Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon on a mountain of cash

And Jesus brake the loaves and fishes and gave them to his disciples and the disciples to the multitude and they all did eat and were filled. And Jesus saith unto the multitude:
"Your consumption of this subsistence capital constitutes a legally binding contract between you (the party of the parted from their rights) and JHC Co. Ltd. at the accepted market value of two denarii per loaf and three per fish, to be remunerated at an interest rate of a quarter denarius per half-loaf or quarter-fish, compounded weekly over the course of no longer than five wage slaveries or two indentured servitudes. Now as for collateral I see you're all living in some lovely little adobe huts over that hill.
They're mine now."

I've got no use for primitive superstitions in general and I'm always glad for any sign that humanity is moving away from supernatural doctrine, but in one respect at least I guess I'm pretty old-school; in one way I'd like to push us back toward the middle ages.
We need societal condemnation of (and much more stringent legal restrictions on) usury.

Increasingly since they almost brought on the collapse of civilization in 2007-2008 and especially in the last year or two, banks and investment firms have inundated the airways with face-saving ads. You've seen them. They're very upbeat. They always run something like "Bob the baker wanted to expand his business and create jobs - and with help from our kind family at Fatcat Inc. he can!"
See Bob smiling? Bob is happy that Fatcat Inc. will henceforth be grabbing the bulk of his profits. Bob is happy to be owned.
Don't you want to smile like Bob the baker?

As with many issues, this is one of unspoken, underlying assumptions. You are made to feel as though the rich are doing you a favor, as though they are mitigating or even solving a problem, removing an obstacle, by allowing you access to a small bit of the symbolic representation of wealth that is currency. It's as though they're pulling loaves and fishes out of thin air (and quite a few have been trying to pretend to do just that, as became obvious a few years ago.)

In reality they are the obstacle. Human society as a whole (and it is so inteconnected through various pyramid schemes these days that we can consider it a global whole) has access to various natural resources and exploits them, resulting in usable products. Money is just the representation of that value, not the value in itself. Carbon and silicon and their transformation into usable forms are value. Chickens and yams are value. Newtons and joules are value. Words, sounds and images, inasmuch as we agree on the value of their effect on our minds, have value.
The rich are choking the market by sitting on an insanely disproportionate share of the total, by not allowing those creating value, making it usable, access to the symbol of their work and worth. You complain about "the government" taxing you but what about the taxes you pay without even acknowledging? What about your boss taking the lion's share of the symbolic representation of your work?

And then when you're desperate enough to beg for more, you take it as a great kindness that for the privilege of being given access to a slightly larger slice of the representation for your value, you're expected to devalue yourself even further, paying interest on what you're already owed, paying the fatcats for their obstructionism.

You can't eliminate interest altogether. You have to compensate for inflation, you have to ensure the poor don't end up keeping their nest eggs under their mattresses by offering interest on bank deposits, and I'm sure there's a whole host of more or less valid concerns any first-year economics student could rattle off. But Goldman Sachs and Merryl Lynch and Wells Fargo and every other nest of usurers are not doing you a favor by charging you for the oh-so-productive service of not sitting on your money.

Stop smiling, Bob. You're the one who baked those loaves and fished those fishes in the first place.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Damn those torpedoes, Reepicheep

 "That's just the way it goes
That's how the river flows
 If you stay stone cold
Chances are your options will unfold
All that glitters turns into gold."

MDFMK - Torpedoes

I'm a very different player in teams as opposed to 1v1. In strategy games, I've always been a turtle. I barricade myself and build up a decisive technological advantage until I can overwhelm the enemy.
As part of a team, I'm suicidal. Though I prefer support classes, I also tend to amend the concept using my own slant on what "support" means. Take my old main character from City of Heroes, for instance.

I was a controller. Crowd control (aside from aggro management) is a "squishy" occupation in pretty much any class-based game. The archetype is that of an effete manipulator hiding behind his team, not the stone-armored giant above. So it caused no end of raised eyebrows and even outright panic on any team I joined to see my Earth/Storm controller lumbering out of position then outright charging a roomful of mobs, crashing into them in a cacophony of thunder and avalanche, stomping and clapping and using every other short-range or PBAoE skill I could get my hands on. Ah, delicious iconoclasm.

In World of Warcraft I used to play a druid, and though most players were too stupid to attach more than one function to a class, I fully embraced the hybrid class concept which existed all too shortly. My enemies in PvP would rush what they assumed was a squishy healer only to see him tank them unflinchingly for a few seconds, then instead of retreating, shift to bear form and charge into their own squishies.

