Sunday, November 17, 2019

Unus, Una, Vampirus, Vampira

"Could you stop the meat from thinking
'fore I swallow all of it

Could you please?"

Marilyn Manson - A Place in the Dirt

Heather Poe's character analysis ranks as one of my Den's more popular pages, but in one respect (not to impugn the perspicacity of my scant few readers) maybe I was being too subtle. When I said that the death of a female draws more sympathy than a warehouse full of disposable male mooks, did you assume it was just a case of "a million is just a statistic" - and if so, might you indulge me in reiterating my observation about Resident Evil: Afterlife?

"Hey, fun exercise:
The Resident Evil movies have skipped the 900mil mark in profits. Someone find me a billion-dollar action movie franchise in which a male hero and his male sidekick mow down row after row of female redshirts, cheerfully tossing shuriken through women's eyes, shooting women through their chin with blood spurting out the top of their heads, stabbing women in the face with machetes to the swell of an unapologetically triumphant soundtrack, caving women's chests in with shotgun blasts, sliding beneath women to shoot them in the crotch with coin-shot for a big applause moment.

Ask some Hollywood pretty-boy... ida know, let's say Ashton Kutcher, if he'd like to commit career suicide by starring in it. See if Sony Pictures wants the distribution rights. It'll give you some idea of whether our contemporary Western society despises women or men more. And hey, if you somehow find or make that despicable billion-dollar series of movies featuring male heroes curbstomping armies of women, then I might condescend to consider the question of whether women are "objectified" by our modern world

Why are men always the statistic? I compared Heather Poe to a military conscript towards the end of my original post, to all the disposable cannon fodder for whom we hold no sympathy whatsoever. Do you find it at all odd that we require a female emblem for a male affliction? Well, as should happen, Bloodlines included other minor players in vampiric society. Gentle reader, mosey on over to the beach and let's us now visit, for a spell, with Heather's quaint and quirky Santa Monica neighbours the thin bloods.

While, as vampires, they should technically be slightly more powerful than ghouls, they occupy a similar low rung as the dregs of their society (or the "runts" in E's wording) and they are actively being targeted by more powerful vamps for being harbingers of the vampocalypse.

First up you've got Rosa the Malkavian fortune-teller, who is both a politically correct ethnicity and the politically correct sex, and so purely by coincidence is allotted the bulk of respectability among all of them. You cannot harm her in any way and only have the option to directly help her escape L.A.

Then there's Lily, a good-natured and innocent victim of vampiric machinations being held prisoner by an evil male ghoul.

The males are represented by E, Copper and Julius.
Copper's the one you repeatedly con into buying useless junk for hundreds of dollars and finally fool into getting himself killed by trying to stake "the head vampire." He's defined by his comical stupidity and derided even as he charges to his final death.

Julius is cruelly, openly ridiculed for his stuttering. He's also guilty of divulging vampiric secrets and thus you have the option of killing him as he runs pathetically in a panic around the beach, whimpering like a coward, this being AFTER several lines of dialogue where you repeatedly tell him his fate and he whimpers, begs and outright bawls like a baby at you to spare him, with dialogue like "f-f-f-find your h-h-heart" specifically designed to make him sound even more worthless.

And last, let's not forget E, who's permitted to be a good, level-headed male... for having his existence justified by his devotion to a female, for having his entire raison d'etre revolve around rescuing his girlfriend Lily.

Now, it would be dishonest of me to leave the discussion at that. Part of Bloodlines' storytelling quality lay in not diving headlong into FEMale chauvINISM or other politically correct superficialities. Ming Xiao as a representative of the Orient is both a backstabbing villainess and at the same time a supremely dignified, well-spoken and self-possessed woman of power with little of her male counterpart LaCroix's foppish overtones. LaCroix himself in his role as eurotrash was offset by the respectable Maximilian Strauss. Fat Larry's a laughable pastiche of an inner-city black hustler, but two blocks away at the Last Round stands Skelter, a black Vietnam War veteran who couldn't be more dignified and his own man if you chiseled him out of basalt... and they were both voiced by Phil LaMarr for good measure. In fact your campaign features a direct female counterpart to Julius in the Downtown area: Patty the Toreador ghoul, recklessly blabbing about vampirism, whom you also have the option of killing directly, and who was also rendered extremely irritating by her speech patterns. Bloodlines has remained a classic for the past fifteen years partly because its characters had actual character and were so rarely predictable based on their chromosome maps or other superficialities.* The thin bloods stand out only when dissected as a single group, and your character can even mock Lily and E the romantic vamps for being fodder for a cheap airport paperback.

But nonetheless, it's worth noting that if you choose to execute Julius you have to do it yourself, while Patty's quest lets you pass the buck to another -female- character. And I'd very much like to see some datamining of the millions of playthroughs since 2004 to see how many players chose to let Patty escape, because I'll wager many of those did not, in turn, "find their heart" with Julius.

Players love Heather Poe. They pity Heather Poe. They weep for Heather Poe. They want to save her and in fact design special patches for the game in order to save Heather Poe.

Would they have sympathized as much with a putative Heath Poe? Or would they have been perfectly fine chasing him in circles around a beach, gradually cutting and bashing him to death while mocking his speech impediment? Would you have done that to Heather? Feminists did not invent our human favoritism toward women. They've merely tapped into our species' protective instincts for political gain. Instinctively, before all other considerations, we see female suffering as a great wrong to be righted, and we see male suffering as comical or at the very least well-deserved.

* Well, mobsters aside. The Mafia was always a caricature, be it Italian, Russian or Chinese.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Sigh, Borgs

"He was turned to steel
In the great magnetic field"

Black Sabbath - Iron Man

"Its hand was stone - living, moving stone"

The Thing on the Fourble Board

(sound effect attached to many a robot in many a SciFi show)

"Domin:  The pestle for beating up the paste. In each one we mix the ingredients for a thousand Robots at one operation. Then there are the vats for the preparation of liver, brains, and so on. Then you will see the bone factory. After that I’ll show you the spinning mill.
Helena:  Spinning mill?
Domin:  Yes. For weaving nerves and veins. Miles and miles of digestive tubes pass through it at a time."

