Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stardock meant to do that !

I've previously confessed my amusement with Fallen Enchantress' tamed animals. As the beastlord leader of the Feral Assembly, I've often neglected other facets of my empire's growth just so I can run around to the ends of the world chasing down as many beasties as I can find. How many do I gotta catch? The answer is 'em all, of course.

Unfortunately, since a couple of months ago, Stardock has refused to fix a particular bug which is somewhat problematic for anyone playing the beastlord trait. Many tamed creatures (distinguished by faded portraits as two of the four in the image below) disappear whenever ordered to station in a city. Faded portraits are also used by the game to denote units which have been immobilized.
After a little bit of forum-combing, it becomes apparent that it's related to the provenance of said beasties. If you caught them roaming the wilds, they work normally, but those captured at their own dens will seem to disappear. Another poster states they don't disappear completely, but simply make themselves at home, permanently joining a city's garrison instead of being slotted in the "stationed units" window. Presumably these mobs' AI treats the first city they're stationed in as their den, and resumes their "immobilized" behavior.

Now, given this popped up out of nowhere with no explanation during a patch and there's no way to limit or undo its effects, we're safe calling it a bug. Stardock's fanboys have of course been attempting to pass it off as a feature dreamt up by the all-knowing dev team, meant to curb beasts' power as free units, but in truth this bug is a double-edged sword. Instead of temporarily stationing up to nine beasts as free defenders in a city, it is now presumably possible to increase one city's permanent garrison... infinitely. And while you can't use den-beasts to capture a city because they'd instantly join the garrison if you win (not a situation in which you'd risk your valuable pets anyway- sieges are for cannon fodder) there's nothing stopping you from amassing these "faded" den-beasts in an open field and using them as a harasser force. If this were a feature, it would suffer from an asinine, half-baked implementation.

No, this is a bug, plain and simple, and the dev team's predictably dragging its feet swatting it because, well... screw you, you already paid for the product, what's this "support" thing you're babbling about? Two months is nothing. Already got your money, dude.

But look a couple of paragraphs up, see how many strategic options this opens up. Maybe we do want to be able to add beasts to a city's permanent garrison. Maybe instead of swatting the bug, you trap it in a glass jar and brag about it. I'm wondering now whether in another couple of months, Legendary Heroes' next paid update will include more beast/city functionality. Kennels? Indestructible spawning dens? A spell to poison the kibble of garrisoned beasts?

See, this is the sort of opportunity that opportunistic companies like Blizzard Entertainment or CCP always latch on to. Instead of admitting something is ridiculously broken, you roll with the punches, tweak the bug a bit et voila: feature!
It's all in the marketing spin. The beasts aren't faded. They're beasts *plus*. They're beasts "classic." They're ultra-beasts. They're premium beasts, platinum beasts, foil-embossed beasts... you can even charge extra for them.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Runaway Competition

This image is not faked. It shows a real skull of a real pig, of an Indonesian species of boar known as the babirusa. To me, that image has always been the most concise illustration of the key to understanding human society and its inevitable doom.

The evolutionary concept of a runaway adaptation, runaway selection or whatever you wiki-call it, though it seemingly lacks a rigorous definition, is backed by many examples of features which in a purely reductive estimation of bottom-line energy expenditure or overall fitness for survival, should not exist. It explains why male lions can suffer a continual selection for bushier, darker manes which boil their brains in the cauldron of the savannah, or why many deer species grow antlers so large and convoluted they can snare them to each other or vegetation, sometimes, permanently. A deer's ability to go without food while waiting for its antlers to drop, it should be noted, is somewhat less than permanent. Birds tend to be the poster-children of runaway adaptations, with the peacock's tail serving as the textbook example and bower-birds' ephemeral, impractical constructions illustrating the complexity of a runaway behavior. Whether a particular physical or behavioral adaptation is or is not classifiable as "runaway" will likely depend on whom you ask and a complex set of cost/benefit estimates, but let us return to our sheep.

