Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Don't Ask Me What's Real. I'll Only Tell You "Everything".

Exactly a month ago
I said I wasn't going to be "dabbling with audio and video" any more," unless and until there are some very major advances. Why? Because "It takes ages and I get nothing interesting out of it.

That remains true for AI-generated video, which still seems a long way from becoming a consumer product. I keep a weather eye on it in case anything worth mentioning develops but so far it's mostly more of the same five second pans and uncanny-valley animation, with tiny, incremental adjustments only the initiated will notice.

AI audio - specifically music - is another matter entirely. Seemingly overnight, a cluster of apps have surfaced, each capable of generating segments of songs that seem barely distinguishable from what, for shorthand purposes only, I'll call the real thing. The first one I ran into was Suno, which I wrote about briefly just over a week ago. 

The AI aggregator There's An AI For That claims to be able to point you to more than a hundred alternatives to Suno but the one that's really getting all the attention is Udio. I watched a couple of YouTube videos about Udio and it looked more than interesting enough to justify some "dabbling". 

Udio is currently in Open Beta. While that lasts you're free to create an astonishingly generous 1200 songs a month. All you have to give them is an email address. The ownership rules on what you make are pretty lenient too, although like all such services they do ask you to credit them, while also retaining the right to do it for you if they feel like it.

At first I just played around with the default text-to-song prompt. That gets you two thirty-second  clips, like the one below, for which I specified some downtempo electronica about an old horse looking back at his life.

The results were pretty good, although no better to my ear than the ones I got from Suno. Once again, the weak point was the AI-generated lyrics. And the titles, which most confusingly change every time you edit or extend a song. AIs still really aren't great at writing anything you'd want to read for pleasure.

What I really wanted to do was upload my own lyrics and have the AI set them to music for me. Both Suno and Udio can do that but the free version of Suno is quite strict in what it allows you to do with anything you create using the service. Udio, at least while it's in beta, is much less restrictive.

With that in mind, I started playing around with Udio to see if I could get it to show me what one of my songs might have sounded like, had I ever managed to get a band to play it the way I wanted it played, something I only rarely and fleetingly achieved because musicians, even incompetent ones, annoyingly have ideas of their own. 

I can't help but be struck by the similarities with the way I used to have to find a group before I could complete certain content in EverQuest. That all changed with the addition of Mercenaries, after which I pretty much never needed to speak to another human being in the game again. AI might just be my musical mercenary solution...

The first problem I ran into was one of duration. Not the thirty-second limit on segments but the way the AI simply speeds the song up to get all the words in. If you give it half a dozen lines it sounds fine. If you give it two verses it starts sounding like The Dickies.

The answer to that is to break the thing up into sections of suitable size and stitch them together, something that's very easy to do using the simple and intuitive interface. If you get muddled, there's a very helpful FAQ

It took me about half an hour to complete my song, which clocked in at 2.44. Just about the perfect length.

It's made up of an intro, two verses, a chorus, a third verse, a second chorus and a coda. That's how I originally wrote it except for the intro, which someone else would no doubt have tacked onto the front whether I liked it or not, had I allowed a bunch of actual musicians to get their hands on it. Along with a solo and some kind of break, no doubt, because musicians always try to complicate things.

When it was done, by far the most surprising thing about it was that the vocal melody, paricularly in the verses, sounds uncannily similar to the one I actually wrote back in the mid-1980s. Eerily so, in fact. If I had one of my old cassettes, I'd upload a version I recorded back then, for comparison. Sadly, even if I was able to find one, I fear all you'd hear after thirty-five years is tape hiss.

The chorus didn't sound much like the one I wrote. More worryingly , the second chorus didn't sound much like the first. It may be that there's a way to cut and paste sections so they're identical but if so I haven't worked out how to do it. I just told the AI to do it again and it did, but differently.

The effect of having the same lines sung in two different ways works quite well, although if it's not the same each time I don't think it actually qualifies as a chorus. There's also an odd moment when the singer appears to improvise a couple of words I didn't give her, one when she rushes the begining of a verse and another when she slurs a word. Oddly, all of those seem to add to the faux veracity of the thing.

Not quite as charmingly quirky are the moments when the segments grind a little against each other before they settle in. All told, though, I have to say it's a better job than most line-ups of any band I ever played in would have been able to come up with. It may not be professional standard but it would definitely have gotten us through any audition needed to play the back room of a pub back in 1985.

Once I was passably content with the music I thought about adding some visuals. I was planning on uploading it to my YouTube channel so I could link to it here and it's nice to have something to watch while you're half-listening, I always find.

My immediate thought was to have another AI make me a video based on the audio file but on investigation that turned out to be way more trouble than I was prepared to take. I've futzed around with that sort of thing before and it always seems to be me doing most of the work. 

As far as I can tell, while the actual output of AI-generated video keeps getting more and more sophisticated, the amount of technical expertise and sheer effort to produce anything longer than three seconds is constantly accelerating too. I was pretty sure it would be quicker to knock something up myself from some old camcorder footage I had lying around so that's what I did.

Actually, it wasn't that much quicker because once I got started I couldn't stop fiddling about with it. I had it done in about an hour and then I thought it would look better with the lyrics and that took an hour more. In the end I got something a not very imaginative twelve year old would probably be mildly embarassed to hand in for media studies homework. Good enough!

The thing to remember here is that I'm very easily pleased. I can hear and see most of what's wrong with what I've made but I still think it's pretty good anyway. I've already watched it half a dozen times and there's every chance I'll watch it half a dozen more.

In fact, the only thing likely to get me to stop is making another one with another of my old songs. I'm very curious to see whether the shape of the lyric, coupled with the intended style, does indeed force the whole thing into a certain melodic pigeonhole. Did I only imagine I was creating those tunes all those years ago, when really they were inherent in the words I was writing and the subculture I inhabited?

I'm aware that we stand on the very edge of musical annihilation here and that in a matter of years or possibly months it may be literally impossible to know if anything we hear contains any human emotion or experience at all. And yet, I'm not unduly concerned. Against such worries I set my faith in the ability of all true creative souls to turn every technical innovation into a means of self-expression.

I'm old enough to remember when album sleeves sometimes bore the passive-aggressive rubric "No Synthesizers". The line between authenticity and artificialty is constantly being re-drawn.

This video I made for a song on which I played none of the instruments and didn't sing a note has words I wrote and images I shot. It sounds remarkably reminiscent of the demo I recorded more than a quarter of a century ago in a rented room with a friend with a guitar and an acquaintance with a drum kit. Only better. 

What's more, I can feel the new pushing out the old. I can already feel the AI singer's phrasing replacing the way I always heard it in my head.

Don't ask me what's real. I'll only tell you "Everything".

Monday, April 15, 2024

You're Not From Around Here, Are You?

