Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tangiers Kickstarter

I have no idea what the hell this thing is, but I want it.

There's very little I can say about it because so little is currently known about it. I have never played Thief: The Dark Project, which Tangiers quotes as inspiration for its core gameplay. Generally, I prefer to crush my enemies and see them etceterad before me rather than creep about avoiding conflict, but I have on occasion thoroughly enjoyed a bit of skulking.

Given how little it looks like other FPS/RPG/Adventure sub-genres, anyone who invests in Tangiers at this point will do so, as I have, because they share certain emotional or aesthetic triggers. If you're drawn to the dark side, if you enjoy a bit of surrealism in your virtual reality, if you miss the days when everything wasn't cut-and-dry elves or machine guns and distinctive visuals and sound actually mattered, you might want to give this a try.

We might get burned. It may turn out to be nothing but hollow, pretentious art-student foppery. It might be total shit. 'Tis the price we pay for kickstarting.
But at least it's shit like you ain't never seen before.
And that's the prize we get for kickstarting.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


I like Valve. I really do. They've given us meaningful FPS gaming when everyone else was stuck on Duke Nukem. They have helped minor map-makers, modders and developers gain legitimacy.

Steam, though? Steam ruins your karma, Valve.
Steam gets your heart and soul fed to Ammut.
Steam was not a deal with the morningstar, but the morningstar's dealing with you.

Steam is control.
Steam is every wrong lesson learned from Microsoft. Monopolize. Engulf. Burn offerings to a jealous god. Always look over your shoulder in a paranoid attempt to bring the internet to heel. Always look over your customers' shoulder to keep their eyes trained on your attempts at attention-grabbing. Intrude. Interfere. Impera.

Valve may have been a valid business, a creative enterprise, but Steam is corporate. It is blindly greedy, inefficient, outdated from the start and ravenously destructive of anything it touches. It's an insecure screaming brat demanding your constant attention, demanding to be always kept in your presence. It eats up system resources and bandwidth whenever and however much it feels like. It presents you with arcane rituals to trudge through its DRM requirements. It of course does not even include a "cancel" button on many of its processes because... well, how dare you interrupt our magnificent works you insignificant consumer speck of filth, sit back down and give us more money!
Look, ads! Aren't they shiny? Delicious ads. Consume, consumer.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I won't keep going. Steam has been, for years, a sad caricature of everything that's wrong with digital distribution. So it's painful to see better companies still throwing their lot in with Valve in this, for the sake of what? Publicity?

It's even more perplexing when the company in question develops its own download services. 
Elemental's latest DLC pack is available only through Steam. Elemental was developed and self-published by Stardock. Stardock created Impulse, which it later sold to Gamestop. Stardock has another independent download service already in place now.

So why? Whyyyyyyyyy, you idiots?

Why are you making me want your product less by detouring me through the most shameful and wasteful incarnation of online game distribution? What infernal pact could have justified this?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Elemental: Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes

And the normalization proceeds apace, smoothing out both wrinkles and personality with every lengthening of the name. Many of the changes in the latest incarnation of Elemental reduce it even further. In an effort to gain legitimacy as a strategy game, it is now almost completely stripped of most of its randomness and surprises, of its distinctive features.

Part of it is good. The quest system received some much-needed attention. Town upgrades are a bit more rational. Battles have acquired a flanking mechanic which makes unit positioning much more fun to play around with.
Some alterations I'm not sure I like but aren't too painful. As the leader of the "Feral" empire, I always preferred for stylistic reasons to build armies of monsters and wild animals but wild animals are now much more resistant to taming and monster camps limited in spawn amount and rate. Magic spells are much more balanced now, but the magic system now downplays the terraforming angle.

However, the biggest changes mostly tend to harm the 'freshness' of gameplay, the pleasant (and yes, sometimes pleasantly frustrating) surprises.

Research for instance is no longer split between technological (swords, city improvement) techs and magic spells. The arcane research function was completely removed from the game. You can no longer decide to go down one path or the other. Instead of researching spells, you now get them for free through leveling up champions. 

Speaking of which. Another one of Elemental's big features is the recruitment of champions. These are the "heroes" of might and magic, adventurers one used to find wandering around the map and which could be recruited for a price. No more. They are now automatically awarded to the player's faction as it grows or as rewards for some quests. You are no longer limited by how many champions you can find around the map, you can no longer breed your own (the royal marriage and lineage system was completely removed instead of being developed) and you no longer have the choice of being a charismatic leader gathering hordes of valorous individuals to your cause.
Another mixed blessing though, stemming from the inability to recruit champions at will, is that they're no longer mortal. Instead, being defeated in battle saddles them with various injuries ranging from harmless to crippling.
Even champions' skill upgrades have been limited. No longer a D&D-ish stat boosting system or even Fallen Enchantress' selection of skill upgrades from a randomized table at each level-up, it is now restricted to an almost linear progression through skill trees.

All this is again, just like the limitations on magic research, a choice to limit the severity of individual events. As all the other changes in that vein it makes the game more bland, less interesting. You should be able to screw up, royally. You should be able to have disastrously bad luck now and then. This is not nor ever will be chess. Environmental stochasticity is part of the experience.

And on the subject of environment. The original elemental's landscapes shone as... well, they didn't shine, that was the point. The world of Elemental was a bleak, broken, silt-choked wasteland punctuated only by the odd patch of usable vegetation around which cities were built. With the expansions, it was changed to a resource-per-tile system nearly identical to the Civilization games and Legendary Heroes goes even farther, altering the visual style to include much more greenery and shiny crystal formations, etc. There was absolutely no reason for any of this. Even the variety of monsters has been expanded not based on Elemental's unique mix of bandits, skulking boogeymen and, well, elementals of every variety, but with a decided effort to move closer to general fantasy game tropes: more skeletons and ghosts and dragons, fewer attempts at novelty.

Why? As I keep saying, if I want to play Civilization, I can play Civilization. If I want to play a TBS in a standard faery tale world, I will play Heroes of Might and Magic. You gain nothing by getting lost in the similarity to a more popular product.
What Elemental seems to be edging toward is a compromise between the two, Civilization map mechanics mixed with HoMM aesthetics, combat and hero mechanics. I can't deny it's a valid bid for popularity, but I'm still disappointed in the loss of the project's individuality.

You could've made something great, Stardock, and instead you settled for something workable. Learn to stand your ground. You know enough to seek creativity but you also have to learn to stand by it. As though your half-assed treatment of Demigod weren't bad enough, now you've fumbled your own damn product.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


I was very tempted to just name this post "Penis!!!" for shock value, but then, the two or (hopefully, crossing my fingers) three people who might read this already know me well enough to simply roll their eyes.

There's always a lot going on in the world: explosions, dwindling material resources (some of which are apparently turning Alberta into a tar pit) murders, wars, etc. The human condition. I don't bother trying to keep up. So I'm particularly annoyed when the few times I dip my toes in the water I have to navigate around nonsense like what came out of an British princess' crotch and other sex scandals. I kid, I kid. Got nothing against the royals specifically; they're probably one of the most benign manifestations of power-mongering you're likely to encounter, and as celebrities go, some of the least embarrassing.

