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Archive for April, 2015

Skyrim Revisited

Bethanie in Markarth

Bethanie outside Markarth

On the day of its release – the 11th of November 2011, I went straight out and bought a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Few game releases have gotten me so excited, and they certainly hadn’t for a while. The sense of anticipation with Skyrim was palpable across the net and it was also widely advertised off the net. In a sign of how computer games are increasingly coming to dominate the entertainment industry, there were even advertisements on buses and stencils spray-painted on pavements around town. Fortunately, the game more than lived up to the high expectations.

Skryim Cometh, King St, Newtown

Skryim Cometh, King St, Newtown

I plunged into Skyrim with all the enthusiasm I could muster, and it was not misplaced. As I made clear in the review I wrote at the time, this is a very special game that offers hundreds if not thousands of hours of totally immersive enjoyment. As with all previous Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim’s key strength is the size of the world created and the complexity and skill with which it has been done. Few games ever give a player so much freedom to customise their character and direct their own playing experience. I quote again a passage from a review in PC Gamer UK, which makes this point so well:

“The games we normally call open worlds – the locked off cities and level-restricted grinding grounds – don’t compare to this. While everyone else is faffing around with how to control and restrict the player, Bethesda just put a fucking country in a box. It’s the best open world game I’ve ever played, the most liberating RPG I’ve ever played, and one of my favourite places in this or any other world.”

The Elder Scrolls games have always offered a welcome alternative to the more common RPG experience of being railroaded through a core storyline with a limited number of cookie-cutter sidequests . Even with the games that have come from Bioware’s incredible stable, there has been relatively little freedom to shun the main quest and explore the world freely. Baldur’s Gate I set an early precedent for this, but few games have followed up as successfully and impressively.

Go where you please, the choice is yours

Go where you please, the choice is yours

In Skyrim, as with Oblivion and Morrowind, it is easy enough to forget that there even is a main quest. After the initial introduction, it remains entirely up to the player whether or not they wish to engage with this storyline. It’s simply a matter of ignoring the quest and going wherever one pleases in this seamless, open world. There are hundreds of other, often extremely detailed, long and complex quest lines to engage with, some of which can span many locations and characters. One could even play the game without engaging in any questing at all. It is possible to spend all of one’s time hunting, crafting, exploring, fighting bandits and looting old forts and ruins. Skyrim allows you to role-play very freely, and, in a sense, to set your own limitations, goals and conventions for your character. Not only does this make for a very satisfying experience initially, it also hugely increases the replayability of the game.

Clive Morrowind in Windhelm

Clive Morrowind in Windhelm. Main quest? What main quest?

I don’t wish to go into too much detail about Skyrim here, having done so elsewhere, suffice to say that after an initial period of hardcore indulgence, I stepped away from Skyrim and took a long break. Skyrim wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry and I wanted to give the community time to come up with the inevitable thousands of mods to improve textures, models, interface, game-play etc, or just to add extra detail to the world. Sure enough, as any quick look at the Skyrim Nexus website will prove, there are thousands of amazing mods out there to download.

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Hey ladies, come in, the water’s lovely

The range of mods is truly mindboggling: ones that alter the entire look of the game, introduce richly drawn quest lines and characters, add or significantly modify entire towns and regions, and the more purely whimsical – some of which are so outlandish, brilliant and, indeed obscure, that any attempt to provide examples is doomed to inadequacy. Great coverage of these can be found on MMOxReview, whose many Skyrim Mods videos review and highlight some of the best and most peculiar. The variety of mods caters for the variety of players – from sexing-up the game to increasing depth and immersion, from greater realism to the more fantastical, from those rooted firmly in lore to those which indulge in amusing postmodern intertextuality and pastiche. The process is made extremely easy now with the Nexus Mod Manager, which manages the downloading and installation of the mods and provides an easy interface through which to keep track of the changes and updates to the many mods one can layer on top of the vanilla.

Bethanie and temple interior

Bethanie and temple interior

I’ve always been a fan of high fantasy and the epic beauty conjured in books of the genre – Lord of the Rings being the most obvious example. It is the paradigm on which most modern fantasy has been constructed and Skyrim’s foundations just as surely rest there, as they do on the shoulders of Dungeons & Dragons, to which every modern role-playing game owes an incalculable debt. Visually, Skyrim continually conjures scenes of astonishing beauty and potent atmosphere and it is the beauty of the game and its immersive qualities that kept me going back. Few games inspire players to walk long distances across a vast world when there is a fast-travel option available, yet in Skyrim, I would frequently forego fast-travel and an entire play session might revolve around travelling from once place to the next, rather than just teleporting there to do the quest.

