Update (May 23, 2013): News about GTX 780 dropping today adds an attractive new option for graphics cards. Info about graphics card benchmarks also added.
With the reveal of the next Xbox and a variety of not-so-friendly "features", I've got it into my head that more and more people will be interested in moving their gaming to a PC, and that those people may feel lost. I'm interested in providing advice for anyone who fits that description: get someone to do it for you if you don't want to deal with building your own. There are many, many ways to get someone else to build a solid system for you, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing so. Sure, it's more expensive than building your own rig, but this is a service-sector economy: you pay for convenience.
A few places that will build systems for you:
●A friend of yours, if you buy the parts (best option).
●Newegg, TigerDirect, NCIX and similar online retailers in and out of North America.
●Small, specialty computer companies like Singularity Computers.
●Boutique PC builders like Falcon Northwest or Maingear (if you have more money than sense).
If you are interested in building a PC yourself but don't know where to start, this guide should help. My goal here is to help new PC builders understand what they should be looking for with each component, to skip past all of the detailed information about niggling little differences between this or that CPU or this or that graphics card and focus on only what choices matter most when choosing how to spend your money.
This guide will assume that this system will serve purposes other than gaming. After all, if you can use it for other things, you probably will at some point. As such, I recommend opening yourself to a larger expenditure than you've been accustomed to with past consoles. If you choose your parts carefully and don't cut corners you shouldn't cut, the system you build should last for a very long time. I aim to be as concise as possible while accomplishing all of the goals above (and if I fail, you should find me and beat me up). I hope to give you a basic understanding of what these parts do, and what specs to look for when comparing different candidates for a particular component.
Each post will cover one of these sections, which are presented in the order in which the parts should be selected. This post will include the first section.
1) Heart and Soul CPU - Do you get to overclock without the "K"? Yes.
Graphics Card - Don't overdo it.
RAM - They say 8 iz enuff. They're right.
2) Bones and Cartilage Motherboard - More to consider than you may think.
Power Supply (PSU) - Pay for what you need, and make it efficient.
3) Flesh and blood Case - Make it last.
Cooling - Liquid or Gas?
5) Interface devices for pitiful, analogue humans Monitor - TN? IPS? PLS?
Keyboard - Mechanical? If... if you want?
Mouse - DPI matter
6) Putting it all together - A monkey with very good fine motor control and the ability to follow detailed instructions could do it.
7) Other Sundry Sound Card - Any audiophiles in the house?
Headphones - It's all about the Ohms.
Other Peripherals - Network adapters, fan controllers, that sort of thing
Helpful software - Keep things running at peak efficiency
For reference, here's my system. It's intended for much more than games, and I run programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, InDesign, QuarkXpress, 3DS Max and so on all at once, so the motherboard I chose, the amount of RAM I have and such are all things that you won't need unless you do the same sorts of things.
-Intel core i7 3820 CPU, stable 4.4 GHz overclock
-AMD Radeon HD 7870 (GHz ed.)
-32 GB RAM, 1600 MHz (9, 9, 9, 24)
-ASUS Sabertooth X79
-Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold 800W PSU (quite a bit more than I need, actually)
-NZXT Phantom 410 Midtower case
-Samsung 840 Pro 256 GB SSD
-2 TB HDD @7200 RPM
Heart and Soul These components will be the deciding factors in what choices are even available to you when looking at the other components in the system. The CPU will determine what motherboard you get: the motherboard has a "socket" into which the CPU is placed, and different CPUs require different sockets (you'll also hear about a "chipset" like Z77 or X79, but you don't really need to know what that means). The type and number of GPUs you get will require a minimum size for the motherboard: the more graphics and other expansion cards you intend on having, the more careful you'll need to be to ensure the board is big enough to accommodate all of them. Finally, the amount of RAM you can use is limited by how much ram the CPU can control, thus the motherboard will only have enough slots for the maximum amount of RAM; however, unless you're like me and do a lot of design work on your computer, this is unlikely to be an issue.
CPU The CPU (Central Processing Unit) coordinates with storage devices, graphics cards and RAM through complicated bundles of circuitry on the motherboard you don't need to worry about. When a program is run, the CPU executes the necessary computations to carry out the program's function. It's important, you already knew that, that's all you need to know, and you can look elsewhere for details on how they work.
There is one thing I will have to explain first, though: what does "base clock" mean? Without going into detail, the base clock is the frequency of a repeating on/off voltage that provides an absolute timescale the CPU uses to time operations within a program relative to each other, which is a fundamental part of how computing works. Faster clock speeds mean faster computation, and therefore faster program execution, but it also generally means more heat. The number you see advertised with the units "GHz" (something like 2.80 or 3.40) represents the base clock, and when people talk about overclocking, they're talking about increasing the clock speed above the factory set clock speed.
