Friday, November 29, 2013


Feels kinda odd discussing Resonance in relation to other adventure games. The whole point-and-click adventure setup, antiquated as it is, has been relegated to small productions and independent developers, often new to the business. This invites a certain tolerance for low-quality graphics, creative writing of uneven quality, and various nonsensical gimmicks meant to spice up the decades-old routine of visually scanning an image for clues. It invites a certain tolerance from players for... well, amateurishness.

Resonance is not amateurish, but neither does it convey the sort of endearing personality which can elevate these 2D, pixellated 90s throwbacks over glitzier, big-budget genres.
It's written at the level of a good British murder mystery, with believable characters and a plausible, coherent story. Suspense and foreshadowing feature in adequate doses to get their point across. The voice acting is... passable, though it suffers from a "teleprompter" feel. The premise is just sufficiently "Sci" to make for good "Fi" and the ending doesn't disappoint. Unfortunately the whole thing feels somewhat perfunctory. It's far from dull, and paradoxically it may be the careful, professional balance between story elements which turns Resonance's plot into a zero-sum game but unlike other good adventure titles, no artistic element truly grabbed me - nothing, from setting and premise to plot to characters, to sprites and sounds, made much of an impression. These are forgettable people doing forgettable things in a forgettable place.

Resonance excels, however, as a puzzle-solving game. Through visual, text, memory and even social (as you control up to four characters at once, each with a subtly different agenda) Resonance runs almost the complete gamut of puzzle-solving while remaining pleasantly self-contained, unlike, say TSW and its constant wikipedia-crawling for obscure trivia. While this could've easily made Resonance feel like "Wechsler interactive" the reward per time investment for each puzzle was carefully managed to avoid boredom or frustration. Crutches are implemented for those of us too lame to feel our way through a wooden box (yes, the puzzle solving includes an actual puzzle-box) and other characters will gladly drop you a hint now and then. Logic wins the day here. Players accustomed to simply scanning the screen for interactable elements will be disappointed at a very large number of red herrings. In a refreshing departure from most of its competitors, Resonance's gameplay hinges on building logical causality, not what might be called the spirit of observation but is more frequently sheer dumb luck.

A good example of just how Resonance rises above its genre would be the ending. I had no trouble figuring out how to "MacGyver" my way to the big finish... but it turned out to be the bad ending. Not just bad, but the ending I myself find deeply offensive. So I kept trying, unsuccessfully, to end on a good note, and finally had to give up and learn online that getting the good ending was not only a matter of making different choices, but of using a social rather than mechanistic, instrumental approach. I'm still gonna gripe that it was a dirty trick to play on us shuttered hermits who are most likely to buy such a product, but it's certainly food for thought on building meaningful puzzle-based gameplay.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How many 3.5" floppies is that?

You know how Bill Maher does that "New Rules" segment on Real Time?
Well, here's a game-related new rule: If your new game requires me to free up 20+ gigs of storage just for the basic, version 1.0 install, you have to buy me a new hard drive for my porn.
Get it? "Hard" drive? Oh, I kill me.

Yes, it's a tired old complaint and hard drive space is nowhere near the issue it was a decade or two ago but the real problem is that these games have become as massively overbuilt as some of their non-game inspirations like Word or Internet Explorer, all-purpose websites like MSN or advertising platforms like Steam. They are clunky, intrusive, ad-riddled, datamining-obssessed messes. How much of this crap I'm downloading is actually necessary and now much is just the existential justification of some graphic artist? No, thanks, I don't really need fifteen versions of this triple-layered texture for my sword pommel, nor do I need my preference as to sword-pommel texture constantly uploaded to your marketing department in real time. I will gladly tell you everything that's wrong with your flashy piece of crap of a product myself, and the truth is no amount of pinky-finger articulation for my character is going to fix the fact that your entire multimillion-dollar enterprise still limits me to "kill ten rats."

Redundancy is not quality.

