Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Generation Facebook

"When do you think it will all become clear?
'Cause I'm being taken over by a fear."

Lily Allen - The Fear

Another year has come and gone. Generation time for the human species is what? Let's say 20 years? Less if you're a teenager in one of our slave-labor backwaters like Africa or South America and your culture denies you the right to grow at all as an individual before you start cranking out crib-stuffers. Or you live in Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas or... you know what, never mind, them demographics is a-changin'. Anyway, since I was at that dangerous "one ejaculation and your life is over" age, a whole new generation has sprung up from baby teeth to toothless baby-ish spineless adulthood.

Ah, millennials.
You disappoint me. Well, that's not entirely accurate. I never had much hope for you to begin with. However, I did not entirely predict the shape your failure would take.

A decade or more ago, walking around a mall, I wondered what form future American youth counterculture would take after the "goth" craze of my own adolescence. My conclusion, given the rise of the internet, was that the iconoclastic rebellious minority of youths of this next generation would likely adopt a bohemian, art-centered, free expression mentality. I was expecting a new beat generation. Except, you know, relevant. Maybe some hippies, but not quite so stoned. Some punks with the information to know what they're rebelling against.
Instead, this has shaped up to be the most sickeningly codependent crop of youngsters in... when did the term "fop" originate again? You like to call yourselves "millennials" to make yourselves sound grandiose? You're Generation Facebook to me. You're the generation of selfies. You're the "like" button addicts. You're the purveyors and consumers of Steam achievements. You live and die by the number of total strangers who declare themselves your friends. Your spine's a rubber band, the better to bounce your aimless chatter back and forth.

Granted, that describes most human beings of any age. Here, technology truly has damned us. Instead of taking the freedom of the internet as a chance to expand horizons, bask in diversity, break down barriers, etc. the modern age has latched on to mass communication's power as a homogenizing factor. Never has it been easier to establish communication-impeding social mores and folkways. Your twit-feed now keeps you updated second-by-second on what you should like and dislike. I mean, TV was bad enough, with baby boomers and their descendants breaking into crying fits whenever Lucy Ricardo broke a nail or beating their chests in unison with Ahrnohld the terminal barbarian. The internet though has at last put the necessary interaction into Ray Bradbury's brilliant prediction of future entertainment in Fahrenheit 451. Entertainment is now about playing to your "family." Whether you're socially netting each other, playing a game or simply ordering a bag of chips through the mail, you are being subjected to a constant barrage of operant conditioning.

Oh, you're reading my blog? How kind of you! Here's a gold star. Oh, you posted a comment? Lemme just list how many comments you've posted right next to your name so you can show off. Good boy. Gooooood boooy! Don't you feel special? Don't you feel appreciated? Do yah feehl da love!?!
Now it's your turn. Invite me to your page of booked faces to tell me how speshul I am to you. Me? Oh yes me. Me, picture #457 on your wall. Who's speshul? I am! Oh thank god thank god thank dog, I needed that. Theeere's my endorphin fix for the next five minutes.

Of course once you get accustomed to that constant high, to being praised every five minutes, always being told you've achieved achievements, always having someone officially "like" you, always making new random "friends" and always being told that your victories are not small but only large, jumbo and mega-gulp, then the real magic starts. That high becomes the baseline. Anything less than being told you're "liked" begins to feel like a failure. You begin to live for the plastic grin on salespeople's faces. You start posting more and more selfies begging like a beaten puppy for that constant validation. You stop playing any games in which there's a chance you might lose.

Want a look at the new face of humanity? Go into an online game and see players quit as soon as they get a couple of deaths on their record. Watch them surrender five minutes into a game, as soon as the virtual going gets tough. Watch them in college classrooms, sitting meekly, opinionless, blankly staring through both questions and answers until it's over and time to speak freely again - but only for mutual validation!
"Oh emm gee I love that."
"Oh emm gee, me too!"
I love lamp.
Can't go wrong with lamp.

I've heard lots of praise of this new generation being so open, so free, so interconnected, so much less prejudiced. Bullshit. You're interconnected like the PVC pipes in your basement and just like them, you're hollow most of the time, until the shit starts flowing. You're not less prejudiced. You're just too gutless to admit your prejudices. You've imbibed that "diversity and tolerance" pablum they feed you in school for twelve years until you're unable to do anything but nod along with the political correctness. You cycle catchphrases because you've got nothing else, because your teachers never made you learn Shakespeare because it might upset you, and every grade was curved so you only need compare yourselves to each other, because all your life you've been getting points for good behavior. This is what you've grown over the past twenty years, western society: a harvest of emotional cripples for whom the nobility of honesty is only an ironic backdrop to their quality-independent mutual validation, for whom the word "friendship" amounts to the click of a mouse.

So if you're looking for someone to stand up against society's ills, look no further than... grandpa. Because these latest snot-nosed schmucks in backwards baseball caps and muscle shirts sure as hell are not going to take the chance of doing something unpopular.
There is no counterculture these days. No rebels, no young turks, no more self-hating narcissists. Just a homogenous mass of codependent lapdogs.

That's my rant. Enjoy the new year. Second verse, same as the first.
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Friday, December 26, 2014

The First Men in the Moon

So, it's late December, which has made this a great time to do anything but watch television. Or allow oneself to be snared into work-related pretenses of collegiality. Or go shopping. Or go to any garlanded and brat-infested public place. Or you know what, just don't go outside. Hic sunt leones. Or tiny little elves draped in tinsel, just as bad. Stay inside and catch up on some antiquated science fiction instead, I say.

But what to choose? Mary Shelley? Too bleak. Jules Verne? Too adventurous. Arthur C. Clarke? Too cold. Ray Bradbury? Too warm.

H.G. Wells... hmm. You know, there's about a dozen or more books by him which nobody has ever read these days, including myself. Clinical as Clarke and venturesome as Verne with Ray's romanticism and Mary's morbidity. Good old Wells. It's always curious to hear of writers whose careers took a nosedive after their most famous works, who peaked young. Like Mark Twain and others, it's supposedly the case with Wells that he simply became too much of a downer for the public at large as he grew old and bitter, so I launched into his latter stories expecting some entertainment to suit my holiday humbug.

In the case of the dystopian near-future imagining When the Sleeper Wakes it's quite obvious why nobody would touch it with a ten-foot pole in this day and age, "the negro police" being its all-purpose boogeyman. If Europe should be ruled by Europeans, would you have been ready to say the same of Africa? The Boer War must've really gotten to you, Herb old chap.

It's less clear why The First Men in the Moon would fail to catch the public imagination. Though wikipedia references it as inspiration to a host of authors we've all heard about today, though it's been adapted to film three times over since publication, it's a fair bet that nobody you've met has ever read it, or even heard of it. Why how come now? Sure, it's got no Weeny damsels in distress like The Time Machine but it does have greed and conflict and monsters and all that good stuff which usually sells like melange-cakes.

Maybe its because we really do know now that there are no giant ant-men living inside the moon. Then again, if scientific inaccuracy ever bothered anyone, the genre would never have gotten off the ground. If we have no trouble imagining shapeshifting reptiloids living in the earth's core, then the moon being a giant orbiting ant-hill certainly wouldn't stretch our boundless credulity.

Is it because of the relatively sad ending? Granted, Hollywood has taught the public to expect a nauseatingly saccharine wrap-up of any supposedly dangerous adventure, but science fiction in general has maintained a rather more somber outlook. SciFi fans half-expect the captain to go down with the ship. This ending is certainly more rosy than that of, say, The Road.

I think the problem most have with this story overall is its inhumanity. Wells' Selenites, one of the first examples of insectoid aliens, are too... alien. Not only are there no green-skinned women to romance, nobody you can put in a slave-girl outfit, but the Selenites are unaccustomed to the idea of human greed. Yes, theirs is a society in which biology is destiny and there is no changing one's role from birth to death but guess what? It works for them. There are no plucky young alien upstarts for us mighty ape-men to uplift to true civilization. Ooooh, now that's just too much.