Karel Čapek - R.U.R.

I've been playing entirely too much of the simpleminded gear-grinding online game Warframe over the past few months. As one of its recurring thematic elements, NPCs will make a big deal of the eponymous frames of war being biometallic constructs, poetically exalting them as melding flesh and metal, that sort of thing. The same descriptions (but with an eeeeevil tone) get reiterated for the game's obligatory zombie swarm, which can include robotic units. Sounds very dramatic and it follows a long tradition of cyborgs being defined in terms of their duality: soft, squishy human flesh contrasting with hard metal bits. Flesh is human; metal is robotic. At least in fiction.

But the more our technology advances, the farther we leave the iron age behind us, and the less likely it becomes that artificial, self-aware beings would look like the giant tinkertoys of 20th century Hollywood fame. Assuming China doesn't knock the world down to a Mad Max scenario with its upcoming genocidal bid for a global empire, mechanisms of the future will grow ever more fine and will incorporate more sophisticated materials, self-repair apparatus, programmable flexibility and redundancy. Conversely, our own bodies are receiving ever more prosthetic aid.

Interestingly, as in most matters robotic, our modern fiction barely exceeds, and in some respects is only now catching up to, Karel Čapek's plot elements from the play which repurposed the word "robot" to its current global meaning. Albeit artificial, his robots were closer to industrially vat-grown Frankensteins. (*) Now, there are at least three levels on which to look at this:

First, we could marvel at the possibility of our cyborg future.

Second, we could realize we're well on our way to it already. I had a tooth replaced with a titanium implant last year and that sort of thing's old hat by this point. Artificial joints, artificial heart valves, pacemakers, cochlear implants, cosmetic implants for war veterans and accident victims, all these functional inserts really snuck up on us. Limb replacements are rapidly approaching Mannie's arm from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Third, we could realize that "cyborg" is a largely meaningless distinction which will reach the end of its memetic lifespan soon enough... because our bodies were never just flesh to begin with. Halfway down the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, you'll find a rock called apatite. One of its forms, hydroxyapatite, happens to make it possible for you to lean in your chair and rattle off angry tweets on your keyboard instead of just flopping down like a jellyfish. It's bone. You've had a mineral framework scaffolded onto your cellular matter all your life, and it will outlive you. Once you realize that individuals are not their bodies, and that bodies are just the physical interface of the genetic code with its environment, the perceived artificiality of grafting utilitarian, acellular structures onto oneself fades into a continuum along the extended phenotype. What are stromatolites but billion-year-old junkyards, mausolea built of the cyborg halves of cyanobacteria?

And even if you insist on attaching some false moral weight to the terms natural and artificial, admit that to a large extent we have been in the process of becoming cyborgs since we started supplanting our bodies' limited abilities with tools. You could use a rock to mash your food into an easily swallowed pulp; you could implant rocks straight into your jaw to continue mashing the food inside your mouth. Meh, either way's good, whatever works, y'know? You could pick up a rock and sharpen it into a hand-axe to slash at your enemies, or you could implant retractable Wolverine-style blades in your wrists. Somewhere between those stages lay soup pots and butter knives and the whole rest of human technological development. And, wiring a pot into your nervous system would just mean never burning the sauce again.

To put it another way, "cyborg" is merely an inevitable (and ultimately indistinguishable) midpoint between medicine and technology. As prosthetics improve, they become better integrated into their host bodies, less distinguishable. As technology improves, it will become logical to build larger structures out of semi-autonomous, self-replacing, interactive subunits. A.k.a. cells.

The psychological impact and storytelling appeal of cyborgs is not a logical one. It hinges instead first on reactionary luddism and second on our primitive, instinctive response to bodily and especially facial disfigurement, on our kin recognition responses. It neighbours the uncanny valley. But, if anything, the whole issue reminds me of the eerie feeling I got as a child when I first held my palm against an elevator's lights in a darkened hallway and realized my body is, in some very real way, transparent. That first sight of mysterious, shadowy bones outlined through my flesh traumatized me no more than learning their nature and realizing that my hand is "stone, living, moving stone" as is the thing on the fourble board's. Whether the stone in question should be a calcium compound or a titanium one comes down to utility and availability. Apatite's a real bargain with an exhaustively quality-tested production chain, and at least we still get to look down on those stupid plankton with their store-brand calcite. Plebs.


* In fact, I'll wager Boris Karloff's shambling portrayal of Frankenstein's monster had more to do with Čapek's mass-produced menial laborers than with Shelley's intelligent, independent, philosophical, grandiose, passionate and vivacious daemon.

I often have no idea what direction these posts are going to take. This thing was supposed to be a single paragraph calling SF writers to "stop making a big deal out of it". I don't know when the hell Frankenstein's monster butted in. He just occasionally pops in here at the werwolfe's den for a monster mash.

I suddenly find myself wishing I could get some Amish feedback on this post.

Sunday, November 10, 2019


"Heaven has burst open
Now it's raining bones
The chaos will erode you
Breeding little clones

Born of a fallen rib
From the monkey's womb
Overcooked by cathode rays
Evolved to consume"

Angelspit - 100%

The author of Ender's Game wrote one of the great science fiction novels of all time. It was called "Ender's Game" and the series it spawned, while decidedly milking their increasingly threadbare subject matter after the first sequel, occasionally made for decent casual consumption in their own right.

