Verbum Prepares a Massive Patristic Collection

You don’t spend any time in deep study of the Church Fathers without coming across some reference to the Patrologiae Cursus Completus of Fr. Jacques Paul Migne. Fr. Migne’s goal was truly epic: create a cheap series of books collecting the complete writings of the Church Fathers, Greek and Latin.

His editions were massive and done with some haste, so they’ve been subjected to criticism over the years, but they remain the single largest source of patristic writing ever compiled. The English translations from Philip Schaff, which are in wide use on the internet and within the Verbum Bible Software, were based on Migne’s originals, but do not represent the complete corpus, which has never been rendered in English in its entirety.

Over the years, better, more academic texts and translations have replaced individual works from the Patrologiae, but there is no single source like it.

Verbum is bringing this treasure of the Church to their software in two editions: Patrologiae Latina (221 volumes of Western Fathers) Patrilogiae Graeca (167 volumes of Eastern Fathers). Each of these is currently on pre-publication sale for $250, which is a flat-out steal for academics and theology students. They’re also publishing  a set that includes Patrologia Syriaca (2 volumes) and Orientalis (17 volumes). These supplements were created by Rene Graffin to fill in the gaps of Migne’s work with writings from the Syriac Church Fathers as well as texts in Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Greek, Georgian, and Slavonic.

The editions are full of introductions, critical and supplementary material, and are fully adapted to the Verbum/Logos format. This means they are cross-linked the Schaff editions in English, which means you can spot check Schaff against the originals.

“But Tom,” I hear you saying. “I don’t read Latin or Greek! What’s a body to do?!”

Look, my Latin is wretched. I was a C-student, and time hasn’t improved it all that much despite my occasional forays into Wheelock. As for my Greek? A-ho-ho-he-he-ha! You know what Ben Jonson said about Shakespeare? “Small Latin and less Greek.” It’s like that, but worse. Here’s a picture from my desk:

Sad, isn’t it? I still need to count on my fingers, too.

But that’s the beauty of Verbum. Their language tools provide a sturdy crutch for the Latin/Greek challenged. You can pick your way through the text with the help of various dictionaries and word-study aids. It’s a beautiful thing.

This will be one of the jewels in Verbum’s crown for the serious academic. Order early to lock in a good price, because it’s not going to be $250 forever.

SimCity (2013) [Game Review]

Note: From time to time, I just do straight-up game reviews with some content info for parents and occasional critiques of religion in games. And, yes, I still owe a final review of Bioshock Infinite, which I finished a couple weeks ago. I’m still mulling it over.

SimCity (2013)
EA/Maxis
Format: PC: $40-$60 (OSX version due in June)
Rated: E10
Content Descriptors: Mild Violence
Rating Summary: This is a simulation game in which players create and expand fictional cities by managing resources and keeping their population content. From a birds-eye perspective, players build residences, factories, and civic structures to improve city conditions; certain actions (e.g. building a casino) may cause crime to increase in the city. Murder is sometimes referenced in the text (e.g., a news ticker displays “Shocking murder puts local police in the spotlight”); small figures can be seen robbing banks and engaging in shootouts with police. Players are also able to deploy natural and fantastical disasters on the city (e.g., tornadoes, flaming meteors, fires, giant monsters, destructive robots). Includes online features that may expose players to unrated user-generated content.
Parent Recommendation: The always online and massively multiplayer features may be a deal-breaker for parents on this one, since it’s difficult to play the game without the multiplayer. In terms of content, the most violent thing are various disasters that destroy cities.

+++++++++

Well, that was interesting.

When you aim high in game design, you can’t afford to be sloppy. In their newest entry in the SimCity series, EA/Maxis aimed very high indeed, and completely shook up the whole city-building genre with an entirely new way of playing. It’s dense, detailed, and complex. It also demands always-on internet connections and folds multiplayer support right into the heart of the game. In other words, it needed massive amounts of testing and a careful rollout.

What it got instead was a disaster that so enraged users they managed to get EA named the Worst Company in the Country in a poll conducted by The Consumerist with 78% of the total votes. It was the final straw in a long run of missteps that forced the resignation of EA CEO John Riccitiello.