Heroic deaths are one thing. We can swallow that, occasionally, some heroic macho-man dying heroically beneath a heroically waving flag (star-spangled or Union Jack, doesn't make much of a difference.) Telling the public that they're not already perfect in every way, that they may not be heroes by definition, that "the land of the comparatively free" (as Ambrose Bierce put it) is not the pinnacle of evolution and social development?
Tough sell.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Big Weregeek Theory

Spoilert: If you haven't read the webcomic Weregeek yet, and you don't want me giving away the... middle, I guess, then head on over and bask in some geek subculture. It's safe, it's cozy, it's got big hairy barbarians. Just like Canada.

Weregeek did something great a while ago, pulled off a bonah-fidey dramatic reveal which it had built up for years. Now, the internet is full of escapist fantasies in which our idealized teenage selves travel to some magical world to become charming princes or warrior princesses. If only we had enough rabbit-holes and looking-glasses to fall through! A few of the more daring authors even make a business of analyzing this headlong eXistenZ-style dive into fantasy. Erfworld began with that sort of questioning, even if it's become quite involved in its own world since then (which transition is itself wonderfully self-referent.) Guilded Age, a more focused and coherent incarnation of Fans before it, is doing a pretty good job of mixing fantastic reality into real fantasy.

Weregeek went a step further. The fantasy was never real. The looking-glass was only ever showing a reflection. That Gaimanesque slip between the cracks, your self-important heroics, your paranoid fantasies of persecution, were all imagined. Reality is still real and if you honestly believed it wasn't, if you were ever truly, all-consumingly immersed, then you would not be able to function.
Maaaan, way to harsh our buzz.

Of course when you've spent the entire comic building up that whiplash-inducing climax, the question of "what next" looms larger than a shadowgeek stuffed with Monty Python quotes. Sure, the comic still has quite a lot of material on which to comment, what with gamers still gaming, but having declared its main gimmick and half its content over and done with, Weregeek seems to be gradually slipping out of its niche and toward the inexorable pull of the lowest common denominator: sex.

Not bow-chicka-bow-wow, of course, but run of the mill relationship comedy. If there is one unifying trait of human psychology it's our obsession with the tiniest details of our simian mating rituals. It's not like we don't have other examples of webcomics which have gotten bogged down in such universality. PvP weathered a constant storm of criticism over it for years and boy howdy, did the geek realm ever implode over Megatokyo's temporary focus on pure moe. I tend to compare Weregeek more with The Big Bang Theory, though. Remember when that show was at least partly about trotting out one-liners like "wood for sheep" and bouncing lasers off the moon? When did it become about spending Thanksgiving at your in-laws' house?

Weregeek is not quite there yet. Still, shadowgeekery left a huge void to fill, and given that the end of that storyline was also the end of trans-reality adventuring, its void is slowly being filled with more and more hugs and kisses, with mundanity. So, what negative signs can we look out for? The beginning of the end of The Big Bang Theory was arguably the "hoo" episode - the arbitrary, utterly forced normalization and depersonalization of the character Amy Farrah Fowler. The erasure of other cast members' original gimmicks has followed in its footsteps, until the show has gotten filled with the same all-purpose "my friend's new girlfriend doesn't like me" tropes which you could get by watching Friends reruns... or any other TV show about twenty-somethings going about the business of fitting themselves into the mold society has prepared for them.

So what's the equivalent of that for Weregeek? Joel's already down for the count... but the characters who really matter are the extreme examples. Who are the Sheldon or Amy of Weregeek?

I guess that'd be Dustin and Abbie. Ooof. One down already.
When Abbie gets her "hoo" episode, it's time to shelve the comic.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Dividing Primes in AoS

One of the first things anyone will notice about AoS games (or as they're now idiotically called MOBAs) is the limited number of players per team. The most popular one, DotA, used five-player teams with three main lanes of combat, and in the spirit of murdering creativity wherever it's found, almost every game since then has copycatted that exact setup. Pixel for goddamn pixel. Demigod broke that pattern as it did many others, to its credit, and other games offer "alternate game modes" but this has amounted to even smaller teams.

Now, DotA was not an independent project. It was a mod. It depended heavily on Warcraft 3's existing mechanics. The Strength/Agi/Intel split, the number of players in a match, the six-item inventory, the size of a game map, all reflected that dependence. Almost every custom map was made for five players on a team. This was not a design choice, but a limitation imposed by WC3's multiplayer mode. Five  plus one AI per team equals six vs. six, the maximum number of participants. There is absolutely no excuse for how every AoS since then has copycatted these limitations, especially the map layout and team size.

Three combat lanes plus room to roam made sense given the five player limitation. Stalemates are among the most reviled downfalls of any multiplayer game. People do not want to be waltzing back and forth taking potshots at the same other player over and over again. It's boring. So is jumping together pell-mell and letting the AoE numbers rack up. The game setup must ensure that players do not distribute themselves evenly across the map in stagnant trench warfare. Dividing five by three or four suits this purpose.

So would many other divisions. The 5/3 setup is only another idiotic self-imposed limitation of developers who despise their customers too much to try giving them anything unfamiliar. It's a symptom. The disease is the mentality of slavishly copycatting DotA in an effort to copy its supposed success. However, DotA's success, like that of any "first" which the public at large encounters, is that of mob mentality, success riding its own coat-tails, being the only game in town (that leet-kiddies in Brazil and Russia know of at any rate.) That, and free. Are you offering a completely free product? If not, if you expect people to actually pay you, you might actually need to offer something more, and you may as well start with the basics. How about more players per team or a more complex map? It would make the game more complicated... and regardless of what you've been told we customers want in some power-pointed board-room pitch, I the customer am here to tell you complexity is good.
Fewer buttons to mash: good. More things to keep track of: also good. Twitch: bad. Awareness: good. Fingers: bad. Brain: good. You see where I'm going with this? Larger games need not devolve into zergfests so long as you keep the central idea of dividing players unevenly across the game board. Yes, by all means keep the notion of lanes and tower pushing. Just divide by larger primes.

It doesn't have to be primes, of course, but hey, if you're looking for something which won't devolve to a lowest-common-denominator, you may as well admit you'll wind up using an indivisible number of players. Seven players in three lanes? Not good, that's just a damage/support split in three lanes, plus one roamer. The same goes for 9/4. Seven divided by four? Much better. How about eleven players per team? Not quite FPS size, still small enough to allow for personal influence to skew the odds but large enough to complicate matters. It would allow for the development of more interesting RPG hybrid classes to outgrow the tired old nuker/tank/healer holy trinity.

So. Eleven. 11/4 might actually work: 3+3+3+2 or 3+3+2+2+1. I envision roaming supports. I'm more fond of the vision of an 11/5 or 9/5 map, which would still slightly increase player density to rise above the 1.6 ratio which prompts too many 1v1 fights. Five lanes would also create ample enough interstices to allow for more than one roamer or "jungler" and with players being spread more thinly it might result in more empty lanes, which would encourage more strategic options in the way of manipulating AI soldier waves. 11/6 might be a bit of a stretch, though. Too much 1v1 dick-measuring, not enough teamwork.

And of course there are more ways to split players than simply horizontally. So far AoS games have limited themselves to flat maps in order to imitate their RTS roots but nothing's saying lanes full of AI soldiers couldn't be featured in other game mechanics. See the Half-Life 2 mod Iron Grip: The Oppression. Tunnels, overpasses, waterways, etc. become much more relevant with FPS mechanics. Barring that, even in Warcraft 3, better AoS maps like Eve of the Apocalypse weren't afraid to experiment with flying units and even a flying hero.

Seriously, though, allow yourselves to think a bit bigger than ohemmgee 1v1 me mid!!!1
There's no reason why AoS games should be marketed only to 1v1 epeen-measuring brainless twitch-gamers.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Defense Grid 2: Why So Serious?

*edited 03/12/2015*

I now regret not having tossed my opinion of the original Defense Grid out there at some point, because my criticism of the sequel's going to seem like it applies to both titles. DG2 is what happens when developers get too high an opinion of themselves. I'm not referring here only to the relatively benign nuisance factor of an interposing interface but to the overall feel of the game.

