an evening in tamriel

Over the weekend I set about seeing what mods I so coveted in regular-edition Skyrim had finally been ported into Skyrim SE. I’m always most interested in environmental, sound and lighting mods that improve the feel of the game. Typically new content mods don’t have the quality writing or voice acting one might hope for — not to mention the absurdly oblique straight lines of mountain ranges that make no sense, either geologically or visually — and I don’t want any more from the game, anyway. If I wanted story, I’d be playing something else.

By now, though, in contrast to the last time I looked, many mods have been reworked for Skyrim SE that upgrade the ambiance. More stars in the sky, more layers in sheets to the rain, more reverberation for the thunder. More and better clouds onto which to cast sunsets. And more localized glow on light sources  in the dark, so the towns look more like the huddling outposts of life against the dark that they are. Walk with me, then, in Tamriel:

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Not wanting to go through yet another Helgen run, I booted up from a post-Helgen and post-first-dragon save I keep on standby. I had forgotten, though, to return the golden claw in Riverwood — and it was on that return trip that I got to admire the new lighting effects along the bridge. Warmer, more localized golden glow. Nice.

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To my immense delight, a galaxy upgrade was included in the Vivid Weathers mod — something I had had to seek out individually in vanilla Skyrim. The particle snow, much lauded in the read me file, is okay, but the stars and especially the rain are wondrous. They include, too, a sound mod in this package, which again was convenient, and another thing I had had to seek out separately in the past. No longer!

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Also included in Vivid Weathers: the aurora borealis.

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Improved sunsets.

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More light-in-the-darkness effects. So good. Shor’s Stone has never looked so cozy.

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Space,  don’t get me wrong, is not a place  I enjoy going, in fiction or in theory. It’s cold, dark, inhospitable; and if there are aliens out there they’ll probably murder us all before we can so much as offer them tea and cookies. But Fake Space is wondrous, a grandiose backdrop to already dramatic in-game landscapes, without all of the heavy emptiness that comes with Real Space. Hooray, Fake Space!

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These are basic SE trees, yes, because I’ve rejected all tree mods after the last one messed with the Riften trees. Don’t ever, ever mess with the Riften trees. They should always be resplendent in gold, that perfect autumn afternoon held still in perpetuity. The last tree mod I installed made these trees purple. Purple. If I wanted a wall of crape myrtle, I’d go back to the South. I do not, so please keep my pseudo-aspens yellow, as they ought to be.

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Just sunset stuff.

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That bar of light! Was it there before? I believe so. But it looks better now. Softer edges, a more natural glow to its center — Realistic Lighting Overhaul is the place to go for all this. Do it naow.

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The loneliest bandit camp, its loneliness heightened by the tinyness of the light it throws up against the great dark sea.

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Stealing a horse and booking it for the nearest city before sunrise — all in a day’s work.

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all the pretty colors

Me at 7AM Saturday, trotting gamely after trainer into gym to do stuff you need spotters for: Oh yeah sure, I’ve got this, I’ve basically been doing this stuff with free weights anyway. How bad could it be?

Me at 8AM: Kill me.

I didn’t, then, do a lot of moving around Sunday, because any movements I made looked like those of a very old woman. Which meant: MMOs! And let it be known that Black Desert Online has one of the most lavish seasonal displays I’ve ever encountered in any MMO:

The event takes over an entire otherwise empty beach, on a trail leading down from the cliffs that first meanders through street vendors selling foods amidst colorfully-painted surfboards, culminating in a multiple-dancefloor-and-restaurant beachfront complete with private cabanas, pirate shooting galleries, and opportunities to fish gunk out of the water to keep the environment clean despite the influx of people.

But what really got me here — because again, BDO is not where you go for story or plot — was the colors. It’s just so pretty. In fact, do you know what it reminded me of, the minute I stepped into the surfboard alley that led to the beach?

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Yeah! Besaid, from FFX. All we needed was a blitzball team. (Actually, please no: I loathed blitzball so. So. Much.) In fact, BDO’s Terrmian Waterpark event put me so much in mind of FFX that I decided to go ahead and do a free trial of FFXIV. Because I love MMOs, and because it’s the last of the big current [non-space] ones going that I haven’t played. And also, because my muscles were begging me not to move, so I wasn’t about to move.

