The Finish Line Is Back There a Bit

I submitted my PhD thesis the other day.

This is a rather excellent development.

I think I’m happy with how it turned out. Though, of course, I’m not really willing to re-open it and check just yet. I’ll wait and see what the examiners say, and in the meantime, I will try to recover from the final stretch. I took six weeks off work to finish the thesis—a time period in which I took about three days off thesis work, not including the time I spent preparing and presenting a paper at the Games Research Methods Symposium at Sydney Uni (a really interesting conference, but from a timing perspective it wasn’t my greatest decision). I worked myself beyond exhaustion, lost track of the day several times, and still had to make compromises on several aspects and processes. I had to avoid Twitter to keep my mental health above water. I had to employ several fine-toothed combs, including one to remove spaces around em-dashes (a bad habit), one to ensure the use of Oxford commas (easy things to miss, it turns out), and one to switch out the singular ‘they’ (a good habit, but a PhD thesis isn’t the time to fight that battle). EndNote caused a day of intense frustration when it started changing citations of its own volition. And while most aspects of the formatting style I’d previously used for my honours thesis could be re-used to save trouble, I did have to switch the font in the end. But all told, I think it turned out well.

My initial plan, going into this PhD, was to study the intersection of thematic and gameplay genres. However, I soon found semiotics to be a more interesting and less well-trod path. My thesis ended up being a very substantial development of the work I started in my “Meaningful Play” article: a semiotic framework capable of analysing the initial composition and interactive configuration of game music separately (because there are some quite different processes going on in each). I was quite impressed by the idea of the player’s authorship of their experience—a concept which is not new in studies of games, but which had yet to be fully applied to game music, and which gets really interesting when comparing gameplay to other forms of play. With the exception of some work on Microsoft Flight, all of the analysis and writing I’ve done over the last five and a half years has made it into the thesis in some way. However, there are several avenues of investigation that came up during my study that I didn’t have time or space to pursue. I dropped four potential chapters, and still nearly hit my word limit.

In between afternoon naps, I’ve been trying to think of things to do with my reacquired freedom. I’m presenting a conference paper in December, but I’ve decided not to do any academic work until September to give myself a break. I’ve been reading for leisure again, which is nice. I’ve got time for photography, including astro and analogue. And there’s a mountain of unplayed games in my Steam library to play through. But I’ve also completed my strategy of encouraging thesis progress through self-bribery. I found that I was much more likely to write when I set myself goals with tangible rewards, and for the ultimate reward I decided to aim for a MIDI controller. I’ve been itching to make music, to play some piano, and even to compose. So I’ve bought a device with plenty of scope for productivity and experimentation, and am having quite a lot of fun playing around with music again. I might even try my hand at making some game music—coming at my object of study from the other direction, as it were.

Anyway, thanks for reading up to this point. I plan to keep writing (who knows? I might even do so more frequently), because games and music are excellent things. Somehow, writing my thesis hasn’t crippled my ability to enjoy either. I think that must be some kind of miracle.

Don’t Leave Things for Later

Don’t leave things for later.

I’m nearing the end of my thesis. After I finished my literature review chapter I did an audit of what’s remaining. I rediscovered some parts of chapters I had left ‘for later’, things that I didn’t feel like writing in more detail at the time. Having expected to be wrapping things up by now, I’m strongly yet ineffectually rebuking my past self for my inaction. Instead of methodically checking references, spelling, grammar and fonts, I’m frantically writing, splicing, deleting and correcting.

Don’t leave things for later.

One of those things is my EVE Online chapter, which needed a lot of work. In the course of patching up the holes, I’ve been observing how much EVE has changed over the last year. Having not played it much since my corp lost its wormhole, I’ve missed a fair bit. DUST 514 is no more, Valkyrie and Gunjack are released but unattainable (VR hardware is not cheap), and EVE being what it is, both the game and its players have continued their evolutions. EVE is no longer a familiar place in a distant sky.

Don’t leave things for later.

