Saturday, June 23, 2018

Philosophy and Bagpipes

There's this quip in audio circles that goes, "Don't worry, we'll fix it in the mix."

Stock picture from Colourbox

See, mix philosophy is you start with the best performance you can get, captured as cleanly and accurately as you can get. Nothing wrong with audio manipulation for artistic effect; George Harrison was playing all kinds of tricks with tape speeds and overdubs and Abbey Road is one of the great albums of all time. What you don't want to be doing is trying to fix basic mistakes, like a singer who forgot the notes or a broken microphone.

Douglas Morrison Little Theatre

I played piano as a kid. Not very well. (I still play, and I still don't play very well.) Piano is an instrument well suited to solo performance, in a way few others are. There's an incredibly wide frequency and dynamic range and it is of course a chordal instrument. But it is, still, a solo.

When I became ME for a small community theatre I had to learn to mix. And I turned to MIDI -- synthesized instruments -- to produce multi-part songs I could practice mixing on. And nothing wrong with that. TV shows had to get by with largely synthesized music, so did musical theater, so did games. A full symphonic orchestra is expensive. And even when you've got a half dozen real musicians in the pit, the demands of a Broadway score are such that two or three of those musicians will be playing synthesized instruments on a keyboard.

Thing is, there's a human factor about actual, physical instruments. They have more flexibility and can turn in a more nuanced and detailed sound. But more than that, there's a sort of essential honesty that comes through. Even the makers of a software and hardware package designed entirely to substitute for a pit orchestra (OrcExtra) suggests you replace as many of the built-in parts as you can with live players. Even just seating one trumpet beside the keyboard player who is operating the software provides a better experience for the audience.

insaneintherain, YouTube capture

And then there's these people. There's plenty of people, again, who get perfectly good result playing their chosen instrument against canned background tracks. But there's a sort of bragging rights in being able to say you played "All the parts" -- and there's people who do. A surprising number of them, in fact.

Odd thing is, though; often the drums are canned. Drums are expensive and take up a lot of space and are hard to record. So pre-recorded drum loops are not uncommon even among people who can play three or four different families of instrument. Same will sometimes go for strings or even bass. And of course piano; these are almost all legitimate keyboard players, but an actual piano is large and heavy and expensive. So they play a piano sound on a piano-like keyboard.

And that's where that mix philosophy starts to get weird. Someone like Carlos, he's clearly playing through the entire piece for each part he plays. Others, they are just as clearly making take after take until they finally get a useable one.

And from there it's a tiny step to editing out the fumbled note or even slapping a layer of autotune on the whole thing. And that's where it gets weird. See, the sound of an instrument is manipulated all the time. A trumpet in the rehearsal hall sounds a lot like a trumpet on a recording (but even there, expect compression and reverb...there's a reason there's so many buttons and knobs on a mix console). The rock drum kit, on the other hand, sounds very little like that in life. It is arcane application of specialty microphones and a lot of processing that gets that final distinctive sound.

Point being I don't see there being a bright line. And when it comes to recording, being able to say you played the trumpet part on an actual trumpet is really just bragging rights. But what happens if you re-pitch and sonically alter a recorded trumpet in order to get a french horn part out of it? What if you chop up a crumhorn performance in order to fake a bagpipe? Heck, can you even say you played "guitar" on a track if you used a ukulele and processed it a lot? And who cares if you do?

One problem I have is the same one that "fix it in the mix" points to. And that is when you chop and manipulate a take, modify and re-tune a sound, you are taking away from the music instinct and integrity of the moment of performance. There are decisions you make as a player that only happen in that context. They just don't present the same when you are down at the sample level hand-editing a waveform.

Basically, you risk taking the life out of it when you manipulate a recording in certain ways. And worse; if you had to resort to technological trickery to record it in the first place, that life was never there in the first place. this wrong in other ways? Is there a dishonesty in doing this kind of manipulation? And a dishonesty to what, and whom?

(The other thing I'm finding very odd is after decades of doing live sound and obsessing about mic placement, I'm recording my own stuff with basically any old microphone and....fixing it in the mix.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Doing in the wizard

I'm having a lot of trouble with magic.

