Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All's Faire

Second Life sometimes seems to throw grid-wide events. Shortly after I started SL, they hosted a "Burning Life" event—more or less a virtual version of Burning Man—where the Lindens set up a bunch of new sims, invited people to sign up to build something cool…and, apparently, when it was over, everything went up in smoke. I didn't see much of Burning Life (and what I did see was kinda non-sensical), and I kinda wrote it off as "one of those things" about SL I just didn't understand yet.

Now there's another grid-wide "event" underway called Winterfaire. Rather than being a location set up by the Lindens for the event—although I gather they may be sponsoring an in-world concert venue—Winterfaire is sort of a tour of residents areas of Second Life, some public, some usually not—all decked out for winter. At the moment, real life has kind of snowed me in and I'm always on the lookout for neat new places in SL, so I put on my virtual scarf and mittens and went exploring.

The first place I wound up on the Winterfaire sites was Winter Village at Sunrise Jazz. The area is set up like a Bavarian village at night in the snow…and there's a mammoth castle, above protecting the village. The village is decked out with festive lights and a holiday tree…but inside, it's mostly yet another SL stripmall. I tried to wander around a little and was immediately told I had strayed into some private area and had ten seconds to leave…so I flew up into the air and wound up on the parapets of the castle, which made for a pretty nighttime scene:

Roaming the castle at night in the snow

But things deteriorated quickly. I found some rooms in the castle, but the first thing I clicked in them made the Second Life client crash, and by the time I got back online and found the parapets again, some woman in an enormous hoop skirt just kept walking into me over and over again. I flew to a different tower, and a minute later she followed me and continued to bump into me. I asked her to stop, flew to a third tower, and she followed me again. So I left.

I popped into a few other Winterfaire locations but none really struck my fancy—and a few even greeted me with the dreaded "ban lines," meaning I didn't have permission to enter the area. (Seems odd for something that's supposed to be a public event, but whatever.) I eventually found a somewhat unlikely spot at an SL location for Depaul University's School of Computer Science, Telecomunications, and Information Systems—done up for Winterfaire. I know, I know—what could be more boring than an academic sim? Well, this one as a lot of clever touches—a fireworks show, a hidden underground garden under one of the main buildings, undersea pirate treasure, the hidden freebie store under the otter village…even a hidden grotto that seems tailor-made for students after some quick snogging. There are some nice wintery scenes:

And a few whimsical things that make it feel a bit like a campus:

But Depaul's sim left me wanting: what I'd hoped to find was something…I don't know, magical? Not clich├ęd? Something that transcended imitating real life winter and took it somewhere…new? Or at least somewhere else?

That place is Wintermute.

I'm not sure how to describe it. Wintermute is a poem…a melancholy metaphor…a puzzle…and glorious proof that Second Life doesn't have to be strip malls and badly-fit-together boxes and obnoxiousness. There's an obvious path through Wintermute—follow the candle-lit birdcages…

…to a central lake where…there's a tree, shrouded in auroras, and where a Man in the Moon, trapped in some sort of apparatus, has crashed into a frozen lake.

Wintermute's tableau, viewed from a secret perch.

You can go (almost) everywhere in Wintermute—and there's a lot to see, from the mysterious blood-spattered church, to a hidden garden of giant plants and mushrooms, to an abandoned bakery, to a rideable white whale (metaphor? what metaphor?)…you can even go under the frozen lake. The most puzzling—and saddest—aspect is the fallen moon:

…and some of the best views are (what metaphor?) from the cages in the enormous, snow-covered tree.

Delicate touches abound, from the eerie glowing winter foliage to the animal tracks in the slow to the little birds visiting the abandoned bakery:

It's a glorious build, well worth the time for a serious visit—and hurry, because I don't get the sense it's going to be around very long.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Missed Opportunity

Some sad news yesterday: one of the top trivia players—quite possibly the top trivia player—has left Second Life. Apparently she told a few friends, then canceled her account.