Games change, they grow old, they die. They get reborn as curios, as museum pieces, as academic objects of study. Or they’re forgotten. I stumbled over the Microbee Software Preservation Project while I was researching dead and dying games for a paper on Microsoft Flight. I had pretty much forgotten about the Microbee until that point, but I had been thinking for a while that a preservation project for Australian video game music would be a worthwhile endeavour. Who else would do it? There are Australian game preservation efforts, and video game music preservation efforts, but not much overlap. And game hardware is the limiting factor—the computers that run them, and the disks and tapes the software is stored on. These are becoming rarer each year, and while much has been preserved by fantastically awesome volunteer types, there is still a risk that much could be lost.

Don’t leave things for later.

Retro Adventures

I recently stumbled over an online community dedicated to the Microbee, an Australian computer made in the 1980s, called the Microbee Software Preservation Project. This made me very excited. My Dad owned a Microbee when I was little, so it’s one of the first computers I remember (though by the time we could play games he also had a 286 PC which saw more gaming use). We had a version with a hard drive, but some of the more basic versions would run solely off floppy drives or cassette tapes. Our Microbee didn’t survive one of my family’s relocations (I think it had stopped booting), which is a great shame because it was a pretty fun little thing, in its way.

I remember a couple of games. There was a brick, ball and paddle game, which was fairly challenging because the computer would only respond to your key presses pretty slowly. The game I spent most time on was called Jeskil’s Revenge, a text adventure written in MicroWorld Basic by John Maling in 1985 (according to the source code). I played this a lot after I claimed the Microbee as my own in my early teenage years, and I always got stuck. I even printed out a copy of the source code to try to find my way through like a 1337 h4x0r, though from memory it didn’t help.

There are several Microbee emulators developed now, one of which is online: NanoWasp. This has Jeskil’s Revenge as one of the ‘tapes’ you can load and play. So I played it for the first time in about 20 years. Having recently played Colossal Cave Adventure (sometimes just called Adventure or ADVENT) on one of my Raspberry Pis, it was interesting to compare the two. Jeskil’s Revenge tells you which commands you can use up front. The world feels smaller (though I seem to remember getting lost in it well enough), though a little more descriptive; Adventure has some moments where the descriptions shine, but many of its descriptions seemed more functional. Or perhaps I’m just less skilled at imagining underground spaces than windswept cliffs. Jeskil’s Revenge is also time-limited somehow (I’ve never hit the limit though). Oh, and it pretty much never gets the ‘your’/’you’re’ distinction right. Perhaps it’s an example of grammar being sacrificed to save memory? Not sure. Anyhow, I’ve played it through to the point where I’m pretty sure I’ll need to use pen and paper to map the maze (if it’s even a maze); I’ll have to do that when I have free time again. Also, I’d love to port the game to a modern platform to bring it to the masses, but that’s definitely a post-thesis project.

Another fantastic thing is that the Microbee brand has been resurrected. The folks at Microbee Technology have got things going again and have produced some Microbee kit computers that are compatible with the old machines (though they’re sold out at the moment, and have been for a while if forum posts are any indication). Pretty excellent. I’ve been looking a bit lately at game preservation and thinking about preserving Australian video game music somehow; it’s interesting and potentially really useful that there’s an option that slots between using old hardware and using an emulator for the Microbee platform. I think I might get one of the kits someday, learn to solder, learn to code, and go to town.

Literally a Long, Long Time

Last night I finished the first complete draft of the literature review chapter of my thesis. It’s 10,455 words long, and according to my versioning system it’s the 20th draft file. The first draft file is dated 26 August 2014.

Writing a literature review is an interesting exercise. In my experience at least, there’s not a great deal of official information out there about what a literature review is, or what it should contain. I’ve found it a constant challenge to find out what’s required of me throughout this PhD adventure (pro tip: try not to be left off the mailing list when you start a new degree), but even accounting for that there’s a dearth of information on literature review formats or expectations. Perhaps it’s the relatively self-explanatory title of the concept. “A literature review is… a review… of the literature…? Duh.”

