Friday, March 28, 2014

My enemy's friend

About a year ago I got into a screaming match (figuratively, since I prefer to type) with my old LotRO guild and left. It started with an argument about what does or does not constitute an MMO. I consistently worked toward some sort of rational definition while the worthless dimwit I had pitted myself against retorted only with "but that's just your opinion" in the finest tradition of postmodern anti-intellectualism.

That in itself would not have been enough to make me give up on them. However, the rest sided with her. They wanted to keep the peace. They decided to side with stupidity. This is the final nail in humanity's coffin. Your tolerance for stupidity, your unwillingness to burn those bridges, the socially convenient glorification of "tolerance" as a cultural ideal is our time's contribution to the death of the species. You know better. But you'd rather side with your dimwitted "friends" than support an objectively superior viewpoint. You want to keep the peace? Nothing more peaceful than the communal graves which will become all too common as you allow every hard-won advance of the past few centuries against the human norm to be whittled away by those brainless masses.

And the setting does not matter one bit. Quality is quality and truth is truth, no matter that you're in the real world or in cyberspace, and there is no excuse whatsoever for refusing to condemn stupidity in games. I have been banned endless times in more games than I care to count by more mental midgets than I should ever have bothered interacting with. Because I'm the only bad guy. Because when you see me criticizing some little dimwit who instead of playing for the team abuses you for his own self-aggrandizement you just keep quiet and let me get shouted down, let him keep on ahead as long as you can get the idiot to call you "cool" while denigrating my higher ground. If it's "just a game" then why are you incapable of taking the risk of enforcing morality even there? If you're so pathetically scared of speaking out against stupidity there, am I supposed to believe you'll do it when it's not "just a game" ?

So you know what, if that's your mental level, I'll gladly sink to it. If that's the world, then the fuck with all of it and the fuck with all of you. No more well-reasoned arguments. No more trying to elevate your thought processes. Go fuck yourselves, all of you. I will insult you wherever I find you. If you want to use the anonymity of the internet to make yourselves feel big, then by all means, allow me to illustrate your stupidity in uncomfortably stark outlines. I've been spending more and more time in online games just swearing endlessly at you. It's not as cathartic as it would seem, but hell, it's not like anything else works. There is only one insult which matters, the insult to intelligence, but since you're incapable of grasping that I will gladly call you every racist, sexist, scatological, monosyllabic curse in the vast repertoire of your lowest-common-denominator rape of language.

If you can't be brought up out of your stupidity, then absorbing my insults is all you're good for. If you refuse to claw your way out of your putrid human social interdependence with sub-primate intellects, then rot along with them. I only hope I live long enough to get to see the world burn so I can revel in your pain. This is the way I choose to have you kill me.

Though I'm pretty sure even then instead of recanting your support of mass stupidity, you'll be blaming me for pointing out the apocalypse. Fuck you retards.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Heroes of Might and Magic 4

Objectively speaking, HoMM4 was not a great game. Its AI was as sorely lacking as that of every other installment in the series. It shared their common flaw of a massive build-up of troops actually countering the attrition from which it would logically suffer. It was unfortunately geared toward campaign more than freestyle gameplay.
But that all amounts only to saying HoMM4 was an HoMM game with HoMM flaws. It should be viewed as what it was: a last-ditch attempt to revolutionize an aging series by a developer already spiraling the drain after failures with other projects. Its various features must be addressed in context and occasionally offer some important insights into game design.

Heroes as units
The biggest shock to most fans was seeing their beloved heroes thrown into the battlefield, open to harm, and though a few years later Warcraft 3 would make this a standard expectation for fantasy RPG heroes, HoMM4's variant was not re-integrated thoughtfully enough into gameplay. Their main role remained to cast nukes, heals and debuffs just like the invincible, standoffish heroes of previous games, so placing them in the field served no purpose, especially since their spells had no minimum ranges and very limited line-of-sight issues.

Hero skills
Instead of developing one core hero class, each hero could mix-and-match skills to become a prestige class. So Life+Death magic = Dark Priest, Nature+Death magic = Demonologist, etc. Unfortunately this removed heroes' personalities, which was counterproductive to Heroes 4's emphasis on a slightly more mature RPG setting. Any demonologist was the same demonologist.
Also since hero survivability depended predominantly on one single "Combat" skill class, this combined with their new overall vulnerability made it too much of a must-have.
In fact, balance was almost completely thrown out the window here. Given the HoMM series' emphasis on avoiding attrition, having a combat hero absorbing hits on the front line or using summoning skills for the same reason or any other such measures proved stupidly overpowered.