And it’s pretty. As pretty as Elder Scrolls Online, my MMO of choice? No. The lighting — the sunstars, or rather the lack thereof, and the tree shadows thrown down in patterns onto the landscape below, as well as the blades of grass that make up that landscape — are slightly subpar. But it’s as smooth as ESO, and that is a massive step up, for my eyeballs, from BDO, whose vibrant beaches and sunsets are gorgeous, but whose objects stick out way too much from the surrounding countryside, the way old cell art animation sticks out from the painted backgrounds. In 2D, where your eyes are tracking the moving target anyway, it’s fine; in 3D where you’re trying to immerse yourself in the environment, it hurts.

And while the landscape may be behind ESO, the character animation and writing is easily on par. I say writing though, and not voice acting, because, holy shit, there are next to no voices in the beginning levels of FF14. I’m told this changes with expansions; I’m told that maybe 70% of the game is ultimately voice-acted? But, early on, there’s a whole lot of reading.

You gain lots from this, it’s true! The localization is as good as Fantasy Life’s was — and after BDO’s horrible, horrible localization, this is a tremendous surprise and relief. There are little asides, plays on words, correctly-employed idioms, and prolonged conversations with character types whose subtle shading would have been lost, without those extra paragraphs into which to cram their personalities. There wouldn’t have been time or space to record all those lines being spoken, I know. But still, just the silence of it — it startled me, in 2017. Recognizing voices — and I am damn good at it — and whooping with triumph when an IMDB search turns up a confirmation is one of the keenest incidental joys I take from recent games. But FF14  offers no real route to that mental truffle hunt: it’s just birdsong, pianos, and ambient noise. Which, again, is okay. Just kind of shocking at first.

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How can I be properly insulted if I can’t hear your odious voice as you malign me, Silvairre? (Note: Weirdly, we cut to Silvairre-view for this line, so he’s not actually pictured. Everyone who IS pictured is staring at him.)

 

Having played FF11 back in, oh, 2005, I can say that they’ve fixed a bunch of things that bugged me:

1.) Male and female for each species.

2.) All races can be all classes, again like ESO, which I appreciate.

3.) You can now jump. Jumping is a big deal, people! Always let us jump.

But mainly I’m here for the bright colors and blessedly smooth textures. The Sotha Sil pvp server for ESO is nearing the end of its monthly brawl, which means that for the Daggerfall Covenant, for whom I fight and who has held the lead all month, pvp is currently brutal. We’re already going to win so there’s no real reason to play — so no one is. Which means those few sorry individuals who do show up get steamrolled, day in and day out.

Soooo to FF14 I went.

I had considered a post comparing ESO and FF14 in more detail, given that both of them struggled at first with the legacy of deeply-loved single player games — how to bring that experience into a multiplayer situation without forfeiting either the fannish love for the original, or the necessary change in experience required of an MMO version. But I think I am too much of an Elder Scrolls fan, and too much of a Final Fantasy critic, to do anything remotely resembling a fair job at that comparison. This, for example, was the list I had started to make comparing the struggles of each:

Things Essential to the Experience of Your Single Player Game That You Now Want to Export Into Your MMO

Elder Scrolls

  • Open world
  • Openable things: crates, barrels, etc.
  • Robbery
  • Guilds whose ranks you climb up
  • Cool hidden people and places that have to be stumbled upon to be found

Final Fantasy

  • Bright, elaborate outfits
  • Most of your interactions mediated through glowing blue UI windows
  • Gil
  • Moogles, chocobos, those big many-eyed acid-belchers, etc.
  • Storylines based on friendships deemed way deeper than we’ve seen them actually be

As you can see, I’m kiiiiind of biased. Just a little bit. So I’m not the person to point to each and say, “this is what is intrinsic to the single-player experience of each franchise, and this is what they successfully ported to the MMO versions of each.” I enjoy both ESO and FF14, and will be playing a lot more of the latter in the next month, since I have the 30-day free trial.

I do hope, though, that wherever I level up to next after this lovely sun-dappled forest isn’t dusty, dry and dead. Or dark, dank and dreary. Give me a scintillatingly bright desert or a chain of islands or a sun-drenched plain or something. Maybe even a sunstar or two! It couldn’t hurt…

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a stroll in balenos

I have to hand it to Black Desert Online — the localization and story (what story?) may be wonky, but they do not skimp on NPCs. They pour them into the villages and cities, enough to make their worlds feel full. Because for every vista like this, which you’d expect (and, if you’re me, you demand):

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You get this:

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Towns that are full* of people having dialogues that don’t involve you, amidst housing dense enough to conceivably contain all the people who supposedly live there. There are NPCs arguing, muttering, fighting with unruly livestock, decidedly not fighting with unruly livestock —

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— ruminating on events entirely more mundane than the grand events that turn the wheel of the main questline or even sidequests, being bored —

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I love that he could just as easily be looking at a cellphone here as at a bottle.

