Saturday, May 31, 2014

Take a Tip from Nasreddin Hodja

Welcome, pilgrim. Sit, listen, partake of my impart of precocious import.

Have you heard the teachings of Nasreddin Hodja? Well, if you haven't, you're sort of out of the loop. Ask your nearest middle-eastern acquaintance. The folk anti-hero Nasreddin's exploits are well-documented throughout much of Eurasia among Turks, Arabs, Persians and every culture they've impacted. They tended to get around back in the day, you see, and in between invading this-and-that they spread the name Nasreddin, a viral meme of the quill-pen age, a nebulous figure espied through hookah vapors, all the way from Eastern Europe to Western China.

In fact it's practically impossible to know Nasreddin's exploits as a whole. Every culture which has adopted the name and persona has attributed to it a new name and new set of anecdotes, putting today's fan-fiction proliferation to shame. He ranges from preacher to teacher to cheater, from sanctimonious bureaucrat to petty scoundrel, at the storyteller's whim. Not a combative hero but a polite, upper-class sly trickster twisting folkways or stumbling headlong into their pitfalls, his adventures center on fairness, reversals and counter-intuitive solutions. Maybe he even spawned the English phrase "ass-backwards"... really, I wouldn't put it past the clever rogue. So, at no risk of being sued for defamation, I shall now mangle in my own words three of my favorite Nasreddin anecdotes.

1. Rabbit Soup
One of Nasraddin's friends stopped by with a rabbit he'd hunted and asked the sage to cook it so they could share it.
"Certainly" the Hogia replied and set upon boiling a delicious soup. Each had a bowl and the friend praised the teacher's talent in cooking.
The next day, a couple of men he'd seen around the village knocked on his door.
"Oh, Effendi, we are friends of your friend who brought you the rabbit and he has told us of your wondrous dish. May we sample it?"
Nasrudin having some soup left over welcomed them, watered what remained down a bit and served the men most graciously. They left satisfied and vowed to spread word of his culinary prowess.
The next day after that, four complete strangers showed up at his door.
"Afandi, we are friends of the friends of your friend who brought you the rabbit. We have heard how delicious it was and wished to taste it ourselves."
Having no soup left, Nasreddin nonetheless invites them in, begs them be seated at his table and brings them four bowls of simple water. They each taste it and ask what the meaning of the jesture might be.
"Why this" replied the Hodja "is the soup of the soup of the soup of the rabbit."

2. Lying Ass
The wise Nastradini Effendi was once asked for the loan of his donkey for the day.
"My friend" bows the Mullah "I would love nothing more but as it happens I have already lent it to someone else."
Just as he spoke, the donkey brayed from the stable behind him. His friend frowned:
"How can that be when I hear it even now?"
At which Nastratin exclaimed indignantly "Would you believe the word of a mere ass over myself?"

3. Bath House
At one visit to a bath-house, Nasreddin Hoca was treated rather poorly. The attendants were disinterested, the water lukewarm and the towel worn. Nonetheless he left them twice the normal tip.
On his next visit, recognizing him, the attendants jumped to welcome him, treating him to piping hot water, scented oils and a brand new towel. When leaving, the Hogea calmly handed them only half the customary tip.
"But why?" the attendants protested.
"Because this is the tip I owe you for my last visit."
"But what about the one for this visit?" they insisted.
"I gave it to you last time."

So, class. What have we learned?
On one hand, the outward simplicity and millennial popularity of the stories has earned them a reincarnation in modern pop culture. Certainly the predictable line "man, who you gonna believe" has showed up in endless buddy flicks and sitcoms. You don't need Nasreddin to tell you people will try to take advantage of social standing to bluff their way through embarrassing situations. The universality of the material, ignoring minor details, makes these plays on social protocol instantly recognizable. We've all encountered mooching acquaintances of acquaintances, lying misers and lackadaisical but greedy service workers. Replace the rabbit with a tank of gas and the soup with car trips. Replace the braying donkey with a ringing cellphone. Replace the bath-house with a trendy new sidewalk cafe. The barrel might change, but we monkeys sure haven't.