In EVE, when my corporation was getting harrassed by a griefer who was careful never to let any of our interceptors close enough to scramble his warp drive, I loaded an Apocalypse battleship (basically a floating chunk of armor) with speed boosts and support gear and rammed into him so hard he almost bounced back out of lockdown range.

In Rift, playing a mage, I got so disgusted with the cowardice I'd see on PvP battlefields that I rolled my own warrior alt, a gigantic Bahmi amazon with cornrowed hair, dressed in the least revealing plate armor cosmetic set I could find. She was one of the most satisfying PvP experiences I've ever had. I'd dive into an entire enemy team, scatter their front line with a mighty roar (while also typing "Me want snu-snu!" into chat for good measure) punt a dwarf out of the way if I could find one, then pull their squishies to me and root them.

1v1, I'm a coward. On teams, I'm almost incapable of abandoning a fight. You fight for the group, you advance the group objectives, until you drop. First one in, last one out. There is no alternative.

Yet all too often I feel like poor Reepicheep from the Narnia books playing chess with Lucy aboard the Dawn Treader:
"He was a good player and when he remembered what he was doing he usually won. But every now and then Lucy won because the Mouse did something quite ridiculous like sending a knight into the danger of a queen and castle combined. This happened because he had momentarily forgotten it was a game of chess and was thinking of a real battle and making the knight do what he would certainly have done in its place. For his mind was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands."

However, online RPGs are not chess and even in chess there are pawns. This is the conundrum of dealing with human stupidity when designing a multiplayer game: nobody wants to be a pawn. In any team game, in Savage, Team Fortress, Planetside, in AoS games, MMOs, you name it, I often find myself like Reepicheep's forlorn knight, dying alone in the middle of the enemy team.
But that's your fault, not mine.You're the ones who scattered in panic instead of standing your ground. When I accepted a certain death on my record, you bailed out for fear you might also die with me.
I don't mind being a pawn or suicidal knight. It is necessary. Reepicheep is the team player par excellence, and he is also the driving force of any good team. God damn the torpedoes. Dictate your own fate. And when you detonate, you can bring Armageddon from right around the bend.

I am your cavalry charge, your shock trooper, your support supporting you to the bitter end. I am your Leonidas, your light brigade. Use me.
And give me the credit I'm due.
The actions of a mighty mouse are only useless if the rest of the board is not moving into position to take advantage of them. The team objective is what matters not any individual...

- stats.

There's a lot of stupidity that players bring with them into online games. For instance, even though they are in no physical danger (this is the one place where the moronic catchphrase "it's a game!" is truly applicable) you will always see a good number of any group panic and scatter if you startle them. This is another reason why a mad wer-wolfe crashing into the enemy line with wild abandon is so unintuitively effective, and why a healer who doesn't run away when focused can stop an enemy attack in its tracks. Online gamers are not trained, disciplined soldiers.
There are also endless opportunities for miscommunication.
There are bad skill builds and poorly chosen items, bad positioning, lack of a willingness to play second-banana to other players, etc.

However, much of the blame for the disgusting lack of teamwork in team games can be attributed to designers' own reinforcement of the worst of these tendencies. They have glorified sabotage and backstabbing through stat-tracking, through the pretense of objectivity. All the worthless little parasites who never take any risks for fear of dying, who never help you unless you're already winning and they want to take the credit, they are glorified because they can point to their stats and say "STFU U SUCK i got a 1.7 K/D ratio an u only got 0.7!!!" You can literally take the bullet for another player and he will tell you how much you suck!!!1 because you have more deaths than him.

We don't have team games online. We have farces in which dedicated team players are ridiculed and denigrated while all the leeches with no sense for tactics or the strategic necessity for sacrifice take the credit for any win and blame any loss on those carrying them.

You cannot quantify intelligent cooperation. You can't track the good someone did by, say, dodging around the enemy team constantly blocking attacks, keeping them distracted. He is doing no damage and taking none, healing nothing and getting no heals. You can't quantify all the attacks your tank prevented by charging the enemy team before they had a chance to pick targets. You can't quantify the concept of a lynchpin, of a healer standing and healing until he dies because he's keeping the tank up, instead of running away and just healing the back row to keep his heal score up. You can't adequately represent the uselessness of the sniper sitting back waiting for his teammates to take the bullet or the value of the madman with a sawed-off shotgun flanking the enemy to flush them out so that sniper can take the credit.
Stat-tracking only harms the best of team players, those who turn the tide of fights instead of taking only easy options.

