Bad News and Good News

blod1

This morning was a network and systems service day – that is to say that it was one of the odd days that crop up around four or five times a year when something is happening that either requires that one or more of the components of our network needs to be serviced or adjusted, or we are preparing to add a new device. This time around it was a combination of those two.

The first issue that was being addressed was an increase to the backbone for our network that was made necessary by complaints from the peanut gallery about the network speed when more than two users on the network are watching video via one of the video streaming services that we use.

Five years ago, when we realized just how little we actually utilized our Cable TV connection for the purposes of entertainment – and after a brief examination of the matter we also realized that more than 75% of the combined viewing in our house was via the streaming services of Netflix and Hulu!

One result of this was our cutting the Cable cord literally speaking – which saved us around $100 a month. Another result was the sudden and overpowering need to upgrade our physical network (only an idiot would try to stream TV via a wireless connection after all) which at the time was an ancient pair of 100bT 3Com partially-managed Ethernet Switches.

The way that our network is structured – due to it having two very distinct “zones” is simple: In the basement room that we have called the NOC (Network Operations Center) since the day we bought the place (it also doubles as my business office and library) there is a pair of system racks – a Standard black 19” Commercial Systems and Server Rack bolted to the floor along one wall, and a standard 19” Post-Style Relay Rack that is also bolted to the floor along the wall.

The former houses the various servers without which our network would be useless – including a very robust (and noisy) Dell PowerEdge Model 2950 II Server that also functions as a Virtual Server and provides the virtual presence of a variety of servers,from Primary DNS, Email, and a Wiki Server as well as a Log Server for the entire network.

It contains other servers as well – our Media Server on which music, movies, and TV show recordings are stored and a file server on which photos and files are stored. There is a dedicated backup server and a test-bed that I use for writing web applets and apps too.

The latter contains the network hardware – the Ethernet Switch, Firewall device, Router, and the DSL2 Modem that connects us to the world primarily.

At the other end is the upstairs office that contains my working hardware that I use as a writer – the bulk of which consists of video game consoles housed in a rather nice Ikea TV and Entertainment Center, while the computer bits reside in a standard black 19” Commercial Systems and Server Rack that is tucked away in the corner.

The two zones were connected by a single “backbone” Cat5e Ethernet Cable that theoretically provided all the speed we needed, right? Well no, not so much really. Because even though the switch could maintain 100MB connections between any systems that were on the switch at that end, those systems had to share a single 100MB connection to the other switch – which if you were at the wrong end of that zoned backbone happened to be our Internet Connection and you probably get the picture.

So these complaints about network speed had to be answered – and so the old 100bT backbone and switched were removed from the network completely, being replaced by a matched set of GS724T Netgear Gigabyte Ethernet Switches.

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Those two switches were connected via a pair of Cat6 Ethernet Cables that were then joined as a “Trunk” to create a 2GB Backbone. And that worked great for quite a while and at least until in addition to using the network for TV viewing via streaming services, my daughter was bitten by the MMORPG bug, and THAT was when speed complaints cropped up again – and why this service say appeared on my schedule in April of 2016.

The solution was simple – add a third cable between the two switches right beside the original pair, connect them and then add the third port to the Trunk, effectively giving us a 3GB backbone connection. And that did the trick!

I decided that a test was in order so, what with my PS4 having not been used in something like six months due to all of the review copies I had been getting arriving on either Xbox One, PS3, and Xbox 360, turning on the PS4 so it could patch and update made a lot of sense. Sigh.

The Blue Line of Death – or “BLOD”

The practically unused almost new but now out-of-warranty PlayStation 4 was fired up, and the following happened:

  • Its power indicator pulsing blue.
  • No video/audio output happened.
  • The PS4 then powered off after the annoying pulsing blue light pulsed a bit.

Consulting Google I learned that this was a general fault code; it would be nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what had gone wrong.

A quick log-in to Sony revealed that my PS4 was now 2 months out of warranty — that is to say the date had come and gone two months past at which I could have requested and received an RMA and gotten it fixed on Sony’s dime.

The price they quoted me – not including shipping – for the repair? $255 US.

That’s $255 US for a console I can purchase brand new for around $380 – so what to do? Pay for the repairs to my old console, or buy a brand new console for $125 more? The new console would have a longer warranty – and if I went the new route I was not locked into the bog standard black PS4 either – I could get a white one, or a limited edition version – the sky was the limit!

The thing is I absolutely required a PS4 as one of my upcoming projects requires me to have a working PS4 – so either way I needed to act on this now so that I could have a fully functioning, patched and updated PS4 ready to go on the morning of 10 May, when that project kicked off.

Interestingly enough I had recently experienced a similar issue with my Xbox One – and had opted in that case to purchase the Forza 6 Limited Edition Console because (a) it was on sale at the time, and (b) I liked the way it looked. If I was going to replace a console I might as well – I told myself – get something kick-ass!

You know that little voice in the back of your head that is supposed to help you in making decisions and in not embarrassing yourself? Yeah well, mine is broken.

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Hello Limited Edition Star Wars Battlefront PlayStation4!

Oh and, while we are on the subject – when I logged into my Xbox One this morning and booted up Forza 6 to do a few laps I discovered that my custom Tunes and Livery Designs had both attained $50K in Community Use! Woot! So yeah, two Achievements worth 40g in total unlocked that I was so not expecting to happen! And how cool is that?

So far this week in terms of Achievements I am having a great week!

  • Forza 6 = 2 Achievements worth 40g
  • Hitman 2016 = 4 Achievements worth 40g
  • Tom Clancy’s The Division = 4 Achievements worth 30g

That’s a cool 110g in Achievementsville and how sweet is that?

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Spring Cleaning

necroache

For most people spring represents a time of renewal. A period of the year that is suited to resolving outstanding issues, sorting out the old and unwanted. Making a new nest in which to, well, nest. They call it Spring Cleaning. Practically everyone does it.

