I'm part of an ongoing group chat with friends I made in my latter days in Edinburgh. Only a few of us remain in the city these days but it's still a fun collection of folks. The other day my friend, Chris, realised that his PS4 controllers work with his computer and so he no longer needed his Steam controller. He offered it up for £20 and I jumped at the chance. I've wanted one for a while but only at a reasonably low price - there's no guarantee I'd like it after all.

I was rather hungry and tired though so I figured I'd sort out postage on so forth later. It was an exciting prospect though and so I told the ol' ball and chain. She immediately blurted out "Don't!", or words to that effect.

It turns out that she's spent the last few months trying to snipe just such a device on eBay as a present for me, knowing full well that they're often expensive. More amusingly though that morning the one she'd bought had shown up!

Mixed feelings! On the one hand, surprise ruined, but also how awesome is she? I felt terrible for ruining her surprise but in some ways it's better to receive it now. I'll be celebrating my birthday in Sweden this year and so will be away from my desktop PC. Sure, the controller would work with my laptop, but it's the Windows desktop I want it for. This also means that it doesn't need to travel to Sweden and then back again. It's not huge but one less thing, you know?

The reason I've wanted one for a while is fairly simple - my desktop PC is connected to my TV. I've not upgraded it in years but it's perfect for playing older games that are a pain to run on my Mac. A solid two thirds of my game library is available on macOS (about 450/700, rounded down) but some things are a nightmare to get running. I'm looking at you, Red Alert 2...

However even if I get them running on my desktop - how do I play them?

A controller is fine and dandy for many game types but it's no substitute for a keyboard and mouse if you're playing a point and click adventure!

It turns out that a Steam controller is perfect for that though. It's like using a trackpad/trackball hybrid with a load of programmable buttons all wrapped up in an ergonomic package that sits happily in my hands. Lovely.

I could probably gush about the controller for several more paragraphs but this post is more about the game I just finished playing through.

At various points in my life, usually following breakups or similar relationship problems, I've immersed myself in videogames while I process. I powered through Assassin's Creed 2, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin's Creed: Revelations during a particularly dark time, for example.

I'm not sure if this was one of those times but it could well have been. I'd softmodded a pile of Xboxes (Xb-oxen? Xboik?) that we'd ended up with (I say "I", Matt was of course involved in researching how to go about making it happen).

We had one each and another spare, I think? This was mainly to run XBMC on though as we ran a content server in the living room. Great times.

Some time later it occurred to me that I could play pirated Xbox games on the machine. Not that there was all that much I wanted to play but a few titles stood out so I got hold of copies of them. I may have played Sid Meier's Pirates! until the sun came up. Then some more. Certainly not more than twelve hours at any rate.

Another game I played was Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. I don't recall much of the plot but it stands out in my memory as a hauntingly beautiful experience. The game is set across two worlds and is the sequel to a game I remember reading the review of in PC Gamer in the early 2000s. A game I've been meaning to play for years.

The Longest Journey.

Oddly the game is incorrectly filed on Steam. It appears in my Mac library despite not being available. It's been a problem for years and I wish they'd sort it out...

Anyway I have no intention of faffing about with dual-booting on this machine. It's really not worth the trouble.

The game is from 1999 and so will run on even a low end Windows machine. Technically it wasn't available in English until 2000 but technology-wise it's pre millennium. For the most part it's still an excellent game though, although not without its irritating quirks. I spent about twenty hours playing through it using a Steam controller this past week and I've got to say that the controls worked wonderfully.

That said the game varies between sensible and maddening. Not so much in the "how do I solve this damn puzzle?" way (although I did get stuck on a few occasions) but more in the "Can we not just take it as read that if I go to this location it's to speak to that character? Do I really need to run through four scene transitions each way? Come on!" way.

A pleasant innovation is that when an inventory item can be used on an object it will flash. No need to rub everything on everything else, thankfully. There were several items my character carried for the entire game without ever using though which was annoying in its own way - inventory space is unlimited but becomes paginated eventually - a needless annoyance when those extraneous items could have been pruned during one of several costume changes.

Things that hold up:

  • The writing. Fun, fanciful, amusing, emotional.
May there always be soil between your toes.

  • The voice acting. How they had the budget for this many lines of dialogue I'll never know.
  • The setting. Both worlds, Stark and Arcadia, had their own charm and felt well realised.
  • Many of the puzzles.
  • Some of the pre-rendered cutscenes (The Gribbler...)

Things that aren't quite as good...

