Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Samurai Champloo

"Hey, kids, do you like violence?"

Eminem - My Name Is

So I wanted to talk about Into the Woods, which led to wanting to link it to other successful stabs at incorporating our fascination with faerytales and epics into modern storytelling, like Snow White and the Huntsman or Beowulf and Grendel, which made me realize I've never posted my impression of Beowulf and Grendel, which reminded me that I'd meant to write something about Samurai Champloo along that same train of thought and, well, if I'm chasing that many rabbits down so deep a hole, I may as well start with hip-hopping katanas.

I've been meaning to watch Samurai Champloo for years (it's a decade old now) mainly because of Shinichiro Watanabe's name. Cowboy Bebop was the first anime I actually enjoyed. Even when I was young I despised the Ballz of Dragons and Pokey-men and all the rest of the simplistic mass-market tripe flooding out of Japan's thriving consumer-detainment industry. Though I've found myself fascinated by quite a bit of anime over the decade and a half since I first allowed myself to consider it as a viable medium, I still despise anime as an industry... but then again I despise most of most any entertainment industry, from opera to MMOs.
We've all heard of Sturgeon's Law, right?
Wait, does that mean 90% of my blog is crap?
Hey, I'm doing better than I thought I was...
Moving quickly along:

Cowboy Bebop was more than anime. It flowed, it danced, it struck classic Cyberpunk notes in a rock'n'roll rhythm and built an amazing story by developing characters based on seemingly cheap cliches. For instance, I hated the character Faye Valentine as a facile oversexualized lure for (teenage boys like myself at the time) because I don't appreciate being so blatantly manipulated - until the ending of the episode Hard Luck Woman tore up my preconceptions, tying together the hints I'd ignored so far in half a minute of a music montage to elevate the bimbo I'd despised into a truly solid character worthy of the rest of the show.*

For those who expected a repeat performance of such brilliant moments and overall construction, Samurai Champloo might have seemed like a let-down. Then again, it was just a different breed altogether. It's less likely to serve as a "gateway drug" into anime. I doubt that Jin, Mugen and Fuu have remained as memorable to their audience as Spike, Jet, Faye and Ed. It's much more solidly a shonen-aimed tirade of swordfights, not striving for extensive character development or truly deep moments or message - hitting a narrower target audience and prizing style more than substance.
But damnit, the show had style!
If samurai movies are the Japanese version of American westerns, then Samurai Champloo is the equivalent of a neo-western aimed at boys in their early teens, and its fascination lies in modernizing just enough of the setting to make it flow in modern language without tossing out the elements which made that setting so captivating to begin with.

It succeeds wonderfully in this, ladling on way more historical references than my meager knowledge of Japanese culture can place, but the topic of modernization is a touchy one among would-be literati. You may not like seeing a puffed-up self-promoting samurai pimp-strutting about an Edo-period village accompanied by beatboxing hangers-on, or hear a challenge to monster-slaying heroism rapped out like an MTV song introduction, but Watanabe's crew managed to escape self-ridicule by the skin of their teeth to deliver a coherent story in which creative anachronism served mainly to offset, to illustrate a love of older modes of expression.

It's true that Samurai Champloo has much less to offer a mature audience than Cowboy Bebop did. Yet much like some Studio Ghibli movies, it still serves as an example among the others I cited at the start of this post, successfully dredging up an awareness of the essence of historical styles and settings which transcends shallow, slavish adherence to form, a lesson which many Hollywood adaptations and modernizations utterly fail to grasp.

P.S. Though if you liked Faye, watch Michiko and Hatchin. Michiko was basically an expanded version of Faye.

