30 September 2011

Braid and Bundles

Last year I got the second Humble Indie Bundle as a gift (and, as it turned out, the first bundle was included as a bonus, too). I'm only now getting around to looking into the games included, since my computer back then wasn't very co-operative when it came to gaming.

So, over the last couple days I beat Braid, the acclaimed platformer/puzzle hybrid. It was a pretty unique and interesting game, although a couple of the puzzles drove me to the brink of frustration (and relate social network venting). Puzzle games aren't really my thing, as I've probably said before. Anyways, I've written up a brief review. (It's a strange coincidence that the previous game I wrote of in the review section was Portal, another unique puzzle game.)

This happened to take place just when the latest Humble Bundle offering (the Frozen Synapse Bundle) was released. So, go buy some games, if you feel like it. It's for a good cause. Or several, in fact.

26 September 2011

Linux and the MMO - A Couple First Impressions

While I've written earlier about briefly trying out some MMORPG's, I've never really gotten into them. Partly this has been because there are few cool games that would run on my system, partly 'cause I guess they don't really seem like my kind of games in the end, what with quests often being somewhat repetitive and me not really being that interested in the whole social gaming thing.

Recently, though, I decided to try out a couple more, just for the heck of it. This is part of my search for interesting games that are a) free, b) run natively in GNU/Linux, and C) actually run without problems on my notebook (for example, I recently wrote about the FPS game Cube 2: Sauerbraten). I really haven't delved deeply into either of these games, having basically just played a few tutorial quests, so they really are just first impressions.

First of all, we've got Ryzom. This game made headlines last year when they released their source code, along with graphics assets, as open source. The game maps, quests etc. weren't included, however, so the official servers are still the only ones you can really use. And it's still a pay-to-pay game, I'm afraid, with monthly subscription fees. However, they've now got a fairly extensive 'free trial', with no time limits, but with a cap on skill levels (kinda like WoW is these days, I guess).

The installation's pretty hefty, over 6 gigs. But I was rather surprised to see the game start pretty much 'out-of-the-box', without problems. Well, that's how it seemed, until I got inside the game, and discovered it to be rather laggy. I can't say whether this is due to high ping (which appeared to jump about in the 200-1000 range each time I've tried the game), or whether my machine is a factor (although I believe it should meet the requirements). The game's been more or less playable for now, but it is still annoying.

The world of the game can probably be best described as fantasy, but it attempts to be somewhat more original than the majority of western RPG titles, in terms of scenery, species etc. The interface and game mechanics appear to be fairly conventional MMORPG fare, though, at least from the perspective of a noob like me.

The second game is a rather less known title called Eternal Lands. This game has been around since 2003, and is free to play. There is a store for items, additional races etc., but these are nothing vital to the game. In comparison to the heavy Ryzom, the full installation of this game is a mere 232 mb. Which does of course show in the amount of graphical detail. But it, as well, ran 'out-of-the-box', and more smoothly than Ryzom.

One of the first words that springs to mind when describing this game is 'quaint'. Not sure if this is good or bad, really. As I indicated, the graphics are by no means state of the art, but that's not necessarily very important to me in a game. The interface isn't perhaps quite as modern and intuitive as Ryzom's. It is very mouse oriented, and kinda puts me in mind of old point & click adventures. You walk by clicking on the ground (or a destination on the map, which is quite handy, actually), and even need to cycle through walk/use/look modes (which I find rather less handy).

The gameplay itself places a lot of emphasis on harvesting and manufacturing, but there's some combat as well. One feature I don't like is the necessity to eat regularly. (You won't die of hunger, but a negative food gauge will have negative effects on some aspects of the game. This all seems like needless complication to me.) The style is much more conventional fantasy than Ryzom's, and I haven't yet run into any particularly interesting story hooks.

So, to sum up, points in favour of Ryzom are its more original setting, and its relatively modern looks and interface. However, I still have concerns about its performance, and I cannot yet say how restrictive the level limits of free accounts really are. Eternal Lands, on the other hand, is free, fairly light, and doesn't require a state of the art machine to run. My main concern with it is whether it holds enough interest in the long run. I don't really expect to be playing a lot of either game, although you can never know what the future brings, of course...