Most of the world, but especially the puritanical U.S., has developed this sort of ambivalent attachment pattern toward sex. Ya wants it. Ya needs it. But ya gotta pretend it's a sin. So as soon as you get it, you reject it. How convenient then to be able to express some of that fascination with genitalia publicly, by condemning sexual behavior in public figures. There are two common kinds of scandals: actual scandals like embezzlement et al, and non-issues like sex. Two of the top U.S. "news" stories at the moment are some idiot getting grabby with his female employees in San Diego and another one who's really just embarrassingly exhibitionist - though I suppose when you get a sex scandal about a guy named Weiner, it's just too much of a godsend, regardless.

Addressing the second first, who cares? Yes, the guy has an embarrassing personal habit but unless it's actually getting in the way of business, unless it's taking up so much of his time that he's not getting his job done, screw you. Not him. You. You the public. You and your idiotic childish fascination with catching someone with their pants down. If the guy was a coffee addict and spent all his free time reviewing exotic blends, you wouldn't bat an eyelash. So fuck you and your moronic puritanical social mores.
I don't give a shit. Just make sure he's not sending suggestive texts to children under ten or that's he's not constantly harassing people who don't want his attentions. Otherwise, I don't give a shit if he's the highest-rated pornstar on the internet. It's a non-issue. That is, unless you get your morality out of a medieval, superstition-ridden structure of social control that incorporated an agenda of manipulation through restriction of sexual drives.

As for the ass-grabber in San Diego, that's half an' half. Yeah, he's an idiot. Just fire him and move on. It has nothing to do with sex. If he keeps grabbing people who obviously don't want it, it's physical assault. Anyone who has a fixation about asserting social supremacy by repeatedly grabbing his underlings like some demented chimp should not be allowed any underlings.
But the other half is the double standard. Nobody would give a flyin' fuck if the mayor was just punching other men on the arm or poking his finger into their chests aggressively. He could be locking male interns in their lockers and taking their lunch money and nobody would care. It would be wrong, it should get him fired, but more likely nothing would happen. It would not be a scandal.
No, this is a sex scandal. Sex. This is all about a big bad man making sexual comments to poor, defenseless little women. And yes, it's wrong. But it's a safe bet nobody cared until it became profitable, until they could bank on the feminist spin on things to get themselves a big fat sexual harassment settlement from the state's coffers.

And all along, while crucifying the incontinent moron of a male for making lewd comments when he should know he's being set up, nobody ever has the guts to say anything about lewd high heels, lewd make-up and yes, lewd business suits for both sexes, enhancing shoulders or narrowing the waist, banking on the image of masculinity or femininity for credibility in fields which should have nothing to do with one's status as a virile alpha male or a fertile female.
Both sexes do it. But while men have begun to be ridiculed for it, for their comb-overs and machismo, everyone takes it for granted that women's suits should ever-so-slightly accentuate their hips, or that their lips should be suggestively red and engorged. Women are encouraged to entrap. They are pushed to play up their femininity, both in overt sexuality and as the weaker, 'fairer sex' in need of male protection, and then to play the victim whenever sex becomes an issue.
Carte blanche. All the favors you can get sexually, and all the favors you can get by playing the sexual victim.

Because this is a puritanical nation, which desperately hangs on to the image of female purity. If anything goes wrong, well, them girlies is just too simple, too innocent to have had a hand (or other body part) in it. If any misconduct took place, it must have been the man's fault. Always and entirely.
Grow up.

I am sick of seeing facetiously tearful confessions by groped gold-diggers on the news. It's not news. It's the oldest profession. And it exploits men, not women.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Golden Age of Planetside 2

With MMOs in general, it tends not to be worth looking into them, even the somewhat worthwhile ones, unless you get in on the ground floor. You're either in it from the start and building up your character, or you may as well wait for the next one. Hey, sorry MMO developers, the truth hurts.Until you ditch the moronic illusion of infinite character advancement through level/loot accumulation, your games have expiration dates. Why would I buy into your years-old game world where everyone will be ridiculously richer and more powerful than me when I can just shop around for some brand-new identical copycat of your game system? Unless of course you manage to snatch the rights to the grand-daddy of all modern fantasy worlds, middle-earth, but that's another story.

This was not a problem for Planetside 1. Access to various vehicles and weapons in PS1 was determined by the number of certification points which the player had accumulated, one per character level, to level 20. Heavy infantry armor was something like 2-5 certs. A relatively weak, single-seater tank or aircraft was again about 3. More advanced vehicles or infantry equipment required a heavier investment along that line of certification, to let's say a dozen certs or so. With a moderate time investment in the game, a few hours a week, you'd soon enough get 10-15 certs to play around with, which meant you could specialize in something like heavy infantry assault or interceptor aircraft and have a little wiggle-room to also fly a plane or just get a decent rifle, respectively. And when you got bored, you could switch certifications, with a few days' cooldown between re-certing. It was a system which allowed those who did not play enough to reach max level to still try various things.
Aside from that, there were no big advantages to playing nonstop or bribing the company by feeding them more cash. Everyone got to use the same tank for five certs. Being level twenty did not make a difference, aside from more flexibility. You didn't shoot faster than a level ten, or get tougher armor.

Sony moved with the times however, and Planetside 2 re-defined 'certs' as basically just experience in its standard meaning in level-grinding games. Killing a couple of people or being present while your faction captures a minor base gets you a cert point, and certs accumulate endlessly. Weapons, vehicles, infantry class functions are all improved through certs, tens of thousands of them overall, (non-refundable of course) an endless level-grind. What's more, Sony ensured their customers' right to cheat. Though improvements to various weapons can only be ground-out with certs, the initial weapon purchase can be made in the game's handy-dandy real-money-shop. Not only that, but players can raise their experience/cert gain rate... you guessed it, by paying real money for it.

Never mind the actual numbers involved. You can argue endlessly about when exactly it becomes pointless to set foot in the game because some schmuck who paid his way to success can just trample you, but it should be clear that that time is coming. I haven't kept strict track but between the starter package from the game's launch, a few monthly fees and a straight-up purchase of amusement-park money, I've probably paid a neat hundred dollars into PS2. If you were just starting out, then I've probably got a steadier rifle than you do and 20% more hit points. I have air-to-air seeker missiles for my interceptor and have its jets upgraded to turn on a dime while you just have a piddlin' little machine gun. Good luck, red baron. Even if you shoot me down, hey, guess what, I can immediately respawn as an anti-aicraft tank with reinforced armor. Destroy than and I can switch to half a dozen other roles, all beefed up through legitimized cheating, through bribing the referee so I can have an advantage over you.And we're not even through the first year. And I'm not even one of the die-hard, eight-hours-a-day players.

Now, there is a reason why I deign to play PS2 despite this, why it is worth the money for even moderate FPS fans. Though many of the interesting features from PS1 were removed, as I previously mentioned, it still provides some of that hellish mix of dozens to hundreds of players stretching as far as the eye can see, goin' at it. You still get to charge up a hill among the pounding of artillery shells and dodge behind cover through a hail of gunfire to take an enemy base as part of a larger conflict, and it's all PvP. And this is getting to be the point where PS2 is worth playing: it is reaching maturity as a project but has not yet been wholly invalidated by its real-money-trading scheme. It's not very well balanced, but it's far from the godawful "my pistol can destroy planes" or "my bomber has more armor than an entire base" mess it was for the first few months. The constant base capturing nonsense I complained about before has not really been addressed but it's mitigated by events which happen several times during a day which focus players on specific objectives, forcing some actual fights. Now we just have to wait for the legitimized cheating advantage to accumulate.

