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29
Nov

Skyrim: The End is the Beginning

Over the weekend I completed the primary quest for Skyrim. In as much as this game has a climax, I suppose I’ve reached it, right? This post will try hard, very hard, to discuss this ending without spoiling it for players who haven’t reached it. If I think I may be about to reveal too much, I will begin the offending section with “SPOILER ALERT:” and end it similarly.

Well, it was pretty awesome.  Like Oblivion, Bethesda treats you to some extra pretty visuals at the end. Personally, I suffered from a bit of split-identity, confused as to whether my role was as dragonborn or as tourist and photographer. I did my best to strike a balance between the two. By the end, I felt as though I hadn’t given Bethesda quite as much credit regarding their dragons in my previous post. The ending throws quite a lot of dragon at you and it is stupendous to watch these beautiful creatures swim through the skies. I want desperately to post some of the resulting screen shots here, but I won’t risk other players seeing those sites before their time.

So the main story ends with some visual fireworks, but what of the story? How does it compare to other Bethesda titles? Well, I’m sure the fans will argue over it until Alduin’s return, but I felt like this may have been one of Bethesda’s best. The obligatory world-ending threat was the perfect size. Fallout 3’s main story was too small (water purification? really?) and Oblivion didn’t have the will or the technology to ever quite fill its britches (the Elder Scrolls’ equivalent of hell was more like heck and Mehrunes Dagon is too powerful for you, a mortal, to injure). In Skryim, the threat is imminent, large, intimidating, great fun to battle, and plausibly defeatable. Compare that to the environmentalism of Fallout 3 or the chore of closing Oblivion gates.

My favorite part? After completing the main story line, the world seems to open up rather than shut down (or end; curse you Fallout 3). I felt an appropriate sense of relief and refreshment for someone who had just saved the world. Onward to simpler times. My character still has a civil war to deal with, but I’m actually looking forward to resolving this political struggle and settling down to a life of simple adventuring, hunting, or University study. Who knows? Maybe I’ll settle down and have me a wife.

24
Nov

Thanksgiving 2011

I’ve seen quite a bit in the way of vitriol tossed back and forth in the blogosphere this Thanksgiving by opponents and proponents of Thanksgiving alike. There seem to be three themes running through this American society. I will attempt to summarize each of them as representatively as I can and then critique all three.

Thanksgiving is Pure as Silk, You Filthy Communist, Socialist, Progressive Bastards!
This theme seems to come from folk who are aware at least of the idea that Thanksgiving has sordid historical origins, but who violently (through action, word or emotion) reject this history. To this camp, criticisms of Thanksgiving could only come from soulless liberals bent on destroying the America we all grew up in. “Who would want to destroy Thanksgiving?” they think. Only a cantankerous, unlovable creature could be so uptight about a holiday that ultimately celebrates sharing, family, and celebrating our blessings. The representatives of this group (commentators) generally decry the “progressives” who would wage war on this holiday and, often, suggest terrible things should happen to this other side.

Thanksgiving is Pure Putrescence and Those Who Celebrate It Ought to Starve and Die of Small Pox!
This theme seems to come from folk who are aware of Thanksgiving’s sordid historical origins and believe all of them, sometimes even a few that are untrue or exaggerated. To this camp, celebrators of Thanksgiving must be woefully ignorant or white-supremacists. “Who could possibly celebrate a holiday so closely connected to one of the most terrible genocides in history?” they think. Only a bigoted, greedy, consumerist could buy-in to such a loathsome holiday. The representatives of this group (commentators) generally decry the “conservatives” who would defend so tenaciously this holiday and, often, suggest terrible things should happen to this other side.

Thanksgiving? Love It or Hate It, It’s Just a Fun Holiday? What with All the Fuss?
This theme seems to come from the majority – or “middle” – of Americans who don’t know much about the sordid historical origins of Thanksgiving, having learned most of what they think they know about this holiday from grade school. Pilgrims, Mayflower, and friendly Indians, right? Isn’t that it? A fun, light holiday with good food, friends and family.

Now, to be sure, not everyone fits neatly in one of these categories, or themes. Many may borrow moderately from all three. I would call this a balanced approach and I wish everyone would live there.

The first category does a terrible disservice to the many millions of natives to the American continent who were both intentionally and unintentionally nearly wiped out by the arrival of Europeans. Scholarly consensus on this era of history would suggest that, regardless to what degree, the colonization of the Americas by Europeans represents one of the most horrendous genocides in all of human history. We can argue details, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests a few important points: 1) Many of the most powerful European men involved in the colonization of the Americas expressed deeply racist attitudes toward the natives. 2) Natives to America were clearly not savages and were more advanced than their European counterparts in several significant areas. 3) The American continent was not scarcely populated and much of what Europeans took for natural beauty was, in fact, the result of native landscaping. 4) The best available evidence suggests a 90% or greater death-rate of the currently estimated 50 million native peoples living in the Americas after Europeans arrived. That’s 40 million dead from disease, war, and slaughter (sorry, no nice way to say that one).