First off, what's a Tower Defense game? When games like Dune 2, Command and Conquer and Warcraft established the Real-Time Strategy genre, their success was largely due to their more exciting, fast-paced gameplay compared to turn-based games. Unfortunately, that faster pace also tends to remove the "strategy" from the genre, especially when discussing kiddie-friendly Star/War-crafts. RTS games tend to devolve to mindless clickfests, cycling through units to give the same command a dozen times in ten seconds. Players even measure e-peens based on the most idiotic metric: "what's your APM?" (Actions Per Minute)

What do you do though if you like a fluid, real-time system but you don't feel like twitching onto your keyboard like some meth-addicted ADD brat? Some games have you only build unit spawners and place waypoints, but given the AI in most computer games is adept only in tripping and falling to its death, this can easily end up more frustrating than enjoyable. One solution is to limit the player to only one controllable unit (AoS games) - the other is Tower Defense. All the nailbiting pressure of normal RTS with 95% less spam by volume. Enemies charge in, you build turrets to destroy them before they reach their goal.

It's a simple concept, and that encompasses both the good and bad. Tower Defense has not quite yet acquired enough staple elements to qualify as a full-blown genre in its own right. In Warcraft 3, TD maps were a diversion from more stressful game types but never acquired the following of AoS maps. There was no equivalent of DotA or EotA for TD maps. TD is a sideshow.

The first campaign of Defense Grid acknowledged its sideshow nature. The aliens keep running through your maze without trying to destroy the things killing them. It's a ridiculous set-up. It's funny. When the basic concept is so comically incoherent, the last thing you want to do is try to pass it off as some convoluted Tragoedia in five acts. So to give the game some ambiance they hired one voice actor to elbow you in the ribs as he makes cheap puns and snide remarks while you go about the business of planting and upgrading towers. It was good, clean fun.
Zeke! Oh Zeke! Zeeeeeeke!

Unfortunately something terrible happened after that. Defense Grid got some good press. Microsoft endorsed it. Valve, which has every interest in cutting into Blizzard's derivative products from the Warcraft series, lent GLaDOS for a DLC pack. Word of mouth got around. Suddenly the development team started imagining they were making a major title instead of a Trine-esque play on a low-interest, derivative gimmick. DG2 takes itself very, very seriously. You find yourself listening to a radio drama involving a dozen disembodied voices and their little cliquish nettling which somehow affects the fate of the universe... yet it still has just as little to do with what you're actually performing on screen as DG1's rambling about raspberries. Across the board, DG2 wants to be seen as a much more "polished" product. The menus are glitzier, the expansive backgrounds are murder on slower video cards and the molten metal melts so much moltier. There is even multiplayer... of sorts.

Not quite so much thought seems to have been put into actual gameplay. Though a couple of necessary changes were made (for instance air and anti-air, which was never well integrated into the flow of the game, was removed) others simply made no sense (for instance the anti-air tower was kept and repurposed as a completely superfluous space-filler.) The multiplayer option is primitive and ignores the basic demand for higher program performance in competitive play. Instead of being more technologically streamlined, the multiplayer mode makes much higher demands on video cards, even in a simple 1v1. All the myriad variations on the multiplayer TD setup (co-op or vs.) which cluttered the Warcraft 3 custom game list are ignored. *Correction, I was wrong about this, some of these were implemented and were simply ignored by players.*

As a continuation of the original, DG2 is neither here nor there. Yes, it's nice to have a buff option for towers, yes the new self-healing alien type is interesting, making minor alterations to terrain has high potential for custom maps, but all this is very nearly outweighed by the nuisance value of the self-conscious high school drama club voiceovers and the game's poor performance. Let's try to pretend nothing happened. Just wait for some DLC map packs to come out and imagine you didn't just pay good money for a side-grade.

What this thing is decidedly NOT is a true sequel. There were endless worthwhile ideas in the old War3 custom map roster which might have been included - if the devs' time and funding had not gone into staging a radio drama adaptation of Alien: Resurrection. Trust me, this game genre will never be one of the big players. You are a fringe element. A TD needs compelling characters like an adventure game needs hitboxes or a computer a pair of dice.
You don't need to legitimize yourselves by giving it backstory.
I'm not buying the game so I can sit through a sales pitch for the novelization.
Just give me more ways to laser and detonate baddies and slap on some cheap "shell-shocked" jokes. Boom!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The World's End

"I'm a king without a crown hanging loose in the big town
But I'm the king of bongo, baby, I'm the king of bongo bong"
Manu Chao - Bongo Bong

So. What started with a pop-gun shot in the dark at horror comedy with Shaun of the Dead a decade ago has turned into a trilogy of hilarious parodies of genre films. No that's not right. Parodies *plus* would be the better term. It's most often said that comedy is a matter of timing, but while The World's End and its predecessors certainly show a mastery of the pause-to-punch ratio, what truly makes them stand out is the willingness to go the extra (golden) mile. It's in that extra bounce when a character falls to the ground, the extra splinter of wood flying when something breaks, the extra pre-verbal vocalization when a character is hemming and hawing during an embarrassing scene, the extra subtext in the name of a pub.

Crucially, it's in that extra bit of "what now" which comes after the punchline. More than Hot Fuzz or even Shaun of the Dead, The World's End drives home (in a big way) the uncomfortable realization that not everything is set to rights when a movie fades to black. Past the smoke and mirrors, after the high-kicking, in-your-face heroics, at the end of the golden mile, you're left to deal with leaden reality.

Then once again, it overturns its own moralizing. If much of the point of the movie is about the "dangers" of perpetual adolescence as quoted on wikipedia, it also does a thorough job of reminding the audience of the value of that youthful vitality. Reality is not what you make of it, but in the face of a sinisterly leaden world, only the philosopher's stone of stubborn adolescent rebellion will yield any gold whatsoever.

And it's funny. It's funny to see a washed-up self-styled king belly-flopping his way into greatness. The futility of respectability, the respectability of quixotic futility, it's all hilarious. We are ludicrous creatures, whether we bother to couch our antics in social acceptability or not. We're monkeys, and this world is our barrel. Ours, do ya hear? So grab your bestest zombie bud, damn the torpedoes and head on down to the inn to quest for adventure.

It sure as hell beats winning village of the year.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

This Mess Is an Imaginary Place

So long as Blogger breathes, or shots can screen
So long lives this to show where home has been
(sorry, Billy... but you must admit this is still better than NoFear-ing you)

Escapism is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, we're avoiding the world which for whatever reason has become simply too painful and/or boring to warrant habitation, but most of us also have some pretty good ideas for worlds we'd prefer to this one. We escape to almost as much as from. Of course noone else can ever get our own style quite right so the most memorable alternate worlds tend to be the ones which allow us some leeway in determining our surroundings. This includes indulging our nesting instinct. Little can compare, especially in a persistent multiplayer world, to walking into a little patch of that world which you've designed and decorated. Products like The Sims and Second Life have made quite a show of catering to our interior interior decorator, but they're usually either too painfully mundane or lack any sort of focus and personality. The point is to incorporate this need for den design into coherent game environments.

LotRO is by no means a real MMO. Its player housing like everything else is instanced and it contains no utility aside from a little extra inventory space. It's only marginally customizable in terms of item placement. You have a few fixed spots in which you can fit one fixed type of decoration. Two details have made it palatable for me though. First, you can set theme music for your house, from various in-game tracks. Of course that would mean more if you ever had any reason to visit your house for more than ten seconds at a time. See above-mentioned lack of functionality. Second, taxidermy! This was the first game I've played which allowed me to decorate in dead animal, complete with mammoth tusks as gateposts. Black-walled, underground rat-holes reeking of decomposition make the best hideouts, don't you think?

Also, yes, I am a Noldorin elf living in a Naugrim house - downright ecumenical of me!
However, mere sawdust-filled skins are not enough to satisfy my lycanthropic appetites. In Oblivion, since I couldn't get myself a cave or pit for my den, I made do with a bit of luxury. That's my house over there.
No, not the freshly-painted three-story mansions on the sides. No, I didn't live in the temple in the background, Hircine forfend! No, my palace is the one right dead center. As though living in a broken-down one-room shack in the bayou wasn't Vampire-Interviewey enough, my Altmer vampire self wound up decorating the place in a style inspired if anything, by Pisha's lair in VtM:Bloodlines.
Like many Elder Scrolls fans, I quickly grew addicted to collecting the game's various items, useful or not. I showed my disdain for economics by tossing gems among the refuse on my floor.

I showed my love of the written word by collecting quill pens and inkwells in addition to books.