After I hit Publish on last month's post about not being able to watch the third and fourth seasons of Roswell New Mexico, I did what I said I might do and re-upped to my VPN of choice, which happens to be Mullvad. It's very cheap, has no registration process to speak of and happily supports ad hoc comings and goings with no need for any kind of subscription. 

Also, it has a cute logo of a mole wearing a hard hat. Not that I'm saying that influenced me in any way.

The only drawback is that Mullvad doesn't support Windows operating systems older than Win10, as I found out when I went to use it on my laptop, which stills chugs along on Windows 8.1, partly because I had the disk but mostly because it's too ancient to run anything newer. Luckily, Mullvad supplies its own work-around, which just requires some cutting and pasting so it can piggyback on a third-party service, the  name of which I forget and which I'm too lazy to look up.

Have we been here before? I feel like I'm getting deja vu.

Doesn't matter. The point isn't to discuss the nit-picking details of how I'm passing myself off as a New Yorker these days. It's to say that, as I suspected, no amount of digital camoflage was ever going to let me watch those two missing seasons, which I still haven't seen, for the simple reason that no-one is streaming them for free anywhere.

They are for sale as digital downloads and, courtesy of my spoofed IP address, I could theoretically buy them from Amazon and a few other places but I'm neither ready to pay that price yet nor certain how it would go with my UK payment credentials if I tried. It might come to it eventually but for the while I'm holding off to see if the show returns to a streaming service I can access, one way or another.

Since I'd paid for a month anyway, I thought I'd see what else was available that previously hadn't been, when I was geo-locked to my genuine physical location. The first show I thought of was...

Housebroken (Season 2)

Housebroken, for those who neither know nor likely care, is an American animated sitcom made for an adult audience, featuring a poodle called Holly, who runs therapy sessions for animals in her neighborhood out of the front room of her owner's home, while she's out at work. Holly is voiced by Lisa Kudrow, who you will certainly know from shows like Friends and... well, just Friends, really, although god knows no-one needs another show on their resume if they have that one.

I really enjoyed the first season of Housebroken. There are only two but a third has been commissioned so it must be doing okay, even though it has no more than a mediocre 6.4 on IMDB. I'd give it something closer to an 8, I think. The best episodes are very funny but it does lack a little in consistency. 

The second season is noticeably more cartoonish than the first in that it makes more extensive use of the freedom of animation to stretch the boundaries of a supposedly realistic setting (If you can call anything where cats, dogs, hamsters and pigs sit peacably in a room together without tearing each other apart "realistic". Oh, and they talk and some of them run businesses and... you know what, forget I ever used the word...)

There are also several of those set-piece episodes where characters meet versions of themselves in dreams or perform musical numbers in the style of a broadway show or parody other shows and movies. Sometimes all of those at once. Also, there are a surprising number of scenes - even whole episodes - where one or more of the animals is on drugs. 

At times I thought it seemed a bit much for one season - especially the second. You don't usually get too much of this sort of thing until later in the run, when the writers are either running out of ideas or the show is so popular they feel they can get away with anything. 

That's not to complain, though. Mostly, the more surreal it gets, the funnier it is. I particularly enjoyed the episode with the Thelma and Louise parody. And there's really not much point making an animated comedy about talking animals if you don't lean into the possibilities. 

The voice acting is uniformly good. There's a plethora of famous guest voices but none of them unsettle or unbalance the gestalt of the regular ensemble. The writing is sharp enough, although the comedy can also be also very broad. It's a difficult trick to match those two approaches. Mostly it comes off but  even when it doesn't, things generally move fast enough you're past it before you notice.

The animation is fine. Better than functional, not spectacular, always in the very recognizeable, American made-for-TV style. It sits well in that tradition, not surprising when you find the studio behind it is Bento Box Entertainment, best known for Bob's Burgers, a show I have never watched but which, from the title alone, sounds like it must be the most American show ever. 

It is mildly ironic that such a US-oriented studio should name itself after an iconic Japanese artefact. I'm sure there's a story in that, which leads me neatly, if unexpectedly, on to...


Toradora,  as I'm sure someone reading this already knows, is an anime in which male lead Ryuji's ability to put together a perfect Bento Box features heavily. I wasn't going to talk about that show today. I had other ideas but when the universe gives you that kind of nudge it'd be crazy to ignore it.

Not just the anime but the whole IP is a big deal in Japan. It began as a series of light novels, a concept I wasn't familiar with a year ago but now know quite well from work, where we seem to be selling more and more of them. 

We don't currently stock English translations of this particular series. They do exist but they don't seem to be in print at the moment. If they were, I'd order the first in the run to see if it matches up to the anime, which is one of the best I've seen. 

Of course, my minimal exposure to the form makes that a judgment of limited value but don't take my word for how good it is. Here's another opinion. Or just google the reviews. They're uniformly excellent. 

It's widely considered a classic in the high school romance/coming of age genre but it's considerably more nuanced, thoughtful and just downright odd than that pigeonhole would suggest. The cast isn't huge - there are two central characters and something like half a dozen close supporting roles - but everyone, even the minor, recurring characters, gives a strong impression of depth and solidity. 

The narrative throughline, which meanders chronologically through the school year for the full twenty-five episodes, somehow manages to be at once coherent and sprawling. The show opens with a fairly defined concept: Ryuji and Taiga both have ferocious reputations and/or appearances that make their classmates fear and/or respect them. Naturally, over the course of the series, it will be revealed that they are nothing like as scary as everyone thinks and of course they will be revealed to be made for each other.

Yeah. Right. Good luck with that! It's true we get there in the end but as with all the best trips, it's the journey that counts, not the destination. Pretty much every cliche is overturned. Every plot twist you see coming goes somewhere else. Every major character has their own journey to take and all of them end up being more complex than you'd imagined.

I never knew from one episode to the next what to expect but I found the whole thing so emotionally involving I literally pumped my fist in the air and yelled "Yes!" at one crucial moment and threw both my arms in the air with a despairing "FFS!" at another. This is unseemly behavior for anyone but especially someone about to hit retirement age. 

I watched it with the English (American.) dub and I rate the voice acting very highly. I've long been an advocate of V.O. with subtitles but in the case of anime I think I'm definitely leaning towards the dubbed versions. Or maybe I've just been lucky so far.

It's fair to say this is my kind of show but I would recommend it to anyone. It's heartwarming in the best way but also thought-provoking and challenging. The ending, which remains controversial, takes some getting your head around, I'll tell you that for nothing. I was all "Wait! What?" until I had a good long think about it but I'm cool with it now.... I think...

In keeping with my comments from the last time I wrote about stuff like this, I'll be getting Toradora on DVD. Anything you want to watch again needs to be on hard copy now, as I think we can all agree. Which brings me neatly back to where I was going before, and ...

The Conners  (Season One)

Thanks to my VPN I am finally watching the Roseanne follow-up that began all the way back in 2018. Really? Was it that long ago?

