Pre-Turkey

I’m sitting in my office, staring at my unfinished article on Origen and Augustine. It’s made great strides, many in the last hour, but there’s still a lot to do and that can be simultaneously inspiring and depressing. So much of my writing takes place in very short intense bursts after long periods of thought – I just finished one of those, and now I feel slightly cheered, but also mentally drained. I have enough in me to reread an old dissertation for ideas, then I think it’s time for the break.

Sword of the Samurai and its manual: some observations

Today I was reminded – I forget exactly how – that I’ve always wanted to write something about the manual for Sword of the Samurai, an old classic Microprose title that came out in 1989. It is the only PC game that I still own a box for – not the original, which is long lost, but a replacement that I bought for five dollars about fifteen years ago because I wanted a copy of the manual. I have a bootleg copy of the game that runs on DOSbox, which is fortunately as my boxed copy is on two 3 1/2 disks, and I haven’t built a computer with a 3 1/2 drive in years.

Anyway, the manual. Why did I want a copy of the manual? Well, I remember thinking, well before I became the nascent textual critic I am now, that there was something special about it, and that I should have a copy, just in case I wanted to do something with it. What that ‘something’ was, I had no idea – and I still don’t, not completely, though my critical training allows me to articulate that something a little better. But I try to keep things around that spark my interest, and so here are some thoughts.

Manuals for PC games used to be bigger. The industry standard these days is to have the game teach the player how to play it. Arkham City is a great example. There’s no need to read any manual. Even the button assignments are stored on the disc and accessible at anytime. Why wasn’t it that way back in the day? Three reasons, I think. First, hellish size restrictions on game files (the halcyon days of technical feats such as packing Starflight onto a single floppy are long past in this lazy era of gigabytes) prevented in-game demos, so player instruction was consistently pushed to paper, where space was basically unlimited. Second, game design hadn’t moved into the era of simultaneous console development; Microprose, as far as I know, never went into consoles. Their games were by and large complex affairs, with many vehicle simulations that assigned specific functions to nearly every key on the keyboard. It was socially and economically feasible to ship a game with a keyboard overlay; it was mightily appreciated, even. There’s a third reason, also. The /idea/ of a game was different. PC games were not just games, but /software/. And software, no matter how apparently simple it may seem, required a manual.

So the SOTS manual exists in these conditions. But it is different. Most obviously, it doesn’t explain just how to play the game. It is also a primer on 16th century Japanese culture, politics, and warfare. It’s not exactly “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (which is itself a famously book-researched oversimplification), mind you, but the analogy is surprisingly apt as there is an attempt at cultural translation going on, at the hands of developers who have watched a lot of Kurosawa movies (they list seven in particular as inspiring) that themselves are postwar explorations of Japanese-ness. This is a very interesting position for a game manual to be in.

As such, interposed between explicit instructions on how the game works are sections that have almost nothing to do with the game – there is a 12-page overview of the Warring States Period, for example, that feels neither useless nor out of place. Likewise, those same explicit instructions are pretty explicit, even moralistic. For example: “If your villainous goal in a rival’s house is the treacherous murder of an envoy, find the room where he sleeps, draw your sword, and kill him with one blow (he is but a pawn – there’s no point in making him suffer.)”

I love this example as it blurs the very notion of instructions and cuts to the core of the game. First off, there is no way in the game to NOT kill the envoy with one blow; that’s how the melee phase of the game works. I suppose you could deliberately miss and scare the poor sod to death, but the envoy is merely an unmoving, sleeping sprite on the screen that never moves save to be replaced by a bloody corpse. What the instruction is trying to do, and succeeds in doing to the large part, is enlivening the story. It /is/ villainous and treacherous to kill an envoy in my rival’s house. He’ll lose honor for failing to defend his guest, and I’ll walk away scot free after the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man. That sounds far more dramatic and exciting than the reality of the single keystroke.

In other words, the manual is not showing me how to /play/ the game as much as how to /interpret/ the game. The manual acts as a kind of travel guide to a distant land where customs differ from mine. For another example, the manual explains how marriage in the game works and the many advantages of having a bride, including having someone to run your household and the general honorable state of affairs. Realistically, though, getting married in the game only does two things: it gives a one-time shift to honor, and it allows you to eventually have a male heir (and thus continue the game if you are killed or grow too old and feeble). The player is given enough information to play in a culturally savvy way but not necessarily a practical way – there are serious in-game advantages to marrying when older, and avoiding having to raid a castle for the most desirable brides, but the manual shys away from getting bogged down in all that. Its main mission is always giving cultural context for possible actions.

