Friday, August 24, 2012

So the legend foretold - LOTRO edition

Ok, see, overblown dramaticism is such an old foible of bad fiction that it feels as though there's nothing i can even say about it. Still, an example from one of Lord of the Rings Online's many meaningless NPC dialogues is sticking with me because of the obvious contrast in quality between Tolkien's writing and Turbine's.

I'm doing some quest, doesn't particularly matter which, fetching this-and-that for a dwarf blacksmith to make me a magic key. I get him the metal and the magic eye-of-newt or whatnot, and then he sends me on another errand, because, to quote:

''Tales tell that a special shaping hammer is needed for such fine work as a key.''

Of all the idiotic nonsense. This dwarf has been a smith for a couple of centuries at least and he needs tales to tell him he needs a small hammer to hammer out a small object? There isn't a single ball-peen hammer in the entire dwarven city of Thorin's Hall? This crap sounds worse than the fan fiction i wrote back when i was playing Diablo.

Except i was sixteen. Who the hell are these morons at Turbine paying to write this garbage, the pizza delivery boy?

Much of the charm of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien's ability to place magic in an otherwise believably mundane world. Contrast is necessary. Nothing's special if everything's special.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


"life feeds on life, feeds on life, feeds on life - this is necessary"
 from Disgustipated by Tool

You are not your body. You are a parasite. The self, the self-aware pattern is only the mind, not even the brain itself except in its closer purpose to prolonging the pattern between neurons, between matter. Everything else, hands, eyes, feet and genitals, exists as it does for other life, and it is expendable to the self; no other life has resulted in self and the self owes nothing to the grand concept of life.

It's a wonder that this doesn't come up in discussions (ok, slogan-shouting) by vegetarians. The cries of the carrots are not the surest means of debunking the 'all life is sacred' mentality. We have a simple, physical, thermodynamic need to keep destroying complex organic compounds acquired through destroying other living beings. This is commonly pointed out. We ignore the fact that most of our own ape body is also alive and constantly sacrificed for our existence. Cows murder grass, sure, but the genitals of a cow, in their grand purpose of creating more cows, also constantly murder trillions upon trillions of skin cells, gut lining, blood cells and other appendages of the cow's own body. Predation and parasitism, murder and exploitation, began when we were still unicellular. The cells which make possible our existence as thought patterns feed on the other cells of our body. Nature does not create or imply morality.

So, as always the thorny question: where do you draw the line? I've tasted both foie gras and simple foie. I must admit that usually when i get a hankerin' fer goose liver, the extra-buttery taste and texture of foie gras does not justify the pain felt by a goose as its internal organs crush each other for weeks on end. I do not however, regret eating it as a delicacy a few times in my life. A goose is not my equal. It is in fact a fairly stupid animal. I cannot condone torturing geese for my enjoyment on a day-to-day basis, but the minor personal growth afforded by the experience of eating foie gras once or twice in my life weighs evenly enough against my share of guilt in the physical suffering of a couple of geese.

I sometimes think that if the pile of self-delusional nonsense commonly known as religion were to have some explanation, it could only be this. We are geese to gods, and all our suffering is just the fattening of our souls for tastier consumption. What gluttons gods would be then, to need so much human misery.

Divine digressions aside, the same precept of balance holds true in society. The desires of superior individuals must be weighed against their superiority. We must be careful in deciding whether the quirks and demands of a Napoleon, Newton, Socrates or Alexander are worth their contribution to our lives. The twist is that of course, inferior minds cannot be trusted to determine the value of superior minds. We are left with the ideal of democracy to ensure that no ubermensch eats more than his fill.

Where am i going with this? Nowhere really, because the whole thing gets pretty damn circular. Gotta let superior minds determine who are superior minds who then determine the best course of action for everyone but which must be approved by inferior minds who, let's face it, have to live in this world too. That course of action would ideally lead to improved quality of life and intellectual advancement which would increase the proportion of superior to inferior minds.

Thorny problem though: we're out of that circle now. It's a bad penny with no flipside, just two losing tosses. One: thanks to mass-media brainwashing and political pandering, we have a system designed to let inferior minds out-breed, out-shout and out-vote their betters. Two: consumerism and capitalism are philosophies of excess, so even when abuses of power do happen, they are lauded instead of scrutinized. See American expansionism in the past decade.

There is a way out of it and that's to keep encouraging individual thought, resistance to external control. It's damn near impossible to get the average idiot to think. It may still be possible to get most people to be too durned ornery to be led by the nose in too large numbers at a time. It's not much but it keeps the door open. We have to resist the idea that those little people out there are somebody's by definition. Nature, the law of the jungle, does not create or imply morality. They have to be their own until someone comes up with the right way to oppress them, until the necessity can be defined. The self-serving greed and sadism of bureaucrats and capitalists ain't it. They are not calculated predators. They are petty scavengers living off sheer destruction. If you don't believe me, there are quite a few shanty-towns and landfills worth visiting just a dozen miles outside the richest cities.