I wanted to watch this from the moment I heard of it. Roseanne was one of those shows from the '90s that benchmark the decade (Even though it actually started airing in the very late 'eighties.) Roseanne, Friends, Frasier - whatever ran in the 10PM Friday slot on Channel 4. It's weird to think it now but in the UK, at the time, those and more like them were considered niche viewing only suitable for the minority channel, at least at first.

Of all of them, the only one I have never re-watched is Roseanne but my memories of it, more than a quarter of a century old, remain surrisingly clear. It must have made an impression. The final season, which aired in 1997, I have pegged in my mind as The End Of TV, mostly because it came just two years before I started playing EverQuest and gave up watching TV for a decade and a half. Not because it was... not great, to put it politely.

Apart from that last season, though, I loved Roseanne. Not Roseanne the character, or Roseanne Barr the actor, both of whom I always found annoying, but the rest of the cast. (Okay, not Martin Mull either. He was even more annoying than Roseanne...) so I was naturally interested when I heard the show was getting a sequel. 

That happened in 2018 and everything was apparently going jut fine until Roseanne torpedoed her own show with an exceptionally ill-advised Twitter rant. That looked to be it for the revival until she magnanimously opted out of the show she'd created under her own name, leaving the rest of the cast to carry on under the family banner. When I learned that it would be coming back without the titular character my interest actually increased.

And then I somehow never managed to watch it. I mean I could have. I think it came out here on Sky originally. It's now on Sky Go, whatever that is. Also Apple TV for some reason. It just hasn't appeared on any of the channels or services I'm registered with or subscribed to or can get for free so I kind of forgot all about it.

The Conners is, however, on Netflix in the USA and now, thanks to my VPN disguise, it just shows up on my Netflix account as if it was always there. Which is weird. You'd think there'd be some code to stop that.

I'm very glad there isn't because I'm really enjoying The Conners. It's stagey and occasionally awkward but it's all the characters I remember, behaving like they should. Everyone looks suitably older and more shop-worn although I'd have to re-watch the original series to judge just how far to the left the politics has shifted. It feels like it must be a long way, especially since it seems that in the one, short revival season made before she dropped out, Roseanne was written as a Trump supporter.

John Goodman, Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalfe are all as good in their familiar, familial roles as you could hope and Lecey Goransen is better as Becky than I remember, although maybe I'm thinking of Sarah Chalke, the other Becky. There were famously two Beckys...

As an actor, I don't think Laurie Metcalfe has a setting below "Over the Top" but she's counterweighted by Sara Gilbert, playing Darlene with perfect, dry understatement as always. Amusingly, Michael Fishman's DJ is as bland and underwritten as an adult as he was as a child, to the point where it has to be an in-joke.

Of the new characters, I really like Ames McNamara as Mark, the cross-dressing, gay middle-schooler. Child actors can be awkward but he seems astonishingly natural in what must be a very challenging role. His elder sister, Harris, played by Emma Kenney, is winningly reminiscent of her mother, Darlene, at the same age, while somehow looking, sounding and acting completely different. That's a hell of a trick.

The rest of the newbies I'm still getting used to but I'm only in Season One. The show has a very poor rating on most of the review sites I've checked, some of which might relate to residual loyalty to Roseanne Barr or to the show's unexpectedly liberal political stance. I broadly approve of the politics on show but even I was surprised by just how "woke" Darlene has grown up to be. I remember her as more of a Daria-inspired nihilist than any kind of social justice warrior.

I'll have to go back and re-watch Roseanne to see if I'm mis-remembering that. I guess I could faff about, trying to find out if and where it's streaming and whether I can access it but I just checked and you can get the box set of the whole nine seasons for under £35 on Amazon so I think I'll just save myself the hassle and buy it.

Of course, then it'll just sit around on a shelf, unopened, like all the other box sets in this house but at least I'll have the comfort and security of knowing I could watch it, if I wanted to. 

That's got to be worth the money all on its own.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

We'll Grow Sweet Ipomea...

I was a little startled to see this news report from MassivelyOP, when it popped up in my feed this evening. It's all about "a selection of officially licensed GW2 flower seeds based on some of the plants found within Tyria". The MOP piece doesn't specifically say they're for sale but that's the impression I got and it made me think.

I have a garden. I don't like gardening but I have one anyway. It came with the house. It's not small, either. 

When we first moved in, thirty years ago, we used it a lot. Then the kids left home and we mostly forgot about it for a while. When we remembered it was there it took me several years to hack it back into a manageable state. 

It's not at all bad now although it's fortunate fashion has moved on from the manicured perfection of the aughts to a looser, wildlife-friendly feel. Our massive pile of brushwood isn't evidence of neglect any more - it's a hedgehog sanctuary. To prove it we have actual hedgehogs. I've seen them.

I grew up in a home where gardening was a serious enterprise. We had two very large vegetable gardens, an orchard, a couple of lawns and plenty of decorative flowerbeds and shrubs. My main interest in gardening as a child was avoiding it.

About all I'm prepared to do now is trim the hedges, tidy the paths and keep the grass short but I did go so far as to scatter some wildflower seeds a while back. I even watered them occasionally. They grew quite nicely and weren't any trouble so I thought I might get some of these amusing GW2 seeds and have a go with those. It would amuse Mrs. Bhagpuss, at least.

There's a link in the piece so I clicked on that. If I was startled by the news item, I was floored by the website itself. 

For a start, it's so glaring and harsh. Neon on a field of black. It reminds me of a GeoCities home page from the 'nineties. What really set me back, though, was the means through which the various seeds can be acquired.

They aren't for sale after all. They're free but only to selected applicants and when I say "selected" I'm being quite literal. For a chance at the "rare" seeds you need to "

Anyway, that's how I've been spending my evening. It's dark so I can't do much gardening anyway. That's my excuse. (I have a million excuses for not doing the gardening. This year, nine hundred and ninety nine thousand of them involve rain.)

If you fancy growing some Tyrian flowers and you live in the UK, which is as far as Seed Saga is prepared to send them, I suggest you get started on your essay right away. 

Good luck. I'm sure the competition will be fierce.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Live Stream's Almost On...

No plan survives contact with the livestream, as the saying goes. I sat down at my PC this morning with all kinds of good intentions. Then I clicked a link to what I thought was a clip from Lana del Rey's headlining set at Coachella last night and it turned out to be the livestream of her on stage right now. So that was my morning gone.

Well, an hour of it. Lana was midway through her set when I arrived, or thereabouts. I knew it was being livestreamed but by my calculations yesterday she was due on around four in the morning my time and since I'm not (Faron) young enough for wolf hours any more, I abandoned any idea of watching her play live, live. 

Either I can't read a time conversion or she went on stage really late. I mean, she always starts late but that would have been about three hours, which is a bit much even for Lana. Looking at it now I think it was a bit of both. I was a couple of hours out and she was an hour late. Sounds about right. (Yeah, it's not, though. A news report I saw confirmed she actually went on early, for once. Clearly I can't read a clock.)