It may well be a sign of renewal as the average person perceives themselves emerging from the winter grayness and perceives the bright light of sunshine, life-granting rain for the flowers they just know will suddenly burst out of the ground, and the promise of if not warm and pleasant days at the beach, at least a renewal of all of the things that seem to make life in the summer fun.

For gamers though, that does not quite describe their annual position as properly or accurately as you might think. You see for gamers – and especially serious gamers – spring is simply the marker for the approached END of the game season – not a renewal.

The renewal period – Gamer Spring if you will – doesn’t arrive until September, which is traditionally the start of the new gamer season which runs from September to May.

The months of June, July, and August are simply the fallow period between game seasons.

When Microsoft set out to create the new LIVE experience for the then new version of its games console – the Xbox One – a major element in that effort was to bring together in a more cohesive manner the basic presence of a set of resources that, arguably, Microsoft could claim to have pretty much invented.

I am, of course, writing about the Achievements System and how spectacularly it succeeded in creating a niche that – at the time of its conception – Microsoft had no idea it could fill.

Even Microsoft willingly admits that its Xbox LIVE Achievements system was created more accidentally than on purpose.

In fact it very nearly did not get created, as there were elements in the power structure of the planning committee who both didn’t grok the point of recognizing Achievements in games and, ironically, could not see how that sort of thing might appeal in any way to the gamers who were ostensibly the customer.

Hindsight being 20/20 it is easy to see now how the Xbox LIVE Achievements system and the manner in which it feeds into the whole rewards and recognition concept – and how it essentially provides to gamers on the Xbox platform a means by which their prowess and success – even their own notions of their value as a gamer – might be measured.

We’ve covered that part of the story quite well in the past – no need to go there now.

In fact the reason for bringing the subject up again is mostly due to an odd pattern that has emerged that has to do with a rather twisted version of spring cleaning.

The Achievement and the To Do List

Any gamer who has been even a little involved in online chat boards that service the gamer community has encountered the whole Achievement Hunter subculture in gaming.

These are gamers who quite literally believe that every “G” matters – a “G” being a Gamer Point.

It is entirely normal to find that members of that subculture display their accomplishments in terms of Gamer Score and Game Completion Status as a badge of honor. The signature line for their accounts on games chat boards and, for all we know, on their email client, carefully lists every game that they have managed to fully unlock the Achievements in.

They call it one-hundred-percenting and list the games under that heading. They often brag about the effort that went into acquiring that distinction – especially when it is for a game that had difficult Achievements – often nearly impossible to unlock unless a gamer is willing to literally train up their skills to do it.

To these gamers there are no Achievements that are simply not worth the effort. But that is not what this post is about.

game on

Left-Overs

This post is about the odd left-over Achievements that seem to linger in games that, by all rights, should have been unlocked ages ago.

These are not difficult to unlock Achievements mind you – they just never… Somehow… Ended up being unlocked.

If you examine the typical gamer’s Achievements you will find these – often a lot of them actually. I am just as guilty as most gamers in making lists of left-overs and devoting at least some time to completing them too.

Just the other day I found myself reviewing the whole left-overs situation for my own Achievements List on Xbox One, and without even actively seeking to, formed a plan to address the left-overs and get them out of the way and unlocked in less than 20 minutes a day! And yes, I do worry that I suffer from some form of OCD.

Before I knew it, I had assessed the situation and created my list of left-overs to be consumed – of which the sampling below is just that – a sample:

  • Angry Birds Star Wars – Block Buster (15g) Smash 25 blocks with a single flight of Boba.
  • Angry Birds Star Wars – Probe Gatherer (15g) Find five Droid Levels.
  • Assassins Creed IV – Devil of the Caribbean (40g) Defeat all 4 Legendary Ships.
  • Assassins Creed IV – Sharing is Caring (10g) Share each type of discovery with friends once.
  • Dead Island – Death Incarnate (50g) Survive Wage 30.
  • Dead Island – There and back again (30g) Explore the entire island.
  • Fallout 4 – Benevolent Leader – 20g) Reach Max Happiness in a Large Settlement.
  • Fallout 4 – Docile (15g) Have 5 Tamed Creatures in a Settlement.
  • Far Cry Primal – Gotcha (10g) Eliminate 10 enemies using hunting traps.
  • Far Cry Primal – Inflammable (10g) Eliminate 50 enemies with fire.
  • Forza 5 – P1 vs Nordschleife (20g) Finish P1 vs Nordschleife Rivals event w. lap time of 7:15.
  • Forza 5 – Sidewinder (20g) Earn 20 Perfect Drift Scores.
  • Forza 6 – Cashing In (20g) Earn 50K cr from the community using your Design.
  • Forza 6 – Making a Name (20g) Earn 50K cr from the community using your Tune.
  • Forza Horizon – Covered in Mud and Glory (20g) Win a Horizon Rally.
  • Forza Horizon – Stuntman (25g) Complete every Horizon Outpost PR Stunt.
  • Forza Horizon 2 – Horizon Enthusiast (25g) Complete 100 Championships.
  • Forza Horizon 2 – Well Traveled (30g) Complete 25 Online Road Trips.
  • Halo 5 – Gravelord (40g) Find and claim all Skulls.
  • Halo 5 – Warlord (20g) Win a match on all three original Warzone maps.
  • Halo MCC – Big Time Gamer (10g) Complete 400 missions or multiplayer games.
  • Halo MCC – Oh, These Baubles? (10g) Collect 6,000 campaign or playlist medals.
  • Halo Spartan Assault – Immune (100g) Finish co-op mission without becoming infected.
  • Halo Spartan Assault – Powered by MJOLNIR (20g) Use every ability in campaign at least once.
  • Just Cause 3 – Forgive me Father (10g) Take sanctuary in a monastery to clear Heat Level 5.
  • Just Cause 3 – Look at the Sly Fox (35g) Use barrel role to evade 10 missiles.
  • Mad Max – Maximum Air (10g) Be airborne in a vehicle for 4s and land w/o dying.
  • Mad Max – Up, Up and Away (10g) Fly the balloon at every Vantage Outpost.
  • Mafia II – Explorer (10g) Drive a total of 1000 miles in Jimmy’s Vendetta.
  • Mafia II – Massacre (20g) Kill 1000 enemies in Jimmy’s Vendetta.
  • Microsoft Bingo – Everyday Explorer (50g) Reach Level 30.
  • Microsoft Bingo – Mementos (40g) Complete three different collections.
  • Microsoft Solitaire – Blizzard of Bliss (30g) Win 100 Klondike Games.
  • Microsoft Solitaire – Web Surfing (30g) Win 100 Spider Games.
  • Minecraft – Overkill (30g) Deal nine hearts damage in a single hit.
  • Minecraft – Tie Dye Outfit (15g) Dye all 4 pieces of Leather Armor.
  • Sniper Elite 3 – Sniping with Friends (40g) Complete the campaign in co-op.
  • Sniper Elite 3 – The Everyman (20g) Complete all the challenge missions.
  • Thief – Legend in Leather (75g) Complete 25 optional Thieving Objectives.
  • Thief – Sleight of Hand (20g) Pick 100 Pockets in a single playthrough.

