[Gender] Indoctrination

This is something I have been thinking about for a long, long time. Something I feel I should’ve put to text a while ago, if only to help me get my thoughts sorted on the subject. I feel that during my childhood I have been indoctrinated.

No, nothing serious. My parents didn’t try to get me part of some evil cult -not true, my father insisted I’d be baptized- or anything of the sort. Nor do I think the indoctrination aspect was intentional. What I mean is, my parents, mainly my father, were grooming me from all sides to become ‘a real man’.

Whatever the fuck that is.

From as far as I can remember, my dad had been ‘masculating’ me (I made that word up. It exists now). In winter, however, he said I had to put off wearing scarves, gloves or winter coats for as long as possible because learning to resist the cold would make me a man. I was told that if I didn’t finish my lunch, I’d never grow up to be a man. I had to exercise more, practice a sport, go outside, all in order to become a strong man.
All of this led me to believe I had to be manly. You see, there was a time, aeons ago, I still looked up to, nay, worshiped my father.  His word was more than law, his word was truth. And he said I was a boy who had to grow up to become a man. So I had to be manly. Not that I had any reason not to believe him. I had a penis, boys have penises, ergo…
I remember during elementary school I sat with my legs crossed, and someone said that I sit like a girl. Since then, for a very long time, whenever I realized I was sitting with my legs crossed, -and I sit with my legs crossed a lot. It’s something I do subconsciously- I immediately uncrossed them again, because it wasn’t manly.
Another example is how I repeatedly applied perceived reality on myself. I willed myself to like football and cycling, because those were the sports my father enjoyed, and therefor those must be the most manly of sports. I never once rode a sport bike in my life, and I was horrible at football. I didn’t even like any of it, nor watching it. Not really. However, dad liked it, so it must be the manly thing to like, so I will bloody like it as well, or else… So I forced myself to like it. Because I felt I must.

And then came puberty, and my body began to change, become more man-like. Surely this must be wondrous, no?
When I realized I didn’t like what was happening to me, I tried to rationalize it. I told myself it was only a temporary phase. It would pass. Soon I’d be able to grow a full beard, and then I’d show the world just how much of a man I was.
But I also began to rebel against these changes, these emotions, these decade-old truths. Mostly subconsciously at first. I think my first true act of defiance was letting my hair grow long. Another, more hidden act was dressing like a woman. I used scarves and such as makeshift skirts and tops. I think at the time it was at least partly sexual fetishism, even though I didn’t masturbate yet back then, though now I look at those nights from a different angle, and see a very different picture. However, even though at the time the idea that I might not, in fact, be a boy, occasionally cropped up, it was immediately banned from my thoughts. I knew of transsexualism, that is, I knew more or less what it entailed, but I’d never dare consider myself one of them.
That is, until I met one.

Maybe ‘met’ is the wrong word. At the time, I had known her for years: she was -is- the progenitor of one of my oldest and best friends. My best friend period, at the time. I also looked up to her something fierce. While my father was my god during the first decade of my life, he more and more became something of an oppressor after that. The rift that is now a gaping abyss wasn’t there yet, however, cracks were appearing in the foundation of our relationship. And this other person, this father-figure of another family, a family I spent many weekends, who was so kind, understanding and wise, I often wished if he couldn’t be my father, my own father be more like him. And now this person told me he was in fact she, and the way I looked at myself and the world shattered. Seas of questions washed over me, questions I needed answers for. Some about her, sure -most of which I never asked, and many simply answered by the passing of time- but so many more about me.
I secretly did it, a thousand times before, but when I did I immediately pushed it away. But now, for the first time in my life, I allowed myself to ask the question ‘what if I’m not, in fact, a boy?’. And ask it I did.
Not to anyone else. At least not at first. To myself. Over and over I let that sentence dance around my head. Brooding, festering. I started researching, looking stuff up. I came across terms like ‘transsexual’ -what my best friend’s father was- transgender, androgynous… That, maybe I was that. That didn’t sound too much trouble. Something nice and in the middle.
But that didn’t seem enough. My subconscious nagged at me more and things like a hatred for erections and a deep-rooted disappointment at forever being unable to get pregnant pushed me to look more towards the other side.

Cue several years of hiding my truth, revealing it sparsely to more and more people, and living more and more as a strong woman -exactly the kind my father didn’t want me to become- and I find myself in the middle of sex reassignment therapy and I must say I truly feel I’m on the right path.
A few days ago, when I woke up I noticed my nipples had at least quadrupled in size compared to the last time I payed any attention to them. And I was happy, truly happy, with how my body was changing. Not because I forced myself to be happy, not because someone else made me feel I was supposed to be happy. Because I this is the path I have chosen for myself. Because this change is a change I decided I want, without input or pressure from anyone else pushing me this way. Despite what I have been made to think for almost half my life, I will never be a man,  and despite what my parents still try to make me think, that’s okay.