Stop tracking individual stats in team games. You can't measure Reepicheep's true stature.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Variable Roguishness: highs and lows

"The pattern's laid out on the bed
With dozens of colors of thread
But you've got the needle -
I guess that's the point in the end."

Amanda Palmer - The Point of It All

Three weeks ago while writing about the curiously successful FTL, I said I haven't played rogue-likes. Thinking back a bit, I realized I was mildly fibbin'. A dungeon crawl through algorithmically-generated environments and enemies... oh if only I had some sort of hauntingly tense and desolate audio track wrapping that concept in nostalgia for me.

Ah, there it is.
I suppose it's a credit to Blizzard's fiendishly over-funded advertising department that up until now I'd always thought of Diablo as only a simplified RPG, though I'd learned about Rogue and "Rogue-likes" some few years ago. Certainly they were careful never to even whisper the word NetHack to us children of the 90s glorying in the twists and turns of Tristram's catacombs. Even though I've often thought back to how proud I was of having sussed out Diablo 2's mapping algorithms and being able to find my way around with minimal exploration, I somehow never linked this experience to the concept of a "roguelike" I acquired much later.

So by extension Rogue is the grand-daddy of so-called "action" RPGs in general, given that they were Diablo clones just as MMOs for the past decade have been WoW-clones. Randomness offers well-founded appeal: that little thrill of having to decide whether to take a left or right at the next oubliette, knowing that no-one before you has explored this dungeon, wondering exactly what monster will boogety-boo at you from behind the next corner. That trace of monkey curiousity which modern entertainment has not quite managed to extinguish is only too rarely, but laudably, appeased.

However, this genealogy does not end with the deaths of Mephisto, Diablo and Baal, unfortunately, because randomness has more sinister applications as well. Though the first game in the series was an honest work unto itself, Diablo 2 was among other things one of the main laboratories for the development of slot-machine gameplay. Those who don't like me calling MMOs "WoW-clones" like to point me to WoW's inspiration in predecessors like Everquest or Lineage for its loot-grinding gameplay, but the truth is Blizzard didn't particularly need outside examples. They'd been running their own experiment on the subject for years. Diablo 2, especially in its multiplayer incarnation, attempted various ways of keeping players interested. It put out more classes, more varieties of monsters, more visually varied environments, full orchestra music, cinematics, etc. Increasingly though, it became clear that what drove players on was the loot. Not the experience and actual character progression, which proceeded at a steady pace, but the randomly generated rewards kept them re-killing the same red horny bastard sitting in the middle of the same pentagram for hundreds of hours of gameplay on end.

Game reviewers tend to praise this-and-that as "addictive" so frequently and facetiously that we don't give it a second thought but this? Random loot drops? Behaviorists like to call this Variable Ratio reinforcement and it is quite literally addictive. It's gambling addiction. It's the reason great-aunt Mildred pissed away her life savings sitting in front of a one-armed bandit in a casino and your cousin Bob fed his college fund into a video poker machine, and it's the reason why you've killed the dark elf boss a hundred times over hoping for the sword with a 0.0001 drop rate.

It seems roguelikes have much to answer for.
No. Not really.
Random loot drops are only one facet of algorithmically-generated content. That's all that made it down through the electronic generations into theme-park MMOs. The industry latched on to the quickest buck. What if, instead, we were to focus on the many actual possibilities instead of the simplistic overwhelming addiction to wrapped presents?

How about randomizing challenges instead of rewards, you know, the first half of the concept.
Procedurally-generated terrain is only the start.
Imagine shooting a flamethrower at a randomly fire-immune monster. Hope you packed a sidearm.
Think about multiplayer teams having to quickly organize their algorithmically-determined gear before a match.
Picture crops or forests growing in shifting patterns, mutating and acquiring new properties, across the landscape of Middle-earth, Arrakis, Tatooine, Trantor, the Sword Coast or Azeroth.

... dozens of colors of thread

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Texted Ventures

As a formerly jazzed anticipator of The Secret World, it's been hard watching the game fail so miserably, compromising its core functions in endless ways while making nonsensical desperate bids for attention. However, in its role as idiot savant among MMOs it has also provided an intriguing case study in various modes of failure.

