Jim Louderback

October 24, 2008

Help, I’m Infatuated With My Fable 2 Avatar

Filed under: Commentary — Jim @ 11:59 am
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SG1S3227  Is it wrong to be infatuated with your video game character?  That’s the question I keep asking myself as I play through the stellar new video game Fable 2, from rock-star developer Peter Molyneux.

The latest installment in the popular Fable world takes place 500 years after the first, and includes a host of new features and capabilities.  I was particularly taken by the stunning new graphics which paint an open Oblivion-like world that offers nearly endless exploration opportunities.  And in this version you even get your very own dog – who becomes a key part of the game,  helping you to uncover hidden treasure and finishing off fallen enemies.

As with the first version, your in-game choices cause your character to evolve towards good or evil – and the rest of the world reacts as your character changes. But this latest version also lets you play through the game as either gender, which sits squarely at the root of my dilemma.

I received an early copy a few days before the official launch, and I’m not sure who was more excited – me or my nine year old son Sam, who has had Fable 2’s launch circled on the calendar for months.  Sam has played through the first version of Fable many times, fascinated by the game’s moral underpinnings, and the ability to directly see the effects of good and evil actions.

Neither the first or second installments are really designed for kids, though.  There are definitely adult themes, and the battles can seem particularly graphic – especially when you lop off an enemy’s head with just the right key combo.  I did have to explain to Sam what a "prostitute" was, during a relatively tame quest in Fable2 (a girl that likes to kiss a lot).  Even though sex is a far bigger part of the game — along with firearms, Fable’s technologists have just invented the condom — you can avoid it entirely, which my son has wisely chosen to do.

Not me.  When the game arrived, Sam immediately began playing as a boy.  After an hour I began my own character – and since you can play a girl I figured I’d give it a try.

But after carefully evolving my character Missy through the first third of the game, keeping her away from fatty snacks, and focusing her training, I’d grown abnormally fond of the girl.  Sure, I’d given her a more winsome haircut, and found some dye to turn her blond.  And yeah, I’d discovered the adolescent joy of stripping her down to her skivies; the Fable equivalent of ogling underwear models in the Sunday paper.

I’d even maneuvered her into becoming a master Blacksmith, in part because you need a job in Fable to raise enough money to buy weapon, houses and baubles.  I could have focused on woodcutting, bartending or bounty hunting, but truth be told a topless Missy just looked so darn good making swords I couldn’t help myself.

I’d grown so fond of her, alas, that I wouldn’t even let her flirt with other guys.  I’m not completely heartless, however, I did find her a nice lesbian barmaid to settle down with – alas, they’ll never have babies together, but they do appear to enjoy consensual sex.  It’s hard to tell, though, because as soon as they get into bed the lights go out.

The game itself follows roughly the same arc as the first version.  Your family gets knocked off early, and you spend the rest of the game saving the world and getting revenge.  In the first version you spend a few years in jail, and fight a series of gladiator-style battles in the arena.  In this version, you spend 10 years in the Spire, and fight a series of gladiator-style battles in the

imageEven though you can now fight with guns, battle hasn’t changed much.  You still button-mash your way to glory with hack and slash attacks and magic.  You no longer have a finite reservoir of magic (aka Will), instead you hold the magic button down to build up Will for more involved spells.  This is both good and bad – you never run out of magic in a fight, but you can’t immediately whack your enemies with a super-powerful spell.  The game also moved the magic button to the RED B, which was a major problem – as I frequently found myself accidentally casting spells in towns, scaring away potential lovers, shopkeepers and other townfolk, and incrementing my "bad meter".

On the plus side, in Fable 2 you never die.  Run out of life force, and you fall to the ground, lose any unassimilated experience points, and then rise to fight again – albeit with a brand-new disfiguring scar.  My son thought these blemishes were cool looking – I was horrified, and worked overtime to keep my Missy pure.

Neither Sam nor I have finished yet, although he’s much further along than me.  It’s not a game you rush to complete though, as much of the fun is found building your life, becoming an expert at different skills, and performing the various interconnected quests.

Even though its 500 years later, the world seems familiar, the characters haven’t changed a lot, and you still get the somewhat guilty pleasure of kicking chickens and munching on crunchy chicks.  It does seem harder, however, to become really good, or truly evil, but that’s OK.  As long as I can keep growing my character’s attributes and exploring the amazingly detailed and often wryly humorous world, that’s OK.  But next time, perhaps, I’ll opt for a male character instead.  Until then, don’t tell my wife, please, about my emotional attachment to Fable.  She just wouldn’t understand.

October 11, 2008

I Need a Universal Mail Client (again)

Filed under: Commentary — Jim @ 6:04 am

Back in the early nineties there were a plethora of incompatible mail programs.  Many companies still used MCI Mail for external connectivity, individuals typically had a mail account at one or more of the big three online services – CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL

One of my absolute favorite programs of the era came from a company called ConnectSoft.  Based in Bellevue Washington, just a stone’s throw from the Microsoft borg, these plucky developers built a universal email package called "E-Mail Connection"

Featuring a whimsical sense of humor, spearheaded by marketing head Bill McEwan (who would later go on to take over Amiga), the company never took itself too seriously – even though its fanatical users sung the programs praises from dawn till dusk.

It did a simple thing, yet did it well.  The program accessed each of your many mail accounts, and delivered all your mail into a single in-box.  No longer would power geeks have to visit three or four sites to collect all their mail.  It was so good that noted curmudgeon John Dvorak actually gave it a "Best of 1995" award.