I am tempted to say the manual is merely the reflection of a great game. And the game is unique, certainly, using many of the same branching story-telling innovations present in Pirates!, the other Microprose game that resembles it the most closely in manner and in its immersion in a cultural space (the Spanish Caribbean). But there is an X-factor present here. I can remember the first time I read the manual and realized that it almost stood by itself as a statement of some sort. The “Designer’s Notes” epilogue by Lawrence Schick is the case in point.

Schick states that a major design consideration was to “make the abstract concepts of honor and responsibility important to the player” – as such, these concepts were deeply embedded in the game. Honor, for example, was made into a quantifiable resource tagged to apparently qualitative adjectives – you could have “great,” “commendable,” “average,” “barely adequate,” “little,” or “no” honor, if I recall correctly. Some actions lowered honor; others raised it. You couldn’t ignore honorable behavior because you needed honor to proceed in the game. Losing too much honor was a lot like dying, although I recall quite a few desperate samurai retainers in the game trying to out-villain each other in a race to the honor gutter (after the third time they’d get caught trying to assassinate or steal, they just came off as creepy losers) and still hanging on without committing seppuku.

In other words, the game’s structure is a bit of a mindfuck. In order to succeed at the game, you have to act like a samurai, or at least the game’s truncated idea of a samurai. This is much like King of Dragon Pass, where the game expects you to respect and follow the often barbaric customs of the game’s artificial culture – laugh them off at your own peril, quite literally. The result is a shift in awareness on the part of the player. They are not just playing a game so much as being forced to change the way they think and react.

Sounds kind of like learning, no? Maybe that’s why I kept this box around for so long. There are other reasons, of course. The manual is very attractively designed – it fits the box like a glove, has good use of white space, and is an entertaining read by itself without the game. It represents something of a lost art.

Greek fonts

Another article of mine came in the mail yesterday: “Polemical Ambiguity and the Composite Audience: Bush’s September 20, 2001 speech to Congress and the Epistle of 1 John.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 41.5 (2011): 455-471.

There is a major problem with the Greek font in the article: it wasn’t applied, so the half-dozen or so times that I quote text in 1 John, it comes out garbled. The actual font should be SGreek; if you take the garbled text and run it through SGreek, it should come out with the correct accents and everything. I don’t remember this problem being in the galleys, but either way, neither I nor the editors caught it. Ah well. I give the English anyway, so.

Skyrim = Obliviwind

I am of two minds about Skyrim. The following comments apply to the PS3 version.

Let’s start with the bad. It had a patch the second I installed it, and it still locks up hard in the middle of conversations (it has done so three times). It doesn’t autosave at logical points. The fights are not terribly balanced, at least at low levels – why can I kill a dragon single-handedly early on, but get my ass handed to me by some random bandit chief when I have better equipment than him and I just set him on fire? The color palette for the land is not exactly wide, consisting of white, green, and blue, and there’s a lot of graphical glitches on shadows and whatnot.

Overall, play-wise, it lacks what I was expecting – a major facelift for the series – and instead plays like a mishmash of Oblivion and Morrowind, hence the title of this post. The land is alien enough (hence Morrowind) but the game feels like Oblivion, down to the still-clunky combat and animations. I’m coming off Arkham City, here, people. You’ve lost the combat and animation contest cold.

So after all that, you might think I have nothing good to say. Well. It /is/ epic. “You there! Climb that giant mountain and kill the dragon at the top!” Now /that’s/ a quest. Lesser games might make such a job the entire game, but Skyrim manages somehow to top the last quest you did over and over again with an even more grueling dungeon or trek across the frozen landscape. The game drops piddling fetch-and-carry stuff to a ‘Miscellaneous” folder, as it should.

Griping about the graphics is fair game, but it is a pretty, non-generated land. The towns are sprawling affairs that impress. I don’t think the map is bigger than Oblivion, but it feels bigger. Might be all the mountains. Combat is still clunky – they’re still running something akin to the Oblivion engine – but the blood is a little more liberal this time around and death is affordable.

I expected more, but I’m still playing.

Penn State

Ah, Penn State. You’ll riot for your football coach getting fired for not calling the police when his former assistant coach was molesting boys nine years ago and before and after, but where’s the riot for an assistant coach molesting boys on the job and afterward with tacit approval from administration through lack of action?

