responsibilities. These are defined in less clear language and thus open to interpretation. Be assured that our counterparts will treat them as if they were rock solid. Do not disabuse them of this notion, no matter how much it may amuse.
“We should be under G.” Sable leant over the stand
The doorman remained unmoved “I’m sorry, I don’t see it.”
“It must be a mix-up. Let me just ring the office.”
“If you could step out of the queue?”
Other groups filed past, security checking them off the list. Sable turned a shade of red, her phone ringing out.
Ben’s tone was gentle “It’s alright, I didn’t really want to go anyway.”
Sable turned away “I am so sorry for wasting your time.”
He patted her on the shoulder, eyes drawn to the people filing through. One caught his eye, a lanky business man with long, greasy hair. Recognition kicked in “Xac?”
“Alright, Safeway? You waited for me.” Xac stepped up to the door, flashing a card from his wallet “These pozzers are with me, Jack.”
The doorman frowned, forgetting he had a name tag on “Of course Mr...”
Xac leaned over the clipboard running his finger down the list “Ah! There we are.”
“The Matlock Agency?”
Xac winked “That’s us. Alright if I tip you, Jack? You’re looking bang up.”
“That’s alright Mr Musonius,” said Jack, waving them through.
Continue reading "Golden Apples"
Another day in hell.
Matthew pushed open the glass door, staring bleary eyed at his phone.
“Sync complete,” said a pleasant female voice.
He stopped in the doorway and took a breath. Sweet, pleasant air lolled around him. The old security guard at reception nodded in greeting
“Matt, how you doing today.”
He waved Matthew through.
Matthew walked. The corridor rose gently underneath him, becoming a glass umbilical that parted the crisp, green lawns surrounding the building proper. His phone rumbled in his pocket, handling all the automated requests and scripted tasks he’d set up. He paused at the door, detecting the faint sounds of music, then swiped himself in.
Rows of racks laid before him, circling a central control station. The hum of a thousand servers lulled him as the gentle strings of Vivaldi excited him.
“Spring, uh in E major?”
“You’re getting sharper, Matt!” An older man emerged from the rows, his pockets stuffed with spare parts.
“Oh hey, morning Steve.”
The technician leaned on one of the earthing rods. A faded nametag hanging onto his turtleneck read CEO
“I was just putting a few optimizations in on Block C. You could give me a hand, or did you want to check status from the panopticon first?”
“You’re rewiring the HPC clusters?” Matthew pulled out his phone and scrolled through a list of success messages
“I figured why not? Your test worked so well, we can get the entire Block converted across today.”
Matthew rubbed his hands together “I can’t wait to start.”
Matthew lurched upright, the screen coming into focus in front of him. Where- oh right. Another day in hell.
“What?” he snapped.
Daniel appeared on the edge of vision “Thought you might want lunch.”
“Yes, No. I mean, I’m very busy.”
“I can see that,” Matthew was always impressed by Daniel’s ability to accept lies. It was probably why he did so well here “But I snagged leftovers from a meeting.”
Matthew jumped up “Let’s roll,” he spared a glance over the other desks but Steve and Kobe were gone.
Daniel led the way to the meeting room. He even held the door open for Matthew. There were indeed muffins on the table. However they were not alone. Amelia sat facing the window. A lowly intern, she’d yet to perfect the thousand yard stare. And at the head, Farah, one of the ambitious young project managers.
“After all I’ve done for you. Traitor!” Matthew fled.
Daniel stepped inside with a pained expression “I tried.”
Amelia watched as Matthew flew down the corridor, collided with an analyst and yelled an apology. She turned back to the meeting. Daniel, resigned to the madness, dug into the muffins. Their project manager Farah was preternaturally calm “That went pretty well. You were supposed to give him the requirements deck beforehand though.”
Daniel shrugged “He would have known something was up.”
Farah tapped on a conference phone “M… M… what’s his extension?”
“He’s ex-directory. You know IT. Amelia has his number.”
“That’s for emergencies,” Amelia said protectively.
“Amelia,” Farah leaned forward “Let’s do a little roleplay.”
“The building is on fire. Can I have the number?”
