Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Review of "Outside"

This Metafilter comment from mefi user aeschenkarnos back in March 2008 is a fantastically written review of the multiplayer video game "Outside". It already been widely quoted elsewhere, and its well worth quoting in full here.
Traditionally Outside receives extremely high ratings by those who like to see others play it, and these people are in many cases comfortably ensconced Inside themselves. Outside was released many years ago, it was in fact the first massively multiplayer game, and yet it has always managed to avoid the double-edged Retro tag. In its favor, continual user updates have kept Outside current; there are always new things to see and do Outside. Participants are permitted, to some extent, to modify their own areas of Outside, which is a large part of the fun of the game. However it seems that in the end one is modifying Outside largely for the sake of it, and having done it, there is a distinct feeling of "now what?"

In terms of the traditional target age content metrics, Outside is remarkably high in sex, violence and challenges to traditional values, despite the strong child-focussed marketing it receives. Many would go so far as to say that for a child to develop the ability to cope with Outside is essential, as long as the harm incurred is not too debilitating. Children injured playing Outside are usually comforted by parents, and soon encouraged to go Outside again; this leads to the conclusion that somehow Outside has escaped any and all of the usual moralizing that surrounds the videogaming industry. One might say that Outside gets a free pass from the Jack Thompsons of this world.

That aside, how does Outside actually rate? The physics system is note-perfect (often at the expense of playability), the graphics are beyond comparison, the rendering of objects is absolutely beautiful at any distance, and the player's ability to interact with objects is really limited only by other players' tolerance. The real fundamental problem with the game is that there is nothing to do.

In terms of game play the game sets few, if any, goals: the major one is merely "survive". What goals a player sets, are often astonishingly tedious to actually achieve, and power-ups and gear upgrades, let alone extra weapons, are few and far between. Some players choose accumulation of money, one of the many point systems in the game, as a goal, but distribution of this is often randomized and it can be hard to tell what activities will lead to gaining points in advance, and what the risks will be.

Other players choose to focus on accumulation of personal abilities, the variety of which greatly exceeds the capacity of any individual to accumulate; again, the game requires players to engage in years of grinding to achieve any notable standard with a skill or ability. Players are issued abilities and characteristics largely at random, and it is entirely possible for a player to be nerfed beyond any reasonable expectation of being able to play the game, or to be buffed to the point where anything he or she does is markedly easier. Unfortunately over time, player abilities tend to degrade, unless significant effort is made to keep skills up. This reviewer cannot emphasise this enough: Outside requires a huge time investment to build up player abilities, exceeding any other massively multiplayer game on the market by some three orders of magnitude.

Players are encouraged to focus on social interaction, which can be engaged in in a variety of ways. In fact it's extraordinarily difficult to solo anything whatsoever in Outside, apart from basic skill and knowledge accumulation quests. One of the major forms of social interaction in the game is based largely around the addition of new players to Outside, and is both complex and, in comparison to the storyline-driven romance quests of, say, Baldur's Gate or Mass Effect, they are immensely difficult. Dedicated players of Outside, however, report that the romance quests are among the most rewarding the game has to offer.

The game world is immense, perhaps unfeasibly so. The sheer amount of resources that went into development of the Outside environment is staggering to consider. Outside is a world of tremendous size, containing examples of every known real-world terrain type and inhabited by every known real-world animal. On the other hand it is somewhat lacking in the traditionally expected, more interesting, zones where the developers would be given the opportunity to show off their skills in varying the physics and graphics of the game. There are, for instance, no zones where gravity varies to any significant degree.

The respawn rate of objects and players is ridiculously slow. A dead player can expect to wait for years to respawn, and will be set back to zero assets and a tiny, nearly helpless form. Death is hardcore, and resurrection all but impossible. Outside is not a game for the QQers out there!

In terms of the social environment, almost anything goes. Outside has a vast network of guilds, many of its players are active participants in designing the game's social environment, and almost any player will be able to find company to undertake their desired group quests. On the other hand, gold-buying is rife, the outskirts of virtually every city zone in the game are completely overrun by farmers, and the developers have so far proven themselves reluctant to answer petitions, intervene in inter-player disputes, or nerf broken skills and abilities. Indeed this reviewer will go so far as to say that the developers are absent from the game entirely, and have left it to its own devices. Fortunately, server uptime has been 100% from day 1, despite there being only one server for literally billions of players.

