Thursday, February 27, 2014

Magic Missilellaneous

What's the worst-conceived magic spell in fantasy games? Is it some pointless glamour spell which only turns your hat pink? Is it "summon gnat" or the dreaded Holy Tickling? As far as I can tell, the worst incarnation of magic is that old D&D staple, Magic Missile. That was the point, early on, where TSR may as well have said "we're not even gonna try" and whatever later attempts they made to make magic slightly more interesting have been hampered by the existence of that simplistic, all-purpose use of magic as ammunition.  We do occasionally see signs that game developers realize how ridiculous it is that the power to reshape reality mainly gets used to hit things, such as Heroes of Might and Magic's "magic fist" spell, but for the most part they feel obligated to copy D&D's basic pattern.

The problem with Magic Missile type spells is not only the fact that they do "some" damage. It is their universality, their reliability. Who wants to worry about debuffs, disables and resistances? Just missile whatever-it-is to death. They are faceless, nondescript and indistinguishable from hitting things with a stick, and once players are given access to that simplicity, they'll only demand more and more of it. Not only that, but as players begin to rely more on the all-purpose magic fist, developers feel less pressure to actually develop discrete abilities. Why bother fine-tuning the balance of resistances and immunities, why waste time giving players hints and surprises and making them carefully prepare for various challenges when you can equalize all options into irrelevance?
"Situational" is a dirty word.

I am concerned as usual with computer games, as I don't actually play tabletop games, and using D&D as an example because cRPG designers tend to take the easy route of copying its tropes. I'm sure the flexibility of a flesh-and-blood GM to make judgment calls can mitigate designers' lack of imagination, but while gamers decry cRPGs' automation as inherently promoting repetitive hack'n'slash, the problem is much more often just lazy design. In counterpoint I'd like to offer Trine, a charming, ingenious... platform game. Yes, in that ancient realm of three-button twitch, in a re-hashing of Prince-of-freakin-Persia, you'll find a reinterpretation of magic to put multimillion-dollar RPGs to shame: a wizard who, instead of shooting fireballs, alters the environment by summoning geometric shapes. Imagine an MMO in which wizards summon bridges across impassible terrain and wind-walk their allies over castle walls.

The problem comes largely from the love of min-maxing, from copying D&D's stat point system which places intelligence and wisdom on equal footing with strength and agility. Yes, in that world, one will inevitably also begin to equate and equalize the shooting of arrows with the shooting of magic arrows. 18 INT = 18 DEX? The point of magic however is that it warps reality, that it works by different rules than the physical world, and its manifestation in players' actions should reflect this. Magic should NOT be concerned with damage-dealing, with brute force missiles, with hitting things, but with abilities which more or less subtly alter the nature of gameplay. And yes, the fact that it does not is largely the fault of lazy, greedy designers cutting their development time.

Imagine for instance the indirect power one could wield in MMOs through one of the currently disregarded and discarded schools of magic, Divination. It implies not only remote viewing, spotting an advancing enemy army, but seeing the future paths of patrolling mobs, seeing the abilities and resistances of an enemy player, predicting the course of world-altering events... maybe seeing when the server's going to crash? One can only hope.
Or how about Altering a player's density so that he barrels everything aside as he moves but also finds his momentum sling-shotting him off cliffs? Or Necromantically rotting a vampire's flesh to force it to feed more often? Or Enchanting another player into shaking and twitching, making him evade attacks but hampering his own accuracy? Or desiccating a catapult to make it easier to burn? Or maybe summoning a dead ally's ghost to try to possess an enemy? Or changing someone into a (giant) toad with toad-like jumping ability and an immobilizing sticky tongue attack?
Or really, anything more than mindlessly hitting things over the head (with magic!)

And don't give me that ridiculous old dodge about balance. Oh, we can't give magicians special abilities because they already do as much damage as rangers and rogues. Yeah... why is it YOU made spellcasters into staff-wielding rangers and rogues in the first place, you overpaid troglodytes?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mate Isernore

Feelin' a bit low today so instead of doing anything productive I tried once again to jump into the tried-and-true escapist fantasy of middle-earth.
So I picked up my main character's quest progression in LotRO where I left it a few weeks ago after leaving it weeks before that, somewhere in Western Rohan. In the ten minutes or so it took me to get disgusted and log out again, I was faced once again with LotRO's (and MMO's overall) current philosophy of unassailable post-ironic self-ridicule. Such works of art have frequently been called "theme-park" games because of the lack of choice offered to players... but Mate Isernore sort of takes the cake.

You're sent there from another location of course by a convenient map ping because asking you to do any actual exploration, to take a look at the world you inhabit, would be too much of a burden. So as you autopilot your way to the foot of the mountain, several different quests instantly pop into your quest log. Kill this many orcs at Mate Isernore. Click this many glowing objects at Mate Isernore. Kill this many of the bigger orcs at Mate Isernore. Complete both of the orc-killing quests at Mate Isernore. It is trim, it is economical, it is straightforward, containing no confusing divergence. It is right in front of you. Soldier on, oh undaunted hero of middle-earth, for nothing might daunt you here.