Oddly enough, it was also one of the most successful recent EA launches, moving over 1 million copies in two weeks.

That very volume is probably what caused the system breakdown, since EA appears to have launched their massively multiplayer SimCity, complete with extremely unpopular digital rights management (DRM), with only four servers. EA claims the live internet connection was essential for handling the processing load needed to manage all those AI sims. That was, of course, a lie, but that’s okay: I never believed them anyway.

Adding to the issues were myriad bugs that continued to plague the game itself even after the long server waits and crashes began to be resolved. The huge, complex mechanisms of the game didn’t always mesh well, with weird problems in pathfinding and strange AI and economic behavior. Equally irritating was the disabling of “Cheetah Speed”—which enables players to speed up game time rather than having to move through each day slowly–at launch.

At this writing (three weeks after release) cities are still vanishing on occasion, and work remains to be done, but the game is starting to stabilize. We’re beginning to see the potential beneath the problems as one of the classic strategy games of all time moves in new direction.

Users will have to decide for themselves whether that direction is one that appeals to them or not. Let’s take the two major gameplay elements—city building and regional management—separately, since each requires a different kind of critique.

Inside the game itself, where you build your city, there are elements that are both welcome and unwelcome. The cities themselves are a sheer delight, both visually and functionally. The game zooms down to the smallest level, tracking each citizen as he goes about his business. (This doesn’t always work, mind you, and the AI can send sims to random houses or on the wrong paths.) Buildings have an astonishing level of detail, and the city is beautiful, dynamic, and alive, mixing sights, sounds, music, and events as you lay the bones for an entirely new place and watch it slowly come alive under your guidance.

It’s hard to fault the interface, which puts a great deal of power and data into a few clicks. Road building, zoning, and building placement all work just as they should, although railroads seem a little finicky. It’s possible to create wild, freeform road systems or tightly interlocking grids. Pipes and electricity run along the roads, simplifying one of the more tedious jobs from previous SimCity games.

But even with these boons, there will be long-time SimCity players who find themselves deprived of essential features. Terraforming is out. Cities are much, much smaller. And you can’t just create a sprawling, messy metropolis like you used to be able to. Cities are specialized now, with some regions better for ore production, some better for commerce, and so on.

These individual cities tie into regions, which brings us to the second level of the game. Regional management is where old-time Simmers will start to feel adrift. Each smaller city acts as a zone in a larger region. In order for cities to really function, they need to tie into other cities in order to trade goods and resources. It is possible to create a wholly single player game in which you create and manage the regions and the individual cities all by yourself, but that’s not how this new SimCity is designed.

The goal is to build in an online region where others are also building, tying your city to the cities of other, human players. I really can’t see what’s gained by this, and indeed much is lost. In fact, if someone simply stop managing a city, a region can be left with a malfunctioning ghost town, and I haven’t been able to tell just how the game will manage this as time goes on.

There are games where multiplayer is a good fit, and city building games are not among them. I don’t want to chat with other players, and I don’t want the health of my city dependent upon the play style and dedication of a stranger. It’s possible to create wholly private games, but that assumes you know enough people who want to mess about with cities in a game that’s not really giving people everything they want from a SimCity title.

And you know what? You can still get most of the good stuff from another game called … SimCity 4. Currently selling for under $20, it even has an offline regional management system. The interface and graphics, as well as some gameplay elements, are just better in the 2013 version, but SimCity 4 has the benefit of several years of patches, no online DRM, and no mandatory multiplayer. It’s just a good old fashioned SimCity game.

SimCity was always called a “software toy,” because it encouraged twiddling around. You could save a city, have Godzilla destroy it, respond to the destruction with emergency crews, and then reload the old city just as it was and do it again. That’s all gone now. The cities themselves are wonders to behold, and the interface has never been better, but the multiplayer is a poor fit, and unless EA continues to service, fix, and expand it, SimCity will continue to disappoint.

You can buy it here.