On the whole, Outside is overrated, and many gamers will find themselves forced by friends and family to play it against their will, but it still deserves a high rating. I give it 7/10, and look forward to improvements in future patches.

Aeschenkarnos, March 2008

Friday, 11 February 2011

Eeeee Eee Eeee

In 'Mrs Dalloway', Virginia Woolf expertly conjured what it feels like to be in the mind of a wealthy middle class woman going about her business in London as she prepares for a party and meets and old flame. In 'Eeeee Eee Eeeee', a short, unusual book, Tao Lin expertly conjures what its like to be in the mind of a bored, depressed Domino's pizza worker in Florida who misses his ex-girlfriend and feels like he has no future.

There is lots of repetitive language, several beautifully written passages of whimsical daydream-philosophising, and lots of bears and mooses. Tao tries to describe the aim of the book in this interview:
Eeeee Eee Eeee is written from an existential point of view, meaning it tries not to block out any information. Or that is how I wanted it to be. In order to have morals one must block out information and make assumptions. Eeeee Eee Eeee does not have morals. It doesn’t teach you anything. Or maybe it does. Since I wrote it instead of killing myself or taking anti-depressants and watching TV every day maybe that means the book is life-affirming. If you look at both me and the book then maybe the book is moral and teaches you something. If you look at just the book, it doesn’t teach you anything.
Here's some of the passages that struck me as interesting:
What frightened him (although sometimes calmed him) was the first of those thoughts, about not knowing how to be happy; there was something irreversible about it, except possibly by potion or true love, like in every movie by Disney, as it was like a fairy tale in that sketched out, theoretical way. But it was a fairy tale gone wrong, without any domestic whimsy or fast-moving plot, and in real time, without any pleasant summations of long periods of despair, loneliness, and ennui. It just didn't seem good, or allowed.
Near the end, there is a long monologue by the 'president':
Why are we born? Why do we die? Where do we go when we die? Where did consciousness come from? Politics does not acknowledge those questions. Politics says 'Have we blocked out enough information so that the word "progress" has meaning? How do we distract from the mystery and oneness of existence?'. Politics is a pretend game where it is very important to block out the information that it is a pretend game. I'm the president, I think. There is no good or bad. You arrive. Here you are. No one tells you what to do. So you make assumptions. Or you believe someone else's assumption. A common assumption is that pain and suffering is bad. But how do you know if an action will increase or decrease net pain and suffering in the universe from now until the end of time? You can't know. Impossible. You don't know if drawing your friend a picture will or will not cause fifty thousand years of suffering to ten million organisms on Alpha Centauri one billion years from now. So you create context. A common context is one's life plus the next few generations, not including animals, plants or inanimate objects, and only on Earth, with the emphasis on one's own country. So now you've made an assumption and also blocked out more than 99.9% of the universe, 99.9% of all life on Earth, and an infinite or unknown amount of time.
Most of the book isn't like that though, most of it is about pizza, boredom, and bears carrying blankets. Its a short book though, so the strangeness casts a spell rather than becoming a burden.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Clay Shirky on Wikileaks

After carefully considering what my own position is on Wikileaks, I find that Clay Shirky has got there before me and explained it much better than I can, in this Guardian article.
WikiLeaks has not been a series of unfortunate events, and Assange is not a magician – he is simply an early and brilliant executor of what is being revealed as a much more general pattern, now spreading ...

... Assange has claimed, when the history of statecraft of the era is written, that it will be divided into pre- and post-WikiLeaks periods. This claim is grandiose and premature; it is not, however, obviously wrong.

(originally from a comment in this metafilter thread)

Monday, 7 February 2011


This Economist blog post, written during the peak of the Wikileaks fightback - The 24-hour Athenian democracy - is pretty good, as the journalist actually gets to see how they were operating and seems to 'get it'.

Anonymous are a prototype human hive mind, the first of their kind (I guess?). In that they actually aim to behave as a hive mind, rather than a more traditional anarchist group or collective or suchlike. Which makes them fascinating, but also very lowest common denominator.

(originally a comment from this metafilter thread)