Sunday, August 30, 2015

Okily-Patchily, Updaterinos!

It's too bad I don't have an administrative assistant or it might have been brought to my attention sooner that computer games no longer have patches. Just "updates" - because you see, nothing needs fixing in our product. Ever! Everything is always "working as intended" by divine decree.
Now, I'm sure that in whatever B-movie corporate public relations boardroom this policy was first decreed by some lickspittle communications major, it was met with a rousing (but not too rousing) chorus of applause from the soft-headed soft language crowd. I mean, it sounds like the perfect, low-key dodge. You'll never have to admit anything is wrong ever again. It's like something Ned Flanders would say.
Until you realize what you're actually telling us: that the concept of filling in the countless gaps and bugs and delivering on your Kickstarter campaign promises is an "update" to you. The very notion of a functional product constitutes this brave new world, uncharted territory, a miracle breakthrough. This just in, people: we might actually try making our game playable!

Custodial (game) engineering at its finest.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Iconoclasm Online?

"Bring down the angels
Cast them from my sight
I never want to see
A million suns at midnight"

Sting - When the Angels Fall

Fantasy games cast rationalism in a weird light. On one hand, your character lives in a universe (or multiverse) in which people shoot lightning from their fingertips, fairy dust is five silver pieces at your local apothecary and praying for something actually makes it happen. Demonstrable, interactive divinities would render atheism irrational. You can't damn well deny the existence of Thor when he's downing a pint of ale across the table from you.

But if we can't be atheists (unless you somehow specifically create an insane character) antitheism gains a very literal meaning. As usual, I'm mostly concerned with cRPGs since I'm not directly familiar with tabletop games, but I've noted an alarming dearth of deicide.

The subject's rarely touched upon. I did enjoy deliberately antagonizing the Lady of Pain in Planescape: Torment, though that was both merely symbolic and ironic given her preferences. The Antediluvians in the two Vampire: the Masquerade games I've played were set up as appropriately antagonistic stand-ins for supreme beings, in loco deis as it were. By and large however, game designers cower before the threat of fundie protests. Most go the route of Dragon Age: Origins which rather literally demonized the invaders of the divine realm in its introduction video. Oblivion: Shivering Isles allowed you to join the pantheon but not shatter it. The only cRPG I can think of on the fly in which you had the slightest option of rebelling against the tyrannical masters of the universe was Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. I've heard of the God of War action series but its descriptions hardly qualify Kratos as making a rational informed choice to "fight the power" (pun intended) and tear down the system of divinity.

If divinities were real, if someone were setting up the cruel and ludicrous conflict and waste of reality, running the freak show, then the noblest act would be opposition. Sing more of man's first disobedience, of taking the fruit, of accepting no supreme authority. Isn't it sad that in our interactive power-fantasies we nearly inevitably condemn ourselves to run around as servile toadies maintaining the status quo? Can the hero's journey not admit a more deviant slant? It's blatantly self-serving for the upper classes to push such propaganda and must seem natural to the rich investors who rule entertainment industries... but then it should seem equally natural to us, the lowly consumers being bilked to support our own indoctrination, to demand more rebellious fantasies.

It would make an especially good setup for a cooperative PvE MMO. The over-arching plot should be a chain of deicides. Mine resources, grow stronger, build an army, build Babels after Babels all to assault the heavens. With each autocrat that falls, with each Zeus, Ra, Vishnu, Jehovah or Odin whose throat we slit, we should be rewarded with new areas of gameplay, new powers freed from divine hoarding for human use - and therein you have your endless chain of expansion packs. Come on you ersatz designers, someone pick this up.

Friday, August 28, 2015

ST: TNG - Justice

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate 1.08

Visit to Planet Baywatch, a.k.a. the episode where they missed the chance to legally rid themselves of Weasely.
I love that right off the bat in this, Picard translates "they make love at the drop of a hat" into "send in the teenage boy!" Now that there be some shrewd captainin'.
This is too a scifi scene! Look, Riker's wearing a snazzy space-age communicator.

What follows is basically ten minutes of Baywatch in Spaaaaace dotted by some timeless lines like "enjoy what we have" immediately followed by a close-up of a cherubic blonde in lingerie strutting into the scene. Classy.

This time it's Data who gets possessed - by a spaceball to the face!
You think maybe we should hel - no? 'kay.

Amusing that the various one-line crew extras cycling through this episode (including the future O'Brien) weren't even named. Was the focus group just asked which face they'd prefer? The first season was littered with one-shot crew members being tested on the audience, some of them amusingly ill-conceived (Mr. Singh and engineer Argyle) others so utterly forgettable it's no wonder we never realized they're there.

We do get treated to one very good line: "They recognize that [religion] is quite expected and harmless at the present stage of evolution." One of the best things about Star Trek as a work of Utopian Science Fiction was standing by the reality that religion is primitive and will be shed like so much parasitism by any society worthy of being called "advanced." Calling brainwashing "harmless" is somewhat of a step back, but still. Overall very gutsy for a mass-market TV show.
Plus, a variation on Clarke's third law.
Plus, the trolley problem.
Plus... aw, hell. If not for the gratuitous skin-tastic setup and the taint of Wesley Crusher this would've been a great episode. However, it suffers a repeated and jarring disconnect between the speculative bits about an ascended race of alien protectors and the disingenuous, overemotional "save Wesley" scenes. Even Wheaton's big self-sacrificing speech comes across like some after-school caricature of "the needs of the many" with everyone trying to resist rolling their eyes at the notion that they're not going to wind up bending over backwards to rescue the promised child.

Come on, they're offering to take him off your hands. Just shrug under the Prime Directive blanket and send them a check afterwards. Itemize it as "pest control."

Thursday, August 27, 2015

My money's on the pot smokers

"You cannot sedate all the things you hate"
Marilyn Manson - Dogma

Boom boom. Another monument bites the dust.There's lots of ways to look at ISIL's latest publicity stunt, blowing up the temple of Baalshamin. I mean, isn't it nice that even though the Hebrews dropped the ball on Baal, neglecting to completely wipe every trace of the Canaanites off the map, someone's there to pick up the slack? Sure it's a few millennia late, but Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah/whatsisface must be very proud.

What? Too soon?
Comedy equals tragedy plus time, doesn't it? Well, at the very least tragedy plus time equals World Heritage Site.

Look, I'm certainly not thrilled at the world losing yet another historic marker to those rabid baboons wiping their asses with their own history. Our species has a short enough memory without tearing up these little post-it notes we keep finding buried here and there. However, I can't help but notice a pattern. This was originally a religious structure, likely built on slave labor for the express purpose of facilitating wiping out whatever animist or shamanistic superstitions the locals held and erasing their existence from history. It was then repurposed as Jebus' summer home (he had a number of them) to facilitate spreading that new mass delusion among I don't even wanna count how many other conquests, whitewashings, appropriations and passive-aggressive takeovers. Hell, you can bet the damn thing wouldn't even be around if it hadn't laid safely buried for fifty generations. The latest delusional masses are just that: the latest in a long cavalcade. This is what religion does. It's a means of establishing tribal identity and in-groups define themselves by opposition to out-groups.

Every dogmatic social delineation, if it has the clout, tends toward orthodoxy, polarization, radicalization, ever more desperate measures for the chosen/saved/true-believers to allay their insecurities by finding some thous to out-holy. That's it's selling point. That's why this particular memetic infection catches so readily in our social ape brains, because it latches on to our desperation to increase our social rank, to tread on others. Every kindly little old granny trying to save your soul has first declared you the devil's own. Salvation engenders perdition.

Ah, but religion isn't the only religion out there, is it? What's your brand of holiness? What social group's rallies do you march in? What lies writ on your pedestal? What's the name of your high-horse? Black? Female? Vegan? Yogi? Gay? American? Football fan? Ferret owner? Who are the people with whom you trade mutually-reinforcing social platitudes and whom you try to out-compete in upholding your cause and attacking your perceived opponents?