One of the most powerful features:  A unified address book that would automatically add an entry for anyone sending you email, regardless of service.

What happened to ConnectSoft?  The Internet.  Once most users gravitated to web-based mail, and those email programs became easy to link up, the need for a universal inbox waned.  The proprietary connectivity services, including MCIMail, AOL Mail, Prodigy and CompuServe all faded away.

Oh, and the borg hastened the decline as well, once Outlook supported POP mail, along with webmail programs.   The company attempted to move upmarket to corporate, and downmakret to kids mail, but in the end its day was done.  Technology had advanced beyond its solution.

But sometimes it seems like everything repeats itself.  I still have a shrink-wrapped copy of E-Mail Connection on the shelf in the garage, and I’m beginning to look at it much more wistfully.  That’s because over the past year or two I’ve ended up with a handful of incompatible email clients and no easy way to consolidate them together.

Take Facebook, for example.  I get tons of mail on Facebook, but the interface is even more primitive than the early days of Compuserve.  Linked-In, too, has its own proprietary email format that reminds me of MCI Mail – and not favorably either.  Pownce, Plurk, Twitter, all these messaging systems require separate programs, separate connections and separate sessions to access.  And what if I want to forward a note from someone at Facebook to someone at Linked In?  It’s a 12 step process that’ll drive you to drink.

So here’s your very own million-dollar idea of the day.  Someone, please purchase the assets of E-Mail Connection and build the 2008 version of it.  Because not only am I drowning in email, I"m drowning in email services.  I can’t keep up!  And I’ll bet Dvorak will give you an award for it too.






October 6, 2008

How and Why You Should Clean Vista

Filed under: Commentary — Jim @ 3:16 pm

After about a year of using Windows XP, it was standard operating procedure to strip your PC down to its bare hard drive, reinstall the OS, and then one-by-one reinstall your favorite applications.  Much like painting the deck or cleaning the gutters, this distasteful task made the rest of the year much more livable.

Vista promised to do away with the annual PC rebuild chore.    But like so many Vista promises, this one’s not true either.  I’ve had a Vista notebook for about 9 months.  Love it – it’s a red XPS1330 from Dell.  But over the past few months its gotten more and more sluggish. 

The ultimate insult, though, came when my Ethernet port refused to recognize DHCP connections.  Nope, it would only connect to a router – even a DHCP enabled one – with a static IP address.  Have you ever asked the concierge at a Sheraton hotel for a DNS, gateway and static IP address for your room?  Much hilarity and slapstick comedy ensues, but the codes, alas, rarely arrive.

So I resolved to strip my XPS down to its core, and build it back with just the programs I needed.  At least, after my rebuild, if it remained sluggish and uncommunicative I could blame Dell, not Microsoft, and maybe talk my way into a new computer.

So here’s how I did it (and if you’re planning to do it too, follow these steps)


  1. Download and run Belarc Advisor:  This is key.  the free Belarc Advisor gives you reams and reams of info about your system, and some of it is priceless.  It analyzes all the software on your computer, and then gives you both the installation codes and the internal codes for your system.  This lets you reinstall Office 2007, for example, if you have the CDs but not the program code.  If you’re like me, and you buy software and then promptly lose the installation sticker, you’ll really need this data.
  2. Make a Backup;  Definitely make a complete, end to end backup of your system.  However, if you like to skate on thin ice and cut corners, absolutely positively do this:
    • use Vista’s excellent "Backup and Restore Center" to make a backup of your files and folders.  You can select all types of files here, but to limit the size of the backup I’d deselect TV Shows, Videos, Music and Compressed Files (if you don’t already have them stored somewhere else — if you don’t, then just back it all up).
    • Oh, and I suggest that you go out and buy a 350 or 500 megabyte gigabyte <!> USB hard drive for this.  They’re cheap, and yes they will save your butt someday.
    • You’re not done, though.  Just for safety sake, it’s time to create another backup on that removable hard drive.  Go to your own personal folder (it’s typically your name, like Jim or Betty).  That folder contains all sorts of stuff, like documents, music, contacts, downloads, etc.  You want to make a complete copy of that folder onto your removable hard drive as well.  Before you get started, hit the "Organize" menu button, and select "Folder and Search Options"   click the "View" tab and then under the "Hidden files and folders" option, select the radio-button "Show hidden files and folders".  Click OK, and then go copy everything in your personal folder over to that hard drive.  You really want that "AppData" folder backed up too.
  3. Now rebuild your system.  Dell makes this drop-dead easy by creating a separate partition, and putting a clean copy of the system – and a program to install it with – right there.  If your PC vendor doesn’t have that, see if you can track down the Rescue disk that came with the system.  If you built it yourself, I hope you did a Ghost or other system image when you first got it configured.  If not, you’ll have to start back with the OS, and move on from there.
  4. Even though I loaded Dell’s image, there was still a lot of work to do.  First I had to delete a half-dozen craplets that Dell shoves onto its base install.  Then I had to download updated drivers for the hardware, and force Vista to upgrade to SP1
  5. After all that was done, I used the Backup and Restore Center to restore the files and settings I’d created in step 2.1 above.  Then I installed all my favorite apps, and I was ready to go!

Was it faster?  Heck yes.  Could I connect via DHCP on the Ethernet port.  Heck Yes.  Am I happy?  Heck yes, except, of course, for the 3 hours or so I spent on the rebuild.

Let this be a lesson to you.  Vista is like a pot of water, and we’re like a frog.  Over time that pot of water slowly gets warmer and warmer, making our systems more and more sluggish.  Don’t wait until the pot boils!  Get out and rebuild your system today.

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