Anyway, early on I was dreading the thought of the anomalous excercise of writing the lit review. And when I started, I kept getting hung up on it. So many times I’d start doing work on it, then flounder so completely that work on the whole thesis would stagnate. This is my excuse for the chapter taking almost three years to complete. Three to four years is the regular timeframe for a full-time PhD in Australia, and while I’ve been part-time since early 2015 this chapter has still been an excruciatingly long endeavour. When something is repeatedly difficult, it becomes difficult to even pick up your work on it, let alone to get it finished.

Something changed this year, though. Or started to change last year. I took some time off work mid-2016 so that I could get deeper into the study mindset for a while, and wrote 20,000 words in a month. So, I did it again late-2016 and it didn’t work quite so well (not sure why). I tried it again over Easter and got sick twice in two weeks, the frustration of which seems to have extended my fervour for thesis work beyond the typical pattern (finally!). But something that did happen in these attempts was that for some bizarre reason I was kind of having fun.* There is an art to collecting, collating, and presenting information concisely. It requires a certain amount of creativity to determine what to include, how to include it, and how to relate it to everything else that’s included. Ludomusicological semiotics draws on a lot of fields — semiotics, musicology and game studies at the very least. The process of diving into each of these fields, threshing the salient points from the gritty details, weaving them into a coherent representation within 2,000 words or so, then dashing on to do the same thing for another entire body of work, is kind of a rush when it’s done at the pace of the final stages of a PhD.

But I think I also just enjoyed seeing a snapshot of the full context of my work. In a young field, it’s easy to feel as though you need to justify your choice of study before you can even discuss it. Reviewing the literature gave me a perspective on my work that relates it not only to the ludomusicological literature of the last decade and a half, but to the literature of several well-established fields that go back much further. The most encouraging part of that is to see that my work is not an outlandish endeavour; similar things have been done before, in similar ways and for similar reasons.

But, said work is not finished yet. There’s still a fair bit to do before my submission date (early August), and I’ve no doubt it will not be fun. Bloggings may well be as sparse as they have been lately. But hey, the end is now certainly in sight, and there’s one less seemingly insurmountable hurdle in the way.

 

*This statement is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written.

New Year News

Happy new year!

While it’s generally too hot to think at this time of year in Sydney, I have set myself the task of finishing my thesis in the next couple of months. Why that is inspiring me to write blog posts instead of chapters is beyond the scope of the current study.

Twitter reliably informs me that the ludomusicological year is off to another flying start with the fourth annual North American Conference on Video Game Music held over the weekend in Austin, TX, USA. If you were (like me) unable to attend, the Twitter hashtag #NACVGM is definitely worth perusing. It sounds like there were some fascinating papers presented, and it’s always great to kick off the year with a flurry of ideas.

In related news, the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games (SSSMG) was launched late last year — a collaborative community formed from the Ludomusicology Research Group, NACVGM, and Audio Mostly. It’s a hub for ludomusicological resources and discussion the world over. Get on over and check it out!

My own year is starting a little slower. The Christmas break was relatively quiet for me from a gaming perspective, being away from Sydney with only my old laptop and with lots of people to hang out with. One new thing was that my brothers in law and I made a game. We held a very informal game jam with just us, and built a third person puzzle game in UE4. I built a level or two, but my main task was audio. I scrounged and spliced together some audio files and gave the game a soundscape — fairly rough, but serviceable. And by all accounts, the 16 bar looped score that I composed in an hour was super annoying and therefore “good video game music”. A lot of the levels were really hard, and the music was ultra cheery, and that combination is all kinds of evil. All told, quite fun.

Over the last few days I’ve been working towards a thesis case study (on blurred boundaries between sound effects and music) by playing through Portal 2 and then Portal for comparison. I played through Portal in one sitting the other day. I ended up with one of the worst cases of what I call “gamer brain” that I’ve ever had (what others may call “motion sickness”, but I only get it when I play games; not a reference to gamergate, etc.). Half-Life 2 and its derivatives seem to have a knack of messing with my inner ears like that. Any ideas on how to avoid it?