Because I'd like to try to guess which temple you'll be blowing up when it's your turn. We lonely few herd-bereft individuals out here have started a betting pool, you see.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

ST: TNG - Lonely Among Us

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate 1.07
Lonely Among Us

Energy being takes Picard's dematerialized body out for joyride in nebula. No relevant casualties.
Oh, hey, we have an Indian guy... and even though everyone else on the ship speaks indistinguishably educated American English regardless of their skin color, this guy dives into the whole nasal, half-mouthed accent not quite hard enough to qualify as a stand-in for Apu from the Kwik-E-Mart but enough to drive home the point. We're so multicultural here in the future. Indians are apparently the only people left on 24th-century Earth so poor they don't even have a language - jus' dis stoopid acks-hent. Mostly he serves as Wesley's foil for the duration, giving the rest of the cast (but not the viewers) a break from his antics, for which sacrifice he will be dearly remembered. No matter. Besides incongruous, Mr. Singh also proved conveniently disposable.
Singh rhymes with zing!

That's right. They hired a blatantly token minority extra then halfway through the same episode zapped him into oblivion. It's tradition.
This was Hollywood going all tolerant and open-minded - upside your head!

The climax gimmick makes no sense. The energy being wants a physical body for travel purposes but the first thing it does is turn Picard to an energy pattern?

On another topic, what is it with all the demonic possession in a SciFi show? How many times did Picard alone get inhabited by some alien being in this series, much less the others? I mean, fine, you can save a bit on special effects by dumping the responsibility for portraying an alien presence on one of your existing actors but at some point ya gotta wonder why outer space is full of poltergeists.

I do like the way they flipped the "A" plot (the delegates) and the "B" plot (possession) around in terms of importance. It's not an entirely uncommon habit of TV series but TNG carried it off to great effect on many occasions. Overall the episode successfully balances drama and humor right down to Picard dumping the thorny issue of the warring peace delegates on Riker at the end. Coherent and sensible within the precepts of the Star Trek universe, combining the original series' exploration focus with the new series' development of the Federation as a political body, the show was finally starting to show promise.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Miracle of Science

"It's gonna take a hundred thoughts to make this one disappear
A train like that could travel a soul for years
A terrible thought could have a terribly long career"

Poe - Terrible Thought

A not quite representative example of the best old-style webcomics from the glory days before they transitioned from mode of expression to business model, A Miracle of Science lacks the haphazard initial fumbling which characterized most such ouvres. Then again, some might call the fact that its creators had their heads on their shoulders a positive quality.

Visually, it's nothing to write home about (as was more often than not the case with early webcomics) though after the first chapter or two it settles into a clean, direct style well-suited to conveying its story. The authors confess in various notes to being fans of old pulp SciFi magazines and MoS certainly shows it: trenchcoats and pinstripe suits share the stage with bulbous, flashy gadgetry sometimes directly inspired by the nonsensical, generic and often surrealist "ScieFie" covers which publishers always insist on slapping on anything futuristic. Given its clean, focused presentation and hard science themes, it's probably most similar to Freefall, even if its central subject begs comparisons to Narbonic or Girl Genius.

Y'see, it's about mad scientists, though in this case the mad scientist trope is spun into just that: a trope, a meme, a mental infection, a pre-chewed chain of thought which grabs hold of otherwise intelligent minds and drives them both forward and in several other directions at once in the manner of stereotypical Bond villains. It is however an inherently self-defeating, slavish behavior pattern dependent on interaction with authority, and the main job of the new branch of law enforcement protecting the solar system from such threats seems to be minimizing the damage mad scientists can do before they run themselves into the ground. Mads are less evildoers than psychiatric cases.

Quoth the grizzled police chief archetype:

"Mad science follows a fairly rigid memetic track. Infection, Obsession, Challenge, Chase Scene and Denoument. After that, the meme has burned itself out for the moment and the cycle restarts at obsession."

It's a fascinating set-up and the sort of Big Idea which has made for so much good Science Fiction, and MoS is littered with quite a few others in the same vein. You're expected to have some passing familiarity with the basic notions of memes, nanotech, hive minds, AI, etc. and take space exploration as a grand ideal. Call it a romance, buddy flick, crime drama or anything else but what MoS really is, is nerd fiction - because let's face it, if you're actively looking for stories about mad scientists you may already be infected yourself.

P.S.: The authors' commentary below each strip is certainly worth reading as well.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The answer, clearly, is a new defense contract

If Science Fiction still remembered its glory days, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men would be listed next to the likes of The Foundation, The Martian Chronicles, 1984, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Frankenstein. Struggling out of the darkest, slimiest depths of SF pulp in 1930, it prognosticated the rise and fall of sentience through willful destruction and degeneration, gleaming enlightened civilizations and their decay, the struggles of post-humanity along its lengthy retreat across the solar system through the aeons. Species after species from gentle yeti-like giants to giant brains to small nimble artificers and aquatic primitives succeed each other in the most grandiose of the great speculative works.

However, the story starts with a fairly detailed outline of the end of the First Men. That'd be you and me, gentle reader, unless some Neptunian post-human is reading over my shoulder from the year 2,000,000,000... in which case, ummm... sorry about wrecking the old homestead there buddy, no hard feelings? In any case, of Stapledon's many predictions about the nature of the coming Sino-American World State and its collapse, I'd like to focus on one rather poignant idiosyncrasy.

"For the all-pervading idea which tyrannized over the race was the fanatical worship of movement. Gordelpus, the Prime Mover, demanded of his human embodiments swift and intricate activity, and the individual's prospect of eternal life depended on the fulfillment of this obligation. Curiously, though science had long ago destroyed the belief in personal immortality as an intrinsic attribute of man, a complementary belief had grown up to the effect that those who justified themselves in action were preserved eternally, by special miracle, in the swift spirit of Gordelpus. Thus from childhood to death the individual's conduct was determined by the obligation to produce as much motion as possible, whether by his own muscular activity or by the control of natural forces.
Several causes had raised flying to a position of unique honour. As a means of communication it was of extreme practical importance; and as the swiftest locomotion it constituted the supreme act of worship. The accident that the form of the aeroplane was reminiscent of the main symbol of the ancient Christian religion lent flying an additional mystical significance. For though the spirit of Christianity was lost, many of its symbols had been preserved in the new faith. A more important source of the dominance of flying was that, since warfare had long ceased to exist, aviation of a gratuitously dangerous kind was the main outlet for the innate adventurousness of the human animal. Young men and women risked their lives fervently for the glory of Gordelpus and their own salvation, while their seniors took vicarious satisfaction in this endless festival of youthful prowess. Indeed apart from the thrills of devotional aerial acrobats, it is unlikely that the race would so long have preserved its peace and its unity. On each of the frequent Days of Sacred Flight special rituals of communal and solo aviation were performed at every religious centre. On these occasions the whole sky would be intricately patterned with thousands of planes, wheeling, tumbling, soaring, plunging, in perfect order and at various altitudes, the dance at one level being subtly complementary to the dance at others.
The collapse of this first world-civilization was due to the sudden failure of the supplies of coal. All the original fields had been sapped centuries earlier, and it should have been obvious that those more recently discovered could not last for ever. For some thousands of years the main supply had come from Antarctica. So prolific was this continent that latterly a superstition had arisen in the clouded minds of the world-citizens that it was in some mysterious manner inexhaustible. Thus when at last, in spite of strict censorship, the news began to leak out that even the deepest possible borings had failed to reveal further vegetable deposits of any kind, the world was at first incredulous.
The sane policy would have been to abolish the huge expense of power on ritual flying, which used more of the community's resources than the whole of productive industry. But to believers in Gordelpus such a course was almost unthinkable. Moreover it would have undermined the flying aristocracy. This powerful class now declared that the time had come for the release of the secret of divine power, and called on the [scientists] to inaugurate the new era. Vociferous agitation in all lands put the scientists in an awkward plight. They gained time by declaring that, though the moment of revelation was approaching, it had not yet arrived; for they had received a divine intimation that this failure of coal was imposed as a supreme test of man's faith. The service of Gordelpus in ritual flight must be rather increased than reduced. Spending a bare minimum of its power on secular matters, the race must concentrate upon religion. When Gordelpus had evidence of their devotion and trust, he would permit the scientists to save them.
For the race was now entering upon an unprecedented psychological crisis, brought about by the impact of the economic disaster upon a permanently unwholesome mentality. Each individual, it must be remembered, had once been a questioning child, but had been taught to shun curiosity as the breath of Satan. Consequently the whole race was suffering from a kind of inverted repression, a repression of the intellective impulses. The sudden economic change, which affected all classes throughout the planet, thrust into the focus of attention a shocking curiosity, an obsessive scepticism, which had hitherto been buried in the deepest recesses of the mind.
It is not easy to conceive the strange mental disorder that now afflicted the whole race, symbolizing itself in some cases by fits of actual physical vertigo. After centuries of prosperity, of routine, of orthodoxy, men were suddenly possessed by a doubt which they regarded as diabolical. No one said a word of it; but in each man's own mind the fiend raised a whispering head, and each was haunted by the troubled eyes of his fellows. Indeed the whole changed circumstances of his life jibed at his credulity.
Earlier in the career of the race, this world crisis might have served to wake men into sanity. Under the first pressure of distress they might have abandoned the extravagances of their culture. But by now the ancient way of life was too deeply rooted. Consequently, we observe the fantastic spectacle of a world engaged, devotedly and even heroically, on squandering its resources in vast aeronautical displays, not through single-minded faith in their rightness and efficacy, but solely in a kind of desperate automatism. Like those little rodents whose migration became barred by an encroachment of the sea, so that annually they drowned themselves in thousands, the First Men helplessly continued in their ritualistic behaviour; but unlike the lemmings, they were human enough to be at the same time oppressed by unbelief, an unbelief which, moreover, they dared not recognize."