P.P.S. The ugly-american baseball episode? Alternatively hilarious and overdone, but still worth seeing. A strike back against every shovel-toothed asian stereotype in older American cartoons... and also perhaps unintentionally a somewhat uncomfortable reminder that anime as a whole makes liberal use of racist Japanese stereotypes of Europeans.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

He For She

"Did you think I wouldn't recognize this compromise
Am I just too stupid to realize?
Stale incense, old sweat and lies, lies, lies"

Nine Inch Nails - Sin

The HeForShe U.N. campaign is sort of the icing on the cake eaten and had by Western feminists for the past few decades: a claim of victimization thundered across the world through the medium of a United Nations program against which no Western public figure (outside the zeitgeist sink-hole of Fox News) can speak for fear of ostracism. It's a claim of victimization backed by the mass-media power to crush any dissent. Beautiful, ain't it? Let's skip that part for now.

Skip also the sadistic obscenity of strutting, megaphones blaring, into some war-torn African hellhole where the male demographic drops by 20% as soon as boys are big enough to heft guns and browbeating those same boys because they're not doing enough for the women who will survive them by a lifetime.

Just check the slavishly pandering Wikipedia page on this little astroturf movement for the simple, shamelessly self-serving fanfare of the project leaders' quotes and blurbs.

“Initially we were asking the question, ‘Do men care about gender equality?’ and we found out that they do care,"

As per feminist core dogma, you started with the assumption that men are stupid and evil so you could claim justification in abusing them. I wonder why it's never asked why so many women support their own outwardly inferior status or why humans, male and female, never seem to care about equality of any sort.

You've found that men care? No shit. Cherchez la femme. You've discovered that most men will do anything for female approval. Eu-fucking-reka!

“The groundswell of response we have received in support for HeForShe tells us we are tapping into what the world wants: to be a part of change. Now we have to channel that energy into purposeful action. The pilot initiative provides that framework. Next we need all country leadership, as well as that of hundreds of universities and corporations"

The "groundswell" in question took the form of the 100,000 petition signatures "in just three days" so proudly trumpeted on the Wikipedia page. The same page admits that the further goal of increasing that number tenfold has not been met by its deadline of July of this year. No numeric value there. Actually they didn't even get halfway, despite being backed by the president of the United States, Chase and Hollywood. A year and four days after that "in just three days" that 100,000 has grown to 470,649, which to my not-so-humble opinion indicates that the initial "groundswell" was actually a well-orchestrated cloudburst, a top-down media circus. They're getting plenty of moneyed bigwigs, though.

This is what we really need to understand. Feminists are not underdogs, and have not been for several decades. As much as they present themselves as the plucky rebel alliance standing up against some sort of oppressive regime ("The Patriarchy" - always monolithic and capitalized) feminists are the establishment, regardless of whether men's asses are actually sitting in Congress seats. That second part of the statement? Governments, corporations and universities? That's feminism. Social control. Feminism is big money, a means to divide and conquer the lower classes and a means of saving face for robber barons and politicians by harnessing the perennial paranoia of every human tribal unit that its women are in danger. Let's not even get into the already hopelessly female-skewed demographics and politics of universities. Feminism's main role these days is providing sinecures for con-artists.

“Gender equality is not just a women’s issue; it’s a human rights issue that benefits everyone,”
 Damn straight. That's why you created a campaign to enlist men to serve women. To shove men to the front line. Isn't it funny how in thirty years "we can do it" has turned into "we can get boys to do it for us" and the precept of eliminating gender roles has morphed into a campaign to push men into the active role?

However, I have to close on this lovely piece, the true gem of the collection:
“Emma Watson [...] extended a ‘formal invitation’ to men to participate in the conversation about gender equality."
I love it. It carries the tyrannical false benevolence of an Old Testament commandment. She is inviting men to the conversation about equality. After fifty years of negotiating by themselves about what edicts to pass down to their male subjects, feminists are "inviting" half the population to a discussion whose bounds and roles they have already decided, much like you'd "invite" a dog into a pen. Feminism's most frequent flaw has been this exact lack of awareness and perspective, the monstrous conceit and presumption that equality is female home turf and the feminist-approved female viewpoint over-rides any other considerations. When have feminists ever showed the slightest hesitation to invite themselves to the male half of the discussion, to redefine men's roles and motivations to suit them? When you so jealously guard the power to decree to men whether they're allowed to open their mouths, does the word "equality" not dredge up just the slightest bit of bile?