Now consider this – if you were a gamer who was very invested in your Gamer Score the sample above – which represents about a fifth of the left-overs I found in reviewing my Achievements – actually totals more than a FULL game!

The standard AAA title on the Xbox platform is required to have 1000g while games that are classified as “Arcade” titles only have to have 250g (I think – it used to be 200g). When I added up the g for the above I obtained a total of 1,040g.

Just to offer up a more complete set of stats I took a look at my games and Achievements list and discovered that I have played a total of 371 unique games over the course of my history on the Xbox platform beginning with the Xbox 360 (prior to that I was a fan of the PS2).

A quick check and I was surprised to learn that those 371 games have a total of 376,225g of which I had only unlocked 165,905 – less than half. Ouch. Of course that means I have plenty of opportunity in just the games on my list now, right? Right!

When I added up the rest of the list that I did not share above, it actually comes to 6,735g – which is more than 6 full games in basically, well, left-overs. But obviously based on the total sin the above paragraph there is more – way more – than 6 or 7 games worth of left-overs. Just saying.

What are your totals?

The Agony of Decision – Little Slices of Improvement in Boom Beach

Life is full of little victories that are wrapped in large clinging blankets of boredom.  Luckily there is a mad angry midget with hand grenades taped to their bracers who shows up when you are least expecting them and does what they can to make life (please select all that apply):

(a) Exciting
(b) Frieghtening
(c) Terrifying
(d) Cloudy
(e) Require the assistance of an attorney
(f) Launch angry fathers into the room
(g) Misundertood
(h) All of the Above
(i) None of the Above
(j) Some of the Above – Pick what Works Best??

As a part-time rational adult (the details behind THAT little matter are part of a whole other story so you will just have to take my word for it for now) I recognize that my professional accomplishments fall outside of the norm.  When my wife sets up play-dates with other adults and we be social certain things tend to happen.

One of those things that invariably happens when we meet new people – or more often when I meet people who are new to me but who my wife already knows – part of the polite conversation involves them asking me what I do for a living, and then telling me what they do – always in that order.

The thing is I suspect that they already know what I do for a living – I am a writer – so what they are really asking is not so much what I do for a living, but how what I do for a living works.

When the person asking the question is female, their eyes tend to glaze-over as soon as I mention video games – no matter how I mention them.  If I happen to be in a reviewing frame of mind, Glazed Eyes.  Walk-through Guides?  Glazed Eyes.  Feature Pieces?  Yeah, glazed eyes.

Interestingly enough that is also true if I am in Techno-Geek Mode and share the details of that – but it is NOT true when I am covering Fashion Week in Manhattan.  Odd that.

But I am totally upfront about the fact that I am a whore, and I write where the money is.  Totally up front.

The odd thing is that the fact that I know things about fashion and particularly period fashion and haute couture has just the opposite effect on them – suddenly they are very interested in what I have to say about what I do.  Weird.

By they way, haute couture does not mean what you think it does…  A lot of guys think it either means high fashion or expensive bits of cloth masquerading as clothing – what it really means is high sewing, and is a French phrase that carries a lot more meaning in two simple words than English speakers are used to encountering in their phrases.

Now for guys it is a different story completely.  Their reaction is almost always an are-struck question like “Wait, so you get PAID to sit around and PLAY GAMES?!” and “You get FREE GAMES?!”

Here is the thing – and I hate to burst their bubble, but no, I don’t get paid to sit around and play games all day – I get paid to WRITE about games.  That whole playing part?  It represents only a tiny fraction of what I do and… Why are your eyes glazing over?

Boom Beach Business

One  of the games that I got paid to play and then write about is called Boom Beach – and it’s from the same code wizards – an outfit called SuperCell – who brought us Clash of Clans and Battle Buddies.  It is a mobile game of the battle sort, with hints of city-building and resource management.  In fact its game play style and cross-genre complication can easily be held out as a metaphor for video games journalism…

Here is the thing – under ordinary circumstances I download a game/app, play the hell out of it, then write about it.  Following THAT process, I delete the game, and never think about it again.  Unless an expansion is launched, in which case I then re-download the game and its new expansion, and start that process all over again.

In the case of Boom Beach something went wrong.  I never quite made it to the delete the game stage, and what is worse, I still spend 10 minutes or so playing it every day.

This has actually happened before…  Do you remember the app/games Camp Pokemon, SSG2 and Storm Casters?  Yeah I still play those as well…

With Boom Beach at least part of the reason I still play it has to do with the very time-intensive process of how you make progress in it.  By building and placing defenses, then upgrading them. I am still doing that!  And I might add, making pretty good progress at it as well!

