Friday, December 28, 2012

Abortion, Bibles and Communism

There's something quite ironic about American anti-abortionists, but before I get to it, let's settle this "life is sacred" issue.

Life is not sacred. Nothing is sacred. "Sacred" is a designation intrinsically tied into religious doctrine and therefore unfit for any rational discourse. Privately, I might consider intellectual advancement sacred but I cannot justify using the word to attempt a moral coup against my opponents in any argument simply by subverting their mental processes using the childhood religious indoctrination to which most humans have unfortunately been subjected.

Life just is. We end life on a continuous split-second basis and I've brought this up in a previous ramblant (that'd be a rambling rant, let's hope it catches on) because we are capable of discerning the value of various flavors of "sacred" life. The idea that humans are somehow a "thing" apart from the rest of the natural world, Yahweh's own children made in his image, is also as obsolete as stoning people to death for working on a Saturday. There are some humans who should be killed because their very nature is detrimental to the rest of us. Most serial killers (and I don't mean the famous ones, but your run-of-the-mill gangbangers with half a dozen deaths on their conscience) are irredeemable. They will never be anything but a burden or danger to the rest of us and it is in self-defense that we should execute them. I'm not even going to worry about health concerns to the mother, rape, incest, and all other supposed justifications for abortion because first-trimester abortion, that killing of a lump of cells which cannot form even the simplest thought like 'hungry' or 'scared' before it becomes an unwanted child, needs no justification. If the mother is unwilling or unable to commit to caring for it, kill the damn thing. It's not an ugly word. Kill that foetus.

The basic, logical principles of coexistence dictate that we should refrain from murder. We cannot cooperate if we live in constant fear of each other. This is not, however, an absolute. Not all life is equal. Even the strictest of vegans cannot afford to hold the lives of algae and wheatgrass sacred. Not all humans are equal either. A baby eats, shits and emotionally manipulates its parents into giving it whatever it wants, usually food and clean diapers. It exists on a mental level below that of monkeys and far below that of apes. It's not until two years of age that we can overtake chimps intellectually, and many adult humans can barely be said to do that much. A first-trimester mindless parasite is much, much less than even that. It does not think. It is a lump of cells. The self, the personality, the individual which is the incredibly complex pattern of neural impulses in a fully-developed brain, cannot exist at that stage. It's no more human, in the existential sense, than the shrimp you had for lunch.
That potential baby's mother, however, is a whole different story. She can perform physical labor, at the very least. She can derive enjoyment from complex situations, from mental stimulation, however rudimentary. She can converse, cooperate, maybe even create (artistically or scientifically, not biologically) and generally has a lot more potential to enrich the lives of others. That is, unless she's saddled with the care of a screaming, reeking, selfish little monster that'll suck the life out of her for the next eighteen years. Killing that vicious, life-sapping parasite before it can become a thinking being, before it can realize that it's an unwanted, neglected child is a much loftier goal than adding another miserable, unfulfilled, aimless and hopeless life to this already crowded planet, and ruining at least one other life in the process.

Let's do away once and for all with the pretense of rational argument against abortion. Stop letting anti-abortionists re-brand themselves "pro-life" and stop pretending that they should be heard on equal footing with rational decisions to end life before it becomes sentient, before we are obligated to treat it as an equal. Unwanted pregnancies destroy lives. They create, by and large, miserable new lives. It is no accident that this clamor against abortion can almost always be heard from dedicated irrationalists, from bible-thumpers, koran-thumpers or veda-thumpers.

It is no accident that reproductive rights become codified into pretty much any and every religion. It is a quick and ruthless process which seems to take place as soon as a religion is founded. Religion is a tool of social control. Humans will do almost anything for reproductive rights. Controlling this most powerful instinct and its attendant behaviors, tendencies and rituals is intrinsic to controlling not only the currently copulating generation, but also its offspring. Of course they're going to push for all-out abstinence even in the 21st century when we have so many safe and convenient ways to limit reproduction. Sexual frustration is good from the viewpoint of a religious leader. It'll make you do anything and everything to secure marriage rights. Large, starving families are much easier to control than small, self-sufficient ones. The key to maintaining control over the lower tiers of a power structure is to keep them disparate and desperate, as I said in an earlier post. Starving people have no principles. A family which has to split a loaf of bread nine ways instead of three ways will do anything, murder, lie, cheat, steal, whatever you and your soldiers order them to do. Cheap labor, cheap canon fodder, and the more desperate they are the more they'll cram into churches for you to feed them false promises.

Here's  the chuckle-inducing bit though. It's sometimes pointed out just how ironic it is that the "pro-life" (sorry, threw up a little in my mouth at having to call them that) crowd is also the pro-execution crowd. It also tends to be the pro-war crowd, for god and country! For about half a century, it would also have been the anti-communist crowd, god's chosen fighting the godless red menace. Oddly enough, while the red menace was certainly anti-religious, methodically wiping out that competing power structure in its territory, its stance was decidedly pro-cheap-labor, generally not crazy about elective surgery, and frequently discouraged abortion. In the mid 1930s, with five-year plans already in full swing, Stalin decided a fresh generation of proletarians was necessary to escalate the development process and outlawed abortion, reversing Lenin's earlier populist legalization of it. The same scene was replayed two decades after WWII in the satellite state of Romania, for the same reasons. *

By whatever delusion the religious right is trying to sell anti-abortion legislation to its brainwashed kneelers and chanters, their leaders' motivation is the same cold-blooded attempt to maintain the pyramid scheme of human hierarchies. The base needs to be wide enough to support disproportionate wealth and power at the top.