The part that makes me sad is that I was too intimidated to talk to her. I didn't know what to say, didn't want to be a brat and just gush "I think you're awesome!" because, really, what would someone that smart have in common with a silly newbie like me? I'd just have these little private moments of pride if I even came close to beating her on a question, and on the handful of occasions I actually did beat her I was too stunned to speak. The stunned effect didn't last long: she'd quickly resume her dominance of the game.

And the one time I did talk to her? I made a complete fool of myself. One of the regular trivia games runs a concurrent costume contest—best in formal wear, best in leather, stuff like that. I don't have the depth of wardrobe to participate but I like watching because some of these folks go all-out, it's amazing. One night it was a sci-fi theme or something, and a friend showed up in a Star Trek uniform…with sneakers. I was pretty sure I had some blocky black boots to complete the Mr. Spock look, and right as I was dropping them on my friend to give them to him…guess who teleported into the game right in between us? So I wound up randomly dropping boots on the person in SL who intimidated me the most. Great way to introduce myself. It was like throwing a spitwad at your big brother and accidentally hitting, oh, I don't know, Judi Dench.

And I was like "Uh, hi, I'm so sorry, those were for someone else, I'm a total idiot, please don't hate me I think you're awesome!" all at once. Like a total goober.

She was very gracious, gave the boots back to me, and we chatted a bit. I learned she does pub quizzes in her home town, so we had that in common. And that's almost all I know, except that everyone is sad she's gone, and everyone says she was one of the nicest people in SL.

She'll be missed.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

True North

You know how, in real life, sometimes the weirdest things happen? The same is true in Second Life. I got all fascinated with how people create tiny bits of jewelry in SL, cheating and distorting 3D objects to make them appear smaller (and prettier!) than they really are, and in doing so made a simple little wire brooch.

So here's the weird part: within a couple days, friends were asking me to make them custom pieces.

It's not like Second Life isn't festooned with jewelry. Since making my own piece I am, of course, seeing high-quality work almost everywhere. Odds are that if you know an experienced Second Life resident—and it helps if they're a girl, though it is not a requirement—they've got at least one piece of virtual jewelry made in part with microprims. Some of these pieces are designed like something on the Las Vegas strip: twirly patterns, scripted blinking lights and flashes (which I think is called "bling" in SL—it gets built into everything from signage to shoes), gemstones the size of walnuts, glitz glitz glitz. Others are more subtle, but that doesn't mean they're any lesser in quality. In fact, often the less in-your-face pieces tend to be the higher-quality work, with lots of individual detail and variation. While attention-grabbing items might catch your eye, the high quality items reward a close look.

So, for now at least, I'm kind trying to keep things simple. Little or no use of textures, no scripts, no bling. Just "pure" prims.

Here is the first commission piece, a "Polaris" pendant, here shown without a chain:

The traditional "polaris cross" is eight-pointed with a long tail; although it's a little hard to tell in these screengrabs, the secondary points are all a translucent blue that shows up nicely on skin tones. Aside from wanting a Polaris cross design, the "client"—yikes, I have clients!—wanted gold and "teal" coloring, but pretty much left the rest up to me.

I took the piece as an opportunity to experiment with building a gem. One of the weird things about opacity, transparency, and cuttin prims is that a "side" of an object can be visible from one angle, but not another. I thought there might be a way to use that to create "facets" that seemed to shift depending on nearby light sources (or the sun and moon) without having to use any textures or "bling." The result is a little larger than I might have liked—and I had to do more math than I anticipated to get things to line up—but the result works. Here's the same cross—in the same position—with SL's "sunset" lighting. See how the gem looks different?

This image also includes our old friend, the 1cm×2cm bar, for scale.

The piece was designed as a one-of-a-kind gift, and it seemed to go over well! At least, no one has put me in a cage or sent me into orbit or kicked me off their parcels over it. So I'm calling that a win.

Now on to the next pieces!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Here Thar Be Dragons!

