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Archive for February, 2012

I got a new camera yesterday.

I’m joining the digital SLR ranks with a Canon Rebel T3.  Also on order, a white umbrella, some slave flashes, and a remote control (all the better for those “bulb” extended exposures like star shots and light painting).  Then, I’m going shopping for supplies to build some do-it-myself tripods for the flashes and umbrella (I’m thinking of bugging the local hospitals to see if they have old IV stands for sale/free, and maybe repurposing some old office chairs and such), and maybe even setting up a muslin backdrop and tie dyeing it with the leftovers from the Great Dice Experiment.

So what’s the first big photo shoot?  Something old, if I can help it.  That’s just where my mind inevitably goes when I think “explore and take pictures“.

Maybe not a trip to Pripyat or Battleship Island (though those would be awesome to go shoot in, the ol’ budget isn’t too kind to such ideas), and I missed the time window for Kowloon (though I’d be afraid of what I’d find there), but there are a few ghost towns around here I can get to without a ton of travel.  That’s one nice thing about living in the western U.S.; there are a lot of old prospecting towns out in the deserts and mountains, so there’s plenty to see beyond taking panorama sets of the terrain itself.  This new camera even has some HDR potential, so I’m looking forward to experimenting with that.

Yes, that means I’ll be taking photos of the Real World instead of adding to my 9,000+ MMO screenshots, but I hear that “fresh air” is good for you.  Maybe it’s time to find out.

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So, Whitney Houston died.  It was all the rage in the news for a while.  Something about drugs, I think.  I kinda sorta, well… don’t care.  Not that I have any particular antipathy towards the lady, mind you, it’s just that I only have so many bits of attention and care to give, and that’s below my threshold.

Just... not... working

Of course, the news is no stranger to this sort of thing.  It’s a big part of why I find very little of interest in the mainstream “news” media.  The old “if it bleeds it leads” mentality is tired and stupid.  I’m almost, but not quite to the point where I don’t even feel the moral outrage or pity or sympathy I’m supposed to.  Maybe there’s a promised land on the other side of wallowing in the mire of depression and outrage the media would have me march into (the better to distract you, says the Big Bad Wolf), but for now, it’s all just… static.

Still, this whole Josh Powell saga that the local news is all whipped up about broke through the static a bit to cause me to ponder psychology and vicarious emotion.  The guy wasn’t the best sort of person.  There are some bits of depravity in the case that the media loves to hint at (ax murderer! of kids!), and the high probability that he killed his wife (but we just don’t know! drama mystery! apocryphal intonation that we’ll probably never know!) that make his case, well… a media circus.  Yes, the guy was pretty screwed up.  He caused a lot of damage.  And yet… it seems to me that there are more important things to spend time talking about.

I know, I know, I’m wasting time on it here, but there’s a point to be made.

We, as gamers, have our own topics of sometimes inconsequential incoherent interest.  A WoW talent system revamp (again!) is Big News.  Eeeevil shark-jumping Kung Fu Pandas!  SWTOR and homosexuality is Important Stuff.  Plate mail bikinis are evil, unless they are employed as tools of irony or self-expression… or something.

Gotta say…

Still not working

Y’see, it’s not like those things aren’t important to someone.  They are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s just… I have other things to think about, and my priorities, frame of reference and even moral framework are different.  (Though I’m sure that someone thinks I’m Wrong, and need correcting.)

And yet, the media would insist otherwise.  I have to wonder, what is it about our inherent voyeuristic tendencies that makes these things so juicy for reporters?  Certainly there’s a bit of the old “but it’s for the childreeeeeen” in there, and selling moral outrage at a distance is old hat.  It’s curious, that in all of the above instances of Much Ado About… Something… there’s a bit of vicarious emoting going on.

We can blather about Houston’s “untimely” death, her descent into drug-addled dysfunction, or her less-than-storybook marriage.  Sometimes it elicits sympathy or commiseration from those who understand, sometimes it’s empathy from those who might think “there but for the grace of God, go I“, sometimes it’s schadenfreude from the little bit of meanness that we all seem to have at times and those who embrace it.

