Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I Have Watched Prometheus

And lo, it was like unto a steaming pile of religious excrement masquerading as science fiction. In other words, i was absolutely justified in my past apprehension. When, halfway through a supposed science fiction / action flick you hear the heroine spout the tired old reactionary catchphrase "it's what i choose to believe" you've obviously wasted your rental fee.

Choosing to be irrational is not a virtue. Choosing to be gullible, choosing to diminish yourself, to stunt your intellectual development so that you can fit yourself into a religious power structure and swallow whatever nonsense some chanter in a golden dress spouts at you is not commendable. It is stupid.
The real kicker though was seeing the heroine re-enact the virgin birth in a moment of pain and ecstasy. Kudos. It's rare to see such a layer-cake of bullshit.

Now, while i predicted the religious element, i could not have foreseen the low quality of the picture, both in terms of writing and editing and sheer lack of ideas. At one point, a character turns into a zombie. Later, the villain crashlands in a shuttle only to be seen running along the heroine a second later with no explanation. I'm surprised they weren't stabbing monsters with American flags and braining them with bibles.

Now, ok, i get it, Ridley Scott hasn't completely lost his mind; he's just makin' a dishonest buck. The Alien series as a serious venture is passe. The studio's just milking it with cheap spin-offs as they have for the past decade or more. It does bother me that they have Scott's endorsement as supposed director. It is very damaging to the zeitgeist to have the same name on the posters for Blade Runner, the original Alien and... Prometheus a.k.a. Mary Mindless Loves Jesus and Shoots Vampires.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Shifting Demographic - Massive Means Smaller

"In addition, the Ost Dunhoth raid has been split and balanced as three separate encounters to preserve the challenge but allow players to complete it in an order of their choosing."
 - from the latest LoTRO newsletter

There was a time when the selling point of 'massive' online games was their, well, mass. By this i don't mean the old favorites of redundancy i referenced in this post or the ever-spinning treadmill but the sheer size and complexity of the game world. EVE-Online led its ads with a promise of five thousand solar systems. Project Entropia framed its boasts in square kilometers of seamless game world. One of the high points of the Saga of Ryzom beta was a show of force on the developers' part, a migration of hundreds of mobs, the equivalent of a buffalo herd, migrating across the continent. Lineage 2's definition of 'dungeon' was not an instance, but a massive underground cave complex in the main game world itself, fitting as many players as would show up. Even World of Warcraft advertised the sheer expanse of Azeroth, the more new world to explore, the braver. As late as Darkfall, a frequent advertising tag-line touted a world so large it would take player characters eight hours to traverse on foot, a direct comparison to WoW's time-of-travel ads.

That escalation was also logically assumed to apply to gameplay. Planetside achieved the dream of constant continent-spanning battles involving hundreds of players. Even WoW was initially planned as a PvP game in which an entire world of players would constantly vie for control of both continents. Then came the instancing craze. Then came WoW-clones, copycatting instances - but even then a hint of the old idea of escalation, of mass, remained: raids. Raids were the last remnant of MMO aspirations, time-consuming engagements requiring large numbers of players working together. The first WoW raids, though instanced, still required forty players to spend hours on end working at an instance. They required clear organization, every group of five players having to function both individually and in conjunction with the greater plan. They had to prepare ahead of time with the appropriate supplies and function according to a militaristic schedule. Raids were, to the average idiot consumer, logistical, strategic and tactical nightmares. To nerds, they were a logistic, strategic and tactical dream.

Within a couple of years, raids stared being downsized. WoW raids went from forty to twenty players. LoTRO, after creating a raid group mechanic to fit twenty-four players, limited its instances to twelve, then reduced its regular instance runs from six to three players. City of Heroes scrapped its plans for raids altogether. The justification was always a concession to player demands. Players complained that raids took too much time. Players complained that raids required too many players. Players complained that players shouldn't have to prepare, or organize or cooperate. Just who the hell were these players?

Keep in mind, the original idea of an MMO, the gigantic seamless world inhabited by thousands of players at once, was not the pipe-dream of one lunatic. It wasn't just Lord British wanting to create the ultimate Ultima. It was the logical progression and escalation of escapist fantasy. We, the players, wanted bigger worlds. We wanted greater challenges. We looked forward to how massive each new MMO would be. Companies used sheer size as advertising because it worked, because their customers at that time wanted worlds and fights big enough to lose themselves in. We dreamt big. A good persistent world makes you feel small by comparison.
The MMO concept was never meant for casual play. It was not meant for casual players. It was created by and for escapists, for those of us who want to live in an alternate reality, in Azeroth or the Genesis star cluster. It's true that not everything in an MMO should be geared towards zerg guilds of hundreds of players, but there should be a benefit to the ability to organize, to plan and prepare. Players that only ever want to instantly jump into instances with a couple of buddies should not be put on the same pedestal as those capable of coordinating forty people for five hours straight. Intelligence, breadth and detail of foresight, should mean something. We need demanding, large-scale raids.