Reality is fluid. We all know that. Over the course of my time playing MMORPGs there's been a consistent drift away from real-time events towards recyclables. 

When I started playing EverQuest they still had GMs. Actual, live human beings sitting in an office somewhere (San Diego, presumably.) in front of a screen, logged into a game they could change on the fly. Many times I was off somewhere, in Qeynos Hills or South Karana, hunting gnolls or camping aviaks, when the word would go out that something was happening in West Commonlands or Greater Faydark.

Maybe there'd be werewolves. Sometimes undead. Once, I remember, it was three giant Aviak Avocets. Whatever it was, you could guarantee mayhem.

People reacted differently. Some yelled for a wizard to port them to where the fun was happening. Others in the drop zone started heading in the opposite direction, complaining loudly and bitterly about the disruption to their camps. At various times I've been on both sides but mostly I wanted to go where the chaos was.

More meaningful than ad hoc GM events were those set pieces that only happened once. The opening of the Plane of Hate in EverQuest or Greenscale's Blight in Rift. The karka invasion of Lion's Arch in Guild Wars 2. These are things you remember forever if you were there - or wish you had been if you weren't. They carry weight because they only happened once.

Gamers, though, are about the most risk-averse group imagineable. It's not always apparent, given the risks they say they like to take, but really what they almost all crave is a do-over. It's fine to wipe but there has to be a second run. And a third. It's fine to miss out so long as you never miss out. 

Everyone must have a chance at everything, always. God forbid anyone should come late and the bus leave without them. 

Commercially it makes a lot of sense. What business wants to leave their customers behind? You can't sell them stuff if they aren't there to buy it. ArenaNet took a long time learning that lesson but in they end they did, which may be why GW2 feels so stolid, staid and ordinary now, not reckless, strange and weird, like it used to.

It's unfashionable to offer non-repeatable content in games but of course it's the norm in music. We can all buy the records or access the streams whenever we want but if you want the thrill of seeing Lana bring out Billie Eilish to do Video Games you're gonna have to be there.  

Or you could be watching it on the livestream. That's not the same but it's not watching a clip later in the day, either.

Livestreaming is odd. I don't do it often but I totally get it and if I didn't this morning I was given an object lesson in why and how it works. 

When I clicked that link I thought I was going to watch a recording. That wold have been great because I love Lana and I'm always happy to watch her perform but I certainly wasn't feeling any obligation or desire to drop everything else I had planned so I could carry on watching until she stopped. A recording you can watch any time and it's always the same. Kind of the point.

As I started watching, though, I noticed the comments waterfalling down the side of the screen. That didn't seem right. I scratched around a little and yes, this was live.

And everything in that moment changed. I opened the screen to full, sat back and just basked. It felt real. Not like being there but like being somewhere

About a dozen times I had that tingling sensation like static crawling over the skin that means something really special is happening. I'm prone to that, which makes me special, apparently.

I read about it once. Like ASMR, not everyone experiences it. It means something. 

"Pleasurable valuation of music is associated with increased functional connectivity in the brain between auditory cortices and mesolimbic reward circuitry" or in other words "People who get the chills have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions".

Which is all very well but it doesn't factor in the extra thrill that comes from knowing what you're experiencing is a unique, real-time event that can never be repeated. That's a whole other existential ball of string.

Here we chance wandering into the treacherous waters of authenticity, a stretch of rapids I prefer not to navigate just now. My oft-stated position is that subjectivity is all we have and therefore everything is by definition as real as everything else but that doesn't sit well with everyone and anyway it doesn't forward my thesis here that recording is not live performance.

It isn't, though. And livestreaming isn't either. Livestreaming is a peculiar limbic state somewhere between the two. I know it. I can feel the abrasion where the two rub together.

For about twenty-five years one of the most important things in my life was live performance. Specifically, seeing bands play live. At times I went to two or three gigs a week, for months in a row. I rarely went less than once a month in the whole of that quarter century.

And then I stopped. I won't rehash the reasons but for the next twenty-five or thirty years I slowed down to almost never and then to actually never. 

For a good chunk of that time livestreaming didn't exist other than in broadcast transmission and when did TV ever show anything other than sport live? It'd have to be on the scale of Live Aid before they'd clear a schedule for music. And I didn't watch Live Aid. 

I can't say I've watched a lot of livestreams, even now, but I've watched a few and it is different than watching a recording of the same thing. It's not just music or sports or public events, either. Even watching someone play a game on Twitch feels different to watching a "Let's Play" on YouTube. 

The difference isn't even indefinable. Something liminal in the mind knows the possibility of change exists even if you're not consciously thinking about it. Something could go wrong. Something unexpected could happen. Nothing you're seeing or hearing has a predefined outcome. And most importantly, this will only happen once and that one time is now.

Also, by watching when you know others are watching, you feel somehow part of something larger. It's the effect many of us claim for MMOs, where it doesn't matter that you play with others, it matters that they're there. So many intangibles. They pile up. 

There are games in the pipeline that claim they'll provide a personalised service, with gamesmasters on hand to create bespoke events on the fly. If those events turn out to be anything other than rote I predict a clamor for repeats until there's no-one left who hasn't done them all, by which time they might just as well have been scripted anyway. 

One-offs used to signal thrills. Now they smack of elitism and entitlement. We don't like them. We won't stand for them.

From here it would be so easy to fold back into the argument on preservation. If something's worth doing, is it worth doing forever or is there a value in evanescence? 

I vacillate. Some days I say keep it all. Some days I say it's all going to burn anyway so let it and enjoy the heat.

What I am sure of is that being there is better than not being there, even when being there is not being there. The total weight of my life is still heavier for contiguous experiences like this morning's than without, attenuated though they are. 

Everything may be equally real and yet. Some things are realler than others. I can't square it but I can feel it. Can you?

Friday, April 12, 2024

Knowing Where You're Going

The plan for today was a music post but they take a while and the weather's turned warm and fine so that's not happening. The garden won't tidy itself, more's the pity.

Instead, how about another Friday grab-bag? I think I have enough bookmarks for one of those...

Is it, Though?

The headline on the news report at MMOBomb trumpets "The World Of Pantheon: Rise Of The Fallen Is Looking Much Better With The New Lighting Update". News Editor Troy Blackburn seems really impressed: 

"...the most impressive thing they have implemented into Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen is the improved lighting.... The video does a fantastic job of highlighting the changes to the lighting system and it's amazing how much of a difference it makes."

I was curious to see it after that build-up. I'm broadly in favor of the new graphic style Visionary Realms have chosen and it's looked pretty good in the videos they've put out so far to promote it. This one? Not so much.

The video wasn't produced by VR themselves but by a YouTuber called Redbeardflynn (No relation to our own Redbeard, at least I'm assuming...). The video itself is perfectly fine. It's what it shows that bothers me.