This is it. This is the sweet spot. If you're ever going to play PS2, do it now. From here to the new year or if Sony drags their feet on throwing more paid level-grinding advantages into the mix maybe this time next year, this is the game's golden age, such as it is. And don't get suckered into investing much money into it thinking it'll be worth playing three years from now.

Camelot is being unchained as we speak.

Monday, July 22, 2013

You think you a big man?

One type of game feature which I cannot stomach, regardless of whether it's at all justified in any way, is anything which seems specifically designed to take the player down a peg. To humble the player. To artificially force a loss regardless of performance. This is unfortunately sometimes necessary in multiplayer games, especially true MMOs where no player faction can be allowed to completely ruin the game for others, but it's unjustifiable in single-player games.

It pops up in strategy games in various forms.

An acceptable incarnation was the way Elemental: War of Magic used to handle questing. The player could research various "technologies" which would reveal higher-level quest locations on the map. These techs would also randomly spawn tougher monsters all around the game world whenever any faction researched them, presumably mostly around that faction's territory. It was a nice enough idea for scaling the general difficulty of the game world as the game wore on.
I say this is an acceptable variation because it did not specifically, artificially force a loss condition based on nothing else than doing too well, too fast. There are endless other means by which a player's growth can be limited. Resource availability is the old classic, or economic penalties based on number of bases controlled or army size, or alliances between AI factions, or generally any diminishing returns scheme.

What grates is any penalty specifically imposed on the player specifically for doing too well, for growing not just too much, but too quickly or winning too decisive a victory.
The example which sparked this post is last night's game of Europa Universalis 3. I was playing as Switzerland, and being me, was anything but neutral. I wrangled my way into some perfectly legitimate war declarations through various alliances and managed to grab a few north-Italian provinces. And then I lost the game. Because actually taking control of those provinces raises a stat called "infamy" which not only lowers other nations' relations toward you precipitously but makes the AI specifically take actions to lower relations so they can justify war declarations. I don't just mean that the rest of Italy feels threatened by me and bands together, but that all of Europe including my own allies, who had in fact taken the lion's share of the land grab from our conquests, turned against me. The only real way to avoid infamy is by slowing down, crippling yourself by not taking your spoils of war.
The same thing happens in Civilization 4. If you become too powerful or influential, you get zerged. This includes your allies, no matter how positive their standing toward you. These are both good games but they fail in this respect of giving the AI a behavior pattern which shows a metagaming attitude: instead of playing to win they play to prevent me from winning. If I can navigate your alliance system in order to get enough factions on my side to trample the rest of the world, then that's exactly what I should be able to do. Don't divinely intervene to tear me down just for being too good at the military aspect of the game.

In RPGs and some FPS, this mentality takes the form of forced death. Let's get this clear: you're not being clever by making suicide a requirement of completing a quest. I am talking once again specifically about TSW, which features a number of missions that can only be completed as a ghost. This is not part of the game. When you build your mechanics around fighting, around "it's him or me" and making sure the other guy drops before you do, requiring players to purposely throw the game is not "thinking outside the box" - it's tossing the box off a cliff. There is a difference between creativity and nonsense.
There is of course a way to do this elegantly and it's found in that golden oldie Planescape: Torment. The Nameless One commits suicide and allows himself to be murdered and come back to life like it's a bodily function; in fact, for him, it is. However, the situations where you're required to make that choice are clearly outlined in dialogue options or at least strongly hinted at. You're not expected to suddenly overturn the logical rules of the game entirely of your own accord.

If you want me to die, then kill me. Put me in a fight I can't win. There's nothing wrong with losing to impossible odds. Just don't require me to take a dive. Don't demand that I be dishonest.
And don't create some over-arching, uncounterable strategy game mechanic to punish me for being too good at countering your more justifiable ones.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A New Personal Best

I've gotten myself kicked out of two multiplayer game guilds in two different games within two days of each other this week.

Now one might see this as mere escalation. I have in the past destroyed a guild merely by removing my beneficent presence. I have been accused, put on trial and in one case expelled by direct execution. I have played the martyr, played the villain (much more fun) and played devil's advocate only to be misinterpreted. I have even taken the initiative a couple of times and quit guilds, though it's usually not necessary.

"I think I was put here to annoy the world
and destroy your little four-year-old boy or girl."

But I must confess that I've never before gone for sheer volume.

Ill-logical: TSW and programmer conceit

As I've mentioned before, there are many interesting puzzle-solving missions in TSW, but some of them tend to overshoot their mark right into over-specialized trivia or technical jargon, giving the player little choice but to give up and look up the answer online.
Now admittedly, one man's obscure trivia is another man's daily life. TSW's puzzles are meant to offer a bit of something for everyone. I have a sneaking suspicion that the mission to diagnose four infected patients in a field hospital which seemed such an amusing and clever pastime for me might possibly be a disgusting and confusing mire of bodily reactions to those who are not fans of microbiology or medicine. Conversely, I was promptly put to shame by a music buff when I complained about the obscurity of a reference to an Elizabethan lute-music composer.
However, game designers tend to be programmers. What they do or do not consider relevant common knowledge often shows a bias toward the sort of high-school and college coursework one might have trudged through in acquiring an IT/CompSci degree.

Here's where this post really started. I was running through a mission in which the player is asked to "hack" various computer terminals by answering numeric logic puzzles. You're given a few members of the sequence and asked to give the next. High school flashbacks, anyone? What bothers me is that these are not all readily discernible from the information at hand, at least not within the time-frame one might reasonably expect for completing one step of one mission in one computer game. How can I explain this?

2 3 3 5 10 13 39 43 172 177 - this is a perfectly valid puzzle. It is a sequence building from one member to the next. There is an internal pattern to discern, easily expressed through simple arithmetic inter-relation.

312213 212223 114213 31121314 41122314 31221324 - is also acceptably self-contained, though it admittedly stumped me. The assumption of the proper order of object-subject reference within a logical statement is shaky, though. I doubt it's all that universal across human cultures if language alone is any indication.

42, 66, 70, 78, 102, 105 - this, however, is nothing but a mathematical in-joke. Sphenic numbers, are you shitting me? The various members of the sequence do not relate to each other directly. It is not, in fact, a logical sequence, as presented. There is no pattern to discern between the numbers. They are defined instead by a set of external conditions; they're outputs of another series, the series of combinations of primes, relating to it but not directly to each other. There is no inherent order to those outputs except the general convention of sorting them in ascending order. Do you know how much time I spent trying to divide the numbers by factors which were not necessarily primes? However, if you've gone through more math courses and been forced to memorize such lists, that familiarity is likely to immediately trigger recognition. Freebie.

Equally nonsensical is what's getting to be a recurring theme in TSW, translating something to or from binary. One mission even threw in some ASCII code for good measure, in addition to I-forget-what other programming reference. Should I even have to make the point that though I'm buying a product created by your profession, I need not assume your profession's supremacy or accept the precept that your particular technical knowledge should be universal? What would you say to a musician who expects you recognize his song's rhythm as some in-joke about Gregorian chants?