~Hel

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[Gaming] A look at The Old Republic

This weekend, I (like just about anyone who signed on but wasn’t accepted earlier) got a chance to try out The Old Republic in a stress test. Ever since I heard about this game, I told people I wouldn’t buy it if I didn’t first have a chance to try it out, however, I couldn’t help but secretly be a bit excited about it.  So now that I had this chance at was essentially a free trial, I took it with both hands and gripped it tight until my claws tore into its flesh and blood ran  down my arm into my sleeves.
Once I got past the insane (five minutes! Teh horrorz!) queue times, I did what every sensible person should do in my situation: I made a twi’lek. A smuggler by the name of Lynneiah, because if anything, I’m original as fuck when it comes to naming my RPG characters (guess what my Nord in Skyrim is called). However, I did get to choose the patterns on my brain-tails. Make of that what you will.
My journey took me from level one to level thirteen,  and from a planet whose name I forgot that was facing a separatist rebellion (Star Wars people are about as original with their names for factions as I am with RPG characters) to the planet-wide city (seriously, where DOES all the poop go?) of Coruscant. At that point the quest for my main story-line was too high level to solo, and I couldn’t be bothered with the sidequests, so I went back to Jorrvaskr to get piss-drunk on mead. Or at least my twi’lek’s namesake did.

Anyway, I do believe I have played enough to have a sufficient first-impressions of this game, and I’d like to share some points because I like ranting about video games about as much as I like playing the damn things.

-Dialogue choices? Voice acting? In my MMO?

More likely than you might think. Then again, this IS a BioWare game, and they seem to have grasped one basic truth: Quest texts are fucking boring. In TOR, people talk to you by actually talking to you. And you get to choose how you reply to them from a wheel with usually three options anyone who has played Mass Effect will be familiar with. Every line of dialogue is voice acted. Even better, every line is voice acted really well. And I was able to make some quips that genuinely made me giggle. However, while every line of NPC dialogue was unique, the player character sometimes used the same lines again. For example, if I had a penny for every time my character said ‘make me an offer and I’ll think about it’ in my 13 levels of playing alone I’d have… about seven pennies. I understand that coming up with new ways of saying basically the same thing indefinitely is tricky, though, so I’m not really sure how this can be fixed.

-Black and White morality, the bane of my existence.

I’m not sure if I haven’t said it before on this blog, though I would be surprised if I didn’t, but I believe the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are bullshit. “Every coin has a flipside, and now that you’re focusing on that flipside, don’t forget about the other flipside” is a phrase I’m trying to make more catchy (suggestions?), but basically sums up my life’s philosophy. Nothing is so bad it has no redeemable factors; likewise, nothing is so good it doesn’t have any drawbacks. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re either naive or bullshitting you. This is true in real life, and I’d like the same to be true in fiction.
But this is BioWare, right? The guys who brought us Dragon Age, a setting with so many shades of grey you wonder if there are any other colours at all? Yes, but this is also Star Wars. And Star Wars has a clearly defined Light and Dark Side. And while it’s being presented as morally grey (there’s a lot of shit in the Republic, while some Imperials are actually honest people), and it is possible to play a morally grey character, you get punished for doing so. Why? Morality meters.
I fucking hate morality meters.
At many points in the game, you get to make a moral decision, and based on that decision, you either get Light Side or Dark Side points. These points move you up and down a morality meter showing you how Light or how Dark you are, essentially beating the concept of ‘shades of grey’ by quantifying good and evil, and having opposite-aligned actions cancel each other out like 1/1 and -1/-1 counters, essentially forcing you to pick one side and sticking to it if you want to reap the rewards of being ‘maxed out’ in good or evil. Now, to be fair, I haven’t seen any of these rewards yet, so I have no idea how desirable they are, but my main point is that morality meters stifle roleplay.
Yeah, I roleplay my character, okay? They may all have the same name, but they all have a background, a personality and a set of morals and ideals that doesn’t necessarily fit with what the game decides is ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
Anyway, I lost my train of thought here, but bottom line: morality meters are bad, and BioWare should only ever use Dragon Age’s morality system, because that’s the only one that made any sense.

-Why the fuck is this game an MMO?

What I mean is, why is this game not essentially a single-player game with multiplayer capabilities? You know, optional multiplayer capabilities? I can see myself playing this game with a group of friends, and enjoy my time. However,  I do not see myself enjoying having people steal my kills all the time, or clog up around an NPC I really need to talk to.
Or fucking take off all the clothes of their NPC companions and think they’re hilarious for having them run around naked.
Point is, the internet is filled with morons, and I don’t want to spend more time with morons than I absolutely have to. What I propose is how Guild Wars (the first Guild Wars, that is) did things: have a few public areas, towns and such, lump all players together there, where they can interact with each other through means other than whispers, and group up, and have the rest of the world instanced, so players who want to quest on their own can quest on their own. And I really see no reason why this isn’t the case. None.

-Isn’t shooting people supposed to be fun?