When people first get started with Second Life, they inevitably spend an hour—or a few hours—playing with the buit-in Appearance controls, which let users manipulate many aspects of an avatar's look. Some of these attributes are obvious—male or female, short or tall, thick or skinny, pale or dark, etc.—but an array of sliders also enable users to control thing like both the upper or lower ridges of their noses, eye spacing, the degree to which you're knock-kneed or bowlegged, how big your feet are, how muscular your torso is, and (for girls anyway) thing like the volume and spacing of…well, you can guess. And how much gravity affects them, too. Appearance sliders also control a vast array of other things: apparenty guys can twiddle the size of their "package," even though, out of the box, they've got nothing more down there than a department store mannequin.

So I spent in inordinant amount of time trying to make Second Life Lou look like the Real Life Lou—and got frustrated pretty quickly. Leaving aside complaints about the built-in hair feature (which more closely resembles a mold colony than actual hair) and any number of other limitations of the Appearance controls, it became evident that SL's avatars are just kind of screwed up. The way arms connect to shoulders is wrong; legs mysteriously lengthen when people sit down, and limbs have a way of reaching into and through the bodies that control them. So I knew SL Lou was never going to be perfect, but I struggled to get my avatar "good enough."

And, of course, no sooner did I think I might have tweaked my sliders enough to be seen in respectable company than someone looking like a very hairy wolf trots on by, says "hi," and keeps going. I immediately flip back to the Appearance controls. Human male, human female? Check. Wolf? Nope. Nothing. How did that work? And within a few days, I've met robots, a couple bunny rabbits, a kitty cat (hi Rain!), and a duck (hi Chadd!). Heck, recently someone turned up at a trivia game as a puddle of bubbling magma. The next week? A half-melted snow-person.

So I admit to a fascination with non-human avatars in Second Life. It turns out that underneath it all (somewhere), these folks are as "human" as everyone else in Second Life. It's just through clever combinations of Appearance parameters, contortions, animations, and complicated prim attachments (often much more complicated than the prim "hair" almost everyone wears) that they appear to be something other than human.

So one evening after a trivia game I popped back to my "home" at Memory Bazaar—this was before a friend let me set up home base elsewhere—and I saw something huge moving in the sky. Thinking maybe the infohub had attracted griefers (folks who seem to take inordinant joy in disrupting Second Life) I flew up to check it out…and there was a dragon! I stared at it for about five seconds…then it blew fire at me and knocked me clear into the next sim!

The fire turned out to be an unintentional thing—the dragon simply hadn't seen me and apologized. But the scale of this avatar has to be seen to be believed! While most non-human avatars can at least be measured on human scale (or, in the case of so-called "tinies," at a fraction of human scale), this dragon could barely land in an enormous courtyard. It's head is literally five or six times the volume of my Second Life avatar—fortunately, it appears, Second Life dragons don't necessarily eat Second Life people!

Of course, I walked right up and struck up a conversation. The first part of which was, admitedly, comprised solely of my trying to pick my virtual jaw off the virtual flagstones.

Turns out these big dragon avatars are part of an in-world role-playing area (which I think comprises many sims) called the Isle of Wryms. The spot sports an enormous cathedral—think gothic architecture for beings 30-odd meters long—and the folks there were very nice while a dumbfounded girl wandered around reading all the signs, snapping pictures of the cathedral dome, and oggling the place. And every dragon who walked through.

I've been kinda busy in Second Life lately—Lou keeps up a grinding trivia schedule, plus there's more stuff I'll write about soon—but the other day I was talking to a friend at Memory Bazaar (following my little social experiment) and, lo and behold, the sky briefly filled with dragons:

I think it's something about that wine colored sweater: whenever I wear it, they turn up!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

One Reason People Leave SL

I mentioned to a couple real-life friends that I'd been spending a fair bit of time in Second Life, and that the time had been considerably more pleasant since I mostly stopped popping up at my assigned "home," an infohub called Memory Bazaar in a sim called Ross. They immediately asked why ditching my SL-assigned home made such a difference. After all, one might think Linden Labs would want to make default "arrival points" for new residents as friendly and pleasant as possible. And, well, they might, but if you're a woman in Second Life there seems to be one persistant theme that makes infohubs cringe-inducing experiences: rude boys. Memory Bazaar is a "PG" area where (supposedly) crude language and adult content aren't permitted. But…well.