It's easy to find commentary on the British air show crash from two days ago. Media figures feign their most plasticized expressions of commiseration with those unfortunates who paid the price for mass hysteria and everyone is asking why? Why, Gordelphus, why? What could have happened? Do we blame the pilot, blame the mechanics, blame goose migrations, where's a goat when you really need something scapeable? 
You know what I think the investigation will reveal? That an entire population was indulging in a hideous sublimation of their repressed impulses, in a ridiculously wasteful and senseless display of tribal dominance, attempting to ignore their vapid, institutionalized, purposeless wage-slavery by identifying with the tools of murder and oppression of the upper classes - and they will continue to do so until we are all scraped off the face of the planet by you apes' ritualistic, instinctive, murderous trumpeting of social power.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

ST: TNG - Where No One Has Gone Before

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate: 1.06
Where No One Has Gone Before

We thought-ported to the edge of the universe and all we got was this stupid visit from our dead mother and pets.
Also, the chapter in which Weasely Crusher is revealed as the second coming of Elvis... or something. First symptom of that dread malady, Wesleyitis, afflicting half the scripts for the first half of the series.

Before all that, though: Introducing Lieutenant-Commander Argyle.

Argyle. Argyle the chief engineer who says "ayeh, cap'n" and looks ready to balloon into his middle-aged girth after a couple of seasons. Are you shitting me? What, you couldn't just call him "Scotty II" and have done with it? I think the poor guy lasted all of one and a half episodes before getting laughed off the set. Just brilliant casting there, bravo.

Other noteworthy moments: godlike alien being is so distracted and mesmerized by Wesley Crusher's magnificence that he mistakenly shoots his ship-wad across three galaxies. Godlike alien then praises the little snot's brilliance in such reverential tones as would make a kneeling nun blush. Weasely helps save day 'cuz stuff. Crew returns to Federation space via... seance.

Aside from some nifty blue lights (apparently the end of the universe is denser than most deep-sea vents and twice as colorful) there's relatively little to this episode. It seems to mark both the beginning of a long parade of one-shot Enterprise crew members being run past the audience for approval ratings plus, much worse, the beginning of strained, half-assed plots trying to package Wesley Crusher as some cross between Ender Wiggin and the baby Buddha.
The highest point was probably the negative character (played by the same actor who played the headshrinker on Monk) an arrogant tech-head named, get this, Kaczynski. OK, fine, they spelled it Kosinski in the script while winking heavily. Higher quality acting than you got from even the better of the show's regular cast so early in the series. (addendum: Come to think of it, the Unabomber hadn't been identified yet at the time the show was written and would not be for years, so it's just an amusing coincidence in retrospect.)

As for the selection of this particular wish-granter plot for an episode, well, Michael Crichton had published Sphere just five months prior so I'm gonna call this shameless bandwaggonage and piggybacking on his popularity, regardless of where they picked up the actual script.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Take 'em to School

A quick look at A Tale in the Desert's game map reveals locations cryptically labelled UArch or SArt or SHarmony. Schools and Universities taught the various skills your character would use (Architecture, Art or Harmony skills, for instance) and learning a new skill was a task in itself, most often requiring lugging various prepared resources to that location as "tuition."

ATITD is an old game. This routine will all sound alien to those who have only experienced WoW-clone MMOs in which every task is merely a disparate minigame unto itself. When the MMO concept still existed as that of a persistent world, giving life to that world meant lending its various landscape features meaning and presence. The distance you travel to such a location, your motivation for doing so, the difficulties you encounter on the way all contribute to outlining this action's place in the greater web of player interaction, to giving your actions meaning in that context instead of simply turning "skilling up" into yet another one of tens of thousands of superficial pats on the head handed to you automatically by the game client at every press of a button.

Bring it back. Bring back schools and NPC trainers as concrete locations in the game world; better yet, integrate them into the clan or faction conflict of any MMO. If you want to learn the best techniques for cooking fish, you should have to travel to the famed Floundering Monks of Hali But. If you want to add another power level to your Firebawl spell you should have to visit an officially barbecued Shrine of Fire and make offerings to Agni. Various schools of dart-throwing technique should inhabit seedy pubs in the goblin, dwarf or wookie slums of various cities scattered throughout the game world.

The details of how such locations can be conquered and held, their abundance and distance from each other, whether they are destructible, whether they should be made a part of player-built structures, all depend on the particular game. However, we need to shift our expectations in general. Our default position as customers should be that switching or improving your character's skills is an active process requiring interaction with elements of the game world tying into other aspects of gameplay like travel, crafting or PvP, not merely a perfunctory click in your skill window. Skilling up should be a deliberate action, something you plan and carry out with some chance of frustration, delay or failure, not merely something handed to you to make you feel bigger about yourself.

Do you organize your clan around holding a few local schools of magic and charge other players admittance? Do you as an individual wait until you can sneak into a University of Head-Bashing or do you give up and grab a couple of skills at the Academy of Shin-Kicking which your faction happens to control? Is your clan powerful enough and can you travel quickly enough to hold all three Schools of Marshmallow Magic scattered in the game world, thereby giving you a monopoly in learning the deadly art of Combat S'mores? Do you want to invest in building a Shrine to Sauron in your new castle or do you just not think you'll find enough geckos to sacrifice to make it worth your while?

It's just one more way to bring a persistent world to life, to make you give half a rat's ass about what you're doing instead of mindlessly clicking away until the next "you win" message pops up.
Come on Camelot, Unchain this.

Friday, August 21, 2015

ST: TNG - The Last Outpost

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

The Last Outpost

My but this sure was... declarative.
Funny how few of the early episodes I can actually remember. I was too young to catch anything but the last two, maybe three seasons of the series when it aired so most other episodes I saw as reruns, and apparently the early episodes were not being rerun much. I could certainly understand that with the godawful second and third ones but this? This is just classic Star Trek.