I even hoarded farm implements, just to make sure the villagers would be short on pitchforks and torches when they stormed my door.
Mostly though, I indulged my lupine scavenger's tastes by dragging scores of bones and rotting limbs out of necromancers' lairs. After all, I could put them to so much better use. Won't you come in for supper?
Unfortunately, letting players keep hundreds of individual items scattered on the floor would be too much of a drag on a multiplayer game's resources, so this feature has been understandably absent from even the best MMOs. Ooooh, boy, did I just qualify City of Heroes as one of the "best" MMOs? What the hell am I smoking, right? But though CoH was an aimless, over-simplified, un anti-challenging grindfest, its visual artists did some amazing work both with the amazingly customizable character models and with the superhero base feature. (Its programmers, on the other hand, made the superhero base design a torturous, utterly irrational minefield of having to undo every room a dozen times when you'd find something doesn't function for random reasons #476-493.)

As a Superhero, I designed the most rational base I could for my three-man supergroup, separating all our loot into color-coded rooms with an industrial / laboratory decor conducive to crafting.
City of Heroes' visuals excelled in both level of detail and fluidity, allowing you to overlap and mix many elements and place them wherever you wanted on the floor with a Sims-level degree of freedom. For instance, after I was done with the utilitarian rooms of our base, I had some space left over, so I decided our base was going to be a technocratic outpost with one wall breaking into an archaeological excavation.
Of Course, no faux-sciencey lair would be complete without a Van de Graaff generator or some Jacob's ladders.
All praise and glory to the dark gods... of Science!
And if my group-oriented project hinted at my predilection for dank pits with the archaeology angle, over on the villain side of the game I had already given up on finding a worthwhile group of players so I ended up as a one-man band creating a villain lair for all my alts. Hail and grace unto CoH's artistic directors, designers and rank-and-file pixel-monkeys for making one of the general decor categories a sewer. Nothing pleased me more than fashioning a dirt-pit in a grime-encrusted tunnel to serve as my lair, and though the finished product was unfortunately lost when the NCSoft abandoned the game and shut it down, I still have a few pictures from early stages of construction.
I think uncle Fester had one of these
Hey, I may be a comic-book inhuman monster... but I do read, you know
No MMOs that I know of since, or indeed few or no games whatsoever except the likes of Spore, have put so much emphasis on player creativity. Despite all its heinous faults, City of Heroes will always have a place in my heart for that.
However, even CoH failed in integrating design with utility... largely because there was no utility to be had. And if CoH stayed afloat for eight years, the next game I'll be talking about vaporized in beta. Dawntide was to be the MMO dream come true, a persistent world filled with player interaction of every type, from open PvP and looting to interdependent crafting skills and a system of transporting goods requiring some involvement therefore encouraging a true player economy, to large cooperative projects like buildings. These would be more than cosmetic. Farms would produce food, a forge you built was actually the place where you hammered your steel, your house could be attacked and looted, etc. It was also made very promising by its relatively sedate, well-proportioned character models and world design.

Alas and alack for the world that never was, the archipelago where you and your guild could stake out a plot of land or even a little island of your own. The following pictures are of a little village my guild or five or so players built ourselves before the game shut down. Among other high points, those boats were fully functional and could carry cargo.
Two cottages and our keep during construction.
Wave to the nice guildies on the shore, sea-wolf
Our community had grown by this point. We each had our own house. The enclosure on the left was part of some sort of farm.
Despite LotRO's artistic charm, Oblivion's indulgence of excess or CoH's flexibility, it's Dawntide's failed promise I regret most. Variation can grow over time. Art and immersion can be improved. However, nothing makes up for a lack of player agency in games. My kingdom for a rideable horse, an openable door, a lock-picked treasure chest. What makes an imaginary house a home is not just prefabricated decor but remembering every brick you baked to add to the construction site, every herb you ground in a mortar to make the paint. It's walking out the door of your little cottage and seeing your neighbour's ducks and sheep wandering about in their enclosure.

Give me Dawntide, and we can add CoH, Elder Scrolls or Middle-Earth to it; chacun a son gout. However, before anything else, we need that reality of virtuality, that tangible place which your character molds. Give me persistence, options and impact and somehow, in some fashion, I will find a way to dig myself a rot-littered dank pit for my den. Function first, then form.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

No Smear Shakespeare!

Forsooth, I find it utterly disconcerting that the top hit (usually the top two or three hits) when looking up a Shakespearean quotation online is always No Fear Shakespeare. Yes, this is obviously exactly what the anglophone public, especially the notoriously ugly ones, need right now as the American empire is giving way to the Chinese one. Shelter yourselves even from your own past, wrap yourselves in the safety blanket of contemporary slang. It's not as though an ability to place yourself in another place and time speaks at all of one's mental development. As though it weren't bad enough when an entire generation grew up thinking Romeo and Juliet is like, OMyGaw, totally a rip-off of West Side Story!

Your grandchildren will have to learn Mandarin. The least you can do is figure out for yourselves what the late middle English version of "fo' reals" might be.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

One Day, One Room

"And so, as kinsmen met a night
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips
And covered up our names"

Emily Dickinson

Note: This post is about story endings. Dragon Age, Arrietty, 10 Items or Less and an episode of House, M.D. Consider yourself spoiled...

The fictional concept of the life-changing chance encounter intrigues me. In this case I don't mean encounters which then balloon into a full-blown social contract of some sort. I mean those plots in which two people meet, have a conversation or three, then walk away having contributed only (or at least mainly) to each others' personal growth. In some of the best cases it's not even obvious whether anything has changed, given the personality type prone to such shifting depth of character. After all, for most humans, this setup of two people, usually male / female, finding someone with whom their very being resonates, is understood as a sign to form a lasting, binding association. It's usually just a pretext for a proposal scene.

Yet some will not be bound.

It was entirely fitting, for instance, for Morrigan from Dragon Age to abandon the player in the end credits. Morrigan the witch of the wilds, the shifter, the Proteus which cannot be held tightly enough to pin down, transcends the petty rom-com "melt the ice queen" trope and by the end, whatever might bind her to the player it's nothing compared to freedom itself, to the wonders such a personality always sees beyond the horizon. You have learned from each other. Now learn apart from each other.

It is fitting sometimes for fairytale protagonists to live happily ever after... apart. Studio Ghibli had given us some ambivalent partings in the past, but Arrietty broke out of the "ever after" routine so elegantly, so naturally that it forces one to realize how forced a truly Hollywoodized ending would have been. Had this been a standard Disney flick, the hero would have found a way to shrink himself down to borrower size and quo his status to the cute girl under the floorboards. In fact, Wikipedia informs me that Disney tacked on an extra monologue to their American release of the movie, reassuring their emotionally fragile audience that everything turned out alright. Sick. Pathetic. Idiotic. I've never read the books but as far as the movie went, within the context of that wistful discovery of a clandestine world in the interstices of the human one, within the atmosphere of half-glimpsed magic, there seems to be no room for the assumption that two teenagers can change the world. Arrietty and Sho are strong persons, and that strength includes the ability to incorporate the knowledge of each other without breaking their own personalities. That they walk away from each other of their own accord, even with tears in their eyes, is a greater lesson to any young mind than the idiotic Disneyed assumption that the universe must adjust itself to fit their wish-fulfilment. This was the story of their encounter. The rest of their lives remains external to that story.

"This is our pact: we live, we work, we're just getting started... we'll never see each other again."
Thus ends 10 Items or Less. When the world seems to have lost all you would keep, when you've already worn out whatever you thought you had at your core and you've already begun to deconstruct your life, what are the odds of running into someone who inspires you to keep moving? If you did, would you have the strength to walk away? The two characters empower each other, but there is no room in each other's lives for the other's world. Most would disagree and would have them alter their place in society to suit each other. The protagonists are not most people. For strong individuals like Freeman and Vega's characters, each too-powerful influence in one's life is a threat to that life itself, to the fragile individuality which is existence.

Few pop-culture figures have exemplified this like Doctor House. In his role as a modern Sherlock Holmes, in his self-destructively obsessive pursuit of truth, his antisocial skepticism, innate distrust and his outright egocentrism, House was the prototypical angry nerd for a generation.Yet individuality does not preclude the existence of other individuals, and the show's writers took care to provide House with many encounters with other interesting one-shot characters to play off of. To me, the most emblematic drove the episode One Day, One Room. Much of the credit goes to the actress' intensity in portraying a philosophically antithetical kindred spirit, an equal and not simply a foil for House as most patients and underlings were. This episode, unlike most others, gave us a battle of will and intellect, an existential debate snuck into television's lowest-common-denominator torrent of pablum.