Begin choosing parts for your system by selecting a CPU. Here are the decisions you'll have to make:
Intel or AMD? Honestly, they're both fine options, and odds are either choice will work just fine for gaming. There have been some reports that certain games like Crysis 3 or Farcry 3 run better on one or the other, but for most games this isn't much of an issue if you have a modern CPU. Pick whichever you prefer, based on price or what have you. I will say that Intel does have some nice low power consumption options, and I generally like Intel chips (though my reasons are unrelated to gaming), but read below for more detail on these two choices.
If you go with Intel: First of all, you may wish to wait until next month to do anything, as Intel's new 'Haswell' chips will be released, and these promise much better energy efficiency and slightly better performance than current CPUs. The associated Z87 chipset (don't worry about what that means, doesn't matter right now) also comes with some advantages.
i3, i5 or i7? i3 processors are dual-core with hyperthreading, i5 are quad-core without (usually) hyperthreading, i7 are quad- to hexa-core with hyperthreading. More cores (separate CPUs within the CPU) mean more efficient (therefore faster) computation if utilized fully by a given program.
This paragraph is extra detail that you can skip unless you would like to know more about the differences between these processor lines. What Intel calls "hyperthreading" is their implementation of simultaneous multithreading, which is a way to run several simple programmed instructions ("threads") within a larger set of programmed instructions simultaneously. Put simply: hyperthreading allows for a program to run several instructions at the same time given there are cores available to do so, which makes some programs run noticeably smoother and faster (Windows interprets this as a 4 core processor with hyperthreading having 4 cores and 4 virtual cores). A CPU with more cores is better at hyperthreading than a CPU with fewer cores, and with only 2 cores as with the i3, the hyperthreading capability usually won't make much of a difference. The i3's also don't have the dynamic overclocking of the other two, further limiting their relative performance.
Importantly, hyperthreading won't have much of an effect with most games at the time of writing. This makes the i5 series very attractive for a system meant primarily for gaming. If you also intend to stream or capture and render gameplay footage, the hyperthreading capability of the i7 series might help you, but certainly isn't necessary. For most people, the choice will be an i5 processor (note: these are all from the 3rd generation of processors; the new generation due in a couple of weeks will bring with it some attractive advantages, which I will write about then if there's any interest).
Which line of processors? 3870? 2820? X? K? S? T? What the hell do these numbers and letters mean? Intel's naming conventions are horrible, and they do an equally horrible job informing people about what those letters after the numbers mean. The numbers are simple enough: look at the first number of the 4. That number indicates the generation, and higher is generally better. For example, my processor--a 3820--is of the 3rd generation, and the 4th generation out in June will have numbers starting with 4. The other three numbers are just a SKU, and you'll have to go to intel's website to tell the difference using this handy comparison tool. As for the letters:
●X means EXTREME! These are the top-of-the-line of the 3rd generation. These have 6 cores and a high base clock with very good "turboboost" capabilities and other nonsense that doesn't matter for pure gaming. These are produced assuming you'll be using a dedicated graphics card and do not have integrated graphics. Intel press copy calls it "the perfect engine for hardcore gaming", but don't fall for that malarkey.
●S and T are both low power consumption options, with T being the lower of the two and also optimized for low operating temperatures. If your power bills are a concern for you, grab a T processor, just know that T's have lower base clocks and aren't great overclockers, but honestly, overclocking won't be relevant for most people.
●K means "unlocked multiplier". The multiplier is an integer value that multiplies the base clock for the CPU alone. See, if you try to overclock by simply adjusting the base clock, like I had to do with mine, you'll be affecting the clock for the RAM as well and make managing the voltages a chore. With an unlocked multiplier, a basic overclock is as easy as adjusting that one number (the overclock I have on mine, for example, would be easy). Many people seem to think that an unlocked multiplier is necessary for overclocking. It is not. An unlocked multiplier makes overclocking easier. My recommendation is to simply go for a cheaper option and either don't bother with overclocking or plan on doing it by the old method of adjusting, stress testing, and adjusting again.
So, in summary: get either a 3xxx or a 4xxx and decide whether you care more about power consumption, overclocking, or price.
If you go with AMD: AMD is more merciful than Intel with their naming conventions. A-series means integrated graphics and low power, and these may be comparable to the T series from Intel, and for an integrated graphics option these chips have a good reputation. The FX series is the thing to buy if you're also buying a graphics card. Each processor in this series is given 4 numbers. The first number indicates the number of cores in the CPU: 4, 6 or 8. The second number indicates the architecture generation. There are currently three generations within this series, and the latest generation is what you'll be looking for. For example, an FX 4170 is a quad-core processor with first generation architecture, and an FX 8350 has 8 cores and third generation architecture. All of these processors come with an unlocked multiplier by default.