*edit: I was wrong, it's 40+ gigs.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thresholds in Virtual Air

As an effect of studying a little biology you get more sensitive to the concept of threshold values. You learn not to view things as absolutes but as ranges, in terms of variation around a norm or minimum. You learn how important every mountain gorilla becomes when there's 400 of the damn things left but the generally accepted threshold for sufficient genetic variation for a species' long-term survival is at least 500. Or take for instance the famous depictions of atmospheric greenhouse gasses (remember Al "gimme-an-Oscar" Gore pointing to his spiky chart?) and the issue of truncating graphs for effect. It is legitimate. In fact that graph's Y-axis should be truncated at just 250 to 300 because that is the world we know, the world in which we have always existed. Drive home the point that we are now literally off the freakin' charts! Our human reality doesn't go from 0 to 400 ppm. Our world, the only one we know how to live in, was that historic norm of around 280. That's where everyone from Julius Caesar to Queen Victoria lived. An increase of a hundred ppm isn't 0.0001 or 25% or 33%, it's 1000%, it's a ten-fold amplification of the worst variation human civilization had known previously.

But you know what, all that's too depressing to think about. So let's escape into online games, where the skies are always blue and the elf-lasses busty. And then listen to some corporate fatcat trying to convince you that making you buy various stat-boosting items with real money is harmless really because the advantages they give will be minor. I complained long ago about legitimized cheating, and quite a few times since then. It's been around for many years now, completely wrecking the viability of most online games as games, degrading them to no more than social arenas.
At the time I complained about the now largely defunct game Savage 2's stat-boosting items giving anywhere from 10-30% bonus to effectiveness depending on how you looked at it. For the sake of simplicity, stick with the idea of a 15% health increase. A cheater who bribes the game company for that advantage has 15% more HP than a player who doesn't. Now, 30 more health might not sound like much on a 200-HP player character, but the truth is you don't live and die by that 200 HP. Your success is measured by the statistical difference between your performance and another player's and that oftentimes ends up being precisely that 30 points. It's one more attack, one more defense, one more bullet, one more health potion. Look in any PvP game and see how often you survive a fight with 15% or less HP and how often a player who beats you survived with 15% or less. If a football player had a chance to improve his odds of scoring a goal or even successfully placing a pass by 15%, would he call that trivial? Would he just shrug it off?

The effect really is vastly magnified considering most of these online games, multiplayer games, concern teams of players. Does 2% sound like very little? Here's a nice anecdote.
Back when I was playing WoW, way-when in the mists of time it first launched, I had the opportunity to raid a bit. These were the big old 40-man raids with 39 players praying that the team's tank doesn't die or they'd all wipe. I was a druid, largely derided and discounted because as a hybrid class druids lacked any one specialized value (damage/healing) to throw around as simpleminded proof of their usefulness. So back when my guild was in the Molten Core instance, I was immediately and vociferously criticized for using the "Insect Swarm" spell on raid bosses. All the idiots who lived and died by the damage/healing meter criticized me for using a low-damage debuff when I was what they called a "healer" class. Insect swarm, however, also gave its victim (in this case the giant menacing raid boss) a 2% miss chance on attacks. I replied somewhat thusly:
"if you found an item or a potion or a buff that gave your main tank an extra 2% dodge chance, would you want to use it?"
And from that day on, my guild had not just me but the other druids constantly using Insect Swarm on raid bosses as a general policy.

2% is huge. It snowballs. If in a 40-man PvE raid that was mostly a way of keeping the tank alive, in PvP scenarios any and every advantage counts. Yes, if one of your twenty or thirty players in a PvP game lives through a fight once, just once, by a 2% margin, he can go on to completely shift the power balance.
"For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost" the centuries-old saying goes and it holds true despite cheaters throughout history trying to laugh off and trivialize their sin. They're the same ones who want to keep polluting because hey, 0.0001 is oh-so-little. Cheating matters, and nobody knows this better than cheaters themselves. Once one jock starts using steroids, all the rest have to as well just to keep up. Cheating forces more cheating. That's the beauty of it from the viewpoint of game companies. Once they offer that possibility it becomes a necessity. As soon as they've made that first microtransaction of half a dollar for a 2% stat boost, they are assured thousands more.

The reality of it from the players' view is that corporations are never sated. Greed, unlike your character stats, is not a threshold value. Once a company starts offering legitimized ways to cheat, it will keep offering more and more. The game will inevitably revolve around them. Why? Because once a thousand players have bought the first 2% and the spending threshold for success has been raised, that threshold will be raised again and again. 2% here and 2% there, the biggest spenders accumulate more and more advantages until your virtual world is as polluted as the real one.