My goal is to get all of the defensive weapons to Level 7 – I am not wuite there yet though – right now I have 4 Sniper Towers, 2 Machine Guns, and 2 Mortar at Level 7, but I still have other weps that need upgrading (A Level 4 Cannon, a Level 5 Cannon, Level 1 Flamethrower, and a Level 5 Machine Gun) which means I have weeks and weeks of 10 minutes a day to play yet before I am even close to feeling secure in my defensive position.  Just saying.

But it is those little slices of improvement that help get you through the day mates!

It’s progress that in the big picture has no meaning – but still, it IS progress.

It’s like my favorite George Takei line: “We’re Lost!  But We’re Making Good Time!”

So umm, hey… What do you do for a living?

The Emotional Impact of Gaming…

While the most obvious advantage younger gamers have over older gamers is finer hand-eye-coordination because, let’s face it, the older you get the slower you get…  But perhaps the most valuable advantage that the young have is that they have yet to form emotional attachments to specific games that can cause depressions and long periods of daydreaming about days past.

I am serious about that last one — the older I get the more frustrating the realization of just how fleeting the memories and the experiences we have in video games really are.  Which is sad because it is not uncommon at all to encounter a game in which the player willingly invests a significant measure of emotional attachment.

I am speaking specifically about the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies.

Here was a game that we played for years – seven years for me – that we originally were drawn to thanks to childhood memories of the movies and the way that they somehow helped to shape our childhood world.  Seriously.

When the end came it came not from a lack of customer-base — there were still plenty of players who wanted Galaxies to continue despite the mucking about that the developers did that nearly ruined the game and certainly ruined the combat system in the game!

No, it was closed out of concern that allowing it to remain in business would somehow have an impact on the new Star Wars themed MMO – little did the folks at Sony and LucasArts realize that the hard feelings that Galaxies saw at their hands ended up causing a large chunk of the core supporters of the games to simply walk away, never to return to the franchise because they felt personally betrayed.  And they were, really.

There are mornings when I wake up and I feel eager to log in to Galaxies, check out my home on Naboo and its small museum-like display of the many treasures and souvenirs collected over seven years of game play…  Only to remember that I cannot do that.  That world no longer exists.

Star Wars Galaxies EMU

Call it an act of rebellion.  Call it a gesture of respect.  Consider it something that serious fans did because they CAN — but at some point following the closure of a game and social environment that was well-loved by so large a group of Star Wars fans that some sort of gesture was inevitable.

At some point a group of code-slingers got together and decided that they would resurrect that world – Star Wars Galaxies – by developing core server support that was sufficient to permit the legitimate owners of licensed copies of the game (I own a dozen myself thanks to special releases, expansions, and the like) that permits them to run the program and enter – and PLAY – the game as if nothing had changed.

Well of course something had changed – for one thing that world that you spend so many years on and all of the different objects that you collected is still gone – but at least there is the possibility for you to add at least the flavor of those experiences back into your virtual life.

For most players what this means is that they will dust off the disc, re-install it to their game box, and then log in and play on a server someone else has created and hosts for that purpose.

Call it once bitten, twice shy if you like, but the experience of losing my Galaxies world once at the hands of the creator was enough to make me vow never to invest that sort of emotion into a game again unless I control it.

So instead of playing on someone else’s server, I will delay this gratification of a return to the world of SWG until I can afford to put together a dedicated SWGEMU server of my own.  A robust high-end custom-built system in other words, that will sit on my home network in the network room here at Four Pines Farm and pump out Star Wars Galaxies all day, every day, and no delays!

I will make that server available to my mates but that is as far as it goes.  Well, not quite.  You see the admin who controls the server can also craft and deploy missions on that server, so I can see me spending the time and effort that it will take to grow familiar enough with coding that beast to create custom missions and objects and…  Yeah, I can see that happening.

Some day soon…  In a Galaxy not so far away… On the green and verdant planet of Naboo… The Server RECNEF will arise.  Oh yes…  Of that there can be no doubt!

So how was your week?

Ghosts and the Paranormal in Video Games

An original painting by artist Nicole Wong (http://nicole-wong.com) titled Cemetery Ghost.

An original painting by artist Nicole Wong titled Cemetery Ghost.

– = – = – = – = – =  @@ = – = – = – = – = –

After I wrote this I realized that I needed to preface it with something to explain that it was not an indictment of the paranormal and ghosts — a disclaimer was required or I am certain to end up on the receiving end of a lot of angry email telling me how much of a wanker I am…  This is not my first rodeo, just saying.

Part of my concern has to do with the fact that ghosts — and the paranormal — are not really a simple, cut-and-dry issue.  Not like UFO’s for example, which really, if you think about it, we all have to believe in because anything that you see flying in the sky or in space that you cannot identify is actually technically and in reality a UFO — an Unidentified Flying Object.

The question of ghosts and the paranormal is simply not that easily managed because there are a lot of people out there that firmly believe in them, believe that they have seen some, and believe that they know what it is that they saw.

I am not one of those people — but at the same time I am also not one of the people who say that ghosts do not exist because the bottom line is… I don’t know.

So to head all of that off, I want to say, first thing, that I am NOT saying there is no such thing as ghosts. Quite the contrary, what I am saying, again, is that I don’t know.

It so happens that I do not suffer from the sort of hubris that dictates that, just because I cannot prove something or because I don’t know something, means it cannot be so.

In point of fact — and I feel like I really need to explain this: I have never been a person who was sure of things I was ignorant of.

I had a lot of experience with that sort of personality type while doing my military service, and I can tell you first hand that not only does nobody like that type of person, they don’t trust them, because that sort of mental attitude can get you into dangerous situations where asking “what is the worse that can happen?” is not a good idea.

As a result of early exposure to that mindset, I have always been the sort of person who endeavors to take personal note of my inadequacies — particularly where knowledge is concerned — and act and react accordingly.

After quite a few years of living and experiencing life outside of environments in which people have to do what you tell them to do because you outrank them, I have come to believe that as rare as it is, the type of personality inclined to qualify situations with the acknowledgement that a lack of certainty, familiarity, or knowledge is present is most often a personality trait typical of the writer — and I am a writer.

