Scrolls, Scrolls, Scrolls

So, I just finished the main quest for Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  I’m a little surprised, honestly.  Not about the ending.  There were no surprises to be had there.  In many ways the story is quite standard.  This is not a criticism, just a fact.  Anyway, what surprises me is the fact that I actually finished the game.

All told, I have logged an astonishing 93 hours on the game.  I think I spent less than 6 hours on the main quest.

I have some problems with it.  If you had asked me three weeks ago whether I was likely to finish the game it would have been an enthusiastic “yes.”  I was enjoying the hell out of the game and I was hitting it hard for hours every night.  The problem is, it soured for me somewhere around hour 50.  As stunning and well-designed as the dungeons are, they started to feel repetitive.  After a while, I even stopped looting these dungeons.  There was nothing in them that I wanted.  Nothing in there for me.  I was the uber Dovakhiin who could shout a fucking dragon into submission and destroy it with nary a thought.  When fighting a dragon is nothing more than a nuisance, there is something wrong.

Even Alduin was a trivial encounter.

Bethesda, in the months leading up release, was bragging about how the game would have so much content.  The problem with having that much content is that when a player spends that much time in a world, he begins to see its flaws. I suppose it is a monumental feat that the major flaws did not become evident until so many hours had gone by. I spent far fewer hours on, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I was entertained the entire time, but it was by no means a perfect experience.

To contrast, I have spent far more hours on Minecraft. Hundreds probably. But Minecraft still hasn’t lost its allure.

My experience with Skyrim is something like my experience with Family Guy in one important respect.  It’s essentially the same exact show that it was in season one but where it was interesting and new and fresh back then, it is now stale, boring, and its structure is showing.  It can get a few more yuks by making fun of its own formula to a certain extent, but that will only take it so far.  Then again, the Simpsons has been doing that for years.

I feel the same about Skyrim.  Unlike a TV show, there isn’t really a “jump the shark” moment. Just as there wasn’t a specific one for Family Guy.  Rather, it was a gradual realization that everything is the same no matter where you are in the world or what you are doing.  The sameness is palpable, oppressive after a while.  Many of the small quests and stories are clever; don’t get me wrong.  But almost all of them have you doing the exact same thing.  Travel to a location, fight some fuckers, recover an artifact, return it for money. It doesn’t vary much.

An example of what I’m talking about is the flow of a dungeon.  Almost every dungeon that you encounter in Skryim follows a pattern.  I don’t care if its a mine, a bear cave, or a centuries old Dwemer ruin.  You kill a few mobs outside and then enter the dungeon. As you pass a certain threshold, you may or may not notice a sealed door that would take you directly to the end of the dungeon.  But it is inaccessible.  Instead, you follow a more or less linear rail to the terminus of the dungeon where you fight some sort of boss, get some sort of quest item, learn some dragon shout, and/or complete some objective.  There’s a door behind the blasphemous altar or ancient sarcophogus.  Behind that door is a chest with some really sweet loot and some shelves with potions or soul gems or alchemy reagents.

You will then find that barred door or hidden passageway that spits you out at the beginning of the cavern or poops you out at the top of a mountain that would be inaccessible from outside.  The structure is apparent.  It’s a convenience, a mercy for the gamer, not to have to slog back through a now empty and desolate cavern, but when you iterate it sixty odd times or more, the game begins to feel engineered, rather than organic.

My understanding is that Bethesda had an entire *team* of dudes just designing dungeons.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is good.  It might even be great.  And it’s beautiful.  My god, is it beautiful.  But I’ve played it.  I’ve done it before.  It was like Oblivion (without the annoying Oblivion Gates) and Morrowind before it.  But where Morrowind was unlike anything I had ever played before (think Season 1 of Family Guy), Oblivion was an iteration of Morrowind and Skyrim is an iteration of Oblivion.  There is nothing inherently new.  In fact, I might even go so far as to say that by streamlining the level-ups and the various crafting and combat systems, they actually managed to make the problems more apparent.  There isn’t a whole lot of min-maxing to be done, which takes some of the fun out of it for me.