It is so beautiful to watch and listen to the environment and slow-travel is frequently rewarded with interesting random encounters, survival situations, hunting opportunities and the beauty of watching the day’s cycle moving from light to night. It can feel wholly rewarding just to find a nice, sheltered place to pitch a tent, build a fire and settle in for the evening.

Magical Tent, cast it where you like!

Magical Tent, cast it where you like!

I especially enjoyed the official Hearthfire expansion, which introduced the purchasing of land and the ability to construct a house on these plots. There could have been a wider variety of options so far as construction style was concerned, yet it was still satisfying to go through the stages. No doubt more options are now possible courtesy of the modding community, though I haven’t looked. This expansion also allowed one to adopt children, which provided a nice chance to help some of the poor orphans in the towns and villages of Skyrim. Another beautiful example of just how many different ways there are in which to play this game.

Lusetta Sorrowdusk marking out the foundations

Lusetta Sorrowdusk marking out the foundations

Adopted Daughter in her new bed

Adopted Daughter in her new bed

Having said that, I’m no longer playing Skyrim – having seen and done enough on various characters. I do, however, occasionally fire it up and go for a walk through the beautiful environments. I still feel nostalgic about Skyrim, as I do about Oblivion, and miss the sound of the wind whistling across the snow, the beautiful landscapes, the lulling, transportive soundtrack and, of course, the exciting and visceral action of the game. I certainly miss the sense of wow and wonder that struck me at times upon discovering new areas or being surprised by an element of plot. Sometimes it was the simplest things in the game which provided the greatest joy – like casting Magelight – a spell which sends a brightly glowing magic ball towards wherever one aimed it. As it flies over the terrain, down passages and tunnels or across vast caverns, it lights everything it passes and, upon coming into contact with something, be it a wall, tree, gate, or even a living creature, sticks fast and continues to pour out light. This was a beautiful way to see what lay ahead in the dark, or to provide a light source in the many dim places in the game. It never once lost its appeal throughout the many castings.

Distant Magelight illuminates the dark docks of Morthal

Distant Magelight illuminates the dark docks of Morthal

The following collection of screenshots is just a taste of the game’s variety and hardly representative of the crazy, diversity of mods such as Tropical Skyrim, which speaks for itself. When modding, I was mostly interested in improving the quality of textures rather than changing things completely, and so my Skyrim, for the most part, retains its classic appearance. Not all the textures have been upgraded to the highest standard to avoid reducing frame-rates – a seamlessly flowing game is not only far nicer, it has the added advantage of not inducing nausea. My principle focus therefore was on upgrading characters, clothing and equipment, along with clutter and vegetation.

Better looking clutter

Better looking clutter

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Better looking floorboards

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Better looking stonework

Without a doubt the most outstanding mod I came across was Vilja in Skyrim. This mod is a remarkable piece of work – a companion character with over 9000 lines of subtly voiced dialogue. Vilja not only engages in conversation, but responds to innumerable locations and encounters, offering her opinions on people, places and quests the player comes across. Not only are there a great volume of dialogue and interactions, but they are cleverly written, droll, amusing and touching.

Vilja – had a buggy habit of switching to her nightdress

Vilja in the background, waiting and watching

Vilja in the background, waiting and watching

An equally impressive mod is Interesting NPCs which adds more than 250 fully-voiced characters to the game. Some of these have quests, can be romanced, and can join the player as companions. Again, the quality and intelligence of the voice-work and characterisation is outstanding, adding many hours of interesting, entertaining and intriguing conversations. This particularly enlivens visits to taverns, to almost all of which (possibly all, I didn’t check) new characters have been added.

I am, of course, like the next man, a fan of sexy characters – be they male or female – which has become a requisite staple of the fantasy genre. Many of the mods revolve around enhancing the female and male body, often to rather ludicrous proportions, along with providing all manner of sexy clothing and armour. However one feels about the message underlying all this, the work is, in some cases, incredibly impressive. The Sweet and Sexy Lingerie Shop which can be added to the city of Solitude is a true masterpiece.