If this were an attraction in a Florida theme-park, it might be called Goblin Mountain. Having paid your entrance fee, you scale it along the completely linear catwalks, killing orc after orc, clicking glowie after glowie, all lined up for you like pre-recorded compliments. Once your reptilian brain slithers to the top replaying the all-too-familiar motions a couple dozen times or so, you find that the totality of killing and clicking was precisely enough to complete all the so-called "quests" you were assigned. The orcs below you have already started respawning for the next paying customer. You have reached the top. You are at the pinnacle. You are amazing. You are now free to teleport back to receive your hard-earned reward, to ride back down on a euphoric rush of undeserved success. Don't forget to pick up something at the concession stand, a pop-up reminds.

You will never have cause to return to this spot. Your actions here have done nothing at all to influence any other player in this supposedly multiplayer game.

We hope you enjoyed the ride.

(pssst: concession stand!)

Monday, February 24, 2014

More less obvious choices!

Most quests in computer role-playing games are not truly optional. You either do the job or you don't get paid, don't get your experience points and miss out on the interactive content you bought to boot. You don't get the option of stabbing that NPC in the face for even asking you to perform such heinously bland deeds, or siding with the opposition, keeping the macguffin for yourself, etc.
Of the fewer branching quests, most present one blatantly obvious right choice conforming to prevailing mores which also gives better rewards. Saving the princess just pays better than selling her into slavery.
Only rarely are we presented with a true practical and roleplaying choice.

By the by, this will be little more than a slew of spoilers about the outcomes of a few RPG quests, so if you're squeamish about that sort of thing, skedaddle. G'wan naw, git!

The practicality of RP choices in terms of gameplay mechanics, rocket launcher or laser gun, monkey grip or great cleave, the carrot-and-stick, cost-to-benefit or risk/reward estimates are a subject in their own right. For now I'm not particularly interested in the endorphin titration of the promise of cake. I'm thinking more of the few instances where we're really faced with aesthetic or moral options, with a choice between two actions, most often both appealing and despicable, where the player's own self-image, own demons, discrepant Jungian anima and shadow, are projected into the activity.
Before getting into RPGs per se, good old Half-Life offers a most concise and accessible example of such externalization. As you (incarnate Gordon Freeman the MIT-educated physicist with newly-discovered survivalist aptitudes) stalk and bumble your way through the game's various area-fifty-somethings, you run across other survivors of the Black Mesa disaster. They're helpless or nearly so, your fellow eggheads in white lab coats or the complex' underpaid, overfed and nearly-competent security guards nicknamed "Barneys" by the developers. Some are involved in the game's action but most are mere window-dressing and as such eminently disposable. So will you save them from marauding alien hordes or watch them get butchered... or put a bullet in the back of their heads yourself? Are you a benefactor, opportunist or petty sadist? And more importantly, would you-as-Gordon, not just the roleplayer but the role being played, feel any kinship toward these poor two-bit (8-bit? 16-bit?) schmoes?

Very few games can make you feel as though you're not simply going through the motions, as though you truly do have a choice to make. It's a matter of atmosphere, pathos and balance, but most importantly you must know your audience in order to offer truly competitive options. I am now on my third playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins and I have never, not even when I was palling around with Leliana and Alistair, promoted the building of a chantry in Orzammar. Be I mage, Dalish or dwarf, no incarnation of me could condone the spread of organized Chanting.
Ah, but what of Andraste's ashes? No mere object of worship, that, but a piece of history, a cultural icon, a valuable object of magical study. I would no more defile the ashes in Ferelden than I would whitewash the Sistine Chapel in real life. When you can write choices so poignant and weighted into your role-playing, when you can make a rabid anti-theist protect a religious artifact of his own free will, you're obviously doing something right.

But of course Dragon Age did not do everything right, so before moving on to other games, I'll run through its better and worse examples.

Dragon Age: Origins

Orzammar: the dwarf mage and the dwarf chantry quests are presented as separate, but address the same issue of small beginnings of change within dwarven society, progressive and regressive respectively. Unfortunately they're both presented as chores not choices. Do the job or don't get paid. Both could have been more interesting with just a bit more leeway for player input.
The Bhelen/Harrowmont choice is again interesting morally. Tempted as I might be by Bhelen's promise of change, I could not bring my elvish self to side with an underhanded power-hungry Cassius-type. Chalk another accomplishment up for DA:O's writers, getting me to throw my lot in with conservatives.

Speaking of elves, I tend to always play one... mostly because I can't play a werewolf in these games. The most sinister, mean and dirty trick DA:O played on me was giving me both wolf-men and elves... then making me choose between them. My babies! Nooooooooooo...
But I'll bet I'm not the only one. Many of us escapists identify with both the ostracized freedom of lycanthropy and the noble, holier-than-thou superiority of Tolkien's elves. Pitting our conceits against each other was a wry show of mastery of their chosen field of expertise on Bioware's part. I don't often opt for compromise but so help me, caught between the Dalish and the Brecilian werewolves I really, really tried.