Maybe it’s because I ignored most side-quests and focused almost entirely on the main story-line, and because of that, my level became progressively lower compared to that of my enemies, but my fights became more and more tedious and less enjoyable as time went on. This is a bad thing, by the way.
However, part of the problem, I feel, is also that they copied WoW too much while at the same time being different from WoW. For instance, they took away auto-attacks, but they kept the action-bar-and-cooldown-based combat style. And I’m completely fed up with both. Why not make it, say, a third person shooter? With lightsabers! Or another system that makes the player’s skill just as important as their character’s level compared to that of the enemy they’re fighting. Something that doesn’t make me groan whenever I can’t run around a group of enemies and avoid them altogether.
This action-bar-and-cooldown-based system works in Dragon Age because the game is sufficiently challenging, AND you get to control four characters at once. And even then I’d gladly admit combat was DA’s main weak point.
On a somewhat related note:

-Have enemies level up with you

Here’s an idea (that I completely stole from The Elder Scrolls): have all enemies be exactly the same level as you. You level up? So do they. The game already gives several mobs several types of ‘eliteness’, making them harder than their compatriots of equal level. This is a good mechanic to make certain quests more challenging. You don’t need to lock a certain area, and thus all quests related to that area, to a certain power level, making it inaccessible to lower-level characters, but absurdly easy for higher-level characters. I think that’s an outdated concept, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it join the dodo. Preferably before the panda bear does so, so chop chop.
Of course, part of why I’m complaining about this is because my main quest line (which was the most interesting one by far) was artificially blocked off to me by having the next step require me to be five levels higher, frustrating me enough that I plain didn’t feel like playing the game anymore.
And I have to wonder, why shouldn’t I be allowed to follow just the main quest line? I found its plot almost forcing my character to only focus on it to the point that getting sidetracked by other business would seem illogical.
I will admit this one pretty much requires the previously mentioned ‘make everything instanced’ idea, but I don’t see that as a bad thing.

-While you’re at it, steal Skyrim’s level-up system as well.

Because WoW’s is shit, and stealing that is stupid.
Even Blizzard has (finally) realized their talent tree is an outdated concept where people find what is objectively the best build within days of any major update (and picking anything but that build makes you a poor player), and I don’t see how it would be any different having the (exact) same tree system in TOR.

Anyway, I have to admit I was growing really fond of my Twi’lek smuggler, and I’m still not sure if I want to pay for the final product, plus a monthly subscription fee to continue playing with her (or rather, start over). I enjoyed my time spent with the game, but I honestly don’t see it keeping me entertained for long enough. I also feel that there is too much opportunities to innovate BioWare just passed on and instead copied WoW. The story is, from what I’ve seen of it anyway, excellent, and dialogues are really fun, however it seems that that’s the game’s only selling point. To me, anyway. And I’m not sure whether that’s enough or not to warrant paying a monthly subscription. Mind you, there’s A LOT of story (eight times KotOR’s worth, I’ve been told).
I think I spent, in total, maybe eight or so hours on the game, and then I just turned it off because I wanted to do something else. And now, more than a full day after I stopped playing, I still want to do something else. However, I also want to know what happens next to my smuggler. I could watch a Let’s Play when they come out, but that wouldn’t be *my* smuggler.

Fuck you, BioWare. Fuck you.

[Gaming] Binary upgrades versus non-binary upgrades

Today I want to talk about something video game-related I’ve been wanting to rant about for a while: upgrades.

Upgrades are a system developers put in many games to make them more interesting. It’s also one of the few game mechanics that is easiest to not completely fuck up their goal (make (or rather keep) the game interesting), yet so often does get fucked up. The most basic example would be the following: You start with a gun that does X damage per shot. At one point in the game, you find another gun that does Y damage per shot, where X<Y. The second gun is an upgrade to the first one. This example is simple, easy to understand, and appears in pretty much every game that involves shooting people with guns. It’s also an example of how it fails at keeping the game interesting: it’s a binary upgrade.

What’s that, you ask? A binary upgrade is an upgrade in a game where no real choice is involved. You take the upgrade as soon as it is available. The upgrade is either ‘off’ (0) or ‘on’ (1) with no real alternatives. Reading a tome that increases your strength with +1 is not a choice. Of course, technically you could choose to not read the tome, but why? There’s no real in-game advantage to you not taking that upgrade. In fact, most games will ramp up the difficulty as the game progresses based on you reading those tomes of +1 strength, or picking up those guns that do Y damage per shot. Not doing so makes the game harder. Of course, some people enjoy putting artificial challenges in their game to overcome, like playing Dragon Age: Origins on nightmare without any party members, and without any equipment. But those people are also crazy. The vast majority of gamers do take every advantage given to them.

But there are other, less obvious examples of binary upgrades. Take Dragon Age: Origins, for example: Besides your active talents, which are your combat abilities and spells, you can also choose from a list of more passive skills. You get one point to put in these per three levels (two if you’re a rogue), and there are several options, including coercion, several crafting skills, combat training and tactics. This list is long enough to look like it makes for an interesting choice, but really it isn’t. There are typically two things you really want as a non-mage: coercion (which does what it says on the tin: lets you either persuade or intimidate NPCs in dialogue to do what you want them to do), and combat training (which unlocks the higher levels of combat talents). Mages don’t need combat training per se, as it isn’t required to unlock higher level spells (instead it reduces the chance of spells failing when hit in combat) so their only real priority is Coercion. Given the fact that every skill only has four levels, and thus only needs four points to reach max, there really isn’t that much choice involved. Quite often, you’ll be able to finish a game with all the skills you wanted, and some spare points to put in something that’s vaguely useful like Tracking. Add to that the fact that crafting is, overall, useless in that game, and that you only really need one party member per type of crafting to put skill points in there to reap the benefits (plus the fact that party members don’t even have the coercion skill -why would they?) and you have a very bland, rather binary upgrade system.