His parvum opus Homecoming, on the other hand, stands as irrevocable proof of the ravages inflicted by the cerebral disease faithosis upon an otherwise capable mind. See, the good Orson Scott Card happens to subscribe to Mormonism, and like many who have dabbled in mythology he decided to adapt his favorite myths to a new style and setting. Nothing Fundamentally wrong with that. Demigods, fearsome supernatural beasts and morality plays about tempting fate have routinely found comfortable homes in modern media. Except most of the people who keep ripping off (for instance) the demigod Jesus' mythical journey aren't trying to get you to believe in such fairy tales. They just appreciate that the whole "prophecied savior, martyrdom and resurrection w/ awesomah powah!" schtick makes for a good popcorn flick. It's a strenuous hop and a hernia-inducing skip from cribbing from works of religious fiction -- to proselytism.

Unfortunately, in trying to adapt Mormon superstition, Card churned out a work of propaganda with an intriguing but woefully derailed SciFi plot dangling off one end to remind us of what might've been. So let's take the series book by book.

1) The Memory of Earth is mostly a valid SF novel. (Had to whet readers' appetites.) It presents an intriguing phlebotinum and motivation for medieval stasis (albeit dependent, unfortunately, upon that narrative dead end of telepathy) and it describes a memorable, heavily idealized matriarchal society based partly upon Central Asian / Middle Eastern culture and partly on willfully ignorant gynocentrism. Card was obviously painfully aware of his need to distance himself from old-school Mormonism's infamous stance on polygamy.
And, damnit, while some of his anthropological explanations are decidedly lacking, Card's understanding of interpersonal power games is impressive enough to remind us why Ender's Game captured our attention in the first place, as is his subtle use of concentric iteration in the first book's cosmology. He marks the isolation of the protagonists' planet in the universe. Upon it in the midst of a wide desert sits the city of Basilica, with all households owned by women, about which circle men like ingratiating puppies or rabid coyotes depending on the author's mood in any particular passage. The city itself is built around a hydrothermal lake which is in turn defined by a point in the center where warm and cold waters meet which spot plays a crucial role in the psychology and mythology of the city's soothsayer who serves as only the first example of characters' private relationship with their god, the computer known as The Oversoul. Lovely imagery.
Despite a few awkward moments of characters affirming and glorifying their blind faith, much of the plot is still driven by arguments for powermongering, self-preservation, intellectual/cultural preservation/advancement or other drives which can easily be defined as rational ideals or at least pragmatically from a game theory perspective.

2) The Call of Earth... was a waste of paper when it was printed, and I dare say even now it's a waste of bits. It's entirely dominated by a completely new character, an army general who serves absolutely no narrative purpose beyond a blatantly obvious grand reveal that his resistance to god's will only made him play into god's plan. Cue the motherfuckin' harps. And that's it. Hundreds of pages of finger-wagging. The only other plot point has various characters receiving a second kind of mystical prophetic dream (totally different from the OTHER mystical dreams they were already receiving from their telepathic computer-god) which they decide must be from the Keeper of Earth... which none have ever heard of before but are now absolutely certain is sending them dreams because... well, mostly just "feels".
I can't imagine what the hell possessed Card (a skilled enough writer to be aware of the dangers of derailment and the critical need to pace a narrative) to not only interject but drag out such drivel except the gratuitous tragic hero of the piece must correspond to some figure in Mormon mythology. Otherwise you can safely scrap this whole cheap morality play while detracting not at all from the rest of the series.

3) The Ships of Earth actually picks up quite a bit, reminiscent of the first installment's better parts, with more interpersonal intrigue, the plucky band of heroes adventuring across the desert, etc. Unfortunately it's also where many plot threads begin to fall apart. Start with the fact that when the group gets down to one single fragile hunting/defense weapon, neither they nor their superintelligent computer-god devote even a second to considering contingency plans until it's inevitably destroyed... all to set up a convenient moment of divine inspiration for the hero. Then there's the increasingly grating issue that even when they reach the technological heart of the computer-god, presumably littered with speakers, monitors and endless other means of communication, the Oversoul, for no particular reason insists on communicating with its subjects via telepathy and bemoaning in every single chapter the fact that some unbelievers ignore its magic dreams and vague inklings. For the love of fuck, TRY THE JUMBOTRON !
While all that might insult my intelligence as a reader, as a science fiction fan I'm particularly outraged by Card wholesale lifting the book's climax (the selectively permeable force field) from the short story Arena by Fredric Brown, which (unlike the Homecoming books) has ranked as a true classic of the genre since it was published in 1944. Seriously, Card, go fuck yourself. At least Star Trek owned up to it.

4) Earthfall is mostly defined by an increasing number of characters acquiring godlike magical powers and never actually using them, to the point where their motivations become increasingly vague and nonsensical. That and a ludicrously protracted Mexican standoff. The second half, at least, gives us a real SciFi setup of returning to Earth to find it inhabited by two newly intelligent species.

5) Earthborn being the last book is where Card apparently decided that any audience he managed to retain thus far must be committed enough to trudge through whatever nonsense he spews (well played on the sunk cost fallacy, sir.) Discussing its plot would be largely meaningless. Yes, there's a whole new cast of characters with kings and saints and martyrs, blah-blah-blah but really it revolves around ramping up the morality play about blind faith in god (herein The Keeper of Earth) and good lord-I-don't-even-believe-in, does he ever hammer that point home. His characters start inserting "Keeper of Earth" into every single conversation so often as to overshoot past outrage at bad writing or proselytism into outright farce. After the midpoint it's not uncommon to see the Keeper shoehorned into unrelated paragraphs over ten times per page, chapter after chapter! And the truly comical part is that you could CTRL-x "the Keeper" out of every single reference without adverse effect. Here's just a minimal taste:
"The Keeper doesn't work that way, thought Didul. The Keeper doesn't make people nice. The Keeper only teaches them what goodness and decency are, and then rejoices with those who believe and obey."

What's wrong with just saying "we may not be nice by nature, but cooperation is advantageous"

"That's good, isn't it? To tame your animal impulses in the service of the Keeper?"

Why wouldn't it be good to just tame your animal impulses?

