Monthly Archives: May 2012

On Knowledge, Assumptions, and Diablo III

There are certain things I am sure of in this world and many others of which I am not. What lies between is a vast swathe of assumptions at times later proved to be either correct or erroneous, and sometimes remaining forever ambiguous.

I like knowing things. Knowledge is fun. Knowing things allows you understanding, and understanding facilitates peace of mind. Similarly, not knowing things makes me nervous, unsettled, even restless. My mind grasps at the clues and tries desperately to reach a level of understanding sufficient to return a state of peaceful tranquility, and must often make dangerous assumptions to do so. This is a wholly involuntary process, and it is strong in this one.

Recently for instance the gaming world was rocked by the long anticipated release of the third installment in Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo series – “Diablo III.” I know things about games. I know things about Blizzard. I even know things about the Diablo franchise. Yet most things labeled “new” that actually are and not some re-marketed version of something we’ve always had, are by their very nature unknown – a problem for my curious brain. My brain wants to know everything there is to know about new things that interest me as soon as possible. Thus, content is devoured at breakneck pace with little concern for story, character development, and – most heinous of all – enjoying myself. I am this way with all things; books, television series (I am the person who waits for the series to finish and then watch all the episodes continuously until I run out of seasons), and even food. Give me a bag of something and it will be eaten until empty. Now I am not particularly gluttonous and go to great lengths not to buy things that come in bags, but I assume this is part of my obsessive compulsive need to know. I must know what every single last marshmallow tastes like in the bag, not because I believe one may taste differently from the others, but because somehow my brain isn’t satisfied knowing there are more marshmallows in the bag. It wants them all in one place apparently – either in the bag or in my stomach, and as such I do not buy marshmallows.

I stray.

This compulsive need in me to know breeds assumptions where the information that would otherwise put my restless mind at ease is unavailable, unobtainable, or otherwise obscured. Thus has it been with Diablo III.

Having not worked on the game myself (not for lack of applying I may add), my brain does not have all the answers. Some answers it got from playing the game, like how the storyline develops as the characters once more rush headlong into swarms of demons, others were more difficult to come by. Worst among the enigma is the four-tiered difficulty setting in Diablo III. Even if you do not play the game it is enough to know that basically once you beat the game on your first ‘normal’ playthrough, you unlock the ability – nay – the privilege of playing the exact same game you just beat with more difficult monsters in ‘nightmare’ mode.  This process repeats at the conclusion of nightmare with a run through ‘hell,’ and finally, at the pinnacle of difficulty, beyond the plains of thoroughly hard, atop the pinnacle of mount impossible lies ‘inferno’ difficulty for the masochist in you.

My brain knows the storyline is unchanged in these later difficulty settings. My brain knows no good can come of throwing my ill-prepared character at ever more vicious and unforgiving waves of monsters. Yet it does so – forcing my hand – vexed by the notion that there are yet challenges left unattained, monsters to slay, and items to collect.

So it is that I have now played all four difficulty levels and, having not been part of the developing side of the game, am forced to assume some things, particularly about the difficulty settings. My assumption is as follows: I believe four different teams were each tasked with designing one difficulty level based on a psychological profile and general standing of social likability within the company – like Bob – the ever-chipper, ever-willing, friend to all who holds no position of great power (as being genuinely nice is frowned upon by corporate America and taken as a sign you are an uncommitted capitalist), but is known to all because every first Monday of the month he brings heart-shaped, home-made cookies individually wrapped and tied with adorable bows. Bob is the guy who remembers your name, birthday, likes and dislikes, and even brings you coffee when it looks like you had a late night without the disapproving, holier-than-thou look with which your other coworkers would not.

It is in fact Bob, and those of his ilk, who were grouped into ‘team one’ – responsible for ‘normal’ difficulty – and after the group hug and some motivational gleefulness set about doing just that, with a smile.