They're a perfect match, but they're not the type to match. Life goes on, and life is individual, independent. Integrity is life. House ceased to be House when he stopped being the type to close the door on a day like that one, and that's when I stopped watching the show: when they began to humanize him. Inhuman, statuesque coldness has created some of the most interesting characters we'll ever read, watch or play. They represent an inhuman ideal, higher and more grandiose than anything to which social apes aspire, and we should celebrate them while they're still being written, because every House eventually gets locked away in a mental institution to get normalized, Ghiblis always get bought out by Disneys and Morrigan will never draw as many fans as Lara Croft. The world is still sliding downwards and these are just little pebbles caught in the mudslide of pop culture.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Welcome to the NHK

"Stroke of luck or a gift from God?
Hand of fate or devil's claws?
From below or saints above
You come to me now"

Garbage - A Stroke of Luck

I have seen this series then bought the original book several years ago. I have never wanted to talk about it. I did not even really want to watch it. I just had to.

For many shut-ins around the world, Welcome to the N.H.K. has probably been one of the hardest things to watch - and the most important. The novella was good, setting the harsh merciless tone of an insider spilling the beans about a closed system. The series however, expanded with more and more dirty secrets of would-be information-age Boo Radleys, hit so many weak points in the conceit of the maladjusted that it grew into something fascinatingly painful. It is a niche product. Most will find it only a parade of seemingly disconnected grotesqueries and ludicrous behavior. However, it's much more for those of us who live through our reflections in the darkened windows of our safe apartments, for those of us who flinch at the sound of laughter and for whom escapism has ceased to be an -ism and simply become the only option.

It's brutal stuff. Given that many of its target audience especially around the turn of the millennium believed themselves to have discovered or invented online games or pornography or living off takeout until your parents' money runs out, I'm willing to bet the sheer shock of seeing their secrets aired made many of the series' viewers cringe... episode after shamingly understanding episode. In many ways it would have been much better if the show had been only another cavalcade of mockery directed at nerds living in their mothers' basements. We have made a cilice of The Second Kind of Loneliness and welcome each new stab of condemnation as confirmation that the universe is pushing us into the first kind. But understanding... compassion... worst of all, hope? No.

I wanted to stop watching the series several times during each episode. As it carried on I consoled myself that it would devolve into some predictable cliche and finally I might discount it, dismiss it, detach myself from any uncomfortable traces of empathy. Ah, the coup de grace. That the series would take even the grand gesture from me, that the deus ex machina comes not from the world of freaks and losers, of cat ladies and dog men but from the hated mundane world, that not literature or visual arts or science trivia or dreamy roleplaying but crass chicken-wire occupies the climax - this was a stroke of genius.

And it doesn't end. It never ends. No-one knows this better than those counting the midnight hours listening to footsteps outside their doors. People like us don't get grand gestures and we don't get happily ever afters. Here is the cruelest insult to insult the story throws at you: not a sappy delusion that finding a kindred spirit will fix a sick world, but the image of the gradual, trudging grind of something which might be called personal progress.

Derision, I was used to. Delusion, I waded through. Plausible hope, though, that was a low blow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Black No. 1

This is one of those intriguing works of art which recursively work their way from parody to an excellent embodiment of their target subject matter. Yes it ridicules the superficiality of 90s goth subculture but at the same time there's something undeniably "goth" about the macabre image of an over-the-hill Morticia Adams hollowing herself out to feed her own facade. The act described is itself emblematic, an avowal in the self of the hollowness of existence.

"'Just paint your face' the shadows smile
Slipping me away from you"

- is indeed like loving the dead.

Smells to me like more teen spirit. We all know the dope hat is wearing you, but when those big top tricks are all we have, they make us as happy as we're gonna be.
Love the dead.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Calling All Cats - Battery In Progress, Go Arrest the Man

"Every time I go to try to leave
Some kid's pulling on my sleeve
I don't wanna but I gotta stay
'Cause drugs really got a hold on me"

Eminem - Drug Ballad

Is there any more socially acceptable addiction than entitlement?

By now, everyone's seen the video of an actress walking around the streets of New York and getting catcalls every 6 minutes. You have to have seen it. It's a rule. If you didn't see the original, then no problem, there are now seemingly dozens of copies of it complete with commentary on how each and every one of those catcalls is like a rape against all of womankind and men should be ashamed of themselves, etceteree, etcetera. And unfortunately the only ones actually arguing against it in the mainstream seem to be the idiots on Fox News defending the right of men to act like mindless pussy-seeking bloodhounds. No offense to bloodhound owners. (Your dogs are ugly though.)

The problem is not the video in itself. We need this sort of thing. Hell, I was surprised... Manhattan, really? New York, constantly billing itself as the most modern, cosmopolitan city on the planet, can't get past this tired old routine? Too bad it's framed in the simplistic dualism of men as aggressors and women as victims, or it could have simply been one more useful tidbit of social awareness.

Harassment is a funny word. I'm a man. I've been "harassed" on the street. I've had homeless people follow me around asking for money, entertainers try to use me as involuntary audience interaction, activists trying to get me to sign petitions, shoppers with their arms full asking me to open doors for them. A couple of weeks ago I stepped off the bus and had a pocket bible shoved in my face. That certainly matches the extent of interaction the actress in the video suffered at the hands voices of those bestial males. So let's acknowledge right off the bat that the primary problem here is not male aggression or even as I'm framing it, female entitlement, but puritanism or some vaporous Victorian consternation that you would even allude to a woman's white-meat in her presence. The subject of ding-dongs and hoo-hoos is still taboo - has to be if sexual frustration is to continue as the magnificent tool of social and interpersonal control it's always been. However, the clip's more a condemnation of active sexuality over passive use of sex-appeal and that is directly anti-male given the prevailing human attitude toward mating rituals. Women sure as hell are not stepping up to assume the risk of rejection for themselves.

By the way, yes there is still use of passive enticement in the video, and you need only compare the appearances and accoutrements of the actress with other women passing on the street to spot its various elements. Subtle manipulation is not an absence of manipulation. She doesn't need to be in a bikini to be advertising her reproductive fitness or projecting false interest, any more than some stately office manager casually stepping out of his new Lexus or Mercedes should be given a pass on implicitly flouting his social rank and reproductive fitness. Despite that, I have to say the reaction of the men in the video is startling, but instead of going for the gratuitous "men are such pigs" routine, can we acknowledge just how damn... pathetic.. some of these guys are? The video makes a big deal of the guy who follows her, follows her, do you hear, minute after minute waiting for her to speak to him. Instead of just framing that as menacing, is no-one going to point out how degrading to him as a person it is to follow her around like a puppy-dog begging for some scrap of attention? Men are raised to accept this as their purpose, that their role in life is to constantly demean themselves by begging for sex, and the only problem anyone can spot in this is that it might inconvenience a woman when the sexuality she uses to control a few particular men also catches some random flak along the way?

There's a power disparity there, and it's not just societally enforced but built into our evolved drives. Women have to acknowledge this: the power handed by nature to them to control male behavior is an unfair advantage which must be counted alongside larger male muscle mass and not simply brushed off as their legitimate due as a 51% minority.

The video is popular. In fact, that's how I heard of it, as a viral video having drawn a hundred thousand views in its first few days. We are all quite eager to see yet another cliched slam against men behaving badly. Now imagine the men in the video weren't just talking. Imagine one of them grabbed her by the throat and slammed her up against a wall and started slapping her around... and while most passers-by simply ignored it, some, male or female, laughed or cheered him on. Because she probably did something to deserve it. Now that would make things more interesting, wouldn't it?

It turns out videos like that are not quite as popular, not if they involve women beating men, at least. While the catcall video broke 150k youtube hits in under a week (and that's not counting all of the hits on gratuitous reposts trying to leech some popularity) this one has 23k hits in five months. Maybe they just filmed in too trivial or backwoods a venue for their observations to be relev- ah, fuck, it's London. Maybe it's the British accent that's putting everyone off. How about 2 mil hits in six years for a nearly identical video by a major American broadcast network? Wanna watch that and note what the people who mocked a man being beaten by his girlfriend have to say? "He probably deserved it." We know, we all absolutely know that men are evil, primitive, brutish, filthy pigs who deserve whatever's coming to them. We know that because, well, did you see that video with the catcalls? Didja? Huh? You gotta see it. It's all the rage. All the rage.

