scenes from atlas

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Atlas, out for early access on Steam last November, is from the makers of Ark: Survival Evolved. Much of the game feels familiar to Ark players, from the UI to the crafting system, but there have been significant improvements to skill trees and, I think, environment. Most noticeably though, instead of dinosaurs, you have pirate ships.

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I didn’t jump on Atlas the minute it came out, and I don’t regret it. Unlike Ark, which you can host locally on your own private server (or join others’ publically available local servers if you are so inclined, though I only ever wanted to play with people I actually knew), Atlas is a full-on MMO. Meaning that everyone plays together at the same time…making for a great deal of the kind of online contact I in no way desire.

And had I jumped on the game when it came out, there would have been tons of that, it’s true. Now, though, the initial surge has died down, and there can be long stretches of time where I don’t hear from or see anyone. Occasionally I’ll ask global chat a question, and someone might answer, but just as often I’m one of maybe two people in the zone.

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That doesn’t mean the game is empty. Far from it. One of the reasons you can’t host Atlas on your own server is that it’s huge. Each zone, on a map gridded with numbers and letters, is the size of one instance of Ark–and when you sail from zone to zone, you are technically transferring from server to server. It’s that big. So for you to host this yourself, you would have to be renting over 100+ servers. Which means that would either be hugely expensive, or you’d have to have an in somewhere with enough unattended high-performance computing to make it doable. Maybe in ten years that’ll be a thing, but now? Good luck.

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There are lots of quite valid complaints about the land claiming system in Atlas. Most land, it’s true, is claimed. But some zones are Lawless Regions, where you can’t plant a flag and generally you can build anywhere. The catch is that structures built in these zones decay more swiftly than those built on claimed land — meaning that if you don’t log in for four days, your precious beach house is going to be eaten back up by the jungle.

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I am okay with this. I am also okay, to my surprise, with the MMO aspect of the game that I so dreaded. Again, I attribute this to the post-release decline in the crowds. The people playing now (I speak only for PvE; I don’t play PvP and don’t intend to) are people who by and large are like me: in it for the long haul, exploring and building and sailing around. Walking through the cities they’ve built is fascinating. The building system is one of the areas that has improved since Ark, and seeing how different people utilize the landscapes in the various climates is cool.

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Additionally, the rare human interaction can bear fruit. After an unfortunate run-in with a Ship of the Damned (one of a fleet of NPC ships manned by the undead that patrol the waters, I paddled ashore to an island in a frustratingly completely-claimed zone. Meaning I couldn’t build a ship or even a raft to leave the island, because you can’t build on land claimed by another group. So I begged around in global chat for awhile to no avail, and logged out dejected, mourning the stranded fate of myself and my NPC crewmate, Angry Charlotte Nine Toes (she came with that name). When I came back, not only did someone hear my plea and come to my rescue, he packed me full of food and sailed me to the nearest lawless region, for no pay or gift whatsoever, and dropped me off on an island where I could build myself a new base and a ship to sail in again. It’s the kind of selfless generosity I haven’t seen since a group of Frenchmen in Sea of Thieves jumped aboard my sinking sloop and helped me bail her out, patch her up and entertain the group of us during the whole process with a rousing jig on the accordion.

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There are bugs in Atlas, it’s true, but it’s an Early Release game — of course there are bugs. Do I regret not being there when someone hacked in and and spawned a mass of whales and tanks? Nooooo. No I do not. But now that the worst of the griefers (again, at least in PvE) have grown bored and moved on, I’m quite happy to toodle about the map. The game is so large that it can honestly take you eight hours to traverse just from east to west, and as long as you keep an eye on the screen for ships of the damned it’s a great time to do other things — yoga, knitting, reading, etc. It’s the same kind of soothing as the old PotC (pre-movie) game, where you could choose, instead of bouncing out to map mode to speed along the endless sailing, to stay zoomed in seemingly forever, just you and the waves.

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This isn’t why they built Atlas, of course. They want you join big companies (this is the term used for guilds, and yes it’s problematic) and wage war on each other. But, to my relief and delight, you don’t have to. If you have the patience, you can still go it alone, with the occasional encounter with a stranger for info or assistance as a welcome reminder that not all people on the internet are awful.

Not always, anyway.

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kate caterina

katecaterina

I am very much enjoying this book, far more than I expected to given that I plucked it off the shelf because it was pretty and was displayed over a rocking chair when my aching feet desperately needed to rest. It was published in 2001, just long enough ago to be completely off the possibility list for any big chain bookstore — I got it used, but looking brand-new, in that rare beast of an independent bookshop in Chicago.