The only thing to watch out for is that, while there is simultaneous multithreading on AMD CPUs, the implementation leaves something to be desired. These and a few other technical details lead to a common "Intel > AMD" refrain (more cores does not mean better CPU). While I generally agree with this from a not-just-gamer standpoint, I also think that the difference is not as important as your budget. Don't be afraid to buy an AMD chip if it makes a big enough difference to the bottom line or that some sources say gives better performance in your favorite game. There is a possibility that the next generation of consoles, with MS and Sony relying on AMD chips, will lead to AMD being preferable for gaming, but this remains to be seen.
Anyway, here's a simple flow chart:
Get to whichever end suits you most and pick from the options based on what you're willing to pay. Also, I realize this is a very simplistic look at AMD. You should also consider their A series for a budget build without a dedicated graphics card.
Graphics Card Choosing a graphics card can be as overwhelming as choosing a CPU. The naming conventions are almost as bad, and the number of choices is made more maddening by all this talk of multi-GPU configurations. Fortunately, there are some rules of thumb here to make everything easier:
●Higher numbers mean better performance in Nvidia's modern GTX line and AMD's modern Radeon HD line, so it's generally best to choose based on what you're willing to pay.
●Multiple card configurations, in which more than one card is used and the cards are linked in "SLI" (Nvidia) or "CrossFireX" (AMD) which amounts to connecting them with an included adapter, can be a pain in the ass to configure and don't work very well with some games, not to mention most games don't really need that much horsepower to run at fairly high settings. I recommend trying to get the best single card you can afford and leaving it at that.
●VRAM is most important for high resolutions. 1 or 2 GB of VRAM is plenty unless you are planning to play at extremely high resolutions such as on a television or with multiple monitors.
There are four "tiers" of pricing, as I see it: cheap (<$100), low-end though not bad (~$100-$150), good for pretty much anything (~$250-$400) and "I'm rolling in cash so why not" (~$1000)--this is ignoring cards for professionals and only looking at cards marketed to gamers. My advice: pick one of those tiers and roll with either AMD or Nvidia:
●A decent card in category 1, cheap, is the Radeon HD 6670.
●Good cards category 2 are the GTX 660Ti and the Radeon HD 7770.
●Great cards in category 3 are the Radeon HD 7870 and the GTX 670.
●An expensive card in category 4 is the GTX Titan.
For reference, I use a Radeon HD 7870, and it's able to play Bioshock Infinite with smooth framerates at max settings and The Witcher 2 at high settings with smooth framerates (don't have numbers off the top of my head, but it felt like 60ish FPS). A monster like the Titan or the ASUS Ares II will only be worth it if you only play games because pretty graphics.
EDIT: Taterchimp was kind to remind me of the large amount of searchable benchmarking information available online, and that this is important information to consider in choosing a card for your system. Benchmarks, for those who don't know, are stress tests for hardware to determine how much a given piece of hardware can take before it stops working properly and comparing those stats to the results of other hardware in the same category. This term predates computing by a long time, and it means pretty much the same thing as it does in other contexts in which you may have encountered the term.
The procedure for choosing a graphics card has two steps: 1) Choose a price range within your means. 2) Make a list of cards in that category with a price you like and compare benchmarks by searching for benchmarks on the internet.This site contains a bunch of comparison charts, as does the article linked previously.
RAM For RAM, 8 GB will be enough for most people. RAM isn't all about capacity, though. What makes some RAM worth more than some other RAM is what guaranteed frequency (meaning the frequency it's guaranteed to operate at stably) it will run at. This is much like the clock speed of the processor: higher number is better number. The guaranteed frequency will be a stat like 1333 MHz or 1600 MHz. 1600 MHz will be just fine for most people. There are also the latencies to think about, and these will be reported usually as 4 numbers like this: 9, 9, 9, 24. The lower these numbers are, the better. I won't explain what that means here, because it doesn't really matter, just know that a lot of premium RAM modules have higher frequencies and latencies, but the latencies need to be compared against the frequency; in other words, you can't just directly compare the latencies of a 1600 MHz RAM kit to those of a 2400 MHz RAM kit.
To select the RAM that's right for you, go to your online retailer of choice and search desktop memory by the frequency first, then compare the latencies of the kits you see with the same frequency. You may also see "DDR", "DDR2" and "DDR3". Choose DDR3 and avoid anything else.
If you don't want to think about all of this: get an 8 GB kit of DDR3 1600 MHz with the lowest latencies you can find.
I hope this has been helpful to someone. Later this week, part two will be up, so check back if you'd like to learn more. If I have made a mistake somewhere, please let me know what it was in the comments. Feel free to tell me I am a big, stupid doo doo head, as well.
Before you say anything: don't worry. It's still okay to be talking about Bioshock: Infinite. Spoilers ahoy!