Faction types
Abandoning the traditional knight/sorceress/wizard/etc. split of previous HoMMs, #4 shamelessly cribbed the magic color system from Magic: The Gathering, with black/white/red/blue/green and nonmagical alignments. This in itself was good as it allowed for faction alignments for neutral creatures and rooted these distinctions more intuitively into the setting, but unfortunately was not taken far enough. Some of the magic spells for instance were quite unimaginatively pasted between factions, especially when it came to all-purpose magic missiles. Still, it was a big step up from HoMM3... or 5 for that matter.

Just as heroes could for the first time move around without creatures, creatures could travel without heroes, in any size stack. While open to abuse and too reliant on micromanagement for lack of automation options, this helped flesh out the world even more, removing the single-minded focus on the "Heroes" of might and magic. But then is it really a Heroes game? Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and have only recently realized that one thing which drew me to Elemental from the start was this very same feature. However, since HoMM still placed no limit on the number of creatures in one stack, splitting them off into their own armies was pretty pointless, so this promising feature came to nothing in the end.

Fewer tiers
Most HoMM games have depended on seven incrementally better creature tiers, each slightly better. #4 instead reduced this to four tiers. This made the power difference between tiers much more satisfying, but removed the strategic choice of skipping tiers while upgrading a town. However, it left an interesting niche for neutral creatures as intermediates: elementals were somewhere between 2 and 3, zombies between 1 and 2, and so forth.
However again, the vast difference in power made some creature special abilities interestingly if aggravatingly overpowered when facing lower tiers, like vampires' lifestealing or gryphons' endless retaliations. Others like minotaurs, which had a chance to block any physical attack regardless of the amount of damage, or medusae which sheared units off the top of a stack regardless of tier, had the opposite effect.
Also quite importantly, this eliminated creature redundancy. No more pointless, perfunctory upgrading of creatures to bigger badder versions of themselves, and no more endless varieties of green dragons, red dragons, gold dragons, pink dragons, purple chipmunk polka-dot dragons...
Variety is not variety without distinction.

Building choice
Here was an excellent replay value improvement. Instead of allowing players to fully upgrade any town, tiers 2,3 and 4 of the creature generators in each town presented two mutually exclusive choices. Can't build golems if you choose magi, that sort of thing. So you could specialize in demons one game and undead the next, or mix-and-mach as you think best.
This was also about the only feature thoroughly tested and balanced so that no choice felt extraneous and all had their purposes, which could not be said of the hero skill and spell choices.

Finally, there were some features which were unambiguously good or bad.

The new combat map, replacing the traditional hex grid, was a monumental failure. While other flaws could be overlooked, the awkward, irrationally twisting paths which creatures walked in combat were a constant frustration.
However, it did offer the important improvement of allowing full line-of-sight blocking of ranged attacks.

Aesthetics were hit-or-miss. Decent sound, good writing, bad graphics. Neither realistically proportioned nor the adorable cartoonish storybook tropes of past games, creature models dipped into grotesque uncanny valley caricature. The music though was pleasingly over-the-top and always apt to its surroundings. In fact, one of the saving graces of this entire game series through the decades has been retaining a competent composer.

The writing deserves special mention because of Heroes of Might and Magic's traditional role straddling the TBS and RPG genres. Though the storytelling side in most iterations has been so painfully childish as to not be worth mentioning (no really, I immediately gave up on HoMM5's campaign mode after the first time they shouted "Griffin eternal!") HoMM4 made a big point of wiping the slate clean and introducing a new, slightly more Grimm faerytale world. It's not really up to true RPG standards, but there is some pain and desperation, fear and survival in the stories of Emilia, Tawni or especially Gauldoth.
Just as importantly, the writing team made a decisive effort to immerse you in that world through the pop-up texts attached to mundane actions like finding a new shield or buying a skill at an interactable map location.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested or experienced in TBS games or the RPG/TBS mix. However, I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone just casually taking a first look into the genre or the HoMM series. Heroes 3 or 5 were both more polished and... representative.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


If Vexxarr had a soundtrack, it would be a repeating game-show "wrong answer" buzzer. It was the third example I had in mind when addressing comic-book space operas a few months ago (also the only one still ongoing) and while Buck Godot was a measured exercise in dramatic escalation featuring light comic relief and Spacetrawler an even mix of drama and comedy, Vexxarr is almost entirely farcical, centered on a main character who maintains a bitterly derisive attitude toward the various galactic crises in which he finds himself embroiled. 