But I worry sometimes that the exuberance of our main character is being built up deliberately, in order for us to have to watch it fracture as the war begins. I was leery, seeing the author’s picture on the jacket — they’re always a little vain, those pictures, but he looked like a man who might enjoy showcasing the descending cloud of depression on a woman as some sort of “quaint” microcosm of the affect of war upon a population. And, too, there were the moments where Kate Caterina, Kate-and-Caterina, the MC, slips into convictions that might very well be the author’s own shining through–

“What was it she’d just understood, during that strangely possessed night? Oh yes, about how when Esmerelda and she were talking, sometimes, what they were really trying to do was struggle a little bit free of their circumstances and their old selves, in order to be able to look back, imagine them clearly. And that emergence from but at the same time into oneself, that being still a bit entangled in one’s old conditions but also beginning to get to grips with one’s new liberties, was exactly like Michelangelo’s Captives they’d gone together to see in Florence. Those massive prisoners sculpted in the act of struggling free of their bonds, wrenching free of the stone they were made of. How simple it all was, really.

So she was going to write that down, one night. Lots of her stories, she’d tell. Stories she wasn’t living, stories she was — some more apparent, some less. Discoveries of deep-sea fishing on summer nights, of elm trees in mid-winter sunshine beginning to bud pink, of stone captives trying to break free and become themselves. Discoveries of how paintings and books and music could be good, because briefly they freed you from your pokey self. Because story wasn’t just one damned thing after another. Story was immeasurable things happening all at once amid leap-frogging over each other and then falling behind and then reappearing ahead. You often didn’t know in what sense these things were real, but that didn’t matter. Shades of more abstract and less, she thought triumphantly. The potential it offered the mind! Story was —

Sonya was murmuring something. No, it was the whole congregation saying one of the responses. Caterina paid attention. Only a minute or two had passed, they were still right at the beginning of the service. How distracted she got!

For the rest of the mass, she made herself think of Sonya’s fears for Esmerelda, and how she herself could best be loyal to them both. It was humiliating, how she thought she’d come here with kindness in her heart, but had at once gone off into musings of her own.

After church, the two women walked home to breakfast, side by side, each in the cell of herself.”

–and then poof, he waves away her intensity with distraction, almost a bubble-headedness, that seems to me a cheap way of a.) being honest with one’s own writerly convictions, but more problematically b.) dismissing as frippery, airy, girlishly empty, the workings of a mind not bent under the weight of, for example, the darkness that clings to Luigi post-WWI. The necessity of emotional and intellectual darkness for weight to be granted to literary characters is vile and needs to stop. (Sidenote: It is how you convince young writers that something awful must have happened to you for anyone to care about what you write.) If he’s showing us the beginnings of all these musings, pre-war, fracturing in the face of Caterina’s scatterbrained optimism — if we are supposed to cheer the sharpening of her self-regard as her mind crumbles under the weight of impending and threatened loss and fear — it will be a shitty thing being said. Of women and of war.

I hope he doesn’t stoop so low.

random music fridays : only believe

“Only Believe” clocks in at the exact point in the movie Miss Sloane where so many of my favorite cinematic scores do: right before the end, when everything is slotting together. Where all the mysteries that had been plaguing the viewer are suddenly explained, usually via a montage with little or no dialogue — and often when what had been about to be a tragedy gets turned around into something else. This is the exact point where Philip Glass’s score for The Illusionist turns amazing. Or Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception. The timing is no less spectacular here in Max Richter’s soundtrack for Miss Sloane — Max Richter, who you might recognize from “On the Nature of Daylight,” if Pandora or Spotify spend much time recommending piano music to you.

As a movie, Miss Sloane was ghostly to watch. Ghostly, to see the kind of person you would have become or at least striven to become, had you not found affection at some point. Cold, precise, and extremely good at one thing — preferably enough to undo yourself, or at least end your career at great, inevitably martyristic cost to pursue that one thing that moves your frigid heart. Never will you more wish a movie had been based on fact — something, having just watched Molly’s Game, I was sincerely hoping for…but ought to have known better, since we don’t, you know. Have gun control. At all.

Anyway, this song is great.

onward to elsweyr!

On Tuesday I remembered belatedly (while standing in the aisle of a grocery store where they started playing the Skyrim soundtrack over the loudspeakers) to tune into Bethesda’s announcement stream about its upcoming year of content. Laying aside the skeevy streamer they were also forced to include in the post-announcement discussion (how I long for the day when content creators don’t have to suckle obsequiously at the teats of leering, horny “influencers” to appease community management, blech!)* the news handed out was so, so good.