One of these is TSW's devolution from ambitious "next-gen" MMO, to fragmented theme park, to an adventure game with better graphics, to recycling its game areas into small-group gear/reputation grinding, and now finally bringin' back the 80s with text adventure. Your character gets a "laptop" icon in his inventory, which you use to activate the schtick below.
Welcome to the future of online games, apparently.

This is part of the first "Sidestories" mission pack released a couple of months ago, which I was hoping would feature more of TSW's best content, puzzle-solving adventures well-integrated into the game map itself. Instead they reek of desperation. One mission chain delves into the disgusting so-called "alternate" reality game fad. This second is, well, the thing above.

For a bit I did think that hey, waitaminute, maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe this is a justifiable variation on TSW's existing story-based half-puzzle half-combat mix. Maybe it's only the surprise that's putting me off from savoring this mission. (Note to self: I have got to send this Tailsteak guy some more money, he's feeding me way too many apt references.) Maybe instead of romancing TSW I can simply be friends with it.
Unfortunately that excuse sort of falls apart because TSW doesn't want to go dutch. TSW is a tease. Sidestories as a whole cost the same as any mission pack, about $7-8, money I thought I was spending on TSW gameplay: graphics, combat, music, voiceovers, environment interaction, the works. In other words, 2014 game content. This means this particular 1980s text adventure is costing me about $2. I wonder how many old Infocom text adventures I can get for a couple of bucks. (hint- abandonware)

Yes, my expectation when buying a new game does include the myriad technical advancements newly made since 1980, like, say, a graphic interface to minimize the drudgery of repetition - "this is one tough troll!" It also does away with some unnecessary ambiguity.

My standard rejoinder to the "chinese room" thought experiment is that one would indeed be interacting with an intelligent entity in that scenario, albeit indirectly: the programmer/translator who created the algorithm, who speaks, for all intents and purposes, through the machine. There's this sort of "chinese room" element to computer games in general, all the more so the more communication is involved. Much like having to learn all the quasi-rational acronyms used as internet jargon in order to play online games (LF2M AOE DPS 4 UBRS) text adventures also depend on certain linguistic conventions, on jargon, through which both programmer and player attempt to communicate their intent. What if the game writer had thought "let go" made more sense than "drop"? Sheldon's character would be inhaling quicksand! What if I think the logical countermand of  "loot" is "unloot axe" instead of "drop axe" or "leave" as opposed to "take?" I'd be right down there in the bog with Sheldon.

That's where I've wound up when trying to communicate with AI text elements in games, stuck in a quagmire of near-misses because try as I might, I simply do not possess the same speech patterns as a programmer (much less one from 1983.) Me no talk good Codemonkeyish. In order to trudge through Immersion in TSW I am already having to look up the specific term the writer wants me to spout here and there.

But what about old-style MUDs like Achaea (which I've been halfheartedly trying recently) which after some decades online do a decent job of explaining their terminology to new players and inserting some flexibility into their jargon? Should the old text-based system be held as equal to, say, dodging around in an Elder Scrolls game or powering up your sensor jammer in EVE Online?
And this might sound odd from someone who more or less raved about Faery Tale Online, but hear me out.

I can certainly agree that tabletop roleplaying remains competitive with electronic games because the flexibility of verbal interaction and a flesh-and-blood GM allow for a much wider range of action. I myself tend to wax poetic about all the actions I wish I could take in MMOs.
Typing commands into a computer game however is different. You are only attempting to regurgitate the correct verbalization to trigger a preset action, and if typing "take" executes the same action as hitting a "take" button, then yes, that reliance on text is meaningless and the only explanation I can give for its persistence is retro hipster appeal. FTO used an intuitive graphic interface to do away with much of that nonsense, and was a superior game for it. No, I should not have to type "hit troll with axe" every time I want to swing my weapon or even every time I find a new troll. My game experience gains nothing from this concession.

As for TSW, I'm curious how far its devolution will go as its staff apparently gets pruned of designers, visual artists, voice actors and all that fluff down to one lit. major with a notebook scribbling text content on his lunch breaks. How long before TSW's paid updates can simply be released in ebook form? They already seem to be putting more work into comic books based on the game than the actual game.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sluggy Freelance

"That might be so cool
Yeah, that might be cool
I might be a fool in your eyes

Am I made for your god?
Never-ending, never-ending..."