21 September 2011

Feeds and Pages, or, Not Quite Viral Yet

This is largely a test post, since I've been having troubles with my blog's feed and Twitter/Facebook updates lately. (I use Twitterfeed for these updates, for both the blog and my webcomic, Escape from Lowresia, and for the most part it has served me well.) But since I'm here, I'll try to think of something to talk about...

So, Escape from Lowresia, eh? After the first month it's still alive and new strips are posted regularly. Like clockwork, in fact, since the publishing process is now pretty well automated. We've finally met some new characters, and things can only get more exciting in the future. Feedback from my friends has been quite positive.

However, thus far I'm not aware of any readers outside my circle of friends. I'm not really surprised by that, since I've mostly only promoted the comic on my personal Facebook account (and Twitter, but I don't really have that many followers there). But I don't know what more I could do at this stage, really. This sort of thing probably mostly travels by (digital) word of mouth. So, how about it, my friends? Let's get chatty! If you genuinely like my comic and want to show your support, the best thing you can do for it at this point is probably spreading it around.

The first arbitrary goal could be to get 25 'likes' on the Facebook page, since this is apparently required in order to get a 'username' for the page (i.e. a shorter url). There should be some kind of carrot, I guess. At the very least there'll be a bonus strip if we reach this goal. I'll try to think of other ways to celebrate this and future milestones as well, though currently I have no idea what this could be...

Meanwhile, managing pages on Facebook proved surprisingly convenient. Registering them was pretty simple (the hardest part was probably deciding on an appropriate category, particularly in the case of EfL, since there just didn't seem to be a really appropriate choice). A 'Pages' segment then appeared in the sidebar on the left, from which I can get to my pages with one click. When I write something on my page's wall, it automatically writes as the page, likewise when I comment on a post by the page, even when I'm in my personal news feed. Handy.

20 September 2011

Sauerbraten (Not Quite a Game Review)

The free FPS world seems to be largely focused on multiplayer deathmatch games, in the tradition of Quake 3: Arena. For example, a while back I wrote about a game called OpenArena (an open content replacement for Q3).

Recently, maybe more for procrastination than anything else, I've been giving Cube 2: Sauerbraten a spin. Unlike OpenArena, but like many other free games, it's not true Free Software, since, while the engine is Open Source, the actual game content is not. It is still free to download, though, for several platforms, and also available in Debian's repositories.

It's basically a fast paced, futuristic deathmatch game in a rather similar vein as Quake 3. The emphasis is very much on multiplayer, and there's plenty of modes available, from traditional deathmatch to various capture the flag variations. But it does have some entertainment to offer for a loner like me, as well. (Online multiplayer games really aren't my thing. For one thing, I suck at them. And I don't have the kind of dedication you'd need to really get into them.)

In addition to bots in regular multiplayer modes, there's a 'DMSP' mode, where you basically just have to wipe out a bunch of monsters in DM maps. Then there's a regular, progress oriented single player mode. There's hardly a lot of depth, just tons of monsters, and the occasional door or switch you activate simply by going near it. There's only a handful of single player maps, I'm afraid, from various contributors, and mostly without any real plot. The quality is pretty varied, some just kill-everything-that-moves sort of things, while a few might feature more thoughtful level design and attempts at more involving scripting. All in all, there's enough for at least a few light play sessions in them. Of course long, involved campaigns aren't necessarily always called for. I wonder how many times I've played just the first few levels of Doom, just for the fun of it...

One interesting feature is the 'slow motion' mode. In this you don't die, but the game slows down considerably when you're low on health, while you slowly regenerate. This is simultaneously helpful and an annoyance. It's quite fun, actually.

Technically it's not exactly state of the art, of course, but looks fairly good for a freeware game, and there are some pretty nice water and explosion effects, etc. And it runs mostly fine on my current notebook (a fairly new, but reasonably cheap model).

So, for me, as a quick, light Doom replacement (because that's the game I obviously compare all light FPS games to), Sauerbraten is not too bad.

18 September 2011

Fans

So, recently I was playing a few songs to a small group of friends, and we were joking about my not having a Facebook fan page that they could 'like'. Apparently just being my friend is not good enough...

So, I went ahead and created not one, but two pages on Facebook.

The first is, well, just for me. At least for starters it'll be mostly about my music projects. You can find (and 'like' it here. At this stage it is of course more of an inside thing than a 'proper' fan page. I'm still not really satisfied with the quality of my recordings, and I can't say my music has really reached very wide audiences. My fan base may be loyal and even enthusiastic on occasion, but it is still rather small, and pretty much all of them that are on Facebook are probably already my friends...

