1709: Stories All Around

Whenever I see a police car or an ambulance screaming down the road in the opposite direction to the way I’m going, I can’t help but wonder where they’re going, what they’re doing and what the story behind that split-second encounter was. For a brief moment, my own story — usually something rather mundane like going to the shops or to get some petrol — intersects with that of some other people; an exciting, possibly tragic story that I will likely never know the details of.

That doesn’t stop me wondering, though.

Stories are all around us. Everyone you see is living their own story. And while few of them live up to the obnoxious banner currently hanging in Southampton’s WestQuay shopping centre (which promotes a local photography studio and reads “The Most Important Story Ever Told: Yours”), they’re all different and they’re all interesting in their own way. It can be kind of mind-boggling to contemplate quite how many things are going on at any given time, particularly when you contemplate how many things happen to you — however mundane — on any given day.

It’s in acknowledging the fact that stories are going on all around us — and continue without our intervention — that it becomes possible to craft a convincing, compelling fictional world. And it’s true across all forms of media: many comic books these days unfold in shared universes, with foreground events in one series fading into the background in others, but still being acknowledged; crossover TV shows keep their own narratives mostly parallel, but occasionally bend inwards a little to meet for a fleeting episode or two before diverging again; prolific authors spend volume after volume building up a convincing mental picture of how their world works, and the many adventures that the people therein have over time.

And the same is, of course, true of video games. The most well-crafted video games embrace this feeling of stories happening all around us at any time and, more so than any other medium, allow us to explore them at our leisure, pursuing the threads we’re interested in to build up a full picture of what it must really like to be an inhabitant of a virtual world.

This sort of thing is particularly important in sprawling role-playing games, where a poorly crafted world can do great harm to the immersion factor of the game. It’s the reason why the Elder Scrolls games have never really resonated with me: I never got the sense that the people wandering around and occasionally looking in my direction mattered; I never got the sense that they had their own personal stories, even when they formed the basis of a quest or two. There was the odd exception — tucked away in a few nooks and crannies were some interesting diary entries and illicit items that suggested all was perhaps not as it seemed with a character that seemed otherwise respectable — but for the most part, the identikit nature of most of the characters in these games was immensely offputting.

It will doubtless not surprise you to hear that this is one thing I feel Final Fantasy XIV does exceptionally well, much as its predecessor Final Fantasy XI did before it. Although the world is primarily populated by static NPCs who go about their same old business at all times of day or night — that and the players, of course — the game does, on regular occasions, make the effort to make the land of Eorzea feel truly lived-in.

This is most apparent in the relatively recently added “Postmoogle” quests, in which you’re recruited (somewhat reluctantly) by the Deputy Postmoogle to deliver a series of letters to various characters around the realm. Mechanically, these quests are little more than “go here, talk to this person” fetch quests, but if you stop and pay attention to what is being said — and who is involved — they take on a whole new amount of meaning.

This is because they involve characters that you will have seen elsewhere out and about in the world in various contexts.

One quest sees you accompanying the aptly named Hunberct Longhaft and his two adoring Miqo’te companions around the city of Ul’Dah; your only previous contact with these characters will have been during one of the major “FATE” events out in the world, at which point there was little time for conversation, but just enough time to wonder exactly what was going on between Hunberct and the two Miqo’te.

Another sees you engaging in conversation with a group of four gladiators whom you’ve likely only ever encountered as the last “boss” of the dungeon Halatali (Hard). Another still delves into the background of the “aesthetician” — the character you can summon from your inn room to get a new haircut — and his Ishgardian heritage.

It’s not just the Postmoogle quests that do this, however. Many of the sidequests that have been added since the game’s launch acknowledge popular minor characters, such as the ill-fated adventuring party you run into early in the game’s main scenario, whose erstwhile leader is beheaded in battle “off-camera” while you run your first dungeons. The next time you meet the group, the healer of the party — the deceased leader’s fiancee — is carrying his head around in a bag with her, stricken with guilt; the next time you meet them, which is much, much later, at level 50, long after the initial main scenario is over and done with, things have gone very, very wrong indeed.

Final Fantasy XIV is far from the only example of this idea of stories being all around us being used effectively in video games, but it’s one of the best in recent memory.

I still can’t help wondering where that ambulance was going, though. I hope the person it was on its way to help is all right.