These things are always a matter of taste but to my eye, many of the Befores in that video look more atmospheric and characterful than the largely bland and over-illuminated Afters. It's not that I think the new lighting is in any way bad. I just can't see it as much of an improvement. By and large, I prefer it the way it was. 

It does, I suppose, have the merit of making it easier to see everything, which seems to be in keeping with the direction the game is heading. I'm beginning to think that, when and if it ever reaches an official launch state, Pantheon won't look much like Brad's original vision at all. 

That may or may not be a bad thing. By then the whole retro scene might almost be ready for a revival of its own, it's been going on so long now. I'm not entirely sure who the target demographic is any more, anyway. People who plan on playing video games when they retire? If so, maybe it makes sense to make everything easier to see.

Maybe they should include a magnifying glass in the Collector's Edition.

Anyone Got A Map?

Just a quick follow-up to yesterday's post about the latest EverQuest II update, Darkpaw Rising. Attentive readers may have noticed a throwaway line in which I described it as "excellent, awkward and frustrating". It's all of that and what's more it's meant to be.

The new instance is based on, although by no means the same as, the sprawling dungeon included with the old Splitpaw Saga Adventure Pack from June 2005, a time when the EQII development team at SOE was still taking no prisoners when it came to accessibility. Almost two decades later, someone at Darkpaw clearly thinks the time has come to revisit that aesthetic. 

The new update is... challenging. What it mostly challenges is your patience. If you're the kind of person who yells "Yippee!" when they realise the quest they're on is sending them deep into a maze or someone who keeps a pad of graph paper and a mapping pen always to hand in the fervent hope a cartographic opportunity may arise, you're going to love this update.

If you're everyone else, you're going to tab out after ten minutes and start searching for help. I did and found nothing so I gritted my loins, girded my teeth and got on with it. 

In a couple of hours or so I'd killed every last gnoll in the place, as well as all the bats, snakes, mushroom-men, earth elementals and any damn thing that moved. I'd bought some tracking scrolls in the cash shop so I could find my quest targets and now there was literally nothing on track. Not a living or undead thing left in the place and yet I still had plenty of unfinished quests, some of them asking me to kill mobs I'd not seen at all.

That was working as intended. The dungeon is meant to take more than one run to complete. It has multiple levels with some areas inaccessible without the use of crafted devices such as ladders or teleport crystals. I knew all that. I'd even stopped to do the tradeskill instance so I could make the items I needed. The problem was, I couldn't figure out where I was meant to use them.

In the end I decided to do some proper research, which eventually paid off.  Searching for all kinds of variations on Darkpaw Dungeon/Instance/Warren got me nowhere but when I googled Darkpaw Maps I finally got some hits. In case anyone reading this is thinking of giving the new content a look, I'm very happy to share what I found.

There's a page on the wiki but it's tucked away under the heading Darkpaw Warrens Maps. It has several links to some maps made in beta by a player called Taled, along with a fairly comprehensive quest walkthrough.

Taled says he's not planning on uploading the maps to EQ2Maps (Although now I check he has at least posted them on the forums there so someone else can do it.) so you'll have to install them yourself. Luckily for the less technically-minded among us, he's included comprehensive instructions, which I followed and can attest work perfectly. There are also some PoIs you can add to the maps, which is an even fiddlier process but if I can manage it, anyone can.

Thanks for the maps, Taled! I'd be lost without them. Literally.

Ever Wish You Hadn't Bothered?

Remember those two posts back in March, where I went through every act on the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition longlist and gave my thoughts on all of them? Well, that was a waste of time!

Yesterday, the organisers announced the eight names that made it through to the shortlist. No mention of my favorites, of course. I wasn't all that surprised. There wasn't a lot that interested or impressed me on the long list and I was fairly sure the few I did like wouldn't make the cut. 

That said, I did think George Houston would make it onto the shortlist. He looks like a star already. But nope. No sign of him, or of the wonderful Chloe Slater - who, to be fair, may only have that one, great song...oh, wait...

Of the eight, most seem like solid, musicianly picks. I guess it's in keeping with the way Glastonbury is these days - slick, professional, polished and more than a little dull. I guess they didn't call it Worthy Farm for nothing. Not like the old days, although god knows the old days weren't all that great, either. 

Anyway, for completion's sake, the eight shortlisters are The Ayoub Sisters, Bryte, Caleb Kunle, JayaHadADream, KID 12, Nadia Kadek, Olivia Nelson, and Problem Patterns. If you want links, you can find them in the aforementioned posts. 

I'm kidding!I know no-one here cares!

End With A Tune

I did say I wanted to do a music post today. I guess I'm halfway there. I've been bookmarking a lot of stuff to share of late but on review I'm not wholly convinced it's all up to the mark. I mean, I like all of it but a lot doesn't really stand out from the pack the way it probably should if I'm going to pull it out for special attention.

This does, though.

 I LUV IT feat. Playboi Carti - Camillo Cabello

She's a pop star, apparently. I hadn't heard of her but that means nothing. Pop's changed, hasn't it? For the better. 

A lot of things I've liked lately seem to have had Playboi Carti somewhere around them, too.

Also, I love that video, particularly the very last shot with the bloodstain slowly spreading and that wonderful expression she pulls...

And we're done. Real music post soon, weather permitting.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

It's Like That And That's The Way It Is

When I went to log into EverQuest II this morning so I could carry on with the new, excellent, awkward and frustrating Darkpaw Rising update, I spotted a link in the launcher to the transcript of a recent AMA by the EQII team on the new, excellent, not at all awkward or frustrating forums. I thought I'd have a quck look at it while the game loaded so here I am, nearly an hour later, not having played at all.

It's a long and very interesting read although much of that interest applies only to people who might actually play the game. A few of the topics and answers, though, I felt had some wider resonance so I've pulled them out for consideration here. I recommend anyone who currently plays the game, or used to and still cares about it, take a glance at the whole thing but for everyone else, this will probably be more than enough.

Since I can't keep my opinions to myself, I've added my thoughts as well. It's my blog so I can! 

 Q: Is there a possibility of opening up some art assets for community contributions as well?
Caith: Nope.The player studio project that many of the Daybreak games had going for a long time were both legal headaches as well as not viable financially. The amount of art resources (hours) required to work with a contributor far exceeded the amount of resources the teams could have simply allocated to an artist to complete the same work.

The thing I like most about this AMA is the way no-one balks at giving the real reasons for why things are done the way they are. Answer after answer comes down to some combination of not enough people, not enough time, much more complicated than it sounds, causes more problems than it solves or players didn't like it. Almost nothing is sugar-coated. It's like there was no marketing rep guiding the conversation and the Head of Studio, who was, actually wanted players to understand how game development works.