It is a good thing to know your limitations and not be afraid to admit that you don’t know — especially if you are in a group where there might be someone who actually does know, since you can then consult them.  There is no shame in admitting your ignorance, only shame in concealing it.

With that on the table, I should explain that my general awareness of the paranormal is a sort that comes from being (A) Catholic, (B) part-Irish, and (C) spending my formative years surrounded by other people who are both Catholic and part (or completely) Irish.

That is to say what I knew I knew from childhood stories and the often necessary rituals that one performs to ward-off evil spirits.

So my imperfect knowledge of the paranormal was in line,  I suspect,  with that of most people, or it was until just the last few years anyway.

Even now, what little I do know on the subject was acquired via listening to Tim Weisberg, and his radio show Spooky Southcoast on WBSM FM radio which has a more scientific approach to the subject.

I should point out in the interest of transparency that Tim is a colleague who, in addition to covering sports for our sister publication, The New Bedford Standard Times, also hosts two radio shows at WBSM — a Saturday morning talk show that I have never listened to because I never get up on Saturday morning unless pastry is involved, and his famous Spooky Southcoast radio show on Saturday nights which I do listen to, especially when Pizza is involved and it usually is.

Tim sort of opened my eyes to the whole paranormal sciences thing in the world, though not in video games because my eyes had already been opened to that phenomenon due to events that took place years ago.

Ghosts and the Paranormal in Video Games

The subject of ghosts in the real world is a bit tricky because for the most part, it is my understanding that to see and experience ghosts in the real world, you actually have to go to them — which as I am mobility challenged and use a wheelchair, is rather more difficult — I suspect — than you might think.

I do not imagine ghosts prefer to appear in handicap-accessible locations that would be convenient for me to access…  If they were I suspect that the existence of ghosts would be a lot wider in both recognition and posts on Twitter and Facebook.

Ghosts in video games on the other hand, while clearly created by the developers as a recognized mechanism for moving the story forward (or for some other purpose such as a cameo by a dead person, or a comic element) — are pretty obviously a LOT easier to come by.

This is true particularly when it is a game that is about ghosts or the paranormal, but not so obvious when it is framed as a cameo or ancillary part of the story being told.

Game developers tend to use that sort of thing as a tool, and usually without investing a lot time, energy, or research in terms of plot and background let alone the actual manifestation sciences that are attached to the phenomenon, so I imagine that they get it wrong more often than they get it right…

The use of ghosts — and more widely the paranormal — in video games probably does not make games — or the people who make them — very popular with the folks who actually DO study ghosts…  Just saying.

With all of that taken into consideration, the first “ghost story” that I recall being aware of outside of the video game itself happened as the result of a conversation covering that aspect of a game, which took place among a group of my peers that began — as such conversations often do — as a friendly conversation that very nearly devolved into a fistfight.

To qualify this just in case you want to ask, the introduction of violence (or the impending introduction of violence) is not a usual element in the conversations that I have inside or outside of the games journo environment, and it should be well understood that this was not directly the fault of any ghost, real or video game.

I should explain…

The games journo community is pretty small compared to the that of other, more traditional beats in journalism.

A nice way to describe that community would be “intimate” but honestly “small” is more accurate — in that small is the size and the number of journos who can make a living on that beat.

The natural result of this is, when a sufficient number of what we have taken to calling “traditional games journos” (I will write about that distinction some other time) gather in one geographic location — for example covering one of the many annual video game expos that take place around the world –we make it a point to get together and break bread — and chat — at least a few times during the event.

These gatherings often take the form of dinners or, more frequently, evening drinking sessions, though the truth be told we are most of us reaching the point at which our advanced age makes all-night drinking sessions a thing of the past.

If you are curious these gatherings tend to take place in the same locations, year after year, granting a measure of familiarity that we crave due to having to travel so much.

If you were thinking that I was actually going to tell you where these meet-ups take place, well, no…  I am sorry to say that I can’t do that for several very good reasons, not the lease of which is legitimate fear that one of the less stable gamers who, having taken umbrage to the hatchet-job of a review one of us did to their favorite game, might be so inclined to show up wearing a propane tank… You can’t be too careful these days.

Back from that digression, the conversation took place in a very nice and comfortable  restaurant on the evening before the opening day of E3 2010.   I am reasonably certain it was E3 2010 because the subject that kicked-off the conversation was the video game Alan Wake — which had released just before that E3.

Considering the subject matter of Alan Wake, it both fully qualifies as a ghost-story game, but also seemed to be overkill in that regard since its primary foundation was built around the darkness and its ghosts. Well, sort of.

A Conversation Starter

Bearing in mind that the conversation I am about to relate to you was, if any term can be used to properly define it, an alcohol-fueled discussion of the role that ghosts have played in the world of video games — by a group of writers who would know — and you should get the idea that it was slightly more than simply shop-talk.

While Alan Wake served as the spark that started the conversation, it quickly moved on to other games with less obvious spookiness — but still ghost-story worthy — naturally starting with some of the earliest examples of this unofficial games genre like the ghost games of the early computer-based gaming scene.

Please bear in mind that if you did not cut your teeth on Commodore Computing’s C=64 or Apple’s II GS model line, chances are you never heard of most of the games we were discussing…

Among these ghost-game titles the Blackwell game series quickly popped up — actually there was no way that the Blackwell series was not going to come up in the conversation because one of the games journos present — before he crossed over to a very successful career in games journalism — worked for Wadjet Eye Games, which is the tiny development studio started by Dave Gilbert to produce his games, among which was the Blackwell series.

That part of the conversation began with an argument – we could not decide if the Blackwell series (which was created in the mid-00s) was related to another ghost-story video game we all thought was called “Blackwell” that was released in the mid-80s for Commodore’s C=64, Apple’s II GS, as well as the Amstrad — the former pair being pretty common to the gaming community in the 80s while the latter would place you in the UK at the time.