Specifically, what role "magic" should play in a novel set at the end of the Aegean Bronze Age. Because worship of complex pantheons of gods was the default state, sacrifices and scrying, amulets and cantrips were everywhere. Because demigods and magical armor and curses are all over the stories told about (and one presumes told in) that time.

But what do you do in a story, in a work of historical fiction grounded in archaeology and history and set before a modern reader? There are choices, but I find all of them equally unpalatable.

The conservative answer is that magic isn't real. That's the serious historian's answer (few historians take cultural relativism to the point where they allow each culture its own laws of physics). Thing is, it would be dishonest to the cultures to leave it all out. It is not a good depiction of a person from the time to have them not have their relationship to the gods on their mind. Or to not have (depending on the specific culture) a few protectives spells and amulets about their person.

On the flip side, of course, when you put that stuff in, it creates a distance from the reader. The reader -- who probably doesn't accept the divinity of Poseidon or the dangers of the Evil Eye -- is going to look down on these characters for their foolish superstitions.

It may be possible to show how augurs and sacrifices and processions fill necessary social, political, even economic functions. How protective amulets are a useful comfort to the individual regardless of actual efficacy. It may be possible, in short, to bring the reader far enough into the mindset of the culture that they accept along with the characters the reality of the supernatural.

It might even be possible to break through that barrier thrown up in the 18th century; that division we recognize now between naturalistic and supernatural. We tend, today, to throw out anything we can't rigorously proof. But well before even Aristotle, how are you going to proof a naturalistic explanation for earthquakes? What predictive (aka useful) power does this explanation have? And a supernatural explanation is not usually contradictory to observed reality. If the myth is that storm clouds gather reflecting the dark mood of Zeus before he lets loose with the thunderbolts, well, that's a pretty good way of knowing a storm is coming with enough time to get under cover.

Equally unpalatable is deniable magic. This runs in two forms. The first is where there is a naturalistic explanation for everything that is labeled magic. The difference from the above is the train of coincidence that makes, well, magical things happen anyhow. Think of Flood Geology. (Or before that, Immanuel Velikovsky.) This is when things are set up in the most peculiar way possible so something that looks exactly like the Biblical Flood can unfold in a manner that is intended to be coherent with modern science (it isn't).

So a haughty character is struck down by the gods. Or by the unwise move of wearing steel armor on a hilltop during a thunderstorm. A character returns from the dead. Or was just in a chemical trance brought on by a concoction similar to the fabled zombie drug.

Some people think that you can get the best of both worlds going this way. That you can have demons flying around the sky throwing fireballs and it turns out it was all the result of a particularly bad loaf of bread (aka ergot poisoning). Me, I think you've taken the sparkle out by making the explanation that mundane, and pulled the reader out of the story with how strained and contrived the "real" explanation was. It reminds me of the ending in multiple Scooby Do episodes where the clearly intangible floating ghosts who were walking through walls and soaring over the heads of our characters are revealed to be an elderly farmer wearing a bed sheet dipped in glow-in-the-dark paint. Oh, really?

(And now that I think of it, it's also a bit like those serials where the cliffhanger ending had the characters go over a cliff in a hurtling car. Then the next episode shows the car from a different angle, where it is going at most three miles and hour and all the doors are wide open -- and ignores completely you would have totally seen the hero getting out, anyhow.)

The very worst form is when the writer thinks they are being clever and leaves a, "It was all a dream....but was it?" escape clause. When everything about the demonic invasion can be explained by bad weather and a migration of lizards....except for one bright red trident left stuck in a door.

What else do I need to say about the latter but that this is annoying and cheap?

And then there's actually in-your-face magic. One danger is that magic has to be carefully defined otherwise it removes all tension. Protagonists with powers outside the usual have a terrible tendency to whip out new ones at the slightest hint of crisis.

A bigger problem I have is, which magic? If one set of gods is real, why not all of them? If one person can see the future, why can't all the diviners and oracles do the same? Basically, if magic hardly ever works, or worse, works completely differently from the way everyone in-world thinks it is supposed to work, you are back to Case A again; a world of superstitious idiots.

