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Archive for March, 2014

Dung Hien Hair Salon, Hanoi, July 6, 2009

Dung Hien Hair Salon, Hanoi, July 6, 2009

I’ve always liked the way advertising can work both to complement and to contrast with other elements of a composition. Advertising almost invariably portrays a perfect and airbrushed world which, in the developed world, comes closer to mirroring the context than it does in the developing world, where it all too often symbolises an unattainable dream. This is especially noticeable in India – a country in which, if you were to try to understand the society based entirely on its advertising, you would believe that everyone was comfortably middle and upper class. Of course, the simple answer is that advertising is targeted almost exclusively at the middle and upper classes – no one else can afford the products. The television ads and billboards offer an ironic and at times, ghastly contrast to the conditions prevalent on the streets.

In this photo, taken somewhere in downtown Hanoi, the hair ad is perhaps less of an anomaly compared to the status quo – after all, a nice haircut is more affordable than, say, a new kitchen, car or air conditioning unit – yet it still stands out as an ideal in the midst of a less glamorous reality. Here the contrast is not so much one of decadence and privilege versus poverty, but rather that of indulgence and comfort against pragmatism, for there is something wonderfully impractical about what the image presents to the quotidian street. What use such well-brushed hair and long luscious lashes when doing laundry and carrying kettles? It seems appropriate therefore that, whilst in this shot the L’oreal woman is prominent, in the wider context she seems almost marginalised – pushed into a corner behind scooters. Is it for this reason that her eyes are closed? Or is it that she can’t quite bear the relative banality of a backstreet in Hanoi?

The L’Oreal woman presents an image almost of piety and consolation, less offensive than more brash and “sexy” representations of the decadent lifestyle. I love the dreamy effect of the closed eyes and long lashes – an exaggeration I don’t usually find attractive, yet which seems inviting and comforting in this instance. By contrast, the facial expressions of the other women in the scene are far more engaged with real world concerns, though the lady holding the kettle has her eyes turned towards the sky, perhaps entertaining thoughts of escape – or is it just concern about the weather? Ironically, the lady whose tee-shirt reads “don’t feel small” looks pretty fed up with life, lending the message on her shirt the quality of an exhortation to herself.

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Smoker, Tokyo, May 21st, 2006

Smoker, Tokyo, May 21st, 2006

Smoker, Tokyo, May 21st, 2006

Smoker, Tokyo, May 21st, 2006

Call me a fascist, but I love how marginalised smoking has become around the world. In just a few short years, most of the developed world has banned smoking from the workplace, pubs, bars, restaurants, cafés, and even from directly outside buildings so the smoke doesn’t flow in through the doors. It’s a win for everyone, even smokers, though they sometimes refuse to acknowledge it. What makes all this most incredible is that it is a very rare victory for common sense over capital – big tobacco can go and suck on that.

Australia has been a world leader on this front, something that is both astonishing and entirely unsurprising in this country – astonishing because as a nation we all too readily get down on our knees and drink the jizz of big business, and unsurprising because we love overdoing safety regulations. Our laws on smoking are the toughest in the world so far as sales and advertising are concerned. Cigarette packets can no longer be displayed behind the counter; they are now all packaged in plain, dull packaging without any brand identification other than a uniform text stating the manufacturer and variety, with bold health warnings larger than the brand name and a disgusting image of the effects of smoking on health taking up the bulk of the packet. All advertising has long since been banned and the taxes on cigarettes are now so wonderfully high that a regular packet will cost you over $20 Australian and a packet of rolling tobacco over thirty. It’s a much healthier world we live in when a nine-year old kid asks “what is a cigarette?”

We could, however, go further still. In some cities in Japan it is illegal to smoke whilst walking down the street, and smokers must use designated smoking areas as depicted in these two images. How often have you gotten stuck walking behind a smoker on the pavement and been forced to inhale their pollution? How many fines and public awareness campaigns will it take to stop smokers littering city streets with their cigarette butts? It would be far easier simply to ban smoking from all outdoor areas, bar certain designated smoking stations, which could even be enclosed to ensure passers-by are protected from the smoke. The idea has been discussed in Sydney and a trial ban in downtown Melbourne was implemented last October with all the usual whinging from businesses that it will affect their custom. What they too often fail to consider, however, just as was the case with smoking in bars, is that less than 20% of the population smoke these days, so bear in mind how many customers are put off by the presence of smokers. I certainly am, and won’t sit at an outdoor area in a café if smokers are present.

Anyways, enough ranting – as to these photographs, it was tough to decide between the two so I’ve gone for both. I’ve always liked these shots for the chap’s posture, the seemingly arrogant cool he projects and the very contextual circumstances of the shot. If I was advertising smoking, which I might inadvertently be doing, and that makes me a massive hypocrite, then I think I’d like this guy in my ad to say screw the lot of you, smoking is cool and it makes you look like a real man. Incidentally, if you look closely at the wider shot, there’s a splendid little warning and graphic reminding people of street etiquette. It states: “When I bumped into someone, I apologized. When my smoke hit your face, I said nothing,” telling people in a curiously shaming and cryptic manner that they ought to consider the impact of their smoking as similar to accidental physical contact. Hear hear.

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Toy Train, Ooty, January 1st, 2013

Toy Train, Ooty, January 1st, 2013

The late afternoon drive into the Nilgiri Hills offered high crags and hairpin turns, steep ravines and sunbeam spotlights through the foliage. On either side of the winding road was heavy forest, wild and unfettered for the most part, but here and there plundered for the serried and terraced tea plantations. Our driver was the most cautious in India and a welcome slowness prevailed during our sure but steady ascent. We passed through Coonoor, two thirds of the way up the mountain, a colourful, boxy town, spread across the top of the ridge like a heap of lego. From here it was another forty minutes to Ooty, which we hoped to reach before sunset. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve, and it can be hard to find champagne in India.

Sadly the hotel we had booked from the Lonely Planet was not up to scratch. On the outskirts of town, bare and cold, monastic, dark and viewless, it wasn’t so much dirty as incapable of looking convincingly clean. The lack of sheets or blankets in the rustic room, the dim lighting, the desultory and grim aesthetic, the absence of a kitchen or hot water, had us apologising to the old manager, out the door, down the hill and in an auto-rickshaw within about five minutes. “Take us to the Savoy!” said V, in the last of the golden afternoon sunshine, and from there on in we took the evening more seriously.

The Savoy, part of the Raj chain of hotels, offered a stupendously better alternative. With six acres of landscaped gardens, the hotel itself consisted of colonial style cottages built between the 1830s and 1860s, centred around a large porticoed administration building, housing the reception area, bars and dining hall. Our cottage was long and cosy, with a wide-windowed sunroom at the front, colonial furnishings, a huge bed and a functional fireplace. Being at an elevation of 2200 metres, the temperature had dropped rapidly as the sun descended and after checking in, we called reception to have a fire prepared for later.