Of much lower quality was the choice between mages and templars in the circle tower. Too much whining, too much pressure to play savior was put on the player, especially during the conversation with Wynne, to make this a valid choice (though Morrigan, bless her wild heart, if brought along cuts right through the treacle there.) Though the strategically sound option would be to carry out the annulment, too many lines of dialogue make it clear that you're expected to play hero.
I mean, I would've sided with the nerds against the jocks anyway, but I resent being peer-pressured into it.

Before moving on to other titles, back to Orzammar for the end of the golem storyline. It's very interesting to actually be allowed to make the choice normally reserved for comic-book supervillains: acquisition of a superweapon by intrinsically unethical means. Normally players and viewers are always limited only to the facetious moral absolutism of stopping any action which might violate social mores, regardless of benefits. Having now played both sides of the quest, I'm very happy with how carefully the moral implications of golem manufacture were weighted against military pragmatism. This is how the Circle Tower quest should have been presented.

Neverwinter Nights 2
NWN2's original campaign was too simplistic to offer much real choice, though the courtyard buildings in Crossroad keep were interesting. I've been hoping to see more cross-pollination between RPGs and city-building strategy games and it's a pity we don't get to choose the composition of our redshirts or the construction of our evil lairs in RPGs more often. Practical considerations of mages vs. knights aside, there's a roleplaying choice to be made there. My chaotic neutral halfling druid would much sooner have co-opted an extraplanar wizard than the local praetorian guard.
Only in NWN2's story-oriented expansion, Mask of the Betrayer, do we find some hint of what was to come in DA:O, with Gannayev foreshadowing Morrigan and One-of-Many... noone. That'd be one of my complaints about DA:O. Aside from the Brecilian wolves (and that only an aesthetic choice), you don't really get a chance to leash something dangerous, to bind wild and malefic forces to yourself. The choices linked to One-of-Many's acquisition and further appeasement were the closest Bioware's came after Planescape:Torment to the gut-wrenching temptation to truly play an evil character or the associated guilt.
Speaking of which.

Despite its very involved dialogue interactions, Torment offered surprisingly few evenly-matched choices, in retrospect. Mostly, they are linear tasks you must perform as-is to the best of your ability scores. Self-interest and the continuation of the game experience were predominantly allowed to overshadow morality. Take for instance the Grimoire of Pestilential Thought, which could have made for a very interesting quest line if its rewards were not so anemic as to make sacrificing companions pointless.
The kicker though was the ability to go the extra mile while getting your reward, to kick a few NPCs while they're down, to call a prostitute a whore instead of graciously avoiding the topic or poison a deadbeat barfly to death.
For an actual choice one might look at the two factions of the catacombs, the Dead Nations vs. Many-as-One. Do you promote a necropolis with its cadre of subterranean flesh-eating ghouls or a hive-mind which will likely rise out of Sigil's ground one day to gnaw on the populace?
The few times you do get to choose, it's between two evils. Most of the time, all you can do is express regret as you perform your grim deeds.

Vampire:The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Last, but never least.
Though a bit more flexible than Torment, Bloodlines followed much the same pattern in shaping the player character's identity. Evil is all around you and unavoidable and you yourself are inescapably an evil, destructive creature. You do however get more choice to perform small kindnesses... or not.
The best example of Bloodlines' brilliance in this respect is Heather Poe, the girl found wounded in the hospital and your personal blood-bound slave afterward. Though it's quite possible to do right by Heather and not drag her down with your sorry undead carcass on your way into the gutter, the game quite persuasively baits you into keeping her bound to you... until it's too late.
True choice was however still available only in token amounts, notably in the "Sibling Rivalry" quest early in the game. Both Therese and Jeanette are annoying in their own ways, and I found myself seeking a compromise because I didn't particularly want to side with either.

I suppose all this is a point in favor of large companies. Though I still hold both Torment and Bloodlines in higher regard than DA:O, I can't deny they fall short of it in this respect. Smaller companies, free of much bureaucratic bottom-lining, are much more free to indulge in true quality, in atmosphere and nuance. I don't doubt the older games' development staff were capable of creating evenly matched alternate choices, but truly branching storylines imply a redundancy of content which does not necessarily provide a timesink to make customers feel as though they're getting more for their money. A smaller developer cannot absorb the cost of creating multiple sets of backgrounds, animations, writing, voice acting etc. for each single quest, much less testing and balancing all that. Whatever Origins' budget, it was likely an order of magnitude greater than that of Torment or Bloodlines. Of course any company rich enough for that is much more likely to market to the lowest-common-denominator instead, making all those quest options truly irrelevant.

Makes me really, really antsy to see how inXile's going to use those four mil $$$ they wrangled from us through Kickstarter... and makes me wish DoubleBear Productions would kickstart its own project. We need the people who created Torment and Bloodlines to get Bioware-sized funding. We need more tough choices between wolves and elves.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl

Stalker is now on GoG. If you'd like to see a true FPS version of The Elder Scrolls' mix of freeform and plot-driven gameplay, a darker, more visceral version of Fallout, give it a whirl. For my own part, it's a chance to grab the supposedly better of the two expansions, Call of Pripyat, in the near future and revisit the irradiated wasteland.