Let us next look to another game by the same creators: Mass Effect 2. ME2 sports examples of both binary and non-binary upgrade systems. The skill system is, funnily enough, both. There is no way you’ll get enough skill points by the end of the game to get all the skills to max level, especially since your character’s level caps at 30. Also, upon reaching max level of a skill, you get to choose between one of two possible upgrades: for example, you can choose to make your incendiary attack hit harder, or hit a larger area (and thus more enemies at once). This is choice. This is good. However, if you know what you’re doing, you’ll pick the useful skills out and leave the others be. As such this system can also be pretty binary. The research system in ME2 is also binary to the core: on your missions you find research projects to upgrade your weapons and armour, and back on your ship, you spend resources to make these upgrades. However, the only real limit here is the amount of resources you’ve gathered, and given the fact that there’s way more resources to gather than you can possibly use, it is possible to research every upgrade in the game. And other than arbitrarily limiting yourself to create a challenge (or the fact that you cannot be arsed to do the mining mini-game), there really isn’t a reason not to.
However, the weapons themselves are inherently non-binary. The first pistol you pick up at the start of the game, however, has a large ammo-capacity, and can be fired rapidly, but doesn’t do all that much damage per shot. Not much later in the game, however, you are given another pistol, which is the exact opposite: low ammo capacity, slower shots, more damage per hit. You can only ever carry one pistol at a time, but depending on your play style, you can decide for yourself which pistol suits you best. And if you feel like it, you can swap them around between missions and enjoy the feel of the other. The same is true for every type of gun in the game, and like that, you can costumize your character’s weapon load to suit your preferences. This is interesting, and allows you to vary up your gameplay as you go.
Rise of the Argonauts does something similar, but takes it to the extreme. Every weapon does the same amount of damage as every other weapon of the same type, and handles completely the same. However, apart from your starting weapons, every weapon has a passive ability that is completely unique, and there is no ‘best’ weapon of any time in the game. There’s a sword that can cause enemies to take bleeding damage, there’s a sword that deals more damage when used from behind, there’s a sword that has a chance to slow down enemies, etc. Which one you use is entirely up to you and how you like to play.

Another good example of non-binary upgrades is Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. Blizzard Entertainment, who utterly failed to make WoW’s talent system in any way non-binary (you can’t take everything, but there’s always a ‘best’ choice, and picking anything else is stupid and, in all honesty, makes you a bad player), did a very good job in Starcraft II’s single-player campaign. During most missions, you will gain access to a new unit, and if you do all the missions, you will be able to have all the units, but that’s not what’s interesting. What is interesting is that you also gain cash for completing these missions, cash you can spend on upgrading those units. Every unit has two upgrades available to it, however, it is impossible to gain enough cash throughout the campaign to purchase every upgrade. You must therefor choose which upgrades to purchase, based on which units you like using best, and thus costumize your army to your playstyle.
Also, during the missions, you pick up research data on the other two races, which translates into research points. For every five points of the same race you’ve collected, you’re able to pick a research option that enhances your entire army in a certain way. However, each time you have a choice of one of two options, and choosing one locks out the other permanently. Again, this lets you tailor your army to your own preferences, and allows you to play the campaign a second time, but has it feel somewhat different.

Finally, I’d like to put forward my own idea for non-binary upgrades. The idea would be for a fantasy RPG. Say, you play a mage-type character, and you start out with a basic ‘fiery hands’ spell, which deals fire damage to enemies in front of you. As you level up, you can upgrade this spell into, say, a fireball spell, which can be thrown at an enemy further away, or you can keep it as a short-ranged spell, but widen the arc, and reach, making it engulf more enemies. Later on, you can upgrade the fireball spell to explode on impact, damaging a group of enemies clumped together, or you can upgrade it to launch, say, five fireballs, hitting up to five enemies who can be more spread out. Likewise, if you went the short-range option, you can widen the arc to encompass the full 360 degrees, damaging everyone around you, or focus your fire into a beam that fires out a certain range, and damages the first thing it hits for as long as the spell is maintained; and which can also be rotated to aim (anyone who has played Magicka knows what I mean). At this point you have upgraded your main fire spell twice, and already you have 4 unique options to choose from. And you can only choose one. I would like to see this system, or a system much like it be used in a game at some point. If it’s done properly, I might just play the shit out of that game.

My day at the hospital

Yesterday (or two days ago, depending on when this goes up), I went to the hospital to finally start my hormone treatment (yayzers!). I was also subjected to some tests to see what my body is like now, so it can be compared to what it’ll look like in about a year. Here’s a few interesting things I’ve learned while there:

-Watching the train you just ran your lungs out to catch ride away never stops sucking.
-I weigh 57 kilograms and measure 174 centimeters. This means my BMI is 18.8. Everything below 18.5 is underweight, so I’m officially no longer underweight.
-My right hand is stronger than my left hand, even though I am left-handed. Which was kinda weird.
-Questionnaires are still boring. Vital to researchers, but boring.
-5 centiliter of blood looks like a lot if spread over 16 vials. Also, having a needle punctured in the inside of your elbow for two straight hours kinda hurts after a bit.
-Sugar water tastes kinda good. I would’ve liked a sip of regular water to wash down the after-taste, though.
-There is a large amount of young, attractive women working in Belgian hospitals. I noticed this several years ago, when I had an accident, and needed to get my upper teeth repaired, but it again became apparent here. This is not just the psychologist I visit about once a month, or the doctor in charge of my tests. About three quarters of women in white coats I saw were young (younger than 35) and attractive (by my standards, at least). And this was not counting the students, who wear different coats. And yes, I did start paying attention to this after about half an hour.
-My bone mass is below average. This means I shouldn’t be partaking in  contact sports. So much for my sword-fighting lesson plans.
-To help fix this, there are three things I can do: consume more dairy products, get more sunlight, and get more exercise. Swimming is, apparently, the least advised form, because of the posture you adopt. Riding a bike is better, but the best are walking and running.
-Ever had a situation that looks a bit like this: you’re under a scanner, and the person in charge leaves for a moment. The scanner stops, without the person returning, and you’re not sure if it’s okay for you to get up and get dressed, or if you’re supposed to wait. I chose the latter first, and remained down for about five minutes, without any sign of the doctor returning. Then I figured that if more scans were due, she’d be back by now, got up and got dressed. Almost immediately after, I was told I wasn’t supposed to get dressed yet and that more scans of specific parts of my skeleton were forthcoming. So… yeah. There’s a reason you feel doubt in a situation like that, apparently.
-Other than the bone thing, I am in -excellent- health. There was nothing the doctor could remark that was off about me, given my physique. Nothing I didn’t know already. Other than an annual upper-back pain and a tendency to catch the sniffles more easily than most, my only problems have been emotional for the longest time.

All in all, a very interesting day. Also, I have pills. Yay!

This is literally a new blog update

I have a complaint.

Ok, I have quite a few complaints. But I have a complaint I’m just now reminded by and I want to vent: Overuse of words. Just now I ran across someone on a forum who said “I’m literally only there two nights”. Now, I know the word ‘literally’ was used correctly here. Or rather not incorrectly. I’m not complaining about the popular misuse of the word (ok, I am now) where people use it to put further stress on a hyperbole (‘that guy was huge! He was literally as tall as a mountain!’) thereby using the word to do the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do -namely pointing out that what you’re saying *isn’t* hyperbole.
Don’t get me wrong; I *hate* that too, but what I want to complain about is that the word was not used incorrectly, but needlessly. I assume it was used to stress the fact that staying ‘there’ for two nights was a relatively short period of time, but the word ‘only’ already does that. “I’m (staying) there two nights” is a grammatically correct sentence. Adding ‘only’ adds stress. Adding ‘literally’ does nothing. As described above, the correct use of the word ‘literally’ is to point out that what you are saying is actually true in the exact way you are describing it. It’s mainly used to point out that something that sounds like hyperbole isn’t in fact hyperbole. “I literally haven’t had a proper night of sleep in weeks” is a correct way to use it -provided, of course, that the last night you slept properly was several weeks ago. The conditions to properly use ‘literally’ are a: what you say is factual true, not just what you mean, but also how you say it, and b: it can be (or is) perceived as hyperbole.
If the former is absent, you get men ‘literally as tall as a mountain’. In the case of ‘literally only two nights’, the latter isn’t there. In the context of travelling from place to place (which was, by the way, the context), it isn’t all that uncommon to only stay for a few nights in any one single location. When you say you’re only staying there for two nights, people don’t assume that you might mean four or five nights. Pointing out that you really do mean two days is, therefor, unnecessary.

Now, you might ask yourself ‘why does this matter? Can’t the guy use the words he wants, as long as he’s being grammatically correct?’ Well, no. For two very important reasons: Firstly, it annoys me. Yes, me. I’m selfish. Fuck off.
Secondly, using ‘literally’ like this will mean it’ll go down the same route of ‘awesome’. Awesome used to mean that something was beyond average. Now it still means that, but it also means ‘hey, that’s kinda fun’. Overuse has diluted the meaning of this word to be a common throw-out when you approve of a certain notion. I’m guilty of this too, I confess. This meaning of the word has been ingrained into today’s English-speaking youth. Awesome has been lost to us in that respect, and I fear over-use of literally will mean that word is next. Soon we might literally buy bread in the morning. And it will taste awesome.

Settlers 7: Path to a Kingdom review

Yeah, I dropped the date thingy. If you’re really curious what day I posted this on, it’s in the Uniform Resource Locator.
Hah! Bet you didn’t know what URL stood for, did ya? (Disclaimer: I didn’t. All hail Google)

Anyway, the following will be a review of a video game, as I haven’t done one of those in a while. (Granted, I haven’t done one of anything on this blog in two months. Still). If gaming isn’t your thang, I’m not sure if you’ll find anything of interest here. In my eternal benevolence, I have chosen to not hate you if you choose not to read it if that would be the case.
For everyone else: Settlers.

The first Settlers game I have played was also one of the oldest games I remember owning: Settlers 4. I remember being so horrible at it I spent hours on end on so called ‘free-play maps’, with no opponents and no goals, so I could just build stuff. It was -as far as I remember- a well-balanced mix between RTS and the economy-centered ‘build your own village’ type game I loved from Cultures. It also came with the mini-game called Smack-a-Thief, which was every bit as amusing as it sounds.
About a year ago, I picked up its sequel: the then already aging ‘The Settlers: Heritage of Kings’. This game eschews much of the economy management of its predecesor, and focusses more on the military strategy aspect of the game. Enough so for me to call it a full RTS game. It was fun, but nothing too special.
About a week or so ago, I picked up the latest in the Settlers series: number 7, Path to a Kingdom

Plot (the massive spoiler section):
Don’t worry. It’s really, really not all that good.