Guano Apes - Dodel Up

Seems Sluggy Freelance has one more major storyline to go before its end, and ironically (given its next-to-last storyline) its finale really will sort of signal the end of an era. Webcomics have established themselves as a legitimate mode of publishing, with large organized sites cross-promoting disparate comics, Kickstarter or Patreon fundraising campaigns and stable communities of gawking fans fawning over even mediocre authors. The days of slapping some drawings online at random intervals and putting up a paypal "tip jar" link seem to be ending. Whether because the old bandwidth restrictions are dissolving, software is becoming more sophisticated or so-called "sequential art" more mainstream and therefore more worthy of a time and money investment, the products coming online now are also increasing in technical complexity. Webcomics are getting bigger, glossier, more colorful, more reliable.

Sluggy Freelance is not one of those comics. It was one of the few success stories which became common references within webcomics chatter around the beginning of the new millennium alongside PvP, Penny Arcade or Megatokyo. However, regardless of its monetary success or its artistic merit, Sluggy remains the most representative "webcomic" out there. Without being specifically a college comic or a fantasy or scifi or romance or political comic, it best encapsulates the unselfconscious mix of wacky hijinks, pop-culture references, light plot or drama and snappy one-liners which, judging as a mere reader and outsider to the industry, seems to have drawn the most readers into online comics over the past couple of decades. Its archives are a remarkable distillation of turn-of-the-millennium pop culture attitudes.

Now, it should be noted that "representative" is not synonymous with "exemplary" and I would not qualify Sluggy as one of the best such works cluttering the internet. Take any one element from Sluggy and others have done it better. How then did a jack of all trades but master of none become so popular? First off, whether writing cheap parodies, romantic comedy or over-the-top cartoonish action sequences, Abrams has been a gifted humorist. He can lay it on thick or sneak in a jeering aside. The length of his storylines has also tended to match the attention-span of his audience, not only providing something for everyone but also padding it enough so that it never feels entirely perfunctory. The strip never spiraled out of control but neither did it stagnate.

However, there's a more embarrassingly practical explanation for the comic's popularity: pandering. Sluggy makes its core fanbase feel included. The site features a membership option, validating its more ardent followers as "sluggites" and one gets the impression the strip has more or less bent in the wind broken by public opinion, explaining some of its meandering. Its most popular character, Bun-bun the switchblade-toting rabbit, a blatant one-shot gag lampooning other comics pandering to their audience by introducing cute little pets (to paraphrase one Frasier writer "it's a rule, if you put pets or babies on screen you get high ratings") simply became such a popular running gag that his recurring incongruous influence has always hung over the strip like the bun of Damocles. How much over-the-top out-of-place badassness can you string together before it becomes too ridiculous?
And that's generally been the pattern. Abrams spat out parody after parody, and the popular jokes stayed.

In this context, the initially annoying way in which he seems to be ending this decades-long adventure in sequencing starts to make sense. He is attempting to bring together much of the scattered nonsense he's spewed over the years into a mystical, mystifying, retconned explanation for the entire strip, including the name itself. Though "sluggy freelance" is easily acceptable as a nonsense title like "goats" or "xkcd" the choice to give the word "sluggy" a contextual meaning fits perfectly into the site's core marketing schtick: making the sluggite hordes feel included and validated.

I like Sluggy. More than any other, it used to make me want to find an artist to partner with and try to collaborate on a webcomic myself. The freedom, the flexibility, the balance of humor and drama, visual and linguistic elements, all the potential of comics as an art form when removed from under the thumb of publishers, it's all visible in Sluggy Freelance, if somewhat dilute. I am not willing to ignore the concessions the author has made to maintain his fanbase but neither will I deny that I have laughed my ass off at some of the old one-liners and given quite a few contented mental sighs at its better-executed dramatic moments.

Read Sluggy Freelance if you want a crash course in webcomics.

For my own part, I am hoping Abrams starts a more coherent, slightly more dramatic project in the following years. His most memorable work has come when exploring duty, guilt, obsession, all the interpersonal background of heroics. Much of an adventure comic consists of world-building and he's not skilled at creating worlds - always relied on parody for that - but he's damn good at exploiting motivations and driving forces. Years later, Fire and Rain and That Which Redeems are still some of the highest points in the strip, with the much newer 4U City outshining pretty much everything else.

Fine, give the sluggites their validation. Sluggy has been a product and encapsulation of its context, of the struggle for legitimacy and popularity in a new medium. Let it end, even in mediocre pandering, and let the author move on to something more purposeful, playing more on his strengths rather than his existing audience's expectations, in this medium he's helped shape.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Top this!