Or maybe it's time to admit that the reason we (less a worrisome ~470,000 suckers) haven't been so eager to take the latest feminist bait is precisely that fundamentalist presumption of moral superiority, your ceaseless, baseless, rumbling declamation of our original sin as lowly males?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Sim Chore

This is not a screenshot of Prime World. It's a shot of the "castle" minigame which comes appended to Prime World. Crucial difference. Nival wanted more MMO-ish daily log-in rewards, so in addition to getting a bonus for your first win of the day you also have to collect resources accumulated by your various town buildings throughout the day, browser-game style. Aside from that, it's just where you can fiddle with your heroes' pre-game skill loadouts, chat with your clan and so forth. None of those buildings have a direct effect on gameplay within a 5v5 match aside from some minor bonuses to your own hero. Your castle qualifies as no more than a fancy main menu for your game client. Which, you know, seen that way is actually not so bad. You could see it as a quaint, minor addition to the AoS formula.

Viewed through a bitchier lens, Prime World's castle is a total cop-out! Nothing but a glitzy cosmetic timesink in place of true functionality. If each player's castle had an actual location on an over-arching game map and served as the site of battles, now that would be something. Whether you'd get to landscape the actual game map or your town buildings would just be placed in fixed positions in your team's base in-game, if by being "conquered" your town and your clan and maybe your whole faction gained or lost access to some resources, all building up to some grand finale, now that might integrate meaningfully into the central game concept. Instead of just some cutesy little pastel timesink, your pre-match experience could be a true virtual world.

No need to limit ourselves to castles of course. Each player's home could be a lumber mill, a farm, a mine, producing specific resources which could be fed into a faction-wide barter economy. Imagine the variety of game maps possible as each 5v5 match would take place at a water-mill or a tavern or a quarry, all tied into the main purpose of the game unlike the moronic alternate game modes companies insist on wasting development time with.

Ah, fuck it. Lemme just grab my daily food and ore and log out.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Thrush vs. Trash

Among the endless list of sins committed against Tolkien's memory by the recent Hobbit movies, it's often the sheer gratuity of the various omissions, insertions and perversions, the petty vandalism wrought in the holy name of corporate cross-promotion which grates the most. We can bemoan Thranduil and Radagast's denigration, the moronic elf warrior princess or the freaking sandworms (sandworms! I mean what the-) but why did they have to go after the thrush, for Valinor's sake?

In the book, for those of you who really should read it, a marginally-magical thrush which understands common speech aids the protagonists in various ways, the most important of which is probably carrying the news of Smaug's weak point from Bilbo's lips at the top of the mountain to Bard's ears during the fight with the dragon. Not that there isn't everything else wrong with that scene like Bard's trusty, emblematic bow and arrows receiving a dose of Hollywood steroids and turning into a ballista. Still, in the name of giving the actors more screen time and turning the scene into yet another video game sequence, the movie's writers (if such they can be named) eliminated the connection with nature always so central to folklore, to Tolkien's faery tale inspirations which made The Hobbit such a success to begin with.

While in the middle ages most predatory animals got a very bad rap (wolves, bears, foxes and lynxes were constantly at odds with domesticated livestock) and poisonous animals like snakes and spiders were outright demonized, dirt-farming peasants living one day away from starvation and bereft of entertainment were by necessity aware of the flipside of nature, its variety, beauty and potential. Faery-tale heroes were constantly getting advice, guidance, transport and various other help from magical birds, bees, deer, ants, you name it. Hugin and Muninn were just the tip of the iceberg. Let's not even get into all the New World myths...