1708: Playing on Home Turf

Regular readers of this blog will be well familiar with how much I enjoy Final Fantasy XIV (as does Andie now, too) and, for sure, I’ve had a blast since the game’s original beta sessions last year. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to run with the same people since I started playing — the Giant Bomb Free Company — and most of them have been playing fairly constantly since launch, so there are usually some familiar faces online at any given time, and other people come and go around that stable of predictable, reliable players.

The downside to the Free Company that I’m a member of is that the vast majority of people involved live in the States. This makes things a little difficult when I want to participate in things that practically necessitate forming a group yourself rather than relying on the game’s built-in “Duty Finder” matchmaking system. It hasn’t stopped me trying, of course — and I’m very pleased to have completed both The Binding Coil of Bahamut Turn 5 and Ramuh’s Extreme Mode incarnation with my friends in the Free Company — but since these attempts normally necessitate staying up until about 3am at the earliest in most cases, they’re not always practical, particularly now I have a proper job and consequently have to get up at some ungodly hour in the morning in order to arrive on time.

Enter our neighbours, then — yes, they’re actually our neighbours; their Free Company house is right across the street from ours — the free company Loose Cannons, more commonly known as LoCo. I’ve seen these guys around a bit over time, but didn’t really know them that well. They always seemed to be pleasant people, though, and they were always gracious enough to wave and greet me when I passed by them on my way to do something else.

After a while, a “linkshell” — essentially a custom chat channel, for those unfamiliar with Final Fantasy XIV parlance — was set up to allow Giant Bomb and LoCo to communicate with one another, since the Free Company chat channels are restricted to members only, and you can only be a member of one Free Company at once. You can have up to eight linkshells, though, so I happily accepted the invitation — though, being me, I was somewhat hesitant to muscle in on what I saw as already-established social groups, and thus remained rather quiet around the unfamiliar people.

The other night saw an encouraging milestone, though; it transpires that many of the members of LoCo operate in the same timezone as me, and moreover, that a lot of them are interested in taking on the game’s most challenging content, such as the aforementioned Binding Coil of Bahamut Turn 5, and the subsequent four-part raid the Second Coil of Bahamut. Since I’m also interested in challenging this content, but didn’t want to muscle in on the established, US-timezone groups that had already naturally formed in Giant Bomb, this has the potential to be an ideal situation for me.

I’ve never been a part of a “static” raiding group before and indeed have usually shied away from this sort of thing in MMOs because I doubt my own skills, usefulness and ability to commit to the group. As I wrote the other day, though, Final Fantasy XIV is one of a few games that I actually feel confident that I’m quite good at, and the prospect of not only challenging myself but developing some close friendships with others who enjoy the game in much the same way I do is very exciting to me. I’ve often mentioned how playing Final Fantasy XIV can be as much of a social activity as a video game, and having a regularly scheduled evening where a predictable, reliable group all shows up and we work our damnedest to try and take down Twintania, Rafflesia and whatever lies beyond that? Well, that’s something that I’m looking forward to a lot.

Is this how people on sports teams feel?

1707: Speccy

I bought some new glasses recently, at great expense. (For those of you with 20/20 vision, be happy; glasses are expensive.) I picked them up this morning and I was actually quite excited about it — I’ve felt that my current pair haven’t been quite “right” for a little while, and a recent eye test confirmed that yes, my right eye in particular seems to have changed a bit, and a new pair of glasses probably wouldn’t be a terrible idea. (They probably weren’t a terrible idea anyway, since my current pair are now several years old and, having been attached to my face for the majority of that time, are now also covered in that unpleasant but reassuringly familiar clink that builds up around the nosepiece of glasses that are worn on a daily basis.)

Anyway, I put on the new glasses to try them and they immediately felt a little odd. I was assured that it was largely to do with the fact that my eyes were adjusting to the new lenses, though; after all, if my right eye had changed a bit, it had probably been overcompensating somewhat for the lenses in my current pair. I was then encouraged to keep them on for the whole day in order to try and adjust, and discouraged from returning to my old pair.

Well, I tried. I kept the new pair on for most of the day, but when I reached mid-afternoon and found myself sporting a headache that I can only describe as “excruciating” — it was near migraine-like in its intensity, nausea-inducing tendencies and quantity of colourful flashing lights it was attracting in front of my vision — I came to the conclusion that no amount of “adjustment” was going to fix this; the glasses were simply not quite right.