We set off back into town to search for a bottle-shop. It can be tough finding alcohol in India, and different states and towns have different policies as to its sale. We expected to have a long and potentially fruitless quest as we walked a few hundred metres down the road to the nearest group of shops. Imagine our astonishment when, descending into possibly the darkest, grottiest and least inviting underground bar I’ve ever visited, we saw, through an open door behind the counter, a room with shelves full of beer and spirits. We left well-stocked, and this good fortune was soon followed by another, when we ventured into the inauspiciously named “Kabab Corner” to order takeaway. On this recommendation, the Lonely Planet was absolutely correct, and I will never forget the unsurpassed excellence that was Kabab Corner. The tandoori chicken shish was extraordinary – not only in the flavour and texture of the char-grilled chunks, but in the quality of the meat – usually a risky variable. Yet the real highlight of the meal was the spicy paneer. It remains the best paneer I’ve ever had – great spice, wonderful sauce, and huge, sloppy chunks of the cheese to satisfy both the huge appetite and the delicate palate.

It is worth digressing, in this story which is, in itself, a digression, to mention an exchange that took place when we returned the following evening. Raving to the owner of Kabab Corner about how good his food was, he asked where I was from. When I told him Australia, he replied “You don’t have fresh food in Australia? Only canned food?” It was an extraordinary and evocative expression of the distance between the two places and, more so, his relative isolation. That he could be so ignorant of Australia was refreshing – allowing me, through his eyes, to re-imagine the world I thought I knew.

The rest of the evening was not exactly uneventful, though it could hardly be said to have been a big night. We returned home to our cosy room, lit the fire, turned on the television, ate heartily, began drinking, and then, around 2130, V fell asleep and I dozed off in front of a crappy action movie. We regained some spirit around eleven and I made a concerted effort to get drunk, but never made it past half-way. At midnight, we stood in the chilly grounds watching the distant fireworks, then were forced to evacuate our room when the chimney backed up and flooded the cottage with smoke. As the air cleared we chatted politely with a lovely, older Indian couple, wishing them all the best, then retired for the evening. A success of sorts, made great by virtue of the comforts that our location afforded.

As to this photograph, it was taken the following day at the Ooty station for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. The so-called Toy Train, a seemingly common feature of British Raj era hill-stations, was so popular that we couldn’t board on this occasion, but the station afforded great photo opportunities. We spent about half an hour hanging around here, watching people and enjoying the excited vibe amongst them. I was lucky with this shot to get such a well-lit subject, with an engaging expression of either sullen curiosity or mild concern – I can’t determine which. The shapes created by the train’s windows and door neutralise the background into pattern and thus accentuate the central figure.

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Ha'Penny Bridge, Dublin, November 27, 2007

Ha’Penny Bridge, Dublin, November 27, 2007

Without knowing a great deal about the place outside of Joyce, I just assumed I would like Dublin. The image that existed in my mind had it looking rather more like Edinburgh – an impressive Celtic capital with imposing and distinct buildings, a place whose monuments exuded the cultural strength of Ireland, a place whose buildings brimmed with character and identity – that much stereotyped Irish blend of larrikin and literary intellectual. Yet, upon visiting Dublin, I found myself entirely nonplussed to the point of grave disappointment and in the end, I didn’t like the place very much at all. Perhaps it was my state of mind, and such can be the nature of travel, yet it all felt mismatched somehow, as though no real thought had gone into building the place. Trinity College and the Book of Kells were truly amazing, but the city itself had a rather desultory air and in my wanderings I never found a place that made me want to stop and sit and soak up the atmosphere and beauty.

Fortunately, however, I was travelling with my tripod on this occasion (not my mother’s three-legged cat) and spent a lot of time shooting at night. This was November 2007, just after the financial crisis had struck, and whilst I’m not sure it was directly related, there seemed to be a lot of people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin. Again, my ill-informed preconceptions about Ireland, a cloudy awareness of its history of struggle and poverty, led me to believe that this might be par for the course as much as it might be due to the Celtic Tiger’s golden run coming to an abrupt halt. Still, it gave me something to think about, and focussed my photographic attention on the situation of the homeless people.

This shot was taken on the appropriately named Ha’Penny Bridge, over the river Liffey. Being early evening, there were a lot of people on their way home from work in suits, making it an ideal time to capture the contrast between rich and poor. As is so often the case with photos involving passers-by, it was a matter of patience to get a worthwhile shot – of standing with the remote in hand and shooting whenever the balance of people in the composition seemed right. And, as is so often the case when shooting unwitting subjects, it was just another case of blind luck that the figures climbing the stairs should frame the central subject so neatly and give me a good result. Needless to say, there were quite a considerable number of mis-hits either side of this one, a reminder that it’s often worth sitting on a scene and shooting a hundred plus shots, until the elements line up just right and go for gold.

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commitment1

What is it about discussions of commitment that brings up so many thorny interpretations? When we talk about commitment, more often than not it is in the context of relationships, marriage and children, though of course, the word also applies to other contexts – commitment to work, to a cause or ideal, for example. In the former sense, commitment is usually characterised as something women seek and which men are either reluctant or unwilling to engage in. There is a long established narrative in which adult males are pilloried for a variety of reasons – immaturity, promiscuity, insincerity, instability, fear of the loss of freedom, inability to love unconditionally – it’s a long list that leaves them seeming like anything other than adult males in the wash up.

When women hold off from marrying men, we call it independence. When men hold off from marrying women, we call it fear of commitment.

– Warren Farrell

Commitment is, of course, a complex matter and has a wide variety of conditions and consequences for everyone, and fortunately, the situation has changed dramatically for men and women in recent decades, especially so far as individual freedom of choice and acceptance of alternative situations is concerned. Yet whilst reality might reflect far more variables than the predominant narratives, those narratives still persist in the oppressive and obsessive promotion of partnering up for life – as though not doing so makes one’s life meaningless and empty. It also seems part and parcel of what I consider a wholly mistaken premise about the way people are expected to be – that men or women should act in a way that satisfies the expectations, desires and goals of the opposite sex. Why do something that is so contrary to one’s nature? As Steve Jobs famously said:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Chris Mandle writes:

the problem with having women tell us (men) how to be men is the implication that we should be doing these things for the benefit of women. That if we make ourselves into better men, women will like us. Naturally, this isn’t an aspiration all men will strive towards…

The same applies for women, far too many of whom spend their time trying to accommodate men. But why, why do we bother trying so hard? Mandle’s argument, quite rightly, points out that what is most important is to be a considerate and decent human being, but anything beyond that is a choice. If you feel you have to compromise so much for the sake of commitment, then don’t commit. It’s as simple as that, and, similarly, if we expect people to change to suit our expectations, then we are being entirely insensitive to the other person’s nature. Is that not the ultimate selfishness? To try to have things the way we want them, even though the other person’s inclination is not the same? Why should men feel guilty about not wanting to have children at the same time as their partner? This does not make them villains. They are, after all, different people with different desires. Of course, accepting another person’s agenda is precisely what compromise is, but too many people accept unworkable compromises because they think it is the right thing to do. Well, you don’t need me to tell you that it isn’t always the right thing to do.

A quick search on the net under the topic of commitment brought up some rather ludicrous soundbites, many of which are designed to make us feel that commitment is something to strive for and achieve, a worthwhile life goal, but which actually make it sound like a terrible chore. Having spent some time recently musing on the idea and entertaining myself by reading some of the nonsense that people write about commitment, it’s fair to say that there is an almost unfathomable amount of rubbish written on this topic, some of which I would now like to shred. Here’s a few samples.