And if it does work, at least to some statistical significance, why hasn't it changed society? This is something that bugs me in every superhero story; why are the cops surprised? Why are the muggers so bold? Why do they still have plate glass and bank vaults, if they get broken into every other day?

That's the thing; usually when magic is added, it is to be a game-changer. The protagonist (or the villain, let's be fair) can do something no-one is quite ready for. And, yes, that's the powerful fantasy as well. If it is (relatively) ordinary and integrated into society, your hero can no more whip out an unexpected spell and make their escape than he can whip out an unexpected sword and solve his current problems that way. Not to say the adventurous hero doesn't do exactly that, it is just when you come down to it, in this flavor the magic might as well not be there at all. But if it does change the game...then all the ills above come to fall.

My bottom line is that it real magic feels cheap. I'm not entirely sure why. It doesn't feel wrong for an outright fantasy, or an alternate world. I think it is because a real historical culture is a balance of needs and pressures and evolutions and the job of the historian is to explain how it works and how it got that way. Saying, "Oh and by the way the gods are real" is to my mind no different from changing the availability of tin or the size of horses or the temperature at which iron melts; either because you really want armored knights in the Bronze Age or because it is just too damn much work to research, understand, and explain to the audience how self bows and chariots work.

Removing the real reasons why supernatural belief systems and their accoutrements exist in a culture, and their real function in a culture, is to portray that culture falsely. I think it gives a less rich picture. Certainly a less nuanced one.

And in the bottom line, the only thing functional magic gives you is the dangerous chance to have something spectacular and marvelous and not a little bit outright power fantasy happen. And if you are planning to write adventure, with impossible odds and unlikely derring-do, it is really hard to resist adding that double-edged blade to your story-telling arsenal.

Hence my problem.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Single-reed is different.

It actually does require a certain amount of strength to focus the air and control the reed. I'm finally getting clean notes at the bottom of the scale but working it makes my mouth sore. It's right back to the first days of trumpet; you've got to build up those muscles.

The Venova; Yamaha's "Casual Musical Instrument." It's a saxophone that fingers like a recorder. Yeah...a plastic version of a woodwind instrument usually made out of brass.

As with the brass family, I've discovered with a degree of chagrin just how much the embouchure affects the pitch. You look at a trumpet, and you think with those buttons it should just go from one pitch to another. Nay. You can lip up or down nearly to the next note, and worse, you can force it to play outside of the usual harmonic series.

Woodwinds are worse. I'm tempted to blame Equal Temperament, but I think it is inherent in the mathematics of sound production. Yamaha openly admits that several of the notes are compromises; they will play sharp or flat and there's no alternate fingering that fixes it. You can try to half-hole them, or you can lip them (which changes the tone).

Apparently on a real saxophone there are extra keys for just these sorts of problems, plus yet another set of keys to make certain transitions easier (for trills, say).

But I have to say, even within the chromatic scale there are problems. The top of the first octave plays terribly flat if I don't blow it up, notes past about the fifth of the second octave are difficult to reach, and the lowest two notes of the chromatic scale (the ones with the keys on them) squawk badly and have trouble settling in.

Some of that is just the sax. Apparently the lowest notes are always a pain this way, and opening up the top octave is the same as with the brass family; strengthen your embouchure and eventually you get there. But some of that has to be this peculiar little instrument itself. It is an interesting acoustic experiment, folding the length of a soprano sax to where you can mostly stop holes instead of manipulating an assemblage of rods and valves. So it is cheap and travels well. And it sounds...okay.

So will I, in time. I'm just about where I can get through a tune without squawking.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Dodged that spear

Or bash it aside with your shield, if you are following protocol according to Homer.

When I heard the rumor the next Assasins Creed game would be set in Greece I worried. Then I saw the title was Odyssey. That's all I needed; for a major AAA game to be set in the Heroic Age, especially if they went all accurate about bronze age Aegean culture. A three-hundred person team with years to work can do some pretty serious research.

