Tuesday, 9 March 2004

The making of the Middle Ages

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 5 in D flat major, D485. The Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, recorded in 1967. (Philips 446 539-2, another cheap 2CD set.)

Just read:

R. W. Southern, The making of the Middle Ages.

This book is an interesting and well-written successor to the two earlier books on the Middle Ages (The birth of the Middle Ages, and The crucible of Europe), covering the 11th and 12th centuries, finishing with the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Though Southern provides a good narrative description of that crusade, most of his book avoids high-level political and military stories. Instead, he talks about Church politics (the Popes began to get a firmer grip of the European church in this period), politics at the local level (the counts of Anjou are an interesting case study), social history (the development of the institution of serfdom is particularly fascinating) and intellectual history.

The latter provides lots of interesting material. It was in this period that European intellectuals came out of their shells and felt that they were once more part of a wider community. Students from all over Europe journeyed to France (Paris and Reims are mentioned in particular) just to study logic. New monastic orders, such as the Cistercians, played a part in this, as they tended to allow their monks more time away from the full day's rites of the Benedictines. But, knowledge was still seriously limited. I was particularly struck by Southern’s story about two top French scholars of the day arguing over what was meant by “internal angles” in Boethius’ claim that “the internal angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles”. They still had an incredible amount to learn, and their access to original sources (Aristotle in Greek, rather than limited Aristotle via Boethius) was still poor.

It makes me quite appreciative of the enormous distance education and knowledge have come in the last 900 years.

Wednesday, 24 March 2004

FPS Survey I

Listening to:

Bach, Well-tempered clavier, book 2.

No-one Lives Forever 2

The first first-person shooter game I ever played was No-one Lives Forever 2 (GameSpot’s review). I’ll compare it to other games I’ve played subsequently, and the others will be found wanting in a number of ways, but rather than mention their failings here, I’ll concentrate on NOLF2’s strong-points. (I’ve mentioned NOLF2 before incidentally.)

NOLF2’s strengths are humour and variety. When I first bought the game, I was a little worried by this humour aspect: would I be being encouraged to laugh at the death and destruction that I knew would be an inevitable part of the game? No. I found that the humour derived from the game not taking itself too seriously. The good and bad guys alike are often rather ridiculous. There’s one cut-scene set in the good guys’ HQ, and half of the staff seem to be jiving in a retro way to some sort of naff 60s pop.

As for variety, this comes in both trivial and interesting ways. At the trivial level, there’s a nice cosmetic variety in places and opponents. The game takes you from Japan, to Siberia, India, the Antarctic, an underwater base, an underground base, a trailer park in the US, and a Mediterranean island. These locales occasionally have an impact on the plot development too (in India, the underwater base, and even the trailer park). In these cases, the geography is not just a different set of coloured obstacles to negotiate or hide behind. All of this looks pretty good too.

There’s a corresponding, cosmetic variety in bad guys: ninjas, Russian soldiers, secret evil organsiation soldiers from the US and India, and gangster mimes (!). They look different, are armed differently, and have different bits of amusing dialogue, but they’re all pretty interchangeable in terms of behaviour and intelligence. Later in the game, you meet “Super Soldiers” that are quite different, and there are also four “boss levels” that feature specially tough opponents, but no extra variety. (One of the boss levels is also exceptionally annoying in its stupid difficulty.)

More importantly, NOLF2 features variety in its missions, which calls for different behaviours on the part of the player. While the Japan mission allows a fairly gung-ho approach, the Russian mission really calls for a stealthy approach when infiltrating the base and killing the bad guys. (In this mission you also get to drive snow-mobiles which is pretty cool.) The mission in Ohio and the various chapters in India are more varied still. This is really good. The stealthy approach is well-supported too. You can lean around corners, walk, run and sneak, and there’s a nice interface that tells you if you’ve hidden yourself successfully The simple RPG-like method whereby you can invest earned skill-points in skills such as marksmanship, searching, gadgets and the like, is also appealing: it gives the player a method of tailoring their alter-ego to suit their playing style.

Less good bits:

  • That annoying boss level (featuring a jack-in-the-box opponent);
  • In some missions, an infinite supply of spawning opponents. This makes it difficult to be perfectionist about taking everyone out in a stealthy way (as one might do in Thief), and is a slight count against in the realism stakes.

Forward to FPS Survey II →

Thursday, 25 March 2004

The once and future king

Listening to:

Bach, Goldberg variations, played by Chen Pi-Hsien, on Naxos 8.550078.

Just read:

T. H. White, The once and future king.

This book is a combination of four novels that originally came out as separate volumes. The first is clearly a children’s book, and is the story of King Arthur’s childhood, right up until the moment when he pulls the sword from the stone. Disney made a cartoon film version that is apparently reasonably faithful to the book; I think I may have seen it. The book features a Merlyn who sends Arthur off on various magical adventures, turning him into various species of animal along the way.

The tone is rather odd. It’s a bit like Wodehouse in the Middle Ages, and though it generally works quite well (is amusing), it can be disconcerting to read something that takes itself with so little seriousness. Harry Potter has funny-ridiculous bits in it, but doesn’t feature Pellinore’s Questing Beast moping itself to death because Pellinore has stopped pursuing it.

In the remaining three books, the story gets considerably more serious and adult, though things are still leavened by occasional flashes of (rather silly) wit. For example, Lancelot is described as the best knight in the world, the Bradman of the knighting world, top of the battling averages. (And if you don’t get that joke, all four novels may well leave you rather cold.)

But the tone in these three is much darker. This is a national myth with a tragic ending, and all the ingredients are there: the love triangle between Guinevere, Lancelot and Arthur; Mordred the result of an incestuous coupling between Arthur and Morgause, and the gradual descent of an idealistic institution into rivalry and war. Even individual scenes can stand alone as seriously creepy: a cat being killed for a spell, hunting and killing a unicorn, and an unhinged and dangerous Mordred confronting Guinevere. It’s somewhat off-putting to have such dramatic material leavened with silliness, and you will definitely be disappointed if all you expect is four volumes of jolly romp. On the other hand, the central characters are all drawn sympathetically (particularly Lancelot), and their development over 20 or more years is pictured rather well. If you can cope with the variability in tone, you will find much to admire and enjoy here.