* I skipped a step there because I didn't want to get all "Godwin's Law" up in here, but it does bear mentioning that the Nazi regime also outlawed abortion for pedigreed German women, even as it thinned "impure" populations elsewhere.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Planetside 2

SOE is a very rich company. While this is good in theory because it ensures the initial server support which a virtual world badly needs, extensive in-house testing and the ad-campaign to draw players in, it also ensures a paralyzing fear of innovation and experimentation. The more established a creator is, as a general rule in human affairs, the less creative it is, be it individual or committee. PS2 was obviously created by some very, very established people. Even if it were a good game, it would become worthless eventually because of its legitimized cheating, each new weapon and vehicle meant to be purchased with real-world money, but it won't even get to that stage because it has nothing to offer.

The first Planetside is memorable as the MMOFPS game and one of the few reasonably persistent worlds ever created. PS2's creators seem to have forgotten however that in itself, this made Planetside innovative. It was the first, it was the largest. It blended various elements of existing FPS games and made liberal use of others, like multi-occupant vehicles, which even smaller games were afraid to implement. It did all this in gigantic battle lines shifting slowly across the face of continents, allowing players to help their faction grow or defend its shrinking territory through offensives which could last whole days.

While PS1 had many, many problems, most of them stemming from the outsourced expansion pack and PS2 addressed many of them, it overcompensates and oversimplifies the gameplay. Everything from the cluttered scenery and large damage-to-health ratios which reward twitch-reflexes over planning to the lack of focus on faction advancement reek of catering to the idiotic instant gratification culture.

Take base captures, for instance, which have been one of the worst issues with both iterations of the game. In PS1, players had to wait at a base for up to 15 minutes in order to get credit for capturing it. This amounted to a great deal of boredom. Bases were also linked together in a 'lattice' so that players followed a fairly predictable route from one base to the next, usually having two or three choices as to how to proceed, with smaller objectives along the way. Another criticism was that base design included many long corridors which created long stand-offs, and this supposedly didn't sit well with the instant-gratification culture. Not when they're also too cowardly (in a virtual environment, really?) to suicide-charge a reinforced position.
PS2 removed all AI-controlled base defenses, removed auto-targeting player turrets and uses base designs with easily scalable walls and many small buildings with large numbers of entrances. Even a ten-foot by ten-foot cube will always have two, and bases are littered with cubes. This makes defense much more difficult, which wouldn't be a horrible idea in itself. It is a big issue when combined with the fact that bases can be made vulnerable by having adjancency to any enemy territory, and the map layout ensures that every base links to several others. It is an even bigger issue when combined with the much shorter capture timers, usually only a couple of minutes long.
The entire base layout and capture system creates a strong incentive for players to simply attack undefended bases and not even bother defending what they have. There is always something to attack, it's easy, it's fast, and it's guaranteed experience. There is no cooldown timer after a base has been captured so you're free to just keep re-capturing instead of moving forward. The main bulk of players on all three factions, instead of fighting, simply circle each other constantly re-capturing the same bases. The glorious, crawling sweep across the face of the world has been replaced with a toilet-bowl swirl of players getting rewarded for taking the easy way out.

Moving on. Let's talk guns. Let's talk vehicles. Let's talk about what you can actually do as a player. How many ways can you shoot and move? PS2 is painfully uncreative. Of all the main weapons a player can have as any of the infantry classes, dozens of them, there is exactly one that isn't just a shotgun or rifle. The differences between them are so minute as to make them almost indistinguishable. Even the fancy-shootin' staples of FPS games are conspicuously missing. There are rocket launchers, but that's about it. No flamethrowers, no lasers, no grenade launchers, no rail guns, no actively-guided projectiles, no disabling (meaning, no flashbangs or EMP) and almost no speed modifiers. Many of these are actually steps down in complexity from PS1.
It's the same story with the vehicles. Each and every vehicle is basically just a tank or a plane. There's no more Router, one of the best base-assault gimmicks (it could teleport infantry past the enemy lines) PS1 created, no more Lodestar ferrying crucial vehicles through the air, no more giant mechs with jump jets. Even if there were more than one hovertank now, there would be little point to them since all three continents of PS2 so far have no water whatsoever. Nothing bigger than a kiddie wading pool. There isn't even any real artillery or carpet-bombing, no interdiction or siege-breaking.

The whole feel of the game seems to have been re-focused on emulating today's military. It's great for all the NRA nuts who want to shout the army chatter they've heard in the movies while shooting rifles and riding around in tanks, for the macho cretins who think it's all supposed to be one glorious victory after another, capturing uncontested bases. It's not so great if you've got the three IQ points necessary to realize it's all been done before.

Planetside 2 is simply dull. It doesn't matter what weapon you choose. It doesn't matter where you go. It doesn't matter if you capture something, since it'll be recaptured five minutes later. It's all just a petty scramble for personal gain. You roll into a base along with fifty other players and scramble to get an 'assist' on one of the half-dozen defenders then sit there for two minutes all so you can get some points to buy yourself a new gun which turns out to be the same one you have but with a slightly better rate of fire. Even a match of Team Fortress 2 has more depth.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

My MMManifesto - Character Advancement

"What is happiness? It is the feeling that power is increasing and resistance is being overcome."