We’re going to Elsweyr!

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Elsweyr (yes, pronounced as the placeholder it probably was, long long ago), for those of you not paying attention, is the home of the khajiit in the Elder Scrolls series — the talking cats. It’s where I always hoped we’d go in the next full Elder Scrolls game, but where it does, I suppose, make sense not to go if you want people to take you seriously and the best you’ve got to bring to the table is in fact talking cats. (A friend pointed out that this new ESO chapter doesn’t necessarily rule Elsweyr out for Elder Scrolls VI, since that is still so far off that there’d be no perceivable overdose of that zone’s content…but I still think it’s unlikely for the above reason. After Skyrim’s wild success, the pressure to produce something that brings in everyone, not just die hard Elder Scrolls folks, must be immense, and focusing on either of the anthropomorphic races is a good way to ensure that might not happen. This may be how you ended up with the Murkmire story DLC last year, with its focus on the Argonians and their culture, and the focus on the khajiit this year — but I am okay with this, because Murkmire was great.)

Elsweyr looks great so far, too:

And speaking of story DLC, the cadence this year will be the same as last year:

Q1: Dungeon

Q2: Chapter

Q3: Dungeon

Q4: Story DLC

But unlike last year, the “season of the dragon” theme will carry throughout all content released this year. Which is to say that all the story that pulls you through the Elsweyr chapter that releases in June (and for that matter the dungeon that releases prior) will continue through the next dungeon and the story DLC. “Story DLC,” incidentally, was the technical classification for Murkmire. New zone, new music, new quests — not as large as a chapter but certainly satisfying to play. And whatever pulls us through Elsweyr (see: dragons! Abnur Tharn (Alfred Molina) and Sir Cadwell (John Cleese) coming back!), that plotline will continue in the late 2019 story DLC that releases.

That’s cool.

Visually, there will be three biomes to Elsweyr: a savannah, a jungle, and (if I recall correctly) the huge city of Rimmen itself. Or the city may have been extra and the remaining biome was a desert; I’d have to rewatch the announcement to be sure. The creative director said visually they took cues from North Africa, West Africa, and Yemen to build up the environment and especially to portray cities built out of the living rock. Abnur Tharn commits “the biggest fuckup of his career” (an amazing direct quote from a dev, which was bleeped before airing, ha) and causes dragons to a.) wake up and b.) unleash all hell on Elsweyr. It sounds like once again the khajiit bear the brunt of Imperial idiocy, par for the course.

We’ll also get to see more of the 16 different kinds of possible khajiit, including the ones that essentially look like housecats. In hats. Who talk. (You can see why this may sit better as an ESO chapter than as a stand-alone Elder Scrolls game.) The “kinds” of khajiit references the vastly different outcomes of a khajiiti birth, depending on how the moons are aligned. One moon arrangement may produce a khajiit of the kind you are most familiar with: the anthropomorphic cats who wear clothes, talk, and manipulate tools and weapons with their hands. Another moon arrangement may produce little more than a housecat. Or a talking, magic-casting housecat. Or a mount, capable of little thought but much drudgery. The, ah, moral implications of this are kind of huge…and I wonder if they are going to be able to touch on them without it being tremendously awkward. Or, for that matter, repetitive, since in Murkmire they did a fantastic job looking at the desire for a child, the struggle to conceive, and fierce maternal protection of whatever results from that attempt to conceive, even if it wasn’t the “ideal” happy and healthy child they were supposed to want. Coming at that topic again from yet another anthropomorphic angle runs the risk of either beating a dead horse, or of not doing it as well, this time, as they did the first time. Can khajiit delay or induce birth, with magic or herbs or something, to try and get a child who will be able to talk back to and love them? Even introducing that possibility is a moral quagmire that I’m leery of playing through. On the other hand, if the khajiit are completely cool with the Russian roulette that is their production of offpsring, maybe it will be written in such a way that it’s not upsetting. We shall see.

Other announcements included:

1.) A very interesting-sounding addition to Cyrodiil pvp: Sheogorath’s insistence upon spawning a game-changing weapon randomly on the map, which means players will in theory drop everything when it appears, rushing for it…and potentially leaving their keeps ripe for the picking if the other teams can restrain themselves from also rushing after it. As a huge fan of Cyrodiil — still my favorite pvp in any game! — this interests me greatly.