It’s worth noting, depressingly, that that last statistic is believed by most experts in this field of history to be the conservative one. Estimates among experts (not pundits or blowhards) range as high as 98% and 100 million for death-rate and initial population, respectively. There is also significant evidence, though no conclusive proof, that the diseases spread by Europeans was done so – at least in some cases – willfully and knowingly on the part of educated Europeans.

Certainly history, all history, is worth being discussed truthfully and we should neither hide from it or vilify those who report it.

The second category does itself a great disservice by insisting on shaming all those who continue to celebrate Thanksgiving despite its origins in history. Those in this category seem to fail at understanding that good can, in fact, come out of bad (no matter how terrible). It does not justify the bad by any stretch, but we need not reject those things which enrich people’s lives today because they came out of suffering yesterday. This is where you get the “conservatives” arguing back that these same people are happy to enjoy the benefits of luxuries and technologies that are ultimately grounded in sordid pasts as well. Human progress has been a miserable, bloody, savage affair, but we need not throw out every bit of progress that’s tainted because you could probably make an argument that it all is – tainted, I mean. Those in the second category also, ironically, have a tendency to act superior, often deriding the other side for being ignorant and stupid. The many on the other side who are not ignorant and stupid see through this fallacy comprehensibly fight back.

The third category, in my view, fails to live up to a core responsibility of citizenship in a well-developed and rich country, educating oneself. However, many still cannot be blamed because we cannot be expected to educate ourselves when we haven’t received any clues that we’re ignorant. Some simply have not heard a credible account of Thanksgiving history outside the American classroom, which tends to report a false history. Should we criticize everyone everywhere who participates in a behavior or ritual without a deep understanding of its historical context? Such an expectation would leave every one of us guilty of the sin. It’s a ridiculous expectation really. However, this third category does have a responsibility to pay attention when/if they realize they need to re-educate themselves. The head-in-the-sand approach is where those in this group earn their critique.

And, so, hopefully, through all of this we can find some sort of middle ground. Perhaps we can both recognize the terrible atrocity that began in 1492 and honor it by learning from our mistakes, living better, and sharing our finer qualities with the ones we love over a meal. All this with a solemn nod in recognition to the millions who so needlessly died so that we may enjoy our plenty. For the best of us, hopefully this, too, will spurn us on to do something generous on this holiday or do a little something to fight oppression as some small form of atonement.

Yours Truly,
Comrade Bingo

24
Nov

Skyrim: There Be Dragons Here!

This is the second post in my series on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Let me start by admitting I was not excited to hear that Skyrim would feature dragons. Dragons are cool and all, but really? Aren’t dragons a fantasy-world gimmick? One of my favorite qualities in Bethesda is their ability to create worlds with genuine depth. This is a trick achieved through subtlety. Dragons are not subtle. I’m thinking Lord of the Rings versus Eragon, here. If you read that and thought to yourself, “Oh yeah, Eragon was much cooler!” then leave. Leave now.

I realize that the film versions of The Lord of the Rings and Eragon occupy the same action-fantasy genre and their stories are epic, but they have a very different feel. Middle-Earth feels like a complete world I could step into. I can imagine with equal ease what it might be like to carry the burden of the one ring or to live a quiet, orc-free life in The Shire, reading books and eating way, way too often. Alagaesia feels like a Hollywood facade. It looks great (well, not really) from the angles they show you, but you get the sense that this world only has two dimensions. That’s probably because it does.

So, by subtlety, I mean depth and breadth. In previous Elder Scrolls games you could step back from the story and live the quiet life if you chose, maybe becoming a hunter or alchemist and settling down to exercise your trade in one of the game’s many settlements. Your character could even enjoy quiet evenings by the fireside reading books. The game is much more than kill-things-so-you-can-gain-the-experience-points-and-gold-to-kill-more-things. WOW, anyone? It’s a substance over style approach. Sorry, Blizzard, I do love you.

Well, thank you then, Bethesda, for not succumbing to the siren’s call of story telling shortcuts and style over substance. This is the same Elder Scrolls I’ve grown to love, with deep story telling, meaningful side-quests, incredible role-playing freedom, a living world, and consequentially infinite re-playability. Oh, and dragons, too.

Concerns of gimmickry aside, I had more practical concerns also. Despite its many strengths, the team at Bethesda is not well-known for their outstanding animation techniques. Dragons (should) combine the largesse of dinosaurs with the grace of a bird of prey. This requires smooth animation. I feared Bethesda’s breed of dragon might appear to perform their own version of “The Robot” as they flew haltingly through the sky. Fortunately, this is not the case. While I’d only give Bethesda a ‘B’ for their overall animation work in Skyrim, the animation does not detract from the awesome grace of their dragons. Seeing these creatures in action is breathtaking.