You have to keep the damn nail in the horseshoe in the first place. Demand that companies never institute even the slightest bought advantages. NO legitimized cheating, regardless of numeric values.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Their true calling

Can we get Bill Clinton and Rob Ford on a transcontinental tour teaching sex-ed to middle-school children?
Party people in the schoolhouse, yo!
They've both got famous sound bites covering at least two popular sexual acts... add some Bob Dole Viagra clips and you've got yourself the most memorable health class any youngsters are ever likely to get.

- and the scariest

Friday, November 15, 2013

TED vs. Kickstarter

I've been watching/listening to some TED Talks lately (word of advice - don't, they're habit-forming) and in the process engaging in wanton speculation and criticism as is my wont.
First off, Jane Goodall has gotten scary in her old age. I don't mean my kind of scary, angry nerd when-will-he-snap insane asylum scary, but the other kind. The softspoken social prime-mover sort. Listening to her dismissing complaints about her speech running overtime with "Are you going to come and drag me off?" you have to realize this is the sort of persona which can power social movements, and there are precious few of those among scientists. Granny Goodall can shame you into recycling where even if I had any credentials, the likes of me couldn't badger you into it.
Second, if you're relatively young, male and especially a gamer, Philip Zimbardo is kicking your pasty, antisocial ass. Implicitly, metaphorically, but you're gonna feel it nonetheless. And if you don't think a guy whose landmark experiment adorns every Psych100 textbook across the U.S. has enough pull within the unofficial trade-guild of headshrinkers to influence how society sees you, you really have spent too much time in Neverland. I won't say "let's try to prove him wrong" but rather let's prove him right and prove that we're in the right. In the mass-media culture we could all use a good dose of antisocial egomania.

I won't go into any others. Love or hate TED, the content provided is endlessly fascinating. However, I am constantly reminded of one of the first posts I made when I started this sad little joke of a blog. Where's the decentralization?
As delighted as I am by the varied material provided, lurking in my semiconscious assessment of the website, the tone of the presentations, the suppliant fundraising slant on every issue discussed, is the realization that in order to speak at TED you must very likely be or make yourself a corporate whore. When every talk is followed by an ad from GE, IBM, various car companies or Goldman-Fuckin'-Sachs, the social damage of promoting the most destructive agents of modern society arguably outweighs the positive effects of popularizing scientific breakthroughs or artistic achievements. Is anyone seeing the irony of having talks on global-warming endorsed by peddlers of gas-guzzling SUVs? The implication that human advancement cannot exist without the stranglehold such thoughtless, fungal, megalomaniacal, expansionist giants place on human advancement is viciously, deviously counterproductive. There can be no true progress until we are no longer slaves to the stock market, until we can advance scientifically and artistically without feeding the lion's share of our due benefits to the animalistically, instinctively competitive powermongers at the top of these pyramid schemes which block all social progress.
As much as TED is lauded as a positive movement, taking what used to be a multibillionnaire exclusive and opening it somewhat to the public, the program's roots still taint it. It is a game by the rich for the rich. Don't kid yourself. You're not co-opting them, they're co-opting you.

And then there's Kickstarter. At first glance, Kickstarter is an economic dead-end. The rich have no interest in it. It is by definition a for-product enterprise, and powermongers are by definition for-profit. So while in the short term Kickstarter results in many creative, ambitious projects coming to light which would otherwise never exist and creates a highly progressive climate of product-oriented design, it would arguably peter out in the long term. Redistributing, shuffling the funds of the few middle-class progressives among each other does not in itself fight corporate power. However, while funding an artistic project through direct contribution does not directly grow the economic share of the middle-class, it does keep more of that investment from being funneled up to the ultra-wealthy to be used counter-productively for say, face-saving, misleading, crowd-controlling advertisements on the TED website.
Let's remember that the rich produce nothing in themselves. Power is parasitic. Everything they have they acquire by raping and pillaging, by stealing it from true producers. You don't have to fight them actively if you can just keep yourself from feeding those parasites. They can be starved out.
Combined with promoting a product-oriented instead of profit-oriented mindset, this lateral redistribution has tremendous potential. Economists, social scientists, prove me wrong.