Or rather, our pigs. Look at that babirusa's tusks again. What a wonderful allegory of self-destructive obsession. The boars use those lovely chompers to do battle to secure mating rights. Parry and thrust, that sort of thing, just like deer butting heads or a couple of jocks arm-wrestling. Bigger weapons imply a greater chance of success and a greater likelihood of mating.The genes for comparatively larger tusks get passed down generation after generation. You might be the porker with the healthiest liver or biggest brain, but if you can't out-tusk the others ya ain'ts gettin' da ladieeez. That one feature becomes your raison d'etre, not completely eliminating but still out-weighing any other concerns.
Until it stabs you in the face!!!

Okay, okay, so humans aren't all that close to pigs. I mean, most of us only wallow in emotional and social muck, not literal. Plus, if you shit out a litter of a dozen offspring, you can have the rest of the tribe feed them for you, leaving your udders nice an' perky to attract more fathers.
But you know who's closer to us? Chimpanzees. One of the slew of stunning observations graciously offered to us by the chimps of Tanzania's Gombe Park was the meteoric rise to fame and fortune of one... Mike. Last name unknown, presumably "Oook" "Ugh" or "Eeek." Mike became the leader of his tribe by becoming leader of his tribe. This tautology is particularly apt to the sort of positive feedback loop we're discussing here, runaway adaptation. He made some noise and scared his competitors until none would stand against him as de facto Chief Chimp. Note that Mike's discovery in itself (banging cans) while possibly indicative of a higher intelligence, cannot arguably be called "progress" as it brought no benefit. It's not food or shelter or the wheel. Mike did not prove his worth by being the best fruit-finder or predator-spotter for his tribe. He won his position by winning his position.

Now say you're not Mike. You're no longer just any social primate, communal but fairly capable of feeding and protecting yourself by yourself. You're a mid-evolution hominid, Erectus or Habilis or an earlier Sapiens. You're naked and toothless, oversized and underqualified in a world of interglacial turmoil. Crippled furthermore by a prolonged infancy due to a cannon shell trying to fit through a derringer barrel (ask your mother) the species' tribal unit has become paramount. For safety, for food, for your increasingly complex shelters, for passing down the exponentially convoluted shroud of information which ensures your short-term survival, you must depend on social interaction. Unfortunately, you've inherited a very animal interpretation of the term "social" and so everything inevitably boils down to hierarchy, to the pecking order. Muscles or brains are nice and all, but the real catch is a high-ranking mate, one which will receive the lion's share of whatever meager resources the tribe as a whole scrapes together. This is what will ensure your children's health and success and likelihood to breed. Rank out-competes muscles or brains. Males to some extent but especially females learn to choose prestigious mates. Their offspring inherit their preferences and competitive tendencies.

The means become the goal becomes the means. The rich get richer and use those riches to get richer. Ruthlessness, deceit, viciousness, obsessive undermining of the competition, all the shortcuts to power over others, all of Mike's banging and strutting, not intelligence but the drive for social-climbing itself, this is what has been bred into humanity, generation after generation, aeon after aeon. Sadism and schadenfreude, envy and insecurity, the desperation to grind others under your heel, to be fawned over and adored, to have one's ass kissed. Like the babirusa's tusks this has become the sad cliche of our existence, the distillation of humanity: we are the will to power. We are the pissing contest. We are our intra- and inter-tribal competitive drive, our hierarchical obsession. And just like the babirusa's tusks, it keeps angling right back at us to stab us in the face.

Positive feedback is endless. It arises quite rarely in biology because it is an inherently destructive process. This is the definition of "no brakes" - a system which continues to build on itself until it burns itself out completely, until the crash. Human society has consistently selected for its leaders not the most intelligent or most altruistic, but those most addicted to their own thirst for power, those willing to do anything to chase that endorphin high of ordering others about, of breaking backs and treading on necks. To the human subconscious, burning the world down about oneself is a small price to pay for being called "master."