I have been banned from Sins of a Dark Age.
This is the first time I've been banned from a game before it's even officially "out"; though for the record, SoaDA is as "out" as it's likely to ever get and as far as I can tell only using a prolonged beta or "early access" status, like Firefall, to excuse various bugs, missing features and other signs of incompetence while already raking in the cash - apparently this is a growing trend.
In any case, I did it all without cheating, griefing, botting, spamming, sabotaging my team or doing anything else with the slightest practical implication. Just growling at other mutts in the pen gets you put down these days. The quill is mightier than the downloaded hack.

Top my vitriolic denouncements, I dare you.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Firefall's take on the polar bear in a snowstorm

 All chiaro, no oscuro.
Seriously, whichever graphic artist thought blue and white text was the perfect choice for something you have to read floating against sky and clouds - you're fired. You are so freakin' fired.

Pack up your construction-paper art school diploma, board that dropship to hell-knows-where and get lost.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Spine your tropics

After playing a few D&D computer adaptations set in the "Sword Coast" region of the Forgotten Realms, many, many things bug me. I complain a lot.

For now, here's one of the more minor details: I don't like the idea of the Spine of the World or more specifically its geographic location. Granted, in a fictional setting it's usually nice to include a variety of environments and mountains certainly qualify. I also get that they wanted a definitive "end of the world" location up there in the north.

However, stylistically, mountains in northern regions are redundant. Increasing either altitude or latitude mostly serves as a vehicle for cold-weather creatures, societies and adventures but just one of the two will do.
Instead, a mountain range as a major geographical feature would provide a tropical region with a very poignant point of contrast (so long as it's not volcanic) quickly shifting from hot to cold biomes.

And speaking of which, volcanic crevasses tearing apart the blanched calm of a tundra adventure setting? Much more interesting than mountains, and at least as good for the purposes of an "end of the world" motif. Come on, Iceland itself looks like a fantasy landscape.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fire-fall lazorz! pew-pew Planetside

I hopped into Planetside 2 today for twenty minutes; that should about do it for this month. However, twenty minutes was long enough to get exposed to a near-lethal dose of mass-mindless blabber, including a recurring theme over the past year or two "hey, didja hear about that game Firefall, it's kinda like this one!"
And of course whenever I've hopped into Firefall I've heard the same about PS2.

Never mind that one is a strict PvP faction war without resource collection and the other a PvE, largely solo resource collection grindfest. They both use twitchy, fast-paced FPS mechanics and are both set in vaguely syencefyctiony locales, so hey, that must be all there is to it.
No, sorry. A slice of bread is not the same as a chicken wing just because they're both off-white and edible.

However, this does bring up a couple of points.

Though the online game market is finally edging out from under the desperation to copycat World Of Warcraft as closely as possible, WoW's detrimental influence will be felt throughout at least the next decade in ways I can't even conceive sitting here so close under its looming shadow - but likely the worst of these is the irrelevance, the complete trivialization of player action. It seems ridiculous that the average FPS-er wouldn't care whether he's shooting a techy-lookin' gun at another player or computer-controlled "baddies" until you realize that they've been taught it makes no difference.
Resources and monsters instantly and randomly respawn in Firefall. Bases flip in four minutes in Planetside 2. There is nothing to plan for. There is no intelligent authority (like player guilds in olden-days MMOs*) to decide whether you're pulling your weight or not. Repetition is everything. Under those WoWified conditions, yes, it really makes no difference whether you're shooting at a live or simulated entity, especially in the context of FPS. Ever since Unreal Tournament... let's say 2003, bots have easily been as twitch-capable as human players.
Computers are faster than us. We are still (narrowly) better planners. Without a greater context in which to place the action of the moment and without repercussions for player actions, those little deadheads in PS2 and Firefall can't really be blamed for their inability to discern between man and machine.

WoW's legacy also includes the decisive shift toward fantasy themes. Don't get me wrong, fantasy is always easier to slap together than science fiction ("it's magic" being all the logic demanded) and even something like Firefall is actually science fantasy. Still, given that the concept of an MMO stemmed from cyberpunk's popularization of decking into the matrix, the early MMO scene divided itself pretty evenly between SciFi and fantasy. Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, Lineage and Everquest shared the stage with Anarchy Online, Earth and Beyond, Project Entropia and EVE:The Second Genesis.