The first concern for Bob and his team was making you, the player and loyal customer, feel welcome. Thus helpful hints and tips pop up on your screen teaching you, reminding, you, and even compelling you to make the correct decisions that will allow you to progress through the game as one would through a spring meadow of wild flowers on a leisurely stroll. Bob and his team excel at this sort of thing and as a result normal difficulty feels as though you are born aloft on pillows stuffed entirely with baby kittens and fluffy clouds and are spoon-fed warm, molten caramel as the mobs all but kill themselves for you, enfeebled by your mighty presence. Sadly for Bob and the other hippies and alternative lifestyle friends of team one, this experience ill-prepares you for what lies ahead; the fetid malaise of team two and ‘nightmare’ difficulty.

Team two is comprised of the people who you see every day at work eating the same lunch, sitting at the same desk, munching on something or other whilst seemingly trying very hard not to die of boredom. These people do not care about the work in the sense that they lack passion (and indeed many other human emotions), and have a nine to five because bills don’t pay themselves. Team two them is the nameless horde – a group of people identified by their mutual anonymity – and they set about doing what they were told, joyless, and emotionally stunted.

Team two – in their nigh infinite capacity to not care – found it easy to crank up the difficulty level; they simply took off the goose-down padded gloves Bob and team one had put on the mobs fearing players might hurt themselves, and called it a day. A job well done, and thoroughly unrewarding, these guys were out the door and in their cars when Bob and the gang were still baby-proofing those nasty spikes on Diablo’s head.

So, realistically, ‘nightmare’ is what other games might call ‘normal’ whereas Diablo III’s version of ‘normal’ is really ‘absolute beginners’ (incidentally a fantastic song by David Bowie). Thus it is ‘hell’ difficulty and team three who are responsible for giving the players a real challenge.

Team three as you might imagine comprises the people around the office whose names you know because you fear them. Most of these people are real go-getter types, bent on climbing the corporate ladder, and accustomed to winning no matter what the stakes. These guys have nicknames for each other like members of some homoerotic fraternity, but lesser beings are forbidden from using these über-cool call signs, only whispering their surnames as muffled curses, fearing the reprisal of the chosen ones. Team three then is comprised of people who wake up early, go for a nice, brisk, 10-mile run, and then eat their all-bran flakes laced with amino powders before racing to the office (as they have to ‘win’ the morning commute). Upon arrival they take of their logo-embroidered driving gloves, high fiving the other BMW and Audi drivers, and then set about picking on the joyless nerds of team two whilst besieging the coffee corner.

Once the caffeine has calmed them down a bit, the boys of team three focus on work, but it’s not what you think; they get paid to put together ‘hell’ difficulty, but the pay check is just something to keep the lights on and to quantify how well they’re doing, their real passion is fucking with you.

Players who sludge their way through the minimally required efforts of team two are then confronted by the cruel lash of team three. Lulled into a false sense of accomplishment by having beaten not one, but two difficulty levels, players arrive in ‘hell’ only to find an unfamiliar place. Oh, the levels are the same, and the monsters may look familiar, but behind the scenes team three has given the monsters the same treatment they give themselves: inter-venal horse steroids straight into the spinal column. Mobs at this point unapologetically punch the heroes in the face with zeal and cruel satisfaction as fostered by the dudes of team three who, after having turned the volume up to 11, celebrated your would-be demise with some beers before popping some extra-strength Viagra and racing home to satisfy the wife.

That just leaves team four. Wiping the sweat from your brow and allowing the adrenaline to settle, you realize that yet one more – all new – difficulty level remains: inferno. Unbeknownst to team three, there are people in the office far more malicious than they. Easily mistaken for the anonymous horde that is team two, these people are sad, broken, soulless things devoid of love and incapable of empathy. In the backs of their minds they remember what it was like feeling joy, but now, with that long-absent emotion so distant in their minds, to even think of it only brings more pain. Team four is small – perhaps thankfully so – but over worked. Those who did not quit, get fired, or succumbed in some other way over the years now find themselves here, turning out 12-hour days in the dimly-lit recesses of the building where they have been sequestered so as to quarantine the alarmingly high prevalence of suicide and arson amongst this group. Most of team four consists of men well past their prime. They lacked the unscrupulous motivation of the guys of team three, but got on board long ago, when the company was still in its infancy, and their stories would make Bob’s fucking head spin right off his fat little torso. “The crunch” of 95? Yeah, team four was there in the trenches. “Mandatory over time” three months straight back in 02– the divorce lawyers did good business that year and team four paid the legal fees.  Yet they soldier on because this is their life now.