It's not the most advanced that calls the shots, but whoever bangs those cans the loudest. We have created an illusion of progress for ourselves. Optimists delude themselves with the apparent advance of civilization, but that advance is always conveniently contained within whatever system is being studied while its much greater damaging, counterbalancing effects are conveniently pushed out of the equation, out of the system, out of sight and out of mind. Agricultural growth fueled by soil erosion, industrial growth borne on soot-choked rivers, a glorious enlightenment supported by the pillaging and genocide of two continents, globalization fueled by the institutionalization of the "third world" while the thermonuclear dick-measuring contest continues unabated, oceans running out of fish and an entire oil-giddy space-age combusting itself into a new Carboniferous. There's nowhere left to expand now. Science has masked the underlying problem. At every step it has provided new avenues of exploitation, new illusions of growth, while never admitting that the one true problem is human instinct.

Instinct is not rational. It is not a plan. It holds up no ideal, no clear ends or goals, only a vague, all-encompassing and constant desperation for more and more reinforcement. Those in whom the human competitive drive shines brightest, the alpha-types, the prima-donnas, the starlets and go-getters, the attention-whores and influence-pimps, plus all the endless masses whose only wish is to be those destroyers, the bulk of the species, will never stop. Never. This is why you must be poor so as to make them feel richer by comparison and it is why you will never be poor enough, never desperate enough. No amount of debasement will ever be enough. They will make you beg and slave and prostitute yourself, and it will never be enough. This is why nobles used to whip the flesh from peasants who neglected to bow and remove their caps at a high-born's passing, and this is the world humanity longs for again. And when they get it, it will not be enough.

From slavery to wage-slavery and back again, from patriarchy to matriarchy, from crusades to jihad, from white power to black power, from gods to movie stars. The enlightenment has been an aberrant blip in the observable behavior of an ape species which never outgrew its instinctive scrabbling for reproductive fitness through social rank. You want to see the shape of human history? It stretches along the suicidal curvature of that pig's tusk.

Competition for competition's sake. Control for control's sake. Power for power. Dust to dust.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Hobbit: Desolation Indeed

You know, there's almost nothing worth saying about this little flick. It's passed the point where it can even be called an adaptation. I could go on endlessly about its varied heinous sins, but I'm sure plenty of Tolkien fans have already littered the internet with ineffective pleas to Peter Jackson for some shred of sanity. I'd just like to point out the common root of the movie's problems, and that's marketing.

No, not marketing of this product itself, but the purpose of this movie as no more than a marketing vehicle. It is not meant to be good, or even to appeal, in itself. It's meant to power various Hollywood stars' careers (the actors who play Kili and the elf bimbo must have some amazing agents) and sell affiliated merchandise. When you see the endless chase scenes on barrels and through spider webs and along catwalks inside Erebor, you have to realize they don't look like a Sonic the Hedgehog game for nothing. Most of the movie is entirely composed of video game sequences, which I'm sure will appear in whatever Super Mario copycat the parent companies want to push on the market. The movie's made to feel like a video game so you can feel more like you're a movie star while playing the game. Because it's all about YOU dear viewer. You're speshul.

Granted, merchandising campaigns are nothing new and a film's pandering value in affiliated fields has been a major factor in securing funding for decades, but there's still a line to be crossed between taking advantage of a film product to sell other merchandise, and specifically fabricating a moving picture as a vehicle for other movies or industries.

The name of that line is Pokemon, not Tolkien.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Don't mess with Prime Fiction

Back before EVE-Online launched, I was part of the consumer hype surrounding the game. We cluttered the company forums with demands for more teasers, pledged our immortal souls for Beta access and speculated endlessly on just how we'd all rule each others' universe. Some wrote fan fiction. These works, regardless of their lack of quality, were embraced by CCP as free advertising, with one caveat: when writing your derivative work based on the EVE-Online universe, don't touch the "prime fiction" by which they meant any elements set forth by CCP as fictional canon. Don't put words in the Amarr emperor's mouth. Don't make your character the illegitimate son of a major Caldari C.E.O. Don't take it upon yourself to alter the fictional work upon which you, as a creator of derivative works, are a mere parasite. I should think that what holds for game fans holds for game developers and what's true of fiction based on games is true of games based on fiction. What's valid for CCP is valid for Turbine.