I for one am looking forward to the day when I find a large, crowd-funded, user-friendly service I can use instead of Google to post my rants.* I am always painfully aware of the irony of my dependence on this site. The other corporate dependencies of the Internet are bad enough.

*And no, I'm not going to deal with 4chan.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Not My People's Kind of Music

Well, luckily for all of us, Shirley Manson didn't entirely quit her day-job when she ran off to play terminatrix, so there's been a relatively new Garbage album out there and I finally got around to giving it a listen.

Unfortunately, it's weak stuff, and worse still even its good points are downgrades from older Garbage songs. The band was in a constant if slow decline after the first, self-titled album. The edge they'd lent to pop music has gradually dulled away leaving something unappealingly generic in overall tone, instrumentation, lyrics, whathaveyou. This was slightly true of the previous album Bleed Like Me, with Sex is not the Enemy being a pale imitation of Androginy and Right Between the Eyes having the same relation to Cherry Lips. However, the song Bleed Like Me was itself powerful enough to counteract the others, and the ratio of quality to banality in the remaining songs was still heavily in favor of giving everything a listen.

That ratio has unfortunately been reversed with Not Your Kind Of People. The title song is a weaker, generic version of Shut Your Mouth. Only two, maybe three songs of the fifteen stand out as nearing Garbage quality.

Blood For Poppies - again begs a Shut Your Mouth comparison, but it has its own syncopated charm.

Beloved Freak - good, but So Like A Rose, Bleed Like Me or Nobody Can Win did this better without pulling any punches. If you're gonna go emo, you're usually better off with an all-out slit-your-wrists approach. The weak finish hurts it more than anything.

Automatic Systematic Habit - catchy, but also somewhat like a J-Pop remix of Sleep Together. Very strong opening, but goes nowhere after that. Doesn't come close to Garbage's old masterpiece As Heaven Is Wide.

Aside from these, there's not much there. Pity. I went into this wanting to like it. I was hoping one of my favorite old bands would make a comeback and reverse its downward trend. It is, I'm sorry to say, the first bad album Garbage has put out.
Then again, how many bands actually make a comeback? And still, two good songs is two more than I'll ever create.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Cat God - a thousand monkeys in a thousand random places

For some years now, "achievements" have been a big buzz-word in electronic games. With cloud sharing, even single-player games attempt to create a false sense of competition between players by giving them endless lists of obscure and/or repetitive tasks to perform. Go here. Kill a thousand of these. Give us this many dollars. And post it all to your online profile so all your little buddies can see just how obsessive you are!
These ideas have a way of circling around within the industry in a barely distinguishable spiral of incompetence. I've talked before about how the concept of static leveling, after its supposed success in MMOs, came back to potentially wreck some single-player games like Oblivion. This time it's The Secret World that's ticked me off and the problem seems to once again be one degrading concept corrupting another.

I interrupted my recent stint in Calradia because I remembered that I missed out on Issue 3 of TSW's post-launch releases while busy with my old LotRO guild last year. So as Halloween is come around again and the Cat God come out to play, I decided to once more take up arms for the Templar cause. Which apparently involves chasing pussy. Okay, fine, whatever.

Though I haven't finished the quest arc yet as the last step is a group mission, Issue 3 seems to have the same problem as Issue 5 but with the order reversed. Instead of a grind with a big finish, The Cat God starts with an interesting gimmick and presentation then gets bogged down. Though the puzzle-solving is initially a good mix of logic and footwork, the references quickly become painfully obscure. I'm reasonably well-versed in history and mythology by most standards but even I have to roll my eyes at being casually asked what the half-legendary queen Boadicea supposedly poisoned herself with (spoiler alert: hemlock sure was popular in the ancient world.) Worse still are the in-game references. When you're asked to figure out in-game locations from off-hand mentions of "garden" or "stone" it's obvious that this has little or nothing to do with detective skills. Though this is a single-player mission, its writers treated it as though they were conversing not with one player but with the entire player base.