Its various other features don't really stand out. They're developed just enough to serve parody. Instead of full-page installments it follows a standard four-panel, gag-a-day format. Instead of convoluted character development it presents of a larger variety of simpler, more plot-friendly but more shallow props. Aside from its Trek-ish feel, it is in fact more comparable to Narbonic, jumping from one interesting SciFi notion to another, from silicoid ecosystems to cloaking devices to fabricated slave races.

One of this strip's quainter quirks is the source of inspiration for its body and ship plans. Remember when you used to pick up household items as a kid and run around the house with them going "zoom-zoom" and "pew-pew" pretending they were spaceships? Vexxar's author tends to do just that with common office objects. Everything from a rubber stamp to a desk lamp to a stapler to a chess pawn seems to have served as inspiration for either aliens or their spaceships. Sometimes half the fun is just figuring out what he was absentmindedly fiddling with when thinking up a new design.

This results in a steady stream of novel visual gags in addition to the verbal derision, and the strip has remained funny throughout. In fact if it has any flaw it's that the plot can drag a bit in the middle of storylines as more and more four-panel strips are added to serve apt (though somewhat repetitive) one-panel punchlines.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Visible Hand of the Market

Hit-counting is a very nasty habit, but I suppose anyone who posts something online falls into it and there's a genuine curiousity in seeing which posts get only a handful of accidental hits and which manage to break out of double-digits. By that alone you should be able to tell that my ranting reaches so negligible an audience that I'd be better off writing this as toilet-stall graffiti. But however inept I am at making myself heard by sentient beings, anyone can draw the attention of various incarnations of corporations' social control apparatus.

There are apparently endless datamining services out there, and though Google is rather apt at hiding their activity from its own users, occasionally a new one will for a period register its access as true hits. As an outsider to the whole corporate bean-counting circle-jerk, this offers me a little glimpse into the shallow yet murky waters of their parasitism. The bullshit that bullshitters tell each other can sometimes paradoxically leak a bit of unintended truth.

For instance, the validity of my existence has recently come under scrutiny by the keyword-combing algorithms of a lovely new little nest of leeches. And though most of their nonsense is pretty standard, they did make one amusing Freudian slip.

"Comprehensive analysis of your website for its compliance with the website development and SEO industry requirements. Using the results of this analysis you can increase search engines and user trust in your website."
I had to look up what the SEO "industry" is. Seems about as productive as any other such "industry" of corporate parasitism like advertising or finance. The crucial point is a single word: compliance. Compliance = trust. Compliance costs. This is partly what I was talking about in one of my earliest posts here. The new model of censorship ensures that unwanted social elements are never recognized by promoting their competition. To get in you must pay your dues by hiring such industry insiders, and you're either in or you're nothing. This sort of mafia tribute is hardly new. It's how trade guilds operated for centuries.

Comply, or you're nobody. And if you can't afford to comply, you are nobody by definition. If you're not already somebody, you will be forever nobody.

Why, Internet, you're older than you look.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Historical Value of Sherlock Holmes

There's a modern-day televised re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes bouncing its way about the airwaves. Having seen a bit over half of one episode, I must say I cannot entirely dismiss it. It seems expertly made, if still oriented of course toward mass-appeal. Still, I cannot tolerate watching an entirely gratuitous modernization. There is no excuse to pander to the public's moronic ineptitude at placing itself in historical context or interpreting the values of days past. Sherlock Homes exists in a Victorian setting, and that's final. If you'd like to make a show about a modern-day detective sharing all of Holmes' antisocial, addiction-prone, arrogant quirks, then by all means, call him whatever else you like. In fact, that's last decade's news and likely served as the proof-of-concept for reviving Holmes himself. Against all odds, the beer-swilling deadhead television audience accepted such an intellectual protagonist. However, the purchase of copyrights for simple name-brand recognition constantly degrades our cultural reservoir. The masses must be taught to value past works, not wallow in their ethnocentrism and outright ignorance. I once met a thirty-year-old man who thought the Roman and British empires had coexisted.