""The Keeper and all her works, she will matter. Ten million years from now, Didul, will the Keeper be alone on Earth again, as she was for so many, many years? Or will the Keeper tend an Earth that is covered with joyful people living in peace, doing the Keeper's works?"

Why not just leave the world better than we found it?
""Your father and mother and I talked over the terrible things you went through as a child, and tried to figure out why the experience turned everyone else toward the Keeper of Earth, and turned you away. Your father was very apologetic, of course. He kept expressing his regret that his mistakes as a father should be causing innocent people to suffer.""

Why not just apologize for negligent parenting?

"the Keeper rejects your plan from the start. This land belongs to all three peoples equally. That is what the Keeper decrees."

Genocide isn't nice. Come on, this ain't rocket science!

"teaching them the way of the Keeper, the doctrines of Binaro-that won our freedom."

Teaching mutual cooperation can end slavery.

"The Keeper tells us to forgive our enemies but I won't."

Never mind that The Keeper does not speak, ever, until the very end - in fact it's one of the bigger plot points through all five books. Also, I'm pretty sure both forgiving or not-forgiving can be carried out in the absence of gods. For instance, I (an a-Keeperist) will not forgive the author for ripping off Arena.

"She's only going to lead Edhadeya closer to the Keeper and to you."


""You foolish men of power!" cried Chebeya. "You're so used to governing with laws and words, soldiers and spies. Now you rage or have your feelings hurt because all your usual tools are useless. They were always useless. Everything always depended on the relationship between each individual person in this kingdom and the Keeper of Earth. Very few of them understand anything about the Keeper's plan, but they know goodness when they see it, and they know evil-they know what builds and what tears down, what brings happiness and what brings misery. Trust them!""

The public is stupid and operates by gut feelings. These can be reliable tools of social control.

"<Such useless yearnings weren't put into me. I have never wished to be anything other than what I am.>
Neither have I, said Shedemei silently, realizing for the first time that she truly was satisfied with her life and glad of the part that the Keeper had given her in the plan of life. With that thought she suddenly laughed out loud, earning her strange looks from a couple of children passing by. She made a face at them; they shrieked and ran away, but soon stopped running and resumed their laughter and chattering. That's the plan, thought Shedemei. The Keeper only wants us to live with the simplicity and innocence of these little ones. Why is it so hard?"

Ok, I'll admit this last one is an intrinsically religious argument. No comparable social force has ever pushed so hard to convince every individual to remain mentally stunted at the level of an ignorant, morally incapable idiot child, wholly dependent on authority, as religions have. This brings us to one last, fairly odd, plot point. Despite the fact that Mormons' conflicts have historically flared up almost exclusively against other Christians, Card chose to frame his conflict as a diatribe against free thinkers instead. Chapter after chapter in volume after volume are dedicated to setting up and knocking down atheist strawmen (to the point of devoting much of the last title to a comically overstuffed "argumentum ad Hitlerum" with predatory rat/mole-people instead of Jews/Africans depending on interpretation... because that's not going to get awkward in retrospect... at all) and to extolling the virtue of self-imposed stupidity, of belief without evidence. Here's just one example of one of the faithful railing against an unbeliever:

"All of you trying for the center stage. All of you trying to get the audience to notice you, to declare you the star, so that when you die, the curtain will come down and the show will end. But it never does. No one was ever the star after all."

Which, first off, bears not even the slightest resemblance to atheists who, if anything, are more likely to fall into nihilism and see themselves as ephemeral motes lost in the uncaring void ; second, has no bearing on a philosophical stance (skepticism) which is based not on motivated thinking but on observation ; third, coming from a religious nut is one of the most blatant cases of psychological projection a headshrinker could ever ask for. What could be more egocentric, egomaniacal even, than expecting that THE ALMIGHTY CONSCIOUSNESS AND CREATIVE FORCE OF THE COSMOS has nothing better to do than to love a degenerate filthy ape like you?

As a last note, I find the replacement of traditional divinities with The Keeper particularly interesting in how self-defeating it is to throw away the undeserved cultural fiat built up by religions for their particular nomenclature. Our cultures have all been indoctrinated, over centuries' worth of inquisitions, crusades, jihads, pogroms, torture, mass torture, witch hunts and other fun in the sun, to fear criticizing Jesus, or The Buddha, or Mohammed, or Vesta, or Quetzalcoatl, or the various popes, tsars and Billy Grahams who claim to represent them. In fact one of the most effective tools of ridicule by atheists against religion is to take religious precepts and present them in a secular context to see how they (don't) stand up on their own. If your coworker Bob told you to eat fish on Friday, would you feel obligated to do it? No, fuck you, Bob!

Weird for the faithful to pull that trick on themselves. One can't but laugh at the pathetic desperation, the literary pitfall, of monomaniacally repeating the awkward phrase "The Keeper" a dozen times per page as a complete non-sequitur every single time. It only serves to highlight the stupidity of doing the same with the nonsense word "god" in real life. Hard to say what Card hoped with these ersatz novels, but what he achieved was a brilliant illustration of how utterly retarded and batshit insane* religions sound once divested of the terminology we've all been indoctrinated to fear criticizing.
(All except the Flying Spaghetti Monster, naturally, may we all bask in His starchy vapors for all eternity.)

* Made even funnier by one of his sentient species being actual bats.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Sport Utility Shehicles

"We're all guys here. Sweaty, hairy, gassy guys."

Turanga Leela, Futurama - Season 3, Episode 2, "War Is the H-Word"

The politically correct in America have demonized men for so many decades now as to make referring to a hypothetical person as "he" a grievous social faux pas and the word "men" itself an unquestioned slur. But while none would dare speak of "the works of man" or "the rights of man" or "the race of man" it's amusing how often phrases like "man-made climate change" pop up in left-wing political commentary.