Pretty as a painting.
Bioshock has never been a series I find particularly impressive from a gameplay perspective. The original was good, I enjoyed it, but it left no lasting impression on me save for the significant impression left by the cogency of its aesthetic. Bioshock infinite has also not particularly impressed me, save for the significant impression left by the cogency of its aesthetic. There was a much greater sense of disappointment concurrent with that impression, unfortunately: the game design this time around featured some of the best ideas the FPS genre has ever seen, but the power of these ideas is dulled by an imperfect execution.
The positive things I have to say have been said myriad times as it is. The game is one of the most beautiful things I have laid eyes on. It is a painting in motion. The engine was created by both programmers and artists, with an understanding of color theory that suggests intimate familiarity with color and composition. I paint a bit on the side for money on occasion, I have been painting since childhood, and here a game engine creates the vibrancy and depth only attainable through bold color choices that every novice painter is afraid to make.
These color choices are scary for art directors of most games, too. They're scary because they are counter-intuitive. The temptation when painting something you've conceptualized as blue is to only use blue, which is part of the reason for the flat look of novice artwork. Artists of intermediate skill will eventually begin thinking of multiple light sources, typically adding a "backlight" to accentuate the form of a subject and provide it with more depth. This is common in earlier comic book art. When an artist truly becomes whimsical in his or her color choices, that artist has truly learned to let the paint surprise them, and most of the technique in art comes from learning how to make your media do things for you. Here is a painting by an old master, Jan Both.
The walls of the buildings in this piece are plastered, and as such have a yellow tint to them. This much is clear, but a closer look reveals that most of the walls are painted in red, blue and most prominently a pale green. To a novice, this seems a bizarre choice, but it clearly works in favor of the composition and color of the piece. it's the barely visible highlights at the very tips of the walls that imply this yellow color, and indeed it's the most illuminated parts of an object that inform what color we perceive it to be. The shadows, however, include splotches of a vibrant red among the pale greens. These sorts of choices terrify the novice because they just don't make sense, but they are critical to the visual interest of an image.
What color is that wall? The one in the midground, the building in the back is obviously yellow. The wall has vibrant hues of orange, blue and pink, but this wall is made of a whiteish stone. So why the orange and blue and pink? Our brains interpret color by suggestion, not necessarily by the color that is actually there. For example, an experienced painter knows that a gradient of color can be seen by the viewer where there is actually one solid color if the solid color is surrounded by a dark color on one side and a bright color on the other. Hell, anyone who has seen a collection of optical illusions knows this:
Squares A and B are the same color, doncahano.
Knowing this is not enough, though. A typical painter spends countless hours trying to master color well enough to exploit the brain's tendency to see things that aren't really there, to project information onto a scene, and the artistic team at Irrational Games has nailed it within a game. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous game and they deserve all of the accolades ever for this achievement.
Unfortunately, Booker DeWitt is an unforgivable moron, and so is his stupid daughter.
STOP RELOADING AND JUMP YOU ASS
One of the best parts of the gameplay in Bioshock Infinite, in my opinion, is the skyline mechahnic. Many have written that it felt superfluous, but for me, it quickly became essential to survival. I played my first (and currently only) time on the hard difficulty setting, and mobility meant the difference between survival and Booker soup. In many cases, the ability to jump in an out of a hot zone barely spared me the frustration of death, and I can only imagine that the developers hadn't really used it very much themselves.
When Booker runs out of ammo, he automatically reloads. This is a standard feature in the modern FPS, but when Booker is reloading, Booker does not jump onto a skyline or freight hook, so Booker gets murdered while hopping a few inches into the air over and over again.
When ElizabAnna tries to predict where Booker is going in that slightly off-putting way, waiting for her to move out of the way gives away Booker's position, robbing the dumbass of the chance for a sneak attack.
Picking up things, activating things and opening tears are all actions mapped to the same button. This is usually not a problem. Sure, having to tap a button rather than hold it for a while would make the more situational tears like oil puddles or freight hooks more attractive from a tactical perspective, but the context-sensitive approach doesn't become blindingly infuriating until that same button also calls Songbird in the lazy, endless-wave-of-enemies finale. Booker begs Songbird to attack the damn barge, but the ground is littered with weapons from the endless wave of enemies so Booker forgets how am be done use words good and instead picks up a machine gun. On hard difficulty, this is a time critical issue.
Ultimately, I looked back on my time with Bioshock Infinite as a generally positive experience marred by intense frustration. I didn't mind the ghost fights, they were challenging and intense. I didn't find most of the vigors useless, I used all of them with a preference for shock jockey, bucking bronco and charge by the end. The guns were by no means Half-Life-2-shotgun satisfying, but the hand cannon and its friend the volley gun gave me the kind of firepower I was looking for. The story was not entirely novel, and it was full of the sciencey-wiencey misunderstandings of physics that make me cringe, but it had plenty of twists that even managed to catch me off guard. I'd change nothing but the game mechanics, and the changes would be trivial, too.