Perhaps black stockings are more appropriate...

Perhaps black stockings are more appropriate…

The costumes are highly detailed and, as a space, the shop itself is very cleverly designed. It was hard to resist indulging in some titillation whilst playing. My fantasy gaming motto has always been look good (or, at least, striking) and play gritty, and that certainly describes the story arc of those who appear below. After all, it is fantasy. The skill and detail of the costumes designed by modders across the board, sexy or otherwise, is astonishing and well worth a look. At present there are no less than 1027 clothing mods.

Japanese Onsen and matching garments

Japanese Onsen and matching garments

As I cautioned in my original review, these shots are all static, which rather diminishes their immersive capacity and allows one to see through some of the virtual illusions. The leaf textures, for example, often look alarmingly jagged in stills, an aspect that is disguised by their subtle motion during play. I spend a lot of time lining up and taking screenshots in games and see it as an extension of my travel photography. In essence, these are not merely captures from a game I played – these are photographs from a fantastical world in which I had the pleasure of spending many delightful hours. Skyrim will forever remain in my heart as one of my favourite holiday destinations.

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4665 Indian beach scene

Palolem Beach, Goa, India, January 9, 2013

Despite having roughly 7500km of coastline, I never much associated India with the beach. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of the sheer richness of India’s landscape, cultural and architectural heritage, which, with the exception of the much vaunted Kerala backwaters, dominates the images of India seen in tourist advertisements. When it comes to considering what is distinctly representative of India, it is sights such as the Taj Mahal, the forts of Rajasthan, the ghats of Varanasi, the desert, jungle and mountains that get more of a look in. Even after my first trip to India, during which I stayed entirely inland across the north and in the foothills of the Himalayas, I didn’t give much consideration to the coast and beaches of India at all.

It was, therefore, a real eye-opener to begin my second visit on the west coast of the south, at Varkala, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Apart from the prevalence of various ritual practises – offerings made to the sea and small shrines or idols present in some places on the sand – Indians seem to enjoy the beach in much the same way as most people – only, they tend to do so in considerably more clothing. This was not universally the case, however, and the men more often than not cover little more than their privates. It’s worth mentioning that across India I was often surprised by the apparent acceptance of nudity. In various places I saw women bathing in their undergarments alongside men, not so much at the beach, but certainly in the Ganges. Without any sophisticated knowledge of the context, I had rather assumed attitudes might be more conservative, and it is still possible that these were exceptions, or perhaps what is acceptable is very much differentiated by social status.

This photo was taken on Palolem beach in Goa. We had never really intended to go to Goa, fearing it would be an over-touristed disappointment, yet we came across enough strong assertions of the beauty of the place and the fascinating legacy of Portuguese colonialism to decide it was worth a look. I like this photo not merely because of the dynamic and graceful posture of the cricketer, but also for what it represents – a culture so recognisably similar to that of my own country, where we too play cricket on the beach. It serves as a healthy reminder that we should focus more on what we have in common with other people, rather than our differences.

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8236 Supersymmetry

There are many words in the English language which seem like they ought to have an opposite form, but do not. At least not in common usage. Rather like the predictions of the theory of supersymmetry, which posits that each particle in the Standard Model has a partner particle, so we might conjure the missing partner words for those in our Standard Dictionary. Why, for instance, can we be disgruntled, yet never have the chance to be gruntled? Why can we postpone a meeting, but not prepone it for our convenience? Why can we can feel disappointed about something, yet we aren’t allowed to feel appointed when fortune shines? This alarming asymmetry in the English language needs immediate correction and, without further ado, I should like to offer up some linguistic opportunities which have so far gone begging, and present some sample passages displaying their possible usage.

The English language, of course, is a collaborative exercise and I must extend my thanks to those friends who contributed further suggestions on Facebook and elsewhere.

 

Appointed (adj) – Feeling pleased about an outcome.

“I felt most appointed when I heard the good news.”

 

Clare (v.) –  To hold back information.

“I’m not saying a word. I have everything to clare.”

 

Combobulate (v.) – to confidently clarify an otherwise confusing situation.

“His answer was most satisfying, positively combobulating.”

 

Concert (v.) – To settle or improve composure.

“His reassuring expression was most concerting, and I entered the meeting with great confidence.”

 

Dain (v. n.) – to show high regard; an expression or feeling of high regard.

