Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Skyrim: Meandering in the North.

Open up a beer
You say get over here
and play a video game

Skyrim may perhaps be the most indulgent video game ever released.  As everyone who might ever read this post knows, it's huge, it's part of an old series, and tons and tons of people bought and played the hell out of it.  It's a phenomenon, and I'm sure that I have personally played the game for more than a hundred hours.  

It has been a hundred shameful, couch-sagging, tube-sock-wearing, beer-swilling hours of guydom.  

I've played more than a few video games.  Some I would recommend immediately to anyone.  Others, I would recommend only to the most craven old-school video-game recidivists.  Skyrim falls squarely into the second category.

But why?  Surely it's not the majestic open world, with its vistas, or the detail of its characters; nor is it the gameplay, which many have decried due the overly-simply swordplay.  How can you really complain when the archery and spell-casting mechanics are so good?  The melee weapons aren't graceful, but adding in blocking with a shield is a sufficiently engaging  experience.

I'll even give the dungeons a pass -- even though they're almost all purely linear, they're just so damn beautiful it almost doesn't matter.

Nor is my problem the alarming lapses that break the spell cast by the finely grained detail.  (You might have thought it would hit them the 3rd or 4th time they had a voice actor read the "Arrow in the knee" line...)  How can you really complain about a few lines being copied when there are so many characters, so many stories, and so many events that can happen? Sure, the experience is uneven -- they've lavished more time on some quests than others, and of course it shows.  But to use some office-speak, with so many balls in the air, some are sure to drop.  

The problem certainly isn't with the leveling mechanic -- indeed, this is what Skyrim is all about.  Want to kill monsters?  Keep at it!  Level your weapons skills.  Of course, it's the alchemy, enchanting, and smithing that really get the compulsive impulses flowing.  This is where the gamer's heart of darkness truly lays: ritualized button-clicking, calibrated to find the quickest ways to level up.  Buy materials, make weapons, enchant, sell...buy more, craft more...level up.  Adventure only after you exhaust the possibilities or you run out of money...or the merchants do.  Note the imperative: one started there's not a lot of choice left.  It's compulsive, solitary, and a bit disgusting.  Masturbation is the obvious metaphor here.

And yet this isn't the issue.
This is the problem with Skyrim: it just doesn't matter.  I know -- it's a video game.  Of course it doesn't matter.  Sure.  But then, the same can be said about movies or novels.  And yet we're not surprised when a movie or novel creates drama which draws us in.  The problem with Skyrim is that it fails to create the same kind of drama we experience in other contemporary games -- and a big part of that is because your choices have no weight or consequence.  And in a world of this size, there are many, many choices that feel like they should.  At the end of the day, onanistic 14-year compulsion may be the only reason to play Skyrim.

Sure there are quests with great moments;  sudden dragon attacks.  Powerful enemies.  This is exciting stuff, right?  And yes...at times it is.  If Skyrim had come out a few years ago, it would be enough.  

But then a few things happened.  Specifically, Heavy Rain and the Mass Effect series.  When video games demand as much respect in universities, both of these titles will surely studied as early masterpieces, for a simple reason: your actions have consequences.  Characters -- important ones -- live and die based on your choices, or even how well you play the game.  

Furthermore, the writing, voice acting, and production are strong enough to make you care.  In these games, the package coheres into something that's more gripping than all but the best movies; as the experience spreads out over the hours, you become closer to the characters than is possible in a film.  In a film, you sympathize with the characters.  In these games, you become the characters you play.

Don't get me wrong.  Skyrim is a good video game.  It's just not a great video game.  Let me put it this way: the best games out today (Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, perhaps Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, or L.A. Noire) are games that you don't play when your significant other is out -- they want to see what happens next.  On the other hand, Skyrim is a game you only play when they're out, and nobody seems to mind.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tip of the cap: selling parts

Old vs. new

About ten years ago I sprang for a set of headphones.  I spent about a hundred bucks on a set from Sennheiser called the "HD 25 SP."  I liked them for a couple of reasons:

1) good isolation from outside noise
2) deep, physical bass

In the intervening years, I did a lot of things, including moving back and forth across the country, getting jobs, losing them, traveling various places...meanwhile, mp3 players became popular, which were then eclipsed by smartphones which also played mp3s.  Headphones can be very handy and these got their fair share of use -- especially since their noise isolation rivals the popular active cancellation models.

(Audio side note...keep in mind that the active models really work best at blotting out static white noise, like a plane engine, while a set with passive attenuation will cut all sound equally, without batteries or impacting sound quality.  Also, though I understand the noise cancellation itself is very good, you pay a premium for anything labeled "Bose," and that premium may not always be reflected in the sound quality.)

My pair got pretty beat.  As a member of our disposable society, I probably should have just tossed them and found a better pair.

There was only one problem: I couldn't find anything I liked better.  At least, nothing with the same level of isolation and sound quality, unless I wanted to pay a lot more.  Sure, I could upgrade to the HD 25 SP's big brother, the HD 25 (basically the same headphones with some nicer features, very popular with DJs and sportscasters) or just plunk down another hundo for a set of the HD 25 SP II which replaced my set.

Both options seemed pretty silly, especially since the only problem was that the pads were a bit ratty, as you can see on the left -- the pad's "skin" had started to separate around the edges.  I attempted a patch with some electrical tape at some point...with mediocre results.

Along the way, I'd found a link to a set of replacement pads.  The pad attachment on these things is a bit fiddly, so I'd forgotten about it...until earlier this week, when I plunked down to get a set of replacement pads from good old B&H.

And tonight, thanks to the quick shipping, the old phones are as good as new, or at least as close as I can tell.  Sennheiser: classy move making these pads available and selling them through reasonable channels.  You might not have sold me another pair of headphones, but you have earned yourself my recommendation.

So: if you're on the market for some sweet cans, check out the Sennheiser HD 25 and SP.

Things to be ignored during this article:
1) the Bittman article from the Times used for staging.
2) the fact that the "DJ" on the Sennheiser pages is always wearing the same headphones...which don't match the ones on the page you're looking at...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Heirloom tech: the stainless steel vacuum flask.

Image courtesy of Jeff the Gardener
When I was younger, I remember my father loading a vacuum flask in the morning before he made the long drive to school outside Boston.  He'd dump most of a pot of coffee into a tremendous bottle that looked like nothing so much as a gigantic, green-toned mortar shell.

That mortar shell was, of course, the classic Stanley flask.  My father's is still in better shape than this one, but it takes quite a bit of abuse to destroy one of these things.  And note the specification: it'll keep your beverage at temp for 24 hours.

The stainless flask is truly a brilliant device.  It uses no energy to maintain temperatures -- it's just metal, impervious steel, odorless and tasteless.  The liquid space is nestled in an evacuated cavity so the only heat transfer happens through the metal itself.  The metal only connects at the neck of the bottle, which can only transfer heat slowly -- over 24 hours or so.

Glass-lined vacuum flasks (like Thermos) are perhaps even more efficient.  However, they're not as durable, and if you've ever broken a glass vacuum flask, you wouldn't want to do it again.  So it's stainless all the way for me.

Before we go, I'll leave you with a few other high-fliers on the stainless flask scene:

The Thermos Nissan 34 oz.

The Zojirushi Tuff Slim (note detailed temperature performance specs)

Or, if you're cheap like me...Ikea always has one or two very affordable options.