This is a bit of a bummer, since it means I have to make another appointment with the opticians to attempt to get this sorted. I imagine it will probably result in another eye test, too, which will be a pain to schedule around work, and then, of course, I’ll end up having to wait for some new lenses, assuming they do need replacing. This isn’t the end of the world, since my current glasses are still perfectly acceptable, but I was looking forward to enjoying the improved clarity and magic blue light-reducing lenses of the new ones.

Sadly it seems that is not to be for now; it would seem unwise to try and just cope with a pair of glasses that make me feel slightly cross-eyed at best and make me want to throw up and fall over at worst. With any luck, I’ll be able to get them sorted out this week.

These things happen, of course, but I can’t deny being a little disappointed by all this. I’ve not had a bad experience with opticians in the years since I started wearing glasses, so it’s a shame to run into this issue. Now comes the test of whether Boots’ customer service is up to snuff or not… I guess we’ll find out on Monday!

1706: Bug Me and I Leave You

Given the ubiquity of technology these days, there’s a lot more competition between apps and online services than there ever was in the past. This means that all of them have to stoop to increasingly low levels in order to get people to “engage” with them, leading to a situation we’ve simply not had prior to the last few years.

That situation comes in the form of apps and services begging you to use them. It’s obnoxious, obtrusive and, more to the point, makes me disinclined to make use of that app or service ever again. In fact, in most cases, if an app or service begs me to use it or come back, I will simply uninstall it or unsubscribe from their mailing list.

The most egregious example I can think of recently was an app called TuneIn Radio. I was recommended this as a good means of listening to both streaming Internet radio and podcasts, but was dismayed to discover after firing it up just once that it then insisted on reminding me of its own existence at least once a day via a push notification that was usually recommending something I had absolutely no interest in whatsoever. (“Listen to TalkSport!” Oh, how little you know me.) However good the app is, notifications bug me enough at the best of times, so in the bin it went.

I’m still getting email messages from services I had to sign up for when I was reviewing endless reams of shitty mobile-social apps for Inside Mobile Apps, too. Eventually I simply registered for these services with an email address I don’t use any more, and this mitigated the problem somewhat, but there are still times where there are services that I haven’t touched for a year or more feel the need to email me and remind me that they exist.

Worse, when you unsubscribe from these mailing lists you inevitably end up signed up to, you’re often questioned as to why you’d ever want to stop your inbox being cluttered up with this meaningless crap. I had one email the other day from a service called AppData, a ludicrously expensive analytics service that was attached to the Inside Social Games and Inside Mobile Apps sites I used to write for, which asked whether I had unsubscribed “by mistake”. Seriously. Look.

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The sheer arrogance of this is absolutely astonishing. “Oh, no, whoops, I unsubscribed from your marketing spam by mistake. I actually do want you to try and sell me things! Sign me back up, quick!” Or, indeed, “oh no, the pointless marketing spam I forwarded on to my friend [who does this?] annoyed them so much that they tried to unsubscribe themselves and instead unsubscribed me! Sign me back up, quick!”

I kind of understand why this happens. As I said at the beginning, the sheer amount of competition between mobile app and online service providers these days is ridiculous, so they have to resort to ever more drastic measures to retain their users, and hopefully convert them into paying customers — or at least people who will click on ads.

I can’t say I feel much sympathy, though. Surely having to resort to this is not a signal that you should market harder. Surely having to resort to this is, instead, a sign that there is far too much pointless, useless crap on the market, and maybe you should try a bit harder to come up with an idea that is actually innovative and helpful to people rather than a rehash of other things people already use? Harsh as it may sound, these days I find myself smiling a little with every email I receive that informs me a pointless, stupid mobile-social service that I reviewed a year or more ago is closing down. I’m glad; there’s too much noise in our lives anyway even with just the well-established services like Twitter and Facebook, so stop adding to it.

1705: Weekender

[Forgot to publish this last night. So here it is now for your delectation.]

It’s the end of another week, and as a newcomer to the traditional nine-to-five I’m already discovering the joys of Friday. I haven’t gone so far as to start saying “TGIF” and all that yet, but I can certainly see the appeal of kicking off the weekend.

Although thinking about it, Fridays always used to be “special” a certain degree. Not in the same way as like a birthday or a holiday, of course, but obviously… nice.

My fondest memories of Fridays were, I think, from when I was still at school. Back then, Friday was Good TV Night — this was the pre-digital era, so we only had four channels and consequently Good TV Night was a bigger deal. Also TV shows were better. But I digress.