A woman getting annoyed by men begging for her attention - outrage.
Men getting publicly mocked for being beaten - meh, who gives a crap.

To at least some women's credit, the people who stepped in to stop the woman in that ABC video were a committee of women. Of course it wasn't an outraged in-your-face "you're acting like a crazy person" burst of emotion, but a calm, collected, chuckling and polite aside and subsequent call to the authorities. I guess it's something at least. Their verbal interpretation of the event though is as revealing as anything of the bias into which we're all born. Everyone wants to call the cops on "you guys." Hello, police? There are "two people fighting on a bench" oh and by the way yeah she's beating him up. Yes, a woman standing before a seated man wailing on him and screaming insults as he cringes, and the first impulse? He must be at least as guilty as her.

We already know that. If you're male then you're born the wrong sex. You're stupid and disgusting and cruel and do nothing but abuse women all your life. It's all you think about and don't tell us it's not; we know better. Did you not see that latest viral video? This eagerness to clutch to women's unassailable moral high ground over us filthy pigs continues despite some of the most blatant evidence to the contrary. This time I'm about to cite a video which really has been getting excellent attention: same setup as the others, hidden camera, actors playing out a cross-gender skit of interpersonal violence, 7.5 million views in 11 months. Then again, this last one has a man beating a woman.
Sixteen people file past without intervening, male and female. The four who try to help her in some way (even the fourth who is clearly afraid for his own safety but still feels obligated to do so) are male. What's more, they don't do so by letting the abuse continue until they can pass the buck to the cops. Watch the actor frantically pointing out the camera to the two men who are about to beat him up for raising his hands against a woman.

And this, of course, is taken by feminists only as further proof of men's vile, primitive moral incompetence. We are after all not only metaphorically raping every woman we approach with our dirty lecherous intentions but also metaphorically raping women when we presume to intervene to help them. And of course if you do nothing you're colluding and a metaphorical rapist by association.
This is of course in addition to all the literal raping and battering of women we've all been assuredly doing because, well, we're men. And if we weren't assumed to be doing that, if such fodder weren't provided, then how would women feed their high-horse?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Bendy Mama Moth-er

I'm not a big fan of horror movies. Oh, I don't hate them as an idea. I'm OK with the violence and the gore and a good directing  / editing job can really turn up the tension when you know to expect violence. Still, most horror flicks are so insultingly simplistic in their use of instinctive triggers (kids in danger, damsels in distress, pornographic set-ups, villains gradually pacing toward their hiding victims, etc.) that it always seems I'm expected to do the work of working myself up into fear and bloodlust. For hinging so much on prodding the audience into reacting, they have remarkably little to prod with.

Mama isn't much of a horror movie. Sure, it's scary and at times somewhat violent, but it lacks that half-assed softcore porn sleaze and cheap reliance on sudden noises and scatological accompaniment we've come to expect from "edgy" horror. So hobbled, it makes do as it can with a touching ghost story in the style of old fairy tales, visual flair and meaningful, decently acted characters. I know, I know, such a letdown.

It should be noted that Guillermo del Toro's name is on the box simply for marketing purposes, but for once I'm not sorry I fell for the "from the producers of" scam. The Muschiettis adopt a similar style to his at any rate. Mama's scares are of the moody, nostalgic variety: the musty, fungoid, detritic remnants of past lives. Much as in Bradbury's October Country stories, instinctive human interpersonal demands and expectations form its backbone. While staying true to ghost story form, scene after scene sneaks in much more illustration than one might expect of our mammalian devotion and possessiveness.

However, to me as a connoisseur of geek counterculture, two random elements dominated my viewing of Mama. One is the recurring moth gimmick which reminded me very strongly of Tim Burton's association of moths or night butterflies with decay, moonlight and subtle grace in Corpse Bride. The second is Mama herself with her subaquatic "bendy ghost" look which seems entirely too similar to The Secret World's ghosts.

Forget who copied whom. More likely than not, some of the visual artists involved simply attended some of the same seminars a decade or two ago. What I'm wondering is whether these will become trends now. Will we be seeing more bendy night-time haunts associated with fragile, wistful night butterflies? Will these become the next tiresome trends replacing flaming zombies and chainsaw murders?

Two decades from now, am I going to be raving about the welcome freshness of, say, a half-naked damsel in distress tripping while running from a vomiting zombie? It happened with The Matrix and all that aerial kung-fu. We were so damn glad to see action heroes keeping their feet on the ground after a few years of that...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sim Schmuck

"Remember what the dormouse said;
Feed your head!"
Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit

I've been trying to enjoy Space Colony. Having given up on SimCity over a decade ago when Maxis started spinning its wheels and trying to milk The Sims for all they could, trying to monopolize the female gamer market by making them play house, I've been wondering when some other company's going to step in and fill those shoes. None seem willing to do so - or at least none able seem willing and none willing seem able.

The Sims always carried a certain degree of base, sadistic, sociopathic creepiness: controlling individuals' actions, emotions and level of thought, puppeting them about a cage, staging their every up and down, insinuating one's totalitarian control into every and all minutia of their mundanity, and all of it sold as beneficent in that you were maneuvering those puppets toward greater social acceptance in the form of good grades, a higher-paying job, that big plasma-screen TV and other status symbols. Yet aside from its smirking erasure of personality and individuality, the game snuck another greatly detrimental feature through disguised as a mere limitation, this time affecting the game industry specifically.
The Sims was petty - not just descriptively small or mundane, but teleologically petty, "mesquin", denying vision and scope, diminuating and stultifying by design. How far Maxis had already fallen since their glory days...

Sim City 2000 was one of the first three games I bought once my family had its own PC. Admittedly I chose it partly to convince my mother that I wasn't turning into a bloodthirsty little psychopath interested only in blood'n'guts war games, but I quickly grew to love the city-building in itself. If I'd been paying enough attention I might've caught this little Easter-egg tucked away in my sims' town library - but then of course, I hadn't yet heard of Neil Gaiman. How weird, isn't it, that game designers might... "ruminate" on the nature and fate of cities, that such poetic ramblings might play a part in some active decision process about the product they're making? Stranger still that they might have consulted James Lovelock years before that for SimEarth? That was then and this is now. Then game designers designed strategy and immersion, challenges and interactive stories, and even simulations. They dreamed of the matrix. Now they manufacture games.

Space Colony is a pretty old game in itself. It looks to have been quickly slapped together to leech some scifi fans off The Sims back in 2003. Of course they'd never admit to being nothing more than "sims in space" so a few extraneous elements were tacked on. You can buy space soldiers to shoot space bugs, or build space hotels for space tourists. Much of this however happens quite outside your control - which was a growing problem with simulations.
While Maxis itself was making Spore for instance, they gleefully released a sample of their wildlife interaction simulation as part of your pre-order package... and that's the last you saw of it. Spore itself was not a simulation, at least not from the player's perspective. Oh sure, there were a lot of fancy numbers governing the footsteps of the animals around you, but it was all programmer masturbation, and you weren't invited even to watch. Your environment was determined completely invisibly before you ever stepped into it, to save you the trouble of thinking. You didn't get to simulate jack! Behind the interface, Spore was one of the most impressively detailed and extensive games around. From the player's seat it was, well... a family of Sims to micromanage.