I could turn the knife a little more and say this is merely the sign of the bizarre moral system inculcated by a college with a large money-hungry football program. But I don’t entirely believe that. This kind of public anger is reactive, reflexive – madness for madness’s sake – and ultimately, inwardly directed. Who wants to be played the fool for so long, looking up to someone who ultimately falls far short of sainthood? That’s enough, I think, to flip over a few cars.

I am starting to get a little old, and I have yet to meet a saint. Everyone to me mixes some good with some bad. A good reputation to me seems but a carefully manicured lawn – a sign that maintenance is being done regularly, but not much more. We are creatures fond of summation  – that person is good, and that person is bad – and I don’t think that quite covers the usual features of human nature.

Cain

I haven’t commented on the GOP field yet as up until recently I found them a dreadful bore. But now we have Herman Cain with four women accusing him of being a harasser. This is interesting.

You can come up with dirt on nearly anyone, especially anyone active socially or professionally. The chances that you did something stupid at one time or another rapidly begin to approach certainty over time. Cain himself uses this as a defense.

Sexual harassment, however, is fundamentally different, and even more different with multiple accusers. Namely, it crosses several lines – personal, professional, societal – simultaniously. It is boorish from all angles, to put it mildly.

Multiple Presidents have been cads, of course, but there’s a difference between being promiscious, cheating on a spouse, and being a harasser. America has repeatedly exhibited some tolerance for the first two behaviors in presidential candidates and sitting executives. They have not expressed tolerance for creepy sexual assault.

John Edwards was the last major political figure to be totally destroyed by sex, or, rather, his inability to not cover up his activities. He was done in not by rumor but by confirmed rumor. Cain prefers the analogy of Clarence Thomas, who made the case that he was being accused for racial as well as ideological reasons; regardless of whether you buy that line of argument, it’s difficult to prove, which Cain is finding out.

I would  like to have Cain proceed and muddle the GOP ranks further for as long as possible, but his campaign is exhibiting the signs  of cognitive dissonance – denying all accusations loudly, criticizing the accusers personally, and hatching wild conspiracy theories – that point to inevitable collapse. He has not issued the simplest of alibis for the incidents and dates in question. The ax waits to fall.

A difficult choice; also, Bat-goodness

I have a difficult choice to make later this week. Should I buy Skyrim for the PS3 or PC?

Naturally, even a year ago, before I had a PS3, such a question would have been unthinkable and nigh blasphemous. The PC is the ultimate gaming platform until direct brain interfaces become available – an event that will probably occur within my lifetime, but I will be too old and cranky to enjoy it, in all likelihood.

But I am seriously considering getting the PS3 version. While the PC version will likely be better in terms of speed and graphical prowess, there are some advantages to the console that I have come to appreciate.

One, I can play it on our big screen. Much graphical detail gets lost even on a large widescreen desktop LCD, but I have more room for seating adjustment using a 40+ inch screen.

Two, due to the wider frame of viewing, I can watch our dogs more easily when playing. One of them likes to eat inappropriate items from time to time (cough cough SUNNY cough cough).

Three, the PS3 is far more portable than the industrial behemoth that is my main PC. I can take it with us on vacation, assuming I haven’t devoured the entire game and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations by Xmas.

Does this mean the end of Mike’s long affair with PC gaming? The consoles do release nearly everything simultaneously. The answer is a firm no. I would never have bought Deus Ex for the console, for example, even if its latest version was aimed at the console for development. Some games – many games, in fact – just don’t work without a keyboard/mouse interface, and the consoles will never go in that direction.

Another bonus for the PC is more control over the game files – modding is easier – but I am something of a purist, and will play the game as its developers intended.

Right now I’m leaning PS3.

In other savory gaming news, I’ve more or less finished Batman: Arkham City, save the challenge maps that I haven’t worked through yet. Despite the Riddler’s constant accusations that I’ve been ‘cheating’ and ‘using the Internet’, I actually didn’t. I am happy to report that Rocksteady did the near impossible and made a game even better than Arkham Asylum. They might have made one of the best games ever, bar none.

Also, I have to say that I played Arkham City on – gasp – the PS3. This is after playing Arkham Asylum on the PC (where it deleted my save game files!), and replaying it on the PS3 (so I could play as the Joker)… and noticed it actually looked… better, possibly due to the big screen.