But, thankfully, the game turns out to be set during the Peloponnesian War. (More-or-less. The Assassins Creed series has very nice looking history, but the actual events get a bit bollixed.) In any case, this is high Classical Greece. Four hundred years after "Homer penned" The Odyssey and eight hundred years after the setting of my novel.

Although, from the looks of the previews I've seen, the lead dives on what looks suspiciously like a sunken Minoan palace, and meets what has to be the minotaur.

So maybe it isn't just my current focus that has been making me notice more and more of the Classical age (that is, Greece and Rome) getting talked about in various corners. Maybe there's a renewed interest in those corners. Not that the classical world ever went away, but we are today far from the mindset of Schliemann and his contemporaries, who lived and breathed Greek Myth and the Glories of Rome in a way that shaped their perception of the past and their overriding goals in learning more about it.

(The game is also a full RPG with a dialog wheel and "choices that matter" in the Mass Effect et al style. And nary an assassin in it, cueing various people to sneer that they'd never buy it while it pretended to be an Assassins Creed game, but then they only buy Assassins Creed games anyhow.)

(One of the complaints is you can chose which gender to play. Which the purists don't like because it sort of flies in the face of the "reliving the genetic memory of your ancestors" thing the games were originally built around. I'm unhappy because as egalitarian as I want my games, the experience for men and women is different, particular in earlier ages. Further, the game gives you choice of playing as an Athenian or a Spartan. Well. Spartan women were expected to be fit and know how to fight but the shit would really have to have hit the tower shield for one of them to be out on the front lines. Their sacred duty was, basically, to make more Spartans.)

(The Athenian woman, on the other hand -- were rarely let out of the house (well, there's a class distinction here, plus the rules were different for non locally-born but anyhow) For all that vaunted Athenian democracy it was one of the most repressive of the Greek City states (a low bar when it comes to Classical Greece -- the Laconians are very much the exception) when it came to women's rights. The evidence is unclear how widespread female literacy was in Athens, or how much exposure they got to the vaunted philosophical, artistic, and scientific glories of the golden age. The evidence is somewhat clearer that the nobel Athenian women were, however, bored out of their gourds.)

(Point being, it is not impossible for the player avatar to be out there adventuring. But every interaction should be colored differently depending on gender as well as background. What I am afraid is with all the RPG elements and millions of lines of recorded dialog and so forth there simply won't be resources spared to make the experience differ in any substantive way. And it should matter. Not because it is historical, but because it gives a richer experience.)

The reason I got into this particular series of games in the first place was to be able to walk the environments and interact with the people of historical times. I'm getting this game, if and when it comes down and price (and so does the computer that can run it). But more and more I have to recognize that this is less a walk through history and more a deeply flawed diorama; well-positioned, nice artifacts, but the plaques and posters explaining it are complete garbage.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Spelling B

I got a wee bit into the character system of Linear B today. I wanted to engrave side names on the tablets I'm lasering up for my mini loom. But anyhow.

Everyone knows their alphabet. That is, alpha, beta, gamma, delta...  And, yes, there's an alphabet song for Classical Greek. There aren't obvious equivalents in the Linear B script. No "B" sound, for instance. I don't know what the rules are for transliteration. Apparently I'm not alone; evidence from the Linear B tablets at Pylos is the scribes themselves did not have consistent spelling -- neither between scribes, nor even the same scribe on different days.  (There are also clear indications of a scribe smoothing out the clay and marking a different symbol instead.)

Contrast this with say kana. Written Japanese is a combination of ideograms and syllabary. The former being the "kanji" or characters adapted from the Chinese, the latter the kana; hirigana and the harder, more angular katakana (it's the same -kana suffix for both; there's one of the subtle rules of Japanese that softens hard consonants in certain contexts.)

The katakana are sort of like italics; perhaps carrying over from their use to transcribe foreign words, they carry a sense of emphasis and angularity. So katakana get used a lot in advertising, and sound effects in manga are almost entirely in katakana (sometimes a manga-ka will use hiragana for a more old fashioned/refined feel).