The game’s story pleasantly surprised me right off the bat by introducing a female protagonist ~a rarity in, fuck, any game~ and then shortly after smacked my hopes into the ground by making her naive and stupid. The campaign puts you in the shoes of princess Zoe, the daughter of king Konraden, ruler of an unnamed kingdom somewhere in the late Middle Ages. Daddy summons her to his palace (apparently Zoe is a big girl living on her own, far enough away from her father that a visit warrants a top-speed ride on horse-back through the countryside) and tells her that her dearest wish, a crown of her own, can be fulfilled. The neighbouring kingdom of Tandria is in political disarray after the tyrant king Balderus has been overthrown by a lord Wolvering and his ‘Dark Knight Dracorian’. Zoe is tasked to colonise Tandria, after which her father promisses her to crown her as queen of the realm. Zoe accepts and struts off to meet with a contact of her father’s, a Tandrian innkeeper named Bors. The intro movie, however, shows the king as less than trustworthy, because, as his daughter marches off, he turns around, his back towards her, grinning evilly in the general direction of the camera, and mutters the words ‘desire, how wonderfully blinding you are.’
Zoe meets up with Bors, who happens to be very well versed in the art of statecraft, and teaches her the ropes during the course of the first few missions, where you ‘fight’ against several of Wolvering’s minions, until you face off against his right-hand man Dracorian, his sister Rovyn and finally the lord Wolvering himself. During these encounters Zoe enters in gut-wrenchingly awful dialogue with her opponents who all claim Wolvering is a hero and Balderus a tyrant, as well as with her mentor Bors, who is strangely fond of the disposed king, and knows a little bit too much about managing an empire than an innkeeper should. Yeah. Zoe’s not very smart.

She's kinda cute, though

She also frequently displays doubt and unease about executing some of the “ruthless” plans Bors suggests; doubt and unease he quickly talks her out of by saying ‘it’s the only way’. It made me want to yell at the screen “You’re the princess, bitch! You’re in bleeding command! Stop taking orders from an innkeeper!” more than once.
When she finally defeats Wolvering, and conquers Tandria’s capital, Zoe returns to her father to claim her crown, which is when the Big Reveal we never ever saw coming shows that her father never intended to crown her, and instead gives the crown back to the exiled king Balderus, who -you never guessed it- turns out to be none other than Bors, the guy who has been ‘guiding’ you (read: bossing you around) for the first three quarters of the game.
So Zoe feels bad about being used in her father’s political games, and she feels guilty about putting a known tyrant back on the throne, so she springs Dracorian from prison and asks him to help her fight back against her father and king Balderus (and not, say, the older, more experienced Wolvering, or any other of his henchmen. Nope. Only the hunk Dracorian, because this story really needs a love interest you saw coming from miles away).
And then they fight back and defeat her father and king Balderus, Dracorian crowns her Queen of Tandria and all is well. The end.
No, really. I could predict every single thing that would happen the moment the introduction scene ended. And so would the average reader (everyone, I would assume) of this blog.

Gameplay:
The ‘important’ part

So in the introduction I already pointed out that one Settlers game does not equal another. So what kind of a game is Settlers 7? Based on the story, it would be safe to assume that Settlers 7 centers around army and combat and conquering your opponents through military force, what with the story being about conquering a foreign nation and whatnot. It would also be a very wrong thing to assume. Combat and warfare is a very minor, very optional part of the game. Apart from the first few tutorial missions, which railroad you along to a specific goal, the game offers you three ways to achieve victory -three paths to your kingdom, as it were- you can raise a military to conquer the shit out of everyone, you can play it economically and use trade to your advantage, or you can go the religious route of science (the game, while set on ‘Earth’ (judging by the world map) is entirely fictional, proven by the fact that religion and science are somehow related).
Every map you play on is divided into territories. Every territory has a ‘camp’ that marks the centre and roads connecting these camps. These roads are the only way for everything to move from territory to territory (henceforth referred to as ‘zone’, because it’s easier to type). Every player starts with a single starting-zone, with a castle instead of a camp, and must expand from there. You do this by getting your economy going. This game does something fun in that every economic building with the exception of the warehouse has three ‘plots’ around it that can be used for add-ons (called work yards). The Mountain Shelter building can have up to three stone quarries, gold/iron/coal mines, iron smelters or coking plants (turning wood into coal). The lodge has forester (plants trees), woodcutter (cuts trees), sawmill, hunter’s, fisherman’s, etcetera. Higher production work yards, like the mint, the toolmaker, the bakery, the weaver, etc are build around residences, which also supply you with the majority of your population. In true Settler-style, all resources need to be physically moved from the place they are produced to the place they are used and this is done most efficiently by a well-working network of warehouses (or, in other terms, build the damn things everywhere!). While building up your economy, it’s a good idea to start working on your path to victory. As mentioned above, there are three paths: military, trade and religion. In the beginning of a match you’ll have to rely on a small military force, supplemented by a group of outrageously expensive mercenaries to take the neutral zones connected to yours that you need, but once you unlock the necessary options in the tech tree (which you do by spending prestige points, which you get from conquering neutral zones and building pretty stuff) you can build a church, an export office and a stronghold. Here you respectively train clerics, traders and soldiers, which can give you certain benefits. All three can be used to capture neutral zones: the soldiers march in, fight the rabble located there and capture the zone after spending a while in the camp uncontended, the traders can bring cold coins to the zone to bribe the shit out of it, converting it to your side, and the clerics can simply march into the zone, wag their arms around and exclaim that God said you should rule this place (an act the game refers to as ‘proselytize’. I’ll happily admit I had to look that one up, though my hunch that it means ‘convert’ was, alarmingly enough, correct). That’s where the similarities between benefits ends.
A strong military is the only way to take zones captured by another player, as these zones can’t be bribed or converted -sorry, proselytized. Stress on the ‘strong’, though, as the odds will be stacked firmly in favour of the defender. You can upgrade a zone’s camp to reinfoce the zone with towers at each of the entrances. Every enemy army which enters the defended zone will have to fight one of these towers, which take at least 10 (trust me, it’s a huge number in this game) musketeers to take down, or the very expensive, hard-to-get cannons if the towers are furtherly upgraded into stone. You also lose most of these musketeers or cannons in the process, and all of that is before your army engages whatever troops are stationed within the zone. This means it’s very easy to make your territories untakeable until late in a game.
Traders can be used to, well, trade. There is a world map that has several trading posts on it, these posts are all connected to each other in a network that originates from a central post where everyone ‘begins’. You send the required amount of traders out to these posts, claming them. Most posts open up a certain trade route that let you exchange x of one resource for y of another (usually coins for other stuff). Some contain other goodies. Once a post is claimed, it’s yours. Other players may ‘travel there’ as a stepping stone on their own trading path, but they can’t make use of whatever benefits you gained by claiming it.
Clerics can be used for research, which is done on the research board: a board with research options branching out from three locations. Much like the trade posts on the world map, research options are unlocked by researching the ones that connect it to one of these three locations. To research something, you train the required amount of clerics, and send them to do research in one of the three monasteries on the map (corresponding with the research ‘start points’). Once a research is done, it’s locked. Only the player that has done it, reaps the benefits, and no other player can use that research as a stepping stone, though the board is set up in such a way that all researches can be reached from multiple directions.