Yes, Good TV Night started about 9pm with Friends — one of several shows that I insisted on videotaping every episode of — closely followed by a show at 9.30 that I usually didn’t care about, like Cybill, followed by Frasier. If we were lucky, Whose Line is it Anyway? would be on after that too.

Okay, Good TV Night was actually just two, possibly three, good shows, but it was a nice way to round off the week. It felt special and symbolic — after that, there would be two glorious days of not having to do all that much.

Friday now is somewhat less symbolic in the same way. The advent of video on demand has made Good TV Night a thing of the past — why be held to the behest of the schedulers when you can watch whatever you want when you want? — and this has left Friday itself feeling more like an opportunity to just zonk out and relax than anything else.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. We all need time to relax and unwind after a week of, in most cases, being at least partially mature and responsible.

So that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. And that’s exactly what I intend to spend most of the next two days doing, too.

1704: The Improved Posting Experience

All right, WordPress, you win. After bugging me constantly with urges to try the “improved posting experience” while I was just trying to write my blog, let’s give this “improved posting experience” a go and see if it’s actually any better than the “posting experience” most WordPress users are accustomed to. Here we go, then.

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So first up, it’s pretty blue. This puts it in line with the main WordPress.com site, where those using WordPress.com to manage their blog and/or be part of the WordPress community of bloggers can tweak their blog settings, fiddle with multiple sites and subscribe to other people’s blogs. In that sense, it’s consistent; however, where it’s inconsistent is with the rest of the WordPress dashboard, which is still the black and grey it’s ever been.

Let’s take a look at functionality.

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There’s drag and drop for images… sort of. You can drag an image file onto the post editor, but this doesn’t automatically insert it into the post at the point where you drop it, disappointingly; rather, it simply brings up the regular media browser (which now doesn’t match the new editor) and uploads the image, at which point you can insert it into the post where you left the cursor. (This didn’t work first time I tried; I had to close the media browser, reposition the cursor, then open it again and then insert.) It also inexplicably forgets the default setting for image size that you might have been using in the “classic mode” (ugh) “posting experience”.

As for other functionality, there’s the same toolbar as the regular WordPress “posting experience” (no, I’m not going to stop the sarcastic quotation marks around that phrase anytime soon) but, like the media browser, it forgets your default settings, in this case whether you have the “kitchen sink” second row of buttons (allowing access to styles, underline, justification, text colour, special characters, indents, undo and redo — all pretty useful stuff) open or not.

Over on the right of the editor, there’s a bunch of pop-open menus for the post’s status (draft, scheduled, published), tags and categories, a featured image, whether the post will be shared on social media (and whether there will be a custom message), an attached location, a front-page excerpt, and the mysterious “advanced settings”, which include… drum roll…

…a custom slug, the author of the post, the format of the post, its visibility, whether or not it’s a sticky, and whether it allows likes, shares, comments and pingbacks. Hmm. Not all that advanced, really.

I can’t really tell what’s better about this “improved posting experience” to be honest, and in a number of ways it’s actually inferior. It certainly looks quite nice — the pop-open menus on the right keep things very neat and clean, for example — but it has this improved look at the expense of ease of access to information and settings.

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The standard WordPress editor may be more cluttered and rather more clinical-looking than the soft blues of the “improved posting experience”, but it’s also considerably superior. Information and settings can be popped open and closed at will — it’s all open rather than closed by default — and the screen gives you much more information, most notably on the status bar at the bottom of the editor, where you have a word count and a “last edited” date — both of which are completely absent from the “improved posting experience”. There’s also easy access to all other aspects of your site via the left-hand side menu.

Also worthy of note: when I started writing this post, there was a button to switch back to “classic mode” which promptly disappeared when I saved a draft. Getting back to the standard editor required logging back into this site’s dashboard, going to the post list and then choosing to edit my draft. Somewhat cumbersome.

I can see the intent behind the “improved posting experience” — it’s to strip out all the stuff that might prove daunting to those less familiar with technology and software such as WordPress. It’s an attempt to make it into a simple and clean blog editor along the lines of Tumblr. Trouble is, that’s never what WordPress has been about; WordPress has always been the blog solution to go to when you want customisability and a lot of control over what you’re posting, when and how — and without having to mess around with HTML and CSS for styling.

Perhaps the “improved posting experience” will encourage more new users to give blogging a serious go. And that’s ultimately a good thing. For people like me, though, who have been using WordPress for years now, it’s very much a step backwards rather than forwards.