Of course, Stalker is not just a stand-alone product. It's a game adaptation of a movie adaptation of a classic science fiction short story and though their subtlety was lost in the shift to a gunslinging interactive adventure, much of the story and movie's stronger undertones, the feel of The Zone itself, remains. But I'll split off the comparison between the three into its own post some other day. For now, I want to focus on the fact that Stalker works as a game. It is not mere facetious license-exploitation meant to dazzle Tarkovsky fans into a thoughtless purchase, but an excellent open-world survival FPS game in its own right. All that's kept it from reaching Half-Life levels of fame was the lack of meaningful multiplayer.

First and most importantly, this is a relatively freeform game. You've got a "main quest" to complete and it's interesting enough as far as it goes but the real bulk of gameplay consists of treasure-hunting your way through overwhelmingly dangerous, complex landscapes. Most tasks are repeatable and give you a macguffin to chase, but no instructions on where or when to chase it. There are objects in places, somethings somewheres. You there, fetch! And as it turns out, being pushed to explore is a wonder in itself. You leave the safety of an underground bunker and head out toward the rough approximation of where there might be something good you can sell. The maps are relatively large and the dangers multifaceted. In addition to a wide variety of enemies, some dumb as bricks, others eerily clever, you will need to keep an eye out for environmental traps of varying lethality.

This would be a good stage to point out that this is not a product for twitch-gamers. You are not a godlike Schwarzenegger-type character trampling entire armies, but a skulking scavenger. There is a bit of character advancement through equipment (better weapons are stronger and steadier, that sort of thing) but no leveling up, thank Devs! You never get so strong that a bullet to the face isn't a problem. Hand-eye coordination matters, but tactical prowess, timing and planning and patience and keeping a cool head are your true virtues. Some of the enemies are smart enough not only to use cover, but to work together to flank you and flush you out of your own cover. Gear decays and your inventory is quite limited. You need to eat to survive, and wounds bleed! Keep an ear on your Geiger-counter and watch your steps if you don't want your shins rubberized by witches' jelly.
You will leave the safety of your trader NPC's bunker over-loaded with health packs, bandages, food, vodka, a spare weapon or two which you'll likely throw away halfway through your trip and all-too-scarce ammunition. You will learn to keep a stash out in the wilderness to resupply during your expeditions. You will return almost defenseless, hungry and irradiated but overloaded with treasure instead. You will learn to pick your fights and sneak and run whenever you can. You will learn to fear the night.

My greatest memories of this game are not some operatic bloodbath against gigantic monsters. One is warily approaching a group of NPCs who may or may not have been enemies, then passing a few minutes with them under an aluminum lean-to watching the sunset, eating a tin of spam around a garbage-can fire while one of them pulled out a guitar and started strumming a tune. The other is returning to town with a backpack full of valuables, sprinting to the gates with a pack of wild dogs nipping at my heels because I was completely out of ammo and had thrown away my empty weapons and even my worn-out armor in my greed to make room for more loot.

It's a beautiful, grim, melancholic mix of weary, desperate souls and broken industrial landscapes overgrown with weeds and mutants.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Whisper of the Heart

"I wanna know where children would go if they never learned to be cool"
- from Going North by Missy Higgins

How many of us truly remember being thirteen? The veneer of nostalgia stifles the poignancy of our former being, fabricating a past to validate our present, an imaginary child-self serving only to glorify adulthood, a delusional, eviscerating extroversion of what was once the self. Thus we betray ourselves into insignificance, imagining youth as the passive clay to be shaped by elders' iron fist. As adults, we imagine that the young are nothing without us. It is no more glorious, no less embarrassing a delusion than that. Patronizing, denigrating, defaming youth, ridiculing the little ones makes us feel big. In this quest for validation in the present we gladly sacrifice our past, our core, the once-vibrant ego around which we the malformed shell, the hollow pretense of mature respectability, still revolve.
We willfully forget our struggle.

Whisper of the Heart is not necessarily what one pictures when thinking of Studio Ghibli. It is not a grandiose, exuberant fantasy like Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle or Spirited Away. It begins instead like the studio's lesser-known, more mundane slice-of-life films like Only Yesterday or Ocean Waves. However, while those have their own charm they are also in danger of losing themselves in somewhat stultifying hyper-realism. In contrast, Whisper portrays a rich fantasy world overlaid on mundane city life, not as an alteration of reality but as the perception of a perceptive mind. It dredges up the moments of wonder we miss all around us, seen through the prism of a sensitive, intelligent, creative individual.

"The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And as imagination bodies forth 
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."

That is the core of what makes for a workable slice-of-life story. A day in the life of a normal human is dull. A day in the life of an interesting person can be interesting. Whisper is a story about creativity, about the dogged insistence on seeing more to the world than the crass mechanics of human social ritual, more than the deterministic chore of "growing up." It is in many ways the antithesis of that most despicable literary crime, the "coming of age" story in which some naive youth is beaten into a socially acceptable form by patronizing elders. From dappled sunlight on concrete and the nostalgia for library sign-out cards to hoards of artisanal treasure hidden in the belly of of modern city and dreams of faraway lands, there is always more to life than the grind. There are gems to be found in dull rocks. Shizuku must decide what to do with her life, yes, but to her the answer is not an easy, monosyllabic, monochromatic "job" or the singleminded race for social approval. She struggles and hesitates, rallies and re-assesses and remains always the principal agent of her own becoming.