Unlike the other teams, the people of team four are lifers. They would go down with the ship if that is what it took, not because of loyalty, but because this is all they have. The youth and vitality went long ago, the wife, kids, dog, and the house went in the divorce, and the fact that ‘Chaz’ from team three is now tucking your kids in at night hasn’t helped matters. Team four are the survivors – men who have manned customer service phones deep into the night on patch days long after everyone else had gone home and the lights had been turned off dealing with people so obnoxious other men would turn to a life of the most spectacular crimes.

Now, somewhere in their minds team four knows you personally are not responsible for the state of their lives, but they have no problem blaming you for it all the same. They resent you, they loathe you, they despise you with the fiery passion of a thousand suns and have created a difficulty level that reflects this heart-felt sentiment in spades. Inferno difficulty is what I imagine it would be like if a Abercrombie and Fitch model were to be sent to a maximum security penitentiary housing only the most violently homosexual, 300lbs men South of the Mason-Dixy line. Dismissing the efforts of team three as ‘cute, but lacking in conviction,’ the tortured souls of team four have labored to produce monsters whose propensity for violence makes rabid wolverines look like lap dogs. So thoroughly do their creations make a mockery of your vaunted hero characters that you may find yourself waking in the night, screaming, covered in sweat and sitting in a pool of your own urine as even your dreams have been haunted by the horror. Somewhere, living in a small, dark, sparsely furnished apartment clasping an old wedding picture with one of the heads cut out is a man whose job it was to make the monsters that now haunt your dreams. A tortured smile creeps into the corner of his withered mouth, as the knowledge of your endless frustration and painful inadequacy brings him some small glimmer of satisfaction.


Three dimensions of superfluousness

As I’m sure you’ve all noticed three dimensional movies are back. After a brief popularity stint in the 80s and 90s signified by rather flimsy white cardboard ‘glasses’ with one red and one green ‘lens’ with a regrettable life expectancy rather significantly shorter than the movies they were designed to ‘enhance.’
Now, well into the 21st century, 3D is back trying to deliver on an age-old dream of true three-dimensional cinematic media.

I deplore 3D films in their current incarnation. In truth, we all should, but unlike fanatics my world view is not dependent on you agreeing with me. Indeed, feel free to be wrong; someone has to define ‘sub par’ and it may as well be you.

Continuing under the presumption you agree (or at the very least are disinclined to disagree on the grounds of confouding already low expectations) we come to issue of cost. Studios, production companies, and their share holders in particular are the kind of filthy rich but faceless people who are so easy to target as a focus of our own frustrations and financially slightly less emphatic successes.This is a mistake. I do not deny these people could stand to surrender some of their obscene profits in the name of quality over quantity, but I do not resent them for being better capitalists than I am. What I will say is their greed adversely affects the down-stream products for which their investments are responsible. Though it must be granted it is unlikely said shareholders should also happen to be celebrated film critics, they should still be made aware of the fact that the padding of their bottom line for the sake of money is ruining the cinematic experience for those of us who can tell the good films apart from the bad and understand 3D technology for what it is: imperfect and unwanted.
Still, making a profit in today’s world means cutting costs, just as it means jumping on surcharges for 3D movies, and thus I sympathize… to a point. My concern is when the choice to see a movie normally – that is, without the eye-destroying, migraine-inducing pseudo three dimensional nonsense is taken out of my hands as a consumer. It implies you know best, and as fans of my writing know that is patently false; I know best.