Sim City 2000 was not just about building roads and schools and being well-liked as a mayor. It was about making a map that was all mountain peaks or river gorges, or tornadoes ripping your infrastructure apart and you fiddling while your city went up in flames, and if you felt like it you could make it about launching several million people into space in jet-propelled Launch Arcologies. It was grand. It was about that Gaimanesque Neverwhere vision of a city as a shifting, personified, schizophrenic superorganism, and that, I can't find again. Cynical copycats like Cities XL don't just lack that old-time Maxis humor. They lack its progressive attitude. Being rich and popular is the only point to your existence, and you become such by screwing the poor over and catering to your city's "elites" by providing them with luxuries while letting your overcrowded slums choke on smog and sewage, all the while building "landmarks" like branches of Kodak and Carrefour.
This is in itself no different from Space Colony's "sims in space" routine. You spend your time making sure you(r sims) are well-liked by each other. Each has material preferences neatly taken care of by preset material goods, but what you're really supposed to be chasing is that heart icon next to their names which tells you just how well each is getting along with the others. That's all there is to it. They have no goals. You're treated to no poetic daydreams on the nature of civilization. There's no driving force. And sure, Space Colony attempted to poke fun at itself, tried to pass everything off as caricature, but at a certain point farce tends to dip from humorous into grotesque. Laughter is among other things a defense mechanism, a mask, and what's masked here is yet another game that should never have been made, a clutter of half-implemented features which run pretty much without player input, propping up a sickly carbon-copy of something that sells.
Not an idea, not a creative process, just... stuff. Stuff we saw other guys have that we might sell too. So we can be popular too. Welcome to the industry. Welcome to Generation Facebook.

You could get more interesting characters and events in SimAnt.

What grates especially in this case is computer games' close relationship with science fiction. This was supposed to be the virtual world, damnit. We are in the future we dreamt once, and we should admit that we would've despised ourselves for this. Science fiction is the dreamers' genre. Want to make a "sims in space" game? Fine, wonderful. Give me the crew of an exploration vessel. Give me a crew of idealistic, discordant psychopaths. If we've lost the sweeping grandeur of the old simulation games then let's at least not get bogged down in such disgustingly normalizing tripe about capitalist backbiting, getting one's paycheck and mutual validation and maintaining the status quo. If, post-Sims, simulations have become a slice of life, at least make it a slice of the life of interesting people.

Virtuality is our wonder-drug, our escape, but it need not simply render us comatose. Dream big. Move!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Listing Along

I wish I had some screenshots of various vendors from City of Heroes. Though I'd complained before about unsortable, cluttered lists in World of Warcraft and various single-player games as well, CoH was the first time I truly realized just how ridiculous it is for game designers to ignore such a basic requirement. While pumping endless work-hours into glitzing up game interfaces they ignore basic functionality. Is this an attempt to justify the graphic design work which went into those character selection screens and NPC vendor windows by making us spend as much time as possible trudging through them? Is this a brilliant new form of timesink which is supposed to mask a lack of content?

Let's take Defense Grid 2, for instance, a small tower-defense game which Valve is promoting in order to cut into Blizzard's potential derivative products. It's not a bad game overall, but it blatantly ignores a very basic design principle: no menu should ever be more than two layers deep.

That doesn't look too bad at first, but you can't actually click on any of those buttons directly. You have to go through the whole touchpad screen selection routine, flicking from one of those categories of buttons to another, bringing up one category at a time. Of course once you select something, the submenus follow the same routine. The setting menu alone has six submenus you have to click through from side to side, one at a time, without being able to see more than three. How in the world did some airhead of a graphic designer even sell this notion? How do you justify a separate window for two buttons, especially when you've got an all-purpose submenu right next to it labelled "more"? Well, of course, that's the Steam rip-off window. It's just THAT important.
Here's a thought experiment. I'm your customer, alright? Right. I paid you for a tower defense game. When I activate your product, do you think I want to play a tower defense game or your brand-new exciting, revolutionary adventure in menu-surfing?

Let us not assume by any means that such amateurish bungling afflicts only small niche-market developers. Some of the most stunning lapses in interface design come from the richest companies around. By the time it launched CoH NCsoft had already gotten obscenely wealthy off the Lineage games. Blizzard was, well, Blizzard, but WoW's market system was still almost devoid of filters. Turbine is owned by one of the fattest megacorporations in the world, and here's LotRO's NPC vendor window:
You can alphabetize things, which is cute. It might actually be useful if the most expensive or most powerful item was called the Alpha Aegis and it was followed by the Beta Bludgeon and the Gamma Gutter and Delta Dagger and so forth. You can also filter items from a certain quality downward, which is admirably nonsensical for a game in which you're always trying to find the latest trash greens you looted from among all the greens you're using.
Don't even dream of actually dragging things from your inventory (where you can maintain some organization) to the trade window (where everything is rearranged nearly randomly.) What do you think this is, ummm, every other game? If you want to sell a rusty goblin helmet in middle-earth, ya gotta work for it!

Not to be outdone in underdoing, Funcom seems to have invented its own unique brand of faceless interface. I mean, usually you can chalk this stuff up to laziness. The dev team slapped something half-functional together then cut costs by not developing it further. Work-hours cut into management's profits. Sometimes though, the omissions are so laughably basic as to imply sheer stupidity. Case-in-point, TSW's guild roster:

Exhibit A, the yellow bubble - is just a bug. Which would be excusable, if this screenshot hadn't been taken two years after the game launched.
Exhibit B, the white bubble - is stupid. Not just an oversight, not just a lapse in judgment, not just cost-cutting, but stupid. Your hundred million dollar a year company's product... can't count? Do your programmers need to be taken back to junior high and be reintroduced to the concept of significant figures?

But whose stupidity is it? Not Funcom's, or Turbine's or Blizzard's or NCsoft's or Valve's. They're raking in your cash while you're too busy kissing their asses and creaming your pants whenever a developer seems to pay the slightest attention to you. You're the idiots. You, the customers who never complain in the slightest about the blatant rip-offs you're buying. You know why the game industry is such crap, why they can afford to ignore even the most basic notions of design?
That'd be you, dear reader. You're to blame. It's your complacency that's causing this. Sorry, did you miss that because you were too busy scrolling through an endless unsorted list in some game?

It's your fault. Call them out on it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ai the Kawaii but not the Origamaii

"Old world underground, I never knew you
But I've seen your face everywhere"
Metric - IOU

The delineation between RPGs and Adventure games, aside from a shallow expectation of isometric third-person view or retro-style 2D images, centers on choice. Adventure games are linear and do not offer the player a choice of identity, and are thus much more focused on interactive storytelling than actual game-playing. On some level you can play D&D-based cRPGs as a number-crunching exercise, min-maxing and exploiting to your heart's content, and still walk away having gotten something for your money. The less choice offered, the larger a work-load the game's plot must carry, and getting the player emotionally involved and immersed in that plot is crucial.

Making things personal is... tricky. You have to know your audience. You have to choose an audience. Universality is bland. Back on New Year's day, I wrote a post I somewhat regret now, deeply critical of the ending to an amazing game. Yet this strong reaction on my part implied great praise of The Cat Lady: it hit me. It was the first game to have truly hit me emotionally in years, and did so by playing on its chronically depressed target audience's precepts of hope and hopelessness. Hit 'em where it hurts, by all means. This is emotional Art with a capital "ah" and must be addressed in games alongside the more cerebral gamesmanship of combat mechanics.

So I've been spending quite a bit of time in The Secret World recently, getting my character caught up, pedaling that insipid gear-farming treadmill while at the same time savoring and being disgusted by the game's first major expansion, the Tokyo zone. Too much of it is recycled or perfunctory, from the copy-pasted, crudely re-skinned jet-black versions of mobs from previous zones to their all too uniform distribution and predictable respawn patterns, to the "farm 150 monsters" daily mission, etc. As an RPG, TSW still barely qualifies and boils down to the same level-based grind as every other so-called MMO.

TSW at its core is, however, an adventure game: puzzle-solving, pixel-hunting, linear, cinematic interactive fiction. Though grossly, criminally overpriced as such, some of that price-gouging does seem to get derailed from its straightforward route toward Funcom's executives' pockets into some higher production values than we normally expect from adventure games. TSW has well-rehearsed, professional voice acting and character models which allow for some detailed, if not very varied cinematics. Unfortunately, the game's creative side seems to get very little support from its technical side. New missions which would warrant new mechanics are instead forced into old molds.