The American writer, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that:

 If we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather, it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession but participation.

Which seems at best confused, and at worst, illogical. Firstly, the idea that “if we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not… a rejection of freedom” rests largely on the attitude into which people enter a commitment. In most cases they choose to do so, and in most cases their motive is unlikely to be a desire to “reject freedom”, but this does not mean that they haven’t actually rejected freedom, for, let’s face it, they have denied themselves the freedom to have sexual relations with other people, to engage in romantic adventures, and to do as they please without checking in with another person’s agenda. As to the rest of this rather garbled statement, exactly what she means by “the courage to move into all the risks of freedom” is not entirely clear, unless one accepts that somehow, illogically, commitment is one of the risks of freedom. It strikes me only as a “risk” of freedom, should one accidentally, for example, become committed to someone in the process of enjoying one’s freedom – an unexpected pregnancy and a partner unwilling to terminate, for example, or a prison sentence incurred in the pursuit of pleasure. As to “love which is not possession but participation”, this is purely semantic trickery. What is, after all, more possessive than an expectation of permanent commitment? And how is a non-committal relationship characterised more by possession than participation? One does not own one’s fuck-buddy after all, and nor is there a legal document to say otherwise.

Here’s another cracker by Criss Jami, lead singer of the band Venus in Arms and a published poet:

To say that one waits a lifetime for his soulmate to come around is a paradox. People eventually get sick of waiting, take a chance on someone, and by the art of commitment become soulmates, which takes a lifetime to perfect.

Another load of bollocks. “By the art of commitment become soulmates?” pull the other one. You are either soulmates (not that I believe in the existence of the soul, that too is bollocks) or you’re not. What he’s actually saying here is that ultimately everyone accepts a compromise, ends up with someone who isn’t their ideal choice, and then, with all the phlegmatic zeal of a defeatist, learns to put up with them over a period of decades. Clearly I’m not sold on this one either – it’s about creating a comfort zone, not a thrilling, happy life or something to be truly excited about, but what psychologists call, behaviourally, mood reinforcement. It’s a kind of habit-based sedative that is, we are told, better than continuing the quest for perfection, or an engaged and committed loneliness. Not the most convincing quote, I have to say.

We have to recognise that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence.

This quote comes from Cornel West, a man who has written important work on race, gender and class in America. If it appears here out of context, then that is because I found it presented to the world out of context on a site brimming with these nonsense quotes about commitment. Reading this, one can’t help but ask: Really? What kind of relationships are we talking about here? What actually is a relationship? Can you not have a perfectly good relationship with your fuck buddy? Does the absence of “commitment” and “persistence” (god that sounds dreary) invalidate every human connection?

Define loyalty. The only loyalty I understand is to the set of conditions that govern a relationship, and that might include the freedom to sleep with other people. In that case, loyalty is wearing a condom when you fuck around. Patience, sure, is important, but there is a limit. If someone pisses you off too much, why bother with them any longer? And as for love, what is wrong with a basic, decent level of mutual respect? Love is really going too far for most human relationships, and no one seems to be able to define it adequately anyway. Is it an idea, a fantasy, an overdose of oxytocin leading to an irrationally high level of trust and empathy? This quote sounds rather exclusive to me, and not especially helpful in understanding the range and complexity of relationships that exist for people in the real-o-sphere.

Marriage is those two thousand indistinguishable conversations, chatted over two thousand indistuinguishable breakfasts, where intimacy turns like a slow wheel. How do you measure the worth of becoming that familiar to somebody—so utterly well known and so thoroughly ever-present that you become an almost invisible necessity, like air?

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

Wow, talk about a wet blanket. Is this some kind of nightmare she is describing – a recurring dream or groundhog day? The slow wheel of intimacy sounds more akin to the wheel of pain featured in the original film version of Conan the Barbarian. If the conversations are indistinguishable what is the point of having them? Is there any value in a situation entirely devoid of stimulation and excitement, a little unpredictability? Does anyone want to be so familiar to someone as to be reduced to an “an invisible necessity”? Not that I like surprises in the morning, but two thousand indistinguishable conversations sounds a hell of a lot like another fine example of mood reinforcement. Give me the comfort zone, or give me death. And nothing is more disquietingly smothering than the comfort zone. Looks to me like making peace with marriage had the same effect as a life-time prescription for Prozac.

Real love has little to do with falling. It’s a climb up the rocky face of a mountain, hard work, and most people are too selfish or too scared to bother. Very few reach the critical point in their relationship that summons the attention of the light and the dark, that place where they will make a commitment to love no matter what obstacles-or temptations- appear in their path.

Stacey Jay, Juliet Immortal

Oh lord, this one’s a cracker. At least, however, it acknowledges an important truth, that “most people are too selfish or too scared to bother.” Or how about, too sensible, too smart, too aware of their own requirements and what actually makes them happy to commit to something that is bound to fail and make them hugely miserable? What, after all, is wrong with selfishness? Why do we frown on it so much? Of course, I don’t mean the kind of selfishness where we fail to care about the suffering of others in the world, don’t give to charity and vote for self-interest ahead of the greater good. But that’s not the kind of selfishness this vapid quote is referring to. She means the kind where we don’t sacrifice ourselves for someone else’s happiness in the vain hope that somehow we might get something “meaningful” out of it.

If it takes that much effort to “summon the attention of the light and dark” (lol) then maybe, just maybe, it’s not worth going there. And why are people scared? Because commitment through thick and thin is neither necessarily pleasurable or satisfying and does not by any means always produce a positive outcome. They have every right to be scared of being trapped, of stagnation, of claustrophobia, of a future of thousands of indistinguishable breakfasts all compressed into a nightmare of samey dullness… I pity my mother who has hung around with my father, hoping, for the last twenty years, that things might prove worthwhile, yet all she’s had is misery and disappointment to the point of disgust. Don’t climb that mountain unless you really want to. Be selfish – it’s your happiness that matters, not someone else’s.

Now, on a more positive note, I found a quote from Paulo Coelho which I rather liked, surprisingly, considering the mild contempt with which I regard his well-meaning light-on philosophising:

Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me.

– Paulo CoelhoThe Zahir

Hear hear. At last, someone talking some common sense. And what is best for you is what really matters, surely. Not what other people need or think or believe to be right, but what actually makes you happy. That commitment might be to anything – to hiking, exercise, reading, work, writing, self-education, computer games, drugs, casual sex, television… or all of the above. It only makes sense to commit to things that give you pleasure or make you happy in the long run. Of course, this is often classified as “self-indulgence”, but that is just a bullshit term applied by people who aren’t comfortable with devoting their lives to pleasure instead of some idiotic idea that we should be working all the time and producing “results”, whilst humming the industrial age’s “work, consume, obey, die” mantra – a minor improvement on the medieval “slave, worship, die,” singalong.

environmental_commitment_ssk_16585330

I sincerely hope that the future will be very, very different. Of course, we’re going to fuck up the entire planet and nothing can stop that now, but it would be nice if the human race could go down unburdened by an antiquated sense of “commitment.” The assumption that the ideal human state is one of monogamy, that deviations from this are in some way a problem, that we should feel sorry for people who are “alone,” is so past its use-by date that it looks more akin to something one might find in an Anglo-Saxon burial mound. Humans are now so complex and sophisticated that they can freely choose to engage in whatever level of relationship and commitment they desire. We are also, to my knowledge, the only species in the history of evolution which can overcome its biological imperative to breed. Sure, some species avoid having offspring during times of environmental stress, but humans can reject this desire any time and remain perfectly happy, occupying themselves with all manner of hobbies and pastimes. The desire to pass on genes, once rationalised, becomes a lifestyle choice – especially as this burden might easily taken on by close kin, and for me, genetically, near enough is good enough.