On the other hand, the subversive element of such anecdotes too often gets lost in translation, not linguistic but cultural, and that element is the persona of Nasreddin himself. Despite the underhandedness of his tactics, despite being widely known as a trickster, Nasreddin is always a fundamentally respectable figure. Though his modern pop-culture appropriators are most often lamentably painted as weak, despicable, uneducated lower-class slobs, he himself steps into the first line of each new joke as a pillar of the community or at the very least a model citizen. He is a mullah or a boyar, a teacher or a popular sage, a well-to-do private home-owner at worst. People trust him implicitly. Crucial, this view of the trickster as a basically upstanding citizen, because Nasreddin evidences abuses of good will and protocol. When he cheats it is important to remember that those in good social standing do cheat. When he outlines others' petty abuses of the social order, Nasreddin reminds us that it is fitting for upstanding citizens to do so.

Nasreddin stories are relics of at least tangentially Islamic medievalism, of some of the most repressive, mold-set societies the world has ever known and reflect a predictably slavish mindset, unwilling to out-rightly buck the social order but only cleverly poking a finger into sore spots on the body politic. Yet how much more damaging is the modern tendency to vilify social critics, to play the fool instead of fooling others? Why are so many of our modern Nasreddins, our sitcom stars, presented as hapless, discredited bunglers who only stumble across social critique instead of cleverly pointing it out? Instead of recounting the jokes ourselves over a nargileh, complicit to Nasreddin's finger-wagging, taking upon ourselves the mantle of storyteller and teacher, we the modern television-viewers, external to the action on screen, are encouraged to hold ourselves aloof and condemn the folkway-breakers we witness from our entrenched, complacent morality.

Are we perhaps meant to learn that critique itself is shameful?

I began this post with no clear intent aside from telling one Nasreddin joke (which turned into three along the way, sue me) and found as I wrote the last two lines that I'd reached, from such an odd starting point, a greater issue touched on by many others. Just off the top of my head, this article for instance.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


ring around'a rosie, pocket full'a posies...

Imagine you aren't Superman. That might seem like a funny request, but gamers have acquired a certain unsavory overentitlement, an expectation of omnipotence which denies contrast and proportion. So when Miasmata asks them to step into the shoes (figuratively speaking) of a defenseless, diseased castaway stumbling around a tropical island picking flowers, it's a fair bet few will answer the call.

Though fundamentally this might fall into the "survival horror" genre, its tone and focus diverge from darker, more tense games. The island of Eden is, fittingly, a paradise, and though you'll spend a decent bit of time fleeing in panic, this is the sort of game which provides you with opportunities to stop and smell the roses or watch a sunrise. Miasmata's various challenges are quite straightforwardly laid out in the official description.
Explore by triangulation.
Catalog flora to find the plague cure.
Evade the creature.
The biggest challenge however is dealing with the rather punishing physics engine, especially at the start. You are a plague sufferer. You are a sick, sick man, and your body doesn't quite obey your commands. You'll find yourself stumbling and falling frustratingly often while attempting to navigate slopes. Even a waist-high molehill can send you careening out of control and the ensuing trauma usually causes your fever to spike, further disabling you in addition to scattering the precious botanical specimens you've been collecting. Even as a well-traveled, rather savvy (if I do say so myself) connoisseur of slow and frustrating games, I was enraged into abandoning Miasmata for a day or two several times over. However, once I got my Eden-legs, so to speak, and stopped tripping over myself every other step, I finished it in a single sleepless night.