When I first accepted the "Love and Origami" mission for instance, I was downright... jazzed. Being asked to piece together tokens of unrequited love, to fold loneliness into itself, now that sounded like some damn fine storytelling. I logged out without beginning it because I wanted to come at it with a fresh rested mind in the morning. Sadly, when I tried folding that imaginary piece of paper in-game, I found there was no way to do so through the interface. A player cheerfully informed me that I had to print the image and fold it in real life.
I cheated my way through the mission by looking up the answers and have no intention of ever re-visiting it. This oxymoronic "alternate reality" crap is one of the most detrimental fads TSW has picked up. Games must be self-contained. Everything must be handled by the game interface, and if it's not, if you can't get your corporate overlords to allocate the funds for a programmer to give you the new interface elements to handle that, then you know what, fuck it. Forget your admittedly novel idea for now, leave it shelved alongside the rotting concept of a persistent-world MMO and don't make customers pay for content you have no intention of delivering.

Yet in contrast to that idiocy, Funcom's writing team continues to populate its "secret" world with delightfully touching characters, from a rockabilly worshipping the holy trinity of Gaia, Amaterasu and Elvis to a lascivious toad to children who fear nothing. Given their audience of online gamer nerds, however, the most promising Tokyo character so far has been Harumi the l33t haxz0r.

You do not wanna frag with her!
Harumi is every psychotically upbeat junior-high girl deluding herself into high social standing via booking faces and feeding twits. By extension she's every gamer nerd sitting in a college dorm room bragging about his K/D ratio and how he hacked into his roommate's computer and every thirty-year-old loner blogging commentary nobody will ever read. Harumi's diamonologue was so deliciously over the top that it hurts to listen to. I wanted to smack the little snot, and myself by implicit association... and damn that feels good.

More. Give me more of that self-punishment, more poignancy and iconoclasm. Work with what you have, keep everything in-game, stop breaking immersion by asking me to minimize my game client, and you can do great work with TSW. Just remember the game has to be an activity in itself, independent of the shithole lives we're trying to forget by logging in. I'm paying you for escapism, not to be kicked out of that escapism.

You're trying to bill yourselves as creative, as the undercurrent of artsiness in a conformist medium. Fine, wonderful. But your output has to actually work within its context.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ozy and Millie

The vaudevillian two-man act left a heavy mark on American comedy, including comic strips and their derivatives. It seems impossible for webcartoonists to write any daily strip centered on two characters without some reader blurting out "why, this is just like Calvin and Hobbes" but let's remember, Laurel and Hardy were there first. While reading Ozy and Millie, it's tempting to see them as a classic straight-man and funny-man pairing, but far from detracting from the strip's worth this awareness simply makes their many deviations from type all the more interesting.

Actually, if the title didn't flow slightly better as-is, I'd recommend retroactively switching the names around. As the duo's active, prankster half, Millie's much heavier burden of driving action and dialogue forward while Ozy reflects seems like it should win her top billing. Through those gags-a-day we get a lot of poignant commentary on the difficulty of personal growth within a mercilessly homogenizing society. From simple set-ups during the strip's early years to surprising amounts of character growth later on, Ozy and Millie's success in expanding a stage act into a full-blown chronicle in the lives of intelligent children would be enough by itself to make the comic noteworthy.

Topics varied but mostly revolved around the difficulty of growing up brainy. Millie and especially Ozy sneak and scramble their way through the hellish minefield that is public schooling while retaining, through activism or stoicism, some measure of individuality. Politics makes frequent appearances, as the strip was written during the rule of the child-king Bush II and the public's shameless adulation of bald-faced militaristic, totalitarian, reactionary dogma during those years (more so than usual) begged opposition. More often though, the writing slips into a light-hearted linguistic comedy style which keeps things from ever getting too serious.

This comic was not a wildly creative adventure in the medium. Yet, it was funny and self-conscious, poignant and relatable material for anyone who's felt the constricting reductionism of human stupidity coiling 'round. Still the author always maintained a dogged optimism about the possibility of finding someone to laugh at one's jokes. There's a Millie to drive Ozy and an Ozy to gently yield to Millie, good parents to offset bad teachers and tiny sparks of worth even in the worst of one's peers. It may not be the world we actually live in, but it sure was nice to visit for as long as the strip lasted.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why TF2?

While playing The Secret World recently I mouthed off against its sad, tacked-on excuse for a PvP system. If I want to PvP, I said, I'll do so in a game where the interface actually gives some freakin' feedback, like Planetside 2 or Team Fortress 2. One player retorted with a fairly standard line:
"Why would anyone play TF2?"
And unfortunately before I could wind myself up into a full-blown rant, another, believing he was defending TF2, answered:
"TF2 is just mindless fun."

Ouch. Really? As opposed to grinding your thousandth zombie in an MMO, or farming the same mission for the thirtieth time, all the while pressing the same seven buttons in the same order? People who burst an artery if they catch you deviating in the slightest from the basaltically-fixed routine they've learned by rote in an instance run think an FPS is mindless. I disrespectfully disagree.

So then, why TF2?
Because it works.
Oh, sure, it presents a couple of positive qualities as well, like the wide variety of minor variations on the weapons you can use or the playable classes' parody of action-movie machismo, but TF2's quality shows largely in its lack of negatives. It's reliable: lag, crashes, bugs, cheats, exploits, the dirty laundry list associated with most multiplayer games, all blissfully absent here by comparison. Its interface cleanly and unobtrusively outlines the objectives of the game, instead of making you ask "wait, what does that symbol mean?"
You know what, though, let's cut through the flimsy pretexts and get to the core reason why so many turn up their noses at TF2. You've heard it before, about Heroes of Might and Magic, about World of Warcraft and many others, a superficial complaint dredged up whenever players attempt a social coup by declaring themselves above a game without actually understanding anything about it.

Cartoons are, pretty much by definition, less visually detailed than film. Thus they are popularly denigrated as a childlike form, intended for those too young to have acquired many concepts complex enough to require a more nuanced form of expression. Of course, that's missing the point of the larger work of which those drawings are but one part. Cartoons offer both clarity and flexibility of expression. Just as cartoon characters' exaggerated motions and expressions can more easily carry the flow of a story, our 'toons' exaggerated features are meant to be flexible enough for manipulation. Dozens of player actions require dozens of animations to set them apart. Defensive and offensive features must be discernible. There must be no room for accidental, abusable concealment.

That caricature up above represents yours truly in the role of a TF2 demoman. You can instantly tell I'm a demoman by the size, shape, posture and movement patterns of my character model. You can tell one of my main abilities, and my likely intentions toward you in the next few seconds, by the clearly delineated weapon I'm holding.
You're gonna wanna step back right about now.
If I were holding a shield as well, you might want to dodge left or right or get behind cover instead.
If holding a grenade launcher, you'd run into the open and bounce around counting to four of my shots then charge into me.
If I were holding a wider-looking grenade launcher, you'd turn paranoid and start scanning for bombs stuck to the floor or walls instead.

Games are an interactive medium and the graphics serve to illustrate that interaction. What this means can differ from game to game. Single-player games, in which you interact with static landscapes and algorithmically-driven NPCs, need to bank on precision and detail in order to make that more predictable content entertaining. In multiplayer and especially PvP, players must be able to discern and react to each others' choices. Graphics must be flexible enough to clearly convey what is happening. Clarity can mean simplicity, yes, but it can also be the vehicle for complexity. In this case TF2s outwardly simple graphics are meant to allow the player to carry out the sort of fast-paced and varied gameplay which a greater amount of visual detail might obfuscate.

Valve knew this. Give the bastards some credit, they may be a bunch of scheisters when it comes to marketing schemes, but their games are professionally designed. TF2 was delayed for over half a decade. As processors and video cards were rapidly improving around Y2K, FPS games were pressuring each other for greater and greater "realism" and at first TF2 seemed to be hopping that wagon. Had it done so, it would have been hopelessly lost in the swarm of FarCries or Calls of Duty or every other carbon-copy FPS intended to make the players feel like action-movie stars. Instead, TF2 not only parodies the machismo of pretending to be gun-toting hired muscle, but brings the concept of a multiplayer FPS game back to reality.

Cartoonish reality? Why, yes. The reality of a game is that a game is not a movie. It is interactive. Its visuals illustrate that interaction. TF2 functions, cleanly, clearly, smoothly, cleverly, with frills denoted as frills and core features unburdened by overbuilt accessories.

And you know, maybe that's what really makes people uncomfortable. Maybe it makes them realize that when they're buying a gen-u-ine military-modeled automatic rifle in some other game's cash shop, they're actually no better than the people buying funny hats and deadly candy-canes from Valve.
From many players' point of view, the worst thing about TF2 is that it works so well.