2.) A completionist-friendly UI for zones that will tell you how many skyshards and map locations you have left to discover; how many quests you have yet to do, etc. A completionist mindset does not sound healthy to me but there is clearly a demographic there, so. There you go.

3.) TEXT SEARCH IN GUILD TRADER. TEXT SEARCH IN GUILD TRADER. TEXT SEARCH IN GUILD TRADER. EEEEEEEEEEE!

4.) Guild finder. More interesting to me than the actual service (I’m happy with my guilds) are the seven different categories they choose to break the “main” offerings of a guild down into. Interesting! I would have loved to be in on those meetings.

5.) Necromancers. I know, I know. A big deal for many. Requested since beta, apparently. Necros, though, are too edgelord for me. Too doom and gloom. But they come with justice reactions from the NPCs, and it will certainly be entertaining to hang out in the town square and watch hapless necros summon corpses only to take off with the entire town’s guard bellowing at them. Plus the learning curve against them in pvp will be interesting. So I look forward to that part of the rise of necros, at least!

*To be clear here, I am not against the empowerment of the user. I am against the empowerment of the loudest, smarmiest neckbeards with no filters and an axe to grind. Those are the people who “influence” at the moment, so no, I am not a big fan of giving them a seat at the table.

scandal

scandal

It is difficult to get me to binge watch things. It’s not that I don’t like sitting still for that length of time — I’ll happily play a game or read a book for hours an hours. But watching show after show, or movie after movie, is torture for me. And I try to figure out why that is, because I am largely surrounded by people who delight in this. It isn’t that the filmic intelligentsia is any more pretentious than that surrounding literature and its production — they are very much on par in that regard. And I’m in a good position to know that the back end of video games is just as fraught with personal and production issues (and the tendency to resolve only the most public-facing ones) as that of film. Why, then, does being stuck with the same faces, the same musical cues, the same shooting style, make me want to leap off the couch and do anything other than subject myself to yet another pithy one-liner leveled at the camera with the predictable degree of studied nonchalance or plangent desperation? Trapping me in someone else’s vision, with no recourse to alternative readings or plotlines/activities (as in the case of a game) is suffocating. It feels like being tied to an anchor and thrown overboard.

All that said, I have been binge-watching Scandal. Yes, the ABC show that ended last year. I started it years and years ago, when it was still on the air and I worked partly from home. During the most mindless of my tasks I’d turn it on on Netflix, and I got through two seasons I think before that job ended and a long hiatus set in. In my present state, though, I frequently feel too queasy to do anything more than cling to a glass of ginger ale and grow roots into the furniture — so Scandal has returned.

And it is great.

It’s like House of Cards mixed with Castle, with neither a full helping of the damnably depressing cynicism of the former nor the at-times cloyingly sweet perkiness of the latter. It’s balanced deliciously between the two. Yes, there are annoying side characters too dependent on Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), whose needy plotlines are just obstacles in the way of the main event — but we don’t dwell too long on those, usually. Refreshingly, too, most of the dismissable side characters are skinny white people. People of color largely dominate the most memorable roles (a fact I noticed few people referencing when crowing about the empowering achievement that was Luke Cage — excuse me, Marvel fans, Shonda Rhimes was doing this four years before Cage was released!), and they are allowed to do so as capable, complete movers in the world. Not as pin-ups for pick-your-stereotype.

Also, there is sex. So much sex. Which, sure, is a draw. But it isn’t even like the people Pope is pursuing are particularly, ah, moving to watch. Some of them look like cereal boxes someone sat on. Others are petty self-interested man-children. These characters are not great people. But she pursues them while taking down rapists, abusers and murders, with full awareness of the optics of justice and how easy it is to lose the power in any given, well, scandalous situation. She is so adroit in her work life and so very much not in her personal life. The appeal of the sex, then, isn’t a turn-down-the-lights situation. It’s that satisfying sexual moments are so paltry in her life, compared to the usual disasters she is being forced to clean up (or that are being hatched upon her unawares, despite her inestimable powers of observation), that they crop up like oases in a personal and political desert.

This show — where I am in it, anyway — was written before MeToo, before Ellen Page came out, before Trayvon Martin’s murderer walked free, before Obergefell v. Hodges. Just a few years before, I know, but in the present political moment, a week feels like a lifetime. And yet only the cellphones in this show date it. All of the injustices ring as real, as unresolved, as ignored, today as they were then. Despite everything we clap ourselves on the back for noticing now, or believing, or pretending to care about, every wrong in this show still calls out for a righting in the real world. That is more of a draw, even, than the not-inconsiderably arresting sex scenes. The fact that Olivia Pope manages to maintain a sex life at all, given the levels of bullshit she has to wade through on a daily basis, makes for powerful television.