Now, how does this lead to victory? The second half of the campaign, as well as every skirmish game has the players competing over a number of victory points. The first player who reaches a previously set amount of points (dependent on the map’s size and player count) will initiate a three minute countdown. If that player manages to hold on to their points for the full duration, they win the match. Victory points can be earned in any number of ways, and some are locked on their player, while others are fluid. The two furthest trading posts and the research in the middle of the board award a victory point each and are locked on. Other points like most zones, most soldiers, greatest worker population, biggest stockpile of unused coins, etc, go to the player who first reaches the minimum count for each, and then switch to another player when they overtake them by one or more (these points rest with their current owner in case of a tie). Which points you grab and how isn’t important. What is important is that you get enough before your opponents do, and manage to hold onto them long enough.
The whole setup made me feel like I was playing a more complicated, real-time version of Settlers of Catan, and ever since I really wanted to play THAT game again.

The game supports team play, which is interesting because the only thing team members share are victory points. Traders, workers and soldiers are also allowed to pass through zones controlled by an ally (clerics can move anywhere without restriction, regardless of who controls a zone), but allies don’t share resources, don’t share researches and don’t share trading options. This makes communications among allies vital which, given the fact I only played with AI players, proved difficult.

Presentation:
Graphics and shizz

As much as I would love to say the graphics look really nice, the colours very vibrant and the cartoony style are cute as hell, because of some reason the game kept crashing on me when I played on anything but the lowest graphics setting. So… yeah…
Based off of screenshots, though, the graphics look really nice, the colours very vibrant and the cartoony style is cute as hell.

The music is very good. With an orchestral soundtrack and an amazing titlesong written for the game, the music always managed to set the mood right for me.

Summary:

While I think the story was awful, I must confess I didn’t expect much to begin with, as I usually don’t from these types of games. The campaign missions offer some unique challenges, but eventually revert to the ‘series of skirmishes’ trap many RTS’s do. Especially when the tutorial part is over, and you fight against the other characters over control of victory points, much like you would in skirmishes. The fact that most of these campaign maps have been adapted for skirmish play doesn’t help the case of ‘interesting campaign’ much. Even so, the campaign was entertaining. Don’t underestimate it, though. Despite the fact that the story and cartoony graphics might be more attractive to younger players, the difficulty will stomp your face in the later levels. Because most victory points are fluid, you can spend an hour or two on a map thinking you are set to victory, until one of the AI opponents swoops in, takes a bunch of your points and forces you to reload to a previous save or even the beginning.
The skirmishes against AI opponents got dull rather quickly. However, I think this game has great potential as a social game between friends who set their laptops in the same room. The fact that there’s no fog of war and you can watch what your opponents are up to anyway seems to work in favour of this argument.
What doesn’t is the DRM. It’s a Ubisoft game, meaning it requires an internet connection 100% of the time. Which sucks, but the game seemed stable enough with the crap connection in my flat, and when it did die, the game just paused with a message saying ‘connection lost. Please reconnect to continue’ rather than, you know, making you lose every bit of progress since your last save.

Other than that, the game really had me entertained. I can see myself coming back to it every now and again. It can be played on both PC and Mac, which is always an awesome bonus.