Some might say this is no different than other TSW missions which require the player to translate between Arabic and Hebrew or identify a famous historical Latin cypher to unravel the cryptic contents of a message or read viking runes off rocks, or my music history and medicine examples above. TSW after all makes a point of not being self-contained, of requiring the player to browse various topics online. The difference is in the delivery. Pulling up the translation page for one of the language puzzles or looking up the symptoms of cholera does not readily give the player the mission solution, but the mathematical or binary or other CompSci exercises are a 'gimmie' for anyone of that background. That sphenic speciousness above was after all snuck into a series of logic puzzles, though it truly only hinges on familiarity with the common concerns of a particular branch of human knowledge - what is it with mathematicians and that unhealthy obsession with primes, by-the-by?
The truly grating assumptions, the spots where TSW overshoots its mark, are the missions which treat some obscure technical skill as universal, such as the Morse code example or the one above. It is one thing to purposely create content which is paced on the assumption that players will have to do a bit of research. It is quite another to present as a self-contained logic puzzle what's really an obscure technical reference and demand that players breeze past it in pursuit of a larger goal. Prime number multiplication series are no more universal a part of human culture than memorizing the viscosity of various types of motor oil or the proper age at which to spay a chinchilla. They are a particular factoid to which one gets exposed if pursuing one branch of our society's accumulation of knowledge.

Do not equate logic with recognition memory.

I continued the mission after writing this. The next 'abstracted logic' task put before me?

"Abstracting new data... Emirps found
13 17 31 37 71 73 79 97 107
Input next logical integer: "

Emirp. Really. Oy vey... unhealthy obsession.

And if the previous mission step was just indicative of a bad tendency, the last step of the mission is just out-and-out programmer masturbation.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Da Voice!

My general attitude about any cooperative, nominally-artistic project, be it theatre, film, music, computer games, whatever ... ballet, if I'd ever seen one... has long been that it's the mind behind it that matters. The creator is the writer or the director, the composer, the choreographer, set designer, etc.
Performers are just meat, instruments used by better minds in shaping the expression of a concept. How could the tail ever wag the dog?

Unfortunately, I have been so consistently proven wrong about this over the years that it's amazing I've managed to hold on to my conceit against those who use physical or behavioral abilities as a form of expression instead of formulating thought. In every medium, I find upsets.

Look at something like Instinct, an otherwise mediocre, predictable Hollywood political correctness love story, made palatable mainly by the sheer force of Hopkins' stage presence; or see the reverse, Cube, a smartly-orchestrated thriller dragged down by bargain-basement acting. Poor instruments harm a product; though Cube, I should note, is still decidedly better than Instinct.

As far as music goes, my teenage tastes tended almost entirely toward the instrumental. Beethoven, Grieg and Vivaldi made room grudgingly for the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre, then later Nine Inch Nails. Though I stand by Reznor's brilliance in other respects, Mr. NIN couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. In fact, that might've helped.
The first vocal revelation for me was Garbage's singer (and the popular face of the band, inevitably though probably unfairly) Shirley Manson. Now, Garbage is actually a pretty good band. Though they deteriorated gradually over the years, they had good instrumentation, lyrics, and everything else they needed. They sound slick, all around. Still, one of their strengths is making full use of Manson's distinctive voice. Listen to I Think I'm Paranoid all the way through, for example. However, if the old Garbage songs are rather uniformly well conceived and recorded, a comparison with her older band, Angelfish, is more telling. Suffocate Me is far from the worst thing to have ever appeared on MTV but let's face it, two things stand out: the repeating instrumental 'hook' and the weak lyrics carried as far as they could go by a good singer.

But where do games stand in this respect? How important are living instruments in a medium where characters are often minimalist, largely devoid of expression to allow the player to project his persona into the activity? The best points of reference are the game genres featuring the largest proportion of story-based gameplay, Adventure and RPGs, and I should have been a lot less surprised that the best of them have used excellent voice actors from some of my favorite animation, both -
oh shit
I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! I kept thinking as I was playing NWN recently that Sharwyn the bard's voice sounded vaguely unsettling for some reason. It should. I've heard Jeanette ask me "I'm not frightening you, am I, duckling?" at least five times over by now. What an "incestuous nest of treachery and favor-currying" the voice acting biz must be. Looks like I'll get to hear her again (and again) when I get around to playing the Baldur's Gate games.

Where was I before that nagging suspicion was laid to rest? Ah yes. I mentioned a long time ago that games have put less and less effort into sound as they've put more and more effort into graphics. This has been somewhat less of an issue with voice acting in particular (as opposed to music) because the RPGs and Adventures which use voiced dialogues heavily also hold slightly higher artistic aspirations than the rest of the industry. Some are even willing to hire what I suppose might be 'big names' in the field, though thankfully we see few celebrity voices, aside from Spock reading the voice-overs for Civilization 4 (and doing a bang-up job of it, incidentally, he had the whole "village elder" thing going on.)

The saucy and ever-flippant Morte of Planescape: Torment was voiced by an Animaniac. And again, I'll see him in Baldur's Gate. Those are some freakin' packed CVs, by-the-by. Either voice acting really does pay peanuts as I've heard or these folk're filthy rich by now.
Dak'kon was apparently Director Skinner from the X-Files (by the teachings of Zerthimon, I know there are no aliens) and Annah the tiefling was a professional (and apparently relatively famous) singer, while Nordom was none other than Homer Simpson himself - underutilized character, unfortunately. Nordom, that is. As opposed to Homer.

As far as the other 'best' RPG I've ever played, Bloodlines, goes:
In addition to Therese / Jeanette's voice, Bloodlines featured uniformly high-quality voicing. Because the in-Sourced character animations were mostly not varied enough to carry nuance, many scenes hinged on vocal range. Hearing the smooth, seductive Velvet Velour's tones take an icy edge was enough to snap one out of the impression that that vamp was anything but... a vamp, and Ming Xiao or LaCroix's barely-cracking upper-class facades, expressed mainly through voice inflections, made their stereotypes interesting enough that their dialogues did not feel perfunctory.
However, I'm more amused by just now discovering that Bloodlines featured not one but two Futurama cast members. Hermes Conrad had various minor parts, but Bender the Robot played the starring role. Of all of Bloodlines' cast, it's the enigmatic Smiling Jack who bookends the story and serves to sneeringly illustrate much of the World of Darkness. It's actually amusing to think of how much of the two characters' personae echo each other: the irreverent window into our unrecognized social inner workings, as bloody vampire or bloodless robot. What is it about the actor's voice which makes him so suited to that role?

I've already mentioned how important April Ryan's voice was in The Longest Journey. Given the linear story progression, in the absence of moral choices, much of her personality and by extension her adventures was transmitted through her dialogues' tone and emotional weight.

Even a strategy game like Alpha Centauri hinged largely on its atmosphere, which was dependent in great part on the personalities of its seven faction leaders, the seven wills splitting the world between them, and these were conveyed principally through the voice-overs which pop up throughout the game.