It's the episode introducing the Ferengi (yes that's how it's spelled; I Googled it) and in that you already have the new civilizations angle covered. Then of course there's the unexplored planet inhabited solely by a single godlike energy being and by the end we get a big moralizing speech on tolerance and the nature of civilization. Good, clean fun. It's pretty clear that by this point the new series was still running largely on "second verse, same as the first" because the look of the wild-eyed, Einstein-haired portal alien, the cardboard "crystals" and the whole staged feel of the planet-side conflict all scream 1970.
That's either Emperor Palpatine and his back-scratcher or something out of The Dark Crystal.
Despite all this it was a surprisingly well-written show. The dialogue flows much more smoothly as does the pedantic SciFi social commentary, the characters begin to show some personality and the technobabble's laid on just thick enough to make you stop trying to scrape under it for any meaning. Sure you could ask silly questions like "why would the guardian wait until ten minutes before the end of the episode to show himself" but then you already know you're watching Star Trek. If you like that sort of thing this is the sort of thing you'll like.

Data's comic relief moment with the finger-trap was just enough to remind you why you slap your computer's case every once in a while. It added to the character's sympathetic Pinocchio appeal while maintaining his dignity.

As for the Ferengi... they were always too ridiculous to make a good alien race. Too much effort was put into making them despicable. Especially in this first appearance their nature as cavorting medieval court jesters comes through much too strongly: hobbling, sneering, greedy, drooling, lying, randy, cowardly bald chimps calling you hu-mon who disrespect your women! Were this a marketplace stage show centuries ago, this would be the cue for the audience to throw rotten fruit at Pantalone. Unfortunately, Star Trek was a plot-based series and not an endlessly re-iterated half-improvised sketch so such cathartic derision could not make for worthwhile long-term characters. If they'd remained a one-shot alien encounter for this one episode, it would've been enough.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Kaleidoscopes Are Pretty but Meaningless

"Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You're so fucking special
I wish I was special
But I'm a creep
I'm a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?"

Radiohead - Creep

Prime World's conflated skill/item system (dubbed "talents") comes in the usual rainbow-sprinkle color scheme we've all memorized by rote a decade ago, in four categories.
Green talents are not as good as blue -
- which are not as good as purple -
- which are not as good as orange.
A little while ago they released the fifth category of red talents which, wonder of wonders, are even better than orange talents! Drooling fanboys and girls began tripping over each other to see all the wondrous new gameplay possibilities they could unlock by increasing their stats 5% - to fight other drooling cretins who have also just increased their stats 5%.

Apropos of nothing, some of my proudest moments involve getting kicked out of online game guilds as soon as I join them, like, say, the worthless morons in one LotRO guild who kicked me out because I wouldn't let them enjoy their latest item upgrade by pointing out that they were using an item with 10% more stats to fight monsters with 10% more stats, that nothing had in fact changed.

We really need to kick this idiocy upside its head. Stop tolerating the worthless, mindless little vermin who can't see that every increase is just part of the endless treadmill. Thanks to World of Warcraft and its ilk an entire generation has grown up creaming its pants at the color "purpoh" and the very concept of perspective has been almost eliminated from games. Here's Prime World's latest patch:
"all green (special) talents stop dropping in battle as well as in the castle: they are removed from battle rewards, from the Inn / Teahouse rewards; they can no longer be created at the Talent Garden / Forge or attained by other methods.
All present green (special) talents at the moment in players’ libraries or on heroes will become blue (rare). Their power contribution and attributes will increase accordingly to the level of blue (rare) talents.

I cite this game in particular because they managed to linguistically trip into the precise center of the nail's head, perfectly encapsulating the stupidity of the leveling / item farming treadmill we're forced to run to play any multiplayer game these days. Green ("special") items have been eliminated from the game. There are no longer any special items in Prime World. Nothing is special when everything's special. It's like every pack of knuckledraggers calling themselves game designers are imitating The Incredibles' cackling villain saying "when everyone's super, no-one will be." Rarity on the other hand is now redefined as commonalty. Literally, rare items in Prime World are now the lowest, most common kind.

You fucking retards.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Out here in the black

One of the countless little details which made Firefly (as one good SciFi example) so great was the absence of sound during the scenes happening in open vacuum. Sure, other concessions to form were made like the ship interior artificial gravity in an otherwise relatively low-tech SF setting where such technology seems to find no other use for some reason, but I can understand keeping characters floating all the time would have put a real damper on possible scenes, not to mention the budget. The "in space no-one can hear you scream" bit was a handy, budget-friendly way of (get this) not insulting your audience's intelligence unnecessarily. We all know at least that much physics. If not, it's a fun way to find out for a ten-year-old.

We can also be assumed to know that light does not travel faster than the speed of light. Re-watching Star Trek: TNG has reminded me of this old pet peeve I had figured out even when I was ten or twelve. You know all those scenes where the Enterprise is "warping" to and fro and the stars around elongate to yield that nifty speed-lines effect Hollywood loves so much? That's fine for the stars in front of the ship but as you get to the middle, shouldn't they be red-shifting and finally disappearing? Everything behind the ship should be utterly invisible because it's outrunning the light which would convey any image. You would actually have no way of detecting anything pursuing you using the EM spectrum.

Yeah, I very much doubt I'm the first to gripe about this over the last two decades but still... first off, that would have made for some excellent tension-building chase scenes which would add quite a bit to the otherwordly speculative appeal of a show. More importantly, it would be cheap, so cheap to create. It's just... blank screen. No sound in space means you get to skip creating some sound effects. No backlight while warping means you just paint the rear-view mirror completely black. Sure you can split hairs over whether the ship's engines should be visible looking back from the saucer section but that's no reason to avoid the main effect. This is the sort of thing which makes one lose hope in mass-produced entertainment. Forget all the nit-picking in which nerds have engaged over the speculated physical properties of pretextium crystals or phasers or glazers or Klingon face ridges or whatever. It's the cheap, facile gimmicks which show whether you either give your audience a little credit or assume them to be complete imbeciles.

A central reason I stopped watching TV years ago (except when visiting family) is that I got sick of having my intelligence constantly insulted. I can't remember if Voyager or Enterprise bothered to address such easily-fixed details. I'm betting not. They were godawful enough in other respects that they never got my attention. Don't even get me started on the reboot. I'll take the unnecessary speed lines over that macho, gung-ho hyper-militarized laser-tag travesty any day. Pew-pew pfouie.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Sir, You Are Being Hunted

It's a snooty shotgun-totin' tweed-fest and you're the fox. Tally ho!

The fellow in red, in case you're wondering, is a very British robot spurring on his very British rocket-powered robot hover-horse. Lunglessly puffing at presumably robotic pipes through their respectable handlebar moustachios and accompanied by their fierce Springer Spaniels (Futurama gag, look it up*) he and his fellow gentlebots shall merrily give chase if they spot you and riddle your squishy tea-sipping carcass with shot in the most polite and proper manner. Also there's a macguffin you have to assemble to win the game but let's face it, this is really all about the biscuits'n'tweed.

Having played Miasmata as well, it's tempting to compare the two open-air sneak-a-thons, but where Miasmata was a classic survival horror game, Sir, You Are Being Hunted is really an FPS with a very slow start and a danger setting high enough to make you rethink getting into most fights. Like Miasmata it is largely not a goal-driven but process-driven game, which causes no end of consternation to players used to having their hand held, quests spelled out step by step and being pointed to every single objective by gigantic glowing map markers. Figure out how to move, how to find food, how to fight, and further goals will come naturally. It is even less linear than survival games in general because of its central gimmick, the random generation of each game world upon starting, but I can only wish I could call this its strongest point.

Its strongest points are the humor and the refreshingly non-spammable combat mechanics. SYABH unfortunately earns a good deal of its criticism as to being too empty and monotonous, as the variety of map elements is woefully insufficient to fill maps of the size necessary for gameplay. I hate to say it since I'm a big fan of such devices, but I'd guess developing the map generation algorithms probably ate up too much development time and maybe a few manually-landscaped game maps would've been faster, cheaper and more interesting overall. As things stand, expect to spend a lot of time seeing the same rocks and trees and finding most of the terrain devoid of anything interactable or even interesting. Too small, pervasive and mundane to function as an impressive extreme-environment reference point, too big to ignore, the British heath soon grows frustratingly dull.