  • Graphics. The pre-rendered backdrops mostly look good (apart from the Marcuria harbour - something about the perspective looks off) but the whole game is in forced 640x480. No barn-door effect, it's distorted to fit the screen shape and damn the consequences! †
  • The animations - low polygon models are par for the course but did the animations have to be so dreadful? I enjoyed the game despite them and that's not the way it should be. There was no reason for Adrian to walk like a bloody zombie - he's frightened, not heavily drugged!
  • The UI for some puzzles. Particularly the "telephone" puzzle - why couldn't I click on each cylinder to rotate it left or right? Tedious. As a result I looked up the solution to the puzzle - too much faff. I could have experimented and fully figured it out on my own but life's too bloody short for that kind of busywork.
  • The chapter lengths. There's 13 chapters (a recurring number in the game) and some chapters are over in a few minutes. Others go on for hours! At times this was quite disheartening. Spending so long on chapter 1 and 2 felt like quite the momentum killer.
  • Oh and some of the pre-rendered cutscenes (mostly those involving April. Her character model looks nothing like her in-game likeness).
If I had a modern tablet or smartphone running iOS I'd have played through it on that - hopefully the port is slightly less agonising. However the game itself was still very much worth playing and now I'm ready to dive into the sequel.

After that... Dreamfall: Chapters! I did indeed buy it in the end and it's been sitting in my library awaiting the right time. I'm not sure if the desktop can handle it but it'll probably run fine on this Mac. 

Praise Unity, or should that be The Balance?

† - I played on a 1366x768 screen. To get around this distortion I used CRU to add a custom resolution of 854x480. I then forced the game to render in a window and used WinExplorer to strip away all window decorations and force the program to sit on top of everything (including the taskbar).

I love stereo audio. It's brilliant.

It means I can separate out two people in an interview and adjust their levels independently or isolated individual bits without getting the other person's mouth soundy stuff in there.

Right, that's that out of the way.

Other than that - what's the point?
I genuinely can't think of any time I've been listening to music and thought "Wow, this sounds so much better."

In some games stereo separation provides some context cues for things but even then I can't say it's a feature I've found of particular use.

However I rather like surround sound!

It's only in the last year or so that I've put the effort in to get audio cables and settings sorted to get actual 5.1 out of most of my hardware and even then it's been a bit finicky (mostly due to the rather knackered receiver I'm using). With 5.1 surround (or similar) I can hear the difference though which is why I bother.

Left and right audio channels are too close to make all that much difference but when I can have an action scene surrounding me then the effect really works. It's how I found out that my parents' receiver has a maximum volume of "89".

Yep, no idea.

However hearing the war rig's horn always gives me chills and this is made all the better by being surrounded by a swirling melee of sound.

That's pretty much it. Mono is fine, stereo is sometimes useful, surround sound is fun.

As much as it pains me to talk about something that's not obscure I have to get it out there.

I've been listening to Ed Sheeran's Galway Girl.
So, yeah...

I've been to Galway and frankly it didn't strike me as anywhere worth celebrating. It's substantially smaller than Rotherham, not very glamorous, and apparently now home to John Romero.

Putting the town itself aside for a moment I wanted to just say something against things like this song. Perhaps I'm just incapable of living in the moment and appreciating the beauty of the ephemeral but pretty much all the women I've encountered that fit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope have had deep seated psychological issues. They might be quirky, superficially brave, and exciting but the behaviour is just escapism. It turns to pumpkins in the light of day.

A kinder soul might put it in terms of enjoying the temporary beauty of the time with such a woman. I find it very difficult to appreciate something that is such a facade though. Longing for that which doesn't exist might produce superior art but it's not exactly good for the mind!

This sort of thing has been explored before though; the TVTropes page is full of examples. I just wanted to comment for myself because it frustrates me to see it.

...a Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists to help the protagonist achieve happiness without ever seeking any independent goals herself. 

It's not that remarkable women don't exist - it's just that the stable ones end up in healthy relationships that last and so disappear from the market very quickly. They also don't tend to be quite as irresponsible either which detracts from the zany antics angle.

Not very marketable though, is it?

I've been playing the 2015 Mad Max videogame and it's swirling around my head.

The main thing I can't escape from is that it's not supposed to make sense. I love the setting and it makes for some truly haunting vistas but the concept of a dried out ocean just doesn't hang together for me. I can't think of any plausible reason why resource wars and nuclear war could result in desiccation on this scale.

If you're not familiar with it a large part of the game takes place on a seabed. Lighthouses and shipwrecks sit atop small mountains, pipelines and oilrigs can be found, that sort of thing. It's a great place to set a post-apocalyptic wasteland but I just can't see a plausible way it could happen.

The closest things in the real world are the Salton Sea and the Aral Sea but they're much smaller scale.

The Salton Sea isn't small enough to be worth mentioning whilst the Aral Sea is really just a large lake. I mean, it's big but it's no ocean, and more importantly it's inland. The ocean could recede a bit but it's just too big to disappear.

As a result the game fills me with a sort of sadness at what could never be. Whilst I obviously wouldn't welcome such an apocalypse there's a strange sort of beauty to the devastated landscape. If only its implausibility didn't colour it with a permanent air of fiction....