“Remember we’re roleplaying. You, Daniel and I are writhing in agony as fire consumes our flesh.”
“It burns.” said Daniel between muffins.
Reluctantly Amelia produced a dog-eared note.
Farah smiled “The first rule in business is knowing how to deal with people.”
She dialled the number and switched to speaker phone.
Back to the hell that spawned ye!”the voice sounded slightly out of breath.
“Matthew, was it? This is Farah from Projects. I was told you have just the skills we’re looking for.”
“No, I don’t know anything about that and I’m busy with a priority incident!”
“I already cleared the time with your manager. You’ll be released from all ongoing maintenance to work with us.”
“Satan is the father of lies.”
Farah nodded to Daniel. He cleared his mouth of crumbs.
“And as for you Judas! I will see you-“
“This is just a scoping exercise, you won’t be required to give concrete estimates.”
There was a long pause at the other end of the phone
“I want that in writing.”
Amelia realised she should probably be taking notes.
Continue reading "Never give up on class based inheritance"
Conan Exiles is a funny game. From one perspective it's yet another early access sandbox survival game. From another it's ARK: Survival Evolved with the dinosaurs swapped out. It doesn't seem like much of a recommendation, being a reskin of another game. The Hyborian Age mythos seems grafted on. The main menu music is someone doing a downbeat version of Basil Poledouris' Anvil of Crom. The opening cinematic in classic MMO fashion has nothing to do with the game. Yet the game itself is passable enough. However what I want to talk about isn't the game.
Let's talk about the philosophy of Conan: Exiles.
Continue reading "Our Lord Conan"
You might be forgiven for thinking I played a lot of games this year. Really what I played was VR tech demos. I'll deal with them separately, after all most of them don't last more than an hour or two. Instead let's dig into the meaty games that were played this year. Remember they don't have to have come out this year, this is just the first year in which I touched them.
Deathwing It's been a bit of a Warhammer Christmas but they can't all be winners. While Deathwing has it in the atmosphere department everything else in the game feels janky and unfinished. Space Hulk was never my favourite board game and this isn't likely to convert me.
Pillars of Eternity This looked meh to me from the beginning and while I did find it a pleasant game which I completed to the finish I've little desire to go back to it. There were only a few interesting aspects to the world and no moments that stick out overall. Everything was serviceable, a firm meh.
Star Wars: The Old Republic I don't know why I tried it it to be honest. A drunken dare? It doesn't do anything interesting as an MMO or a Star Wars game. It's just a time filler. If this is what KOTOR turned into, leave me out of it.
The Elder Scrolls Online Another MMO, I have terrible taste. Elder Scrolls lasted longer in my mind than Star Wars but it's the same instanced off skinner box, just with larger areas. Play only with friends and murder them afterwards to preserve your secret.
Divinity: Original Sin This was the first year I actually dug into Divinity Original Sin. There were some false start attempts to co-op with friends but it's not really a co-op game. It's the sort of RPG that is more enjoyed alone in a dark room as the night draws ever closer... But seriously it's a fun game with just enough of everything. Credit goes to the simple but effective combo combat system which allows you to spam your favourite moves or experiment.
Mordheim It's Warhammer and Warhammer is good. The studio have done a fairly faithful recreation of the tabletop game but put their own spin with the forced over the shoulder cam that keeps you involved in the action. It's enough to make it its own thing feeling distinct from XCOM. I've only played a little but I want more.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun Likewise I only played a little of Shadow Tactics but it has all the fun of the old Commando games or Robin Hood, with the added bonus of being about super ninja samurai happy time. The developers know their audience as the first prompt of the game asks if you want the dialogue in Japanese with English subtitles.
Stellaris A strong contender for game of the year, Stellaris marked itself out from all the usual Space Empire games by being in real time. After the first few games it can get a bit samey but the developers have released promising DLC to spice up the weaker areas.
Total Warhammer Alas, there was nothing anyone could do to take away Total Warhammer's crown for game of the year. I'll admit I was hyped for the release but waited until this year to pick it up. Every expectation of mine has been met. It provides the Warhammer experience AND the Total War experience. The Orks are fighty, the Chaos is foul and every zombie is rendered with the artistry a big studio like CA can provide.
