College in the iPad Age

August 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

Today is my first day of my senior year at USC and I can hardly believe it!

Today is also the second time I have started a school year without paper textbooks.  Instead of a stuffed backpack I solely bring my iPad to class, loaded with all of my notes, textbooks, class schedules, and so on so forth.  I entered college with a stuffed backpack and I am leaving with a tiny tablet as my primary tool for education.  What a remarkable world we live in.

While it is refreshing that most textbooks and course readings are available digitally, I do wish the digital distribution of these books was a little more elegant.  Most are priced similarly to their physical counterparts (something Apple is hoping to solve) and are still a pain to locate.  While we no longer have to aimlessly wander the halls of our school bookstore, we still have to find each book individually and ensure that we have the proper edition.

I hope for solution in which schools and book sellers are more closely intertwined.  Imagine if e-book sellers (Apple, Amazon, etc.) offered a way for professors to create book lists based on their course requirements.  The sellers could then distribute codes to the professors that the professors would then distribute to their students to purchase the entire bundle of e-books at a discounted price.  Ultimately it may even increase textbook sales since a) the convenience of e-book bundles would lead to more impulse buys from students and b) e-book sales cannibalize the used book sales market.

Anyway, these are just a few high level concepts I was toying with this morning while preparing for class.  Let me know what you think!

Mass Effect 3

August 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

I am trying out a more short form blogging style so that

A) I will update my blog more frequently

B) I can cut down on my Twitter rants

Let’s see how it goes!

I began playing Mass Effect 3 a few days ago, and I am still near the beginning after about four and a half hours of play time. As is usually the case with the third iteration of a franchise, the gameplay systems seem to have been impressively sharpened. The once lowly combat system is a kinetic thrill to engage, and the two sides of the once binary morality system have been placed on the same meter so that decisions of morality are reflective of the player as opposed to the reward structure. Welcome improvements indeed.

Yet Mass Effect’s appeal to its audience always chiefly resided in its unique approach to storytelling as opposed to pitch perfect gameplay systems. While its peers used science fiction as a wrapper for games of mindless destruction, Mass Effect was distinct in its eagerness to allow the player to directly interface with its fiction, whether through the dialogue wheel it originally pioneered or through exploration and eavesdropping. For many players, including myself, this distinction was revelatory.

To this day I am still unsure if the series consistently has better writing most blockbuster franchises or simply more of it. In its initial moments Mass Effect 3 ushers in the most familiar conflict for games that aspire to be epics, a doomsday scenario. The game heavy handily asks it audience to become emotionally invested in its end of all days in space plot, showing gloomy depictions of civilian death and despair at the hands of their otherworldly tormentors, but I can hardly think of a scenario more far removed from reality. Without a theme grounded in reality, the player has nothing to hold on to as the roller coaster ride of a game takes off.

Part of the problem comes from BioWare’s early decision to give the avatar a voice. In most Western role playing games the protagonist is little more than a silent shell to imprint your own story upon in the game world. This age old approach led to years of clunky storytelling, but BioWare’s proposed solution does little to solve the problem. In order to compensate for the multitude of different player personalities that must be catered to with their avatar, they created a protagonist entirely devoid of personality. We are asked to believe that he/she is a tormented soul in this final installment, which is a lot to ask considering Shepherd has shown little to no emotion for two 30+ hour installments.

A little slack must be given to BioWare, as conclusions to science fiction stories are difficult to create. Part of science fiction’s appeal comes from the sense of wonder and questions it inspires. BioWare has the difficult task of instilling that sense once again, while neatly wrapping up its plot intricacies. The level of detail in each location is just remarkable, and at this early point in the game it is clear that they have surpassed even their own lofty standards as far as world building goes. The most interesting stories in Mass Effect 3 seem come from what you discover in these diverse locations at your own leisure.

For all of the criticism I direct toward games that use aliens and far fetched scenarios as their basis rather than ideas grounded in reality, I genuinely enjoy the science fiction genre when it is treated with care and respect. Mass Effect may be the only contemporary interactive science fiction that makes any attempt to do so, and I do hope its effort does not go unnoticed by the juggernaut publishers.

I played the original game during my freshman year of college. Like so many of my generation, I had all but lost faith in organized religion and was searching for answers on my own. When my version of Shepherd inquired to the reaper Sovereign on the reaper’s origins, BioWare’s writers offered an interesting idea.

Sovereign:

“We have no beginning. We have no end. We are infinite. Millions of years after your civilization has been eradicated and forgotten, we will endure. There is a realm of existence so far beyond your own, you cannot even imagine it. I am beyond your comprehension.”

The idea that their are forces, beings, things out there beyond human comprehension is one the central principles of agnosticism. It does not reject the belief in the unknown, but it also does not attempt to define it.

Just like the very best of science fiction.

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