However, the industry's attempts to copy/paste WoW's market appeal after 2005 also included a complete dedication to the cheap elves-and-goblins Tolkien knock-off setting ripped off from D&D and Warhammer. To players who have grown up with the past decade's utter fanatical devotion to pointy ears and green skin in MMOs, yes, that must seem like part of the definition, and when two well-publicized multiplayer games hit the market handing out plasma rifles and dropship rides that superficiality weighs much more heavily in the comparison.

So. I may scoff at the younger generation's ignorance but I really can't blame them for it. It's all they've known. Don't hate the players, hate the game.
Hate World of Warcraft.

*Challenge me on this, I dare you. The concept of a guild or clan has been another one of WoW's victims.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Downfall - a kitten Quasimodo

"For all we could have done
And all that could have been"
NIN - The Great Below

Unfortunately, I can't discuss Downfall without referencing The Cat Lady. Quite likely if Michalski had stopped after one game Downfall itself would have passed quietly out of memory of even its niche audience. As it stands, Downfall alone isn't particularly worth the time, but much as I frequently comment about webcomics, it is a fascinating window into the development of a creative style for those who enjoyed The Cat Lady.

In The Cat Lady, the character Joe Davis was clearly either an incomplete subquest or an external reference, and as the latter proved to be true I was curious about what preceded one of the few games to wring much emotion from me in recent years. Sadly, Downfall is quite obviously not only a cheaper game lacking even its sequel's few bells and whistles but also a much less certain first attempt. The extraneous mouse-hovering adventure game convention which was done away with in The Cat Lady was still all too present in Downfall. The visual style is much less refined. It had no voice acting and much more primitive music.

All that's theft is the core of such a game, the writing, and the difference between the two is striking. Downfall is much more amateurish, fumbling, riddled with extraneous lines and awkwardly interjected mid-dialogue exposition. The situations and characters are less consistent, the violence more gratuitous, the gratuitous sex more so. It is less the work of an iconoclastic auteur as the ramblings of a dissatisfied critic attempting to, assuming he can, create.

Yet, still. The intent is there. The haunting projection of the author/player's id into the activity on screen, the characters' frustrated desperation for interpersonal connection, the feeling of effort with every click, the... morbid thirst for life, if that makes any sense, it's all present in Downfall, if in a more awkward, dilute form. That particular critic really could create and I'm quite glad he was encouraged to continue.

I wouldn't recommend Downfall by itself but if you liked The Cat Lady, it's worth the time.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Among science fiction webcomics, it's hard to find much "hard" SciFi content, and really it does make sense. Comics after all excel at whimsical instant gratification and not lengthy exposition (though the wordier ones tend to be more interesting.) Freefall is sort of an odd duck in this respect, its almost constant goofiness and short format belying some very thoughtful commentary on the development of intellect. It's a counterpoint to the common academic concern that our modern snippet-obsessed, 140-character culture has lost the ability to convey complex information.

Unfortunately it did sort of take a decade and a half for those three panels a day to add up to one multifaceted story. It also cannot compete with "artsier" comics visually, as it has remained a very basic newspaper-style strip throughout its duration.

Though it may sound shallow of me to say so, Freefall's most unique and endearing quality is probably its format. Three panels every odd weekday since 1998. No reboots, no retconning. No ads. No babies out of the blue to boost ratings. (I'd say "no amnesia" either, but there's actually been quite a bit of it - at least it was anterograde.) No crossovers. No pushy donation "incentives" aside from good work. Just a story about artificial intelligence, interspecies relations and a hint of transhumanism, calmly, gradually unfolding in its own little corner of the web. You've heard of internet phenomena? Well, Freefall is an internet noumenon. To thine own strip be true.

And though it obviously has an over-riding narrative nearing its grand finale (in another few years or so) its pacing has remained as low-key as its format. While I generally prefer my storytelling to build in dramatic crescendo to a thundering finale, Freefall's unbroken stride undeniably works for its purposes. From old-timey Benny Hill or silent movie inspired pie fights and chase sequences to very gradual character development to, how did the author put it... "altering social structures on a planetary scale" it rolls things along one punchline at a time, resisting the temptation to escalate.