Another concern of mine was difficulty. How do you do justice to the awesome power of dragons without making them annoyingly difficult to fight? It seemed to me that this would be a hard balance to strike. Again, Bethesda mostly manages this feat. The distant roar of a dragon instills a healthy sense of foreboding in the player, but battles don’t feel like a chore. Dragons just look so damned cool – I, myself, am not immune to gimmickry. Battles can look so fantastic, I sometimes forget I’m an archer, not a photographer. A dragon circling overhead against the backdrop of aurora borealis is awe-inspiring.

Most importantly, the dragons of Skyrim beautifully compliment the story rather than overshadowing it. Their presence is welcome.

Yours Truly,
Comrade Bingo

23
Nov

Skyrim: Find Yourself Here

For readers who haven’t already played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – or read about it in the press – there is a new video game on scene. Known best as just Skyrim, this game is the latest in a series of Elder Scrolls games by Bethesda, a game company that rules the rich, but tiny world of single-player role-playing games. Skyrim’s game world is massive in scale and in the variety of experiences it offers.

This sandbox approach to gaming is far and away my favorite and I’ve awaited every game in this critically-acclaimed series like a six-year-old would await Christmas if it only came once every four years. Needless to say, I have a lot of love for Skyrim and I will be showing that love with a series of posts about the game. Today’s post, the first in the series, will focus on Skyrim’s character customization and role-playing features.

As the game begins, you find yourself hands-bound as prisoner in the back of a medieval paddy-wagon. The prisoners in the wagon with you chatter and bicker about their fate. It seems there is a civil war on and you’ve been caught up in the middle of it. Two of your fellow prisoners are rebel soldiers, including the rebel leader himself, and the third is a petty thief – but you don’t know who you are and no one else does either.

Trouble with the law included, this clean slate approach is a Bethesda classic (or cliché) and a staple of role-playing games in general. It’s a premise that frees you to imagine whatever you like for your character. You could be guilty or not of the crime you’re accused. Skyrim leaves this completely open to interpretation. You can imagine any past you want for your character and, while the present seems to be offering you little choice as a prisoner in binds, any experienced Elder Scrolls player can sense that your world is about to open up to just about whatever you make of it.

Before long, you find yourself in a small town standing before the local justice. They have a list of prisoner names, but, as they call roll, you don’t seem to be on it. That’s strange. “Who are you?” they ask. This opens up your character creation screen where you will choose a name, your gender, your race (there are 10 to choose from) and have an opportunity to customize your appearance right down to the hair on your brawny chest.

Each race is distinct in more than simple appearance. Depending on which race you pick, you are inclined toward certain tolerances and talents. This choice will affect you throughout your play as certain citizens of Skyrim may treat you differently depending on your race.

Despite not being on the prisoner list, your captors take on a better-safe-than-sorry approach and opt to execute you regardless. A need to escape the situation builds passionately within you, but your hands are bound and you’re surrounded by guards. The last fool to attempt running away was shot down with bow and arrow. No, better to grit your teeth and hope for the best. A prisoner is selected and forced to the chopping block. You watch in horror (or look away, if you wish) as the executioner raises his ax and separates head from body. You’re next. The guards maneuver you into position. Your head rests on the cold stone and all you can see is masked death staring down at you. The game couldn’t be that short, right? Something has to happen. It does.

Before the ax can hit its mark (you), a dragon swoops in and wreaks havoc. Fortunate, right? Well, yeah, but your hands are still tied and there is that little thing about a fire breathing dragon. You can’t be sure, but something about the way it behaves seems to suggest it didn’t swoop into town to rescue you.

And thus begins an incredible journey. At this point the game releases you from its story telling and asks you to tell your own tale. Of course, Skyrim – much like the real world – has a way of steering you in certain directions. No shortage of doors open before you and it is tempting to walk through them. But you don’t have to. You can do whatever you like.

Feeling rebellious? Feel like flipping Skyrim’s excellent story writers the bird? If you’re really feeling spiteful, you can march straight to the first town you find, learn a trade, and settle down. Not every town has property you can purchase, but many do, and all settlements have at least a room for rent. Have at it, homebody!

Of course, if you bought the game, chances are good that you’re down for a little fantasy adventure. Skyrim has a fantastic primary story filled with dragons, political intrigue, breathtaking vistas, and old men who think they know better than you. There is also a secondary plot dealing with a civil war. These stories still leave you plenty of room to take on side quests or engage in personal business, to say nothing of the fact that you can play through these stories in nearly any way you might choose.