In the stealth game--your "Thief", your "Mark of the Ninja", your "Deus Ex: Human Revolution"--the ultimate challenge comes in the form of ghosting. As the name implies, the challenge to the player is to successfully accomplish the goals of the game without once interacting directly with an enemy. They can be distracted with noises and the like, but a cosh to the back of the head or a sleeper hold are right out. In the original Thief games, the highest difficulty setting, expert, included the restriction that the player may not kill anyone, with the quip "You're a thief, not a murderer." To accomplish one's goals against a hostile enemy without their ever knowing about it is an absolute expression of peerless skill, certainly skill far surpassing that of the enemy. Nothing is quite as badass as being able to end an opponent, but choosing not to. Princess Zelda would play Thief on expert, and she'd ghost that shit.
In "The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time", Princess Zelda is the owner of the Triforce of wisdom, as usual. Link gets courage, and tackles his problems head on, often cutting said problems' stomachs open. Ganon gets power, and so takes what he wants. Zelda, however, can undermine them both with foresight and sagacity alone. When kidnapped in the original game by Ganondorf, Zelda had the wherewithal to know that Link could not face him as he was. Her thoughts were not of her own safety, but of the far future and a salvation that Link would deliver in the blink of an eye from his perspective, but that would not come for about a decade for her. Zelda saw how everything would play out ahead of time, and without laying a hand on her aggressors, she did everything she needed to do to ensure that events passed just enough in her and Link's favor.
While "The Hero of Time" slept, Zelda managed to escape from her captor. She adopted an alter-ego, Sheik. As Sheik, she employed considerable guile to set events in motion for Link's return, and when he did return, and fought courageously through hordes of dangerous creatures, Zelda was already there, waiting for him.
How does she do that?
Princess Zelda is truly the greatest leader the Hylians could ask for. She puts herself after the needs of her people, she puts herself in mortal danger to secure their future, and she does it with more aplomb than most anyone as young as she is could manage. She is level-headed and prescient when Link is lost, and when her father is giving their kingdom up to a power-mad psychopath, she can see what her father does not, and already senses what is coming.
In "Wind Waker", as pirate captain Tetra, Zelda leads a crew in an equally non-violent manner, preferring subterfuge wherever possible. She's a charismatic leader with the respect of those that follow her, but when she discovers her true identity, remains isolated in the sunken kingdom of Hyrule. It is often said that she becomes the weak damsel awaiting the brave knight at this point, but her remaining in Hyrule was a choice, she became convinced that it was the wisest choice despite her wish to roam freely. Already she had been found out by Ganondorf, and already she'd seen he couldn't be faced at that moment. She chose to wait it out because she foresaw the consequences.
When finally Zelda does employ violence as a means to accomplish her goals, it becomes clear that the Triforce does not define the people it has chosen. Throughout his adventure, Link shows great wisdom in his use of diplomacy to gain allies to rely on and in being sly enough to fool his enemies as much as he bloodies them, and the power he obtains is formidable. Ganondorf exploits his charisma before force and prefers to manipulate instead of break whenever possible. As for Zelda, her courage and her power are employed with precision and grace. Her aid to Link in the final fight against Ganon in OoT seals the Gerudo's fate, a last burst of power saved for exactly the right moment. In Wind Waker, her use of light arrows calls back to Link's use of the same in OoT, and her presence once again renders Ganondorf weak enough to be dominated by the young boy in a green tunic and a stupid hat. Really, he'd never succeed without her, and she does it all while getting the Pacifist achievement.
First, a list of the games in no particular order, games that all have something ephemeral in common for me:
Final Fantasy VII
Thief II: The Metal Age
Ecco the Dolphin
Brave Fencer Musashi
Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy Legend
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time
Silent Hill 2
Honestly. That list of games all do something, for me at least, that no other games have managed thus far. While some of my favorite games can craft worlds of stunning depth to lose oneself in, the games listed above elicited a specific emotional response that I find unique to the medium. These are the games that created an ambiance that felt alien, often unwelcoming and always intoxicating.
It's only possible to describe this feeling by example, and it's probably best to start with one many people have played. Today, I discuss what I loved enough about Final Fantasy VII to override the myriad things I hated about it.
I first played Final Fantasy VII when I was 9 years old. A friend of mine at the time, I'll call him J, had a technophile father who got a kick out of new technology, and they had every console and home theater gadget of the day. It was J who introduced me to the system by showing me this game "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night" and later "Final Fantasy VII". I had developed as a gamer via the Sega Channel for the Sega Genesis, so what this new system had to offer was fascinating to me. At the time, Blockbuster was renting out consoles, and I begged my dad to let me rent a Playstation and the first Final Fantasy for the system.