However, the truly delightful touch which puts this movie above other stories of exceptional individuals struggling for integrity and personal growth is the thin thread of hope running throughout. Not rampant, delusional optimism but the frail, rare connection of possibilities. If you had declared in 8th grade that your high school entrance exams had taken a back seat, that you had something you needed to do, more important than proving yourself to the establishment, what would your parents have said? Are there people like Shizuku's father in the world, or Nishi the antiquarian? Are there objects of meaning like the Baron's statue? Are there oases of wonder and peace which float above the cities?

Are there any youths who refuse to lose themselves in the all-too-human, mechanistic devolution of fatalistic aging, refuse to let that barest whisper of the self be completely silenced?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Panacea, but for what?

"Lies, negative indoctrination about themselves
Promote feelings of such hopelessness and powerlessness
That suicide or the slower death of addiction
Seem to be the only way to stop the pain."

from Revolution by Tool / Rage Against the Machine

I can only assume from the snippets I've seen that the entirety of western or at least American mass-media has been tripping over itself over the past week and more to associate itself with the free publicity of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death. I'm not particularly interested in the death itself - Hoffman was an excellent actor, and nothing more, to me - but the media treatment of the affair brings up once again the issue of scapegoating.

In times of crisis, humans pull together. This is much more sinister than it sounds, because societies pull together by re-affirming their normalized internal identity in ritualized opposition to a fringe or external element. Victimization of the nominal other keeps the nominal "us" glued together. When faced with stress and especially morbidity, human societies prune away their deviance.
Thus even while decrying a pop-culture figure's death as a "tragedy" the public zeroes in on the juicy, scandalous otherness of the man himself, both as a means of exculpating themselves and, to make assurance double sure, declaring a villain outside themselves. He was, the moral majority gloats, one of those decadent artsy effeminates, not a real person. He was a mental patient. He had "substance abuse problems" the yokels belch in between bottles of beer. He did heroin, Heroin, didja hear, not Prozac, Ritalin and Oxycodone like us quiet, normal, productive folks. Guy must've been a freak, he must've been abnormal, and that, that is of course the most lethal drug of all. Abnormality kills.

Well yes, he was abnormal. He was superior. And what you must ask yourselves is why so many of those even you, the average schlub, is forced to tacitly concede are your intellectual superiors, would rather lose themselves in final solutions than keep living in your world. Yes, your world, that unevolved hive of apes, that world still drumming the timeless beat of competition for reproductive potential, of masculinity and femininity, glorification of the elders and endless backbiting for a shred of power over each other, your endless braying of your cultural "values" of sheepish, aimless complacency mixed with bloodthirsty, zero-sum competition, your sheer stupidity.

You hound your betters into the grave. You know what this reminds me of? Fifteen years ago, two teenagers from Colorado who had been beaten and pissed on their entire lives decided to end their miserable existences in one last act of defiance, to give you back some of your vicious petty vandalism. Some thousand miles away, I began to be pulled out of my high-school classes to be harrassed by the school's counselor for being a loner. The problem was not that the school was the playground of overentitled brainless jocks, but that I, a nerd who used to give teachers lessons, was not "integrating" myself, not accepting my role as victim and sycophant to the endless mental midgets around me. I wonder how many kids will be getting pulled out of class now because they're too expressive or too articulate, how many will be expelled for getting caught smoking a joint to ease the pain in their joints from having had some brainless hockey star sit on them and slap them around while the gym teacher cheered. How many future actors will be getting punished for easing the pain of a punishing world while the basketball team knocks back a few beers behind the local bar?

The truth is that your world, the human world, is not worth living in. Your reality is painful and boring. Losing oneself in a high, in a low, in escapism, even at the risk of the end of all things, is preferable to you. I don't care why exactly Hoffman died. I barely watched a handful of the guy's movies. I am however forced to point out that your reaction, the reaction which solves nothing and is meant to solve nothing because you yourselves are the problem, is always the same. Ostracize those diseased fringe elements, medicate them into submission, lock them in padded rooms. Burn the witch.

Let's get this straight. If I get depressed, it's because yours is a depressing world. I don't need Prozac. I need an ivory tower or a gun with a single bullet.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Stop Talking

Please, for the love of Euterpe, please, please, please, stop, just stop. Un-glue your finger from your microphone key for just a few seconds and actually look and listen to the game around you. Try to remember that what you're engaged in is an activity in itself and not merely your own private social club provided to make you feel as though you're constantly surrounded by a fawning entourage mindlessly clapping their paws at your idiotic narration of your every mundane experience.

Stop. Talking.
Voice chat is not "on" by default. It is not a core game element.  I did not pay twenty or fifty or a hundred dollars for this game we're playing to listen to you podcast your hooting and belching or giddily ask me if I saw that shot, omygawd didjasee it? huh? huh? ooooh muuuuyyy gaaawwwd duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude !!!