The second is of course for Escape from Lowresia. I surmise that this one might have more potential to be genuinely useful in the near future, even though I'm not currently aware of any readers outside my circle of friends. You can find it here. (And as hard as I look, I can't find a page category for comics, let alone webcomics. Seriously, Facebook?)

13 September 2011

Speaking Out with My Geek Out

Apparently this week is Speak Out With Your Geek Out week. The idea is to speak positively about geeky hobbies etc., trying to break stereotypes and so forth.

So, knowing my audience, this is pretty much preaching to the choir, but I'll try to write something anyway...

I'm not going to speak about specific hobbies, because that's not really the point, as I see it. Geekdom to me is... life. Plain and simple. So much so that I recently in a couple of blog posts (1, 2) discussed the potential use of the term 'post-geek' to better describe my attitude towards geeky things and how it affects my life.

It's all about stories in the end. I enjoy experiencing them. I enjoy creating them. We've been blessed with this uncanny, unfathomable, ineffable gift called the Imagination, and it would be a crime not to use it to all its potential.

Geekiness is simply the way in which this Imagination manifests itself in my day-to-day existence. My love for the Imagination affects what I watch on TV, what books I read, what music I listen to, what I do with my friends, etc. It leaks, in some way or another, into almost every aspect of my life. It's not that I choose a particular hobby, which happens to be geeky. Geekiness is hard-wired into my very existence. What made me this way is hard to say, but it's not a bad way to be. There is too much fun to be had in the world of Imagination to wish for anything else.

But the important thing is, I'm just me, just another person. My geekiness doesn't place me apart from the rest of the world in some way. Quite the contrary, geekdom in today's online world is about keeping connected, about discovering new people, new ideas, new Imaginations, and sharing these experiences with others.

I hang out with friends. I go to bars for a pint or two (well, rarely these days, but I do). I go to the shops. I watch the news on telly in the evening. I like the occasional hamburger, or a chicken salad, or sushi. And in between all this so-called 'normality', I play video games. I read comics. I listen to metal, or soundtracks. I devise plans to entertain friends in fictional worlds. And somewhere in all this the whole that is 'me' comes into being. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Idea to MP3: An Amateur Musician's Process


I'm sure a lot of people are wondering how exactly an idea turns into an amateurific home recording on an MP3 website. So, I'll take a moment out of my busy (ahem) schedule to discuss the process.

It all begins with the Idea, or sometimes not even the Idea but just the Desire. For reasons that no one can probably explain, I just have to write a song. The songs I've written thus far usually start with the lyrics. When I've got them jotted down in a notebook, I start strumming on a guitar, trying out various chord progression, while humming bits of the lyrics. It's hard to explain what exactly happens, but somehow the melody slowly begins to take shape. This process from Idea to relatively finished song usually doesn't take all that long for me. Each song is unique, of course, but most have been finished during the space of one afternoon (of course my songs tend to be structurally and melodically fairly simple). Over the next few days I'll play the song lots of times, fine tuning bits of it, and simultaneously committing to memory.

The recording process for me usually starts with creating the percussion parts. On my last couple releases I've used a software drum machine called Hydrogen for this. I tend to keep the percussion tracks fairly simple, mostly because I don't have the patience (or skills) to tinker with them all that much. Little tricks like changing the pitch of certain drum samples can make the drum loops sound more interesting.

For the actual recording part I've usually used Ardour, software of the type known as a 'digital audio workstation' (or 'DAW'). Ardour is probably one of the most advanced pieces of such software available in the Free Software world. First of all I'll import the finished percussion tracks, which form the basis for future work.

There's no particular order I record the rest of the instruments in. I like to record several guitar and keyboard parts in order to give the song a strong 'body'. The Game Master was a fairly guitar heavy work, so I started with recording the guitar parts. (I may have started with keyboard parts on Sleeping Birds Lie, but I don't recall for certain any more...) In any case, I'll start with a fairly simple part, laying out the basic chord progressions so that other parts will be easier to play. Solos and other gimmicky bits will generally be one of the last things, alongside vocals. I'll be working on all the songs in a project simultaneously, recording, for example, guitars for each song before moving on to other instruments.