This is insulting. You are telling me that you assume me to be a cheater and therefore give me puzzles intended to be solved through cheating. You are insulting me by giving me a single-player mission which assumes I'll be asking others for answers. The clues in the second mission of The Cat God are too painfully obscure to be worth the time investment as a single player. I can comb one map for locations mentioning "garden" or "stone" and I can be amused at one or two red herrings. But several red herrings every step and gardens and stones which might be anywhere on half a dozen maps? This is obviously intended to be solved not through perspicacity but sheer brute strength of numbers. A thousand players all checking random leads will inevitably run across the answer and then copy it off each other. I am being given a brain-teaser but being treated as a herd. We are not amused.

However aggravating that's been in itself, it's more interesting to think of how exactly the developers came upon this attitude toward the tasks they throw at players. The overall trend, we must keep in mind, is toward nominally multiplayer content that's really single-player, not the other way around. Except for at least one area of gameplay.
One of the oldest types of "achievements" were exploration markers. Deeds in LotRO, badges in CoH, lore in TSW, by whatever name these are one of the most nonsensical demands placed on players. The so-called "exploration" variant commonly has nothing to do with exploration. Instead of rewarding players for seeking interesting locations or logical destinations like say mountain peaks or the deepest reaches of a cave, exploration markers are almost always some random spot in an open field or some random crack among thousands in a wall. The point is not to give players something interesting to do, but to simply reward monomaniacal, mindless combing through lists and vistas. It's not worth the time investment for an individual but easily handled by a brainless swarm.

One monkey out of a thousand winds up writing Hamlet and reads it to the others. One player out of a thousand winds up stepping on a fennel plant and tells others where to find it, and 999 monkeys each individually have to go where the first one made the discovery just to checkmark that mission step. This is a disgusting way to set up a supposed puzzle. It's bad enough to have let the concept of exploration degenerate into this without letting it infect puzzle-solving. If I wanted to be part of a faceless community that just cycles buzzwords within itself I'd sign up for facebook. The saddest part is that this is below even TSW's own standards. Just like Tyler Freeborn, The Cat God shows worrying cracks in its coherence, various post-launch decreases in the quality of TSW's most prominent features.

My guess? Their launch tanked, they lost funding and the remaining skeleton crew can't polish anything near enough to make it interesting. Issue 6 I'll talk about some other time and I'm curious if Issues 7 and 8 have continued this pattern.

addendum: Having played through the 2013 version of the Halloween event, I was at first alarmed at the seeming expansion of this pattern. However, out of the ten locations involved, only two were utterly nonsensical and random (Ellis and Tyler) while the rest were characters one might more or less expect to have a ghost story to tell. One in five... not great, but at least things haven't gotten worse in a year?
Also, the story of the gypsy girl's diary? Beautiful.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Qara vs. Ignus

First of all let's get this out of the way: Ignus would liek, toe-tuh-lee kick Qara's ass.

But anyway. Pyromania has become a bit of a spellcaster trope. It's an easy, flashy display of fantasy special effects. Even the dumbest gamers can grasp the idea of shooting fireballs as "magic power" so it's hardly surprising in retrospect that Neverwinter Nights 2 included something like Qara in its panoply of DnD archetypes. For those who have also played the NWN predecessor Planescape:Torment a comparison with that other firebug companion, Ignus, seems natural and at first glance Ignus appears by far the better-written character.

I don't think Qara was particularly popular a decade ago when NWN2 came out. At least in the online game guild I was a part of at the time, I found myself her only advocate. Others complained of her abrasive personality or skill build as grating flaws. She was accused of being precisely the sort of "munchkin" who plays a sorceror - a charisma-based character with the diplomatic skills of a poop-flinging baboon who only wants to deal damage but for whom weapon feats were just too complex.
For this reason Qara really is a good character. She embodies that archetype. She may be a bad person... but a decent character nonetheless. Personally I liked having her around because it's nice having some NPC in these games that's a bit of a loose cannon. She provided some nice accompaniment for the explosive side of my own temperament much as Gannayev or Morrigan echoed my egomania and callousness in later Bioware releases.
One must also keep in mind that "charisma" is not synonymous with "niceness" and abrasive but magnetic personalities abound. Consider comedians, for instance.
Her somewhat repetitive dialogue also fits. Pyromania aside, the monomania of obsessively pursuing anything - power especially, magical or otherwise - can easily become the focus of one's entire personality. Qara is gradually becoming her conflict, constantly manifesting her fight to break free of the restraints placed upon her. 