In the Powell case, there’s a bit of the vigilante spirit in the stirring, where Powell is the villain of his little morality play, and we of the dedicated moral audience get to pillory him and thereby indulge in self-assurance that we’re not as bad as he was.  It’s almost as if we can suppose that his bit of vice has been excised from the human race, so we’re all better off.  The Collective has purged some of its imperfection. I don’t buy that line of reasoning, but I wonder if that’s what we’re being sold, even if it’s subconsciously.

…so what of games?

Even without ol’ Jack Thompson being a sanctimonious moron, games have their share of detractors who would suggest that those of us who like games are really just Powells in the making.  And on the other hand, there’s the “Killing Monsters” school of thought that suggests that fantasy violence and vicarious vice of all sorts is cathartic and even preventative of such actions in the real world.

It strikes me that perhaps we’re looking at a similar impulse under the hood.  Houston had some drug issues.  Powell did some pretty nasty stuff, but so do game avatars.  If we’re not actually part of the drama, though, it’s all just so much storytelling.  Sure, at some level we understand that drugs really wreck lives, and that Powell did real things, and that games aren’t real, but we’re pretty good at rationalizing things away if we’re not actively part of them.  Things that don’t intrude on our immediate reality aren’t exactly… real.

It’s almost certain that terrible, evil things are most likely happening somewhere.  Powell isn’t representative of white suburbia (or what we think white suburbia is), but he might fit nicely into some thuggish regime out in Africa somewhere.  (Or is that inner city Metropolis/Gotham/GenericBigUSACity?)  If we can sequester him away in a “not my reality” or “not in my back yard” mental nook, we can ignore him as well as we ignore avatar actions.  (We do this all the time, politically, socially, whatever.)

Except… we’re learning at some level.  We’re still cognizant of the difference between reality and fiction.  We may choose to overlook some things, embracing the comfort that comes with ignorance, but it really is hard to unsee or unlearn things.  That said, hearing about Powell every ten minutes on the radio doesn’t make us homicidal, but it gives us an outlet for our hate and moralizing so that we don’t have to analyze our own behavior.  It’s always easier to pick apart someone else and find flaws, or find things to be offended about, than it is to do a bit of honest self-evaluation in comparison to the ideals we pay lip service to.

With games, we can indulge in vices that we’d never have the gall or depravity to embrace in real life, and then go on our merry way secure in knowing that we’d never really do that sort of thing.

…I’m actually more of a “Killing Monsters” kind of guy in that I think this is a survival tactic.  Nongamers whine and fuss about those eeeevil people doing eeeevil things to convince themselves that they would never do that, and gamers get their darker impulses out by slaughtering digital baddies.  I’m not really sure that either is all that healthy in excess when the priority probably ought to be making one’s self a better person, but I think that both serve as an outlet so that we don’t wind up indulging in nastiness for real.

At some level, I think we need to get past looking for assurances that we’re not bad and actively seek to be good, but the media circus and the game industry offer introductory catharsis in the meantime.  That’s probably a useful function, though it’s not really a destination.  News needs to move on, and so do we.  We can only live vicarious lives for so long, whether it’s an imagined “not that guy” or “that one guy“.

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No, not that gloomy shooter, I’m talking about what most might call “negative space”, an important art principle.  It’s just that everything is better with a touch of the undead, right?  And really, though there’s nothing really all that active going on in that negative “dead” space, it’s still a crucial part to a living composition.

Speaking of the undead, though, I submit as Exhibit A, my beta testing Unit Card from Zomblobs!, as demonstrated before:

Zomblobs! Beta Card Murmurer

This card is, well… busy.  There is a nonmetric crapton of information jammed into that visual space.  It’s a bit overwhelming.  There aren’t many blank spaces for your eye to rest.  Sure, there are some interstitial spaces here and there, but on the whole, there’s a lot going on.  This is something I actively fought on these cards, but there’s just so much information to communicate that it’s hard to devote much space to just taking a visual breather.  This is a big part of why I left the Health grid on the card, though it’s unlikely that most players will bother with putting the card in a sleeve and marking off HP loss with a dry erase marker.  The Health grid serves a visual purpose on the card itself, if not a huge gameplay purpose.