But of course that value does not include any delusions about the unimpeachability of such works. Dickensian serialized novels are full of filler, Shakespeare pandered to contemporary English politics and Sherlock Holmes stories... are not an intellectual tour de force. To experience the original work, as we should, is to also experience its flaws.

For one thing, it's been remarked that Sherlock Holmes stories don't share the careful and convoluted mazes of suspicion of modern-day whodunits. The solutions hinge on gimmickry which the public was never meant to discern. A snake on a string? Gimme a break. Early examples of any genre will often share this apparent dissociation from it, simply by virtue of being less formulaic. It takes some time for extraneous features to get pruned away from core expectations, to condense from the Comedy of Errors to Seinfeld. Frankenstein is not Star Trek, nor is The Lord of the Rings, elves and goblins aside, Dungeons and Dragons

It is overall striking just how little a part of Sherlock tales the detective work plays. Doyle was selling cheap thrills to the growing number of bored, sheltered parvenus of the British Empire. He makes a great deal of the oddity of the growing subsection of intellectuals devoted to science instead of philosophy or literature (Sherlock and Mycroft specifically) much as he did with Professor Challenger in The Lost World. Even more importantly, Doyle supplied a constant stream of exotic tidbits from current or former British colonies, like say... a mongoose (it's like a weasel, but bigger) or maybe outlandish cults with nigh-supernatural powers like the KKK or those most romantic and alien of alien mystics ... Mormons!
Displaying the ridiculousness of the novelty value of such gimmicks to Victorians would go a long way toward counteracting today's public's dependence on its own exotic fads.

Then there are the many small references to social progress. One would think that if American and British audiences were truly interested in their politically correct causes, they might want a little glimpse of just how a turn-of-the-last-century author treated such issues as racial segregation, the worth of women or jingoism and imperial expansion.
Come on. I'm pretty sure Cumberbatch and Freeman could just as easily have played a period piece. In fact we already know Freeman can. What were hobbits but quaint Edwardian villagers?

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Interesting how much of the most memorable literature is composed not of epics and sagas but of snippets and excerpts and short stories. Perhaps Ambrose Bierce's criticism that a certain novel simply had "too much space between the covers" was more vastly applicable than most novelists would care to admit. Works designed only to entertain, to occupy the mind, stretch tautologically into self-absorbed reader absorption but when the goal is thought, ideas, an intended "effect" then filling can prove too... filling... for proper digestion. Here we have a crucial observable difference between the two main branches of so-called speculative fiction, Fantasy and Science Fiction: the first makes quaint absurdist theater of its sprawling, endless series of thousand-upon-thousand-page novels while the second, the genre of ideas, makes a name for itself through vignettes and snapshots of possibility or probability.
Conversely, when discussing a SciFi short story like Mimsy Were the Borogoves, remain centered on its ideas, on questions of transcendence, brain plasticity and canalization. Don't try to make it into some after-school special.

The story used to be available online, but I'm guessing after Hollywood snatched up the rights to mangle it, the new copyright owner started suing left and right to ensure nobody can read the original without paying to justify that mangling.

I refuse to watch NewLine's disgusting pretense of adaptation. I would say it's because they made it into a children's story, but that's not strictly true when comparing it to the source material. Mimsy Were the Borogoves, though logically centered on the two children transcending human nature after being exposed to the teachings of a vastly superior post-human society, is really a parents' story. We are meant to empathize and sympathize not with the children's personal advancement but with the father's simian possessiveness over his young. Mired in human instinct, we're meant to place ourselves in the position not of progressive youths but of jealously reactionary elders. Though the two heroes walk off ninety degrees from the sunset to a realm of higher existence, we're supposed to interpret this as a sad ending because their animal caretaker was denied his instinctive need for control over them.