The useful/dubious/junk item system could also have used a bit more functionality in the dubious and junk category. You too quickly learn to ignore junk items and the lack of a randomized success rate for "dubious" foodstuffs makes them really just pre-determined junk or food, learned once and offering no replay value. Some of the usable items could have used a bit more usability (flashlight, traps, etc.)

Still, this is one of those titles everyone should play at least once to get a feel for its possibilities. It's highly creative, reasonably challenging and so far miraculously bug-free for an independent project. Insufficient though it is, the randomizer creates some amusing map elements such as half-flooded shacks. With a larger budget and more development time, Sir, You Are Being Hunted could have been something truly great, but even more so than the lovingly, minutely-crafted Miasmata, it comes across as more of a proof of concept than a game - a concept worth experiencing.

As for the ending... fun, but it's been done and she had a better voice.

* Actually, I have to wonder if this whole thing wasn't inspired by that Futurama fox-hunting episode.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Nice work if you can get it

"You thought that I would never see
What was meant for you was meant for me
I was distracted at the time
Forget about yours now what about mine?"

Garbage - Not My Idea

After a year, my female-owned apartment complex's management has hired a male office worker, replacing one of four positions through which have cycled five or six women. This puts them one male ahead of my all-female optometrist's office but on par with my dentist, old bookstore, the realtor who sold my family our house, the hotel staff in two of the last three hotels I've visited, the art museum, university advising staff, administrative staff and let's not get into anything to have to do with children.
Never mind all that, though, there's an issue you should be screaming "misogyny" about. Road crews inhaling asphalt fumes in 102 F heat, my old clean-room job weighing hazardous chemicals and pretty much every other low-paying, debilitating, dangerous or simply dirty job are all scandalously male-dominated. You sexist pigs.

Boy Girl, it's a good thing we have all these laws protecting women from "unequal" hiring practices.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

ST: TNG - Code of Honor

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Code of Honor

New life and new civilizations = exotic.
Exotic = giant black guy in turban.
Also, catfight using hairy balls. 'Cuz stuff.
It's all quite straightforward, you see.

Funny to watch how awkwardly TV shows at the time were trying to balance pandering to both ethnocentrism and political correctness. Visit a planet full of ritualistically violent primitives... and they just happen to all be black. I don't mean black with purple polka-dots or pointy ears or black with facial ridges and three hearts or whatever but just... Africans dressed in Arabian Nights costumes. It's okay, though, the Prime Directive means we respect their diversity. You couldn't get a more ham-handed attempt at inclusiveness from Diff'rent Strokes.

Still, I must say that within the idiotic core precept, the writers, cast and crew kinda made this work every bit as far as it could have. Quoth Wikipedia:
"The African theme of the episode was brought in by director Russ Mayberry, who had the Ligonians race cast entirely from African-American actors. Mayberry was fired during production by the show's creator Gene Roddenberry, and First Assistant Director Les Landau completed the episode. Star Trek novel author Keith DeCandido later recalled that this was because of the casting itself, while cast member Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) thought that it was because Mayberry was racist towards the guest stars after they were cast."

They probably couldn't scrap the damn thing already bought and paid for and so churned out one of TNG's more embarrassing low points. Hell, I couldn't even remember this one from twenty years ago. Amazingly, it comes across not just as insultingly racist and ineptly politically correct but somehow dull as well. Most scenes come across as stretched too thin, languishing in slack-jawed dialogue for its own sake, and the fights take so long they were quite obvious filler. They played it with all the dignity they could muster under the original concept's limitations but instead of portraying stilted and stiff formality they wound up with stilted and stiff scenes. Well, more so than usual.

Here's one high point, however, the little bit of Data/Picard banter on the bridge:
DATA. Counting Coup - that is from an obscure language known as French
PICARD. Mr. Data! The French language for centuries on Earth represented civilization.
Well executed and within the perpetually French-bashing medium of American pop culture a surprising and welcome relief. Of course, it's risky business to remind the patriots of any empire that theirs is only one of many which have come and gone, that their pride is nothing special.
Still, Picard's taking umbrage at this doesn't quite mesh with humanity's unified, post-tribal state in TNG as a whole, so even the best scene in this episode was sort of misplaced.

This was the third installment after the overwrought pilot and spring break special second episode. Ouch. I never realized just how shaky a start this series stumbled through.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

You're Not Mattel

"Added 3D printing support to GalCiv3. You may export your ship designs locally or export their ship directly to a 3D printing service"

That's not good news, Stardock. Granted, making your own plastic toys is Star Trek replicator-level coolness, but you're supposed to be making a game and this is not a game feature. It's the sort of publicity stunt you throw out two years after release to revive a faltering product. Three months after release you should be padding your dull little project's sorely lacking depth and flexibility, not telling me to pay some schmuck with a 3D printer to bring my creations to life. Give my creations more life within the game itself instead, more functionality. You remember that's your job, right? Designing the game itself?

To add insult to pocket-injury, you've dedicated employee time to this, time paid for by my foolish investment in your half-baked product. You are using my money to advertise a paid service for third parties, while charging $5 per iota of actual content in the Steam cash shop.

So here's my newest ship design. I want you to go pay to have it 3D-printed and put it on your desks, you mediocre scheisters.
- and the 3D horse you rode in on.

Friday, August 14, 2015

ST:TNG - The Naked Now

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

The Naked Now

This is the episode where a tarted-up Tasha Yar infamously demands to know whether Data is "fully functional." Oh hell yeah, you betcher sweet ass ten-year-old me memorized that scene right down to the bellybutton. However, it strikes me at the moment not that we start with a disembodied female voice basically trying to have phone sex with Picard, nor that it proceeds to discovering a frosted bacchanal aboard the other ship and then to the Enterprise's crew (mostly its female half) draping themselves over each other while breathing heavily.

The kicker's that this was the second or third episode in the series. First real one after the two-part pilot. This was their opener. It's as if before they were even through saying "new life and new civiliza- okay, drunken orgy everyone, gather round!" I mean fine, we get it, you just launched and you're desperate for ratings so you don't become one of those good shows which almost were. Not that such pandering always works. First-episode sex scene worked wonders for Battlestar Galactica; Inara's sponge bath couldn't save Firefly. Thing is, if you want to start the show with fan service, you create a designated sexpot/wolf character or three and have them go at it while others maintain decorum. You don't just condemn the whole crew of the Enterprise to act like Dumb and Dumber at Mardi Gras before the audience even knows who they are. For the first ten or so episodes you're still supposed to be establishing your characters with their quirks and catchphrases, not providing counterpoints. This was a huge gamble. Yeah, the audience might tune in for it but you're increasing the odds they'll tune out next episode when you revert the crew back to exploration mode.

Then they had to go and spoil it further by giving Wesley "Mary Sue" Crusher the limelight, but hell, at least we got to see Data playing reverse-Jenga with electronics. Props to Stewart and McFadden on some satisfyingly theatrical banter. Also, explosion.

One more thing. While I can certainly see how it would insult female viewers that the male characters remained rather more stoic in the face of inebriation while the female ones turned into giggling airheads, helpless damsels or nymphomaniacs, I doubt anyone ever remarks on the final scene. That's where Tasha Yar, after having made potentially inappropriate advances toward the ship's resident sentient abacus, decides to make things right by... apologizing to Data?
Hahaha. Hell no. He is nominally male after all. No matter that she was the aggressor, social protocol dictates that she act indignant and tell him off. So she marches right up to her fellow officer and snipes: "Data. I'm only going to tell you this just once: it never happened!"
Keep in mind she's wearing two little round copper dealies on her collar while he's sporting two and a half. She's a Lt., he's a Lt. Cmd. with a CMD prompt. Data outranks her. She just marched up to a superior officer in full view of the whole bridge and called him out, transferring responsibility for her actions entirely to him who had played the chaste and honorable knight to her advances. Nothing, not Starfleet ranks, fairness or logic itself can outrank the supreme female sexual prerogative.