Now let's face it, voice chat is sometimes necessary. No matter how good a game's interface is (I'll get to good and bad examples in a moment) it cannot cover all possible situations. There may be no automated command for "hang a left after the second tree" and if there's no time to type it you might need to whip out the bullhorn and bark some orders. This is especially true of fast-paced first-person-shooter team games. However, voice chat should never, ever be considered the default means of relaying information. When I log into an online game, I am logging into a game, not sitting on a random stranger's couch to have a beer and bullshit about how manly we are. I want to play the game, see the game and yes, hear the game. I want to hear well-composed, atmospheric music, I want to hear the sweet sound of zombie skulls collapsing under baseball bats, I want to hear trained voice actors' perfectly-modulated impressions of panic or triumph, not Cletus the slack-jawed yokel telling me about this like, dude, like totally like awesome thing he just did, dude.
I want to listen to the sound of bullets flying, not some little mouthbreather's rambling macho attention-whoring.

While voice chat might be necessary once in a blue moon, it is generally detrimental and should never be allowed to become the endless droning background radiation of online games it is at present. The default means of relaying game information is through the game interface. Barring that, typing is not exactly such an obscure skill that it cannot be expected of a playerbase, and neither, one might hope beyond all hope, is reading. Voice communication is not superior to typing. Both are equally flexible ways of conveying game-related data. Voice is faster but text allows multiple players to communicate at once and does not have to be repeated.

Unfortunately, as I've often remarked, the endless mass-market deadheads which have clogged online games over the past decade have no interest in the products they're suckered into buying, in themselves. They have no objective appreciation of the activity. They only seek attention, approval, gratuitous social reinforcement. They cannot fathom the separation of an escapist fantasy from the sickening interaction of human existence. They only seek to expand their desperate grasping for social status into new, facile venues. They just want attention.

I recently tried a new online game. As soon as I logged in for the first time I was accosted by a random dimwit constantly babbling over voice chat: "Hello, sir? How are you? Can you say anything? Hello? Can you talk? No? OK, goodbye." Then he wandered off before I could even scramble to look around for the source of the incessant white noise, much less answer.
This was not a purposeful exercise. He was not asking "does anyone have any bullets for sale" or "anyone want to hunt some goblins" or "hey you know there's a big angry bear behind you" or anything else even remotely utilitarian. He was instead acting on the monstrously conceited assumption that I had logged into this product for which I'd paid good money not to enjoy my purchase, but to be engaged in nonsensical chatter by him, a complete stranger.
For the record, I had not sought to be engaged in nonsensical chatter by a complete stranger.

I've quit or been kicked out of three outfits (guilds) so far in Planetside 2. My complaints about them have run the gamut of the usual human stupidity displayed by leet-kiddies, but the common thread all three times has been the incessant babbling over voice chat, the complete unwillingness on the part of guild leaders to restrict communication to those ideas worth communicating like "oh, look, cannon shells flying right at us." This extends to being unable to even get a word in edgewise when something crucial really is happening because everyone's too busy yammering about this totally awesome thing they heard about.
PS2 makes a great show of the mutually reinforcing destructiveness of supply and demand. A side effect of the influx of mass-market deadheads in online games over the past decade has been the increasing certainty that reading is just too hard. Companies instead provide voice chat. Kiddies overuse voice chat, ignoring other means of communication. Companies feel less pressure to provide other means of communication. Thus, the necessary interface tools are no longer present and everyone is forced to rely even more on voice chat.

Planetside 2 hinges on players' organization into squads with squad leaders. However, it includes no command interface whatsoever, aside from placing very generic waypoints on the map. Contrast this with a much more carefully structured multiplayer game like the long-dead Savage 2, where a team commander, playing the strategic side of the game, acted through, shockingly enough, a strategy game interface. Context-sensitive commands could be given directly to players by simply selecting them and right-clicking on objectives. These were accompanied by automated voice commands to get the player's attention. Action players, conversely, could get the commander's attention with voice macros linked to map pings. The location and status of each player was easily discernable through the command interface. Much older games like Starsiege: Tribes even included the ability to see through the eyes of another player, to ghost for teamwork purposes. In Planetside 2, all you can do is best describe verbally what you want done over the endless symphony of attention-starved little cretins patting each other on the back for being teh awesome. You are further incapacitated by an incredibly clunky, almost useless text chat system. There is nothing but voice chat in PS2. Zero development time = extra profits.

However, the concern here extends beyond immediate utility. Video games have an audio component. This is not optional. You yourself may be comfortable replacing professional music and sound effects with the nasal boasting of some random imbecile, but you have no right to impose this denial of quality on others. Voice chat is not chat, but a tool for emergencies.
Unless you've got critical, urgent gameplay-related information to relay, keep your goddamn idiot mouth shut!

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Christopher Baldwin spent a decade writing and illustrating the daily life of a capricious, emotionally unbalanced, self-destructive, cerebral, hypercritical misfit. Given that, would you like to see the spin he can put on larger-than-life SciFi heroes saving the galaxy?