This is the most time consuming part of the process, of course, and can frequently be frustrating. Recording is very different from playing live to a small group of friends. The stuff I do live just doesn't seem to translate well into recordings. Finding out what does, in fact, work, is mostly a process of trial and error. (I know some of my friends would like to hear versions of the songs more like my acoustic performances, but I honestly think recording such would be even more difficult than producing a multi-instrument rock track...)

Once I've got the various parts of a song recorded to the best of my ability, or, more likely, the best of what my limited patience will allow, mixing follows. This is about getting the balance between the various instruments right, and ensuring the total volume is as high as possible without being high enough to cause 'clipping'.

The final phase is mastering. This is mainly about getting the overall volume level suitable for release. On The Game Master I did this by routing the sound from Ardour to a mastering application called JAMin, in which I could adjust volume levels, while it applies effects like compression in order to keep the sound from clipping. The final version is then exported into a lossless wave file, which in turn is encoded into an MP3, uploaded, and voilà.

12 September 2011

The Game Master, Being the Story of Three New Songs

Late last Friday, or technically the early hours of Saturday, I finished the final touches on my latest attempt at recording music. The result is a three song 'maxi-single' titled The Game Master.

The songs were all written this summer, in a fit of geek-minded writing, which started when I decided to write a theme song for an RPG campaign run by two of my friends. (Yes, two game masters. Somehow they make it work.) Since I knew both of them have appreciated my earlier songwriting efforts, I thought this would be a nice way to repay the countless memorable afternoons we've spent in their imaginations. This became the song called 'In Time'.

So, I knew I'd have to record this song eventually, but I wouldn't have liked to release it all by itself. I've never been a fan of singles, I like to put on a record and enjoy it for a while. So I had the idea of writing a selection of songs all related to RPG's. I originally thought of even making it a full album, covering various games I've run or played in over the years, but I soon came to my senses. I've got projects with higher priority, so three songs was plenty for the time being.

The title track, 'The Game Master', is a humorous piece about, well, game mastering. Shouldn't require much explanation to anyone with experience of role-playing.

'In Time', as I said, is based on my friends' campaign, Ajoissa (usually referred to in English as 'In Time'). The lyrics are full of insider references, and I'm not going to expound on them. Just enjoy the weirdness.

'DeSired', on the other hand, is inspired by my own campaign Kin of Cerberos, which I ran a few years back, but is probably more readily understandable by outsiders, since it's a more narrative type of song. It's told from the point of view of one of the game's antagonists. I rather like the bittersweet balance of solemnity and humour in it. I see no reason why the two could not go together. (Hint: the title's a pun. Think fangs.)

I'm still learning how to make the best of my limited equipment and skill. Each of my releases has been a step forward, I feel, but I'm still not really happy with the overall quality (and perhaps particularly my vocals). This time around I had the advantage of having a new computer, and sound input (in GNU/Linux) functioned somewhat better than on my old MacBook. The major difference, however, was in the heavier use of software, in the form of effect plugins and mastering tools. You will hear the extensive use of reverberation, for instance (an intentional choice, which may in part have been influenced by the post-rock etc. I've been listening to lately). I also used compression for the first time, which, particularly in the case of vocals, I think definitely improved the overall quality and evenness of the sound.

The songs can be listened to at SoundCloud (also available at Last.fm, if that's more your thing). MP3's, lyrics etc. can be found on my music website.

4 September 2011

Post-Geek 2: We Need to Go Deeper

This carries on from last night's blog post.

So I've been still thinking about how I might define 'post-geek' and what such an idea might mean to me. And I repeat, this is all probably meaningless nonsense. After all, I'm rather too close to the subject to have objective views, even if I was of a theoretical mindset, which I'm not.

How would I define my idea of 'post-geek' (which, again, is not necessarily identical to other people's definitions for such a term) in a nutshell? Perhaps something on these lines: 'having a strong interest in genre fiction and/or related phenomena, while going beyond a need for restricting genre distinction and embracing this interest as a part of life rather than something distinct from everyday existence.'

At the root of this all is of course an idea of individualism. I may be defined in part by my interests, but they are merely facets, the 'gestalt' is something quite different. And interests change over time, even the persistent ones wax and wane. I am not in any way obligated by them, or by other people that might be associated with them.