A less concise but equally interesting example is The Secret World. It lacks any major recurring characters. It is meant to illustrate a world, not any one story, and no single role is allowed to truly dominate the others. It does however feature endless strings of memorable NPC quest-givers, minor characters half-developed through a few dozen lines each, barely-evolved stereotypes which nonetheless will make the player do a double-take now and then. And they would not have been the same without (for example) the wistful, innocent delivery of the unexpected punchline in the middle of what seemingly had been unraveling into a 'shaggy dog' story in this mission introduction. Though purposely avoiding great personalities, TSW does not skimp on competence in the voice acting necessary to quickly lend local color to each location the globe-trotting hero visits. Right off the bat, even plotless window-dressing NPCs like Callie and Galahad lounging around the park in London provide generous amusement through their repartee, a verbal soundtrack to the protagonist's initiation into the secrets of the world. To have phoned these in would kill much of the TSW's appeal no matter how interesting its interactive writing.

None of these games would have been nearly as good if they'd lacked the particular spin on the writing which the voice actors lent them. However, to truly appreciate the importance of such performances, one must look at both the good and the bad. Now where can we find some mediocrity?
Aha! Hello, Neverwinter Nights 2. Much of the NWN games was decently written and voiced, especially in the Undrentide and Betrayer expansions. Within the original NWN2 campaign itself, I quite enjoyed Sand and Neeshka. Overall though, it was a mixed bag, and some of the low points were abysmal.
Case in point: the constipated bear scene. Tune in at minute 1:00 for the "good" stuff.
Now, given the same script, how much better could that have sounded if they'd paid a talented professional instead of having the office intern strain into the microphone for a couple of minutes?

Mere instruments actors may be but well-tuned ones are still hard to find, and you can't skimp without consequences.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Gay Rights

Gay rights have been in the news recently again. Let's see, what do I want to say about gay rights?
I don't care about gay rights. Stop bothering me about gay rights.

Unfortunately, I sorta kinda have to care, tangentially. The whole marriage equality issue is not a 'gays' issue but one of basic rights for any thinking being. When the people of Alpha Centauri colonize Mars and I fall madly in love with a five-eyed, three-handed, fuchsia-skinned plant-being, I don't want to have to raise our progeny of mutant podlings at an economic disadvantage because some government over-taxes us for not recognizing the validity of our mating. Equally, if Koko the gorilla's grand-daughters get smart enough to knuckle-drag into a courthouse and ask for a marriage license for their whole polygamous clan, we should not bat an eyelash at their right to be heard.

Overall I can't bring myself to feel much of anything about the gay rights non-issue either way, liberal or conservative. On one hand, I'm not gay, so what the hell do I care? On the other hand... marriage is stupid, and a lot more threatening to my sexuality than a few hundred joyful boys prancing down Main St., U.S.A. in speedos and glitter. They don't really affect me. I've long outgrown homophobia and am not repulsed by the idea of having sex with men in theory, but I've never found any attractive ones. We're slightly ridiculous-looking if you ask me. Women, on the other hand... aaaawwww, yeah, babay!
It's bad enough that women can twist my head off its socket just by walking in the room. It's downright terrifying that at some point in time I might also be pushed to surrender my material resources and freedom to one of them, to legally and economically subjugate myself to secure mating privileges. If anything ever makes me start, as the expression goes, "batting for the other team" it'll be the idea of a wedding, of prenuptial agreements, diamond engagement rings and being forced to watch 'The View'.

I do support equal marriage rights for gays, as a basic statement that costs me nothing to put out there. It's a no-brainer. While our society has marriage at all, it should be equal to any pairing of individuals capable of informed consent. But is it going to get my ass out of this chair and out to a rally? Probably not. 

Ah, but you know what I like about this? Conservatives keep whining about it. That's what gets me salivating. I don't agree that gay marriage weakens marriage as an institution - I think it's just more kow-towing to the outdated superstition of divine sanction. Marriage itself should be abolished, and reproduction both economically supported and restricted through official policy. That's hopefully somewhere in the future and has nothing to do with liking or disliking a pair of brides or a pair of grooms on a wedding cake. But the people who should by all rights be more intimately familiar with that topic than I am, the champions of church weddings, the bible-belters, stuffed shirts and other counter-revolutionaries seem to be terrified of homonuptials. And that puts me squarely in my enemy's enemy's corner.

Glitter on, my well-toned, overly-demonstrative brothers. Wolfie loves ya. Platonically.

Not to be accused of ignoring the lesbians, I give you the eternal male question: aaaaare you super-duper sure we can't change your mind? Really? Damn, ok. Get married to each other, whatever. Fine! See if I care.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Winter's Bone

Note: I am again, as with other good flicks, talking only about the movie. I have not read the book, and did not know it existed until after seeing the movie. And I will likely never read it. Rest assured, I already feel guilty about this. Every time. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Winter's Bone is a drama. Not the kind of faux-Shakesperean Drama with a D toward which I generally lean in my tastes but a personal drama, the kind of gut-wrenching revisiting of life's struggles one generally associates with the "artsiness" of French movies. However, I generally detest those films. I despise the mundane, and the epitome of a would-be artiste's bid for recognition is usually the glorification of the mundane, of one's colloquial social interactions, as universally significant. I find this childishly small-minded. No, wrong word. Wrong world. As children, our minds expand in dimensions we can no longer even discern as adults. A reduction in scope to the sphere of acceptable human interaction, to dinner-parties and board-room decision-dodging, to the limitations of the body, to glorifying nothing but pissing and shitting and sex, the common abilities of common humans - this is the mentality of old age. It is a bid for the approval of tired, scared old masters-of-the-craft. A good movie on the other hand gives you something you haven't seen before or points you at what you haven't wanted to notice out of the corner of your eye.

One random comment below the film's trailer on youtube reveals the societal bias which lends it its relevance to modern urbanized audiences, especially American ones:
"Living in coastal California, I never could imagine that this type of poverty still exists in the United States."
Which type? Presumably, this 'type' of poverty was used to mean this degree of poverty, the depth of deprivation evident in the Ozark hill-folk characters' lives. Yet the life of many an urban slum-dweller is more dangerous and restricted.
No. It is specifically the 'type' of setting, the social milieu of a rural community, which is so alien and shocking to most viewers. Though geographically dispersed, the movie's characters are clannish and isolated from concerns outside their regional social ties.

The U.S. has developed largely without stable rural communities. Between urbanization, industrialization and the instability of frontier politics before that, it is mostly devoid of gemeinschaft social systems. Still, enclaves of village life persist, in the areas ignored and forgotten by the world at large. Their nature seems utterly alien to modern consumers who live and die on the whims of advertisers, ready to be uprooted by the fluctuations of the luxury goods market, immersed in fad after fad, building nothing stable, a single shifting globalized barbarian horde. Ree Dolly and her ilk on the other hand have grown into the landscape over the generations and could no more be separated from their tribal ties than trees from the soil. There may be something left after the procedure but it would scarcely resemble itself.

I'm sure much was made in commentaries about the methamphetamine angle, attempting to paint the story as a drug war morality play. However, Jessup Dolly's disappearance and the seeming brutality of the local drug cartel are not specifically tied to any sort of illegality inherent in their activities. It is only an aspect of the self-correcting nature of gemeinschaft morality. The backlash against any perceived betrayal of the tribe to outsiders or even the adoption of alien viewpoints is always viciously aggressive. That the issue at hand is guns, land, narcotics, moonshine, livestock, marriage or anything else is a single changing facet of the whole. Debts and loyalties are the crux of the matter.