1703: Beans, Beans, Beans

I’ve never really felt like all those pieces of conventional wisdom regarding certain foods and drinks actually have the intended effect on me — at least not until the last few years or so. I’m not sure if they’re actually having more of an effect on me as I get older, or if I’m simply more conscious of the effect they’re having on me. Either way, I’m starting to notice that some of the things regarding food and drink I’ve long had a certain degree of doubt over are perhaps a little more true than I thought.

Take coffee, for example. Now, my past resilience to caffeine — I’ve long been able to drink a cup of joe in the evening and not have it affect my sleep patterns, though this is perhaps due to the fact that my sleep patterns are already somewhat questionable — can perhaps be attributed to the sheer amount of the stuff I’ve put into my body on a regular basis ever since I was quite young. Coffee is seen by some as a “grown-up drink” — perhaps because of its bitterness, and the fact that, without milk, it’s an acquired taste — but I’ve been drinking it in various forms for as long as I can remember. Okay, for the first few years of my life it was milky Nescafé, but as soon as the world discovered fancy, expensive coffees I was right there with everyone — though I must confess I don’t go as far as some people, largely because I have no idea what a “wet latte” is.

Anyway. The fact is, I’ve always drunk a lot of coffee — and buying a nice coffee machine a while back certainly didn’t help me cut back, not that I particularly wanted to. As such, my body has apparently grown somewhat accustomed to caffeine, and thus a simple coffee never felt like it had a huge amount of effect on me. Sure, if I drank too many coffees and Red Bulls in a day, I’d get the shakes and feel a bit sick — as bad a feeling as any hangover, that, let me tell you — but for the most part, I never felt like caffeine made me any more “alert” or gave me a buzz as legend had it that it was supposed to.

Recently, however, I’ve cut back on coffee somewhat, largely due to the fact that it costs money to go and get a decent coffee at work (I could take instant, but, frankly, I’m a snob about coffee now and find that most instant — with the possible exception of Nescafé Azera, which is actually pretty good — tastes like crap) and thus I drink far less on any given day. And, as a result, I feel like caffeine is having more of an effect on me. I know a morning coffee certainly feels like it helps — and if I need to pep up a bit in the afternoon, another cup feels like it helps too. It’s possibly psychosomatic, of course — which is what I’ve long suspected when it comes to caffeine — but, well, it’s working for me.

An area where I have less doubt is in the matter of baked beans. Now, those of you with fond memories of the schoolyard will doubtless remember the short piece of juvenile poetry that taught everyone that while beans were indeed good for one’s heart, they had a habit of also afflicting one with a certain degree of flatulence.

I’ve never really actually considered this to be true, despite the popular perception of eating beans being akin to allowing a Northern mining town free rein to hold brass band rehearsals somewhere within the cavernous expanse of your rectum. However, once again, just recently I have discovered that there may, in fact, be a degree more truth in this piece of popular wisdom than I had initially anticipated.

I had a jacket potato for lunch the other day, you see. My workplace canteen boasts some of the largest baked potatoes I’ve ever seen, and they’re cooked nicely so that there’s a bit of crispiness to the skin while they remain fluffy and not dried out within. There are few fillings available for said baked potatoes, but one of them is the old staple baked beans, optionally with the addition of cheese. I indulged in this classic combination, then went back to work in the afternoon. Upon reaching the end of the day, I found myself feeling a little bloated, but thought little of it and walked the 15-minute walk back to my car.

Upon reaching my car and sitting down inside, it happened: an attack of flatulence that bore an uncanny resemblance to distant — but rapidly approaching — rolling thunder. Starting subtly but quickly building in a crescendo of gaseous overtones, the entire affair lasted a good ten seconds or so, after which the feeling of being somewhat bloated had magically passed. It took another ten minutes for me to stop laughing enough to be able to drive off safely.

Naturally, upon discovering that the canteen’s particular brand of baked beans had such a dramatic impact on me, I had to try again. And so it was that today I indulged in another gigantic jacket potato with beans and cheese — and a jelly for afters, because who can resist a jelly? — and so it was that once again, upon returning to my vehicle after a long day staring at my computer screen, I erupted in a cacophony of full-bodied guffs that I can hardly deny were extremely satisfying to release. I was even a bit sorry that no-one was around to hear them.

So yeah. Beans, beans, good for your heart; beans, beans really do… you know.