Games sell by making players happy. This deceptively simplistic goal varies with those players' mental level. The moronic masses are easily pleased. They will play for the endless repetition of 'kill ten rats' quests, because they're being told they've 'won' something, ignoring the banality of the action. They're like babies playing peek-a-boo, cheering themselves on every time they make the world re-appear. This is basic emotional happiness, barely the tiniest step above the physical demand for feed an' fuckin'. It appeals to our instinctive social-ape demand for power over others, for social influence, political clout or peer approval. It appeals to our pathetic need for validation.

To some extent any game will try to provide this. The instinctive, limbic, animalistic payoff for attempting a task, even a virtual one, is the feeling of accomplishment in the case of success. The sick development of the past decade in games however has been the trivialization and near-elimination of the task and the focus on only giving players a feeling of accomplishment. It's the idea of simply giving players something at every step of the way, of guaranteed success. Combined with the same operant conditioning principle which results in gambling addiction, irregular positive reinforcement, this has resulted in a business model which despite providing less and less quality has resulted in larger and larger numbers of customers. The player started to be rewarded in games like Everquest or Diablo 2 for sheer repetition. Kill that boss-monster x number of times and the law of averages all but guarantees you a shiny item to show off to others. It's social status based on the pretense of ability (you vanquished the dragon, noble hero, huzzah!) which turns out upon even the most straightforward analysis to be nothing but the repetition of a mindlessly simple task - given that both you and the dragon are level sixty-seven, it's no more difficult a task than killing a rat at level ten, and given that you're killed that dragon once already, killing it sixty-seven times proves nothing. Concomitantly, developers also started to remove any possible sources of frustration, since they were becoming dependent on customers who were so emotionally frail as to be thought to leave the game at the slightest frustration, at the slightest threat of being denied the automatic 'win' they began to see as their due. Players could never be threatened with losing anything, so everything from small instances to world events to raids and especially PvP had to be stripped of any challenge. Ironically since games began to offer less and less actual quality, players really did start to leave as soon as anything frustrated them. The problem isn't just that they might not get their next little endorphin fix, it's that there really is nothing else to hold one's interest in WoW-clones.

This is entirely incompatible with the actual concept of an MMO. A living, breathing virtual world cannot exist solely to constantly pat players on the back and tell them how great they are. It includes the possibility, even likelihood, of loss and frustration. It will appeal to a smaller audience, those who play for more than just the constant endorphin boost of making themselves feel big, who want to play a game, a contest, a challenge, not just go through the motions in something predictable for a free win. We must fall back to a focus on the game world itself, not individual self-aggrandizement. Much of this revolves around the feeling of progress, of advancement, and the difficulty is in shifting the focus from the illusion of individual growth in power to world events. 

Character advancement in most games (the bad ones) means letting players 'level up' and making them farm for more powerful items, or making them farm thousands of mobs so they can get an in-game title.
In contrast, a persistent world's advancement is not a continual illusion of increasing power. You have to abandon the treadmill and take the focus off individual loot-mongering. The feeling of progress must be made dependent on the creation of contrast during the player's in-game experience and on making all participants feel a part of larger happenings. Instead of continually levelling characters, players should get to compare their proficiency in various skill builds, adapting to the needs of the moment. Don't make players farm the same instance over and over again for a single item they can show off, but putting a new batch of mithril-edged axes to use is all the more gratifying when most loot is plain iron and any item can be lost in PvP at any time. A guild's home town should run the risk of  getting destroyed at any time, by other players or a world event, but this makes the achievement of having kept that town for any amount of time all the more memorable.

The key to keeping players' interest in the absence of levelling or named loot drops or legitimized cheating is keeping them engaged in the affairs of the world at large. I have stated time and again that a bad MMO tries to make its customers feel big, while a good MMO makes them feel small. The unspoken basic assumption in that statement is that feeling small is still better than feeling nothing, which is the sad state of affairs in current MMOs where players' action simply have no effect whatsoever on the game as a whole. In a true persistent world, even if your house is the smallest in the valley, even if it gets burned down by a marauding horde of leet-kiddies after a week or a month, it is more satisfying and memorable because it was actually there. For a week or month, your little cottage changed the face of the game world. The same dragon flew over your head and destroyed your neighbour's house and the same ravaging horde passed by your neighbour but burned your house. You share in the events of the world around you. When you kill another player you should be able to think of that action as part of a greater conflict, an attempt maybe to secure territory for your clan or to defend your resource gatherers as they in turn assure that your clan's crafters will have materials with which to build you more weapons with which to slay your foes. I am repeating here various things i have already said in previous posts about the importance of interconnecting player actions in regards to PvP or PvE mainly to reinforce my point that this idea that meaningful gameplay is fundamentally unmarketable is simply false. Players, even relatively stupid ones, are capable of creating meaning without being explicitly told they're winners in gigantic flaming letters through "Quest Completed !" popups.

If this idea of shared experience providing meaning, of involvement in the affairs of the larger community seems familiar, it's because, it, just like slot-machine gameplay and individual greed, has a quite verifiable psychological basis in the real world. Much of the effort in the many poverty-stricken communities of the U.S. against gangs and random violence and vandalism for instance focuses on exactly that tagline: "getting people involved in the community." I am not proposing to completely remove the instinctive appeal of playing a game, but merely to balance instinctive sadism and self-gratification with instinctive altruism. Players don't just feel big about themselves when they get loot, but also when they can play the stalwart hero and die defending their clan. It is insane that the same force which has built nations and religions all throughout history, the struggle for one's in-group against the out-group, is now completely ignored by game designers as a driving force.