But of course the short story would not have become a classic had it not contained a great deal of interesting conjecture. Its attitude may have been a smidge off kilter but its ideas carried the finest of Science Fiction speculative tradition. Leave it to Hollywood to scrape any trace of intellectualism out of the gutted shell of the classic they commandeered for name recognition. Making it into a children's instead of parents' story could have resulted in a brilliant adaptation. They instead apparently went above and beyond to champion their bestial public's status quo in ways which had nothing to do with making the story less violent or less sexual or anything commonly touted as child-proofing, and you can illustrate this with one plot point from the Wikipedia description of the (gag) "adaptation."

"Mimzy explains to the children that they must use the toys as a time machine to return her to the future with uncorrupted 21st century human DNA, which the people of the future can use to correct the damage to their DNA [...]"

The whole point of the short story was that the box of toys elevated the children's thought processes from an inferior larval form (human) to that of advanced ubermenschen. It is a form of education so advanced that it amounts to transcendence.
That ain't gonna fly with the mass market though. In the Hollywoodized version, we, the apes of the present, are utterly perfect and called upon to rescue that foolish technologically-advanced post-human society. Not only that but we're intrinsically perfect depending not on any intellectual achievements but just for possessing naked ape DNA.

You, dear viewer, are speshul!
Who's speshul? You are. Yes you are. Oh, yes you are. Cootchie-cootchie-coo.

Compare and contrast the '43 and '07 interpretations of education.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Focus on the stories, TSW

I am invited to the TSW scenario weekend - or so Funcom's latest spam informs me.
So far I've talked about Issue 3 and Issue 5 of The Secret World's post-launch content expansions. There's little point in going through all of them one by one. The pattern has emerged.

As a compendium of urban myths and counter-pop fads like a zombie apocalypse, much of TSW is derivative, and Issues 6 and 7 pandered to Indiana Jones and James Bond fans respectively. My complaints about them would only re-hash what I've said about The Cat God and Tyler Freeborn: content less meticulously balanced between novelty and obscurity, puzzles dependent more on metagaming and external references than cleverness, more and more pointless timesinks. For example in the final mission of Issue 6, getting killed by the boss bounces you halfway back through the eponymous train to Cairo, forcing you to pointlessly trudge through several completely empty box-cars over and over again. Long way to go for an S&M prop.
However at least in terms of aesthetics, Issue 7 delivered the same sort of engrossing theatricality as Issue 5's last mission. Lilith was delightfully, demonically crass and vicious and the phrase "Hello I walk into empty" is as memorable a high point as "What can change the nature of a man?" or "The cake is a lie" or, let's be honest, "That is not dead which can eternal lie" which was the central inspiration for TSW's cosmology.

However, if TSW is to continue even limping along as it has after its nearly fatally failed launch, it faces a self-imposed conundrum. Though its main selling points come in the form of adventure-game interactive fiction and puzzle-solving, it burdened itself with half-assed attempts at what the industry perceived to "sell" in MMOs half a decade ago: arena PvP and raids. Though not in any way competitive with their equivalent in TSW's MMO competitors these features keep a number of uninformed subscribers busy, and after plummeting interest over the past year and a half the dev team must be feeling a great deal of pressure to keep those disinterested achievement-chasers interested. Every dollar counts.

Problem: Funcom isn't entirely blind. TSW's launch tanked quite badly, and the poor investment seems to have been stripped of all but a skeleton crew. Post-launch content has been largely deprived of the high production values present in past adventures. Less acting, fewer bells and whistles. Visual cues remain invisible because bugs never get fixed. Monsters are not even re-skinned for re-use. Much of Issue 3 (mostly the 2013 Samhain edition) was in plain text, even. Content developers manage the odd proof of their abilities as with Freeborn and "I walk into empty" but for the most part the obvious strain results in painfully awkward half-measures.

Take for instance Issue 8, containing the "scenarios" alluded to in this week's spam. They are meant to be new adventures, a new type of group content... but they re-use existing game areas. They really are scraping the bottom of the barrel when they resort to that tired old gimmick: a "virtual reality training area" within the game itself. A computer game within a computer game... no, just no. I enter escapist fantasies to become a hero or villain taking imaginary actions, not to take imaginary imaginary actions. This is not Inception, thanks. Scenarios are of course just a shameful dodge out of creating new zones or even re-vamping old ones. Cut and pasted environments cut development time - handy when you're trying to crank out the paid updates. Unfortunately it comes across like one of those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons where the characters keep running past the same pasted backdrop.