Also, I’ve just listened to the soundtrack for Quake, which I had never heard before. I played the first episode of Quake over and over again when I was young, on a 486 DX2 that really couldn’t handle it. The first episode was shareware, and I’ve never yet played through the full game with an original CD; like quite a few games of the pre-MP3 CD-ROM era, the music was played straight from tracks 2+ of the game disc. So, Quake for me was never musical. It was sparse, sci-fi, horrific, ambient. I’ve assumed for a while that the soundtrack was something like that of Quake II with heavy metal all over the place, and so have been concluding that my cautious play style (which has lead to me being better at playing things like Skyrim and Portal than Quake III or Call of Duty in its later multiplayer forms) was at odds with the intended experience. But listening to the soundtrack now, I see that’s not necessarily the case — the music is really quite dark and fairly spooky in a sci-fi way. I’m quite surprised, and doubly so — perhaps I’m used to series like The Elder Scrolls and Halo and Portal and Half-Life where the aesthetic differences between games in the series are more nuanced, but the leaps in aesthetic styles between Quakes 1 through 3 are fairly stark in comparison. Is that a common thing in game series where the story is less prominent?

One last thing for now: Games with CD audio music can produce some unintended-yet-interesting soundtracks. Forget to put the game CD in the drive, and voila, your Age of Empires gameplay is forever associated with A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step, track two and onwards.

Anyway, notwithstanding my inability to update blogs on a regular basis, I’ll try to keep this updated with thesis completion info and other thoughts. Laters!

Formatting for Fun and Profit

One of the most valuable writing techniques I’ve picked up from my supervisor (there are several) is the habit of using simple and obvious formatting to mark out what needs editing. These are basic things that are simple to implement in Word, but which let you see immediately what needs doing to a block of text. While it’s sometimes convenient to use comments or similar markup, comments a) require more work to add, and b) require you to read them to know what’s going on. The simplest method I’ve found is to use colour.

My editing markup consists of a few main colours:

  • I use orange when I don’t know if I want to keep some text because it’s silly or whatever. This is the best one, because you can just write stuff, mark it as questionable, and keep writing. Allows increasing the efficiency of your word count gains.
  • I use red when something msut be canhged beacuse its worng.
  • I use red in square brackets for:
    • Referencing at the end of sentences when I’m lazy.[reference Hart, 2016]
    • Telling myself what to do because [finish this sentence when you’re less lazy]
  • I use bold blue for headings that I’m not 100% sure on
  • I use purple for text that I’m adapting and need to revise (e.g. when I’m adapting a paper into a thesis chapter)

It’s simple stuff, but it stands out immediately. It’s also a good way to remind yourself that you’ll be editing things later and the important thing right now is to just write already.

Anyway, what techniques do you use to help you get words on the page?

HOWTO: PhD Procrastination through Computer Hardware

One of the greatest distractions available when studying a computer-based medium is the computer. And the computer is made up of parts. These parts are cool and totally have thesis-based functions. Here’s how to devote as much of your PhD-writing time to them as possible.

 

Controller

I should have got one of these ages ago. A controller (like this XBOX 360 Controller for Windows) can close the gap between console and PC gaming for ease of use, if you think controllers are easier to use than a mouse and keyboard. They’re not, but whatever. For certain edge cases they’re invaluable: games made with controllers in mind, driving games, and games that have been half-heartedly ported from consoles (this is one of the reasons I only started playing Dark Souls recently). If you don’t have a controller, get one, and then re-play all those games that felt clumsy with a mouse and keyboard.

Procrastiation gain: 2+ weeks.

 

Joystick

The former go-to input device for computer gaming, the joystick is now more of a specialist device for simulations involving movement of a plane or a spaceship. But as anyone who’s ever tried to land a biplane on a grass runway using a keyboard will tell you, the joystick is still really good at what it does. If you don’t have a joystick, get one, load up a flight sim, and feel like a pro instantly.

Ludomusicology trivia: the book Music in Video Games: Studying Play features a joystick on its cover. Its usefulness to the pictured conductor is doubtful, however, given that the joystick is around the wrong way. I question whether the person who photoshopped the joystick onto the standard book series image has ever played a game.