Make sure that when players go to the auction house, they don't just see whether their auction has sold or not, but also how that particular item has been selling lately. Make their action meaningful as part of that marketplace. Make killing a mob meaningful by letting players see how that mobs' body parts shift in price at the market according to supply and demand. Make fighting another player meaningful by tying fights into a larger player conflict which decides the look of the land around for days or weeks to come. Tie every player action into the world at large and you can harness the same force which makes secret service agents take a bullet for the president. Pit that self-sacrifice against basic instinctive sadism. Pit greed against the social reward of providing one's clan with necessary resources. Player advancement in a virtual world must include some measure of individual success like accumulating items in a bank or a slight increase in the size of the fireball you shoot, but also the involvement of the player in larger events. You have to make room for old-timer stories. Players must be able to say "oh man, i was there when we lost the old fort up on the hill, where they built that stone keep now, that was some fight, but we're getting some mithril now from the mines to infuse our catapult ammunition, we'll knock it down next month" etc., etc.

It's the balance between those driving forces of primate behavior, between personal ambition and altruism, between immediate gratification and grandiose dedication to a cause which leaves room for actual quality, for creativity, complexity and nuance. MMOs cannot rise to their potential as virtual worlds until they stop marketing nothing but instant gratification.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Subtle, Wikipedia, real subtle

I honestly think this whole second amendment obsession will be for future generations a "what were they smoking?" joke on par with "let them eat cake" or Hitler's invasion of Russia.

I mentioned before that i have a bad habit of looking at Wikipedia's "in the news" section - it angries up the blood - and today i ran across a delightful jab (or shot?) at the American gun fetish. These are two bullet points as they were presented, one right below the other on Wikipedia's main page.

  • Twenty-eight people, including the gunman, are dead following a shooting at an elementary school in the U.S. state of Connecticut.
  • Twenty-three people are injured in a knife attack at a primary school in the Chinese province of Henan.

One inevitable thought is that even with such a light touch, wikipedia is costing itself some contributions from conservatives. Then again, i doubt American conservatives have much love for Wikipedia anyway.
I'm reminded of some attempt to set up a fundamentalist version of it years ago (a fundie-pedia* if you will) because the real one has a 'liberal bias'. Ahem. No, no, no kiddies, Wikipedia does not have a liberal bias. It is a global endeavor dedicated to the free distribution of information. The very concept of Wikipedia is liberal in the true social (not economic) sense of the word.
*I thought i was being clever, but the name's already taken!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It was all so sudden

A decade of methodical abuse. Loser. Loser. Lewwww-zerrr.
Last on the team, loser bitch.
How's the toilet water, loser fag?
Quit hittin yourself, loser geek.

Ohmygawd you dweeb like you could ever get a date!
See you after school, bitch.
Come on you pansy-ass loser, let's see if you still fit in yer locker.
You better get me an A on this project, loser nerd, or i'm feedin you your own teeth.
Ha! Hahahahahahahahaha -

And there are your teachers telling you to fit in and and your parents telling you to stop causing trouble, just get along with the other kids, the ones who have already ostracized you, there's the school headshrinker telling you you're to blame for not meeting the world halfway, outside yourself inside themselves, and there's the standardized test you only realize won't count for jack shit until you're there taking it because Biff the football star will get a free ride no matter his scores and he'll be there, wherever you go, ten more Biffs all on the same team, and there's the television screaming at you that you're a Lewww-zerrr for being sexually unsuccessful and your intelligence is a shameful burden to hide and the only righteousness is in obedience, surrender, submission to the ones who will keep - Lewww-zerrrr - not because there's any value judgment they can make on you but simply because they enjoy it and there's your teacher grinning and pretending not to notice and calling you out for hurting Biff's fist with your skinny nerd face because those who can't do, teach, and you might do someday if you're not slapped down hard enough and he hates you for it, and there's the principal calling you in because you're a dangerous loner wearing black and you might shoot up the school someday and never mind Biff, kid, just straighten up and worry about yourself, we're not gonna tolerate your cries for attention and there's your face in the wall while Biff cheers his cronies on from his convertible he drives to school because chicks dig cars not cogent theses you Lewwww-zerrrr!

Day in, day out, year in, year out.

This did not happen in a moment. Neither did every other 'isolated' case before it.
Where was your outrage all the decade before that? There are lives being taken every minute in your town, and you cheer it on like the mob at a witch-burning. Where was your self-righteous indignation every minute of every day, every week, month and year after year while your little brats tortured the too-smart awkward kid at school?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Enemy's Enemy

There is a crucial parallel to be drawn between worker unions and the corporations whose interests they oppose. It has to do with the basic pattern of a solidifying hierarchical power structure.

Our reproduction-driven competitive instinct leads us quite reliably to attempt to control each other. The measure of worth of a social ape is the number of other social apes kissing its ass. Our instinctive measure of worth is the power we hold over others. We are forced to enlist others, to compromise with a few in order to gain power over many. This leads to the ubiquitous pyramid scheme found in anything from the traditional patri- or matri-archal family unit to military ranks and national governments.