However, there is an added dimension to Qara for those players who have gone through both Torment and NWN2. Ignus is by far the more captivating character, granted. His interactions with the player, his viciousness and abandon make Qara look like the G-rated imitation she truly was. However, when looking back at Qara one must realize that what we were presented, in part, was another Ignus in the making. Qara is Ignus the child, Ignus the hedge-wizard who burns with the art... until the art will inevitably burn her. There's even an easy comparison to be drawn between Qara setting a fire as a diversion in a backalley of Neverwinter's docks and Ignus torching the Alley of Dangerous Angles.

Qara was an interesting character because she was a transitional one, and in a much subtler way than Khelgar. She was in that state of potentiality awaiting some apotheosis like, say... being turned into a conduit for the Plane of Fire. Unfortunately, fully exploring that path would have been too deep for NWN2's simplistic, archetypal companion roster. Ignus she could've been, munchkin she remained.

Greetings From Calradia!

Something happened last week on Halloween (no, I didn't bite anyone, calm down) and it threw me for a little loop. Enough to stop me in my tracks as I was writing here, mid-paragraph. So I've been spending my days since then wrapped in the safety blanket of imaginary worlds. I've lost a couple dozen matches of Civ 4, sliced and diced a few hundred people in TF2, played through the first half of Resonance (more on that later) revisited NWN2 a bit (more on Qara and redundant prestige classes later), read through the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, expanded my Elemental empire, watched a few old Dr. Who episodes, held back the alien menace in Defense Grid... and as though that weren't enough reality-dodging, I started a new campaign of Mount and Blade.

So, hail, traveler. Welcome to my comfort zone!

And really, as escapist fantasies go, M&B sort of takes the cake. Not because of any particular, unique elements but because it does the basics so well as to let you immerse yourself in your own imagination. Choose your own medieval adventure. Do you loot, capture, steal or enslave? Do you sneak or trample? Do you bolt or lance? Who are you, what are you, and where are you going? You decide, without any guidance, with nothing but your internal compass and risk/reward estimates. You want to see what a sandbox MMO should look like? Play through a few years of Calradian time and imagine that every peasant and merchant, every lord and bandit were replaced with players.

"What a scene, man, whoeee! And then they just plop you out here like a naked baby in the woods." - Smiling Jack from VtM: Bloodlines

My next "shifting demographic" post will likely center on the thrill of discovery. I like getting parachuted into a hostile environment to learn everything the hard way. This is adventure, this is a test of personal ability and a brave new world, in which such surprises can exist. Don't game, play. Learn to lose and learn by doing. You discover everything in M&B through interaction. Slave traders tell you how to capture slaves. Troubadours tell you about the land's courtship customs. Merchants and guild masters clue you in as to the best trade routes.
Everything else is subject to the whims of fate. "O, fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis!" A single crossbow bolt to the face during a crucial battle can cost you weeks' worth of progress and kingdoms rise and fall within a few months. I began this campaign, for instance, with the intent to cozy up to the Kingdom of Vaegirs and then rebel. I was quite happy to see it expanding, thinking what a glorious endgame it would make to shatter this vast abusive monarchy through just revolt. And then three other kingdoms declared war. And then a fourth. Within two months my liege and future victim King Yaroglek's domain fell from five towns to one and from a dozen castles to two.
How dare they take him down before I got a chance to!
And none of this is spoon-fed to you through storylines, through easily discernible good guys and bad guys or giant map markers holding your hand through a linear sequence of events. You choose your targets and your justification. You choose whose tale of right-to-rule to believe, and there's no right answer. Any town might prosper, any kingdom might rule the others.

So here's hoping. Mount&Blade 2 is now in development. Here's hoping they choose to build on this their great strength, the sandbox appeal, minimalist and expansive, direct and complex all at once. Hope they choose to expand the core concept without diluting it. No fireballs, no dwarves with guns, no dragons, no easy answers, no pats on the back, no hand-holding. Just you and an entire brutal medieval world at your fingertips.

The vision of a warrior bold just sets me dancing.