Read Spacetrawler. It's completed, so you need fear no cliffhangers. Really, it might be said it's slightly over-cooked, as the short bonus story tacked on at the end progresses rather by-the-numbers, mere fan service without inspiration. Really, even by the epilogue of the main story itself, it was obvious that Baldwin was rushing to tie up this work and move on to something else. (And he's already started publishing that something else.) Still, it is well worth the time.

Though the author chose to advertise it as a comedy comic and indeed manages to pack some laughs into every page, Spacetrawler's humor is relatively dark and tightly interwoven with character and plot development, not the repetitive, gratuitous triviality of most gag-a-day strips. If one were to compare it to the most famous SciFi parody, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Spacetrawler's tone would much more closely resemble the preachier, more bitter later installments than the relatively lighthearted first book.

Neither does it wallow in maudlin overstatement. It strikes that ideal balance toward macabre derision at the oppressor's wrong, the law's delay, the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office. Baldwin's style is too deeply rooted in the human condition to make for eye-opening science fiction by itself. His aliens though pleasingly alien in shape are human, all-too-human in their behavior, but the juxtaposition remains consistently amusing. It's a lot like Fry and Leela's first conversation in Futurama.

Fry: What's with the eye?
Leela: I'm an alien, alright?
Fry: Cool, an alien. Has your race taken over the Earth?
Leela: No, I just work here.

And, as in George R. R. Martin's Tuf Voyaging, the layers of humor and adventure conceal poignant commentary on the moral perils of do-gooding. While not true antiheroes, the limitations of the heroes' own nature and their largely unworkable dilemmas result in many of their decisions being "fucking ape-shit evil" as one character summarizes toward the end. In contrast to Tuf's largely detached, principled ethical calculations, Martina and her impulsive, passionate band of revolutionaries live with the constant emotional backlash of their actions. The most fascinating moments of the story are those draconian final measures, carried out or averted, those moral lode-stones which nonetheless weigh down the spirit.

To me, much of it was unintuitively touchy-feely. I am much more at home on the Ark with Haviland Tuf, making solitary, rational choices than on the over-crowded Star Banger. Most characters' co-dependence grates at times and I found myself echoing Krep's exasperation. I do not often find them relatable... but they are believable, and all the more interesting for having to make Tuf* decisions without the benefit of Tuf's introversion.


*And if you thought I could write two whole posts mentioning Heavy-and-Tough without punning him at least once, dey don't know me vewwy well, do dey?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Tuf Voyaging

I wanted to say something about one of my favorite webcartoonists' recently completed space opera, but in comparing its dark humor to a convenient Science Fiction example I find a need to establish that point of reference. So it's Martin today, Baldwin tomorrow.

Tuf Voyaging is not a novel per se. It is a collection of short stories written in a similar style featuring the same title hero. Through his long career before starting the sprawling fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire which thanks to HBO interference has slowed to a crawl in favor of adaptation, George R.R. Martin wrote precious few novels. Aside from a couple of slim novellas like Dying of the Light or Fevre Dream, he was mostly known for morally ambiguous SciFi short stories, hard-hitting vignettes of wanton destruction like The Sandkings.

That's where the collection conflated as Tuf Voyaging starts, with the crew of a salvage vessel greedily and callously eliminating each other as they scramble for possession of a devastatingly powerful warship. Think of it as Survivor with plagues and monsters. From there, the stories get less directly violent but more morally charged, showcasing Haviland Tuf's maybe-rational, maybe-callous, pleasingly trenchant problem-solving abilities. Though much of the stories' initial lure for readers hinges on the image of Tuf himself (the book's Wikipedia entry accurately if superficially describes him as "an exceptionally tall, bald, very pale, overweight, phlegmatic, vegetarian, cat-loving but otherwise solitary space trader") they ultimately remain memorable for Tuf's grimly comical difficulties in aiding the self-destructive.

Whether you're left with a sour taste or a warm feeling of satisfaction at the end of the collection I should think largely depends on whether you agree or disagree with Tuf's draconian beneficence in Manna from Heaven and the example of S'uthlam is a case-in-point for Science Fiction's role as a court jester, a safe, publicly derided yet subversive venue for those progressive ideas too dangerous to be spoken of as nonfiction.

Many of Tyrion Lannister's lines in A Song of Ice and Fire betray Martin's own constant awareness of this sad reality, and Tuf is the no-bullshit representation of Martin's style which you're not likely to find on cable television. Stannis Baratheon is little more than Haviland Tuf's somewhat diminished reincarnation.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Everything takes an extra click.

That's the long and short of O.R.B., a defunct Homeworld-clone of yesteryear. In all fairness, I was warned by comments on its GoG page that this was at best an uninspired copycat, but in my Homeworld fanboy zeal I dared to hope even copycats might retain something of its greatness. And really in objective, absolute terms, this is not the most horrible game I've seen. It is... somewhat functional.