There is a great difference however between the amount of compromise a power structure is willing to tolerate as it grows compared to an already-powerful oligarchy. No pyramid scheme will compromise where it can enslave. Where power structures meet, it is the underdog which will almost inevitably adopt a more populist stance.

This is a very old pattern. Religions, national governments, military autocracies and merchant princes have all had their periods of populism and tyranny. National governments were largely a defense against imperialism before they began to imitate the absolutist monarchies whose empires they'd risen against. With the rise of the middle-class, it was often business, the merchant caste, which led the opposition.

The merchant caste, however, has long ago ceased to be the underdog and as it secured its place at the top of the power structure its populist message of increased standard of living through the production of goods started to ring hollow. We have lived, for the past sixty years or so, in an increasingly corporatist society, where government bows to the demands of the ultra-wealthy, castrated by its own need for funding. In this climate, trade unions are one of the few forces counterbalancing the corporate-controlled, gutted national governments of capitalist countries. This is the significance of yesterday's big news.

I despise unions, largely because i despise "that immortal ass, the common man" as Ambrose Bierce so heartwarmingly put it. Unions are by no means the good guys. It is largely the thoughtless glut of muscular apes embodied by worker union mentality as a whole which is dragging humanity down. The excesses of communist regimes illustrate quite clearly how quickly and forcefully proletarian uprisings turn on their own principles. Unfortunately it is true that at this point in western history, unions are an underdog power structure which stands against the excesses of corporate power, a way to solidify popular opinion instead of allowing it to be completely swallowed up in mass-media control. As distasteful as i find those blue-collar slobs, i would rather have them brainwashed by unions than by corporations.

It's not much of a choice. Either support the underdogs or be enslaved along with them.
And expect them to bite you for it once they gain the power to do so.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

I had been meaning to say something about The Longest Journey for a long time but was finally prompted to do so a few days ago because I had recently seen Snow White and the Huntsman and was impressed again by that sort of personal development within the larger-than-life fairytale hero persona. It would be an understatement to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the movie. It elicited from me the same reaction as Beowulf and Grendel, regardless of their very different treatment of their subject matter. It is exceedingly rare to find a film which successfully captures not only the essence of a cultural staple like the epics or fairytales but also the nature of our fascination with such storytelling. Like Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire  or Tolkien's Middle-Earth books, these movies have the ability to get under the skin of mythical or fantastic characters and elevate them to the status of actual personalities.

What rankles is the public's response to the movie, and I know, I know, by now it's no news that the public is absolutely moronic, but... to just utterly lack any appreciation of style and subtext as a society is inescapably harmful to the intellectual development of the few in that society who might have a chance to appreciate what the movie does. In reading a smattering of reviews from both random IMDB Joe-sixpacks and paid journalists, magazine reviewers, you tend to run into the same two complaints, both utterly nonsensical.

One: Stilted.
This is basically the "it's not Disney" argument. The characters are not ecstatically prancing around and breaking into song with bluebirds perched on their fingertips all through the movie. Mostly it's the actors who are attacked, especially the lead.
Two: Weird.
Where do they get off making it all dark and gloomy, Snow White is supposed to be a cheerful romp with cute cuddly dwarves not murderous, bitter, outcast mercenary dwarves. What's the deal with the stag and the weird magic stuff the queen does, etc.etc. and oh, wait, this is just the "it's not Disney" argument again.

I suppose the main point I should make before anything is that Disney did not invent fairy tales you worthless corporate-brainwashed backbirths! Every criticism I hear about the movie seems to stem from this expectation that it would be a remake of Disney's old cartoon, which was in itself a bastardization of the actual fairy tale. I'm battering my head against the wall here trying to figure out how to remind the American public and the worldwide victims of corporate revisionism that these fairy tales existed for centuries before cinema, and their flavor as stories told around the hearth by one's grandmother in a 19th-century wattle-and-daub cottage in Bavaria was very different from the "sunshine and puppy-dogs" mass-market feel-good product of the 20th century. As collected by the Grimm brothers, Andersen, Tolstoy or the comtesse de Segur, the old stories are not cheerful. Even though the hero usually succeeds, he is subject to pain and loss, and the ending is only vaguely optimistic. They are gory and violent, thrilling and macabre. They are filled more with boogeymen than with helpful fairy godmothers. For a child listening to your grandmother's raspy voice reiterating those old fairytales, the world is a dark and dangerous place outside your father's little thatched hut and the comforting warmth of your hearth and these stories are meant in part to give you the courage to fight those odds, not blow sunshine up your ass. Fairies are not nice people, no more than people are nice people.

It is from this starting point that the creators of Snow White and the Huntsman built their story, not Disney's charming little take on the original. They refused to re-adapt the old adaptation and instead honored the spirit of old storytelling while developing the stock characters into figures with at least two facets and actual motivations. Mon dieu, what gall!

No, the acting is not stilted, it is restrained, it doesn't spell everything out for you in scenery-chewing dramatism because you're assumed to have knowledge of the original material. When you go into an opera, you're assumed to have read the libretto. The Grimm brothers? That's your libretto for Snow White. You're also assumed to have seen the old Disney version and be acquainted with various other famous works of fantasy. The movie includes many references and blatant inspirations from the Disney movie, Princess Mononoke and The Hobbit at the very least. Can you spot the resemblance of Snow White to Jeanne d'Arc? I could, and I'm not much of a history buff. How pathetic is it that people are insulted by the assumption that they would have even the tiniest bit of cultural background. We're not even talking about references to Kant and Nietzsche here, but the better side of basic mass-consumed entertainment and at least the flimsiest notion of history. The Grimm brothers are not hard to read, and it would probably take you less time than watching the old Disney movie.