Unless you're Turbine itself, now a mere vestigial appendage of Warner Bros., attempting to milk middle-earth for all it's got. I've railed recently against the sort of megalomaniacal get-rich-quick schemes one falls into when working by a major corporation's moral standards. I've also outlined the oddly positive overall effect the WB takeover has had on LotRO, dredging the project out of its morass of half-baked attempts at crowd-pleasing and preventing it from going the way of City of Heroes. As CoH had lost its grip on its main selling point of campy old 50s-70s superheroism, LotRO's first couple of expansions had, gameplay issues aside, lost their grip on the view of middle-earth which set the game apart from the other myriad WoW-clones on the market. Now, in the latest couple of expansions, the game has re-acquired some sense of proportion. The visuals and audio show, overall, a bit more attention to detail as opposed to merely cheap theatrics (though this thing had no place in middle-earth) and the new zones are more carefully laid out as habitable spaces and not merely ten-by-ten rooms in which to slay goblins.

However, in one aspect the megalomaniacal tinge of identifying as part-and-parcel of Time Warner has tainted the writing team's relationship with the original work on which they base their derivative interactive adventures. Shadows of Angmar set forth with a clear intent not to put words in Tolkien's mouth. The player followed in the Fellowship's footsteps, not affecting the path of the story but merely performing the various feats hinted at in asides during Tolkien's tales: fighting the threat in Angmar, in the ruined Dunadan-cities of the old fallen kingdoms, etc. However, more and more in the past couple of years, the developers have tried to put the player into the action of the books. Under the same assumption which rules WoW-clone marketing strategies overall, the constant attempt to make the customer feel big about himself, the constant stream of undeserved endorphin boosts, LotRO's main story now repeatedly places the player in the middle of Tolkien's central events. You're there when Frodo escapes Boromir, you're Boromir himself when he dies defending the hobbits, you're there when Gandalf breaks Saruman's hold on Theoden. Galadriel personally takes the time to send you visions, more detailed than poor Frodo ever got. It's all about YOU dear reader. You're speshul.

I can still say the WB takeover has had a positive effect on LotRO, and am still perplexed at this reversal of the usual touch-of-death that takeovers tend to imply. LotRO as middle-earth, as a world, though it's still a hopeless WoW-clone slot-machine routine, feels more consistent, more grandiose and detailed at the same time. A solid bedding of megacorporate funds can do that. Edoras is much more carefully and artistically laid out than was Caras Galadhon. However, this improved visual impression of middle-earth has come at the expense of an increasing and needless attack on Tolkien's actual writing. Turbine has slowly begun to see itself as the prime fiction and not the derivative work. It's the same sort of delusion of grandeur which underscores the current stream of Hobbit adaptations with their gratuitous alterations to Tolkien's world, as opposed to the overall much more faithful representation in Jackson's LotR trilogy.

Memento mori. You are parasites, and a parasite which kills its host is a doomed parasite.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

That Pesky "Ripley" Again

This is shaping up to be one of those weird days when I find my supposed cleverness pulled out from under me and realize I've only reinvented some random wheel or another.

Given that I read quite a few webcomics, I've come across the so-called "Bechdel Test" several times. It sprang to mind recently while watching an antiquated episode of Dr. Who, one from the first few seasons. While the early episodes I've seen so far contain a fair number of scenes where a damsel in distress sits by screaming in ineffective panic while the man of the ship gets things done, I was also amused to see two women having a perfectly rational tete-a-tete on matters entirely unrelated to their male counterparts. It's a strange mix and a perfect example of the stumbling, wavering, disparate nature of human progress, when it occurs at all.