Final Fantasy VII is a deeply conflicted game, composed of many chunks of gameplay and narrative that clash with and undermine one another. The first portion of the game bears no resemblance whatsoever to the rest. Being a rebels vs. evil empire tale, with the slight twist of the evil empire being a coorporation, the story follows an arc from an act of terrorism to a jaunt through slums meant to contextualize and justify the player's actions, ending with an arcade game of a chase sequence with robots, motorcycles, helicopters and explosions. Then sudddenly, there is an open expanse of green to be explored, for no other reason than that there's nothing left to do in the city of Midgar.
This portion of the game is not in any way consistent, however, any more than the game is as a whole. After arriving in the slums, one can "catch up" with a buxom lass named Tifa over drinks, which is so far consistent with the feel of the game. Just across the dirt path, however, lies a building full of cartoonish toughs challenging the player to open chests and explain game mechanics, one group flexing in unison to express their awe at the main character's expertise. Throughout all of this, characters are disappearing into one another, flailing the drumsticks that represent their arms as they do. Attempts at slapstick look more like alien performance art as a crude character model is flung across the room, hovers and spins for a bit, then sulks near a machine with a mysterious purpose. Plans are drawn to blow up yet another power plant, and then it really gets weird.
A train ride requires fake IDs, and our terrorists are found out. A chase ensues, but... Oddly most of the passengers don't seem that bothered. The player can stop and have strangely detached small talk with a couple of passengers eager to grant gifts on the way to disembarking prematurely. Through contrived circumstances, the main character falls, literally, from one story strusture into a sappy story of puppy love and cross dressing. In the course of the quest to cross dress, the main character can choose to enter one of the most surreal and unwelcoming settings in the history of fiction: a brothel called the Honeybee inn. This is where I fell in love with the game.
The first person to greet our intrepid gender bender is a woman dressed as a bee whose dialogue consists mostly of expressing contempt for the main character. For those of you who don't know, his name is Cloud, and he explicitly, as a plot point, does not have a personality. Not one of his own, anyway. It is at this point that Cloud can peep through keyholes to witness scenes so cryptic they seem to be plays put on by a troupe of psychopaths. The bee girl waits until Cloud has had his fill to comment and remind him to hurry the hell up. This oppressive mood truly comes out of nowhere, and it gets a lot worse. Cloud can choose to enter a room for loners or for those interested in group activities, and both options are openly considered deviant by the bee lady. In one, burly men in thongs pressure Cloud into doing... Something, something very ambiguous. In the other room, well, the game becomes sinister.
You think they go away by asking women dressed as bees to put makeup on you? Huh? Is that what you think?!
In the other room, another Cloud shows up to berate Cloud for even being there and for running away from his problems, and this causes Cloud to collapse. The game just went from silly to hostile in no time at all, and I felt like I was witnessing something not of this Earth. The sudden jumps in tone and content are a theme in the game, and to disorienting, to bewildering, but most of all to engrossing effect. A trip in a boat in which Cloud and his merry men and women fight a grotesque mutant to the death ends in a beach resort for no apparent reason. This gives way to a jaunt to a former mining town in which one of the characters lost many of the people he loved to a fire, and immediately afterward the party arrives at an amusment park. Not a broken down amusement park, a proper one with arcade games and deadly combat with monsters and roller coasters and fireworks. Then to a labor camp. Then to a Native American inspired tribal village cum astronomy institute. Then... Well then to Nibelheim.
Come to scenic Nibelheim, where your life is a lie.
Nibelheim is where Final Fantasy VII shows what it could have been, where the sudden hostility in a brothel in Midgar manifests in a town that Cloud insists he was born in, but which sees him as a stranger. Cloud is an unwelcome and weird guest, the populace seem to think, and this sense of displacement is the very vibe that made this game so engrossing. I was somewhere I didn't belong, where I wasn't welcome, but that only made it more enticing. The world of FFVII operated on a different, otherworldly logic; attempting to comprehend and operate within this madness produced a form of escapism with drug like properties for me.
A lot of this comes from the slapdash way in which the game is constructed (though without the stunning score by one mister Uematsu, it would have been much less impactful, the original Playstation era really represent his golden years). There is a plethora of ideas from very different design philosophies, even from different plots and gameplay mecahnics, that are crudely shoved into the same package. The development team went nuts, throwing any old idea into the mix until it became the bizarre dreamscape that is the final product. They may have intended to tell a coherent and compelling story, but the elements of the game go in so many different directions that it just seems schizophrenic, and this is what made the world of FFVII such a fascinating place to be. Countless times I and most anyone else playing the game found ourselves saying "what the hell is going on?" constantly. Why am I snowboarding all of the sudden? Why did the dude in the trenchcoat rip that statue thing in half, also why is it bleeding and why is he calling it mother? Why the hell is Red XIII's grandfather a floating humanoid with no legs?