Taken as a whole, the criticism of the movie, stemming as it does from the "it's not Disney" mindset is blatantly hypocritical. It's criticized for being "Twilightized" by the same audience that's been cramming into theaters to make that idiotic Twilight farce a string of blockbusters, even though it's Twilight that's a dumbing-down and Disneying of vampire and werewolf stories. It's criticized as being too "gothy" or dark (in other words not safe for preschoolers) and at the same time criticized for not having passionate love scenes. It's criticized for being too "emo" and in the same breath for lacking the over-the-top hammy overacting American audiences love so much. Can the idiots bitching about Snow White not jumping into Prince Charming's arms and swallowing his tongue while humping his leg step back a bit and realize that she's been locked in a tower for the past decade? She's lucky she didn't turn into Gollum. How overfed on scenery-chewing has the public gotten that everyone misses the obvious tension of the prince-princess-huntsman love triangle and the repeated commentary on the sacrifice she makes as a states(wo)man through the choice she is implied to make at the end of the movie?

How blinded can everyone be by that quaint little saccharine pastel pastiche from the 30s that they managed to miss every single good point of Snow White and the Huntsman?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Longest Journey

The most remarkable thing about The Longest Journey is simply that it was remarkable. Adventure games are a relic of the 80s, when two-dimensional, cartoonish side-scrolling with interaction limited only to clicking a certain unchangeable marker on the screen was the very cutting edge of computer game technology. By the time TLJ came out in 1999, adventure games as a genre were already almost a decade outdated, outpaced, outgrown and out-flashed by FPS, RTS and RPGs. Myst and its offshoots were the only well-known remnant. A completely linear point-and-click adventure game with an almost nonexistent challenge level, ostensibly centered on a teenage girl getting magic powers, should have blended quietly into the background, remembered only by die-hard fans of the genre.

Two things saved it: writing and voice acting.
The Longest Journey is the hero's journey made immersive and personal. The whole point seems to be to make us identify with April Ryan as she grows into her role as heroine through the on-screen interaction, to maintain her personality even as she acquires the status of legend. The distilled essence of the entire game is in a dialogue just over halfway through, when April is asked "who are you?" - at ~2:20-3:40 in this video.
She tries to explain and identify herself, using her growing, monarchic list of bombastic fairytale titles with the lack of conviction of a gradeschooler sounding out long words, then much more confidently, decisively adds "... and i'm April Ryan." Throughout the game, we are presented both with her growing importance as a fairytale hero and the persistence of her own individuality. We are given the illusion of tipping those scales ourselves with every dialogue option we trigger.

Among the stereotyped RPG rags-to-riches stories, April's multifaceted personality stands out like a green tree against the stark steel-and-glass of a skyscraper. She is a teenaged college art student, a farm girl migrated to the big city. She is snarky and vain, kind-hearted but demanding, basks in attention and tries to balance her love of clothes and glamour with a developing sense of morality. She is intelligent enough to stand out from the crowd but shares the common man's abhorrence of ivory towers. She constantly plays off the importance of her quest in girlish asides. Her dialogue is not an attempt to establish social standing, either high or low. She is built up as neither a likely nor an unlikely heroine.

Writing and voice. Her dialogue contains the right mixture of youthful brashness and uncertainty in the face of the unknown to make her endearing. Much of it is also carried through voice inflections, timing and a "feisty little bitch" tonality without which the dialogue would have remained good but unremarkable. She sounds natural.

Aside from that, there's not much to say about the game. The world is just alien enough to keep it interesting, familiar enough to give the protagonist her human foundation. The other characters are all minor, even her sidekick, merely plot devices or color. The gameplay is decently advanced in that the environments managed to feel three-dimensional. The puzzles are sometimes nonsensical in their attempt at originality, a common flaw of adventure games. Visuals and sounds are only good enough to maintain immersion. The overall plot, aside from a decent twist right before the end, sticks to RPG tropes. Though none of it is particularly badly made, it would also not have stood out without the main character.
All in all, April Ryan is TLJ.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cirrhosis, Lung Cancer and...?

At 0:35 in this clip.
Alcohol, tobacco and... ?

I'm just tickled pink at all the vices which get passed off as virtues in a consumer society. If we meet someone who collects poisonous snakes or stockpiles canisters of nerve gas we'd say he's a dangerous extremist. Some hillbilly with half a dozen rifles? Patriot!
Plastic surgery to turn your garden snake into a raging python? Ridiculous vanity. Sports car? Supporting the economy!
Torturing people for protection money in the service of your local mob boss? Crime. Wearing khakis while doing it overseas? Self-defense.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Stop Breeding!

Apparently, some judge finally got tired of getting mugged by hobo coke-hounds on the way to work and decided the solution, shockingly enough, is to stop breeding crackhead hobos. Bravo.