However, the weird bit came when I checked out that wikipedia reference to see where Bechdel sat chronologically in relation to 1965, which led me to actually read the posted strip which started the whole gimmick. What got me was the punchline. I've said for years that the movie Alien's protagonist is the best and possibly only major example of an action heroine in her egalitarian independence from gender roles. I doubt most feminists would see it that way as the feminist agenda is inherently chauvinistic and not egalitarian, and I have no idea just how feminist Dykes to Watch Out For was given that I've never bothered reading it, but The Test itself is certainly touted as a feminist staple and paid much lip-service.*

I wonder how many female fans of Dr.Who were gratified to see that little conversation in The Web Planet. Did any of them cite it over the years as progressive like I've cited Ripley's unisex monster-hunt, and did they find themselves usurped by comments made decades prior, much like say, a 1985 cartoonist's daily punchline?
Round an' round we go...

*Lipstick service? Chapstick service? Oh, I slay me.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Cat Lady

It's painful to see good stories gone bad. It's especially painful for one who would wish to tell tales but can only spew drivel. For me, a worthless dimwit, an utter failure, a loser in every way, the beginning of a story like The Cat Lady always holds the hope of catharsis, of showing the despair of being immersed in this putrid animalistic, seething, parasitic detritus that is humanity... and the inevitably saccharine ending is always the more painful for it. I am sick of tales of redemption and newfound hope.

But I suppose I should start with the basics. I'm filing this under "games" as a formality. I bought The Cat Lady on a whim as part of my foray into adventure games. In reality it's less of a game, less of a task-oriented struggle, and, like Dinner Date, more of a theater sketch filled with perfunctory, trivial audience participation. In the technical sense it holds to one unusual gimmick, a mouseless interface, which neither adds to nor detracts from its quality. There are quite a few bugs and one or two obscure clues, but generally you just follow the standard adventure game routine of gathering all possible clues so that you can MacGyver together something which advances the plot. Puzzles are generally simplistic: try all options until something clicks. Despite the appearance of choice at numerous points in the plot, it's almost entirely linear, with a few steps right before the end varying the ending monologue slightly. So follow your heart without qualms. You're doomed to a sappy life-affirming bullshit ending anyway.

Don't get me wrong. The game starts out very strong, and continues to be interesting through at least the first half. Only during the last chapter or two does it devolve into rampant optimism. The visuals are great, the sound has gripping moments, the dialogue's quite good, but it's the story which matters, and that story was entirely destroyed by a pathetically feeble conclusion. Susan Ashworth has no right to hope. Her metaphysical journey should have ended in reality, in ash. For such an excellent portrayal of one of life's losers, she should have ended how she began: "Thanks for nothing. Goodbye." We are all worth only ash, and the few of us who understand it, live it, should not be bombarded with false hope. Yes, I'm aware of the ironic Misery reference. I know the author knows some of us will react as I have. I could've been this game's number one fan. But you didn't destroy the title character, and that's the cruelest betrayal of your own creation.

Susan had no right to learn how to smile. We cat-ladies and dog-men have only one path to tread.

"And travelers now within that valley
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody

While, like a ghastly rapid river

Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh - but smile no more."

Oh, if only I possessed the social skills, the manipulative gift to induce suicide via my disjointed ramblings.
To prod others to greater courage than my own.
I just foam at the mouth and hope some of it sticks.

February 10, 2014
I feel a little guilty about halfway bashing this game. I did have a very strong Miserable reaction to the optimistic ending. I still maintain that the only logical way to end this was to absolutely crush Susan... or rather, me the player as Susan. That's how the world works.
However, I was wrong to say that the story was entirely destroyed by the ending. This is a beautiful, enthralling quasi-game piece of interactive fiction for the most part, and I would gladly recommend it.