— and generally living lives that should and do exist outside the realm of the player’s influence.

Sure, a large part of the world’s fullness must also come from the players themselves, as they gallop or trudge through the streets while AFK, slowing building up whatever stats or horses they’re training at the time. But that’s only part of it. The preponderance of NPCs goes a long way toward making the cities, yes, but also even the smaller towns and villages, feel like places you should be assisting. Because there are people there, totally clueless about the darker things that stalk the world’s hidden corners. And they want to keep it that way.

Black Desert Online recently came to Steam, and seeing it there made me want to re-download it from my previous purchase a year ago. In the intervening months (I gave it up because it became too hot to play in our AC-less house, in the fan-less computer room) I managed to accumulate a generous heap of goodies in my mailbox — apparently every unplanned server downtime or mild inconvenience prompted a generous giftbox to players, which means I’m now running around in a limited-edition frilly pirate ninja getup that while, yes, is ridiculous, is also ridiculously fun:

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I know that when I want to hack up orcs, the first thing I reach for is a ribbon-emblazoned bra and hotpants. Can’t forget the velvet jacket with corset lace-up back, though! Wouldn’t want to, ah…catch cold…yeah…

Anyway, I deliberately wanted a game no one else I knew played, because everyone else is presently away on longer weekends than I get. And I wanted something open-world and mindless with a plot I could more or less ignore — but which included repetitive tasks like horse breeding and farming, which ruled out Skyrim, barring more mods than I wish to fiddle with on my new install at the moment.

Hence, Black Desert Online.

*not the best example pictures, because I wanted to also include pretty flowers, but trust me: these are not empty streets!

welcome to morrowind

I had taken great care to screenshot all the different loading screen illustrations I encountered, and was going to post those — I’ve always loved them anyway, and the Morrowind ones are gorgeous. But it turns out the screenshot button doesn’t work on those anymore, alas. So while I gather them the long slow way over time, you’ll have to settle for these. I’ll provide only minimal context, so as to avoid spoilers.

Spoilers for ESO, I mean. Spoilers for Morrowind the original? That’s on you. It’s 2017.

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Ceiling mosaic in Vivec.

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Fancy shrine.

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Vivec City is really lovely at night. Lamps everywhere.

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Looking down on town,  Red  Mountain in the background.

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Our boy with the bedazzled  loincloth.

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Set before the events of Morrowind, Vivec City is still under construction here. Construction materials, quests and laborers are everywhere,  and in addition to providing a convenient crafting hub that would have been hampered by a canton were it located in a finished one (I’m sorry, I know, I never really liked the original city much…the cantons  always looked like yellowed teeth to me! and you couldn’t get anywhere), the work-in-progress nature of  the city makes it seem much, much more alive than it did in Morrowind proper.

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Balmora. Something else that strikes you is the pronunciation. Words that for so long were rendered only in text are now fully voiced and…wow, was I wrong, thirteen years ago, on how to pronounce Balmora. (Bahhhlm’ra, not bal-MORE-uh!) Or Gnisis! Nye-siss? Pssh! I thought it was Niss-iss all these years. Ald’ruhn? Think Buzz. Not Al-Droon, as I always thought of it.

Whoops.

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More Bahhhlm’ra.

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Suran! And that quest bang you see right there is for my favorite quest line I’ve encountered so far. Short, sweet, tidy and full of feels. Plus it helps that the questgiver himself is rather, ah, winsome:

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Indeed.

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Daedric ruins! Those of you who really missed those funky shapes, you get them back now. I always hated Daedric ruins (sorry Austin!) because they were dark, creepy, and I died a lot. But that brings up an important point:

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Forget dark and creepy, Morrowind is gorgeous. Even the ash is less morose this time around. As someone who trudged only unwilling into the Ashlands the first time (though not for lack of fondness of the Ashlanders, who are awesome), I can honestly say it’s almost pretty this take. Not, apparently, enough for me to have taken a screenshot, but still.