That said, I imagine the part Caith left out was that under SOE's ownership a whole load of projects were greenlighted that clearly couldn't have been profitable. They were presumably underwritten by Sony, a company that has long seemed quite comfortable with losing huge amounts of money. Perks of being a rounding error on the account sheet of a global multinational I guess.

Cut to the chase. You want me to kill 'em, right?

Q: Are there any plans or discussions involving a game wide stat/number squish? Is it just too much work for the team you have now or is it something that may possibly happen in the future?
Caith: There has been much discussion, but there are no plans for a game wide stat reduction for a variety of reasons. One of the primary reasons it is unlikely to happen is how content is designed in the game. EverQuest 2 was designed in a way that gives developers a lot of freedom in how they implement content, which allows them to make the content more flexible and unique. The downside of this is that developers can implement things in innumerable ways, and any rebalance of that content would be a manual process. So in short, a stat reduction would require hand tuning of almost every encounter in the game.

It might have worked for WoW, although the jury is still out on that, but it will never work for EQII. The part Caith left out is that EQII players fricken' love their big numbers. There'd be an outcry if DPS wasn't measured in trillions per second. 

At least, the folks still playing on the Live servers like it that way. Everyone else long since migrated to TLE, where the numbers are so much smaller and smaller numbers and simpler stats is one of the tentpole features of the upcoming Origins server, so someone at Darkpaw reckons on having cake and eating it too.

Q: Are the "suburbs" ever going to be returned to at launch state?
Caith: This is extremely unlikely to happen on a live server due to the amount of quest and NPC updates that have been made over the years, NPC’s have been moved and quest dialog updated to reflect the move, much less the quests themselves updated to function in the new zones they are in, etc.
Kaitheel: Our newly announced Origins server will allow you to step back in time and experience the cozy neighborhoods and all of the quests they had to offer!

There's some hard information about the upcoming Origins server buried in the AMA. The above answer confirms the long-lost neighborhood quests will be included, which is something I wouldn't have bet on. Elsewhere, it's also strongly suggested the intention is to get as close as possible to the original game as it was at that time and that the motivation for doing the server is to encourage both former players and brand new ones to take a look.

It is odd to think that the best way to get people to consider playing a game in 2024 is to make it look and feel like one from 2006 but I guess WoW Classic is proof that it works. Pretty soon everyone wil be doing it, if they aren't already.

Q: Will you bring back LoN?
JChan: Legends of Norrath was great when it was here, but we have no plans to bring it back currently. Spinning back up a whole new development team or taking away current developers to work on it would put stressors on the team right now that are just plain unhealthy for our long-term future. That being said, there's always the possibility that our situations will change in the future.

The answers to many of the questions boil down to some variation on "We're a small team and we're already at full stretch doing live events, expansions and updates." and that's the context of Jen Chan's answer here but that last sentence is intriguing in a couple of ways. Firstly it hints at a potential change for the better in terms of resources at Darkpaw and I don't see any sign elsewhere in the AMA of general feel-good platitudes so maybe she knows something...

Secondly, it doesn't explicitly rule out a return for Legends of Norrath, the EQ-themed collectable card game that shuttered eight years ago. I only recently deleted the game files from my PC on the final assumption it was gone forever, not that I actually played it when it was around anyway. I wouldn't have thought there was a chance in a billion it would ever return but given that plenty of other questions in the AMA received a firm, unequivocal "No, never", I guess now we can't rule it out.

Watch in amazement as I battle two bosses at the same time!

Q: Finally, when is DBG/DarkPaw going to seriously address tradeskilling. You know how long it has been since there has been new craftable bags or boxes, or totems? Not to mention, at one point in time we could craft the beginning gear and Jewelry needed and make a bit of change. Other than food/drink, spells, not much else anyone wants.
Caith: Bag space is a DB and systems issue, a ton of the functions in the game iterate over every single item that a player has in their inventory, including every bank slot, every house slot, etc. We are, and will remain, extremely stingy when it comes to increasing inventory space, because as soon as we do the next question becomes “when are you going to fix lag and decrease loading times”.

Ah, inventory! How we love to hate you and hate to lose you. I'm fairly sure EQII actually has the most generous inventory allocation of any game I've ever played, so clearly Darkpaw's definition of "extremely stingy" is a little different than mine, although I realise Caith here is talking about the parsimonious present and future, not the profligate past.

In general, though, this answer is a great example of the way giving in to the demands of one set of players is always likely to cause problems for another or, in this case, for everyone. Who'd be a game developer, eh?

Q: Could you all please bring back the map help for npcs, quest items and such?
Kaitheel: We have no plans to remove the current map system in game, where the quest givers and quest update conversations are given specific quest icons, but the short-lived blue regions on the maps that give direct locations of quest steps are not something we plan to bring back. They were useful, we agree, but they had some significant downsides. Downsides that outweighed the usefulness.

These blue regions presented every active quest target possible at that moment on your map, naturally drawing your attention to the map. We observed how little attention was being paid to the dialogue, the story, even the characters to fight and the world one was traveling through. It was not helpful for building the world, telling the stories of the world, or your immersion therein. Even I found myself paying more attention to the blue splotches on my map than I was to the quest journals or NPC conversations. The quest I was doing, my motivation, the quest givers – all of it was buried behind the ease of these blue regions on the map. So, coupled with the significant amount of time that they took to create, we chose instead to give more helpful journal text, with more specific points of interest, and labeled sections of the zone on the maps.

Kaitheel is the epitome of the quest guy. He loves writing quests and he wants everyone to appreciate them. Answer after answer in the AMA reflect it, just as answer after answer from Caith suggest he'd really rather be honing his stand-up at an open mic night somewhere. 

I tend to agree with Kaitheel on this although I did quite like the big, blue splotches when they were around. They were added in the era when all MMORPGs were backpedalling as fast as they could away from the origins and traditions of the genre. In attempting to remove all the obstacles and put in all the labor-saving devices, most of them cut-and-pasted ideas and mechanics from the wave of imports sweeping in from the East. That's when every older game added flying mounts, too. 

We still have those but now we're not allowed to use them until we've been everywhere on foot. So swings the pendulum.

This isn't the time to start another debate about immersion but I'd just mention that I wouldn't be enjoying each new expansion in EQII half as much if I couldn't open the wiki and copy the co-ordinates for every quest target into EQIIMaps to get a glowing trail and a map marker. If Kaitheel believes most players are finding their way by in-game landmarks, he's fooling himself. All that really happened when they took out the in-game quest markers was that the trade passed to a third party provider.

And now with the UI

Q: The exp gain in zimara went from one extreme to the next, could you all please balance that some?
Caith: The experience gain in Zimara is an example of where we would prefer it to be. It takes actual work to level up, and you have multiple routes to obtain experience, some requiring more attention (questing) and giving larger rewards, some requiring little attention (grinding mobs) and giving much lower rewards.