But of course the real issue with issue 8 is that it, like #4, was mainly a gameplay and not content-oriented update. Most of the limited workpower went into developing the "scenario" combat mechanics to provide players with a new-ish type of group activity to keep them interacting and keep the so-called community kicking. As far as that goes, it's a pretty decent attempt... but it's a bandaid on a gaping chest-wound. TSW's skill system, split as it is between PvP/solo/group demands, needs a major overhaul. Instead of flexibility, it encourages cookie-cutter builds and merely dictates a few must-have skills slotted for each encounter. Scenarios bring this issue to the forefront because they really do provide and demand flexibility... and the game interface simply does not allow for it. Switching builds is aggravatingly clunky and winds up making a mess of your inventory more than anything. Trying to do so on the fly to slot the skill you know you absolutely need in order to beat the randomly-generated boss coming right at you is... well, ragequit-inducing.

So, yeah, I'll likely jump in and farm my character a bit of faction rep while this week's promotion is going on. Then I expect I'll quit for another couple of months, until the next story/puzzle expansion comes along. Without the manpower to completely re-do the skill system and interface, TSW's group content offers nothing over its competition and attempts to expand it without rebuilding the haphazard, amateurish combat mechanic infrastructure only (as I've said time and again) drain an already overloaded development team's time from their true talents.

Now more than ever the game needs to scale back, cut those half-assed unworkable PvP features out altogether, take the subscription hit for the present and focus on the project's strong points so you have some future. Keep cranking out atmospheric solo missions like Freeborn or Dream to Kill to make a name for yourselves in at least one department, maintain your best selling-point; sell it as offline content if you have to to cut server costs. Whatever extra time you have, pour into getting group PvE dynamics past the cookie-cutter tank/healer/nuker mentality. Then you can worry about new group content.

And no, I won't even bother posting this on TSW's forums. They didn't listen to me six years ago; why would they now?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

VtM: Redemption's Teuton Trampling

So, about that one ridiculously overpowered way to play through VtM: Redemption. Let's look at the man behind the curtain. Let's spoilerize.

I call Christof a "prince Charming" for more ample reason than his chase after Anezka. Building up his Presence, turning him into a charismatic leader-type, not only lets you get infinite cash upon or even before reaching the modern age by reselling items to NPCs for higher than their original cost, but lets you get a steady supply of blood early on by charming enemies into walking helplessly into your fangs. This also trivializes most fights by separating groups of hostile NPCs.

So, much of the game devolves into a dull but completely safe routine. Mind-control from a safe distance, bleed your target to death, move a few steps forward, repeat. Though you need a bit of fighting ability for when you find yourself isolated and for boss fights, you'll also usually have a henchman or two you can build for brute strength. You always have to keep your blood bank in mind. Most fights resolve to a bottom-line calculation of blood expenditure, and the way to spend absolutely no blood is by charming and feeding constantly. It's slow going.

However, some game areas were set up in direct opposition to this. The Tower of London is one, but the perfect example is the Teutonic Knight Base. On your way out, there's almost nothing to feed upon, as the tin-plated teutons all have neck-guards. They hit like trucks and every fight is close-quarters, making engaging them normally risky. Moreover, their armor makes clubs and swords impractical... but luckily, even if prince charming only has a sword-and-board, you can still build up old Wilhelm's Protean aggravated-damage-dealing claws to bypass that armor bonus. More effective and less risky than unbuffed group melee, more efficient than Serena's nuking, it's all about bum-rushing room after room of knights before they can surround you. You have a chance to take one character from fight to fight, buffed up to his eyeballs with fortitude, potence, celerity and claws and tear through a horde of lumbering enemies one by one before they react while martial instrumentation drums you ever-forth to glory!
So after all the role-playing vacillation about salvation and guilt and redemption, after all the calculated blood-bank nickel-and-diming, here for once there's nothing to do but hack and slash.

But focus on the first part of that last sentence, not just the second. The hack'n'slash is hardly brilliant in itself. It was the contrast against regular, charm-heavy gameplay which made the Teutonic Knight Base memorable. The novelty of this one area encouraging aggressive gameplay depended entirely on the careful blood-pool economics of the rest of your Dark Ages quests.

The catharsis of pure, rabid hack'n'slash can add a great deal to a game experience... if used sparingly and alongside more complex tasks.