Procrastination gain: 10 minutes per painfully slow runway approach, up to your boredom threshold. Multiply by 100+ if you own a VR headset and play Elite: Dangerous, because that is without a doubt the most amazing thing out there.

 

Mechanical keyboard

Making words flow from your hands is pretty cool, so why not do it noisily? Mechanical keyboards are currently hot stuff among computer gamers and typists alike because they feel better, they’re faster, they sometimes let you hold down more keys at once, and there are plenty of configuration options to suit your preferences. Mine has RGB backlighting with various effects; the “rain” effect set to bright green is currently taking me back to when I was 15 and The Matrix was the most awesome thing anybody had ever seen. I’ve also added o-rings to the back of each key to add some refinement to the clackity-clack.

Productivity gain: A few words per minute.

Procrastination gain: Several weeks research, plus extra time waiting for your perfect configuration to be back in stock, plus extra time for modding it when it’s not quite perfect after all.

 

Headphones

Headphones help you hear things. Mine are old and plastic-squeaky, so moving my jaw/chewing food/speaking to team mates in-game while playing is very loud. Needless to say this is not exactly the kind of thing headphones are supposed to help you hear. However, if you keep your jaw really still you can hear a few things that don’t come through the speakers well, or that would otherwise be muffled by city noise, and you can more clearly observe stereo effects.

Productivity gain: Bonus analytical accuracy.

Procrastination gain: Gosh darn, better play that game again with headphones in case I missed something.

 

The guts

Computers are complex machines that are made up of building blocks that fit together in standardised ways. Like Lego for nerds. They reward endless amounts of tinkering with either significant additions of functionality, slight performance improvements, or crippling system instability. Which of those you get is pretty much down to the luck of the draw.

Until recently I was running an extra video card in order to do more BOINC science tasks. I also run a nice sound card, and I’ve set up the fans to run extra cool and extra quiet so I can hear said sound card’s beautiful work. But I’ve recently stopped overclocking because it was causing random instabilities. I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed the performance drop, but my nerd cred hurts.

Procrastination gain: 1 hour per part installation or upgrade, plus 6 hours troubleshooting per part installation or upgrade. Also add 1 week per overclocking episode.

 

Portable computer

For when the computers at uni are also used by undergrads. A great thing to take with you to cafes, libraries and holidays so you can maintain the self-impression of productivity while chilling out. Basically the same as a desktop computer but less tinker-able. However, keen players can install an additional OS or three for multiplicative software maintenance requirements. Also, due to lower hardware resource overheads there’s often more incentive to spend time “optimising” how it runs.

Procrastination gain: An hour a month per OS for software updates. Several hours over the length of the PhD trying to connect to various WiFi networks (I’m looking at you Eduroam).

 

Printer/scanner/multifunction device

Invaluable for printing articles and for communicating with university departments that haven’t yet digitised any of their paperwork. A mainstay of any home office, the multifunction device (literally: the thing that does all of the things) can also help budding academics to do all of the things. Keen observers will note that I am employing a Hart Industries Make-a-Multifunction Adapter Kit (literally: three pieces of wood and some screws) to minimise device footprint while maintaining full functionality.

Productivity gain: Lets you print and scan things, so you don’t have to trek to a library just to renew society memberships.

Procrastination gain: Kit construction ~1/2 day. Maintenance and upkeep: a few hours whenever you can least spare them (see also Office Space, Mike Judge, 1999).

 

Raspberry Pi

For when your thesis doesn’t contain enough Linux. Useful for nearly any task, but often less useful for any of those tasks than a device created specifically for that task. But look at them, they’re such cute little computers! And a high cable/LED/footprint ratio, so they look like serious business. I have an RPi model B that runs as a print server and a VPN server, and an RPi 2 than does automated backups of my thesis every hour or so. Both also run BOINC science tasks (very slowly, but they’re always on so at least they’re doing something).