The human brain is, to our knowledge, the most sophisticated thing in the universe, why waste its capability on tiresome chores and obligations, social or otherwise, when it could be employed solving far more interesting and engaging puzzles, or merely indulging its innate curiosity? Why endure years of commitment to an unsatisfying job or relationship out of a sense of necessity or obligation? Why put up with people who make us unhappy, or feel like hard work, when we have absolutely no need to do so?

In a nutshell, commitment is a form of suicide. We murder one part of ourselves in the hope that another might thrive, yet it does not always work out. If you get married, you are killing the person who was free to sleep around, free to pack up and move to another country without having to discuss it with someone else. If have a child, you are killing the person who was free to sleep whenever they wished, or work as little as they liked for they had no dependents. That person is gone – replaced by someone from whom the law can demand money, time and effort, or punish for neglect. Only the wealthy can truly afford to avoid such commitment by walking away and paying whatever is necessary to cover the costs.

Fortunately, the nature of human relationships is rapidly evolving and many people are voting with their feet and avoiding the pitfalls of commitment, or its antiquated models. The relative freedom in the developed world to partner up with whomever one wishes is something to be celebrated, as is the freedom not to partner up. I recently read a piece by a bi-sexual woman discussing the fact that bisexuals occupied a difficult place between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Straight people tended to see them as promiscuous, while gay people distrusted them for a lack of commitment to homosexuality – as though they were flirting with something and not taking it seriously enough. These surprisingly negative attitudes are derived from the oppressive history of enforced commitment in society – the meta-narratological mantra that uniting with someone or something for life is in someway better than not doing so. With the degree to which bi-sexual people now feel free to inhabit their sexuality comfortably (in most of the developed world, that is) – a quick glance at OK Cupid will indicate just how many bi-sexuals there seem to be! – I’d like to think that we are progressing towards a society where this old idea that commitment to anything or anyone is a) normal and b) desirable is going out the window.

The old model of the family has been changing dramatically in recent decades and children are growing up in a wider variety of circumstances – some have two mums, some have two dads, many have unmarried parents or just a single parent, and many experience the divorce of their parents during their childhood. None of these situations is necessarily deleterious to the child’s upbringing or well-being. If the situation is highly acrimonious, abusive or neglectful, then yes, naturally, it will have a negative impact – but as someone scarred by the failure of my parents to divorce, and instead put me through years of ugly arguments and bitter acrimony – I place no higher value on the ongoing commitment between a mother and father than any other situation. In truth, I’m far more worried about children forced to endure a religious upbringing – their minds filled with bigotry, exclusivity and intolerance and made to feel guilty about pleasure, which is classified as sin. The only sin worth going to hell for is that of condemning people to a life plagued by guilt and hang-ups about their sexual activity or sexuality. Oh, and creationism. That shit is toxic. Evolution is a fact, read a book.

Humans are highly adaptable and continually evolving, if the standard model of the family ultimately breaks down, then no doubt humans will adjust and ultimately accommodate to new circumstances. Since we first emerged from Africa as hunter gather groups, we have completely transformed our diet, environment, habits, lifespan, living conditions etc. Why do we think we can’t handle changes in group relations? There is an age-old concern that children will have difficulty forming permanent, committed relationships in the future should they come from a “broken home”, or an “unconventional” parental relationship, but why do we assume that they need to do this anyway? Why do we want to limit humans to an expectation of monogamous life-long commitment? If people wish to do it, then that’s wonderful, I wish them all the best, but to pressure people into thinking that it’s the only acceptable normal is not only grotesquely wrong, it’s dangerous. Who is to say that in the future we won’t do away with family-based child-rearing, that it won’t evolve into something more communal? Human evolution is occurring at a rapid pace as international connections stir the gene pool more vigorously than ever before and cultural differences and new technologies encourage us to consider alternative lifestyles. I don’t know where it will all lead, but to try to stamp the future with the models of the past is anachronistic. Valentine’s Day has much to answer for in its commodification of human relationships.

The way we read statistics is telling. Whilst divorce occurs eventually in just under 50% of marriages in Australia (the length of time before this happens varies considerably) unmarried couples are more than twice as likely to break up than married ones. This has been identified as a negative statistic, and used by those pushing for marriage as an example of why people should get married. But is it actually being married that changes things, or just the types of personality attracted to marriage in the first place? Did the unmarried couples choose not to marry because of a lack of commitment or because they think, as many do, that marriage is antiquated and unnecessary? Or was it simply that they were unsure about their capacity to endure each other for the rest of their lives and they got out once the negatives outweighed the positives? This seems very sensible to me, and in no way makes them bad parents, if, indeed, they were parents. It just makes them complex human beings like all of us, whose own needs might outweigh those of their child (yes, that is actually a reasonable proposition) and anyway, staying together might have been far worse for the child’s wellbeing in the long run. It takes courage to walk away, it’s not necessarily cowardice.

On a slightly different tangent, yet still on topic, is that response that is so often made by people who think a match has little likelihood of enduring. How often have we heard the expression “that’ll never last” or, “as if that’s going to work?” Well, let me tell you, if they’re having fun now and enjoying each other’s company, then it is working and that’s all that matters. If it doesn’t endure forever – who gives a crap? Honestly, does it really matter? The law of diminishing returns dictates that any situation is going to diminish in its pleasure-giving capacity – perhaps the relationships that “will never work” are ultimately more satisfying, precisely because they won’t live beyond a reasonable use-by date. Get in and get out while you can.

In this same light, casual sexual encounters are often trivialised as meaningless, as though their brevity robs them of any truth or significance. What could be more glorious than two people getting together for a night of pleasure? In those moments, when they are breathless with sexual excitement, exploring each other’s bodies for the first time – something most people not burdened by ludicrous levels of guilt, shame, inhibition or low self opinion find thrilling – there is a connection worth celebrating. If you come away from such a situation feeling remorse, then perhaps you shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. Guilt, after all, is a wasted emotion mostly derived from bad decision making. People talk of the “walk of shame” – heading home the following morning in last night’s clothes. Why is this not a glorious walk of proud success? Punching the air with a visceral love of life and the pleasures it can offer? Or perhaps it’s just the hangover. But seriously, what makes this connection any less “meaningful”, and why are we so obsessed with “meaningfulness” in a world functioning according to the laws of physics, which, whilst not entirely random on account of those laws, is, in effect, as random as anything can be?