Miasmata's problems largely stem from a lack of testing or outside input. Its features are all just slightly too exaggerated, proof they were evaluated only by those already too familiar with them to be objective. The character's momentum is too high, night-time is too completely dark, denying any possible gameplay until dawn, the one-of-each plant limit is too artificially restrictive, the creature's movements are just slightly too random, etc.
Other issues simply reflected the game's lack of funding, the usual misdemeanors of unpolished material: visual breaks in textures, a floating object here and there, objects not interacting the way they should (your lighter illuminates the map/compass but a torch doesn't) and even good old-fashioned typos.
All these can be forgiven though, because the adventure as a whole is so delightfully engrossing... but here I must also tender my one major criticism. Miasmata repeatedly sabotages its own hard-won immersion by continually reminding you that this is a game, needlessly listing out-of-character descriptions where flavor text was obviously mandated. As just one example, it would've been nice to find out about the creature in some other way than being told "you will be hunted by a creature" in the manual. Even the Rapa Nui "landmarks" were a bit too cheesy and repetitive. Combined with the middlin' writing (not fanfic bad by any stretch, but not quite coherent enough to put it among the best RPGs and adventure games - the shocking twist ending is given away halfway through) this turned Miasmata into more of a proof-of-concept than a finished product.

However, none of these flaws can actually wreck this excellent piece of work. Miasmata is not a story or challenge-based game. It hinges on process. Focus on refining your methods and routes, plan your character's day and the rest will fall into your lap. It was delightful to scramble across hills, streams, jungles and meadows chasing weeds and getting chased by my very own nemesis only to have to whip out my trusty old map and compass to figure out where I am and how to get to a camp before dark.

Honestly, how often can you get lost in a computer game?

Monday, May 19, 2014


While yammering away about three-dimensional and unconventional game environments last month, I realized I'd already encountered one good recent example of a more creative approach. Unfortunately, it's a good example of a bad game, showcasing some interesting features while slavishly adhering to industry standards in most respects.

Firefall's development is a bad joke by this point, lingering in "open beta" for a year with few improvements made in the meantime, after another year of closed beta beforehand. Not quite vaporware but still a soggy, flimsy mess. Instead of functionality and core content, much of the budget seems to have sunk into flash and glitz, into advertising, celebrity appearances, social media tie-ins and fancy scripted missions to impress new players. Unfortunately, actual objectives are very limited in scope and while there's some variety of objects to point a big honkin' machine-gun at, gameplay depth is a bit harder to come by.

Believe me, I'm cringing at the irony of criticizing a game for lack of (figurative) depth while praising it for (literal) depth, but the truth is that Firefall ain't all bad. It was marketed as an MMO and comes much closer to deserving that title than any WoW-clone or other theme-park game. Resource gathering is a group endeavor and the best items come from player crafters, not drops. Though there are no player structures and no territory claiming, some resources can be used to expand the playable area and cooperating in keeping enemy NPCs from claiming territory is a core activity. Battle-lines do shift minimally, despite this being a PvE game.
The main problem with Firefall is its target audience. The game's clearly marketed toward ten-year-olds, through everything from the upbeat, no-worries atmosphere to the twitch gameplay requiring no strategic planning. Quests randomly pop up everywhere around you and anyone can join in. Ammo and health packs drop constantly from enemies, negating supply logistics. Big friendly markers tug you this way and that, never stressing you out by asking you to plan. Anyone can resurrect each other. It is created for players with no attention span. Fast fingers, slow brains.

But if you can stomach a bit of that, it's worth seeing what they've done within those limitations.

Yes, that's yours truly gliding across a sunny South-American paradise. Gliding. In keeping with its ADD-brat focus, Firefall gives everyone short-range jump jets, and you're forced to jump, skip and hop constantly in battle to avoid damage. This turned the game's short-lived PvP system into a ridiculous, aimless, constant bouncing around to shoot at the first thing that moves.
But however annoying the endless bounciness gets, the dev team at least managed to make it slightly more than a simplistic twitchy gimmick. The game map makes full use of those jump jets, with many quests being set in vertical caves and objectives resting halfway up cliff-sides. During many events, players must seek higher ground to evade the constantly spawning mobs below, and focus the boss monster from atop hilltops and towers. What's more, if you make your way to high ground you can glide your way across various scenic vistas. Even the dropships shuttling players to and fro across New Eden allow you to bail out whenever you want and glide the rest of the way. In some spots you can circle around repeatedly making strafing runs at the monsters below using this same glider mechanic.