But individualism is bloody hard. Like I said in the previous post, we seem to have an inherent need to identify with something, to define ourselves in terms of (sub)cultures. Just being one's self is really difficult. Even this attempt to somehow define and narrow down a new(ish) term could be seen as an expression of this need to belong and define myself. In real individualism such labels would be pretty much redundant.

I'm not sure this concept of 'post-geek' I'm imagining can really be called a 'culture'. It is, by definition, very broad and unspecific. (A sort of 'holistic geekness', if you will. Geeky allusion somewhat intended.) But has that ever stopped anyone? Like I said, we have a need to define ourselves, and if doing so with restrictive labels goes contrary to our ideas of individualism, perhaps we really do need to make up silly, philosophical labels that don't really mean anything much at all, and define ourselves in terms of those.

So, the question is, is it identity crisis time? Somehow I feel this topic isn't quite exhausted yet...

3 September 2011

Post-Geek?

First of all, the compulsory reminder that my geeky webcomic Escape from Lowresia is in fact in existence, and new strips are added twice weekly, most recently today. (Of course you'll want to start from the beginning if you're just discovering it...)

So, I'm currently sitting in the dark, listening to God Is an Astronaut. Over the last few days I've been listening to music labelled as things like 'post-rock' or 'post-metal'. (Questionable Content with its indie music themes might be partially to blame for this...) Well, just for the heck of it, I decided to look up if such a concept as 'post-geek' exists, geekdom being one of the few subcultures I actually identify with.

As far as I can tell from just looking at the first page of a Google search, it doesn't look like any particularly well defined culture by that name exists, but the term has been occasionally used. (Of course I'm usually not that well in the loop with things like this, so who knows, maybe it's really a huge thing...) At the top of the Google results were some articles like this and this. The cultures they describe aren't necessarily quite identical, but they're not completely contradictory either. In a nutshell, they describe a kind of fusion of geek/indie/mainstream cultures, and, at least in the case of the first link, emphasise the role of the modern borderless Internet society.

Indeed, we live in a world where genre distinctions are, arguably, becoming more and more meaningless. New genres and subgenres are popping up all the time. They spread easily through the global community, sometimes persisting, sometimes soon forgotten. Meanwhile, traditional 'geek' stuff permeates the world. Video games and sci-fi movies are more a fact of life for many young people than a specialised hobby.

So I was wondering how I might define a 'post-geek' culture, if I were coining such term (which, of course, I'm not, as evidenced by the links above). Perhaps it could describe the way that geekness can now easily be an integral part of our everyday existence, not distinct from it. Not so much an interest or even lifestyle, but simply life. And simultaneously it might describe the growing fuzziness of genre borders, even beyond what might traditionally be regarded as 'geeky' (which is kinda obvious, really, if geekness is intermingled with other aspects of our lives).

Of course I was also thinking about this in the more specific context of music. The term 'geek rock' isn't, to my knowledge, in particularly common usage, although I've run into it on occasion. In particular, I was thinking about how to describe my own musical style. I write a lot of songs with geeky themes. But then again, I've also written a lot of songs that aren't really geeky. There's no particular difference between the two musically speaking. It would also seem foolish to limit my creativity to one or the other, nor is one or the other somehow better or more important, both are equally a part of my life.

(Of course if one used the term 'post-geek' in the context of music, some people might think of 'post-rock' due to the similarity of the terms. That genre description, however, is more about sound than subject matter, whereas 'post-geek' would of course be more about the latter. Of course the limited resources I have at my disposal recording-wise might bring elements of minimalism/rawness to my music that might be reminiscent of some forms of indie music, but I'm not sure that is my actual aim as such...)

People seem to have an inherent need to identify with various cultures. But when you realise that we are all, in fact, individuals (geeky allusion not intended), that what other people think doesn't really matter at all... it's easy to become lost. Who am I? What am I? I describe myself as a 'geek', but that definition leaves something to desire. Why is it so damned important that I identify with something? There's no easy answer to this, I guess. In a way, I guess all these 'post-' genres, starting with postmodernism, are at least a little bit about this, things to identify with while simultaneously realising, at least in name, the pointlessness of culture and genre distinctions...

Or I might just be talking complete gibberish, which is quite possible, since I have really no idea what I'm talking about. I'm no academic. Such theoretical ideas are hardly my forte.