It is also common for people to describe relationships as a waste of time, which seems oddly incongruous. They must have seen something in it to have been there in the first place, and if that wasn’t sustained and not giving them what they thought it ought to be giving them, then why, why, why, did they hang around waiting for a “result?” I accept that people find themselves in dangerous or abusive situations, where trying to leave is a serious risk, but it’s not those that I’m talking about. Why, without any pressure or necessity, stay in a relationship that isn’t working? Understandably, the relationship might go through a rocky patch and people will wait and hope for some improvement, yet surely it would have to be absolutely awful to constitute a waste of time, in which case, why stick around? And does the unhappy end to the situation immediately invalidate all the happiness and pleasure that were present at the beginning? Can we not just accept that most relationships have a use-by date? Does the rather plotless third season of Girls make season 1 total crap? Of course not.

The reason for this, of course, is that there is pressure – societal pressure, familial pressure, peer pressure – that relationships must produce “results”. Without a marriage or children, they’re too often considered a waste of time. Thankfully, judging by the wondrous promiscuity of young people these days, this kind of oppressive stupidity will not persist into the future.

As to commitment, take it or leave it, it’s your call. I’m not by any means against it, neither philosophically nor in practice, yet I am against pressuring people to value it above other levels of connection. Considering the range of sentiments genuinely available to humans and the freedom they have in many cases to pursue them, then commitment must only be considered a lifestyle choice. There are many, many people who would benefit from unshackling themselves from the pettiness of undesirable but constant contact with others. There must be millions, considerable millions of people in this world who would thrive if only they could be alone and commit themselves to their true interests. Just let it go, and do whatever the hell you want.

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Varanasi, along the ghats, May 7, 2010

Varanasi, along the ghats, May 7, 2010

Varanasi, also known as Banares, is considered to be the holiest city in India. Indeed, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and hence it is often associated with exotic and colourful rituals and traditions. All along the riverside ghats – stepped stone embankments – tourists and pilgrims join a swirl of commercial and religious activity, giving the place a constant sense of movement. If you’re not being sold flowers, boat trips on the Ganges or head massages, then someone will no doubt try to save your soul. Watching the laundry men and women hand-washing and beating clothes with wooden clubs makes for great spectacle. Yet, despite expectations of anthropological oddities and curiosities, Varanasi seemed to outdo itself in creating some of the oddest scenes imaginable.

I was exhausted when I finally arrived in Varanasi, at the end of a two-month trip around the north of India, and could feel the holiday’s end hanging over me. To some degree I had lost touch with reality, smoking too much, feeling dissipated, unmotivated, tired and a little bothered – a state of mind I’ve written about in a short story. As an atheist, I don’t have much time for expressions of religious sentiment and was far from charmed by Varanasi, having rather lost my patience with India at that stage of the journey. Consequently, I only ventured out in short bursts, shuffling through the heat haze and trying assiduously to ignore the constant offerings of goods and services. Yet, in those relatively brief forays I was continuously impressed by the array of colours, costumes and, indeed, behaviour that I witnessed, of which I’d like to think this shot offers at least a taste.

There is a lot going on in this scene, and I consider myself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. There is much that I love about this shot – the forward stare of the lady to the right of frame, seemingly untroubled by the bag on her head; the bright and sharp uniforms of the marching band members, whose body language has a sort of poised cheekiness about it. This contrasts with the wonderfully grumpy face of the other woman with a bag on her head, which rather comically looks like a giant, sagging ice-pack. Most of all, however, I love the way in which the band-leader, dressed in black and holding a trumpet, seems to be staring into the distance in a state of satisfied, yet humble thanks or lofty contemplation. The patchwork colours of the background testify to the intensity of the visual experience at Varanasi, where chromatically speaking, anything goes.

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Hallifax Bender in Glenumbra

Recently I’ve been participating in the beta testing for the forthcoming and much anticipated Elder Scrolls Online MMO. Until now all players have signed non-disclosure agreements and hence it has not been possible to write a review of the game, post screenshots, or divulge any information about the game whatsoever. The e-mail I received last Wednesday, inviting me back to join the beta testing on the coming weekend, contained the following piece of good news:

We encourage you to post the best screenshots and videos from your adventure! You’re not required to follow a Non-Disclosure Agreement during this test, so share your favorite moments with the world.

Hence, I should like to take advantage of that opportunity and offer a preliminary review of the game.

First things first, overall, it is a marvellous piece of work. Though not devoid of flaws nor perfect in its design, the game exudes an impression of high quality and polish throughout; in its appearance, its sound, the level of detail that has gone into what appears to be a truly vast world, and, perhaps most surprisingly for an MMO, its narratives. The storylines might not all be that original, nor have that much depth and complexity, yet whereas in some MMOs narrative functions much the same way as it does in porn – a contrived and shallow shoehorn to the action – in the Elder Scrolls Online (hereafter ESO) it is more than window dressing.

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The quests all contain elements familiar to fantasy RPG players, and indeed, to those of the Elder Scrolls games. There are collections and fetch and carry missions aplenty, yet these are almost always couched in a rather more engaging and at times surprising story-line.

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Rarely did the process of completing quests feel like a chore; they were well-paced and not unnecessarily gratuitous with their objectives – rather than collecting 20 of something, in the Elder Scrolls Online, it is far more likely to be 4, and that process is, most often, not overly frustrating.

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This is not to say that the questing in ESO is merely adequate, for much of it is highly entertaining and quite moreish. At times the questing has a fantastic playfulness about it – like being asked to follow a firefly around as it leads to quest objectives, or that old Elder Scrolls staple – follow the barking dog.

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The game offers sufficient variation in its quest objectives to avoid the taint of grinding. It was difficult, once engaged, to step away from the keyboard. Often the quests reveal themselves to be part of a considerably longer chain, which has many chapters and relates to larger events in the world around the player. In Glenumbra, what began in one town as a mission to flush out werewolves masquerading as refugees from the recently captured city of Camlorn to the north, turned into a full-blown assault, first to retake the siege camp outside Camlorn, and then the city itself.

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Fans of Oblivion will see many similarities between this and the recapture of Kvatch, though minus Oblivion gates and daedra. In ESO, it is often rollickingly good fun pursuing these quests, in part because they have the power to reshape the world around you.

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The quests also work very intuitively in most cases, and make life considerably easier by ensuring that the next step is, much of the time, close to the last on the map. Thus, one rarely has to traipse across half the world in order to advance the story. Often the quest giver or an ally of theirs will appear after a quest objective has been completed, not only saving the player a return journey, but giving those in need of help a more dynamic role in the action. At times the player might be joined by an NPC both to guide and assist them, providing useful back up. This can make the storyline rather too convenient, which can rob it of the same intense immersion a lengthy Skyrim journey might entail, yet, in MMOs, the pace of the game is usually more frantic anyway and mostly it was a relief that quest objectives were not too obscure – though at times they were bugged. But hey, it’s Beta.

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The game begins in Coldharbour, one of the planes of Oblivion and the realm of Molag Bal.

The official description from the wiki informs any would be visitors that Coldharbour “resembles… Nirn, but the ground is nothing more than sludge; the sky constantly burns, and yet the air is beyond freezing.” It goes on to paint an even grimmer picture, and in the game, Coldharbour wears a suitably grim palette.