Procrastination gain: If you already know how to Linux, 2+ hours every time you think of something else you can make them do. If you don’t know how to Linux, this is a procrastination goldmine of indeterminate depth — good luck.

 

Lo-fi information storage and communication devices

There are three kinds of books: 1. books that tell you stuff, 2. books that tell you stuff that isn’t real, and 3. books where you tell them the stuff. All of these smell better that computers and only require a source of light to be usable (and in case 3, a writing implement). So, in the inevitable event that one of the various proposed apocalypses occurs and worldwide electricity grids go down, you can still complete your PhD on video games the old-school way. Except for the case study chapters. And now with more of a historical than a theoretical flavour. And with a near-crippling suspicion that you’re wasting your life and should probably be out gathering resources (which may or may not be standard anyway).

Productivity gain: Can enable your thesis work to proceed post-apocalypse. At least until you get eaten by a zombie because you were reading and not running — reverts to an interminable state of procrastination at that point

Procrastination gain: You could read a thousand books a day for 100 years and still not get through all the books in the world. Go nuts.

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The Difficulties and Delights of Dark Souls

I’ve been getting into Dark Souls lately. I’ve been playing the Prepare to Die Edition of the first one by myself, and have been playing Dark Souls III with my bro-in-law. Both are excellent. Both are huge. Both are really hard.

What initially made me realise the difficulty of these games was actually coming back to Skyrim after playing Bloodborne which, let’s face it, is basically a Dark Souls game. After having difficulty battling mid-range monsters in Bloodborne, returning to Skyrim and accidentally becoming arch-mage of the Mages’ Guild really highlighted the differences between the difficulty gradients. It seems to me sometimes that Skyrim is so easy that it’s basically about collecting sweet loots. But Dark Souls is so hard that it rewards learning, and that’s really not something you can say about a game very often. The game rewards noticing the patterns that enemies take, and is brutal in its punishment when you don’t. And although I get really frustrated with having to re-play so much after dying so often, I do also really appreciate how much Dark Souls makes you work for your progress.

The one thing I don’t particularly enjoy is how far it is (geographically) between bonfires and boss fights. I don’t find it enjoyable having to fight my way back through 5+ minutes of enemies only to encounter certain death, 10+ times in a row. Grinding is one thing, but this isn’t grinding, it’s just walking. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it somewhere, and I deal with it just fine, it’s just not my preference in a game activity.

I find the use of music in Dark Souls interesting. My best guess at the moment (and I think I’m well under half way through) is that music is used a. at the Firelink Shrine, and b. at a place where you can join a covenant (which also includes the Firelink Shrine atm). But I’m far from sold on this theory. The Ash Lake area is one of these — the first in-game area I’d heard music after Firelink Shrine, and such grand music at that — and it’s huge compared to where you meet Quelaag’s Sister. I also like that when you’re entering Ash Lake the music only begins intermittently, when you’re looking directly at one of the shafts of light descending from the “sky”, and then when you’re on the beach the music becomes constant.

Oh! and also, music is used c. in boss fights. I realised this halfway through fighting Executioner Smough, several tens of hours into Dark Souls. After taking out Ornstein you can keep Smough behind a pillar to avoid damage and just take a swing every so often. This takes a while to get through, and I think eventually I calmed down to a point where the link between gameplay tension and musical tension broke. Which made me realise how much music I hadn’t been noticing. And that makes me think that the music for these boss fights must be near perfectly matched to the action. Very cool.

I also noticed that, while fighting Lautrec of Carim, that there’s another layer of ambient sound added in a musical sort of way (i.e. non-diegetic) — a very atmospheric kind of sound. Now, I’m a fellow who likes his single player games quite single-player-y, so I haven’t invaded any other players’ worlds, and I can’t rule out that this sound might just be the “you’re a phantom now” aural cue. I don’t know. But I’ll find out, because I’m planning a thesis chapter on exactly this kind of use of ambient sound.

Also, I really like that these games have such beautiful worlds. For a games with such dark themes they use light, space and colour very well. And grumble grumble falling off things but it is pretty amazing to have such a masterful use of vertical space in 3D video games.