“He greeted the lord with a great show of respect; exhibiting a somewhat over-formal air of dain.”

 

Downset (adj.) –  Feeling happy, above expectation; pleased.

“Yes, at first I was unhappy, but when I realised the truth I was pretty downset.”

 

Dulating – to have a flat form or outline.

“The Nullarbor Plain is a dulating landscape, flat as a tack.”

 

Gruntled – satisfied, pleased.

“After dinner I felt completely content, most gruntled indeed.”

 

Gurgitate – to swallow

“Doctors recommend chewing thoroughly before gurgitating.”

 

Gust (v, n) – to cause someone to feel attraction or approval. A feeling of strong approval.

“The smell coming from the kitchen was gorgeous; a wonderful, gusting aroma of cumin and turmeric.” “Her look of gust upon seeing how clean the bathroom was, was heart-warming.”

 

Mantle (v.)  – to put together.

“I bought a new cupboard from Ikea, and now have to mantle it.”

 

Member – (v.) To replace the detached limbs of something / someone. To bring separate parts together.

“In 1871 the various Germanic states were membered into a single entity.”

 

Posable (adj.) – Not intended to be thrown away after use. Long-lasting, durable.

“The market in posable water bottles has flourished in recent years.”

 

Prepone (v.) – cause or arrange for something to take place at an earlier time than scheduled.

“The 1530 meeting has been pre-poned to 1300. Lunch will be provided.”

 

Prosequences (n, pl.) – the positive effects or results of an action.

“There are many significant prosequences from early intervention.”

 

Rupt – (v.) To bring into a state of order and array.

“Amidst the chaos, John managed to rupt most of the guests and get the game underway.”

 

Shevelled (adj.) – Tidy, ordered, neat.

“You scrub up well – you look very shevelled indeed.”

 

Sipate (v.) – Appear or cause to appear.

“It was as though he sipated out of thin air. One minute the room was empty, then, before I could say Jove, Pandarr Zen’Awri was standing before me!”

 

Tant (adj.) – Nearby, close.

“It’s very tant, in fact, just around the corner.”

 

Tort (v.) – Pull or twist into shape. Give a true account of…

“With careful hammering, the front fender was torted back into shape.”

 

Turbing (adj.) – removing anxiety, reassuring.

“The good news was very turbing and I was finally able to sleep that night.”

 

There are, of course, countless other words with a form that hints at an opposite partner, but it would be far too exhaustive to attempt to detail them here. This contrariness might also extend into common expressions and exclamations where opposite meanings have the potential to be at the very least mildly amusing, and, at worst, utterly baffling. Take the expression “a pain in the arse.” Could we not describe someone as a real “Joy in the arse”? It’s all very well to say “Up yours!” and though “Down yours!” might seem counterintuitive, it is strangely absent from our language. “Fuck me dead!” is often used to show surprise or incredulity, and it can used both positively and negatively, yet surely its super-partner “Fuck me alive” could do with the occasional airing. Finally, there are many colourful colloquialisms the world over which could be even more colourful and confusing for foreign tourists were they to be inverted. The Australian expression “Don’t come the raw prawn with me,” which, in effect, means “don’t try to swindle me,” could be even more baffling were it mirrored with “You’re welcome to come the cooked prawn with me.” The rest I shall leave to your own devices and imagination, which I’m sure is sufficiently ripe to entertain thousands more such examples.

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First Autumn

My favourite season has arrived in Sydney – Autumn. It begins in the balmy, residual humidity of sticky February and finishes in the dry cool of a winter prequel. Without haze the horizon flattens and sharpens into focus; the sky lifts towards the stratosphere and the shade regains a measure of chill. The sun, for the most part, shines and yet, as longer days shorten, the air acquires the nostalgic foreboding of the onset of loss.

This is my son’s first autumn. At four and a half months old he can’t yet feel those weighty emotions we associate with the shift – it is but a question of warm or cool, blanket or no blanket, hats and socks and jumpsuits. He may be excused for being unsure as to the time of year considering we still go to the beach several days a week. With the ocean at 22C, it’s hard to resist.

9167 Surfers

9582 Window wet

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9503 Mural, off Cleveland street

9516 Bubbles 4

9379 Colgate ocean

9176 Great childhood

9343 Stormy swell 2

9635 Succulents

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