There is a bit of variation but the general rules for transcribing English are easy enough to pick up. "Brian" comes out as ブライアン or "Bu-ra-i-a-n." Linear B has a similar problem; "mi-sa-ra-jo" in Linear B is probably meant as "misraios," meaning a person from Egypt. As you can see, diphthongs are difficult to transcribe unambiguously, and compound consonants are worse. This is why in all academic writing, the original Linear B inscription is usually spelled out, with the currently assumed Mycenaean Greek transliteration given after, if at all.

There's another cross-language bit of interest here. The same scribes are recognized by their handwriting. In specific, the direction and order of the strokes used to form the characters are different from scribe to scribe. If there is a paper attempting to trace them back to groups or teachers I haven't seen it, but it is unlikely, since basically the Linear B fragments form very narrow slices of time (most of the preserved material was the temporary clay records of a single week's work for that particular shop, which then got fired and thus preserved when the shop itself was fired, and, well, not preserved. Or at least, only archaeologically.

This differs quite strongly from Japanese, where the stroke order (and direction) are an imbedded part of the learning process. Perhaps that is because when you are getting up into the 14-stroke Kanji, you need something to keep it sorted in your head. The Linear B characters are generally simple -- rather alchemical looking, if you ask me -- and in any case in the hands of individual scribes degenerate pretty quickly into simplified scribbles.

And just because the picture isn't complex enough. Linear A was used to write Minoan, and the only thing we're really sure of is it wasn't Greek or even of the same language family. However! There was a long transition period in which Mycenaean words were sneaking into Linear A inscriptions. This is the best entry the would-be Michael Ventris's of this generation have into finally unlocking Linear A.

By the way, despite existing dictionaries and syllabary not all characters in Linear B are unambiguous. But then, there seem to be some ideograms worked in there as well. For many languages, the ideograms came first and then were re-used rebus-style to construct a syllabary. Say you have ideograms for cow, asp, and tortoise, but you need to write "cat." Well, use the first three ideograms and make it clear you are only using them for their sounds.

In Japanese, this can be ambiguous; it isn't always obvious on first glance if you are meant to use the On or Kun reading. In Egyptian Hieroglyphs, there's actually a special character that means, "read the previous group as sounds only." All languages with this system give ample opportunity for puns (puns, which, alas, are difficult to translate, dependent as they are on the juxtaposition of sound and meaning in a particular character set.)

How much of any of this I'll use I don't know. Scribe 103 is going to be a character in the novel, and if my Cretan weaver continues to have her strange gift of seeing writings from the future she is going to have to study (and inevitably will geek out a little about) writing. But at this point I don't even know if the magic is staying...

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Thank You, Jeeves

I broke down and added a Venova, Yamaha's "Casual Musical Instrument," to my collection. Since it is a soprano saxophone that fingers like a recorder, you could by a stretch call it a kind of recorder. Just as the Vorson electric guitar and the Kala Ubass (and the Baroquelele that I tried to get a first-hand look at over at Lark in the Morning) are technically ukuleles.

The Venova is also my first single-reed. (My bombarde is a double reed, like an oboe, and so is the crumhorn although in that case it is a reed cap instrument and your lips aren't in contact with the reed). A Rico 2.0 reed, at the moment. The Venova ships with a plastic reed but it is stiff and hard-playing and doesn't sound as good, so I slipped a real cane reed into my mpc right away.

(Yes, I'm already starting to talk sax. They never write "mouthpiece" all the way out.)

From squawk to "that sorta sounds like an instrument" was about an hour on this one. At the moment I'm balancing the needs of tone and range over the needs of not having the neighbors bang on my door; it is actually fairly easy to play softly and I do like the tone with that kind of embouchure but the range is constricted; bottom two notes are rough and I can only get a few notes into the second octave.

Why is another question, one I'm really starting to obsess over. I have yet to get my keyboard arranged so I can start using it again. I have lots of musical thoughts but I'm not really writing or recording anything. It is just endless practice. Practice which keeps underlining how much of an amateur I am and am likely to remain.

Which is maybe why. I can't play an instrument well enough to carry a performance with just that. So instead I'm orchestrating -- and for that, it is nice to have a good pallet of colors.