And Firefall is refreshing in other respects as well, like the scenery. Instead of temperate scrubland and warehouses, the game's main map is a subequatorial beach. Much of the action takes place in vertically-layered caves. Alternate locations include Antarctica and an island in the Sargasso Sea. Even the music is more reminiscent of dreamy adventure games than FPS twitch-fests. Clearly a good bit of effort was put into avoiding the usual shoot-em-up tropes... in terms of aesthetics at least. Though, it must be noted, you still machine-gun down plenty of zombies.

However, the list on the right in that image above also shows the game's greatest (and very predictable) weakness. You get told what your "current activities" are. You're pushed to do daily quests like killing fifteen of this and of that. Instead of being left to make your way in this new world, you get thrown into a chain of heavily scripted story missions. Firefall has a very solid foundation in terms of physics or resource flow and surprisingly coherent art direction, even if it's not my style. Unfortunately, its desperation to draw in the mindless leet-kiddies results in simplistic, shallow, constricting game mechanics. I have only so much interest in working on my hand-eye coordination by trying to shoot one constantly dodging giant mosquito after another, or repeating prefabricated scenarios. Pew-pew-pew with no possibility for grand works gets old fast, and though there are marginally stronger consequences for player actions than in WoW-clones, it's still a far cry from a true persistent world.

Despite its MMO aspirations, Firefall plays like an arcade shooter.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Golden Apples of Europa

"Remember the Shaman when he used to say
Man is the dream of the dolphin."
- Enigma

Why did the time traveler launch himself "into futurity" and why did Professor Challenger scrabble up to a jungle plateau? Why did Verne's men of science dive to the depths of a prehistoric hollow earth or bombard themselves at the moon?

Why do we dream so much blander these days? As late as the 60s Star Trek vowed "to boldly go where no man has gone before" paying lip-service to the old fantasies of purposeful scientific exploration. Yet increasingly, the petty impulses of the mindless glut of human mediocrity have infected science fiction, obscuring the drive for knowledge, the sense of wonder at the possibilities of scientific progress, with animalistic concerns. The science fiction heroes of today are defined by rank, whether military or social. Instead of intrepid explorers, they are presented (and glorified) as mercenary, wholly-owned employees performing maintenance on corporate assets. Instead of intellectuals pushing the boundaries of knowledge, we are presented with hired muscle protecting their families and tribe. Substitute lasers for machine guns.

There is purpose to this obfuscation, and that purpose is lack of purpose. It is the endless ratcheting of thought back toward our bestial scramble for subhuman goals, the glorification of tribal loyalties and social interdependence. Entertainment corporations present us with endless science fiction heroes and heroines whose motivation has nothing to do with science fiction, who fight for flag and country or to protect their mates or offspring, who, in other words, do nothing a baboon wouldn't in their place. This intentional deadening of aspiration is both symptomatic and causative of our postmodernist anticritical denial of progress. It stems from the masses' bovine complacency and the upper classes' desperation to maintain that complacency, and serves to normalize any intellectual dissent, from Disneyed cradle to dishonorable grave. Be a father, be a mother, be a dutiful child. Be indebted. Be an employee, be a boss, be a wage-slave. Be popular, be richer than your neighbor, be an owner. Be owned. Be shackled. Even if you get away from Earth, remember, we own you.

Be a thinker, be a dreamer, be an individual. Be an explorer. Or let's remember at least how to imagine it.
Let's remember that science fiction, borne along the frenzied burst of scientific progress over a century ago which made all things seem possible, shared its spirit with Mallory's prosaic tautology of real-world exploration: "because it's there."