Humans need that negative space, a moment to breathe.  We need it in temporal matters, too, as Syl so nicely summarizes over at Raging Monkey’s in the Precious Time-Outs article.  We just aren’t really wired to be going all out, all the time.  (Incidentally, this is a great tangential article about Star Trek and “social media”, and how the fictional Star Fleeters just don’t function like the rest of us, especially in this regard.)  We need a break, whether that’s actually stepping away from your primary function or just little mental breaks here and there.  It’s healthy to let your mind and body shift gears now and then.

This is a critical component of visual composition, it’s important to auditory design (notice the pauses and almost silent moments in something like this little gem of classical music mixed with modern music or this crazy-awesome piece of very modern music), it’s important to narrative (look at the changes of pace in something like a Harry Potter novel; the world is burning, but there’s time for worrying about snogging practice… because it’s important at some level), it’s important to pacing in game design.  To be sure, sometimes a frenetic pace with no rest is exactly the point of design, as it does affect the overall mood, it’s just that sometimes designers don’t always think about just taking a bit of time to let the player do, well… nothing.  Just… stop and smell the virtual roses, look around, soak in the ambiance.

This might be an important function of relatively mindless grinds in games, or noodling around in character progression schemes like the FFX Sphere Grid.  The player can still be doing something to push along the main game’s narrative or develop their character, but it’s a differently paced activity.  The whole point is that it’s a low-impact activity, but it’s still part of the game.

Maybe that means that not every choice at every moment is Meaningful and transcendent (whatever that means), but that’s OK.  I think it’s important to let players feel comfortable enough to rest in your games.  That, to me, suggests that they want to be there, and that’s probably a Good Thing.  Maybe that means they aren’t doing anything more than the equivalent of dancing on a mailbox in the buff, but they are there, they are engaged.

Borrowing again from art, negative space also acts as a subtle (or blatant) way to suggest what is really important about a presentation.  This drawing of mine uses the old “vignetted” look from early photographs to put the focus on the pirate and his character.  There’s a lot of space there that doesn’t have much in it, but that still communicates something.  This is a character at ease, content with himself.  He’s peaceful, almost restful, and though much of this is communicated by his pose, his environment reinforces the message simply by not intruding.

Vargas the Mad

In contrast, this bit of art that someone else painted up is about the same pirate (from the Puzzle Pirate forums thisaway)… and man, it’s busy.  There’s a totally different tone to the art, and a totally different feeling evoked from the viewer.

Vargas the Really Mad

There actually still is negative space in there, it’s just in very different configurations.  Thing is, that’s intentional.  It’s busy because it’s supposed to be.  It’s uncomfortable because it’s supposed to be.

Incidentally, I still use two spaces after periods.  It’s an important typographical pause that I find very preferable over a single space.  It’s more aesthetic and even more functional, as it gives a greater weight to the differences between sentences.  Some typographical gurus loudly decry the “rivers of white” that double spaces can create in blocks of text, but I even find those to be a nice visual break in an otherwise monolithic mass of type.

The way an artist uses negative space, whether visual, auditory or temporal, can have profound effects on the audience.  It may sound odd, thinking that artists need to sometimes do absolutely nothing, but sometimes, it’s the most important thing they can do.

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Trek Tales

As much as I like Star Trek Online, I’m looking forward to finishing it and moving on.  I suspect it’s similar to how I’d approach Star Wars The Old Republic, inasmuch as I want to play the story and then move on to another one.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I’m not burned out on STO (and I still highly recommend it, flawed though it is at times, like any other game)… I just have a lot of other games I want to play, and I need to move on instead of getting stuck in a rut.  This also means I’m less likely to burn out on the game, since I’m not feeling obligated to play past the point where I’m having fun, whether because I’m in a raiding guild or paying a subscription I want to get good value out of.