I have to wonder how much this overlaps with our intrinsic belief that the female body neither produces, nor evacuates, methane. Guess it's easy enough to blame it on the dog once you've rhetorically demeaned billions of men to that status.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Age of Decadence

"Haters call me bitch call me faggot call me whitey
But I am something that you'll never be"

Marilyn Manson - Better of Two Evils

The Age of Decadence is not just an intriguing RPG but one of the most interesting games I've played over the past decade. Just to start things off, let's admit that doesn't always translate into high praise. If you hear someone mumbling the phrase "oh, what an... interesting... Christmas gift, Grandma" you know it's a damn pair of socks; you just know it! Long story short, if you agree with me that strategy means turns and tiles and you want a single-character isometric RPG and most importantly you have a high tolerance for needless frustration, buy it... but buyer beware!

I've replayed this fight dozens of times, and that's not even counting the first-round quits. Those byway robbers are blocking off a fair chunk of the main city's map, they charge an exorbitant fee for passage, and even in a game that routinely describes itself as "brutal" they're overpowered for their spawn location. Moreover, killing them spawns a nigh-unbeatable ambush which, thanks to a bug, triggers on all of your saves for that zone, making you backtrack much farther than you'd have to -- and repeat this fight another two dozen times in search of a lucky crit.

Which is to say, AoD is an indie game, with indie flaws.

It's severely lacking in bells and whistles (no voice acting, apt but simple music, no aesthetic character customization) and its writing, while delightfully evocative half the time, is perfunctory or anachronistic the other half. It's great when a merchant tries to sell you an armor described as "'River horse skin. Two inch thick,' [...] You can only wonder what monstrous beast it came from." Bonus points for remembering what mythical beast the ancient Greeks dubbed a "river horse". Less great when the assassins' guild advertises itself as having "killed more people than malaria" as that word would've sounded much better as "the three-day fever" or some other less precise pseudonym. Also, while the occasional modern colloquialism can do wonders in driving home the universality of human culture, using the same flavor text in combat for all NPCs results in some mildly jarring moments like the odalisques in a noblewoman's mansion dropping f-bombs. Hilarious... and a little bit hot... but still somewhat odd. Then there's the occasional innocent typo like "turned and fled in a disorderly route" instead of rout.

On the other hand, its setting dodges the standard D&D fantasy-medieval world and heroic premises with an atmosphere loosely flavored, instead of imperial Rome at its height, by a crumbled Eastern Roman Empire looking back enviously on its ancestors' glory days centuries past. The official description is of a "low fantasy" setting... and in the interest of avoiding spoilers I'll leave it at that. I'm tempted to complain about its ending being derivative of a certain famous author's works but it would be hypocritical of me after deriving from the same source for one of my clumsy attempts at short stories on this very blog. They handled it better than I did at least. Aaand I'll leave that at that!

In any case, Age of Decadence's main selling point is usually summed up as "vicious" or "brutal" both in terms of roleplaying and of skill choices. Your opportunities for benevolence are severely limited while those for betrayal are quite abundant. Your opportunities to earn skill points are even more limited. Ostensibly this should create meaningful player choice, with you thinking about every skill point as you buy into it. In practice it overshoots its mark, leaving you no room for error whatsoever.

Me at end game.

(No, I never actually ranked up any civil skills except Lore, Alchemy and Crafting. The rest are quest reward bonuses.)

I had started with the intention of fighting more via alchemy than poke-craft but was stymied by the scarcity of alchemical components and wound up having to struggle through the gladiatorial arena just to work up my survivability. It doesn't help that while most quests offer both a combat and a diplomacy option, they're usually lacking in MacGyver solutions for antisocial tinkerer types. Or that there simply aren't enough quests in the game to justify some of the redundancy: Word of Honor / Loyalty, or Persuasion / Streetwise / Etiquette / Impersonate - I can't remember a single Etiquette skill check the entire campaign. Or that you're frequently catapulted past points of no return with little to no warning. They made some minimal effort to puff up some quests as more important, but "you get a sudden feeling of impending doom" is not clear enough for an act transition, much less for being the only warning you get until three missions later when you find yourself standing before the Act 2 curtain. I even missed out on some interactions because of idiotic old-fashioned pixel-hunting. While there is an option to highlight interactable objects, the icons used for these can clip behind scenery, and one of them... well, try to spot it here:

If you saw the little hands icon, congratulations on your ability to spot polar bears in snowstorms, but you were probably helped by my pointer hovering right above it - and keep in mind I've cropped the image here to less than a tenth of its beige expanse. And most zones use this exact tileset.

Much of this can be chalked up, again, to a low-budget game not nearly as fleshed out as it should have been for its ambitious tangle of consequences. It could be fixed with more content. More quests, more skill checks worked into quests, a couple of passes over the script to elaborate or clarify descriptions and prompts. And, indeed, I've never seen developers more eager to resolve their customers' confusion. "Vince" shows up in almost every AoD Steam forum thread with helpful details, rational justifications or even (shockingly!) acknowledgment of faults. Still, as testament to what a chore this damn game can be, consider that replaying it is the one thing I don't want to do despite its selling point being a high amount of replay value as different classes/factions uncover different parts of the story.

Don't get me wrong, it has a lot of high points. A captivating main plot. Mature, internally consistent setting and characters. Repercussions for your actions at every turn. Even the combat, frustrating as it is, does a good job of not only reiterating the Fallout turn-based routine but building on it with a variety of weapon ranges and special abilities as Dead State did. The fight in that first screenshot started half a dozen turns' walk away. I retreated to the doorway while pushing my pursuers back with my spear turn by turn, and while choke points and corners are a fairly limited use of terrain  it's still always nice to see an RPG where positioning matters. Two aspects of Age of Decadence's design philosophy however ensured that it would fall short of its potential.