Between the amazing worlds and the amazing challenge these games present, it’s easy to get lost in them. So far, I’m enjoying this a lot more than I thought I would.

Somewhat miraculously, I’ve also been getting a lot of thesis work done lately. The end appears both in sight and achievable, and that’s fantastic. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m liking how it’s coming together, and I’m starting to believe that it might actually be a worthwhile piece of research.

subLiminal Lines of Lament for the Loss of Lothlórien (etc.) in LotR

My wife pointed out that I missed a stunningly obvious chance at alliteration in the title of my last post, so I’m trying to make up for it here. Please forgive me.

I’ve recently finished my first read-through of The Lord of the Rings in over a decade. And I loved it. My age has more than doubled since I first read it, and almost doubled since I last read it. I spent more time reading Tolkien’s descriptions of the world, whether because I’m older and slower or I’ve shed my previous familiarity I’m not sure. But the effect on my imagining was brilliant — every mountain range was an order of magnitude larger in my mind; forest-covered ranges were expansive rather than small hills with the suggestion of trees; views extended to a legitimately distant horizon just as Tolkien wrote them to be; directions, distances and times between the places of Middle-earth were more important and more vast. I guess it must have been easy for 15 year old me to all but skip over a description of Fangorn Forest as a dark smudge below the faint peaks of the Misty Mountains on the horizon. Since then I’ve visited Austria and seen real mountains, so perhaps I now have a better appreciation for the kind of distance required to shrink them and can work that into my imagination. Tolkien’s writing rewards the effort of reading deliberately like nothing else I’ve ever read. He has taken such care to put everything together correctly. (Since I began writing this post I’ve also finished reading the last three books of Robin Hobb’s series The Rain Wild Chronicles — as we describe them, “Mills and Boon and dragons” — and this has heightened my appreciation for books in which every detail aligns correctly with the others, fun though they were to read.)

There may also have been a partly conscious attempt to see in my mind what Tolkien wrote rather than what Peter Jackson’s films depicted — this certainly brought into relief some of the liberties Jackson took. One of the liberties that stood out most to me was the involvement of an army of Elves of Lothlórien in the Battle of the Hornburg (or, in the film, the Battle of Helm’s Deep). In the films, they turn up, fight, and are nearly all killed. In the book, Legolas is the only Elf present. Elves fight the hosts of Sauron but only “off-screen”, nearer to Lothórien and Mirkwood their homelands, in a more defensive posture.

I find this significant because of an underlying theme of the book: the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth, a significant part of which is the departure of the Elves. This is a really sad theme, because in Tolkien’s telling, the Elves are departing because their joy in Middle-earth is ending, and consequently they are slowly abandoning all that they have worked towards in Middle-earth. The effects of their power are slowly being lifted from the world. One of the most clear examples of this would be the abandonment of Rivendell and Lothlórien by Elrond and Galadriel after the power of their rings waned (the rings having provided the power to sustain and protect those places from Sauron). But things like the rarity of sightings of Elves in the Shire, the slow demise of the Ents (who were first taught speech by the Elves), the choice of Arwen to be mortal, and Legolas’ longing to depart after hearing gulls, ensure that this theme is ever-present. And it is clear in the book that the end of the Elves’ involvement in Middle-earth is near complete by the time the tale begins; the Elves that remain are those that have lingered. Jackson depicts the departure and sadness of the Elves by slaughtering an army of them (as though to offer a reason for the departure), and by making every Elf except Legolas a grump (seriously, compare the film’s version of the Council of Elrond to the book’s depiction of Bilbo’s first entry into Rivendell in The Hobbit). Tolkien emphasises the departure by the simple fact that no army of Elves exists to come to the aid of the armies of Men — most are already gone, and those who remain can only defend their own realms. This may have been near-impossible to describe in a film where Elrond, Arwen and Legolas play such key roles, but I don’t think Jackson’s modified narrative did true justice to the theme.