While we're on the subject of old chestnuts and dead horses... Is anyone ever satisfied with the rate of xp or leveling in any MMORPG? I very much doubt it. It's the Goldilocks story without Baby Bear. 

I'm almost at the end of the signature quest line for Ballads of Zimara with my Berserker and he's 10% into 128. I very much doubt he's going to hit the 130 cap before he runs out of quests. He might not even hit 129. I'll have to do repeatables or else try and finish the Collects, if those even give xp any more. 

I'm broadly in favor of relatively slower progress but this puts me right off  levelling another character, even with the suppposed 50% bonus for characters on an account where one character has finished the Sig Line. As for the future, when this becomes a step on the levelling ladder that has to be taken before you get to current content, you can forget it. It was fine having to revisit older expansions when it took a couple of sessions at most to hit the cap but a couple of weeks is too much by a lot. I guess I'll be finding a use for all those level boosts I stashed after all.

Also, how could the phrase "actual work" ever belong in any description of a process in a video game? I fear that, when the act of creating something other people use for entertainment becomes too closely tied to your own sense of identity, it's possible to find yourself losing perspective...

Q: Do you have any plans to reduce the number of spells? we have to use 3rd party addons to get an additional hot bar because of the honestly absurd amount of spells/clickies/buffs some classes have? Maybe allow us to combine some buffs to 1 button?
Caith: We’ve talked about it, and introduced some ways to reduce the amount of spells players need on their hotbar or rotation, but the resulting pushback from the playerbase has always been more negative than positive. Everyone wants less abilities, but not this ability, or that ability, or any of MY classes abilities. Ultimately, with the amount of UI performance degradation, less abilities on hotbars showing cooldowns, etc, the better as far as I am concerned.

As above, here's another great example of how giving in to one group's demands just exacerbates complaints from another. It's akin to Wilhelm's Law, which states that every feature in an MMORPG, no matter how widely despised, will prove to have been someone's favorite when removed.

Personally, I love my ten hotbars, at least six of them filled with spells I might and usually do use in combat. I can't remember what all of them are called - I can't even remember what some of them do - but I wouldn't want to be without any of them.

Q: I know it is impossible to make everyone happy and I love that H3 is difficult and not for everyone. Can we get a raid equivalent?
Caith: It is comparatively easy to find six likeminded players that enjoy an extreme challenge to get them into a challenging heroic dungeon, when compared to the task of finding a raid guild who all agree that they want the same level of challenge, failure, regroup, retry. The larger number of players seem to drastically increase the likelyhood of a player or subset of the players are frustrated and angry and only here because they feel like they have to be, thus leading to overall dissatisfaction with the content.

And finally, a word of pure common sense from Caith. I never liked raiding and never did much of it but when I did, back in EverQuest, raids could have as many as 72 people. Can you imagine the time it took just to get everyone facing the right way? Is it any wonder I decided it wasn't for me?

Stockholm Syndrome doesn't actually exist but if it did it sure would explain why some people say they enjoy raiding.

And on that not at all controversial note, I'm off to do what I meant to do four hours ago, namely play EQII.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Once Human Beta 3 - First Impressions Plus Comparisons With Beta 2

I've sometimes claimed that one of the big benefits of having a blog is being able to look back and compare my memories with what I actually said at the time.  Now, for once, I'm actually going to do it.

The game I'm revisiting is Once Human, which I started playing during Beta 2, back in December of last year, and which I stopped playing, before the beta ended, in the following January. In that relatively short time, I wrote about it quite extensively, posting my First Impressions on 13 December, with lengthy follow-ups on the 14th, 15th, 18th, 19th, 21st, 25th (Yes, Christmas Day!) and 28th.

On 1 January, I posted a very positive "Mid-beta Review" in which I said 

"As far as I can tell, the beta has about another three weeks to run, although I've yet to find an official date. I'm torn between carrying on as I have been, spending almost all my gaming time there and making the most of my access while it lasts, or quitting while I'm ahead to avoid bitter disappointment, when the mean devs take my new toy away. 

What I should probably do is wean myself off the beta gradually, reducing my play-time slowly as I simultaneously re-introduce other, much-neglected games to the mix.

It seems that's what I did because I didn't post about the game again until 10 January, my last substantive post about it until the start of Beta 3. I skimmed through all of those posts last night. It wasn't a quick read by any standards. I didn't run them through a word counter but I'd be amazed if they come to less than twenty thousand words altogether. Might easily be thirty.

I made some notes as I was reading but given that level of verbosity I imagine I missed a lot. Still, I pulled out enough salient points for a short post. Maybe not that short, if precedent's any guide...

Before I get into the details, I have to say it seems like a lot has changed. Starry, the NetEase studio behind Once Human, is clearly engaged in a genuine beta process here, not just a marketing excercise, although inevitably there's plenty of marketing going on, too. I'm always wary of comparing subjective impressions like this but it was only a couple of months ago I was last playing and the feeling of change in the new beta I was already forming is largely supported by the record.

The whole game feels different this time and I'm not convinced it always feels better. Let's have some details.

Communication Breakdown

There's plenty of praise in my posts on the last beta for both the writing and the voice acting. Nothing I read last night mentioned any jankiness or glitching there. This time, as Scopique observed in his post about the current beta, conversations now sometimes repeat when you reach a decision point in the dialog tree. 

There also seems to be some confusion over whether the player character talks or not. Last time I mentioned my character didn't sound quite how I'd imagined she would. This time she seems to have been afflicted with selective mutism. Sometimes she speaks, other times she settles for gestures and facial expressions.

I'm also noticing more variation between the on-screen text and the voice acting than I remember and for the first time I'm seeing translations that aren't wholly convincing. On the plus side, almost all of the untranslated Chinese text has disappared. 

It seems apparent that both translation and voice-over are works in progress. I hope the final versions match the best on display, which would mean a high standard but I worry things might go the way of so many other imported titles, with quality translation at the start and sporadically in key scenes but something less satisfactory elsewhere. Fingers crossed on that.

The Easy Life

This is a tough one. My immediate impression is that everything feels much easier but when I come to examine why and how that might have come about I find myself somewhat at a loss. I can't nail down any specific changes but on an objective level, comparing my progress now with what I recorded in the last beta, it's undeniable that I've progressed much faster and had far fewer difficult moments. 

It's true that back then it was all completely new to me, while now I'm going through the same content for the second time but I really don't think familiarity and foreknowledge can account for the sheer speed with which I'm flying through the storyline. I've only played a handful of sessions, most of them quite short. but I'm already further ahead than I was by the time I stopped playing last time and, as must be evident from those posts, I played a lot.

Back then, I clearly remember having any number of long, tough fights with regular mobs. There was a lot of running away, healing up and some dying. In one post I mention having to leap out of a window to escape being overwhelmed and in another I talk about being mobbed by wolves while trying to do a quest hand-in. I recall stuff like that happpening pretty much non-stop.