(The fact that I'm trying to play these all live now, instead of doing them with MIDI...well, that's another issue.)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Different for Girls: Assassins Creed III: Liberation

I read an article recently that pointed out the problems of gendered mechanics in games. Fortunately it isn't done so much these days. In, say, Mass Effect the experience of playing Commander Shepard doesn't change a bit no matter what gender you assign her. You don't get suddenly better with melee and worse at ranged combat if you play a male Shepard, and there's certainly no rainbow heart attack or "only boys can use explosives" for the femshep.

That Aveline is the first female Assassin in the franchise doesn't change a thing about her abilities. What changes is the context. She can run and climb and fight exactly as well as any previous Assassin. But she's doing it as a mixed-race woman in 1700's New Orleans and when she does so she gets noticed.

That utterly changes the experience of play. But it changes it in a way that is oddly consistent with the core gameplay of the series. And by doing this, and the way in which it does this, the game throws a light on gender experience.

The Assassins Creed games have always been about controlling your visibility. This is through a combination of outright stealth, blending into the background, and social invisibility; the last via a mechanism called "notoriety" that reflects a general awareness of the authorities and their agents that someone looking like you has been in the area doing mischief. Guards get suspicious faster and remain suspicious longer, and are quicker to act on their suspicions as well. Get notorious enough, and they will hunt you down.

The social blending is a fun aspect of the games but is also a little weird in later games, where one of the selling points is the badass outfit your avatar gets to wear. A character in Black Flag lampshades this by mentioning, "...the distinctive costume of your Secret Order." At least in Black Flag, everybody dresses weird. Pirates, you know. It looked a lot odder in Assassins Creed III, when Connor was blending into a crowd of Proper Bostonians wearing his great hooded robes crossed with bandoliers.

When Aveline is going incognito she dresses as a slave. In this costume and this persona it makes complete sense she could fade into the background. In one animation she'll actually pick up a loose broom and start sweeping up. Ten feet away from the men she is tailing, she might as well be a piece of the furniture.

Other Assassins Creed games have had segments where you go in disguise. The interesting element Liberation adds is that Aveline basically has three personas. She dresses to one of three roles, and the role she is playing modifies the mix of her options. Dressed as the well-brought up young Lady she is, her social status allows her physical access her other persona are not freely given. But she can't run in those hampering skirts and although she can (and does) fight quite well, such unladylike behavior gets instant attention and quickly raises her notoriety.

As the slave she can run and fight but she is also looked at with suspicion when she does so in the open. Fortunately she also has the easiest option to regain her anonymity; merely tear down a few wanted posters.

The last option is to wear the fancy Assassins kit. And boy it is a gorgeous outfit, but this personae starts with one point of notoriety. Just being a woman dressed in trousers is enough to attract attention. When she does do something illegal it seems the main thing all the witnesses remember is her gender. In any case her notoriety also shoots up fast, and it is difficult to dismiss.

This is almost deconstructive. And it is wonderful and chilling. No matter what Aveline she is being at the moment, you are always aware of the eyes on you, judging you, watching you suspiciously to see if you properly fulfill your gender (and class) role. As the lady dressed to the nines you are particularly constrained, unable to act out lest people take notice; allowed great freedom of movement as long as you stay within those narrow boundaries.

One of the cuter mechanics is that the Lady can flirt with a young gallant who will then follow her around for a while with his sword and musket ready to defend her. When she's dressed as a slave, the same gallant takes not the slightest notice. But of course the invisibility of the slave comes with awareness of your near total lack of any rights or recourse. And as the Assassin, you are outside the bounds of all society. At least you can run and climb -- within reason -- because she starts out so outré her physical activities are just looked on as one more eccentricity.

Just to add an extra layer, the game is presented as a game created by the fictional Abstergo, part of the secret Templar plot to rule the world (a conceit explored in more detail in Black Flag.) There are no distracting "real world" segments in this game. Sort of. Instead the game itself is interrupted by the efforts of a "hacker" who then forces you to replay certain segments with a more truthful version of events than the one that Abstergo had originally presented.