Wait, let me recheck the title. 2312 is not this year's round-up of what I played but a book title. I've not read lots of books this year, snacking rarely between mealtimes. However this was probably the one that stuck with me. There's an amusing divergence between books and games. If I said I hadn't finished a book and tried to review it, I'd be laughed out of town. Yet some games are downright unfinishable, with bugs out to here or gameplay that loops round like Finnegan's Wake(which I promise to review as soon as I finish it). Anyway, no more digressions. It's time for the review.
Continue reading "The Year in Review: 2312"
Did you enjoy The Elder Scrolls series, a venerable list of RPGs from Bethesda Studios with a focus on open world exploration and quantity in gameplay? Well then you'll momentarily enjoy reminders of those games while you're playing The Elder Scrolls Online. You'll turn and recognise some architecture from Skyrim, or catch a reference to a guild from Daggerfall.
One of the two things that Elder Scrolls Online is a big pile of references. This means that, every time I play it I think about better games. Thanks to the Elder Scrolls Online I really want to install OpenMW. Now, you might say World of Warcraft was a big pile of references to its predecessors but WoW at the time was a new way of looking at the Warcraft world. It had a wow factor as it let you walk inside a Mage's Tower that in previous games had only been viewable from the outside. Elder Scrolls has done it all before. Some of it with less visual acuity, some with more. The only thing Online offers over those other games is the promise of multiplayer.
The other thing that the Elder Scrolls Online manages to construct is the perfect skinner box. The homogenization of areas is extreme with each map varying only in how the dungeons and points are laid out. They all have some dolmens, a few open dungeons, a group dungeon and a list of things to do.There's plenty of variation in the individual quests and the vistas can be compelling but you can't shake the feeling you're ticking off boxes on a checklist. That checklist is the achievement list. Even at the faction level each faction has a starter zone, then one main area for each level range. The DLCs are a welcome change of pace as they're their own areas, breaking out of the series of droning progression. They must have realised at some point what a drudge it would be because the One Tamriel update allows you to level anywhere as any alliance. You can hop over to the high level Dominion zone and quest there as a low level argonian. This ironically brings in Oblivion's problem with level scaling, namely that every fight feels the same.
So it's a skinner box full of references to better games. Does Elder Scrolls Online have anything to recommend it? Well yes. The skill system is good. It's got the Elder Scrolls level from use along with perks that can be bought using skill points at certain levels. There's plenty of skills as well allowing for a good deal of freedom that might not be apparent from the starting classes. Skills aren't all handed to you immediately either. They appear to go along with the guilds you join or character perks you earn. Werewolves and vampires are implemented in a manner that makes them feel earned. Crime is its own venture that can be quite profitable.
The game has undergone some huge revisions from launch. Tamriel Unlimited, One Tamriel with more on the way like Player Housing. It might be enough to keep your interest until Elder Scrolls VI. For me it's only fun with friends.
The Age of Heroes was ending. Metal screamed across a twisted landscape. Spirits fluttered in their lantern cages as Edward sped along the highway. Overgrown fields passed him by. Scorched battlefields, Collapsed buildings and places fouler still were background to his quest. Born of steel, his steed spat fire as its wheels devoured the ancient road. Edward patted the arcane beast’s flank, looking ahead to the past. Skeletal spires split the mauve sky. Englitch had forged their cities from black steel, though never so black as their hearts. The beams of ancient searchlights roved the skyline. They had for a thousand years, as they would for a thousand more. Their infernal contractors bound in perpetuity. This was more than some demon haunted ruin. This was home. No wonder Edward wasn’t happy about it.
Continue reading "God save us from the Queen"
How strange to look back on nostalgia with nostalgia. Here's a post from 2014 reminiscing on my time in WoW. Back then it was almost ten years since I'd played it. Now it definitely is over twenty. However this short post is to mark the final chapter in my WoW adventure. I've deleted my Mangos server, no longer having a desire to work on it. The nostalgia has run its course and now even the memories are faded, replaced probably by Skyrim or some other adventure. Goodbye World of Warcraft and thanks for all the fishing.