It’s remarkably similar to how I approach novel reading, actually.  I liked the Harry Potter books when I read them, but I don’t feel much impetus to start over and reread them.  On occasion, I do pick up one of them and just start reading somewhere in the middle, just for fun.  Likewise, I’ll pick up I, Jedi once every few months and reread a random passage, just because that’s the era of Star Wars that I like the most.  It’s a lot like my bookmark system that I wrote about back in my Turning Back Time article, where I can just jump into the narrative wherever I feel like it.  I do similar things with DVDs when I’m working in the evenings; I’ll fire up a movie or TV show I’ve seen but maybe I’ll skip around to the parts that interest me at the moment as I paint or design.

We don’t see that much in games.  Between autosave systems like Batman Arkham Asylum/City and MMOs and their “always on” nature, the biggest games I’ve played lately aren’t all that amenable to replay unless I flat out start over.  Y’know, I don’t always want to do that.  Sometimes I just want to jump into the parts that I loved most the first time through and replay the fun bits, maybe with some tweaks to my approach.

Maybe World of Warcraft is tinkering a little bit with this, as Big Bear Butt suggests over thisaway, by letting players bypass the grind inherent in gearing up alts, but that’s not quite the same thing as replaying some of the narrative bits or trying something as a different class (I’ve argued before for full character respecs, all the way down to class, as I note over at BBBs’ place).  Sure, we can replay a dungeon here and there, but what about the stories out in the world at large?  I don’t think there’s any way to replay a world quest without firing up a new character, and that’s a time sink.

It might be fun, sure, but it’s like starting a novel all over again just to get to that cool part one third of the way in or watching a movie on videotape.  Sure, you can fast-forward a bit, but you can’t skip ahead like you could with a DVD.  We’re totally spoiled by DVDs and their instant access to varied scenes in a movie.  I have a hard time watching movies on VHS these days.  I’d like to see more of that sort of spoilage in gaming.

This is where STO really shines.  I’m convinced that the best writing in the game is in their Featured Episodes, each a handful of missions with some tight scripting and play.  No, there’s not a lot of player autonomy or choice for Bioware-flavored gaming fans, but sometimes that’s OK.  Yes, I’d love to see more simulationist MMO gaming and player choice, but just going along for the ride can still be good fun, especially in bite-sized chunks of time.  (Though I maintain that it’s a Very Bad Fit for subscription MMO gaming, I do love a good Final Fantasy or the like sometimes, just like I love Minecraft sometimes.  They can both be good fun, just different.)

Anyway, the Featured Episodes are replayable pretty much whenever you’d like, so long as you’ve done them once.  They autoscale to your level (and there are three selectable difficulty levels) both in challenge and in rewards (experience aside).  This is fantastic, as I can just go replay the missions I loved most without starting a new character.  It’s simpler in STO, thanks to the instanced nature of missions, but man, it’s a great core design decision.

It also might be worth noting that I could get all the fun I’m getting out of STO if it were a single player offline game.  Sure, I’d need to go online to catch up with Longasc or BlueKae or Tipa in-game (though I’m not so good at that anyway), but I’ve been playing the Featured Episode missions entirely solo since Longasc helped me through one of them some eight months or so ago.  STO is a good game solo, and it’s a good game with friends.

…but it’s about time to move on.  I’ll finish the game, plunk it in my “good game” memory and move on.  Maybe I’ll come back just for fun one of these days (a huge strength of the nonsubscription model), but it will be because I enjoyed it and want to again.  Maintaining that positive mentality toward a game is a Good Thing, methinketh.  I’ll probably play through the new Feature Episodes on the 11th, and then go play Batman Arkham City or Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.  Tally ho!

Oh, and here are some of my favorite screenshots from my STO play.  I have a LOT more, but these are my favorites.