To whatever extent Hollywood has treated women as hollow sex objects, it has nonetheless maintained men and mechano-men to be of an even lower order of being.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Baldur's Gate (without the nostalgia glasses)

It's a good game. Good, not great... and I say that while making great allowance for the Infinity Engine's primordial manifestation. As the engine's first showing, Baldur's Gate suffered most from the clunky movements and object interactions we used to take for granted in the games of yesteryear. I say without prejudice that most of my death / curse at screen / re-load moments have been caused by characters' hopelessly lemmingish pathing algorithm. Finding that your hero decided to take the scenic route around a bush by climbing a mountain gets old fast, as does looking at a character pacing endlessly back and forth stuck in an algorithmic loop, or seeing a mage stuck between your two fighters and the enemy because there's exactly one pixel's worth of room lacking between them to retreat through.

That's sort of a given though. When you buy a good old game, you take it for granted and even revel in re-living the bad old days of both brilliant creativity and amateurish, unintelligible, counter-intuitive and bug-riddled storytelling and programming. You grit your teeth and learn to move everything one arduous step at a time and hope those olden-days design mavericks make it worth your while. The real issue is the gameplay found within those limitations.

Take movement speed for instance. Computers' capacity was just growing to the point where designers gloried in painting lush, heavily-decorated and above all large 2D environments but they didn't realize this would incur much tedium for customers repeatedly traversing giant landscapes at the same "walk" speed which had been scaled for ten-by-ten-foot rooms. You'd think Black Isle would've conceded this point after players' complaints about the exact same issue in Blizzard's Diablo a year or two prior. Of course, there was an obvious balance issue to it, as you're supposed to be slow enough to be somewhat vulnerable to chasing enemies, but the developers seem to have been blissfully unaware there was even a need to seek some sort of compromise between the two elements. Lesson learned? You need, neeeeed plenty of outside testing by people who don't know where every single NPC and item is and can tell you how annoying it is having to run back and forth trying to find everything, much less walk.

Mob respawns also harried the player unnecessarily, being so frequent as to make revisiting any wilderness area a mind-numbing grind.

Hero death = party death, though it makes sense from a storytelling standpoint, restricts player character choice unnecessarily. Playing as either a one-shottable wizard or a melee fighter pales in comparison to a back-row thief, ranger or cleric.

Then again, any character's death quickly starts to warrant a re-load, not because the revive costs are at all exorbitant but because picking up everything the corpse dropped is rendered wholly impractical by the game's painstakingly rudimentary inventory system.

Open-air resting ambush spawning seems to have been implemented without a thought as to how it fails to translate from pen-and-paper to a save/load cRPG. Re-load to re-roll the dice until you avoid ambushes or keep resting to spawn ambushes and farm them for EXP, either way this was lazy design.

Random encounters spawning all around you and insta-gibbing your spellcasters are, as in Icewind Dale, used much too heavily. A big part of strategically designing a party is selecting the order of engagement, and while some randomness is always good if for no other reason than to punish min-maxing, entirely too many fights throw you into a cramped little room with no way to maneuver or place enemies right on top of you. Combined with the aforementioned joke of a pathing algorithm, this again racks up the death/curse/reload count unnecessarily. Equally annoying are all the long-winded, unskippable dialogues which drop you right into difficult fights, denying any tactical ability.
These last flaws especially seem to have been left unaddressed for a decade, until Dragon Age at last started auto-saving in between dialogues and fights and placing ambushes in highly threatening but not cumbersome positions. NWN 1 and 2 certainly still suffered from "behindja! (dead)" despite their overall very low difficulty setting.

Speaking of Dragon Age, I've heard it said that it was intended as the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate and y'know... I can see it. The emphasis on several towns and nonlinear gameplay while not attempting to be truly sandboxy, the not quite open world, the even mix of combat and storytelling, the party roster, yeah, it makes sense. The NWN games were much less... adventurous, I suppose I'd say. When discussing Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale I noted that Torment's dialogue-heavy player involvement has aged much better than Icewind's program-dependent combat focus. Writing is writing, in 1999 or 2015, but dealing with a chore of an antiquated game engine detracts quite heavily from even the best combat mechanics. As the all-encompassing precursor and trendsetter for later games, Baldur's Gate is neither here nor there, more immersive than Icewind Dale's linear combat progression but lacking Torment's much deeper characters and world.

But ah, the world. If you've read this far and you're wondering why despite my complaints I'm still talking BG slightly up instead of down, there you have it. Baldur's Gate is wonderfully, astoundingly, even stupidly big. Like Dragon Age, it was meant to establish a franchise, make a name for itself, dazzle players with oodles of content, and it does so with gusto. Feel free to tell the first few companions you meet to take a long walk off a short pier if you feel like it. You'll meet two dozen of them along your journeys, and you only need five. You'll meet a few unique challenges (though admittedly less so than in Icewind Dale) like basilisks, sirens and wyverns all requiring purposeful counters instead of mindless bullrushing, which is a welcome break from most RPGs' complete reliance on undead as boogeymen. Above all, explore, explore and explore some more. Though it falls far short of open-world games like the Elder Scrolls series in this respect, it still offers more than enough gimmicks to keep you looking, from simple visual additions like a mysterious blood smear on some rocks to convoluted NPC dialogues and seemingly endless side-quests.

Yet here's where I again say: good, not great. Even ignoring all the clunky interface issues which can be partly addressed by more modern rehashing like the enhanced edition, Baldur's Gate never quite gels. It lacks personality. Partly it's because it's very generic and all-encompassing, not detailed enough to be truly immersive, hampered once again by its technological limitations. Partly it's because the developers, caught up in the rush of "look, ma, no pen or paper" stuck in just a few too many easter eggs and sardonic asides like medieval merchants with Lockian economic theories, the miniature giant space hamster, the gnomish museum or a goblin (musical) band handing out autographs. It feels less like a thematically cohesive story and more like a meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Largely, this is simply part of D&D's decades-long baggage as it tried to compete with all the other roleplaying systems it inspired, trying to be something for everyone (comedy and tragedy, faith and inventiveness, feudalism and freedom) and losing its focus. Planescape: Torment  remains the true gem of Black Isle's old collection because it managed to own such whimsy instead of being carried along by it. Dragon Age: Origins instead did away with the unnecessary baggage and refocused on the D&D-ish fighter/thief/mage feudal swashbuckling backbone before expanding it into something much more satisfyingly coherent.

Play Torment and DA:O first. Then, if you like those, go back and give Baldur's Gate a try to see what set their groundwork. It was a great achievement... for its time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

It's Totally Cyber, as the Kids Say

It may be hard to imagine at this point but there was a time, long, long ago when CSI actually had some ambition of being the most "realistic" police procedural. That lasted about one season out of fifteen. This was before they ramped up the drah-mah, before the lab geeks started waving glocks around instead of test-tubes and tackling mobsters in perpetually midnighty alleyways. It was long before the spin-offs started, CSI: Bikinis and CSI: Sopranos and what was the third one?

Oh yeah, CSI: Kids Are Scary.
I had the displeasure of watching about half an episode of this latest pig glorification recently (the cyber-bullying episode, assuming there was just one) and was struck by how completely they've re-targeted their audience. Ignore, if you can, that the script seemed to consist mostly of shoehorning the word "cyber" into every single sentence. The cyber-perp cyber-hacked the cyber-victim's cyber-computer via (what else) cyber-spaaaaaaace! I'm more amused that a franchise originally marketed to technophiles presumably of the younger generations now seems to have somehow morphed into Reefer Madness. Images flit across the screen of dimly-lit rooms viewed through a smoky, opioid haze. In them, teenagers hunch Quasimodo-like over sonorous keyboards, wild-eyed and vicious, like witches and warlocks who've gotten a hold of the Necronomicon and are making ready to unleash... well, something! I mean, who knows? It could be anything, anything, do you hear?

Hang on to your Victrolas. There are young people out there doing things you don't understand!