That was about the same time that the sequel to The Staff of Karnath — a game called Blackwyche — appeared on C=64 as a continuing adventure for protagonist Sir Arthur Pendragon — that being a pretty infamous game series in its own right.

The insertion of The Staff of Karnath and Blackwyche into the conversation served to muddy the waters, but it also clarified them as it was at this point that we all realized — pretty much simultaneously — that the game we were thinking of as “Blackwell” was in fact Blackwyche, and the mystery was solved with our recognizing that the game we were thinking of pretty much had nothing at all to do with the Blackwell series that came later!

The actual Blackwell series was an important game series in that it certainly had a heavy influence upon the ghost-story genre of games and, in terms of the games industry, upon many of the games that followed throughout the late 00s and beyond.

There were four titles in the main series: The Blackwell Legacy (2006), Blackwell Unbound (2007), Blackwell Convergence (2009), and Blackwell Deception (2011), all of which pretty much dealt with the subject of ghosts and what they need.

The intense story-arc begins honestly enough with Rosangela Blackwell (Rosa), a young freelance writer based out of New York City — so right there the developers already had us cold.

You see games journos — like journos from the other beats — tend to quickly and willingly accept and embrace anything in the entertainment realm that purports to tell the story of a freelance journalist clawing their way up the ladder.

Do you remember Dick Wolf’s television show Deadline? We do.

Interestingly enough the paper from that show — The New York Ledger — featured prominently in some of Wolf’s other shows, particularly Law & Order and its offshoots, but for some reason Deadline only got one season.

Anyway the Blackwell games started out honestly enough, as a ghost named Joey Mallone appears in Rosa’s flat as she is working on a piece on suicide following the recent death of her aunt, Lauren Blackwell, who it quickly develops was a medium who was in regular contact with “the other side.”

As the story began to unfold it worked out that Rosa had inherited that talent — or ability — that bit was never really all that clear.

So Rosa learns about her new (or maybe it was deeply suppressed) ability as Joey explains how she is needed to perform a critical service to the newly deceased — that being to help them “cross over” into the afterlife by helping them to resolve outstanding issues that are keeping them chained to the mortal world.

In the process of this she discovers a link between the death of a girl and other deaths that happen to relate to the assignment she is working on, and it sort of snowballs from there.

Not going to go too deeply into the plot here in case you end up deciding you want to give the games a go, in addition to fleshing out the world of the super-ghost-talking-to-hero that Rosa is, you also get a chance to see how fragile the world of the freelancer is, and why they try to keep their editors happy if at all possible…

The thing is that, as cheesy as that plot might sound, The Blackwell Legacy was actually a very good (and more important, entertaining) video game.

So good in fact that in 2011 they re-cut the game to feature the voice actors who did the other three, for continuity, and released the first three games (with the re-cut first game) as a bundle at the same time that the fourth game in the series was released.

The game series just gets better from there, but you know we never did hammer out whether or not it was the fact that the games featured a journalist protagonist that was the primary attraction for us, or that they were ghost-story games…

Either way though, we all agreed that we liked them and that they were very good games for the retro-style point-and-click graphic adventure genre that they were part of.

Killing Time

At that point having exhausted the subject of the Blackwell series we were all willing to allow that, while Alan Wake game was entertaining and very well written, it was not really in the same league as the other ghost-story genre of games.

None of us were willing to admit that we had played any of the Casper series, let alone offer an opinion regarding like/not-like, but all of us were willing to offer opinions on Clive Barker’s Undying (2001) and Jericho (2007) — though considering the source material it was kind of difficult not to.

The Nightmare entities from F.E.A.R. were next but they were quickly supplanted by the “Water-Clock of Thoth” that served as the MacGuffin for Killing Time (we all agreed that the original release by 3DO Studios for the 3DO – 1995 – was far superior to Intrepid’s port of the game for Windows 95 and the Mac – 1996).

Killing Time was actually rather innovative for the ghost-story genre in that it was not only an Action-Adventure and Mystery game, it also happened to be one of the first fully legitimate zombie-shooters for the genre.

If you are not familiar with Killing Time,well that is a shame.  While none of the structure in the game was really original, the manner in which the development team took core elements that were either new to gaming or that were just getting popular, and mixed them together to create this Ghost-and-Zombie-Shooter-Mystery-Action-Adventure game really stands out.  More importantly though, it had a significant impact on games and gaming.

In Killing Time you play an ex-Egyptology student who has set out to solve the mystery revolving around the ancient artifact called the “Water-Clock of Thoth” that had been discovered — and brought back to New York — by your professor of Egyptology, the mysterious Dr. Hargrove.

This sort of situation where often priceless historical artifacts were found on foreign digs by a team of teachers and students, who pretty much took whatever they wanted from the dig in terms of artifacts, without bothering to seek the approval of the local government, which in the case of Egypt was, after all, largely made up of corrupt wogs who simply wanted to be bribed, right?

Well that was the 1930s for you; besides the fact that the artifact was probably historical, and certainly has a paranormal and powerful magic power in it, the important bits you should be taking away from this is that it has gone missing following a visit by Hargrove’s patron, the very wealthy and equally mysterious Tess Conway.

It does not help that Tess Conway shortly thereafter turns up missing (just how one “turns up missing” was never really all that clear) and her disappearance took place while she may or may not have been holding an occult gathering at her estate on the semi-private Matinicus Isle, in Maine (say, with proper nods to Stephen King who is a God among games journos, why is Maine such a ghostly place???).

As the story unfolds we discover that Tess is far from slightly-interested in the subject of archeology and serving as an angel investor to help fund historical research — in fact it works out that she is, in fact, something of a diabolical monster in her own right.  Well that and she not only knows what the secret power is for that particular artifact but means to make use of it to further her nefarious plans for immortality.

At this point you should pretty much get the basic idea. We already knew it because hey, we are all games journos and we not only played (and liked) the game, most of us actually wrote reviews of it.