What makes the movie so poignant is the overturning of consumer-society expectations of setting and procedure. There are no sitcom sets of cookie-cutter drywall living spaces. There are no familiar good cops and bad cops and the law is only an external, menacing force, not directly relevant to the characters' interactions. Houses are cluttered, dilapidated, patched, re-painted, lived-in. Cars look so used you can almost smell the previous generation in them. Teaching the children to skin and gut wildlife is a perfectly mundane chore. Unfortunately, most of the movie's viewers will write off all such unfamiliar elements as Ozark oddities. While the combination of methamphetamine, colloquialisms, hunting and the American flag may be unique to the setting, a tale of life-or-death crisis within a framework of tribal loyalties has a certain universality to it. The film's strength is not creativity, but awareness of the many-fold differences between its subjects and audience.

It hits home. It hits the weak points the audience has forgotten it has.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rahan: le fils des ages farouches

Formative years.
How much are our personalities shaped by our early imaginary role models? Would I be different if I had grown up reading comic books about military macho-men fighting for flag and country or would I still be my recidivist self?

Rahan. It would be unfair to begin this description by saying that the comic is set in the stone age, that Rahan is a caveman. Rahan is an idealized intellectual in the existential vein. He is a free individual, traveling the world helping his brothers and sisters, those-who-walk-upright, to survive the brutal demands of the prehistoric world. A vital, proactive exemplar of human virtue, he is part scientist, part explorer, part statesman, part rebel, part inventor. A renaissance man. A world citizen. Rahan is globe-trotting enlightenment in a loincloth.

Normally I'd link something here, either the wikipedia page, or the official website. However, no single presentation I can find online does it justice. In a nutshell, this is what I'm talking about: the original collection, written and drawn back in the 70s by Lecureux&Cheret, 27 issues of usually three stories each. The Nouvelle Collection contained good material but much of it was reprinted older episodes or if new often of lower quality, slightly more sensationalist or repetitive, showing signs that Lecureux was running out of steam. I don't particularly care what came afterwards. Apparently there's been a televised cartoon series and Lecureux Jr. took over writing the series, and sometime in there it turned into something not worth mentioning.

But ah, the old stories. They were carried as much on Cheret's art style as on the writer's knack for dreaming up stone-age scenarios. Maintaining a sense of wonder whenever a flightless bird or anachronistic dinosaur or giant stingray crashed into a panel hinged on maintaining an overall low-key, realistic, well-proportioned setting, and the drawings do this while also keeping the perspective pretty consistently locked close on Rahan himself, an almost first-person experience.


Rahan has two possessions (aside from his leather diaper) - one is his ivory knife, a symbol of both his freedom and wanderlust and his sheer will to live. The other is a necklace of five claws, each representing a virtue, passed among the chiefs of his doomed former clan and finally handed to him by his dying father in the midst of a volcanic eruption. Very dramatic.
Funny. They didn't feel the need to add 'and the French way' after wisdom and loyalty. He also never demands to hear the lamentations of anyone's women.
If the necklace is Rahan's conscience, his superego, then the knife is his id, his impulsiveness, his drive. Most adventures begin or end with him twirling ye olde coutelas d'ivoire on a rock, skull, upturned pot or other round surface so it can show him in which direction to travel next.

There is a good deal of variety in the adventures. There are monsters to fight in some, landscapes to traverse in others, tribal chiefs to depose elsewhere. There is never, EVER a true supernatural element involved, discounting the anachronistic dinosaurs or overgrown wildlife. Ghosts, spirits, gods and magic of any kind are always shown to be products of misinterpretation of natural phenomena or of deliberate deception.

Many stories are just adventures. Rahan has to overcome a challenge and he uses some natural principle like melting and re-freezing water or invents anything from fishing poles to aqueducts to oil lamps or the flute in order to do so. Others showcase a single interesting one-shot character (Le sacrifice de Maoni, Le rire de Tanaka.) A couple are sprawling epics (La valee de tourments.)

However, the most relevant to my developing mentality as I devoured my uncle's old collection of comic books was the fact that in every issue of Rahan, reason, intellect and fairmindedness triumph over brute strength, tyranny and ignorance. The most common recurring villain archetype was a tribe's shaman, witch doctor or other type of mystic keeping his people enthralled to superstition and miserable subservience. And Rahan trounced them. Every single con-man.

There's much of Rahan still rattling around inside my skull. Tenacite, bien sur. As much as I can. Et courage. I don't always live up to it, but I try. Loyaute ou generosite, not as such. These are social functions. Perhaps I simply have not found a deserving tribe as yet. Mais la griffe de sagesse, cela has dug a furrow to my heart...

My kingdom for an ivory knife.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Most Apathetitionate

Must... stop... laughing...

The world of online games is littered with idiotic leagues, tournaments, awards and special clubs of every denomination. You can't set foot in a game world without being told it's been declared the most amazingerest of all time!!!1 by four of five (thousand) organizations which it bribed for publicity.

Sometimes though, the very nature of the supposed recognition is so mind-boggling as to call into question whether anyone bothered to look up words in the dictionary or the entire contest was written, choreographed and decided by randomizer. Take, for instance, this front-page news item from LotRO.

 "Last year the LOTRO Community was named the most passionate in gaming. Now it’s time to prove it again!"

Now, i'll admit LotRO has some positive qualities, which have kept me revisiting it even as I abandoned other WoW-clones. However, the nature of a product's customer base is decided to a great extent by its features, and LotRO is a dull game. I don't mean just that hey, i haven't been eaten by a dragon lately, but that it's an idiotically simplistic single-player grindfest with no more complicated tasks than following a gigantic map marker to the place where you hit the blatantly obvious things with giant glowing names above their heads until they drop so you can feel like a big man. It is a dull game which has attracted dull players.

The LotRO community? Imagine grandma in her recliner watchin' her stories. Imagine every facetiously 'nice' uneducated housewife who never uses four-letter words but gladly supports killing whoever her government wants. Imagine the kid eating paste in your grade-school class and every stoner with a backwards baseball cap. Those are the people of Middle-Earth. They do nothing but endlessly farm whatever the game developers tell them is the latest, greatest instance while ignoring 90% of the game, the few times they put in any effort to form groups at all. You couldn't get a sentient life reading out of most of these walking lumps of mold if you injected a mixture of Shakespeare, Einstein and Darwin right into their hollow, complacent skulls.

Passionate, they are not.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Further observations brought on by a NWN campaign

7. Right after getting to level 13, i got cursed by some undead. I mean, just sayin's all. Numerologists, get your notebooks out.

8. The fact that the expiration of a barbarian's rage can kill him is getting to be the bane of my existence. This does little to affect the actual difficulty of the game. While i'm fighting i keep an eye on my hit points anyway. I just keep dying after fights, when i think i've narrowly escaped death and forget to chug one, just one stinkin potion of cure light wounds.

9. I've acquired a new appreciation of +whatever weaponry. Given that i almost always play spellcasters in RPGs, i tend to be more interested in what kind of colored lights i can shoot out of my weapon rather than how hard i can whack stuff with it.
(Quoth my level 50-something druidic self in World of Warcraft: "hey, you know, i've never actually looked at my crit rating before...")
My barbaranger loves his +2 flail though. I never knew so many things in this game had damage resistance. Who cared while i had magic missiles?
As a corollary, i was afraid that by multiclassing as a ranger, my animal companion would be utterly useless for being low-level, but "magic fang" makes all the difference.