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I rather forget exactly how and why players have wound up in this awful place, suffice to say that somehow or other they died and have had their soul taken, along with thousands of others known as the soulshriven. The game basically begins with an escape aided by a mysterious man called the prophet and a very tall woman with the appropriate name of Lyris Titanborn. It’s not the most satisfying start, but it takes little more than ten minutes and could probably be zerged in about five by someone keen to get through it. Still, it serves its purpose of introducing basic gameplay, orienting the player, and kickstarting a story that gradually becomes more interesting. The run through Coldharbour likely won’t wow you, so don’t be put off, though it finishes in a splendid set – endowed with a kind of monstrous industrial chic.

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From here one is able to go through a portal to Tamriel, where the game begins in earnest.

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Character generation takes as long as one is fussy about appearance, which in my case, can be as much as an hour. The menus offer a deceptively sumptuous array of customisation options – I say deceptively because it is impossible in most cases to change the base model of most features – eyes, nose, mouth etc – only to tweak a set model. Somehow this ends up making all the female Bretons and Nords look like glamorous Russian tourists, whilst everyone else looks like they come from the same family, within the bounds of their race.

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Rather like the many passport photos of Mr Nice, one can see the same person underneath that facial tattoo, hair style, accessory and facial hair option. All the same, so far as the face is concerned, the initial tweaking of the base model is a curious system, which works by choosing a point inside a triangle with Heroic at the top, and Soft and Angular on the bottom left and right respectively.

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It’s a similar graphic for body size, though with muscular at the top, and large and thin at the bottom. Proximity to these particular points will adjust the features accordingly, which certainly does allow for a fair range of possibilities – yet again, always starting from the same base. It’s nice that they allow the player to adjust body shape and size to the point of being very short, tall, slender or rather corpulent. Most people veer towards the slim and muscular in build, but I did spot the odd fat and bald toon doing the rounds, which at least adds another dimension.

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The hair styles are done wonderfully well, but again the range soon comes to feel limited, after an initial impression of abundance. I’m sure these will expand given time, and the existing styles are more than satisfactory, though the adjustable hair-length toggle is absent. Similarly with tattoos and facial markings – after a while, they all become very familiar, but it is fun to experiment. I was surprised by the complexity of the ear menu, which allows one to adjust the “ear-tip flare” – whether or not they stick out. It’s nice to be able to pin one’s ears back, or adjust the tilt of the smile for that matter, yet I would rather have been able to choose from a range of different mouth models than commence with the aforementioned Russian pout.

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Elder Scrolls Online offers the standard array of races familiar to most players. There are presently nine races available for selection, with the tenth, as yet un-activated slot being held by Imperials. The only difference in ESO is that the races have been divided into three separate factions: the Ebonheart Pact, which includes the Nords, Dark Elves (Dunmer) and Nords, and who are located in the provinces of Skyrim, Morrowind and Black Marsh; the Aldmeri Dominion, consisting of the High Elves (Altmer), Wood Elves (Bosmer) and Khajiit, in the Summerset Isles, Valenwood and Elseweyr; and the Daggerfall Covenant, including the Bretons, Orcs (Orsimer) and the Redguard in the regions of High Rock, Orsinium and Hammerfell. Each of these races has a different start area, to which they journey upon leaving Coldharbour, in accordance with the above groupings, though each race is free to choose from any of the four available classes.

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At this stage in Elder Scrolls Online there are only four class choices available: The Templar, Nightblade, Sorcerer and Dragon Knight. These, however, are designed to work flexibly with other build choices the character might choose to make, such as fighting style, types of armour, attribute and skill allocations, and other, perhaps more cosmetic choices. The Elder Scrolls series has always been famous for the degree of freedom players have in choosing the paths they take and the types of skills, powers and abilities they wield. ESO has limited that freedom significantly. It is not possible, for example, simply to learn a spell from any school – within skill level limitations – and cast it, indeed, it doesn’t seem possible to learn spells other than through levelling and selecting abilities. Only the Templar class has access to the restoration school initially, which sets them up as the only true healers in game, though I can’t say at this stage whether or not other classes can acquire access to this school or heal effectively through other means.

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My principal gripe with the game’s design is on account of the number of limitations that are placed on a player’s freedom of movement with character paths and their freedom to vary their weapon and ability choices easily. Firstly, there are no hotbars – or rather, there is one, though it functions by hitting the related numerical key, rather than via mousing. This admittedly makes for a less cluttered interface and improves the aesthetic of the game by limiting on-screen distractions from the visuals, yet it also robs the player of any real chance of indulging in what Elder Scrolls games have traditionally done best – allowing them to use as many skills, spells, effects etc as possible. Yes, there were no onscreen hotbars in Skyrim or Oblivion, but this was mitigated by the fact that during gameplay one could simply press TAB to pause the game and select an item or effect from the inventory or relevant directory – known spells, for instance. Or, if one was quick enough, it could be done live through the favourites list – enabling a player quickly to select an ability or item not presently hoy-keyed. There is, however, no opportunity to pause in a live MMO, and the favourites menu has been replaced by a clunky radial one. By level 6, my character already had more spells and abilities than I could set in the mere five places available, making the extra skills as good as redundant, since it was neither convenient nor desirable to keep switching those allocations.

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The lack of hotbars is also unfortunate in that it takes away much of the pleasure of being high level and having a seemingly vast array of curious abilities ready to deploy given the right situation. In Dungeons & Dragons Online a high level wizard might have 35 odd spells with a wide array of effects at their disposal, all within a mouse click, and ten of the most prominent available on a command hotbar. In ESO, until 15th level, it is only possible to have one weapon style set, and it is not at all convenient or easy to change this during a combat situation. What this means is that I cannot use my bow at range and then quickly switch to a melee weapon when the enemy draws near. Nor is it possible to switch weapons in combat with any ease. Thus, it is not possible to begin whacking something with a two-handed weapon, then switch to sword and shield for improved defence, without copping it sweet for a bit while fiddling in your inventory and interface.

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At level 15, a further weapon set becomes available, opening up another 5 hotkeys in effect, yet this still limits the player to a mere two weapon combinations, and, whichever weapon they equip, the player still only has space to set five abilities in conjunction with that weapon set. Are we really going to be using only five spells or special attacks for almost the entire game, despite potentially knowing many more? Will there only be two weapon sets available, or will it be possible to have three or four eventually? Is it really not possible, as in Skyrim, to begin with ranged, dual-wield in close combat, then switch to one-handed and shield should the situation require it? It’s frustrating, because this flexibility has always been a staple of Elder Scrolls games and it makes one’s character seem far less free to evolve down a variety of paths.

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On the subject of fighting styles, characters are welcome to choose freely which combinations they wish to use: two handed, dual wielding, one-handed and shield, bow, restoration staff and destruction staff. Each of these weapon styles has its own skill line with special attacks and abilities related to that weapon type. As many of the special attacks require the player to have that weapon set equipped, this further hampers the ability to switch in a combat situation, as even should one equip one’s bow, for example, the dual-wield attacks will still be the ones hot-keyed. As mentioned above, level 15 allows another weapon set, but this still seems an unfortunate hindrance in freedom of choice and movement.