What set Killing Time apart from other games in the ghost-story genre at the time was the fact that the back-story was largely revealed to the player in the form of live-action cut scenes acted out by real actors, which was sort of a fresh idea at the time (think Red Alert).

The live-action CS’s helped the game to stand out in its genre, but it was really its status as a shooter that pushed the attention its way.

Among the arsenal of weapons for this game (the game was set in the 1930s but thanks to the isolated location in Maine the developers were able to interpret the era loosely), which included a collection of weapons that would seem more familiar to bootleggers than a wealthy heiress, it offered serious opportunities for ass-kicking that few games of the era provided.

The weapons in the game include the to-be-expected magical Ankh that delivered devastating AOE — which the player used to quite literally wipe out a large number of enemies in one go (assuming that they were conveniently grouped inside the AOE range of the Ankh, which invariably they were).

Seriously.

The weapons also included the required Crowbar for melee (1930s era archeologists routinely opened well-made wooden crates all the time so naturally they had a variety of hefty crowbars handy at all times – just ask Indiana Jones!).

The gangster-collection of traditional shooter weapons included dual-pistols, a shotgun, and a Thompson sub-machine gun (what they called a Tommy-Gun in the vernacular of the era).

If that failed to get the job done you could always use your Molotov Cocktails and trusty flamethrower, both of which were very useful for dispatching the undead.

We were tempted to say “killing” the undead — but really if you think about it, being undead is what they do, so unless you can completely destroy them, you cannot “kill” the undead you are merely slowing them down, right?

While Tess Conway is legitimately a nutter, among the other characters in the game were some interesting personalities, and among them, two really stand out in memory.

There is “Mike” — who is Duncan DeVries personal bodyguard and who doubles as the director of security for the estate — and “Lydia Tweksbury” — who gets extra points just for having that name, but turns out to fill the Judas role in the game in a way that only she can.

Sadly if you are going to play the game we cannot go any deeper into our reasons for selecting these two characters as the truly standout characters, but suffice it to say that despite their very minor roles in the small picture, in the big picture these two are rockstars.

Can’t say anymore than that and I have probably said too much already, sigh.

We all agreed that the creative use of real-world locations as part of the backdrop for the game was a significant element in quickly dispelling doubt and permitting immersion to take place naturally.

It was certainly an important element, particularly the use of the very real Boldt Castle, found on Heart Island (one of the islands in the Thousand Islands region of New York State) along the shore of the Saint Lawrence River — which stands in to represent the Conway Estate.

The appearance in the castle of a ghost — who as it turns out is more or less the castle ghost — cannot be dismissed however, despite the fact that your character handles that pretty well considering that it doesn’t you know, freak out or anything…

But then again your character has a six-shot revolver that fires an unlimited number of shots without ever having to be reloaded (watch the video) so it makes sense that something like a ghost who appears offering advice is not going to phase them, right?

The back-story of the castle ghost eventually gets explained — don’t worry, watching the video we embedded above will not really ruin the game for you — but we all agreed that her second ghostly form (the white one) pretty much reminded all of us of the appearance of Princess Leia in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, where R2D2 shows the partial message to Luke before Luke inadvertently brings the droid to the intended recipient of the message.

If the amount of detail about Killing Time I have shared here gives you the idea that it represented a significant amount of the conversation we were having, that’s good because it did.

Despite its very Doom-like appearance, the game did have a significant impact not just on the games journos but to some extent the games community in that it provided what amounted to the first taste that most gamers had with the notion of treating the undead the same as the living with respect to the shooter genre of game…

So if you are looking for who to blame for the massive number of zombie-based video games that now plague the world, look no further.

Bubble, Bubble Ghost, Toil and Trouble

It was at this point that someone made an unfortunate comparison to Bubble Ghost, another ghost-story game with roots in the mid 80s, and nearly caused a fistfight.

The game Bubble GHost was widely known in its era, having appeared on pretty much every gaming platform from C=64, II GS, and the Amstrad, to PC DOS, the Amiga, Atari’s ST line of computer/game consoles (the ST included a cartridge slot), and later, on Nintendo’s Game Boy handheld games console!

The basic mechanics for the game involve the players guiding a ghost around the castle, positioning it to use its ghostly breath(?!) to guide a bubble past a series of obstacles while avoiding having it come into contact with surfaces or other obstacles.

The ultimate goal being to activate different objects and, eventually, to enable your escape.

Part of the reason why this was an unfortunate comparison is that the developer of Bubble Ghost (Infograme) put a lot of pressure on its North America publisher (Accolade) to push the many ports it had created as a hard sell — which it seems was what the company was doing in Europe and the UK, where it WAS the publisher — using a variety of ad campaigns that were, well, creative.

It will help if you are aware of the back-story here: Infograme was a massive French holding company based in Paris that had the well-deserved reputation of being something of a whore in the games industry.

A lot of games journos at the time considered the company to be shameless producers of shovelware — low quality games that tended to make their entire profit during the first three to six weeks following launch; that being the time period before word-of-mouth could succeed in revealing the true quality of a game.

I don’t know how much of that was truth and how much was rumor or unfounded opinion — I was not a games journo during that period I was still a kid and gamer — but I do know that the feelings among the veteran journos at the table were such that the comparison was interpreted as a slap in the face to one of the journos present who had worked on the game that was being compared to the shovelware…

Anyway due to its rather trite underlying mechanism for game play, you may be amused to learn that among the old school games journos, the game Bubble Ghost is often called that Ghostly Blowjob game…

Speaking of Chuck Norris

We were not speaking of Chuck Norris, but being the sort of person that chooses to use humor in order to defuse stressful situations, and concerned that a punch was about to be thrown that, once thrown, could not be taken back (and the certain knowledge that the person who caused these bad feelings and would be on the receiving end of that punch was just the sort of person who would, in fact, call the cops) I popped off the following:

“You know Agent 47 may actually be more formidable than Chuck Norris.”