Let's take it from the top, people. Population control is one of the strongest and most widespread political taboos. Every discussion of dwindling resources, crime rates, wars, exploitation and in general apes stepping on each others' toes tends to somersault right over the fact that there are just too damn many toes to step on. Breeding per se need not be criminalized outright, but there are a variety of economic pressures which could be used to limit spawning. In general, any form of financial aid should be limited to one or at most two children per parent. Eligibility for government employment should be limited to parents of no more than two children and no company which employs large-litter breeders should be eligible for subsidies.
Also, as harsh as it sounds, end government care of unwanted infants. If the parents cannot care for them, they will die horrible deaths. Offer unwanted or unwarranted babies up for adoption at first, but if no individual is interested in adopting the infant within a certain time-frame, say a couple of months, its care should revert to the parents, in every legally-binding sense. No more government-supported foster homes full of Oliver Twists waiting for their ship to come in. Every penalty for neglect, abuse, child endangerment, etc. that you can pile on the idiots who bred when they can't care for children should still be enforced, and quickly. The only ways out of caring for your own children should be suicide or infanticide and execution.
Even for the first two children, government aid should be refused for any child born to parents which were under twenty-five or thirty years of age. An extra five years on our generation time would do wonders to forestall that Malthusian storm cloud on the horizon.
Cease trade with any nation which does not implement population control measures.

Don't get me wrong, i'm well aware that nothing will be done. This particular judge's decision will be overturned. No greater such measures will be permitted. This is because human misery is the greatest asset of the media-mastered corporate state's power structure. Slave labor and cannon fodder in abundance both form and grease the cogs of our society. You always need a surplus of desperate souls to break strikes, to enlist for military brainwashing, to turn to crime so that you can terrorize them with the threat of torture and execution in prisons. There must be enough poor children that their proper education can be presented as financially impossible, so that there can be enough brainwashed adults to keep voting for wars, churches or youth sports leagues and against education. Most importantly, the glut of ape-meat littering the streets must be thick enough to force it to cannibalize itself. "Divide and conquer" is still the greatest tool of social control. Keep the rich out of sight, out of reach of the poor, and the poor will simply turn on each other as the only available targets. This season's first-tier games shall pit against one another: the Irish vs. Italians, the Blacks vs. the Latinos, the Chinese vs. the Russians, the hicks against the queers. As more refined entertainment, we'll throw in a "Jews vs. neo-Nazis" tennis match.
Somehow we never get to the championship match of rich vs. poor anymore.

Don't even get me started on religious indoctrination's role in maintaining the unwanted pregnancy rate. Politics and religion make all-too-familiar bedfellows.

Yes, i am being heartless. I am in many ways an idealist, and idealists are prone to draconian measures. I would let generations of unwanted babies die of neglect, i would see the crime rate skyrocket and executions increase during my time, i would accept the risk of getting murdered for the twenty dollars in my pocket by some desperate result of my removal of support for large families, all so that we don't reach the predictable ten-fold increase in such an outcome another couple of generations from now. My ideal is intellectual development.

It strikes me as utterly thoughtless that it's libertarians and human rights groups which are protesting that judge's decision. I can only assume they are puppets of some conservative think-tank or they simply have no grasp of the concept of freedom. Liberty must be restricted when it begins to restrict others' liberties. We live within the limits of thermodynamics. Everything we create, all our effort, is by hook or crook divided among us. If i ever have children, my first and second children should not have to compete with your fifth through twelfth. We should not have to split resources seven billion ways when one billion would do. Before you start trumpeting the right to breed, the mindless instinctive urge to hump, worry about the right to live in safety, to learn to grow as an individual and to possibly even create new works of art or science. Where does the right to think fit into an overpopulated society?

You know what, forget the quality of life of the children for a moment and worry about the quality of life of the parents. What chance for a meaningful life does an individual with half a dozen children have. Parenthood itself, all that mucking about with dirty diapers, property damage, food, shelter and toys, is the most debilitating condition short of outright maiming that we inflict on ourselves. How free are you when your boss can afford to be a slavedriver because your screaming brats serve as constant leverage against you? How free is a twenty-two year old parent of a newborn to continue advancing intellectually, to reach that level of personal identity at which the urge to procreate no longer controls him?
We should all have a right to live free, dignified lives. We should not have the right to spawn litters of screaming, hungry animals which will by their simple existence restrict others' lives.

You'll be beaten down soon enough, Judge O'Connor, as i'm certain you knew when you made your verdict. Until then, as one quixotic head-case to another, thank you.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The difference between 'artsy' and 'fartsy' - four computer game examples

The four games i'm going to list are all fringe projects: small, relatively easy to play and available for a couple o' bucks in various online distribution systems. They share an attempt to distinguish themselves through artistic creativity as opposed to only copycatting big titles within the framework of a particular genre. The difference is in how well the elements mesh.

Remeber him? The pile of pixels formerly known as the prince of computer games? Them wuz da days, weren't them... when a man could rappel down a brick wall and swashbuckle his way to saving the damsel in distress using only three buttons and two dimensions. That pixellated nostalgia is still funding lots of dime-a-dozen sidescroller copycats to this day. Most of them are largely worthless (we'll get to one of them next) because they have nothing to offer. If all they can give you is a rehashed Prince of Persia with a new loading screen, then i'd rather fire up a DOS emulator and play the original, so i can feel like i'm sitting at my dad's old office computer.
The difference is in the integration. Trine is smooth. It is slick. From the first loading screen to the victory cinematic, it presents no rough edges, no jolts, no sharp disorienting twists. The gameplay is every bit as intuitive as the most simplistic side-scroller while still giving the player a bare minimum of RPG choices to make and plenty of destructible, stackable, graple-able, buildable environment. The player moves in two dimensions in a 3D world. The 3D is not just tacked on as a selling point. It is exploited as a selling point, to create environments one can only describe as "lush" and in which the player is always encouraged to find usable elements. What's more, the environment reacts logically due to an advanced physics engine that would put even some popular first-person shooters of the time to shame. Touch a teeter-totter and it teeters. Tap it and it totters. This apparently simple fact results in a variety of solutions to each level, depending on the player's preferences.
Maximum features, none extraneous. It's the magic formula to meaningful complexity.