10. One of the nicer aspects of Icewind Dale was the relative lack of freebie magic spell-casting items. NWN 1&2 hand you way, wayyyy too many scabbards of blessing, rods of the ghost, wands of magic missiles and so forth. Who needs spellcasters when you get buffs, nukes and summoned creatures for free? This was also one of the pleasant aspects of Dragon Age as well in its re-evaluation of gameplay mechanics from paper to processor. Aside from the DLC packs, it didn't give you the feeling that it kept handing you ridiculous bonuses because the developers had no idea how to balance the game.

11.  I set out to plan nothing about my character's build except for the overall goal of being a flailing menace, and i'm starting to regret it. I seemed to remember that offhand weapons get extra attacks per round as you level, but apparently i was wrong. I also cannot find any way to dual-wield two medium weapons. No monkey grip in NWN 1.
There's always a trade-off between researching a build and just winging it. I despise those so desperate to make themselves feel big that they can think of nothing but giving themselves advantages. However, there's always a certain delight in seeing a well-crafted plan come together. I think i'm more of a planner than an adventurer, myself. Oh well. I've made my bed, now i have to die in it.

12. Possibly the most ridiculous mechanic in both NWN games was resting. Just plopping your ass down wherever you want in order to fully recuperate completely invalidated the system. Torment had the best implementation, forcing you to seek a safe location in order to rest. Icewind Dale's ambushes as a deterrent to resting in the open might've meant something, if you couldn't simply save/re-load endlessly until you don't get ambushed. The worst way to handle it was Mask of the betrayer's "spirit hunger" mechanic, but there were so many things wrong with it that i won't get into everything here.
Who cares that i only get two or three barbarian rages per day when days come as often as i want them to?

13. As always, i'm annoyed at the moronic character advancement mechanic of gaining experience from killing monsters. Forcing you to depopulate the game world, chasing down every zombie and goblin for that constant stream of 2 XP per kill is a sad, pathetic way to handle progression. I think i'll fire up VtM:Bloodlines again and revel in an adventure without a grind.
I just AFKd three times to let a constantly-spawning stream of demons build up so i could level up off them. Bleagh.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories (and other stories)

Much has been written, sung and filmed about the degenerate, dishonest, despicable, destructive Hollywood culture. Try listening to Marilyn Manson's Ka-Boom, Ka-Boom (or any number of the Antichrist Superstar's tunes) or the only relatively bad song off NIN's The Fragile, Starfuckers, Inc..

It almost always rings hollow - I mean, we know these people are after all making money hand-over-fist from their movie/recording industry deals, even as they sell us their contrition. There are, however, scenes, lines and passages which can make one believe the writer truly grasped the core issue, beyond simply complaining about losing a recording contract. Eminem's Who Knew is one of them. Another would be several episodes of the British sitcom As Time Goes By in which a (very) minor English author tries to sell a script to Hollywood. The view of an outsider who's actually had a taste of the atmosphere is so refreshing, particularly the scene where his complaints about Hollywood alpha-types are slammed down, both characters making equally valid points:
"They're children, and they're ruling the world."
"Only the bit of it you want to make money from."

And speaking of Brits. The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories is a (yes, one) short story by Neil Gaiman, included in the Smoke and Mirrors collection (or at least that's where I found it.) How much of it is autobiographical I could not begin to guess, but it rings true. It is permeated, instead of rage and indignation, by a growing sense of the macabre: Hollywood is not the seat of the puppet-masters, pulling the world's strings to their whims. There is nothing to fight there. It is only the mausoleum of humanity's lowest-common-denominators. There, in ages to come, will lie the endless chorus of machismo and megalomania, of Ralph Kramdens and Lysistratas, rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags, the endless dirge to humanity's inability to master its own instincts. The only question is whether the last of intelligent life will gladly inter itself along with its wet dreams.

The core issue is not the business of Hollywood itself, but the masses' eager supplication before it, the idolatry before star power, this placeholder religion of the information age. Gaiman captures the pathetic fascination of the commoners with their elected deities, the suffocating desperation to be embedded, if only for the briefest moment, in the veneer on the mausoleum's facade. He paints an image of a town which has forgotten even its own grasping for power, a culture that cannot remember its own ambitions, of skittish, unknowing god-makers, slaves to their own slaves, a thirty-minute town.

Hollywood is not a creator. It is a product. The problem is not whatever influence it may still hold, but that it represents so faithfully the greater mass of humanity. Hollywood will not consume us. It's the rest of humanity that will trample us as it plunges into the monster's maw. Well, this is your stop. I leave you at the fight club.

Of Boils and Barbarian Bears

Civilization 4 is, objectively speaking, overall the best TBS i've ever seen. Still, it has its faults.
One of these is the barbarian system. Most TBS games have some sort of neutral, relatively weak faction which is meant only as an intermediate, temporary obstacle separating the players. It doesn't plan and only attacks randomly here and there or awaits to be attacked, conquered, quested. In Civilization, this is the "barbarian state", and one of Civ 4's faults is that this particular feature is unscalable. There is no way to lower the barbarian population, only increase it or turn it off altogether.

I don't play with standard settings. I don't play on medium-sized worlds. I want the most expansive, out-of-control environment i can get. I always play on a huge world on the 'marathon' speed setting, and 9/10 games end in the same way: barbarians at 1000 b.c.e.

While almost everything else in the game can be scaled somewhat, the barbarian spawn rates seem to be set for a standard map size no matter what you actually choose. On a huge map, even with 18 Civs in play, the initial no-man's-land between factions is proportionally much larger, which means that even without a barbarian uprising event there are plenty of unexplored tiles which have a chance to spawn neutral units. Unless you can manage to grab the Great Wall, you have no choice but to completely cripple your development by continuously churning out combat units to hold back the 2-3 new barbarians charging through your territory every turn.
And that's the other issue: they charge through unlike the blind, brute force they should represent. They avoid combat with strong units placed at the borders and sneak past to destroy whatever improvements they can. This basically amounts to demanding that the player use at least half a dozen or so units to defend each base, which is economically unfeasible during early game on the medium difficulty setting, or cover endless expanses of unclaimed territory with even more units.

On the other hand, there's Alpha Centauri, Civ 4's grand-daddy or great uncle, depending on how one looks at the lineage. Alpha Centauri was not a balanced game. It had quite a few flaws in terms of pure strategy, and its unit/base automation options are severely outdated when compared to Civ4. It was, however, a conceptual masterpiece, and one of its strokes of genius was the neutral faction. Instead of being an early-game obstacle, the mind worms escalate in power and aggressiveness as the game's factions occupy more territory and the years drag on. More importantly, they spawn largely in response to player action, to advancing through the wilderness. They do not punish the player simply for playing defensively.

Better yet, they do not prioritize targets. A mind worm boil will not singlemindedly charge past three archers on hilltops to destroy a mine deep in your territory, and this is how things should be. One of the core properties of the neutral faction in a TBS game is its independence from resources. Something that can spawn endlessly should not also get the same quality AI as factions which share the player's limitations of food, materials and so forth.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Sound of Fury

"Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows."