Binge-worthy television, even.

basket of trips

olive

Oh, god. If you had told me I’d be crying at the end of a book in recent days, I would not have predicted that book to be Olive Kitteridge.

What an exhaustingly sad book. Fantastic and seemingly careless in the way it lays these sad little moments down, but ow. Ow. You’ve gone along believing the world is as it has been presented to you, and then a ways through there you realize not only is your narrator unreliable, she’s been lying to you and to herself. And it’s brutal and sad and it doesn’t get fixed.

Such things don’t.

Initially, halfway through and intending to write about it, I had begun with this:

I’ve been reading Olive Kitteridge after a bland few weeks trying to drag myself through various informative but utterly droll nonfiction. Olive Kitteridge has been on my shelf for years, as it sat on my mother’s shelf for years, much-loved by her but unread by me. I took it before my father purged so many of her books, because I remembered how she spoke of it — it must have been one of the last few books she was able to read; she was diagnosed shortly after it came out — and I like to imagine (if I am honest it is more imagining than memory) what she said about it, its various characters. Its setting in the culture where she was born; its place-names she learned later if she was too young to know them at the time. I am tidy, I try to be tidy, with my missing her, tucking it away where it won’t bother anyone anymore, and letting the connections of books or people or places to her pass uncommented-upon, so I don’t try anyone’s patience.

But it is a terribly good book.

And usually when people have strung tales together like this, turning their hard-won short story collection years in the making into a slapdash novel — for this is what usually happens — I am mildly perturbed that they couldn’t take the time to stick to one goal, one thread, and follow it. This may be an example, though, of an extremely valuable title. Because the fact that I know we circle around or back to Olive in each episode is what pulls me through the storylines of people unconnected with anyone in the narrative I’ve thus far cared about. “And what do you have to do with Olive?” is the unspoken question at the beginning of each piece, and eventually we get around to her.

But as it became more and more of a problem to relate to Olive (I always identify with the wrong person, and say so before I realize what a mistake it is to open my mouth) I backed further and further away. And now it is just sad. The sadness of Crosby, Maine and its people seems like a the teaser trailer for an inevitable horrible movie we’ll all have to sit through. No avoiding it. No rescheduling. No intermission, even.

Even the light, at the end, is sad. Is what made me cry. Because it’s so late. It’s so, so late, after a life of darkness, for any little glimmer to make itself known. Decades late.

She stepped into the room, put her handbag on the floor. He didn’t sit up, just stayed there, lying on the bed, an old man, his stomach bulging like a sack of sunflower seeds. His blue eyes watched her as she walked to him, and the room was filled with the quietness of afternoon sunlight. It fell through the window, across the rocking chair, hit broadside the wallpaper with its brightness. The mahogany bed knobs shone. Through the curved-out window was the blue of the sky, the bayberry bush, the the stone wall.  The silence of this sunshine, of the world, seemed to fold over Olive with a shiver of ghastliness, as she stood feeling the sun on her bare wrist. She watched him, looked away, looked at him again. To sit down beside him would be to close her eyes to the gaping loneliness of this sunlit world.

It’s supposed to be okay that this happens. Because this happens. But it’s so late.

across the wine-dark sea

I was not interested in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey when it came out. Yeah, sure, you could play a lady, people said. But I figured (I wasn’t exactly paying attention; the last AC I enjoyed was three) she was just a side or temporary character, only momentarily playable during a lull in Mr. Big Muscles Guy’s narrative. (I love nerding out over the history in the AC series, but I’m a bit tired of playing the same brooding guy in a hood no matter the century.)

But nope! Kassandra can be your main from day one. And she’s mine. And forget the main quest, I’m sailing all over the Aegean, slaying pirates and winning hearts in equal measure.dark01

I can spend 15 real-world minutes slamming pause during post-storm skies, trying to get good pictures. And I will. Because in addition to being able to float your camera off your character, you can float it off the bird. dark02dark03dark04

This reminds me of the scene in What Dreams May Come when they look down onto the port/boardwalk the girl invented based on her paper circus. That liiiiiigghtt…dark05

Looking down onto Corinth.dark06

It’s a shame this is a static image but that wave on the right tints green as the sun hits it. All of them at that angle do. It’s thoughtful and gorgeous to have included it.dark07dark08