(This conceit is carried so far that among the usual pre-game titles are ones of Abstergo and the Animus.)

Then there's a probably unintentional layer. There is a lot of overheard conversation in the streets and a lot of names and history being discussed and most of it is in French. One wonders if the experience at the Canadian developers and with their playtesters was different from that of a typical monoglot American player (like me, for instance). The past is another country, all right. In this case, a rather alien and even confusing one.

There is one thing that as of game four Ubisoft hasn't gotten right. And that's making the history accessible. What I mean is, when you pass a historic building or meet a historic character you have a brief moment to click a control that takes you to the right page in the growing "Animus Database" where there is a tiny paragraph on the thing. And then you have to back out of the database with a half-dozen keystrokes and hope you didn't leave the game paused in some awkward moment.

It really should be a one key pop in, pop out -- or better yet, an overlay; something that keeps the person or building or whatever in frame and you in the world and in the moment.

Liberation is basically a re-skin of Assassins Creed III (the one set during the American Revolution), even though it was released at the same time. It is a shorter game, like an expansion pack released as an individual game. So the work Ubisoft did on ACIII is carried over; the counter-centric fighting style, the free-running with the particularly helpful tree highways, and the lovely vegetation and weather effects.

As with the other two games in the series I've played, Liberation messes with the control options and gets a hit-or-miss with that. Not all of the controls can be remapped, either; the aiming system for the blow dart is particularly inconvenient in this regard. It also has the twin flaws of insistent tutorialization one moment, and throwing brand-new mechanics at you in the middle of a fight.

I think the latter is actually a philosophy of play at Ubisoft. I think they are making a point about the way goals change and the way situations develop. So the game will throw a tailing mission at you in the middle of a dialog, and just as you've finally settled into the groove of tailing, suddenly change it up and insist you switch to fighting or something.

I end up with a lot of restarts from last save point when they do this. And that is another annoying peculiarity of the series. Most games save a snapshot of where everything is and restore you to that. The Assassins Creed series "restores" you to where the game thinks you should have been at that moment. Which is really annoying when you managed to climb to a nice vantage point, but the game sticks you in a bush and just to add insult to injury doesn't take into account you'd restocked on all your special sleep darts just for this mission.

(Actually, it does make internal sense; you are supposed to be reliving a set of genetic memories, and to die is to "desynchronize"; to have failed to reproduce the original's experience.)

The tutorials are annoying, though. And inconsistent. Sometimes the game will pop-up a reminder about a special action each and every time that action is possible. Other times it will only mention once (at a moment when you are too busy to pay attention) something you'd really want to be using later. I actually got stuck in the first five minutes of the game because it assumed I'd patiently wait to be shown how the counter/parry control works and I'd already killed the first two bad guys. The game basically froze in the middle of the fight, with the other bad guys waving ineffectually like martial arts movies background fighters, waiting their turn for a button press that had already happened.)

But more on that in my Black Flag interview. All I really wanted to touch on here is how breaking the rules worked for this one. Whether you play a game in first or third person (the over-the-shoulder camera) you begin to identify with the avatar you are controlling. Games have experimented and philosophized for decades about whether allowing the player to customize their avatar, or whether to make them voiced or voiceless, effects the depth of the player's identification.

My opinion is it doesn't. With one big caveat; you don't need to be playing a character that is of your gender, race, or species. But it helps to know that your gender, race, or species is represented; if not in this game, or in this avatar, at least somewhere. If every single avatar option is a buff white guy with crew cut you start to feel like the games weren't written with you in mind.

I'm not a woman like Aveline. But I'm not an N7 rated Space Marine like Commander Shepard, either. And I can't shoot lightning from my hands like my latest Skyrim character. Thing is, being in Aveline's skin, and being in a world that reacts to that skin, is a sobering experience. And what I find most elegant about this game is it isn't something extraneous. In the same way Shep's reputation and the intimidating figure she strikes gives you actual play options in how to win through, Aveline's visibility and social constraints give her both obstacles and options that actually matter in play....and feel organic to the game experience.