Final Fantasy VII is and was a mess. It's riddled with plot holes and abandoned plot threads, the ending is a deus ex machina and most of the characters are poorly fleshed out archetypes. The gameplay is as repetitive as any classic JRPG and the art direction only seemed to exist for the prerendered backgrounds and cutscenes. As literature, it wouldn't pass muster, but as an experience to be had by a person exploring the insane contrivances of its world, it was dissociative in its potency. Not all of the games I'll be discussing in this series accomplish this for the same reasons, but they all share this in common: they all are crafted in ways that, at the very least, transported me to a mental space entirely removed from everyday life.
Dark Souls was engrossing, but not in the same way. Civilization IV is intoxicating, but for very different reasons. Shadow of the Collosus is awe-inspiring, but so very coherent and familiar at the same time. The experiences the games I listed in the first part of this post have given me are entirely unique to gaming, not even Vonnegut nor Palahniuk nor Kafka nor Dostoyevsky have managed to bring this experience to me, nor has any film or song or poem. For this, I treasure the video games I've been lucky enough to play, and I pity those who won't give the medium ample opportunity to draw them in as it has me. Hopefully, your experience has been as profound.
I haven't been around for various reasons, but when I saunter in once more, there's a familiar refrain droning on very much in the foreground. Something needs to be cleared up.
It has become clear to me that there's a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes "objectification", and this misunderstanding can be amply addressed by contrasting the word "object" with the word "subject". An object is a thing--a thing with intrinsic, unalterable properties common to all such objects, such as the wetness of water, which wholly determine the nature of the thing--which is acted upon or described by or thought about by a subject--a being with agency, the ability and will to make independent decisions and act from some personal volition.
This comes up for me due to the ongoing, persnickety argument over the "objectification of women" when "games" like this show up. First of all, it is this discussion of women which is in fact objectifying: in discussing "women" in this way (as a monilithic category with universal properties not just physical, but behavioral and mental) one ignores the fact that women are individual subjects with differing views and values and beliefs and ideals and so on.
To that end, pictures of women, in any state of dress or undress, are simply that: pictures of subjects. Women may choose to be photographed, and I've known many who choose to be photographed, some nude, because they enjoy showing off the bodies they work hard to cultivate and maintain (a cousin of mine included). There is no objectification in enjoying the female form, whether the reason is artistic or not. The objectification lies in attempting to delineate what can and cannot be done with, to, around women, or any other preposition you like.
Objectification is not the depiction of female anatomy, exaggerated or otherwise. Objectification is the conceptualizing of an independent entity with agency as categorically lacking agency, as being part of a uniform whole, essentially interchangable with any other part of that whole. Some materials which focus on the depiction of the female form have this issue, but not all such depictions treat women as a uniform body not of individuals, but of examples of a particular type. When women are spoken of as rocks are in a lithology text, this is objectification. When pictures of women intended for the titillation of homosexual women, straight men or bisexual whichever are created, this can only count as objectification if the act of appreciating the figure of the sex one finds sexually appealing is itself objectification. If that is the case in your mind, then the vast majority of the human species will have an ethical problem in your mind. If this is only true if the materials in question do not appeal to your sensibilities while others in that same category do, you have an ethical problem of your own.
That one can appreciate the form of an intimate relation while also recognizing and respecting their agency is conclusive proof by counterexample that the depiction of any human form is not sufficient basis to consider that depiction objectifying. If you wish to call games like this or this anything other than juvenille fantasy fodder, you will need to do better than "it has unrealistic pictures of lady parts for the sake of showing unrealistic lady parts." That ladies have parts and that these parts can be shown without the context of a personality is not itself objectifying unless the pictures women take of themselves are also objectifying or there is something more to this than, to quote one Conrad Zimmerman, "the male urge to fantasize an unrealistic feminine ideal". Men fantasize. Women fantasize. a key aspect of fantasizing is the creation of context from one's imagination. If men are fantasizing about these things, then they are by definition projecting their own ideas onto these materials.
So what's the issue? Is fantasizing wrong? Is fantasizing itself unethical? Then we are all guilty. Is it only wrong to fantasize about women? The answer cannot be yes if women are independent agents who answer this question for themselves, personally, as one individual whose opinion may differ from those of other women.
In the literal sense, yes, in that eosimias were monkeys, so my ancestors were monkeys, and you don't stop being what your ancestors were, but also in the figurative sense in that I like the idea of climbing on things and hopping around. So, yes, I enjoy Assassin's Creed games from time to time. It scratches that itch without the risk of falling very far and losing the integrity of my spine.