It's hard to find info on obscure sci-fi stories, even if they're by not-so-obscure authors, but the old spirit used to break through here and there. Arthur C. Clarke* once wrote of a space-man trapped in a public relations campaign, fighting over funding for the space program against the crass demands of the Malthusian starving masses. Efremov's Andromeda touted communist idealism while also glorying in intellect's unending thirst for exploration. Stanislav Lem, Carl Sagan and others more or less assumed that if we do receive extraterrestrial sentient transmissions, intellectual curiosity would dictate that we drop whatever else we're doing and investigate.
Bradbury's old short story The Golden Apples of the Sun lacks a Wikipedia entry, perhaps not surprisingly since it's far from his best work. It does however perfectly illustrate what popular SF-derived entertainment lacks, the old mentality of progress. A specially-designed and reinforced spaceship dips into the sun's corona for a handful of plasma, a golden apple. Why? Because it's there.
That's it. That's all we need. Not for profit, not for food, not for tribal superiority. No invading forces justifying our actions, no appeals to reproductive or altruistic instinct. Just intelligence pushing its way into the cosmos. We are thought, self-divining purpose, the teleological ever-sharpening pinnacle of anentropic rebellion against the universe.

Europa Report, I would wager, is not a popular film. It is packed. It is stark. It relies on both the sort of understatement the imperceptive general public sneer at and the sheer density of information which over-reaches their attention span. It does not rely on sexual archetypes or social presuppositions and instead populates the spaceship with rational, proactive introverts. It is slick, it is stylish, it is cool, it is cold. It is Science Fiction. Give it a chance and see the higher aspirations which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney can never quite address. "To keep the mission alive, to push the discovery further." This is not a life-affirming movie about a girl next door doing her job who just happens to find herself in outer space. Survivalism alone, mere animal self-preservation, is beneath it as it would have been beneath Professor Challenger. It's about space itself, about the final frontier which has fallen by the wayside as space operas and science fantasies have constricted our imaginations to reproductions of the status quo set in space malls.
There have been and will be better Science Fiction movies, but Europa Report is so emblematic of the genre that it's a must-see for any nerd who's ever wanted to find out what else is out there. Watch it, and remember what this whole thing is supposed to be about.

* I was wrong of course, it was George R.R. Martin's Slide Show.
P.S.: And if you saw the title of this post and thought "boobies!" you're a bad, bad man. Welcome to the club.

Monday, May 12, 2014

I won't be a third party to this

A long time ago, in an internet far, far away, Penny Arcade actually used to be funny!
But that's neither here nor there, I suppose. What is undeniably "here" is the entrenchment of that attitude within the computer game industry. Whatever their difficulties, game designers have also long been an incredibly spoiled lot and when viewed objectively or comparatively, their incompetence, lack of standards and outright hucksterism would make a snake-oil salesman blush.

I mean, at least he's selling you a bottle of dirty water. Valve, on the other hand, now makes 10% commissions on imaginary items sold for real money between players in TF2, DotA2 and other online games. Mafia dons collecting protection money can only wish they'd gotten in on this racket. WoW and WoW-clones like LotRO, as I complained months ago, now want you to pay them to avoid playing the product you're buying from them.

But let's say that's just the fleecing associated with a product. What about the product itself? Obviously, if we put up with this bullshit, we gamers must be getting some primo material at least. Painstakingly detailed, artistically original... not quite. Can we actually use the programs we pay for without being treated like criminals? Oops, wrong again. Hey, maybe we at least get prompt, reliable service... yeah, that ain't happenin' either. This isn't just me bitching. We know it. Every once in a while, some utter fiasco like Dark and Light reminds everyone that it's possible to be both incompetent and crooked and still be taken seriously in the game industry. Yet despite all of this, gamers keep fawning over designers like beaten dogs crawling back to lick our master's hand. L. Ron Hubbard said the easiest way to make money was by founding his own religion... but boy howdy, it's so much easier to make believers of fanboys. They will make, advertise, sell and buy the invisible alien detectors for you! Go to any game board and see the boundless reserves of belief that things will get better next patch, the sheer levels of denial about the product's endless flaws, the sheepish desperation for a single word from those handing out electronic endorphin delivery systems. That, is faith!