However, much like Age of Wonders, it's an amateurish exercise in interface wrangling. Instead of Homeworld's minimalist GUI and visual cues like contrails, O.R.B. clutters the screen with gratuitously wide window borders and a constant reliance on a tactical overlay. Instead of context-sensitive Ctrl or Alt-clicking, it manages to use half the keyboard. Instead of orderly, easily selectable default formations, it forces you to chase down each new vessel as it wanders off in a seemingly random direction after being built. Research is needlessly redundant with many completely gratuitous techs and even O.R.B.'s token strategic innovation over Homeworld, the "available pilot" limitation quickly becomes a chore, as you have to constantly bring up the allocation window to maximize your efficiency - and you can't do anything else while you have these windows active.

Visually and aurally, the game's just generic. While ships look more like space-ships instead of Homeworld's incongruously winged and finned Taiidan monstrousities, they are also sadly nondescript. Again, one of the most important and simplest visual cues, paint color, was completely ignored in favor of forcing players to bring up the tactical overlay whenever they want to give orders or even see what's going on. The attempt to give the aliens alien languages, while it could have been a very colorful set of individual intuitive exclamations a la Spore, ends up as perfunctory, inflectionless gibberish carrying no meaning.

And on and on. While removing both the aesthetic charm and practical grace of Homeworld, this knockoff managed to add a completely extraneous layer of interfering hodgepodge. I was perplexed at first, having seen Strategy First's label before as a publisher on Space Empires 5, a rather enjoyable if low-budget re-hashing of Master of Orion, and knowing they'd worked with interesting developers like Paradox, Stardock or Ironclad.

But I guess there really is a difference between publishing someone else's product and actually doing the creative work of development.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mythic Wars

As an amusing side-note to the demise of the MMO concept and its replacement with WoW-clones' meaningless slot-machine grinding, browser-based games have long ago begun calling themselves "MMOs" - and truly, from the point of view of the petty scheisters peddling mindless endorphin fixes through RMT schemes, browser games really are the distillation of what they understand as a multiplayer game. They require the least development investment while still aggressively pushing paid cheating options in the lowest-common-denominator arena of facetious, rigged competition. "Games" composed of a few dozen anime-knockoff images and three or four combat actions have long been calling themselves "MMOs" and trying to convince you to pay $5 for a bigger sword. Strategic options include both "hack" 'n "slash."

However, scattered among the endless, shameless scams all trying to dazzle you into buying some amusement-park dollars, you might still find the odd remnant of by-gone expectations. Browser games' claim to massiveness or persistence is after all not entirely unjustified. The requirements of a persistent world (depth and scope, interconnection, interaction, player agency, etc.) can be fulfilled by 2D images and a well-crafted web-page interface. And though some of my favorite examples from last decade like Xenocide3001 or Aventia have long since gone the way of the Dodo, burrowed in the nooks and crannies of the internet one may still find groups of players quietly going about the business of slinging spells against each other or pitting their armies in bids for world domination, largely unconcerned with the industry's recent obsession with macroing microtransactions.

Mythos has been around for a decade now, and along with its more long-winded sister-game Norron, Mythicwars provides a lovely snapshot of just where the upward trend in browser games came to a screeching halt. Its hey-day coincided, not coincidentally, with the downward turn of MMOs after World of Warcraft's launch and its near-demise came at the same time as the legitimized cheating marketing scheme ramped up. The third iteration of Mythos and Norron's basic layout, though mentioned a couple of times years ago, apparently never materialized. It was not any technological advancement which defeated browser games - if anything they are now better than ever able to compete graphically for customers' attention - but the rush toward microtransaction schemes by large developers (exhibit A / exhibit B) whose advertising drowned more honest games out.

Mythos / Norron even contain a snippet of the old self-imposed limitation on legitimized cheating. Paying into them gives some minor advantages like the ability to see the scoreboard before the round ends. They do not, however, allow players to speed up their in-game actions, buy resources, buy head starts or any other nonsense. Their "massiveness" is also intermediate, with world resets every 40 or 90 days and world size, though somewhat scalable, suited to anywhere from a couple dozen to a few hundred players. There is almost no trading and no crafting. Yet at every angle within this simple template one can see what might have been, what could have been added, if the player population had continued to grow, if Mythicwars had not been abandoned as every munchkin ran off to buy himself some cheats elsewhere.
If the concept of "strategy" would actually sell.

To be sure, it's far from perfect. The issue of multiple accounts, though policed somewhat, has never been successfully addressed in browser games which lack faster-paced game engines' constant demand for player input as a restraint on multi-boxing or alting as a method of cheating. Balance issues abound, gameplay gets bogged down in predictable repetition late in rounds, the lack of crafting and trading makes the game seem shallower than it is, kingdom (guild) mechanics are almost wholly absent and some functionality (integrated combat calculator, for instance) is missing. However, for the few of us whose inner purist recoils in disgust at being forced to buy peons for fifty cents a piece at EA's cash store, Mythos and Norron remain one of the last refuges the microtransacted internet has to offer.

edit 2016/08/22 - Mythicwars ceased running new matches sometime early this year and has been offline for several months now. Rest in peace. While I can't fault its maintenance staff (of one, I believe) for abandoning a long moribund project, I also can't help but mourn the loss of yet another refuge of civilization to the primitive hordes.