- Simon and Garfunkel - The Sounds of Silence

Normally, when i attack others' choices in entertainment, i exhort them to seek more complexity, novelty, creativity. This is not one of those speeches. This is a speech prompted by a Muse song.

Uprising would be difficult to characterize as the best song Muse ever put out. Other creations have been more complex, more layered, have held deeper meaning and twisted it through more artful subtlety. I am, however, a fan of philosophizing with a hammer. There is a point at which the sheer driving force of a piece of music becomes its philosophy, a push through the lethargy of animal flesh, the will in its own becoming.
"And this is for the questions that don't have any answers, the midnight glances at the topless dancers"
- Kid Rock, Bawitdaba

"Du hast mich gefragt und ich hab nicht gesagt"

We need aggression. We need rage. There is no honor or morality in meek submission to the whims of others. That is the social stagnation which permeates our world.

"I am the voice inside your head, I am the lover in your bed, I am the sex that you deny, I am the hate you try to hide - and I control you"

"I am the prayers of the naive, I am the lie that you believe, I drag you down, I use you up - Mr. Self-Destruct"

To resist, to rebel, is self-destructive from the animal point of view, to deny oneself the power over others which comes through social yea-saying, through complacency and brown-nosing. But to submit is the death of the self.

"On hands and knees we crawl, you cannot stop us all
Our bones, our skin, we will not let you in."
NIN - My Violent Heart

"Well treat me like disease, like the rats and the fleas"
"Take all you that please like my sign says, it's free - till it's gone, till it's gone!
We'll discard whom you please like the leaves off a tree, a-ha-ha!"
- Modest Mouse, March Into the Sea

"fellow creators the creator seeks, and fellow harvesters, for everything about him is ripe for the harvest" - Zarathustra

"I'm in love with this malicious intent. You've been taken but you don't know it yet."
"Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up" - Ministry - N.W.O.

"Declare this an emergency"
"This is the end of the world.
It's time we saw a miracle, come on, it's time for something biblical." - Muse, Apocalypse Please

You call all this blind rebellion? I call it rebellion against a blind world.

"We sing the death song, kids, 'cause we got no future, and we wanna be just like you." - Marilyn Manson

"Let the bodies hit the floor!"
I'm getting down with the sickness.

But this is not a choice. It is the only option of the self against a self-effacing environment.
"I'm stuck in this dream, it's changing me, I am becoming."
Much madness is divinest sense.
I do not want this.
"And now you're one of us - The Wretched."
"Whose mistake am I, anyway?" - Antichrist Superstar

"I wasn't born with enough middle fingers, I don't need to choose a side" - Irresponsible Hate Anthem

But unfortunately, "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whisper the sounds of silence."

We are much too polite, much too much of the time. And the silence grows.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Preamble to More Sound and Fury - Knights of Cydonia

"Come ride with me through the veins of history
I'll show you how God falls asleep on the job"
- Muse, Knights of Cydonia
 (Don't watch that just yet!)

A long time ago, i defended the self-indulgent nihilism of adolescent rebellion in the 1990s thusly:
"Throughout its endless creation of macabre illusions, that angsty 90s teen fringe remained open to the possibility of tearing down the old ones. There was a dogged final resistance in it: if action is denied us, thought can at least remain free. If we are powerless and passive, let us at least be decorously, flamboyantly so. If we can't stick it to the man, let's stick it to ourselves. Anything is better than chanting along with the commercials."
Here is an echo of that sentiment.

Knights of Cydonia is best interpreted through three presentations: once as the song itself, the second as the music video, and the third, again, as only the song.

Listen to the song. Let it drive you, uplift you, let yourself hope.


Now watch the music video.
Let yourself feel like a fool. Feel yourself ridiculed by the seven-billion-strong ape tribe in its commercialization, amalgamation and dilution of virtue and independence. Be Don Quixote.

Take a break. Feel the burn. Feel the shame. Let your happiness grow loathsome to you, and your reason and your virtue also.

Now listen to the song a third time. And fight.
Remember that it is the action which creates its own value, independent of success. Get ready to tilt at some windmills, and laugh as Howard Roark did at his own banishment. Be Don Quixote.
We are dreamers. We are creators. We are our own gods, and we are wide awake. We are overblown and self-indulgent, learned fools and idiot savants. We break ourselves against the wall of human stupidity. We hold no hope of success and even our attempts will be defiled, that they may be ridiculed the better.

But we do not surrender.

A Preamble to a Preamble

- because i keep stacking point below point, jittering and chattering, and the thought train never left the station but there's a fifty-car pile-up. Must be a full moon.

"i'm racin', i'm pacin', i stand and i sit"

No, i will not listen to Eraser again. I'm on a neurotransmitter upswing and i've declared a full moon. I've got three posts lined up and i will not calm down.

"trust in my selfrighteous suicide"

Where was i? Half insane or just rambling? Howling.

Where was i? Every growl echoes another.

"i need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me"

"these are the songs that saved my life"

Where was i again? I was writing a blog post.

Back in a bygone age of active patriotism and accomplished missions, the zeitgeist, drained of Zarathustran blood, begged re-creation. The masses bleated, all in a pulse, begged for a bleeding, for a shredding, for a microphone feedback, for some nails on the chalkboard. Recording artists remembered their art, remembered their own need for a society which allows creation, and screamed whatever wake-up calls they could.

Some of these had no business commenting on politics. They did so nonetheless. Here are two of my favorites.

The fragile mad genius Trent Reznor, still nailed to nine inches of self-inflicted fame, with mediocre teeth hopefully forgotten, puts out Year Zero. It's anti-war and anti-Bush, anti-class and anti pacifism. Some of it is good. Some of it recalls the haunting metallic screech of NIN's past glory. But most of it is clumsy. Mostly, it reeks of the rot of a brilliant mind whose greatest contributions to posterity were always personal, existential screams into the void. Reznor's lyrics, his architecture, always flowed inward, following the depressive pattern of introverted rage. Though capable of much savage social commentary, it always stemmed from that personal betrayal, fury or hopelessness. Year Zero was built around a growing concern for the path of society, but it was obvious that Reznor... simply didn't actually give a shit. The personal involvement, the drive, the conviction, the abandon, was simply no longer there. Only a couple of songs in the album rang true as Nine Inch Nails material.

"Let me simplify the rhyme just to amplify the noise." My second example is Eminem, with Mosh. "If i get sniped tonight you'll know why - cause i told you to fight." Slim Shady, as opposed to the first example, was by virtue of being a rapper, already anti-establishment. Problem: Slim's a city boy. Slim raps about the projects. Slim doesn't do national politics or upper-class concerns like government. There's a hint of the same lack of interest as Reznor, but in Eminem's case the bigger problem is right there in the lyrics: "simplify the rhyme"? Oh, no, bad, bad idea, Slim. There was never any great philosophical tenor to his music in the first place. The complexity of his rhyming, the driving torrent of a self-developing mosaic, the barrage of words itself was always his strength. Mosh is not a terrible song, but it's too self-limited. It's an artist on unfamiliar ground, afraid to flex his muscles, being pushed into activism, and it's obvious it doesn't come naturally.

Now where was my Muse?