Skyrim is a magical fantasy world full of spells, medieval weaponry, and plenty of opportunity for cunning. The game doesn’t care how you complete the quests you choose to take on. You can just as easily play through the main story line as a haughty mage obsessed with personal power or as an orcish simpleton who understands next to nothing about what is happening to him and prefers the sound of hammer hitting skull to most anything else. Battles may be fought with bravery, stealth, cowardice, or any other tactic you can come up with. I fought one particularly difficult opponent by luring it down a mountain to where I’d seen two giants and their pet mammoth hanging out. The giants didn’t take too kindly to the fireballs my opponent was spewing in the middle of their camp and did most of my dirty work for me. Thank you, giants! I’ll forgive that they tried to pound me into jelly after.

Moments like these are made possible by an expansive world filled to the brim with creatures, wildlife, and meaningful objects, supported by an artificial intelligence system that brings all of these things realistically to life. Creatures and objects don’t cease to exist when you’re not there to observe them. Life goes on. This is probably why when I ran for dear life to a small town with a rather large and unpleasant bear nipping at my heels and into an inn, rented a room like nothing had happened and slept peacefully, I awoke to a town in mourning over the loss of their (well-liked, apparently) alchemist. Yeah, I guess some jackass had tracked a rabid bear into town the previous night and the local guard had to fight it off with the help of a very heroic and, now, very dead alchemist. My bad.

Spontaneous events like these are the result of an incomprehensibly detailed world. Tested for weakness, Skyrim will eventually reveal itself for what it is, a limited and virtual world populated by artificial life. Suspend disbelief just a little, however, and any adventure seeker will be in awe of the variety of experiences it has on offer. This isn’t a game you play through. This is a game you live through.

Yours Truly,
Comrade Bingo

17
Nov

Comrade? WTF? Communist…

Right at the start, I should mention that if the name of this blog makes you openly suspicious or uncomfortable, you might not be the “target audience.” Then again, that might just make you the ideal reader, someone who will be challenged and not just simply placated by opinions similar to your own.

That said, I want to take a moment to explain the name of this blog, as it may be misinterpreted by some.

“Comrade Bingo” is the title of a short story by a favorite author of mine, PG Wodehouse. The story is set in 1930s England and told through the lense of the famous duo, Reginald Jeeves and Bertram “Bertie” Wooster.

Wooster is a member of the British ruling class and a bit of a twit, but his manner and intellect are usually a cut above his ruling class friends. One such friend, is Richard “Bingo” Little.

Bingo Little is a hopeless romantic in truest form, falling desperately in love with nearly every woman he meets – until he meets the next one. In “Comrade Bingo,” Mr. Little falls for the beautiful leader of an activist group determined to “massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy” of which Bingo is a member. Bingo dawns a (fake) Leninesque beard and joins the cause, creating no end of trouble, particularly with his Uncle, Lord of Bittlesham and Bingo’s only source of wealth.

There is wonderful irony in this charming little farce. On a lustful whim, Bingo joins a movement violently opposed to his privileged position – a life of permanent vacationing as a hereditary member of the ruling class. This is a life Bingo has no intention giving up. He spends most of his time trying to maintain his allowance with the least amount of effort and the rest of it standing on a soap box feigning outrage at the silver spooned (himself, really) to impress a girl. Bingo is a man absolutely without principle, interested only in meeting his own immediate needs and, thus, Bingo wreaks social chaos wherever he goes, trampling on hearts and abusing the goodwill of others. Bingo’s worldview is in constant flux, grounded only in the selfish opportunism of the moment.

Comrade Bingo: The Blog takes its title ironically. It is a mirror for the opportunistic morality pervasive in our American society and, I’m sure, many other societies as well. Bingo’s attitude toward love is analogous to many American’s view of money. Our morality seems to bend elastically to the will of the Greenback. Corruption is unthinkable – until we begin profiting from it, then we adjust our worldview to redefine it. We use terms like “trickle down,” “business savvy” and “small government” to obfuscate greed, manipulation, and greed again. Like Bingo, we usually swallow our own pill, oblivious we are defiling our moral selves for perceived personal gain. The terms quoted above can be used legitimately – I’ve heard them used uncorruptly – but this isn’t the norm.

Though the title of this blog carries with it a theme and a message, it does not necessarily extend to the blog itself. This blog is for personal expression and, so, entries will span the breadth of my many areas of interest. As “Comrade Bingo” suggests, entries will sometimes be political or philosophical. Other entries will focus on personal interests, such as technology, gaming, books and film. Some entries will simply be musings on personal life events.

Because I have chosen a career path that requires me to keep my work and my personal life separate, posts – especially on life events – may appear conspicuously vague at times. Names and circumstances may be altered to protect identities, though never to distort the underlying truth. Since most if not all who follow this blog will know me personally, I suspect this will prove to be little more than a precaution.

So, there it is; my first post. A bit perfunctory, I realize, but I hope you enjoyed it. I look forward to writing the next one.

Yours Truly,
Comrade Bingo

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