First off, the more you imbue player actions with irrevocable, high-impact repercussions and one-shot wipe-outs, the less you can leave up to chance. I addressed this with regard to Into the Breach, where even the minimal randomness (enemy types, building resistance) often grates. But what "kaiju chess" didn't have were miss chances or critical strikes. AoD acknowledged this by removing dice rolls from skill checks in quests, but leaving it as a central feature of combat just turns every fight into a luck-based game, reloading fifty times until the string of crits goes your way.

Second, you can't bank on replay value so much that you turn a first playthrough into merely a maximally frustrating tutorial. Too many player decisions can only be made while knowing every detail of later events. It would've been nice, for instance, to know that the best spear I can loot is a one-hander and I should've invested in shields and not dodging. Or that I have to visit a specific healer three times in order to get a quest for a permanent regeneration effect - a situation negated, counter-intuitively, by me being an alchemist and making my own healing salves. Don't even start on knowing exactly which map locations can be re-accessed in later acts and which become permanently locked after the first visit. When your customers' success is so utterly dependent on foreknowledge of the campaign, you're leaving them with very little role to play. Might as well copy/paste your decisions from a walkthrough.

Yet still... no-one else is doing anything quite like this. The setting, the skills, the do-or-die quest interactions, the honest attempt at providing multiple paths to success. Whatever else you might say about The Age of Decadence, it stands out in a crowd. Despite being glad I'm done with it for the moment, I'm even happier I played it, and I'm pretty sure my fumbling, save-scumming, arduous playthrough as an antisocial, nerdy, bomb-throwing hoplite assassin resulted in a more unique experience from other players than I could ever get in Skyrim. Better to be frustrated than bored.


Sometimes indie games deliver features otherwise ignored by the entire industry. The Age of Decadence autosaves both at the beginning of quest-critical conversations and the beginning of combat - Yes! Thank you! Why is that so hard for every other game designer to do?

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Piano / Forte! (A Dimension of Sound)

"One thousand cars and a million guitars
Screaming with power in the air
We found a place where the decibels race
This army of rock will be there"

Judas Priest - Ram It Down

"And whomsoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And Rrroht inside a corpsy shell"

Vincent Price, in Michael Jackson's Thriller *

Though its most memorable moments tended to come from its more tech-driven episodes, The Twilight Zone only rarely qualified as SciFi. I'd speculate that, as Paramount would with ST:TNG forty years later, CBS just found it cheaper to reuse the copiously superfluous cowboy hats and fedoras it had lying around its studios than to pay to build the more unique cardboard rockets and fishbowl helmets by which to ennoble a SciFi production. Looking at it now, the whole series seems anything but a lavish affair (at one point they were even denied the cash for film) and it shows. We might praise the stark realism or the poignancy of one episode after another in which a lone protagonist wanders about an empty town (or an even emptier alien planet) but let's remember it precluded paying extras. And the deserted alien planets were quite depopulated of props and decor as well.

What it did have was sound, from Sterling's narrated bookends to details like the sharp pinprick noise of eyeglasses shattering on concrete, to immortalized one-liners like "there was time now" or "it's a cookbook!" More than one episode centered on ventriloquism, of all things, but then it's rare for the real world to provide such sinister props pre-made for a televised thriller. In fact, the show had at times more in common with old-school radio dramas than with the more lavish visuals of its successors, with much of the plot expressed through dialogue instead of action. I had the fortune earlier this year to catch a marathon running through not only the big hits but some of the less popular episodes, including Sounds and Silences, in which a big fat loudmouth is sentenced, in standard Sterling style, first to one aural extreme, then the other.

It hit closer to home for me than for most, since I happen to be just a tad sensitive to incoherent noise. When I was young and my ears even sharper, I was even annoyed by those supposedly ultrasonic vermin-repellent devices. (Please try not to draw the obvious conclusion.) I've occasionally gotten up in the middle of the night to close my bedroom door against such noises as... my refrigerator... from six meters and two corners away. Advertisements, with their deliberately intrusive, attention-grabbing flood of white noise, still drive me into a frothing rage. I'm the type to stop dead while walking and track the wind as it hits the trees or the side of a building. Though active noise control has remained slightly too expensive for my tastes, I've come to view a good solid pair of ear-covering headphones as essential to sitting at my computer. My stance on voice chat noise pollution in games is well documented, and it's not too far from my stance on voice chat noise pollution in the physical world.

So in context it's no surprise that so many things remind me of a song I once heard, or that I keep returning here on the blog to the topic of audio in computer games. Watching and listening to Sounds and Silences made me more attentive to how sound was used back in the days of radio and the first grainy, barely discernible flashes of the cathode ray. To some extent we can still hear the same quality these days in a well-narrated audio book, because regardless of technological improvements the main problem still lies in conveying intent. Good narration will relate apprehension and tension by halting, ponderous sentences, will rush awkwardly through relating shameful events, will threaten in a stony monotone, letting the microphone do the work of amplification. Where televisuals fall short, well-placed sound effects will not only color an event but will mark different phases of the action or provide new information. (You -know- the glasses have broken before you ever see the shards.) And, perhaps most importantly, good music is more than filler. It sets the mood and provides nuance.

As far as games go, I more or less started off this blog by complaining about the non-massive nature of MMOs, microtransactions as legitimized cheating, and the decay in game music quality. And I never let up on them. For a long time after Y2K, sound degenerated, as far as I can see for three main reasons:

1) Video cards continued to rule the tech specs while sound cards plateaued fairly quickly. It might shock younger gamers now to see old game boxes from the '90s advertising the number of sound channels a particular title was capable of occupying, right alongside its polygon count. Or Diablo 2 advertising itself for having hired an orchestra. As everyone started getting the same quality sound cards and sound stopped being a mode of conspicuous consumption, companies also invested less and less in what was no longer a selling point.

2) Graphics really did improve. Tremendously. Thus, much like TV shows stopped conveying information via sound in favor of displaying it visually on ever-larger, ever higher definition TV sets, video game sound became more vague, relegated to the background.