Fanboys have long been the game industry's greatest asset, and a disposable one at that. How do you establish a new intellectual property? Sell it first to a discerning interested audience, then once they do the work of spreading word-of-mouth, screw them, dumb it down to a barely-recognizable caricature of itself to glitz the brainless masses in. But geeks are more than just disposable advertising platforms. They're an endless source of free labor. Games used to have manuals. Now they have Wikis. Instead of paying someone to put together your game's documentation, you do some random schmoes the honor of allowing them to put a thousand work-hours in for free.

Spoiled. How spoiled? You don't even have to finish your product. In a constant display of pure professionalism, countless games have been released over the decades so malformed and cored through with bugs (even my favorites like VtM:Bloodlines) that only customer-created unofficial patches made them playable. The multiplayer incarnation of this disease is the reliance on add-ons. It stands to reason that all participants should have access to the same tools to control the game. Yet especially in so-called MMOs, developers shrug off the responsibility for developing an interface onto third-party programs which sort your inventory, chug your potions for you, queue up whatever skills are algorithmically determined to be necessary and then kindly inform you whether you've won or lost.

Take for instance Firefall, a game I was unfortunate enough to get suckered into some time ago. It's become a running gag that the game's still officially in "beta" only because it allows the creative team to get away with selling an unfinished product. One way to gain resources in Firefall is by salvaging loot, which takes a few seconds per item, minute after minute of sitting there repeatedly scrolling through the same list and clicking the same confirmation window for item after item. A third-party add-on called Salvager can automatically salvage all the items you queue up while you go AFK. If you don't know about it, the game will eat up much more of your time pointlessly. Players will quickly tell you that you need Salvager, and they're right... but it is the responsibility of the designers to include that functionality in their product. If a game is crap without a slew of interface add-ons, then the game is crap.

I play TSW once in a blue moon, so I occasionally forget where such or another NPC service might be found. I once asked someone where I can buy extra gear load-out slots for my character's inventory. He replied: "oh, I dunno, I just use a UI add-on that gives me infinite slots."

I shouldn't have to be the one to call this inexcusable. Getting a helping hand from a third party is, in any game, cheating. It is in fact the most basic definition of cheating, obvious even to eight-year-olds on the playground. If you're seeking and you get a friend to tell you where all the hiders are, you are cheating. No gray areas. No relativism. If some functionality is necessary, then it is necessary for all players, not only those who download the add-on.

We have to stop glorifying cheating and start holding game designers accountable for making their products playable in themselves. In what other industry is such behavior tolerated, much less advertised and applauded?
Can you imagine a plumber coming to your house and saying "eh, I hammered at that pipe for a while, it's still leaking, but you can probably find some kid with a wrench to finish fixing it; I still get paid full price, right?"
Or maybe you'd like a movie editing team saying: "Oh, the scenes are out of order and there's five minutes of blank screen in the middle of it? What do we care, we're still getting paid. Get some editing software and finish it yourselves, see ya!"

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ender's Game

The Devil's in the details, and while mentally reviewing the little novel called Ender's Game, it's easy to forget just how densely packed it was with secondary characters and sub-plots, how many catchphrases, how many ideas, how many brief fleeting images it threw at the reader. I won't bother with the recent movie adaptation except to say that it should have been much much longer in order to accommodate its source material. Though it was a very enjoyable movie, Hollywood's procrustean two-hour limit kept it from being a truly great representation of the novel. I mean, for the love of space cowboys, you had Ben Kingsley. Give him more than ten lines!

But even laying Obi-Ben Kingslinobi aside, Ender's Game is so packed because it takes its audience's familiarity with a lot of popular tropes for granted. It is a SciFi fan's SciFi book in many respects. The Buggers necessitate no lengthy explanation. The book was written, after all, decades after Starship Troopers. We didn't require detailed descriptions of how fighter craft look and maneuver either; Card assumed we'd seen Star Wars. Dune had already paved the way for a brilliant messianic youth in a hostile environment. We were familiar with the notion of navy-themed starship crews in leotards from Star Trek.