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There are also issues with quickly using inventory items. Without hotbars, the only option for accessing potions during combat seems to be through hitting Q and bringing up a radial menu on which a range of inventory items can be accessed. Whichever one was last chosen remains as the set option, so a quick hit of the q key will use whatever it is, whereas holding the key will bring up the menu and allow the player to choose another option. The problem is that it’s not really easy, natural or intuitive to use in a combat situation as one cannot steer simultaneously, and, if you think about it, the only time you’re really desperately going through your inventory in a combat situation is when you are in trouble, need a quick fix, and need to put some distance between you and your opponent. How much easier to keep your finger on the w key and run like hell, whilst easily navigating the mouse to a hotbar. If it is the existence of consoles that have brought this about, then I have only one thing to say: Stuff consoles, they really destroy complex games. Can we have a PC version?

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Either way, I don’t really see the point in imposing so many limits on character progression and development. Is it kow-towing to consoles, or just good old fashioned dumbing down? Surely it’s not to do with balance, because, if anything, players who spread their skills more widely are likely to end up jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none, which will in effect gimp them rather than overpowering them.

Stealth also seems rather mysteriously absent in any sophisticated way. Anyone can use it, but I found no evidence of any existing skill-line, even in the Nightblade character class. If this is an omission, then it’s sure to annoy a lot of players who wish primarily to play stealth-based characters. Sure, there are stealth-style attacks and an invisibility spell, but no obvious means of judging your move silently and hide in shadows kinda capability nor improving it. I often crept past enemies, but the only factor that seemed relevant was proximity.

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This is very much a wait and see situation, though at first glance, stealth appears to have either been massively simplified or utterly neglected. I admit that I may well be missing something, but I did test-run a Nightblade to see what skill lines were in fact available. Perhaps one can join the thieves guild, which might open up another skill line as joining any guild will do in ESO.

Returning to the subject of character generation, each class in ESO has three different skill lines in which further skills and abilities become available as the player’s skill level increases. As in other Elder Scrolls games, using a skill is the key to improving it, and one’s spells and special attacks become increasingly powerful as the skill level goes up.

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At certain points, it is possible to upgrade an already selected ability, a process which usually adds a further effect to that attack or spell. This might change a spell from a single-target spell to an area of effect, or add a snare effect to a melee attack, for example. It’s satisfying to upgrade one’s abilities, yet I wonder if this is compensation for the fact that so few can be allocated to hotkeys – a deceptive kind of progress in that you’re still using the same ability in effect.

Depending on which faction the player’s race comes from, they will journey to one of three different starter areas – Stros M’Kai, Khenarthi’s Roost and Bleakrock, all of which are islands.

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In each case the game rather cleverly ensures that players must first complete a starter quest to get off the island and progress to the mainland, where they will have much more freedom of movement. Though there are options to cut this process short and clear out early, most new players should benefit from the training, levelling and loot. Each of the islands is relatively large and offers a variety of quest options for fresh characters to cut their teeth. Perhaps inevitably, there are some naff moments, yet it all moves along at a pleasant clip and many of the interactions are surprisingly good fun. New players are bound to experience that mix of curiosity and frustration that comes from not knowing the lie of the land. It is nigh impossible to know from the start what to keep and what to discard, what the numbers really signify and which class options will prove wisest in the long-run, but such is the case for noobs in any game.

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One thing I do really like about this game is the music. It is subtle and un-intrusive, adding huge amounts of new material to rehashes of previous Elder Scrolls scores, without pandering to the loud, brash battle brass, combat percussion and heavy-handed strings of some fantasy soundtracks, nor the overly saccharine and jaunty medievalism which too often prevails. Indeed, so pleasingly subtle and atmospheric was the ESO soundtrack, that at times I forgot that I hadn’t done what I used to do playing Dungeons and Dragons Online and put on Brian Eno.

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On the subject of sound, did I mention that every single line of dialogue from NPCs is voiced? It is a fine example of the level of detail ESO, at its best, has to offer.  The fact that many of the voices are familiar – clearly some of the same voice artists have been used who worked on Oblivion and Skyrim – links this game more closely with its single-player foundations. It is wonderfully familiar in places, whilst being excitingly new and different. One of the NPCs encountered in the starter area of Coldharbour, an elderly chap with a saucepan on his head called Cadwell, has been voiced by John Cleese.

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I’m unaware of any other famous actors participating – no evidence that Patrick Stewart is back for this one – but either way, the quality of the voice work is solid throughout. The dialogue, it is not badly written, if one accepts how genred this type of natter must necessarily be. There are a number of entertaining characters with recurring appearances in the opening stages, who help to guide the player through the early quests in what amounts to a continuation of the rather light-touch tutorial.

Jakarn, the loveable rogue...

The Prophet

Females and males are drawn equally well, and whilst archetypes abound, they often buck the trend. One thing I’ve always admired about Elder Scrolls games is the level of gender equality and liberal attitudes in their worlds – there are equal numbers of powerful, clever and successful women, sexism and racism are frowned upon and only occur in villainous types, and gender does not restrict the roles characters play.

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You are just as likely to be led into battle by a female sergeant as a male. The Elder Scrolls games have always flirted with adult pretensions and ESO doesn’t shy from occasional innuendo and suggestion.

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Graphically, bearing in mind that this is an MMO, which usually sacrifice texture and model detail to the need for high frame rates, ESO looks impressive. On the Elder Scrolls scale of visual excellence, it lies somewhere between vanilla Oblivion and Skyrim. Yet, perhaps it’s the light or palette, or the styling of the characters and objects, but it is a step down from the immersive realism of Skyrim. The environment does not feel as tactile or gritty, the winds don’t blow so cold, nor does it rain so hard, yet ESO presents some wonderful vistas and atmospheres.

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Your jaw might not drop, but now and then your heart will fill with that curious yearning to truly be in this world – to watch the sun set through the rainy forest, or stroll on the beach, staring across the glittering sand to the distant horizon. It has genuine atmosphere, and is pleasing enough on the eye. There are also attractive, water-colour style transition screens when entering new areas or important quest locations.

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Movement in the game flows very well and seems smooth at the best of times, though the over-pitched running style of the characters means that, in motion, they all seem to be mimicking running, as a mime might do whilst standing still, rather than actually running. I was disappointed by how this looks, especially after Skyrim did such an excellent job of implementing sprinting with such a visceral, tactile feel to it, even if it could make female characters run in a rather masculine style.

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Frame rates during play were always extremely high, even with the graphics maxed and a huge number of players and enemies present in an instance. Though I didn’t measure frame-rates, I never once had stuttering or lag and everything flowed with a most satisfying fluidity. This may well be due to having recently built a new top-shelf rig to cope with Rome Total War 2, but either way, it bodes well for performance on servers that will no doubt be packed. Despite occasional crashes of either the interface or the game itself, log in times were certainly far superior on this second Beta than the last, during which I had to queue to get on the server. Hopefully the game will continue to run with such smoothness.

There’s much more that could be said here about crafting, guilds, travel and questing, but it would be too exhausting to go into such detail, so I’ll say just a few words. One can of course collect reagents and raw materials for make potions, weapons and armour, though from my efforts so far, it appears to be a long and potentially painful road to skilling up sufficiently to make truly powerful items.