P.S. : Yet from what I hear, this is supposedly still less painful than when Law&Order tried to get "cyber" apropos of gamergate. Oy vey.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Michiko to Hatchin

It's an anime... depending on what you expect when you hear "anime."
Michiko is a reckless, self-centered (but not self-serving) romantic who drags the fair-minded, more grounded young Hana along on her path of destruction. Such juxtapositions are common in literature, especially in the outlaw movies this anime largely emulates. You can watch the series primarily as a buddy-flick, though such reductionism would not do it justice - and its flat refusal to reduce itself to the tropes common to its own medium has unfortunately likely ensured that this excellent piece of work goes overlooked by the public at large. You'll find no giant robots here, nor any fifteen-minute first-kiss scenes under rains of cherry blossoms, no fireball-slinging mages or demonslaying bishonen heroes with white hair down to their ankles.

Instead, contrasting interpersonal central themes with locales which most of the world would consider exotic, Michiko, Hatchin and their transient acquaintances manage to convey real emotion in the sort of "gritty" environment in which children grow up both too quickly and not at all. It is in many ways too human to appeal to my more grandiose transhumanist tastes but within its own focus the series achieves wonderful portraits of individualism struggling through the animalistic baseline of human affairs.

It is not feminist. Though it avoids pigeonholing in most every other way, Michiko and Hatchin is yet in danger of co-optation by chauvinistic interests, given its mostly female core cast. Yet perhaps the reason it has not been claimed by the female supremacist crowd is that it quite decidedly fails to promote that agenda. Feminism is the promotion of women at the expense of any other sexes (of which there mostly happens to be one) and feminist tropes have become easily recognizable over the decades. We too easily swallow the sort of stories in which female characters are pristine, morally unassailable earth goddesses and every male character is a cackling, moustache-twirling embodiment of exploitation belching factory exhaust.

Michicko e Hatchin instead portrays individuality. It tells the story of flawed and admirable, complex characters and the interplay between personal desire and personal growth, inertia, ethics and ambition. That the story is told from a female point of view is ultimately inconsequential and every bit as fitting as it would have been from a male one. The events of the story are shared between male and female characters and at any point we could have switched to viewing them from the Satoshi / Hiroshi plot's standpoint without diminishing the storytelling experience in the slightest. It does not confuse viewpoint with entitlement, right down to the title characters' final confrontation with the object of their obsession. The simple equanimity of Hana's monologue provides a masterful denouement.

Feminism defines women in terms of their moral entitlement over men, indoctrinating both male and female into a culture of victimization, guilt and powermongering, and in truth does nothing to combat gender roles. This series never stoops so low. Call it egalitarian, call it individualist, call it humanist. It is a tale of purposeful, independent individuals who merely happen to be female, and the world would be a better place if more young girls grew up watching Princess Mononoke, Haibane Renmei and Michiko and Hatchin than the manipulative, abusive and ultimately codependent feminist archetypes.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Blizzard's Sin

Presumably as a promotional boost for their latest expansion (in which I assume you'll get a chance to play as a demonic koala or noble opossum race or something) Blizzard sent out a wave of spam offering old players seven free days' worth of revisiting the product guilty of destroying the MMO genre for a decade. Which is nice, because it gives me the chance to visualize exactly when and where World of Warcraft betrayed everything it had promised to its initial customers.
Start with this snippet of every character's skill window. Back when World of Warcraft first launched, MMOs were still promising to be roleplaying games in which players interacted according to their characters' nature, following the behavioral rules set out by their characters' race, class and other restrictions. Languages were promised as an immersion facilitator and were supposed to be coded into gameplay mechanics. You would start with your character's core language or two and would need to learn others as you went to interact with various NPCs, and some options might only have been available by bringing along a friend who spoke the local dialect. The classic example cited during beta was that of warlocks needing to learn demonic speech in order to control their summoned pets. This feature was completely abandoned. Roleplaying was completely abandoned. Blizzard refused to implement any of the necessary restrictions to enforce or even incentivize in-character behavior. Almost immediately after release, guilds which had chosen any thematic restrictions (druid guilds, dwarf/gnome guilds, etc.) died out as players found no incentive to restrict their social networking, and all-race, all-class clusterfucks took over.

Remember this as emblematic of both WoW's decline in quality and its rise in popularity. This is how Blizzard ruined the genre: by building up its initial hype on the backs of informed niche-market customers who were seeking the ultimate escapist fantasy, a persistent world in which they could give meaning to their actions through the impact they could have on other players, then dumbing every single game element down, removing any expectations of quality in other to draw in ever more simpleminded mass-market deadheads with no attention span or capacity for appreciating the complexity a true virtual world can offer. That first part is what died with World of Warcraft. The second part, the simplistic instant-gratification loot-farming and achievement-grinding gameplay devoid of any ramifications is what every other company has been attempting to copy from WoW for the past ten years and more. The first, WoW's initial set of campaign promises during its beta, was the true definition of an MMO. The second, its shameful decline, the falsely labelled MMO experience which (because WoW was the first such game to break out onto the mass-market) was most gamers' first and only exposure to the MMO label, is the false definition with which an entire generation of gamers has grown up.

However, those who remember the early promises of MMOs as persistent worlds before the meaning of "massive" was forgotten and everything boiled down to endlessly slaughtering the latest re-skinned, static, endlessly respawning goblins for achievement unlocks likely still hold some nostalgia for World of Warcraft's backstabbed promises. I know. I still remember the false hope. I still miss that feeling of finally finding panacea, one single world into which I could escape from reality.

I miss that sense of wonder and hope at the start. I miss Loch Modan.
In this very spot, when I was still under level twenty, I rushed to help one of my guildmates, a Paladin, who had been ambushed by undead rogues and whatnot. At the time, however, Paladins still had more of a class personality than being healers in plate armor, and because they had bonuses against undead, I found him laughing by the time I got there, surrounded by four re-deaded undead. Granted, that much imbalance was indeed too much, but did Blizzard ever try to make it work? Mmmnope! Removed altogether.

This is where a few of us started on a journey to help that same paladin on his level twenty class quest. This was when the world itself still had some meaning, when you needed to travel and not simply teleport wherever you wanted to. The objective was an instance deep within enemy territory, in Silverpine Forest. We gathered and traversed several higher-level areas, dodging mobs which could have instantly killed us, hiding behind terrain, having stealthers scout ahead to tell the paladin when the coast was clear of enemy players. We had no time to fight. We were on a mission. Yes, the quest was invalidated by the idiotic leveling mechanics which allowed any paladin to simply get a top-level buddy as his bodyguard, but this was a problem to be addressed, patched, fixed into functionality. Instead, the entire notion of epic cross-map adventures was abandoned.

This spot is where I began to realize that questing was too simple in WoW. I wrote a guide to Loch Modan quests to help my guildmates level more efficiently through it. It became so popular that our website shortly exceeded its bandwidth limit (which didn't take much in the days when many players were still on 56k dial-up modems) but it's where I started seeing the "kill ten rats" routine as a chore, something I was mostly trudging through seeking more complex and meaningful content. Spoiler alert: never really got there.

Loch Modan is also where, much later, I realized that WoW's crafting system had become a joke. Having played EVE-Online before WoW, I was still working under the assumption that any MMO developer would try to work all of the available world resources into a scarcity-driven player-driven, crafting-driven in-game economy. Then came WoW. I was at maximum level and passed through Loch Modan again for I-forget-what reason and spotted players gathering starter resources. They were gathering resources which served no purpose but to increase their skills so they could go to the next zone and mine slightly higher level resources to increase their skills to yadda-yadda. No attempt was made to integrate crafting into the game as a whole. It became a minigame unto itself.

I miss the world tree.
I miss feeling small, feeling as if I were wandering through a new world as a butterfly through other butterflies' hurricanes. There were gigantic spaces here to explore, tangles of player intent within which to define oneself, locations within their existing stories within which our individual dramas could play out. I don't miss the destructive corollary:
These towering demons dripping with special effects are not end-game monsters. This is in fact one of the very first quests you're sent on in the elf starter area. I don't miss realizing that Blizzard was throwing out all pretense of scale and proportion in favor of catering to idiotic little snots with no attention span who were merely playing for constant validation at every step, who wanted every single thing they did to look like a kamehameha, who wanted every monster they kill, no matter how trivial, to look badass so they could feel badass for the free win they're handed again and again unto infinity. A true persistent world makes you feel small. WoW and WoW-clones make you feel big, pat you on the back, hand you undeserved endorphin boosts at every step.