The story of Assassin's Creed, on the other hand, has been for me a fairly irritating, unwelcome guest, piggybacking onto the experience. Oh, it's not the infamous blandness of the central character, Mr. Desmond Miles, it's not even the cartoony presentation of the antagonists, which I actually appreciate. My issue begins with Assassin's Creed II and the Big Reveal. Naturally, there are spoilers ahead.
Here we're being asked to accept as a genuine threat something that is most certainly not a threat, but also completely backwards. Assassin's Creed has always had a less than clear relationship with science, making it the softest of soft science fiction, but this was too much for me. It's one thing to ask the audience to accept the genetic memory nonsense, especially as it never really comes up again after the initial technobabble at the beginning of the first game, but this is the dark shadow of doom that's meant to be ominously looming over the whole plot, and it's impossible to take seriously for anyone aware of any of the following:
1. This threat is commonplace. Coronal mass ejections (CME) happen fairly regularly and are not a big deal. Earth's magnetic field displaces the majority of the radiation to the poles (this leads to the aurora). Even with a weaker field...
Image credit: NASA
2. This threat has no teeth. The worst that happens when a weakened field allows for more radiation to hit the Earth is an increase in the incidence of cancer due to more exposure to cosmic rays and high energy photons. It wouldn't wipe life from the face of the planet, and then there's the matter of a pole shift...
3. Geomagnetic reversal happens regularly on its own.
In other words, for me and others like me, the immediate reaction to this lazy reveal was "A coronal mass ejection! Goodness! I hope we have a magnetic field or we might see a statistically significant increase in incidences of cancer!" Not what they were going for, I reckon.
Not everyone will be bothered by this utter lack of effort on the part of the writers to understand the scientific concepts they were butchering, taping back together into a grotesque cartoon of their former selves and expecting us to take seriously, but for me, it's made the series even more absurd than it already was, and I no longer bother paying more than the most basic attention to the story as I monkey around. This is an issue largely because they didn't have to poach scientific theories to get end-of-the-world all over themselves, but they did in the laziest way possible, and it makes the whole thing look shoddy.
A perfect example of cataclysm done right is Chrono Trigger. Only the most vague of explanations is ever given for how the main baddie can do what it does, how time travel is even possible and so on, all while explicitly including magic as a get-out clause. And why not? No one really cares how it works, and an explanation more detailed than "well it's all very mysterious and the main character is at the center of it because stop asking questions" would just be distracting from the main point. If The Epic of Gilgamesh spent tens of stanzas explicating theories and systems to explain what it meant to be a demigod or how Enkidu could predict his fate, the story would be buried under unnecessary, and probably stupid, detail. If the writers of AssCreed really wanted a worldwide threat, they should have stuck to the Templars and their magic technology or simply left the cause mysterious.
And he made a time-travelling plane, which works by something something.
For another example of how this tendency to bring in bullshit, pseudoscience explanations for major story elements can undermine the integrity of a story, look at everyone's favorite George Lucas abomination: Star Wars. Remember how most people reacted to midichlorians? Of course the reaction was negative, the force didn't need an explanation, and trying to make it scientific pulled it from a mystical context into a more real context, and mystical things do not look good in that light. Suddenly, the willingness to suspend disbelief is challenged by all of the questions raised by the half-assed explanation. How do microorganisms lead to telekinesis? What do microbes have to do with guiding a space torpedo into a space vent? What are they doing in the blood if they affect mental abilities? And on and on and on.
Pretty much. (Image credit: starwarsreport.com)
Detailed explanations can be beneficial to a story if employed judiciously. The original Ghost in the Shell comics were rife with ridiculously detailed footnotes from supernerd author Masamune Shirow (I'll never forget the little cartoon explanation of why the advanced prosthetics in the story could not be made significantly stronger than the bones and muscles they were attached to), but when he didn't have an explanation, one wasn't offered. This included some of the most significant parts of the story, such as the integration of neurological signals and digital information, but these were themes to be explored, not phenomena to be explained (it's currently impossible, after all), and Shirow knew that. The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov is another good example of this; it's not that Asimov didn't love detailing the ins and outs of his hypothetical psychohistory concept, but he stopped short where no explanation could be had. It was a tool to explore the themes of the story, and any explanation was flavoring for people who like that sort of thing (i.e. me).
When considering the inclusion of detailed, sciencey-wiencey explanations into your story, it's important to ask what that inclusion would accomplish. Is it in service to the metanarrative, helping in the exploration of the story's main themes? Is it the sort of detail that your audience would find stimulating for its own sake? Or, regretfully, does it only distract from the substance of what could otherwise be an engaging plot? In the case of Assassin's Creed, it's entirely the latter.