Dominic Deegan: Oracle Retired

Webcomics, with their open-endlessly ready availability and quick, effortless ingestion, serve as the equivalent of soap-operas to many of the geek and nerd persuasion. While we disdain those middle-aged housewives watchin' their "stories" we tune in religiously to see whether Sluggy Freelance's Torg and Riff vanquished the evil of the month or Questionable Content's Marten and Faye finally got together. To make a study of such oeuvres is to become all too comfortably familiar with the cheapest of theatrics, with love triangles, dramatic whiplash-inducing plot twists, overblown heroic achievements and yes, oftentimes amnesia.
What was I talking about? Ah, yes, also cheap humor. I mean, what can you do with a comic that starts out mostly with one-liner running gags, puns and alliteration? You run those gags for ten years is what you do!

Fortunately one can also run across self-conscious attempts by many authors to transcend those soap-opera or vaudeville limitations and serialized, single-author works which span a decade or more can often become a fascinating record of a creator's artistic growth. Dominic Deegan is not fundamentally the most original or coherent... or high-brow... or best-drawn... or trenchant... or well, you get the idea - comic out there. Nonetheless, Mookie's constant and often successful wild stabs at bringing something new to the tired old tropes of high fantasy superheroics eventually yielded a unique personal style, world and characters. Each aspect brings a strange mix of the cheesily overdone and the truly inventive.

In terms of character growth, many shifted gradually over the years from simplistic foils and straw men defined by their plot roles into believable, multi-faceted individuals. Luna did not remain an awkward, depressed victim. Szark did not remain a recurring shadow of Dominic's past. Miranda did not become entrenched as some all-purpose Mr. Miyagi or deus-ex-momina. Though the visual style progressed very little, mostly acquiring some polish, it occasionally illustrated intriguing visualizations of magical processes, especially when the author did away with standard newspaper format. The humor slowly diversified from purely linguistic whimsy past self-referent in-jokes to wistful, believable character-centered comic relief. The drama grew out of superheroic villain-of-the-week parades to complex fantasy-world societal concerns.

Most interesting to me in my fascination with world-building however was the development of that world itself. Dominic Deegan did not start with a carefully-crafted fictional universe, and many of the original gimmicks had to be downplayed ("see the truth!") in order to allow for greater coherence as its horizons slowly expanded from a single hut to a village to a kingdom to an entire fantasy world. For those of us so uptight we get stuck on universal constants instead of ever getting into the writing itself, this is an inherently captivating process.

So long, you alliterated savior of the universe, and thanks for all the fish-jokes.

Monday, March 3, 2014

VtM: Redemption

I'm almost tempted to play through Redemption again, especially since it's now an effortless GoG download. Almost. But I know I'd only be doing it out of sheer nostalgia. This was the first or second RPG I ever played, depending on whether you count Diablo's choice of hack vs. slash as role-playing. With its hefty dose of violence and low reliance on dialogue, it allowed many of us teenage gamers at the time to bypass our mortal (and well-founded) fear of being labelled "faggots" and ostracized even by other outcasts if word got out we were playing RPGs. I ran through Redemption three times all-told I think and I can safely say I still remember its few good lines and the one overpowered way to play it well enough to simply rerun it mentally.

But then, that's a backhanded compliment in itself. Despite its many weaknesses, Redemption was appropriately "dark" and as far as I can tell without playing the pen-and-paper versions stuck to most of the more memorable World of Darkness tropes. It is not forgettable and worth at least one play-through but neither can it compare to the later VtM adaptation, Bloodlines, nor to its contemporaries like Planescape:Torment or Morrowind. This is not a "flawed gem" and not an unfinished masterpiece but a quaint, mediocre introduction to vampiric roleplaying. Prepare to be... moderately entertained.