In fact, for the first two hours of the game, I was waiting for some stat assignment or detailed character creation screen to pop up.  It never did.  Maybe I’m still waiting for it.

In the end, I enjoyed my romp through Skyrim.  I will probably even play it again someday.  Perhaps even someday soon.  But I will never finish the game again.  I won’t ever be able to recapture the magic of it again.  It just isn’t in me for this one anymore.  It’s been exhausted.

Lastly, I would like to point out that Skyrim is not a sandbox game. A sandbox should have more options, more paths, a more vibrant world. Skyrim just has a lot of dungeons. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can’t call it a sandbox. Your options are too limited. You can’t open a store. You can’t build a house. You can’t create a trade network. You can’t rule a nation. X3: Terran Conflict is a sandbox. Minecraft is a sandbox. Skyrim is not.

I sold the Elder Scroll to the librarian at the Winterhold College for 2,000 pieces of gold.  I should have haggled.

Ein Freund der Teufel ist ein Freund von mir.

A Matter Darkly

A hard limit on the mass of dark matter has been set.  So that’s cool, right?

There are a couple things that I like about this story.  First, consider that this hard limit is set at 40 giga-electron volts.  This is a unit of measurement so tasty and geeky that it makes my brain noodles just tingle with excitement.  It’s like the ultimate in nerd speak because fewer than 1% of the world’s population actually know what it means.  They are the 1%.

Next, consider the following passage:

“The observational measurements are important because they cast doubt on recent results from dark matter collaborations that have reported detecting the elusive particle in underground experiments. Those collaborations — DAMA/LIBRA, CoGeNT and CRESST — say they found dark matter with masses ranging from 7 to 12 GeV, less than the limit determined by the Brown physicists.”

There are two ways that you can read this, depending on how you define the word “underground.”  On the one hand, there is my basic assumption that we have a whole subculture of scientists who wear baggy pants and like to skateboard. Not to mention, they are making all sorts of frankly audacious claims about the mass of WIMPS.  It makes DAMA/LIBRA, CoGeNT, and CRESST sound like the names of gangs. 7-12 GeV?  Those damned kids and their crazy ideas.

Indeed, this is how I initially read the article.  And then I realized that they were probably just referring to the fact that these experiments took place underground.  As in, in a cave.  The 40 GeV result is from data collected from outerspace.  That dichotomy makes a lot more sense.  But still, it’s an important lesson about the ambiguity of language.

But perhaps the most important lesson here is in the numbers themselves.  A frequently overlooked issue surrounding Dark Matter is the actual source of its mystery.  It does not interact except with its gravity.  As we all know, gravity is by far the weakest of the forces.  Dark Matter neither reflects nor emits electromagnetic radiation of any kind.  It is only detectable by its gravitational effects.

And yet, it accounts for around 23 percent of the universe.  Ordinary matter, the stuff we deal with on a day to day basis, the stuff we have wars over and have sex with, only makes up 4%.  Dark Energy, a far more mysterious substance which is responsible for the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, accounts for the rest of the universe.  Over 70%.

So, what to make of this?  There are two ways you can look at it.  On the one hand, you can relish the mystery that the majority of the universe is made up of something completely intangible and possibly unknowable.  This is admirable.  It is the source of all sorts of sci-fi tropes and wild flights of fancy.

But two important facts needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to Dark Stuff, which accounts for some 96% of reality: they don’t do anything and they are the rule, rather than the exception.  Put another way, ordinary matter is the exception, the exciting stuff.  Dark Stuff is mundane and ordinary.

Indeed, the vast majority of the interesting things that happen in the universe happen as a result of interactions of ordinary matter.  Dark Stuff doesn’t do squat.

If I were a powerful scientist with a lot of clout, I might even be inclined re-label these things.  Dark Stuff–once it’s determined just what, exactly, it is–would be better renamed Mundane.  Ordinary matter, rather than being labeled as merely “ordinary” is actually the exciting stuff.  It might be far more appropriately termed “Bright Matter” and “Bright Energy.”  It is tiny in proportion, but it packs a hell of a kick.

I am a fan of Bright Matter.  I am made of it.  My body is star dust made flesh.

Ich bin aber Sternenstaub.