Obligatory mug shot

Obligatory ship shot

Obligatory away team shot

Obligatory Earth orbit shot

Obligatory DS9 shot

Obligatory Empok Nor shot

Obligatory Enterprise-F Odyssey model shot (only available during the 2nd anniversary shindig)

Obligatory Memory Alpha shot

Obligatory cool planet shot

Obligatory cool space shot

Obligatory space station raiding shot

Obligatory shipping crates shot

Obligatory planetary cityscape shot

Obligatory weird lava planet shot

Obligatory Tribbles shot

Obligatory Gorn shot (my son's character, Sss'anta)

Obligatory noob shot (my daughter's character standing in a fountain, petting a Tribble)

…and a few other random shots.

Romulans experimenting on Borg tech

Reman Base

Broken down

Fire Caves

Blowing stuff up

This illustrates my favorite ground combat trick: my Science Captain’s “endothermic field somethingorother”… basically a nice Area of Effect ground fire.  It’s a blast to use on stationary targets.  It’s also good to use on NPCs, since standing in the fire confuses them, and they don’t use special abilities or move out of the fire.  Then I turn the Cryogun on them for a little fire-and-ice action.  Yeah, I love AoE attacks on targets that just sit there.

Standing in the fire

150 or so over on the Google hivemind.  Resistance is futile.

(4200+ not shown.  Yeah, I take a lot of screenshots.)

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I love photographs of old, broken stuff and places.  I’m not sure if it’s the photographer in me or just a pining for the past I never knew, but modern photographs of old or broken things are some of my favorite visuals to study.  They make for great story fodder and reference material, too.

I find photos of failed construction projects to be similarly fascinating.  This, for example, is a composite shot of a failed building project near my home.  This is one of two giant apartment/business combo buildings that was started during the housing boom.  It was never something our community even needed in the first place, but the housing bubble broke and the construction company simply ran out of money.  (They were counting on preselling $1,000,000 condos to finance the construction… in our community where $200,000 will buy a good sized family home and the average salary is $45,000/year or so.  Yeah, they didn’t really understand math.)  It’s a blight on our main thoroughfare, a testament to bad economics and stupendous lack of foresight.  And yet it remains.  Unfinished, untended, unnecessary.

Failed Building Construction

I wrote about this before in my Falling Apart article.  I highly recommend going and checking that out, as it carries the bulk of the philosophical rumination I might offer in this vein, and better, some really cool photos and links.

In the meantime, I’ve been collecting links to other fascinating collections of photographs in the same vein; busted buildings, urban decay and varied displays of the ravages of time.  Some of it may be politically or socially charged, at least in the implications, some of it might simply be due to the inexorable march of time.  Some of it, like the Chinese ghost cities, the ruins of Prypiat or the Winchester Mystery House, is ripe for storytelling, whether digging into the actual stories or riffing on reality for fictional fun.

Much of it is somber, sad and even tragic.  Sometimes it’s creepy, and the realities can be appalling.  Still, it’s fascinating, and it invokes musings on mortality and the meaning of life and why we do what we do.  Is it more important to have lived well or to have left something behind?  What is the most important mark of our passage in this mortal coil?  …is it important at all?  What if death were unhinged, what then?  What can those who have gone before teach us today?  Do we care, or do we keep making the same dumb mistakes, only to see our work on the scrap heap of history?

China’s Abandoned Wonderland

via Washington Post

via Reuters

via National Geographic

Chinese Ghost Cities

via Business Insider

via Ritholtz

via Time

New South China Abandoned Mall

via Skyscraper Page

Abandoned Asian Architectural Wonders

via Web Urbanist

Prypiat and Chernobyl

via Village of Joy

via Retronaut

Yugoslavian Monuments

via Flooby Nooby

Winchester Mystery House

via Wikipedia

via the ‘House’s own website

Surreal places in the Real World

via Quora.com

Decay Photography Challenges

via Digital Photography School

via The Photo Argus

Weathered

via The Photo Argus

Dark Stores (abandoned stores and malls)

via Brian Ulrich 

via Urban Ghosts media

Randall Park Mall (huge, empty mall)

via Flikr

also via Flikr

And just for fun…

Decaying Victorian Buildings… in LEGO.

As in, this Mike Doyle fellow built these to look broken down.  Crazy stuff.

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