3) For ten to fifteen years companies were tripping over each other to widen their market base from obsessive wer-nerds to the mass market. This meant providing more instant gratification, simplifying and dumbing down everything from controls (there were no noteworthy 3D strategy games after Homeworld) to cultural references to level design, to shrinking party / match sizes in multiplayer and eliminating secondary roles in class-based games.... to, as a matter of course, music. It was especially noticeable in online games where you could at times still hear the more recognizable, launch-quality music even as newer patches added more generic white noise. But it was not unheard of for companies to actually go back and vandalize their own previous work, scrapping more interesting original tracks to replace them with blander, more generic, more forgettable, lowest-common-denominator fare.

And sure, it hasn't all been bad. The Secret World, a game from 2011 which failed miserably as a game but dressed up its failure via surprising artistic panache, recently held its yearly Samhain event, part of which treats players to a collection of radio dramas from the days before video killed such stars. While it's unforgivable of Funcom to charge its customers subscription fees for public domain radio as a timesink, I do have to thank them at the very least for their selection, which includes not only the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast but The Thing on the Fourble Board (**) Give it a listen. It's twenty minutes of sane, didactic, low-key narration punctuated by a few precision strikes of otherworldly presence. And you will know it when you hear it, trust me. In turn, TSW was one of the few games which managed to emulate that old-timey radio drama attention to sound. Its colorful yet still nuanced NPCs set a delightfully mundane backdrop against which its various boogey men can boogety-boo!

In fact, horror games and horror themed segments in general have invested more in sound. Shrieks, groans, creaks and ominous footsteps add a great deal to their suspense, especially since they so often need to hide their boogeymen until the last second and can't bank entirely on graphics as other genres do. But, banking on a contrast with eerie silences unfortunately leaves no room for a real soundtrack. While voice acting has always oscillated in quality between titles and sound effects have had their high points, music consistently diminished. My recent jaunt through System Shock's introduction reminded me how much more expressive that '80s/'90s synthesized backdrop was. While some series (Heroes of Might and Magic, Divinity) were lucky enough to latch onto a good composer from the start and clung to them as selling points through many reiterations, most did not, and they really should've paid more attention to how effective a well-integrated, memorable soundtrack can be in other media. Don't believe me? O.K., three, two, one, let's jam. And it's not like animation was new by that point.

But I am happy to note some signs that music might once again be considered a distinctive element of game design and not simply white noise to fill the background silences. Justin Bell's sound direction wasn't bad in Pillars of Eternity but still largely generic, unintrusive medievalism. It wasn't until he really cut loose two years later (2016) in Tyranny that he put out something worthy of having his name mentioned. What's more, I've been seeing some amusing signs of companies reversing the old trend of downplaying music after release. Stellaris' more noticeable tracks seem to come from its later DLCs like Synthetic Dawn (2017). Warframe, launched in 2013, has some surprisingly engaging tracks... most attached to content added since 2015-2018.


Yes, music can sometimes intrude on other gameplay elements (those thunderous old '90s tracks were partly meant to cover up the lack of other sound effects or ambience) but intruding can also be a good thing. The Tristram theme did as much for the original Diablo's popularity as any other of its high points, and many a mediocre game has remained fixed in gamers' memories for its soundtrack. And there are endless ways to mitigate the potential nuisance factor. Set it in-character or in an appropriate locale. The sea shanties in PoE2: Deadfire were more immersive than half its chauvinistic abortions of storytelling put together, the Sleepless Lullaby along with Lilith's monolgue or the Siren Song rendered their little corners of TSW unforgettable, no-one who's played STALKER can forget the NPCs randomly breaking out their guitars and We All Lift Together defined Fortuna better than any other location in Warframe. V:tM-Bloodlines made its night spots come alive with Isolated, A Smaller God, Lecher Bitch... and appropriately enough, Come Alive... and nobody and I mean nobody was complaining about Bloodlines' music being too intrusive!


Even completely out of character, let music symbolize your setting instead of just underscoring it. Even a twenty-second flute solo can stick in your customers' minds years afterwards for marking their call to adventure. I sure as hell have never met that wailing banshee in Tyranny's soundtrack in all my replays of the game, but she fits her imaginary world every bit as perfectly as The Thing on the Fourble Board's inhuman meowling.

It's not unreasonable to assume that people still remember that often painfully jarring 8-bit tootling from 1980s computer games for its sheer nostalgia factor... but let's not exclude the possibility that they memor it for being memor-able. Yeah, that's a quality we really should get back around to recapturing.

* You know, on one hand I'm disappointed that after three decades that's still one of our most satisfying portrayals of lycanthropy. On the other hand... might as well enjoy it!

** Shockingly enough, that is, officially, a word.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

King Lycaon's Taste Challenge

"Apprivoiser l’absurdité du monde"

Mylène Farmer - Dessine-moi un mouton

"Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?"

Edgar Allan Poe - Sonnet -- to Science


"A quarter of a million years ago the utmost man was a savage, a being scarcely articulate, sheltering in holes in the rocks, armed with a rough-hewn flint or a fire-pointed stick, naked, living in small family groups, killed by some younger man so soon as his first virile activity declined.
Man began to think. There were times when he was fed, when his lusts and his fears were all appeased, when the sun shone upon the squatting-place and dim stirrings of speculation lit his eyes. [...] he blinked at the sun and dreamt that perhaps he might snare it and spear it as it went down to its resting-place amidst the distant hills. Then he was roused to convey to his brother that once indeed he had done so - at least that some one had done so - he mixed that perhaps with another dream almost as daring, that one day a mammoth had been beset; and therewith began fiction - pointing a way to achievement - and the august prophetic procession of tales.
And that first glimmering of speculation, that first story of achievement, that story-teller bright-eyed and flushed under his matted hair, gesticulating to his gaping, incredulous listener, gripping his wrist to keep him attentive, was the most marvelous beginning this world has ever seen. It doomed the mammoths, and it began the setting of that snare that shall catch the sun."