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Mounts are available to purchase, though these will remain out of the price range of all new players, unless financed by an alt or given a hand-out. Fast travel can be used in game at an initially not insignificant cost, though this can only transport the player between way-shrines, which act as teleport points.

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As mentioned above, players can join game-world guilds such as the mages’ and fighters’ guilds which open up new skill lines for players to invest their points in, and I believe it is possible to belong to five at any given time. It is, of course, possible to players to join player-founded guilds and these have already begun to spring up in ESO.

No doubt like all MMOs, much activity in this game will eventually revolve around the auction house. This was not up and running as yet, to my knowledge, and it will no doubt take some time before market forces combine with game mechanics to set a price on things. Once the economy gets off the ground, I’m sure it will create a whole new range of objectives for players to pursue. There’s nothing like getting rich quick in an MMO once you know how to farm a rare and valuable reagent, for example.

As the wiki points out, the Elder Scrolls Online is set “roughly 1,000 years before the events in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the coming of the Dragonborn, and just before the rise of Tiber Septim, the first Emperor of Tamriel. Three Alliances have emerged across the continent, each struggling for supremacy over the land. As these great powers battle one another for control of the ImperialCity – and with it all of Tamriel – darker forces are moving to destroy the world.”

Map of Tamriel

This provides the overarching narrative of the game, which drives the world’s dynamics. Rather like the factions in World of Warcraft, each has their own realms in which to operate, though in this case, the three factions surround the central province of Cyrodiil. To my understanding, Cyrodiil in effect acts as a central battleground. Not having been there, nor looked into it closely, I know little about it, but believe that the entire province is PvP, whereas the rest of the game is not, and that players can not only engage in personal battles, but large scale sieges and raids. I’ve never been much of a fan of PvP, largely because it is the cause of some of the worst trolling imaginable. As much as I love grouping and co-operating with teamwork, I prefer to do this in a PvE environment. Maybe that’s lame, and I do hope ESO might make PvP a more attractive proposition. Yet again, it’s a wait and see situation. Having experienced all too much stupidity in the public Zone Chat window, I’m not feeling especially hopeful about how this community will turn out. Still, it’s always possible to find good people, especially when so many are likely to participate in ESO.

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On that front, it did get rather frustrating seeing how petty and troll-like much of the chatter was. Indeed, the vast majority of conversations seemed endlessly to recycle the same tiresome whinge about the cost of the game and the subscription price. My advice to anyone new to the game is to learn, as soon as possible, how to switch off the Zone chat so you don’t need to listen to a bunch of peasants complaining about spending all of, wait for it, fifteen dollars a month. It’s less than a movie ticket, less than an hour’s pay in a crap job, less than lunch – once a month – and yet this was all people seemed capable of talking about as though they were being asked to mortgage their future. Of course, with an MMO, you do mortgage your future, but its time not money on the line. Unfortunately, it distracted the conversation from far more important and relevant discussions such as the nature of the interface, the problems caused by having open instances and the like.

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The open instances of the game are, I think, its major design flaw. Most of the quests take place in public instances – there is no division between what the player is pursuing and what other players are pursuing, even if they are not grouped. This hugely spoils the pleasure of the game as one can never be free of other players trying to achieve the same goals. In almost all of the quests I ran in the early stages, I would, for example, enter the hold of a ship just as some other, unconnected players killed the very enemies I had come to destroy. Because I was in the same space at the same time, I would get quest completion, merely for turning up. There was no chance to use stealth, face any sort of challenge, or just enjoy the idea that I had been entrusted with this quest and was the one who had to carry it through. This would be less of a problem in an empty server, but it should not be such a problem on a busy one. In one quest, there were almost twenty other players in the same room, doing the same quest – I didn’t even have a single fight – everything was killed before I could even get to it. Where, I ask, is the fun in that?

Very busy indeed

Yet this is not merely a problem from an immersion / enjoyment point of view. In some cases, if I missed the moment when other players killed enemies who were necessary for completion, I had to stand around waiting for them to respawn, something which, though it may have been bugged, seemed to take forever. It also causes what I consider to be a serious imbalance in the opening scenes on Coldharbour – and a major source of irritation elsewhere. If other players have already looted the contents of containers – crates, sacks etc, then there is nothing there for anyone else who enters the instance. As a consequence of this, it is possible to come out of Coldharbour with the two extremes of an almost completely full inventory, brimming with armour and weapon crafting styles and recipes, reagents, potions, some extra gold etc – or absolutely nothing at all except the rags on your back and the crappy weapons pulled from the starter rack.

Somebody say "inventory?"

Players who bother to stop and search the utterly ludicrous (and this is not mere hyberbole) number of containers, should be rewarded for this, not find them all previously looted and entirely empty. On one character I acquired a range of recipes and crafting knowledge that my other players did not get – because all the crates were looted – and have not found since.

I really don’t see the point of making these areas public, or at least, quite so public. If the player enters a cave, mine, dungeon, building, ship, tomb or whatever, why not just lock that instance off to other players who are not grouped with the protagonist? This works perfectly well in Dungeons & Dragons Online, ensuring that the player or group and only those people are involved in completing that particular quest in their own private instance.

Not grouped, but still in it together

It seems rather stupid when you sneak into a building, excited about the chance of using some clever combat tactics, when another couple of players rush past you swinging swords and start killing the very people you were about to surprise. There’s little point emphasising the story and role-play elements, if you then completely trash the way that story plays out. The game loses all its immersion and gravitas and really, how many times can I say this, it is no fun at all when there is nothing to do and a quest completion is achieved without even a single fight or challenge. The one positive in all this is that sometimes when a boss is too difficult a fight, one can casually wait for another individual or group to show up, and then fight with these instant allies – without having to group at all.

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Despite these issues, some of which I think might ultimately annoy me greatly, I still found the game to be utterly compelling. It was fun to explore the world, the questing was enjoyable, surprising and amusing and the look and scope of the game promise hours of discovery.

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Combat was fun, if potentially repetitive, and whilst I only grouped in a relatively limited capacity and spent most of the time soloing, I did get the sense that this would be a cracking game to explore with other likeminded players. There are definitely issues that need to be ironed out, and quite a number of quests are chain-breakingly bugged – bugs which in some cases persisted from the previous beta. I’m sure these will be ironed out, though as stated above, it is more the fundamental mechanics of the game that concern me. Something tells me that despite all the whinging about cost, some of which is fair comment, but most of which seems like mean-spirited bitterness, this game is going to be a huge success. Whether it can rise to rival the global scale of World of Warcraft remains to be seen, but it certainly seems a worthy rival and I doubt ESO will tank in quite the same way that Conan did.

MMOs are perhaps best judged a year or two into their existence, as most worlds take a while to mature and iron out internal issues such as balance.

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With relatively limited experience of it so far, it’s difficult to predict what issues might hamper ESO or deter players, but I’m sure some will arise in due course. The game’s stamina will depend upon its ability to fix any problems that arise, and I’d like to think they’ll ultimately get it right. If it is still buggy on release, or you feel a little under-whelmed by the opening sequences, stick with it. There is plenty of fun to be had and I believe this will prove an eventual winner.

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