My friends didn't quite believe me—but then, again, one of these people first got on the Internet via AOL and still seems to think the online world is a patrolled, gated community where nothing bad ever happens. Since Linden Labs is essentially in total control of Second Life, they thought it would be the same way. So I made them a deal: they would meet me at a Wi-Fi coffeeshop (after I got done with my trivia game!), and they could watch while I went back to Memory Bazaar, sat off to one side, and said nothing unless I was spoken to first.

Within two minutes, a male avatar (here called Boy1) approached me, and we had this delightful exchange:

[13:55] (Boy1): hi
[13:55] Lou Netizen: hi
[13:55] (Boy1): mana f__ker
[13:55] (Boy1): im playing
[13:57] Lou Netizen: um, ok
[13:56] (Boy1): how are you
[13:56] (Boy1): ?
[13:56] (Boy1): i am fine!
[13:56] (Boy1): talk sun of bitch
[13:56] (Boy1): son of bitch
[13:56] Lou Netizen: excuse me?
[13:57] (Boy1): i am playing in here
[13:57] (Boy1): it´s pay
[13:57] (Boy1): play
[13:57] Lou Netizen: um, sure
[13:57] (Boy1): shut up
[13:57] (Boy1): play...

After that a legitimate new resident approached and asked if I could tell them how to modify their clothes—which, to be fair, is also a very common question at an infohub. A friend also turned up, and sat down next to me. Then came Boy2, who had obviously found his appearance control because he was shirtless and wearing a pure white skirt made from default Linden clothing, which any avatar can create at will. And while he wasn't crude, he wasn't exactly subtle:

[14:10] (Boy2): how are you al doing
[14:10] Friend: great and you
[14:10] (Boy2): WOnderful
[14:10] Lou Netizen: doing ok
[14:10] Lou Netizen: nice skirt :O
[14:10] (Boy2): I am loving this towl
[14:10] (Boy2): yeah
[14:10] (Boy2): it is so easy to
[14:10] (Boy2): wear
[14:10] Lou Netizen: just be careful it doesn't make your butt look big :)
[14:10] (Boy2): (friend) you are so beautiful
[14:11] Friend: oh thankyou lol
[14:11] (Boy2): and lou is beautiful too
[14:11] (Boy2): you are like
[14:11] (Boy2): 2
[14:11] Friend: do you like my ears they twitch
[14:11] (Boy2): different
[14:11] (Boy2): types
[14:11] (Boy2): of beauty
[14:11] Lou Netizen: Mine would be the short kind.

After that, more legitimate new residents turned up, along with an experienced Second Life resident who had come to check out the Memory Bazaar infohub because, apparently, there's been some online discussion about it. My friend was still sitting next to me when Boy3 came along. No subtlety at all:

[14:35] (Boy3): what can i do in this place
[14:36] Lou Netizen: Well, the basic, not-very-unhelpful answer to "what can you do?"
[14:36] Lou Netizen: is "anything you want"
[14:36] Lou Netizen: but I know that isn't very specific :)
[14:36] Lou Netizen: what do you want to do? Have you found the Search feature?
[14:36] (Boy3): can i get a girl here
[14:36] (Boy3): and f__k her
[14:36] (Friend): omg
[14:36] Lou Netizen: not this girl
[14:36] (Friend): and not this girl either

Sadly, these are far from the rudest encounters I've had at Memory Bazaar—they're just the ones that happened within the span of about half an hour on a random weekday afternoon. And I am not one of these Second Life amazons who walks around in glittery bras, butt-floss, and fake boobs up to my chin, who might legitimately expect to receive that kind of attention! I'm short, quiet, and typically wear nondescript jeans and tops. Nothing provocative. But if an unknown male avatar waddles up and immediately wants to know how old I am and where I'm from, there's really only one place that conversation is going.

Needless to say, neither of my friends who watched these exchanges over my shoulder are in any rush to create Second Life accounts, despite some initial interest in the idea of virtual worlds. And, to be sure, there are many aspects of Second Life that aren't rude and crude.

But a Second Life friend told me a funny: "Lesbian relationships in SL are two guys, each pretending the other is a female."

Is it any wonder?