Braid, by comparison, is a pretentious and vacuous industry in-joke. It's another side-scroller, ostentatiously low-budget right down to the hipster duds the main character's sporting. Its artistic aspirations would supposedly come from sound and especially storytelling while its innovations are various metagame abilities like teleporting or rewinding. The problem is that neither the innovations nor the artistic side have anything to do with the game itself. While Trine's various elements naturally grow out of the basic 'Prince of Persia' concept, Braid is just a random assemblage of generic gimmicks.
The core gameplay itself is just aggravatingly simplistic. It's never a matter of finding solutions, but only retrying the obvious setup until you manage the correct timing. While both games contain story interludes with dramatic voice-vers, Trine's actually has something to do with the game itself while Braid feels like you're suffering through that nonsensical mish-mash of platforms and traps so you can get rewarded with an entirely unrelated story about a princess. While this may seem like wry commentary on the nonsensical premise of most games, it's simply no incentive to trudge through a Sisyphean repetition of rows of rotund boogeymen on platforms.
Trine also contained much commentary on the nuker/tank/healer RPG triad and various computer game tropes, but these were integrated into the gameplay, into the personalities and playstyles of the three characters. Take, for instance, the knight's introduction:
"At the other end of the Astral Academy, a knight had been practicing his own skills, 
to battle the undead and prove himself worthy of joining the King's army. 
Between me and you, he did not quite understand what “undead” meant - 
but this was his chance to be the bravest knight of all."
Braid's time-warping and other mechanics would be interesting as part of a larger, coherent project, but it seems Braid itself was cobbled as a forced attempt to prove that they could be made to work. Portal was a creative use of unusual game mechanics. Braid is only a disjointed clutter of half-baked ideas sold as a side-scroller.

Dinner Date
On the face of it, Dinner Date should prompt even more scathing derision than Braid. Dinner Date is not a game. It is a one-man absurdist theater sketch, and you're the stagehand whispering lines (which turn out to be largely inconsequential) while the actor makes a shambles of the script. Thankfully, being absurdist, the sketch turns out all the better for it.
This is the fundamental delineation between the pretentious, facetious sale of a bad game as 'art' and art simply using an interactive medium as a platform. Dinner Date was built using the Source engine, Valve's much-publicized FPS game engine used for Half-Life 2. Based on this, there may be certain expectations, but, while Braid makes you hop over various waves of identical enemies to (supposedly) make some point about the lack of creativity in computer games, Dinner Date never puts a rocket launcher in the character's hand to make him shoot paint cans off a fence before you can have your next glass of wine and get back to the point. Neither does it force some unrelated art-house foppery on players like Braid's dreary "princess needs rescue" interludes. As frustratingly powerless as it can make players feel, none of Dinner Date's elements are extraneous. It is focused and succinct in its exploration of the protagonist's personality, from the way he breaks bread to his musings on work colleagues, and players' few actions flow naturally from the frustration they share with their inconsistent modern-man avatar.
I found Dinner Date very frustrating the first time i turned it on. I thought i'd been ripped off and wanted my two bits back. This was, however, because i was expecting a game. What it is, is interactive theater.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent
As the title quite bombastically announces, this is a very "goth" game. It's a solid contender for the title of 'creepiest' game ever made. Its creators had a very solid grasp of the power of half-glimpsed terrors. In fact, if you ever do get a look at an enemy, you'll find it somewhat ridiculous, because they are made to be only glimpsed around corners through the haze of an adrenaline rush or while running headlong down a narrow hallway. The implication here is actually the main gimmick of the game: it's a first-person shooter with no shooting, a survival-horror game in which the player is entirely powerless. If an enemy ever catches you, you will die. This results in some oddball memorable moments like "that thing i couldn't see in the water" or "i hid in the dresser" which would be very aggravating if the game had been at all repetitive. It does an excellent job however of keeping the player on his toes, mixing a Lovecraftian "sanity" mechanic in with puzzle-solving, minimal environment interaction, running in panic and a hefty dose of storytelling.
The point of the game is both ridiculously hackneyed (a ploy from the tritest depths of soap-opera "plots") and oddly fitting. You, an amnesiac, awaken in a dark, isolated German castle sometime during the 19th century and must discover the horrific deeds performed within. The storytelling never feels like it disrupts the game. The atmosphere, threat cues, and the audio and video limitations make it so easy to identify with the protagonist that i found myself backing my character away from an object in disgust when i realized its use. It is immersive and no elements ever feel tacked-on. Though completely linear and in the grand scheme predictable, it was a thorough pleasure to play through because everything from puzzles to environment to monster encounters and cinematics thoughtfully converged to contribute to the overall experience of the player.
It manages to be both creative and coherent.