I miss Duskwood.
It featured long, story-based quest chains with real characters, desperate souls falling prey to deceit and darkness, one of which culminated in a public event: spawning an abomination to attack the town, tying an individual player's quest completion into a spontaneous town defense for unwitting visitors. It made me hope that quests would be used to promote roleplaying and other payer interaction in the future. They were not. I miss the dawning woods catacombs.
This is a dungeon as dungeons should be: uninstanced. You could fight through its ranks of undead and come out the other entrance a hero. We used to dream that such open-world objectives would decide the fate of the zone as a whole, that destroying the lich Morbent Fel would improve the lives of other visiting players, provide them with new resources or town services. Instead, "dungeon" came to mean instanced dungeons in which your actions meant absolutely nothing, pocket universes completely devoid of ramifications among the persistent world at large. Minigames.

I miss this spot at the border of the Tanaris Desert and Un'Goro crater.
I knew this rise by sight, from far away. Many times, while being chased by enemy players through the desert, I would run to this exact location. Druids in cat form, you see, took reduced falling damage. I would drop onto that barely-visible ledge below then down into the crater itself. My pursuers had the choice of giving up the chase or plummeting to their doom. Even players of the classes which could have followed me down the cliff, most were not ready for the eventuality. How many mages carried feathers around as a spell reagent for "feather fall" anyway? One became famous for luring a couple of gankers to their deaths in this spot. Ah, but that was while spells still required reagents, while planning and foresight were still valued, before complexity became a dirty word.

I miss Un'goro Crater. More games should have remote areas populated by dinosaurs. We need an MMO modelled after Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. However, Un'Goro crater was also where I realized WoW's PvP would likely never evolve past idiotic griefing. There were no towns in Un'Goro, nothing to fight over. The only reason to fight each other was to ruin each others' day... and it was one of the most popular gank locations in the game. Un'goro was where PvP became redefined from meaningful faction conflict to idiotic, simplistic dick-measuring over who killed whom.

I miss water adventures.
I miss the added difficulty of managing my oxygen level and moving in three dimensions at slow speeds. I still remember killing a rogue who tried to gank me by fooling him into following me to the bottom of a lake then using entangling roots on him until he drowned. This was before everyone was given crowd control immunity items so rogues and warriors couldn't have crowd control classes escape from their griefing.

I miss Tarren Mill.
For a very short period of time, Blizzard made some pretense of instituting true open-world PvP. As is so often the case in war, random spots where forces meet can become the most desperate conflicts, and this unassuming little quest town was, for a couple of months, World of Warcraft's Hamburger Hill. Day after day we pushed each other back and forth across this road, hoping that with time this conflict would gain meaning, that we would become able to take control of Tarren Mill, that our efforts would change the game map. They never did.

World of Warcraft was supposed to be, above all else, a Warcraft game. It was to be a strategy game from a single unit's perspective. You were supposed to be a common soldier rallying your guildmates to help your faction change the face of the game world, advancing battle lines across blood-soaked landscapes, gaining and losing ground in dramatic sieges. Instead? Kill ten rats.

I miss Blackrock Mountain.

Here, at what was for a while one of the main end-game locations, PvE met PvP. The mountain contained four instances for both factions. Players had to travel to the instance entrances on foot. Factions met. Fights ensued. It was the closest WoW ever came to meaningful PvP, to fighting each other for control of actual objectives. On busy nights the inside of the mountain was littered with corpses. On Friday and Saturday nights, that little ledge at the bottom on my right was the most coveted spot in the entire game world. Dozens of players would crowd onto it trying to keep control of the path into instances so everyone in their group could make it inside. It wasn't quite the dream of controllable faction objectives, but it was the closest WoW ever came. We rushed and gritted our teeth up and down those giant chains. Priests mind-controlled enemies into the lava. Rogues waylaid enemy reinforcements as they trickled in. Warriors led charges and Paladins and Shamans stopped them in their tracks.
This was before teleporting became the sole method of travel, before WoW was tailored to impatient little imbeciles who want everything now-now-now, who can't be bothered to fight for their right to party, who don't understand that in a persistent world PvE, crafting and PvP must interact, that this creates the interdependency which drives a real player community and not just a random assemblage of disinterested casuals looking for the same anonymous quick thrill they could get in any Counterstrike server.

I miss the old WoW instances: stealth runs in Lower Blackrock Spire with a three/two split of rogues and druids bypassing trash mobs for quick loot, Stratholme runs during which the ziggurats would recharge so quickly that you had to coordinate your group to drop them all at once, forty-player raids in which every five-player group had its assigned role and each player had to be aware of his individual role, where coordination was the operative word. I miss challenge.

I quit WoW when the Silithus raids came out. I re-activated for a month or two when Burning Crusade came out, hoping Blizzard would take the chance to revitalize a weak product's gameplay. Instead, I found a game where every meaningful requirement for planning and foresight from food/water requirements to spell reagents to travel times had been removed and everything was more instanced and less relevant to the persistent world than ever. Even instances were shrinking instead of growing. I found a combat system where tanks no longer carefully built aggro on one mob at a time but simply constantly taunted everything at once, where healers no longer had to balance their heal stat with other functionality, where careful pulling via hunter traps had been eliminated and my druid was no longer a hybrid class but merely an overspecialized mage, priest or warrior stand-in from one form to the next.

Worse, I found a game which had completely abandoned any pretense of being a virtual world, and this is what has dictated industry expectations from then onwards: busywork. Hand the players constant endorphin boosts, keep them constantly spinning their wheels on endlessly repeatable small-group instance farming. Never demand anything which might require involvement or intelligence. Roleplaying and strategy scare idiots away and this is now a mass-market genre. It must cater to idiots. Excise all the old hopes, murder quality and slit the throat of complexity. Instead of throwing customers into a brave new world, isolate them. Keep each one running the gear-farming treadmill, locked in an operant conditioning slot-machine nightmare, desperate for that next piece of loot, that next pop-up text telling him he's saved he world (though there no longer is any such world because everything lacks interconnection) and keep them all paying.

Blizzard was in a unique position, when World of Warcraft launched, to raise the bar, to fulfill MMOs' failed promise. They had the funds, the popularity, the willing involvement of hordes of nerds willing to put the effort into keeping a true virtual world alive. Instead, they threw the bar out altogether. They knew where the money was, and marketed to the most worthless segment of the populace, to the majority. They marketed to imbeciles with no attention span, no appreciation for a coherent fantasy world, no sense of building a personal identity, no sense of proportion and their own role within a persistent community.
Blizzard not only caters to but promotes stupidity, not because they were constrained but of their own choice. World of Warcraft, despite its balance, bug, server stability and other problems, would have been the most successful MMO no matter what. Blizzard's hype machine ensured that. They did not choose to destroy the MMO concept to stay in business. They were already making money hand-over-fist. They chose to destroy the best incarnation of escapism for sheer greed.

Capitalism is a sin. I don't mean this in the religious sense but as both insult and injury to intellect, to scientific, social and artistic advancement. World of Warcraft is a giant leap backwards perpetrated in place of the best chance of advancement. It represents willful destruction by those who were best placed to create within their artistic medium. WoW represents everything that's wrong with the game industry because it had the best shot to do everything right and threw it away because enough profit is never enough.

I had a seven-day free offer within WoW. I've used maybe a couple of hours of it flying around. I don't even need to visit any of the new areas. Playable Pandas and a retconned orc race tell all I need to know about how this game has progressed since I last declared it disgusting. There is only one thing left for me to do. I am a druid. For aeons, the druids slept in their barrow-dens beneath the new old world of Kalimdor, dreaming. WoW represents a stolen dream. The only thing left is to recapture it. I have taken my character back to the dream, back to the betrayed promise of the beginning, to dream once more, and forever. He will remain there, sleeping in the barrow dens, until the end of the world.
Good night and good-bye.