Yet the breakdown continues. The vicious cycle is now almost completely down its spiral. Encouraging small thought brought in more small thinkers. More small thinkers demanded smaller thought. From an entire world to forty players, from forty to twenty, to twelve to six to three. These are not the games players wanted because these are not the players the games were made for. Where did all the nerds go?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The world I see from Nar's Peak

LoTRO is a WoW-clone. It follows the painfully predictable and repetitive gameplay pattern which is so reassuringly 'homey' to the average mindless consumer. The game's map is covered with monsters which look very impressive but really offer no challenge and you get told you've saved the world every time you kill one of them. They don't move around much and re-appear almost instantly after they're killed so that you don't have to work at finding them. There are no supply chains and manufacturing requirements to worry about and you get most of your loot as giftwrapped presents as you perform your mindlessly repetitive task of slicing and dicing monsters.

There are many well-designed, detailed and atmospheric locations in LoTRO: the Shire, the majestic facade of Thorin's Hall, the perfectly-proportioned Last Homely House in its hidden valley, the bittersweet perpetual autumn of Ered Luin as the elves migrate to Mithlond to depart the world they love or the airy forested Bruinen Gorges to name a few.
However, the one spot that has captivated me is a point high up on the edge of the zone Enedwaith called Nar's Peak, on the western slopes of the Misty Mountains. It has a setting but no history. It is not a blank slate but one with much blank space to fill. Standing up there, the game doesn't render all the idiotic endless numbers of instantly-respawning monsters and you're free to imagine what could've been done with that vast landscape if the game industry weren't both incapable and terrified of quality and innovation.

You are looking south-south-eastwards along the mountain range. Rivendell is rumored to lie somewhere to the right and behind the image, far to the north. North to south, in the far upper right of the image, cutting across the river, runs an abandoned road and a crumbled fort overlooks the scene from an isolated hill dominating the valley, remains of a kingdom fallen over a millenium ago.

However, it doesn't really matter what landmarks are what and in fact it's better if you're not familiar with the location in order to answer this question: what would you do with this landscape?

Assuming this same image was set in an actual persistent virtual world with no teleporting in which players needed to harvest resources in order to create goods, in which they could build houses where they wanted, in which monsters spawned and travelled unpredictably across the map and player clans waged war on one another for control of resources or sheer sadistic pleasure, what events could unfold in this landscape? Where would you build your house and what would you plant near it? Where would the best game be hunted and where would the best ore be mined? Where would the threat of aggressive players come from and how would you protect yourself?

Write your story. Write ten stories and look at the richness of what could be done, then compare it to the monomaniacal, troglodytic, static simplicity of what's commonly called an MMO. What's that? You dare me to come up with at least ten ideas as replies to this post?

You're on.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Chorus of the Furies

Click for bombast.

Yes, it's in Latin. No, you don't really need to understand the words; it's pretty much what you'd expect by the tone. I only now looked up the translation after hearing it dozens of times over the past few years. This song is an excellent example of what i mean by the gestalt of music as opposed to expert dissection of its components. Music is primarily emotional impact. Not only do i not understand Latin, but i have no idea what instruments are being played. I can't name the voice or the meter or cite likely inspirations. My approach to this song veers off mythology instead.

As in many mythologies around the world, the Greek pantheon was said to have been preceded by a chaotic time when the embodiments of the primordial forces ruled the universe: time, darkness, the sky, the earth, etc. What makes Greek legends stand out somewhat in this respect is that the primordials never entirely faded away. Their brutal, implacable influence serves as counterpoint to the Olympians' petty, capricious nature. Gaia lends humanity some help in the Greek version of the flood myth and Chronos, disemboweled and cast down into Tartarus, serves as the gods' oracle in a pinch. Nyx, the eternal night beyond the world, was the mother of ever-present death, Thanatos.

Even more terrible than Thanatos were the daughters of night and heaven, personifications of vengeance which haunted the underworld, emerging only to lay waste to the unrighteous, sources of such fear and loathing that it was considered a bad omen to even call them the Furies, the Erinyes. They were instead politely referenced as the Eumenides, the kindly ones. This was largely tongue-in-cheek because vengeance was in itself implacable and the Erinyes merciless.

The Furies, like the Moirai, the Fates, have an air about them of being above even divinity. Vengeance is a primal force. To be haunted by the Furies is to be condemned by reality itself, trampled under a universal judgment of sin. Gods would only call upon them for the most heinous of crimes such as hubris or Oedipus' incest and patricide. The Fates set you up and the Furies knock you down. They are the ultimate enforcers and torturers, sated never by regret or mitigating circumstances but only pain and penance.