However, the mark of good Science Fiction is growth past gimmickry into conscious purpose, and here Ender's Game struck a happy middle-ground. I get the impression that this was not a book Card was particularly interested in writing. It's composed in a different, less affected style from later novels in the series or what I've read of his other works. This seems to be the one book in which Card did not get bogged down in his own personal agenda. It lacks his awkward attempts at justifying blind faith and religious indoctrination, or his desperation to gain credibility as a serious author by focusing on lengthy humanistic explorations of his characters' interpersonal relations. If this is what happened when he dropped his personal conceits and just wanted to get through writing a catchy story, then the man should be made to write unpleasant material more often. Ender's Game is, in its barrage of ideas and its lack of facetious literary window-dressing, brutal - and a wonderfully superior piece of work for it.

This is, after all, the genre of ideas.

As for what we the public have made of this lovely gem, well, tongues will wag.
For all of us who were once clever children constantly demeaned and discounted by the world around us, Ender and Battle School represent pure catharsis, the truer pre-iteration of Hogwarts, an ivory tower based on intellect, creativity, personal ability and not arbitrary, nondescript magical specialness.
Humanist criticism has been leveled at it much the same as it has toward Lord of the Flies and for the same reasons, but that's as irrational as every mother ignoring her oldest baby beating and berating her younger siblings into line. We are born as apes and apes are not nice people.

The most topical criticism comes from what's commonly called the liberal left wing in the U.S., from squeamishness and an anti-stoic preference for favor-currying and toadying as a means of allowing oneself to be dealt with by one's enemies. This is not a novel that'll ever sit well with false radical pacifists. I'd rail against that self-deceiving bovine narrow-mindedness, but Card himself did such a wonderful job of providing both argument and counter-argument pertaining to violence that there's little to add. By the end it is as much a condemnation of military aggression and a demand to leash the dogs of war as it is a justification or call to arms. That the book can be purposely misrepresented and promoted by the military as pro-war propaganda is only marginally worse than attempting to denounce it as such. Blunt instruments are sometimes necessary. The ability to orient ourselves properly is the first requirement for a correct plan of action. The enemy's gate is down.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Containment Protocols

There are few game concepts as disgusting as alternate-reality, and I dread the spreading infection from this self-congratulatory fad through computer games. "Alternate" reality? That's a game. Polluting that alternate reality with real-world tangents is not alternate. This imbecilic doublethink deserves no recognition or consideration, should be given no mercy or quarter and should be eliminated from the game industry. But let me backtrack a bit.

A game should always be self-contained. Ideally, all a player should be allowed to input is personal intellectual (and to a lesser extent physical) ability. I will not bother explaining or justifying this demand, except with one word: fairness.
By the same token, the external world should not impact the game. One does not play a rousing samba during a tennis match. Your little brother knocking over the chess board cannot be said to be participating in the game. The Ace of Base song playing over the radio is not a part of the poker game. Computer games are games. They are activities in themselves, worlds in themselves, separate from the disgusting pile of trash commonly called "reality." To purposely allow meatspace to invade such escapist fantasies is sacrilege. Making a virtue of such sacrilege is just plain stupid.

I got started on The Secret World's latest batch of content. They must've read my last post, because these are in essence exactly what I demanded: more single-player adventure-game styled story missions, more of what TSW actually does well. The "Sidestories" content so far, though low-budget, seems decent in terms of writing. Unfortunately it moves even further from game content into mere social interaction. Clues are buried so nonsensically deep that they are obviously intended to be solved, once again, via herd mentality and not individual perspicacity. Having you count your character's footsteps is a nice gimmick and would have been entertaining for say, ten or twenty steps. But hundreds of steps? This is blatant cheat-sheet fodder.