Let's start with the first impression. If you've ever heard a truly hammy half-modernized mis-quoting of Shakespearean banter, you've got the gist of the bulk of dialogue especially through the first half of Redemption. Though their speech patterns are overall quite modern, characters cast thees and thous about like firecrackers, snapping you out of whatever other immersion your surroundings might have built up. As the immortal line from History of the World Part 1 goes : "we are so poor we don't even have our own language... just this stupid accent!" Amusingly enough, the main character and some others' faux-Shakesperean scenery-chewing continues into the modern age, which prompted my mother looking over my shoulder a decade and a half ago to roll her eyes and encapsulate Redemption's dissonance with the perfect one-liner: "thine elevator is stuck."
The voice acting itself, much as in other big-budget games, runs the gamut from professional to penny-pinching paltry, though it's difficult to say where bad acting stops and bad writing starts. Christof is a ridiculously overblown Prince Charming and many other main characters follow suit. However, others like Wilhelm or Serena or minor roles like Libussa manage to retain their credibility.
The graphics were, for their time, excellent (if you had the top-of-the-line video card for them) and though the game engine has aged I daresay many of its environments, especially the towns, remain atmospheric and immersive. Character models were quite well-designed and designed for visual impact and the lumbering plate-mailed Teutonic Knights or Serena in her lavish blood-colored hooded velvet gown were as inspired as anything in other games.
However, it's sound that carried much of Redemption's immersion. Ambivalent dialogue aside, aural accompaniment was consistently expressive and what the old visuals failed to convey, sound effects did instead through the squishing, squelching, scrunching, screeching noises of various organic and inorganic materials being rent asunder. Even more impressive was the music score which perfectly embodied the grim, cynical, nihilistic abandon of a world of morally bankrupt boogeymen. If anything rescued Redemption's atmosphere from outright mediocrity, it was the work of its soundtrack's composer.

In terms of gameplay, Redemption mixed the woefully familiar RPG staple of scouring the map for every last ghoul rat in order to gain experience with a decent mix of stats and abilities. It's completely linear, with the only roleplaying choices coming from skill selection. However, it was decidedly not balanced and there is one truly overpowered way to build Christof which largely trivializes gameplay. Generally speaking, everything in the game was meant to be beatable by one specific gimmick. After playing through it once, you'll know which fights you can completely break and how and there's no true incentive to do otherwise. There's one "boss" fight you can actually defeat without ever getting hit by simply ... not entering the room and having your ranged attacker down a few vials of blood to fireball the boss to death. Since the game shares experience between active characters, at least one or two companions you should kill off as soon as you get so as not to split experience from Christof and never even bother reviving as she/he get taken away in cutscenes anyway, destroying any items in possession at the time. That in itself is not necessarily a disaster, as you can get infinite money. You can also solo most fights with one or another character, as long as you know what's coming. Generally speaking, Redemption shares the common flaw of most badly-designed games of throwing devastating, inevitable "surprises" your way which are nonetheless perfectly linearly scripted and easily bypassed if you know when to save and when to shop.

Still, this was an enjoyable game and in many ways its game-breaking flaws were what made it interesting as they brought attention to mechanics which would have been quite workable if used with greater warning, moderation and balance. It's no worse an RPG than Neverwinter Nights and has aged much better than some of its contemporaries like Icewind Dale. If you do play Redemption you'll likely do so twice: once honestly and the second time abusing all its design flaws for maximum leetness.
You need feel no shame. We've all done it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Childhood Purgatory Revisited

I almost knew it. I had an inkling. I suspected.
When touch-screen devices began to be inundated with mind-numbing timesinks like Fruit Ninja calling themselves "games" I wondered how low they could go. However, with FlappyBird taking center stage, I finally realized what the next logical craze should be. I knew what had to be lurking somewhere in the apps catalog. If you're down to only pressing one button over and over and over... and over... and over... and over... again... and over... and over... again, and again, and again, I know that the entertainment industry has long ago provided the pinnacle of gaming. Because, you see, I had a deck of playing cards when I was young, and I remember the epic battle of wits called... War! And lo and behold, it is already available on your Android device.

War was a game we previous generations played when our parents would pack us into some motorized conveyance along with the rest of their luggage for a few hours straight. It was an activity so stultifyingly monotonous that it only came up when the sole alternative was staring blankly out the car window at the corn fields wilting past. You split the deck. You throw down a card. High card takes both. Repeat until your brain starts struggling out of your ears in desperation. No decisions, no planning. It's a card game so bereft of choice that even eight-year-olds used to consider it painfully simplistic.

And yet War will never out-sell FlappyBird. Its sheer complexity is now too intimidating. Because you see, it involved, at least tangentially -
- num83r5 !

Flap away, FlappyBrains, Generation Facebook, oh future of humanity, flap for your lives or the numbers will get you.