Now listen to the song again. It is best heard on a fairly loud volume setting. Let it engulf you. The Erinyes are eternal and unquestionable, the inevitable undertow of the universe. They are reality itself correcting the sins of free will, brutally and endlessly. Their chorus is the triumph of unassailable power ... but to whom can the goddesses of righteous vengeance and eternal torment turn? Be consumed by the Furies, for a few moments of their eternity.

Something's always bothered me about this post but I don't want to simply redact my mistakes and pretend they didn't happen, and seeing as the page gets the odd hit every once in a while, I'll address the issue thus.
I unfortunately and unintentionally conflated the Furies with the goddess Nemesis by repeating the word vengeance where punishment might have been more correct. In my defense, the line between the two is blurry at best in the original mythology as well and they seem two iterations of the same popular concept of divine retribution or punitive law-enforcement.

This sort of redundancy appears numerous times in mythology. The names associated with divine attributions vary across the centuries and from one city-state to another. See Helios/Apollo or Phoebe/Leto/Artemis or Anubis/Osiris.

In terms of poetic imagery, a single figure which can be imbued with individual personality becomes more useful as oral and especially written tradition expands, but for a one-shot reference vague, vast, ill-defined categories like "angels" or "valkyries" or "furies" give the listener more leeway to conjure up more powerful imagery. Hence, it's probably best this wasn't entitled "The Song of Nemesis."

Friday, February 1, 2013

Dwarves Eat Rocks

- and they sleep on top of their forges like cats on a fireplace mantle.

At release, one of LOTRO's strongest points was its expert map design. Every zone was landscaped and decorated to have its own identity and to offer both close-quarters, focused questing areas and wide, sweeping vistas. The Shire was an airy, cheerful place while the Old Forest was a claustrophobic clutter of trees and spiders. The designers put some effort into maintaining the illusion of Middle-Earth as a world and not just a setup for hacking and slashing at monsters.

Though they did not maintain this high standard with higher level areas, the most abrupt change came with the game's first expansion, Mines of Moria. With Moria, the game lost all sense of proportion, in terms of decor, gameplay mechanics, content and aesthetics.

The gameplay mechanics changes are subtle and i don't particularly feel like getting into LOTRO-specific details. They added up to a greater emphasis on outright farming, giving the player 'opportunities' to mindlessly grind hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in dozens of locations. The few apparent increases in complexity turned out to be simply redundant increases in gear-farming (the so-called "legendary" items) or forcing the player to rely on rote memorization of skill combos (the warden class) or a facetious melding of damage and healing in one class (rune-keeper) which was in reality just a simplistic push to specialize in damage or healing at any time.

Aesthetic choices, however, are a more accessible topic. LOTRO is more dependent on its setting than any other WoW-clone. It has the least leeway in mangling its source material, given how entrenched Tolkien's fan-base is. The rune-keeper class was instantly criticized by roleplayers as being too flashy, undermining the low-key place of magic in middle-earth. Monsters became ridiculously large and acquired ... enhancements like devil horns or big flaming spikes growing out of their shoulders, reminiscent more of Dungeons and Dragons than Tolkien. Weapons acquired WoW-ish glow effects.

Moria itself, as a location, is the least interesting place in the game. It is ridiculously overblown and grandiose. The largest caves anywhere else in the game could easily fit in the narrowest connecting passages of Moria. Everything is a highway-sized, level rocky tube stretching at least a dozen meters tall. Have these people never seen an actual cave?
What's more, Moria was supposed to be the greatest dwarven city. Make a note of that: a City, not a workhouse, not just a display of dwarven culture, but a place of habitation, a concentrated population of living sentient beings. LOTRO's version of the Dwarrowdelf, though, is nothing but a conglomeration of forges and mines alternating with gigantic empty hallways. There are no forms of entertainment, no farms (excepting one park) or any other kind of food supply, and most importantly, no houses. Dwarves apparently not only pull their food out of thin air but also take up no space. They just dig-dig-dig-dig-dig. The expansion was obviously a rush job. Cut-and-pasted environments, endless repetition, content even more mindlessly copycatted from competing games than can normally be expected from such products. Just a desperate push to get something big out there to keep the players busy.

These observations take on another dimension when seen in the context of the WoW-clone marketing scheme. The first expansion has a tendency to be the least interesting, the most focused on grinding players through timesinks, desperately cutting costs on such frivolity as quality. It seems the industry's consensus is that the game concept by that point has run its course, that it can afford to disgust players into quitting as long as it drags a few more months of subscription money out of them. WoW's own Burning Crusade followed the same pattern and i've heard similar criticism of WAR and Everquest 2. Even City of Heroes' first major expansion, before City of Villains, was that gigantic, pointless, content-starved grindfest, the Shadow Shard.
If the game somehow magically survives that first wave of expansion, developers become more willing to improve it.

Conclusion? Hold off on buying an MMO's first expansion.