BioShock Infinite: First Impressions

Since I’ve written about BioShock quite a bit, I’ve been getting a lot of questions here and on Twitter and Facebook about the newest title–Bioshock Infinite–which just released yesterday. I’m wrapping up an issue of Games Magazine this week, and only just managed to get about four hours of play in last night.

So, here are some loose first thoughts about it:

Rumors are circulating that it cost $100 million to make, and I can believe it. This is the first title from Irrational Games since the original BioShock in 2007 (Irrational didn’t make BioShock 2), and they’ve been working on it about that long. The game, which uses the Unreal engine, is not just gorgeous. That’s to be expected in 2013. The wonderful thing is the staggering amount of visual style and invention on display. This is a dazzling act of world-building. Just take a look:

It offers a world that is familiar in our imaginations–early 20th century, World’s Fair-inspired Americana–and adds equal parts steampunk and dystopia. Unlike the dripping, dark, decaying, claustrophobic atmosphere of the original BioShock, this is a sunlit paradise. Project head Ken Levine said they looked not only to the 1893 World’s Fair for inspiration, but to movies like The Music Man, and it shows. Men in straw boaters, ladies in long dresses, carnival midways, and barbershop quartets: there’s color and life everywhere, all seen through a nostalgic haze.

Are you familiar with the Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” or the books of Jack Finney? It’s like that.

Except … it’s not, because the entire city is floating. Buildings dock and separate, dirigibles dot the air, and skyway rails link locations.  The city of Columbia lifted off from America, announced its independence, and disappeared into the clouds. Some things connect our world to this one. At one point, an air barge drifts by with a quartet singing “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. It’s a wonderfully whimsical moment, but like everything in Columbia, it’s tinged with darkness: you soon learn that their idea of God isn’t quite ours, and that this idea has drives much of the madness that ensues.

Thematically, there is something to make everybody uncomfortable. Just like the original BioShock was built on a critique of Objectivity taken to its logical conclusion, so BioShock Infinite uses turn-of-the-century American Exceptionalism taken to extremes.

Columbia was actually created  by the US government as a kind of floating world’s fair dedicated to spreading a Pax Americana. Unknown to many, it was bristling with weapons, which came to light after an international incident. America disavowed the city, and it disappeared. A power struggle ensued between radical racist theocrats led by a Joseph Smith-like figure and a group of resisters who started out with lofty ideas of equality, but soon descended into factionalism and violence.

When the main character arrives  (via rocket) in Columbia, “the Prophet,” Zachary Hale Comstock, has total control over the population, and preaches a twisted and blasphemous inversion of Christianity in which the Founders (Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) are revered as a trinity of almost godlike figures. Trinitarian formulas crop up in several places, from a baptism at the beginining, to a group of Klan-like radical who worship … John Wilkes Booth. As you can see, they don’t think much of the Great Emancipator:

The game lures you into this dark world gradually. All appears to be relatively okay in Columbia, at first. It seems like a place you’d like to live, until you get to the drawing of the “lottery,” which you win. The curtain on the stage opens, to reveal … an Irishman (presumably Catholic) and his black wife. Your prize for winning? You get to be the person to cast the first stone in their execution. At this point, you have a choice: hit the couple, or the lottery leader. I’m not sure what happens if you choose the former, but I imagine the story takes a darker turn. At that point, all hell breaks loose and the people realize you are the False Shepherd warned of by The Prophet.

Comstock has been purging Columbia of undesirables. Blacks have been reduced to a slave-like servile class. “Papists, Gypsies, Irish and Greeks” must wear special tags to travel about the city.

This is powerful stuff. You’ll come across a black man washing a floor and complaining, in perfect English, of his sorry lot. When he spots you, he immediately goes into a servile “yes massah” routine and begins acting ignorant and happy. It’s a deeply disturbing moment, moreso because you have no doubt it’s grounded in the real experience of minorities in America at one point in our history.

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The game doesn’t flinch at these moments: it relishes them. Patriotic Americana is twisted to serve a dark and racist message. Automatons of George Washington are made to spout The Prophet’s message. Principles of American freedom are used to promote hatred and oppression.