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Also, the House of Earthly Delights is still there in Suran! It’s an inglorious admission but this is the first thing I remember obsessing over in Morrowind. I was still in what for me is that golden window when you first start a game and don’t know the rules or boundaries. Could I free these women? Join them? Befriend them? Start a rival brothel? I had no idea, because I didn’t know how open “open world” was. I had been prescribed Morrowind in the back of an English class while describing what I wanted from my ideal game. “Yeah that already exists. You can play it right now.” So I did. And while the answers to all the above questions were no, no, and no, a.) I didn’t know that yet, b.) it seemed within the realm of the possible still, and c.) there were always mods.

Oh, the Morrowind mods.

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Yeah, no pretty scenery here, I just thought this was great.

Wait till you hear this guy though.

random music fridays : bard guilds

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Yes I know this is Kelethin. I spent a lot of time there too, okay?

Someone at work recently asked if anyone used to play EverQuest, back in the day.
Ahahaha.

Ahahahahahahaha.

I immediately leapt to the music, in my feverish response to affirm that yes, I had indeed played EQ1 in its heyday. But what I remembered–what I could hum–was more the Faydark theme and the Ak’anon theme (itself a specific version of themes carried throughout Freeport and the loading screen, I know, but that was the one I remembered, wedged into the mountains in gnomish territority, hoping nothing would kill me so I could continue enjoying the midi music).

That led me, though, to a full gathering of all the EQ music, much of which I didn’t know I remembered until I heard it. I kind of wonder, given the spazzing, fuming or just absent nature of the full gamut of my music teachers throughout elementary school, just how much of my musical familiarity — how you expect a pentatonic scale to hit that last note, for example, and you expect it through exposure, not through some biological need to hear the full scale — came to me through games.

Anyway, I played bards whenever I could (I know, I know), and EQ was no exception. The Bard Guilds, in Freeport and Qeynos, respectively, had THE. BEST. Music.

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So there you go then. Linked in the city names above. Enjoy. While you are there, may I recommend the Freeport gate theme (where I’d often try to avoid being eaten by lions long enough to admire the sunset, or which would start playing and would herald a joyful end to a long, harrowing journey across the continent from Qeynos) or the Warm Fire cottage theme, which starts out so homely and then, poof, you’ve got a waltz on your hands. If I could play a stringed instrument, I’d learn to play that.

Oh! And don’t forget the Docks theme! Man, that game didn’t give you any safe waters. You could be boarded and murdered by pirates or island ghosts, just taking basic transportation across the map. Harrowing, and memorable.

Edit: Here is a guy talking about EQ1 music. The links aren’t there anymore, but you can find all the songs in that compilation I linked to different timestamps above. And I’d like to point out that it’s no accident I like a theme “so pumped full of Prozac that it’s shooting rainbows out of every note. Triple rainbows, even.” Damn right. I have the real world to be sad in. If I’m going to be paying to be in some other world, I am going to mainline the rainbows.

ftl

sketch

I’ve been playing tons of Mass Effect Andromeda. Tons! Because I am about to be separated from my desktop for two months. For a good (see: GREAT) cause, but still. One must do what one can in the time that one has.

This is with the Nvidia ALT+F2 screenshot tool. It’s great, and comparable to Horizon Zero Dawn’s amazing camera tool, except that I can’t change the pitch of my camera. I climbed all the way up here so that a straight-on shot of my character — which this tool defaults to — would include the canyon and some sky. All the earlier shots I attempted tried to do this via the usual way, by right-clicking and dragging the camera to an appropriately gorgeous location, but the Nvidia tool doesn’t allow for that, that I’ve yet discovered. (An aside: this guy seemed to make it work, so if I do figure it out before I’m parted from my computer, I’ll go back to all the places I’d naively hit Print Screen before and try it out.) This one has a color enhance and a sketch-like filter turned on.

Incidentally but accordingly, my life is changing at FTL speed, such that I will soon be able to watch all the MST and PST Twitch streams I frequent (see: all of them) at reasonable times, rather than the wee hours of the morning.* The only downside is that the family I’ve built post-college must be left behind, and that sucks.

Still. New job. Dream job. Shall persevere.

And return to Andromeda ASAP.

*Massive love to you if this phrase rings bells. I started using it as a nine-year-old playing Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis, which I adored more than I care to admit.

legit why we engage in fiction (no matter the medium)

From Remembrance of Things Past, pt.1:

“Next to this central belief which,while I was reading, would be constantly reaching out from my inner self to the outer world, towards the discovery of truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime. These were the events taking Place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a ‘real’ person awaken in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the picture was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of ‘real’ people would be a decided improvement. A’real’ person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to us in sleep, why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us of their development prevents us from perceiving them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alternation, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.”