This time there's been nothing like it at all. Everything's been very comfortable, even though in comparison to last beta, my character is far less prepared and not as well-equipped. In fact, I've done almost no prep at all. I've just been winging it with whatever armor and weapons I happen to find. For a while I was even just using whatever ammo I looted from chests although I have now finally made myself some bullets.

I haven't done anything about buffing myself and I haven't looked at any guides or walkthroughs and yet I've somehow managed to beat the first two instance bosses on the first try. Last beta, I didn't even dare take the first of those on until I was four levels above what the game reccomended and I made sure to supply myself with a ton of ammo and healing consumables before I went in. 

This time I rocked up two levels below the suggested minimum, went in with whatever I had on me and won easily, even though I ran out of ammo and had to melee the boss for the last quarter of its health. It felt inevitable I would win and it was fun even though I was totally half-assing it.

As for the second boss, I didn't write about that one last time but as far as I recall I don't think I ever beat it. I remember trying and the attempt being a total pain. No fun at all and it took ages. This time, when I got to to that point in the story I went in to see what would happen and ended up I finishing the instance quite easily, even though the game was throwing a hissy-fit and crashed just after I killed the boss, which unfortunately may have bugged my quest.

I probably need to do a bit more thinking on this but it does seem to me that everything is just a lot easier now and not just the fighting.

No-One Uses Cameras Any More!

Back in December I dedicated much of a post to raving about how great the screesnhot feature in Once Human was. To summarise, at the time you needed to craft an actual, in-game camera before you could take screenshots. Once made, the camera operated like a tool in the game. You had to equip it and point it at things to take pictures. 

I loved it but it seems no-one else did because it's gone. Instead, there's an annoying radial menu you can access immediately. It takes you to the same functionality but all of that immersive granularity has been lost. Or all that irritating busy-work. I guess it depends on your perspective but it's certainly another example of how the game is being simplified.

What's The Driving Age Around Here, These Days?

Acess to everything players consider essesntial seems to have been speeded up. By the time I got a motorbike last time I must have been in my teens. I know I'd already moved house so it must have been a week or two into the game at least. This time I got my driver's permit in my second session. I think I was about level five or six. 

I didn't have to do anything for it, either. An NPC just gave it me. I thought it might be a loaner but I've still got it so I guess it's mine now. I appreciate the convenience but I think I'd rather have built it in my workshop from parts. I'd value it more that way.

Where's The Mayor? [1]

In the last beta I didn't post about going to the first town, Deadville, until I'd been playing for five days but I did say I'd already been there a few times so I don't think it can have been that much longer than it was this time. Still, I'm pretty sure I wasn't there in my second session. Both times I didn't go until I was prompted so I think they've bumped a few things up the schedule in the revamped "Journey".

Last time, when I did get to Deadville, it seemed like there was more going on. Claire is still there with her van, offering the same quest but I didn't get any prompts to talk to the Mayor, who used to give the long speech leading into the Keefer Sutherland storyline. I can't imagine that whole sub-plot has been taken out but maybe it's been shifted down the timeline. 

Conversely, I met another guy in Deadville, called Lowe. He's a sharp dresser, who could have come straight out of The Secret World. Was he there before? I'm pretty sure he wasn't but I do seem to recall hearing some of what he has to say, so maybe he's been relocated or his lines have been re-assigned. 

Which leads me to... 

Wow! You've Really Changed Since I Last Saw You!

Don't try to deny it. I have the screenshots to prove it. 

The mysterious girl you meet in the opening cut scenes, who apparently represents the ruined world's best hope for recovery, used to be called Cyo. Now she goes by Mitsuko. Then there's Mary. She used to be a blonde who dressed like a lab assistant on the way to a meeting. Now she's a brunette in Lara Croft's cast-offs.

I'm fairly sure a lot of other NPCs have had a makeover too but I can only prove it for the few whose photos I took.

A Possible Loss Of Whimsy [2]

I'm not a hundred per cent certain on this one but I think they may have removed the whole Whim mechanic. If so,  it would be a shame. It was an interesting one. 

The gist of it was that every time you allowed something bad to happen to you, like getting poisoned by polluted water, there'd be some negative effects but you might also gain a "whim", a potentially positive side-effect, like being able to swim further before becoming exhausted. There was a whole theoretical meta-game there, involving taking debuffs to gain specific, situational benefits, that looked like it might be fun. 

I said at the time I thought it would end up being complicated and lead to some awkward choices for min-maxers but it didn't seem like a bad idea altogether. It may still be in the game but I've had a couple of things happen to me that I think would have triggered whims before and nothing's happened. There's been no word of the mechanic in the tutorial yet, either.

I won't write Whims off just yet. They may just have been punted down the timeline or their apparent absence could be a corollary of my moving through content so much faster this time around. Perhaps my whims lie ahead of me still. I hope so, anyway.

In Conclusion...

I could go on but I'm all too aware much of this could resolve itself as I progress and I'd have to come back and explain myself, so I think I'll leave it at that for now. 

What I really wanted to convey is how whole enterprise just feels different, somehow. Specifically, it feels more like a game and less like a virtual world.

I'm not saying it's better or worse. Just different. It's swings and roundabouts, as usual. For every loss of immersion there's an improved quality of life. For each interesting choice that's gone missing, there's one fewer annoying obstacle. If nothing else, I certainly appreciate the less-arduous combat.

At this point I was tempted to invoke the "better-in-beta" argument but I'm beginning to understand that's a more nuanced phenomenon than I've previously allowed. I'm developing a theory that early-mid beta builds tend to include a lot of features that interest developers more than players, which means they tend also to appeal to Explorer archetypes like myself, people who enjoy discovery for its own sake.

In probably too many cases, a lot of those not so user-friendly systems and less-intuitive mechanics, the ones that fascinate those of us who enjoy finding out how things work but which frustrate everyone who just wants to get on with playing a game, get left in for launch and then have to be hastily removed afterwards. It has to be better, commercially and aesthetically, to get all that sanded down in beta but it does explain why I sometimes find the finished product bland and unsatisfying compared to the prototype.

None of which changes my opinion that Once Human is on its way to becoming a pretty good game. What I do anticipate is that when it does launch later this year it won't be quite as weird or wonderful as it could have been. Whether that will harm or enhance its chances of success I guess will depend on just how smoothly Starry are able to handle the transition from the game the developers wanted to make to the one they think players will enjoy. 

At the moment, it looks like they still have some work to do.

[1] - He's still in his room, standing in the dark. He also still has all the dialog that tells you about the area. He just doesn't offer a quest any more, or at least not to me.

[2] - Yeah, this is just wrong. I was misremembering how Whims work. They're caused by decreasing sanity levels, not environmental conditions and they're still in the game. Or the guide explanation for them is, anyway. I haven't gone crazy enough to become whimsical yet.

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