As for me, I’m well over the 2500-word mark, so I’m going to stop here. As always, please leave a comment, either here or through more private means. Feedback is, as always, appreciated.

16/11/2010 Coping

I really should be sleeping at this moment, or at least trying to. I’m not.
I can’t.

Judging by the comments made here, and the replies I get to my posts on MSN or Facebook, most of my readers are close friends, so most of you know that one week ago, Saturday night, my grandmother died. She fell asleep in her favourite seat in front of the television and… didn’t wake up.
When my mother found her that Sunday, and called us over, I cried. For the first time in years, I shed tears over something that wasn’t physical pain.
I still don’t know if I would’ve been able to cry if I had been there alone, or what it was that made me cry: the sight of my grandmother motionless, or the sight of every single one of her offspring -bar my brother- crying as well. Not that I particularly care. As I said, I hadn’t cried for emotional reasons in years, and when the tears came, I embraced them. I did not feign strength by holding back -nor do I believe it would be a sign of strength if I did, more a weakness- and I cried. It was narcotic. As if all the worries I ever took from anyone to help carry were lifted from my shoulders for the full three hours we were there, and I could let my emotions run their full course.

Then came the week before the funeral, which was… numb. My uncle and aunt were over every day to help my mother plan the funeral, and I stayed home from uni for a full week. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on classes anyway, and I wasn’t ready to spend quite a bit of my time in a room, alone, without anyone in the same building I could go to when I needed to. I never needed to when I was home, but the thought helped enormously.
I did go the the Creative Writing Group organized at my university, but more out of therapeutic reasons than anything else, and I went back home that same night.
This period was also where my dog proved invaluable -and my cats utterly useless, but that aside. What I am going to say now may sound weird, but from time to time -and last week more than ever- I draw great comfort from sharing my bed with a warm, living body. Someone I can wrap my arms around or rest my back against at night, when trying to fall asleep. Under ideal circumstances, this role would be filled by a girlfriend, or a particular kind of very close female friend, but since neither have been ‘available’ for close on two years, I sleep together with my dog. It doesn’t matter that she can’t understand, or doesn’t care why I hug her in the middle of the night, the fact that she allows it -while not perfect- has been most welcome.

I cried again that week on Wednesday, when we came to bring a last farewell to my grandmother, in her open coffin. It was then that I learned the difference between a dead body and a corpse. What my mother found that Sunday was the former. A body that is no longer alive, but merely looks like it is sleeping, the only things hinting at the truth being her cold flesh, her numb, stiff hand and her skin turning a pale, sickly yellow. What I saw that Wednesday was a corpse. My grandmother never looked older than 65-70 in life, despite being a few months away from turning 80.  In those four days, her physical age had caught up with her, and added an extra decade. The flesh in her face had shrunk, her skin shriveled, and the pale, sickly yellow was now very clear. She could still be recognized as my grandmother, but only barely so. I then realized that she was gone, no more. I had lost my grandmother, and I would never get her back.

I cried again at the funeral. Because of all the memories that came up -even those that were not mentioned. I cried because more than ever, I knew, more than ever, that my grandmother was a very special woman. Normal people don’t get wreathes commissioned by the city on their funerals. I also realized that there was so much about her I didn’t know, or didn’t know well enough. Stories she never could tell me, questions she never could answer.

These were all ‘good’ cries. As I described the first one, so did the second and third work as a sort of narcotic. They felt right.
But then the weekend passed, without much happening, and it was time for me to head back to my flat, alone. I was certain I was ready for it. I was strong, emotionally rock-solid. I have spent most of my life listening to the problems of friends, being there for them. This didn’t change during that week, nor did I feel bad about people ‘troubling’ me as such. It was a distraction – almost a welcome one.
Then ofcourse came nightfall. I had to get up early again, so I went to bed early. I read a few pages in my book, then turned off the light.
And my mind wandered.
It wandered to how my mother described going to my grandmother’s a few days ago, bringing the dog who, usually very excited when she came there, was eerily silent as she entered the empty house.
It wandered to my childhood -I winced a bit at the idea that I was now old enough to refer to my childhood as a period of time in the past- at how my grandmother told me, my brother and my cousin about how fishpeople would come and take us under the sea, to a fantastical underwater kingdom, where we would have many adventures, defending said kingdom from the evil sharks. I would fill in details in the tale where I could, possibly enkindling my love for stories and story-telling -I was but 10 when the tale was spun, quite literally half a lifetime ago.
It wandered to how, after high-school hours, I would drop by her house ‘to say hi’ and then linger for dinner.
It wandered to so many other delightful memories which, had they overcome me more than a week ago would have been delightful, but now stabbed me at my chest.
I cried. Not a soft, narcotic cry like the ones I had the past week. I cried hard, loud sobs, wrenching at my soul. I cried out of despair. What I feared would happen the week before, the reason I stayed home those nights now happened the very first night I was away. I was alone; no dog to warm me and noone nearby still awake, nor anyone I knew I could wake when I needed them. No, I was alone. Felt alone. Or lonely, to be more precise. I started crying for my grandmother, but then I cried for myself. There are two things I fear more than anything else in this world: death, and living without being loved. Both fears gripped me tightly that moment, are still holding me, and I do not feel strong. I feel weak, pitiful, afraid, lonely. And I have no idea what to do.

~Helena