Yes, it's an old conclusion, but i'm very amused at being able to reach it from a standpoint that's not normally considered, inspired by a song. When i started this post, i thought i'd be making the opposite argument. Peace, reverend Maynard.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chapek Nine

Years ago, i was tickled pink to hear a planet in Futurama named after Karel Capek. It happened to be inhabited by robots (or uninhabited as some will have it) and not by newts as i'd have hoped given that i'd read War with the Newts but not R.U.R. Capek wrote Rossum's Universal Robots in 1920. It created the word 'robot' and popularized it. I just got around to reading it this past week. In the betweentime, i was born, grew sick of this world and sought escapism, became enamoured of science fiction and read through endless stories featuring robots at least tangentially.

Ain't nothin' new under the sun. Capek's story is unfortunately damaged by its theatrical restrictions, but it sets out almost every theme connected with robots: their use as slave labour, the inevitable rebellion, the dissociative mentality of those creating them, the transition of robots from automatons to thinking beings, the reckless capitalist propagation of a new product, the enslavement of humans by machines as maintenance crews... he presented it all in a single play, ninety-two years ago.

Oh, sure, the ideas have been separated, isolated, expanded upon, refined. Still, it's disheartening to find one more area in which human thought is stagnating. Aside from isolated specialists who i'm sure have their own ideas, we as a whole, the zeitgeist, nerddom in the information age, have no more idea how a robot-permeated society will develop than Capek did in 1920.

addendum: Of course, the whole pattern of automatons created to serve and the ethical issues thereof can probably be traced back to the golem myth and that's been around since at least the 1500s. Lousy Jews always one step ahead in showbusiness.

Lynyrd Skynyrd needed a better lyricist

Or a better vocalist.

I kept meaning to listen to Free Bird as i had seen it recommended numerous times. The one other time i tried it, i cut it short in the first minute. Having now listened to it in full, i must concede that it is, overall, an excellent ditty in terms of instrumentation. The lyrics however do not match even the feel of the song, to say nothing of providing a focus for it. It's partly the simplistic writing but largely the delivery. The tone and pacing simply fail to convey any meaning. I suppose they could have been attempting to sound wistful, but the song doesn't sound as if it were composed that way.

It sounds schizophrenic. The instruments went up into a wonderful land of despair and overcoming while the words stayed somewhere in the mediocre realm of dime-a-dozen country tunes.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

TSW is not a PvP game

This is a screenshot from one of The Secret World's PvP arenas.Note the general 'fuzziness' of the image (ignoring the blur effect). It's because of weather effects. Note the complexity of the ground featuring grass, rocks, cracks, etc. Note the huge red pillar-like spell effects obscuring the battlefield. Note the subtle, nondescript player costumes.

This is a screenshot from Savage 2. S2 is a PvP game. Note the way the ground and decorations are laid out. The larger graphic effects like smoke or bright shiny lights are placed high above the players. There are trees, but while their trunks can be used as cover, they are tall enough that their crowns don't obscure players' view entirely. The weapon each player is currently using is clearly visible. Likewise, abilities have clearly different visual effects. There are different graphics and sound cues when a player dodges, blocks an attack, sprints, whatever. Boulders and other obstructions are used sparingly and the terrain flows in clean gradations, with no unexpected edges or bumps that would hamper players' movement.

Just in case anyone's thinking of trotting out the all-purpose excuse 'oh but TSW is an MMO' (it's not, by-the-by) here's a screenshot of Rift's PvP. Rift, like World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online before it, was built top-down as a PvP-centered game and only later wrecked by focusing on small-group instanced gameplay. There's a lot happening in that screenshot, plenty of spell effects going off, but they are at the same time clearly visible and not obscuring anything else. There's no way you're going to confuse that bard's healing ability with a mage's fireball.

That could, however, easily happen in TSW. Even the weather effects work to mask what players are doing. I'd run through more examples, but in a nutshell, the game's PvP is a joke. I want credit for having predicted this years ago. Storytelling, puzzle-solving, meta-plot, this isn't just PvE content, it's single-player content, and TSW was built around it. The combat mechanics and the game's aesthetics followed suit. A PvP game has to be as responsive as possible and provide clear and constant feedback as to what's happening on the playing field. It needs to look clean and play smoothly. TSW's combat mechanics are geared towards spicing up solo PvE and its graphics were created for atmosphere. They are gently nuanced, realistic, immersive... and completely unsuitable for PvP.

This would not be a problem if developers did not feel the need to pay lip-service to players who thoughtlessly demand PvP from a game that's not made for it. TSW would have made a beautiful single-player game or even a passable co-op PvE world. The arena combat is worse than useless. It means the developers are now under constant pressure to provide PvP content, to balance skills for PvP (thereby ruining PvE balance) and to give players PvP rewards which will end up being just another pointless grind for those of us who would otherwise never set foot in an arena. It's a millstone around TSW's neck, constantly shifting focus away from its true high points, sapping developers' effort and any investment in expanding on their strengths.