H.G. Wells - The World Set Free

"Well, what about this name: Edgar Allan Poe?"
Mr. Bigelow shook his head.
"Of course." Stendahl snorted delicately, a combination of dismay and contempt. "How could I expect you to know blessed Mr. Poe? He died a long while ago, before Lincoln. All of his books were burned in the Great Fire. That's thirty years ago - 1975."
"Ah," said Mr. Bigelow wisely. "One of those!"
"Yes, one of those, Bigelow. He and Lovecraft and Hawthorne and Ambrose Bierce and all the tales of terror and fantasy and horror and, for that matter, tales of the future were burned. Heartlessly. They passed a law. Oh, it started very small. In 1950 and '60 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves."

"Garrett," said Stendahl, "do you know why I've done this to you? Because you burned Mr. Poe's books without really reading them. You took other people's advice that they needed burning. Otherwise you'd have realized what I was going to do to you when we came down here a moment ago. Ignorance is fatal, Mr.Garrett."

Ray Bradbury - Usher II - The Martian Chronicles


Richard Dawkins - Unweaving the Rainbow
(I haven't actually read it yet, though I probably should)

"Unhappy is the land that has no heroes."
"Incorrect. Unglücklich das Land, das Helden nötig hat."

Bertolt Brecht - Life of Galileo


Sometimes the world is demonstrably weird. Take the process of myzocytosis, in which one single-celled organism pokes a hole in another cell and sucks out its juicy innards. Top that, Max Schreck. What's weirder, most of these little suckers would fall under cyanobacteria, dinoflagellates and ciliates, which in popular parlance we tend to lump under "algae". Though I doubt many kids will go trick-or-treating tonight dressed in Vampirovibrio costumes, it bears noting the old bloodsucker myths hold true not only for bats, leeches, mosquitoes and a host of other macroscopic creepy-crawlies, but in realms the old storytellers could not even imagine. For all the boogeymen and contorted beasts they spawned, for all their flights of fancy and wisps of whimsy, never in their most lurid opium dreams did the fabulists of yore dream of whip-legged, vampiric pond scum.

All such microscopic dramas were unknowable until the Dutch and English started grinding down lenses and stacking them atop each other. Lenses and curiousity drained blood of its humour, dragged cantankerous old Apollo and Diana, Venus and Mars off their celestial chariots and in their place opened up literally whole new worlds. Science tore down the gods' Olympus and in its place lifted Olympus Mons, seven times its height. Science tore the naiad from her flood and replaced her with a million inhuman monsters so alien as to defy the imagination of mammoth-hunters and prematurely buried romanticists alike. We've slain the kraken, and dredged it up again... because for every wonder it dulls, our growing body of knowledge reveals an entire chorus line of mind-blowing, tangible phantasms. It's not the world at large that science makes more boring but ourselves by comparison, putting the pettiness of our forebears' imagination to shame.

And, it's one of the great calamities of the past couple of decades that imaginative fiction, after its late '90s flowering, has once again been ratcheted back to immediate human concerns, neatly folded with its possibilities sealed shut by the social contract. Whimsical adventures persist in our pop culture, more prevalent than ever but in a dumbed-down, sanitized, humanized fashion reminiscent of the cheesy "pulp" fictions of the early 20th century. Nothing can be permitted to permeate our public consciousness which is not made to prop up some shallow feeling of belonging to this or that social group. We love the old myths only inasmuch as they can be made safe and cozy for petty navel-gazing twits who view their own genitals as the utmost bounds of intellect and ambition. Failures of the imagination. Failures of intellect. We no longer read Jack London because he was too much of a socialist, and we can't be caught reading Ayn Rand because she wasn't enough of one. We can't read Andersen or the Grimms for fear of contracting nordic depression. We screw a childproof lid onto Baba Yaga's cauldron for fear gamboling feminists might trip into it along their victory march, and slap a chastity belt on Zeus for fear he'll put the Fates' eye out.

Yet it's never been a question of upholding old vs. new mythology. Follow one and you're bound to run into the other on the same continuum. No, the danger is rather of limiting ourselves to mere reiteration, of spinning our wheels in cozy reassuring heroics and morality plays. Mary Shelley wrote of a "modern" Prometheus two centuries ago, implicitly acknowledging her debt to old myths and building upon them with the science of her present, and ten generations of backlash later we find ourselves in dire need of post-post-modern titans to both acknowledge their debt to the Luddite mythologies of the industrial and information eras... and to construct upon them instead of de-constructing. Much of mythology may be ruled by the fear of the unknown, but let's not lose sight of one fact: our ancestors, soon after inscribing their maps with the phrase "hic sunt leones" would run out to seek said leones. True advancement does not destroy the past but incorporates it - in time, the fears and hopes we now consider human ideals and universals must in turn become minor subfields of literature, psychology and history, taking their place alongside the bisons of Lascaux. But it was not necessary to whitewash the bisons in order to surpass them.

Enough with the self-righteous attempts to sanitize and trivialize our modern folklore, enough with the damn glittering vampires and the relatable messianic superpowered do-gooders, enough with the glorified codependence. Away with heroes. Let there be villains! Let there be ghouls, gorging themselves on the culture of the past. Let there be vampires, filthy graveyard-spawned, blood-drenched abominations to drain the lowly humanity out of our primal fear of the night. Let there be werewolves, mangy, moon-mad, slavering half-beasts hounding the outskirts of our very concept of humanity, lone minds remaking themselves into transcendent forms. Let the ghosts of the past march among us unmolested, in all their tawdry, atavistic beauty, not to be worshipped but acknowledged, cherished in all their villainy, and grokked. Accept them as our elders' hand, not to guide but to steady our own so that we can, at long last, turn our microscopes and telescopes away from the squatting place and toward the horizon.

"and I shall make the heart of he who yet has ears for things unheard heavy with my happiness."
Friedrich Nietzsche - Thus Spake Zarathustra