However, the most aggravating and worrisome development is the expansion of TSW's reliance on external sources. From the start, the game forced you to search for various tidbits online, occasionally sending you to fake websites which contained mission clues. This is the sort of narrow-minded fad gimmickry which makes old movies like The Invisible Man so painful to watch. Kids today likes them that "internets" thang, right? Well, then, let's make it clear we're one with the spirit of the age. Let's keep reinforcing the fact that this is an Internets game. Keep sending them out to the internets to look at internets stuff. Make them use that edgy new technology.

It's cheap. It's gratuitous. It's ridiculous. There is no information which you convey through a fake website which could not have been included in the game itself. The game is the world and all information pertaining to that world should be contained within it. I simply cannot fathom the mentality which drools at the idea of being forced to watch last night's news to get a clue for an in-game mission. If you want meatspace content, stay in meatspace. If you want to interact with "real" people, go to the park.

The very first mission chain in Sidestories began throwing the player into so-called alternate reality content. It gives you a phone number to call. A real phone number with a voicemail message giving you the mission clue. This is not clever. It is idiotic to ask me to make a transatlantic call when you could have recorded the same message in-game. Another clue is contained in a bar code. You have to scan it yourself. Very nice idea, but then you have to give me bar code scanners as in-game items, not make me have to print the damn thing or however else I was expected to have it read. There is no excuse for making me leave your product to play your product.
Even at its most basic, this alternate reality concept is utter tripe. If I have to take notes in your game, then my character should have a notebook. If I have to make phone calls, then give my character a cellphone, don't ask me to run up my phone bill calling England.

You know what? Forget specifics. There are endless examples of such cretinous need to feel "connected" while playing a game. Voice chat is a prime example. Publicly posted achievements are another. But it is inexcusably moronic. It is sick. To force the player back into the world he seeks to escape through your game is sick. The human world is a disgusting ape-infested pile of shit and games exist to provide activity external to that pile. Once you jack in, the outer world should not exist until you decide to jack out again.
That is all. No compromise. No excuses. Provide a full product, an immersive, all-consuming stand-alone experience, not a browser extension.
And knock it off with your idiotic Orwellian newspeak. This-reality is not alternate-reality. It is in fact, quite the opposite. Show some damn imagination and abandon the human world. Separate yourself from yourself.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Traian's Dying Breed

A foggy night, an ancient castle, a frozen mountain woodland, a full moon and a defiant howl. Does it get any better than this?

Ah, Funcom. If only you weren't so rich and complacent, you could be such (a) good company. While The Secret World remains a half-baked mess in most respects, it makes such a good show of style and attitude that one can almost forgive it. Some may have been touched by Bradbury-inspired stories of rural teenage monster-hunters. Some may be haunted by the tales of the seven stone guardians of the City of the Sun God and their father's guilty conscience. Others may prefer Mme. Roget, the saucy fake witch with real powers and a mystery to solve, or the parody of Stephen King writing the decomposition of the world behind him from the top of an abandoned lighthouse. Me, given my predilections, I'm partial to my good buddy Traian the werewolf.

As I've complained before, it is nearly impossible to find good lycanthropic characters. Pop culture has latched on to them as impressive straw men and uses them merely as oversized obstacles for the hero of the story. To suit this purpose, Hollywood has pumped them full of steroids until they're nothing but flat, shallow piles of muscle.

Unfortunately, TSW follows this pattern visually. Fortunately, they got a quality voice actor to read Traian's quality scripts. Writing and voice acting rescue Funcom's Hollywoodized, conformist visuals. Don't ask me why a Romanian werewolf would growl in a Scottish accent, but somehow it works.* The essence of lycanthropy's appeal is duality. Traian is a hulking meathead visually, like the rest of the werewolves in the game, but offset by the calm, rumbling voiceovers the overlay becomes an undertone. We get to look past the meaningless muscle to the knowing sneer of the misanthropic hermit, and past that to the rage always bubbling beneath his outwardly controlled demeanor.

Kudos, to both the writer and the voice actor. Traian speaks his part even if he doesn't look it.

*Is it the Rs?