Some gamers may see this as pure anti-American, anti-religious bigotry. I won’t make that call until I’m finished, but I’m not inclined to agree, yet.

This is imaginative alternate history, along the lines of “What would America be like if the English/Nazis/Commies had won?” Taking treasured and precious images and deploying them to make a point is risky business, and I’d be lying if I said I was wholly comfortable with it. At the same time, I know that’s the whole point. We’re not supposed to be comfortable with it. We’re supposed to think differently about familiar things.

What I need to see–and what I can only know after I finish it–is if there was really any point to it. Objectivism is ascendant, particularly in technolibertarian quarters, and radical individualism was worthy of critique. Is American Exceptionalism and antebellum racism really a pressing issue?

Obviously not, thus the critique must be about something else. Iraq and Afghanistan? Maybe. Bush, and now Obama, were certainly looking to spread a Pax Americana to the middle east, if only to keep them from plowing airplanes into our skyscrapers. That it was, and is, a misbegotten mess doomed from the start doesn’t change the idealism undergirding it: liberate the Muslims, make them more like us, and they won’t want to kill us anymore. Except it didn’t work, and never could.

Is it a critique of Occupy Wall Street? Ken Levine admits that the protests were an influence on the developing story, but to what degree remains to be seen. If the Vox Pop of the game are supposed to be an OWS proxy, I can’t see the OWS folks being particularly happy about it.

Click to enlarge

If it turns out to be another tired anti-religious screed, I’ll be disappointed. Kicking religion is just about the lowest, cheapest thing an artist can do. People who start from that old lie about religion causing more misery and death than anything else in world history rarely have anything of interest to say, because they’re working from a false premise.

I find it interesting that Levine admits that one of his employees (described as “very religious”) played an early build of part of the game and immediately tended his resignation because of the way religion was treat. Levine, who admits to not being religious, welcomed the input, and says the employee (who stayed) gave him new perspectives that changed the game’s treatment of religion.

My response to that is: I guess I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve respected Levine’s work since his days with Looking Glass, which I covered quite a bit when I was lead writer for PC Gamer. I remember seeing an early version of a game called System Shock, and immediately started flogging it as The Greatest Game Ever in PCG and elsewhere. BioShock was a continuation and perfection of many of the ideas in System Shock, and I consider it the most profound work of interactive fiction to date. It tackled difficult ideas and situations with intelligence and style. And it was fun.

BioShock Infinite ups that ante considerably. The gameplay is a fairly direct updating of that found in the original, but the narrative, character, and thematic elements are far more explosive. In the original, you faced the decision of weather or not to kill children. The proper decision was clear, but you still have a choice. In this, you’re forced to choose whether or not to stone a black person on a stage in front of a mob of howling racists. That’s potent stuff. Dynamite, in fact. By the time I finish, I hope I have a sense of whether or not the developers were deploying it some effect, or just playing games.

You can buy  Bioshock Infinite here.

Mac Users Paying More at Orbitz?

Macs are more expensive than PCs and tend to be used by a more rarefied and appealing demographics (better educated, more disposable income), so it’s inevitable that online shopping by Mac users is different than online shopping by PC users. Orbitz noticed that the people accessing their site from Macs pay, on average, 30% more than people accessing from PCs, and are 40% more likely to book 4- and 5-star hotels.

You really didn’t think that data like that would remain unexploited, did you?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Orbitz is using basic tracking information to steer people towards vacations based on data like computer type and browsing habits. They aren’t quoting different prices for the same hotel (yet), but they are listing more expensive hotels first. The user can reorder this ranking by price (lowest to highest, highest to lowest), but of course there the first items in any list are the ones that draw the most attention. (Most people on Google never make it past the first page of search results.)

As the recession impacts companies (Orbitz lost $37 million last year) expect to see them reaching for more “creative” (ie: creepy and privacy-invading) methods to improve their bottom line. Most users are completely unaware of how much information can be extracted by data mining. which can determine browsing habits, OS, and other information every time you go to a web site.

Read the whole report at the Wall Street Journal.