So, it is just as well, I think, that Howard Shore’s score does what the films’ story does not, and picks up this theme from the outset. I remember from my honours study being surprised, at the start of my critical listening, to find that what I considered the “main theme” (that associated with the Shire) is not the first music heard; the “title theme” (in this case, literally the theme that accompanies the title) is a sorrowful tune, a lament. Following from Galadriel’s narration of the events of the Second and Third Ages, her observations that “the world is changed,” this tune takes up the sorrow that Galadriel feels at this change. This is the sorrow of one of the mightiest of the Elves, one of the sustainers of the Elves’ beauty, power and influence. And being heard at the very start of the film, this music sets the emotional scene and thus explains the world more subtly, and I think more authentically, than Jackson’s narrative. From the start, it explains that the background to this tale of adversity, endurance and victory is the deeper, older tale of a loss that cannot be averted. It’s a tale told well through music — though, of course, Tolkien still tells it better.

Hamlet, Spaceships and Shiny Things

I haven’t had much time for gaming lately, but here are some notes on some of the games I have been playing.

To Be or Not To Be

My wife and I have both been playing this adorable little choose-your-own-Shakespeare-adventure mobile game by Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics) and developed by Australian company Tin Man Games. It’s brilliant. I must admit that I’m a Dinosaur Comics fan (though I’ve been trying to read through to current day for several years now) and I’ve noticed that it reads enough like DC and has enough DC in-jokes that I suspect people who haven’t read DC might not get what’s going on half the time. But it’s a refreshing take on Shakespeare and I like how they’ve implemented the music: simply, but responsively enough for the kind of game it is, and it’s really quite pretty.

EVE Online

I’ve jumped back in to EVE recently after a disheartened absence following my corp losing our POS in wormhole space. And now that I’m back in highsec I’m really paranoid. In w-space you get used to spamming the scanner to make sure you’re not about to be killed, and it’s not a habit that’s easy to let slip — nor is really the kind of habit that you should let slip, because in EVE, as in Game of Thrones, everybody is going to die all of the time. Except that in EVE, “everybody” is you. The relatively chilled highsec music doesn’t really allay any of those fears, and I’m a bit surprised at that. I may have been subconsciously expecting highsec to be like a warm fuzzy blanket after the cold emptiness of w-space. I guess losing a ship full of stuff in your first trek back in the game shatters that expectation. Oh well.

I think, also, that knowing that the whole CODE. thing happened while I was away from highsec makes me expect a whole lot more ganking than before. So far, I haven’t seen any (except for the aforementioned gank I experienced that was unrelated to CODE.), but I’m keeping my eyes peeled.

Maybe now that VR is a thing and we’re all wearing headsets we can figure out a way to read brain activity to determine emotional state and adjust music accordingly. This would almost certainly be terribly annoying (particularly if you’re multitasking) but if you’re fully immersed and expecting to be ganked it could enhance the heck out of that paranoia.

Skyrim

As mentioned very briefly in an earlier post, I’ve finally got through Skyrim‘s main quest. Such dragons! And it’s such a beautiful game world. I really enjoyed Blackreach just for its unexpected vastness and the prettiness of all the shiny things. So many shiny things.

But Skyrim, much like Oblivion before it, is easy. Don’t get me wrong, I sort of like making my character near-invincible just by existing. My sneaking skills are top shelf, which is sort of weird for a battleaxe-wielding, heavily-armoured Nord. But quite aside from the fact that my character is a sneaky beefcake, the missions just don’t challenge. Over Christmas I watched my bro-in-law play Bloodborne quite a lot, and played it a little myself. Learning enemy moves, jumping out of the way in the nick of time and spending hours trying to beat one boss are par for the course. Then I came home, jumped in to Skyrim and accidentally became Archmage of the Mages’ Guild. A few quests and then suddenly the Archmage dies, all the mages avenge him, and they tell me that I’m Archmage… because the guy with the battleaxe is clearly the best mage. Never mind that he can only cast Apprentice level spells. A mere technicality.

But the game is pretty and the music is nice, both of which Skyrim a lovely place to explore. And those dragons are really quite good dragons.