The reaction I got from this was way better than what I was hoping for…

A chorus of “What?!” and a few “Waitress, I will have the crack that one has been smoking” quickly followed, and then the insistence that I explain myself…

“Remember the ninth mission in Codename 47? It was the seventh mission in Hitman: Contracts too — but you remember it, right?” They nodded for the most part.

“OK so after Agent 47 enters the hotel, and makes his way through the halls to the room where the crime scene was, where the murder had been committed?”

This was the mission in which you were supposed to derail the plans of terrorist Frantz Fuchs, who was like the less-clever cousin to the terrorists in the first two Die Hard movies?

Basically you were supposed to eliminate Frantz, secure his bomb — it was a very nasty chemical bomb — and then you needed to escape to the rendezvous spot, all without being detected by the army of cops and private security patrolling the halls and rooms in the hotel.

Typical Hitman mission structure in other words, but of course getting through the mission with a Hitman rating was like, well, like being Chuck Norris?

Actually it was better than being Check Norris, they agreed, but then insisted that I explain the ghost-game connection and my assertion that Agent 47 could out-Chuck-Norris Chuck Norris.

“Well, Agent 47 kills the ghost in that one; I think there actually might have been an Achievement for doing that — so do you think Chuck Norris could do that?!” I demanded.

I distinctly recall the reaction of the journo who was, moments before, about to throw a punch: “What ghost, what the hell are you talking about?!”

Great, I silently said to myself. Now instead of wanting to hit that wanker, he wants to hit YOU!

“The ghost that you see outside of the hotel room where the murder took place.

“The ghost that you can, if you are really fast, sort of kill with the shotgun on the floor of the bathroom but not really because to kill the ghost you have to sort of catch it unawares, and use your garrote!” I explained.

It took me nearly twenty minutes to convince them that I was not having the piss on them, and even then to fully satisfy that lot I ended up whipping out my trusty HP notebook and loading YouTube.

After quickly hunting down the video “Hitman Ghost” (http://youtu.be/V_z7AZR2euo) that not only features that ghostly encounter, but was created by a gamer who made it a point show just about every sort of interaction you can possibly have with that ghost, and well, then they were convinced!

The conversation at that point turned to how the developers had managed to slip in a ghostly encounter AND a ghost that for the most part they were completely unaware of, though several of the journos allowed as how, now that they had seen the mission on YouTube, they did actually remember the ghost, but they did not realize that it could be killed…

We played and then replayed the video over and over, and noted the different potential interaction options that were available to the player — here is the list:

 

  • 0:00 – 0:45 — Getting to the hallway.
  • 0:46 – 0:47 — The first sighting of the ghost, in the hallway.
  • 1:11 – 1:25 — Seeing the ghost in the bathroom mirror and taking a shot at it (note the blood splash).
  • 1:46 – 2:16 — Properly garrotting the ghost and then dragging its ghostly body into the hall.

Note that the first almost full minute if the video consists of the player just getting Agent 47 into a position so that he would actually be in the right area…

I suspect that the reason most players both never knew that the ghost was there and did not interact with it has more to do with the desire to score as highly as possible in the game (meaning to get the best hitman rating).

Ghosts in Video Games

When all was said and done we had, between the twelve of us, worked it out that video game ghosts come in three basic types – the first type, in games that are about ghosts, haunting, and basically are ghost-games as a genre, because it is more or less about ghosts, elevates them to a character in the games and so rarely ever observes the different rules that people serious about ghosts tend to state that ghosts follow.

What I mean by that is simply that in that type of game environment, you can end up having long and meaningful conversations with ghosts, which sort of flies in the face of the whole ghost science thing considering that while real ghosts (it seems to me) may in fact have a message that they want to share with you, don’t use punctuation.

The second type of ghost in video games usually takes the form of the ghost-as-guide, in that they generally are there for a very specific reasons and, once they fulfill their purpose, pretty much disappear, never to be seen again.

Finally there is the third type, which I like to call the Accidental Ghost. These can take the form of ghostly cameos, or a ghost who appears because ghosts are known to appear in that place/time, and of course the not so rare but nevertheless heartbreaking use of ghostly appearances when a loved one dies.

That last one can, arguably, be explained away as the overpowering grief and the desire to see that person just one more time, so it may actually not be a ghost so much as a sign that your player is going nuts, like in Heavy Rain…

Ghost Games You Might Enjoy

Since this is a muse about my experience with ghosts in games, I thought it would be a good idea to close this with a list of games you might like to play — if you are looking for a game with ghosts that is…

  • Alan Wake (Xbox 360)
  • Blackwell Series (PC)
  • Calling (Wii)
  • Clive Barker’s Jericho (Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC)
  • Cursed Mountain (Wii)
  • F.E.A.R. (Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC)
  • Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Nintendo DS)
  • Haunt (Xbox 360)

I did not include the obvious or funny – Ghostbusters for example — since these are supposed to be games that sort of treat the whole ghost subject with a bit more respect…

If you have trouble sleeping after playing these, don’t blame me mates.

Cheers!

C

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Note 1: While this post was created as one of the “muse” posts which are about things that amuse me or stories that are somewhat to very amusing, since it was about the subject of ghosts in video games and since ghosts appearing in video games (even games that are NOT strictly speaking about ghosts) I decided to include a selection of videos from YouTube about ghosts appearing in video games.

The idea here is to provide you with a selection of the different ways that ghosts have been used in video games, but also to break up what would otherwise have been experienced as a solid wall of text, and I think we did OK at both goals…

Note 2: I was not aware of this until quite recently but it seems that WordPress has recently changed its policy on free hosting for blogs in that the hosting is not, entirely, and strictly speaking, free anymore.

A case in point is that for blogs (like this one) that chose NOT to pay the ad-free fee that is now required, WordPress may insert ads into the posts on those blogs as a means of making a little pocket change off of those freeloading blogs.

So IF you see ads on this blog, it was NOT us that did it – it was WordPress.  We apologize to you for exposing you to advertising and want you to know you are under no obligation to actually purchase any products in those ads – we do not in any way profit from those ads.

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