I'm finally going into Pillars of Eternity, under advisement. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm an aficionado of the Infinity Engine games. Just last year I started another Baldur's Gate II play through only to drop it when I realised I'd already done everything. Yes, everything. From Kangaxx all the way to the golden pantaloons.
Pillars of Eternity is inspired by the Infinity engine games. It was advertised and plays like a mix of them. It feels like its own spin on them certainly as everything is reminiscent but always slightly different. But does trying to live up to the entire legacy at once cost it in the end?
-The first Infinity Engine game shows its age. What Pillars borrows from this is the world map. Like Baldur's One, it's grid-like with its areas and progress consists of progressing through the areas to reach the other side, opening them up one by one. It has a lot of wilderness areas that are revisited only occasionally. Apart from this it's hard to see any comparison and Pillars undoubtedly stacks up better. Baldur's One was exceeded by its own sequel.
Icewind Dale/Icewind Dale II
The two Icewind Dales fall mostly together due to their shared focus, being dungeon romps of mostly linear progression. Icewind Dale II was a little stronger on story and characters, while Icewind Dale One had it in the atmospheric locations department. Icewind Dale influences are clearly seen. Some of the battle music is a call-back and the expansion The White March takes place in snowy reaches involving abandoned dwarven holds and a remote village struggling to survive against evil armies. However Pillars isn't focused on dungeon romps as much so it inevitably suffers compared against the Icewinds. It simply can't afford to do its dungeons the same justice because they're not the main event. Od Nua I'll get to.
The most character and story driven of the games. Torment has its own sequel planned in Tides of Numenera. In Torment you're not out to save the world, in fact you can't even save yourself. The best you can do is fix what you broke. Pillars does evoke a little of that in its story. It feels like it’s on the right track in terms of quest resolution. There are choices however frequently the choices are just 'Kill this guy' or 'Kill the first guy who asked you to kill this guy'. The companions too never quite reach the character they have in Torment. A personal preference of mine is for the 'Just you and your party' style of the Infinity engine games. The newer style of 'Everyone joins and the extras stay at your base' always feels too gamey to me, as if they're nothing but bundles of stats waiting for you to take them out for a spin.
Baldur's Gate II
The big daddy of the Infinity Engine games and the one most people remember. Baldur's Gate II balanced story, gameplay, characters and freedom into one big bundle. Pillars definitely positions itself as the successor to BGII, trying to do similar things with a Stronghold, an optional massive dungeon and a single main villain carrying out evil plots that involve shady practices by the Gods. Here unfortunately is where Pillars really falls down. Especially where it directly apes BGII. In the villain department, Pillars is lacking. Its main villain just does things, he's never really given a compelling motivation. Od Nua, which is Pillars' answer to Watchers' Keep feels thinly spread, with too many floors and not enough happening. There's many occasions where we're told rather than shown events happening. After the Gilded Vale in the first Act Pillars seems too concerned with opening out into a Baldur's Gate One style, losing the impact of the story. Ultimately Pillars fails on its ambition. Its plot is much more mature compared to Baldur's Gate II but also more abstract. It doesn't feel like a problem that can be solved by just beating the bad guy so when you do there's little sense of closure.
As a comparison against all the Infinity Engine games, Pillars vastly improves on the game system. Infinity relied on 2E D&D, always a shaky proposition for implementation. Its own system updates much of that, while still feeling similar. Wizards and fighters are still there but they feel new and fresh. It's not without its problems, stats are sometimes counter-intuitive and there's little incentives to level outside your class abilities but it's still a step forward.
There's not much to add beyond what I've already said. I could talk at length about minutiae like itemization or the specifics of certain quests but my ultimate feeling is the same. Pillars is a good game but not a great one and that's in part due to living in the shadow of its heritage. It's doubtful a sequel will be able to step out beyond that. The best that can happen is the making of a new game using the same engine, as Infinity was used, in that way Pillars could eventually be itself Baldur's Gate One, the aged parent to a whole family.
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What it's all about
This is the Devpit, where all my ideas, projects and thoughts end up. Have a dig and find something that interests you.