As a last, somewhat personal note and coincidentally a taste of the strip, it bears mentioning that Freefall's expansive cast of minor characters created to fit a punchline or as plot devices are more interesting in themselves than central characters in other comics. From a romantically open-minded parasitologist to a bureaucratic suck-up plagued by an inconvenient trace of a conscience to a stoically genocidal old robot to a tragic villain illustrating the old rule that there are no first-person villains, there's apparently something for everyone. Even me.
I'm always fascinated by the notion that I'm a "type" easily portrayed by fictional characters. Dr. House or Sheldon Cooper, just off the top of my head, have frequently echoed my own lines almost verbatim. And as I get more fed up with the world's stupidity, sick and tried of trying to converse intelligently with a species incapable of understanding anything but the crassest insults and simplest delineations, there's one minor Freefall character echoing my sentiments. Then again, I was also quite sympathetic to Marvin the Paranoid Android, but I digress.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Edge the robocidal robot. Soldier on, my green steel lupine brother.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Oooh, baby, you hurt me so good.

Though I tend to rhapsodize about the bad old days when games were more honest, less exploitative, more intellectual, blah-blah, when I was your age get off my lawn kids, etc. I am well aware of the many improvements brought to computer games over the past couple of decades. I would not want to go back to the days of text adventures or Doom's pixellated nightmare of "wait is that an eye or a gun?"

Also, Rogue was in fact a bit before my time (literally) so I have had no truck in general with roguelikes. It behooves the savvy customer to remain quite wary of any game which adheres to outdated "old-timey" aesthetics in order to bank on a certain market segment's unanalyzed nostalgia.
The perfect example would be DotA2 which copycats DotA's gameplay twitch for twitch, ignoring the fact that most of DotA's basic gameplay mechanics were heavily compromised by the necessity of development as a modification within Warcraft 3's RTS basics. DotA2 is a cold-blooded exploitation of the expanding but inexperienced third-world market which simply has no basis for comparison.
Adventure game developers also tend to pander to the definition of an adventure game which includes their restricted audience's hipster expectation of a deliberately "retro" low-res pixelated look and other restrictions like two-dimensionality or mouse-hovering.
Better game developers like those of Planescape:Torment have been brave enough to go against their customers' expectations and state publicly that the reliance on chat interaction, the game's most celebrated feature, really only reflected budget and time restrictions and that given a chance they would not have limited their creativity in such a manner.

So though I'd heard good things about FasterThanLight and downloaded it sight-unseen from GoG, I instantly turned skeptical when the menu screen loaded. I will say that the game seems unnecessarily restricted in visuals, audio and layout to appease the hipster "retro" demand. Other low-budget games working within olden-days genres like The Cat Lady or Trine have shown how valuable it can be to drop this conceit. Nonetheless, FTL's basic functionality is solid and though I'm sure every player has endless suggestions for how it should be expanded upon, the range of encounters is just large enough to warrant its price.

In the larger scheme of things, it's FTL's difficulty and relative popularity which make it an interesting phenomenon. Today's game industry as a whole religiously adheres to the dogma of accessibility. Developers to some extent but especially publishers wont even hear of challenging players and instead trip over each other to give their customers as many undeserved accolades as possible, to constantly bombard players with praise for the most simplistic, mindless repetition.

FTL, on the other hand, is brutal. Even on the normal setting I am having trouble completing the game with the various ship setups, and that's as a veteran of various strategy genres. Some fault may be found in this, as the randomness, the unpredictability of the system is just slightly too high. Luck plays too large a factor, as when you're broke but armed to the teeth and rarin' to fight for some scrap before getting to the next sector but you keep landing in empty systems, or when you're loaded with scrap but your hull's cored through and you can't find a repair shop to save your life... no, really. In terms of "taming the randomizer" as the catchphrase goes, FTL could have leashed it just a bit more closely. However, preparing for the unforeseen and minimizing the various types of attrition is the game's core challenge and a welcome one after being exposed to so much hand-holding theme-park modern game culture.

Surprisingly, I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Word-of-mouth about this thing is startlingly prevalent and I'm finding players in the oddest places talking FTL up precisely for its difficulty. Even the otherwise stupid (no, really, even leet-kiddies and twitch-gamer idiots) are finding that though they can't conceive, much less verbalize why, FTL is "awesome" and they can't wait to unlock the next ship layout.

Just as with "slow games" and sandboxes the game industry's doctrines about what customers prefer prove to be little more than an attempt to limit the scope of products on the market so as to control it. Turns out that a large proportion of the players who try FTL's punishing brand of "betcha can't do this" end up liking it. Imagine that.

FTL is not a great game. It is fairly limited both for necessary and unnecessary self-imposed reasons. It is neither immersive enough nor wide enough in its scope to hold my interest over more grandiose genres. I don't like the finite "kill the boss" precept. Still it is a good game and its success is, overarchingly, a good bit of news for this brand of entertainment.