So when you watch such execrable corporate market-manipulation as was evident in the Hobbit maladaptations, try to spot all the tiny wounds inflicted not only on the writer's memory, but on your own consciousness of your ancestors' history.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sing the Rising Wind

"All the world's history gradually dying of shock"

The Dresden Dolls - Sing

Though artistically accomplished as befits the great Hayao Miyazaki's last hurrah, The Wind Rises will likely be remembered in the long run more as "controversial" thanks to its choice of subject matter - or will not be remembered at all. We social apes are after all so skilled at ignoring any dissonance which might complicate our claims of tribal allegiance. So what's your poison? Liberal or conservative? Warmonger or appeaser? Intellectual or emotional?
The human ape, by default, neither wants nor understands fairness and pop-culture reflects this in its mindless, sequential lionization of one viewpoint after another, never hitting an impartial balance. Correctness is not political. Pandering will never lead to equality or justice. Pop-culture incarnations like the Star Trek episode I discussed two days ago remain so ridiculous in hindsight, fail so miserably in promoting high-minded ideals, because they mistake favor-currying for idealism. In contrast, Miyazaki managed to piss off pretty much every segment of his intended audience by refusing to yoke improvement to any particular dogma.

"Sing for the president, sing for the terrorists, sing"

Some complain that Horikoshi is portrayed inaccurately. Others complain about the unfairness of the doomed love story and would have sought a deus ex machina. Others resent the machina of war, or that the epitome of machismo, tribal conflict, should be criticized by a nerdy character. Some despise the neglectful husband, others the subversive consorting with spies, others would have had the character subvert the war effort in the name of peace. All willfully ignore the hint Miyazaki practically screamed at them through the oft-repeated quote "il faut tenter de vivre."

"Sing 'cause it's obvious, sing for the astronauts, sing"

Audiences find it very hard to swallow any story lacking a true denouement, without being handed a conclusion to accept, a faction with which to align themselves. This was not a biography or a love story or a war story, but a beatification of progress itself. Most importantly, in the main character's ultimately unrepentant stance, it refuses to align itself with the Luddites who decry every new advancement for its possible perversions without never admitting that the problem lies in the perverters. It's a story about creation, both on the interpersonal and societal levels, not about the end products but about the process itself, the making of a soul, of an ideal. Progress. A few months or years of happiness cut short, a beautiful machine used for murder - regardless of their endings, of the disease rotting them from within, happiness and beauty were pursued. We must remember the intrinsic value of creativity, that force which in a scattered few out of the reeking mass of apes is synonymous with life itself. Il faut tenter de vivre.

"You motherfuckers, you'll sing someday!"

Saturday, September 19, 2015

ST:TNG - Haven and The Big Goodbye

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: 1.11

Oh, lord, I'm overdosing on heartfelt violins over here. This would be the episode concerning Deanna Troi's arranged wedding - which might've meant something to us viewers if we actually knew something about Deanna Troi to begin with, if this weren't the character's first episode as starring attraction. Top that off with a few ridiculous lines about magic elixirs and love as a universal force an' ya gotcherself a "what did I just watch" episode. Not only was this a nonstop cheesy pastiche of a romantic operetta which could've been cut in half by removing the scenes where characters are staring musically into each others' eyes, but much like other TV shows at the time it somehow managed such a ham-fisted, backward attempt at social activism that it insulted every side involved without actually taking a step forward in any direction.

For one thing when you name a character Deanna of Troy try not to condemn her to the middle of a love triangle, family argument or culture clash in her first character-centered episode. It's bad enough that her defining trait was her cleavage, but we barely got to see her do her thing as ship's counselor or telepath in any episodes before this. Hell, her biggest role so far was fainting in Riker's arms blind stinking drunk in the third episode. Instead of giving us time to sympathize with her as a professional and individual being thrown into an unwanted social obligation "cleavage chick" suddenly talking about getting married seems perfectly fitting.

But while I'm sure one could get any number of feminists foaming at the mouth at the injustice of Troi's portrayal in this episode, feminism's stranglehold on left-wing discourse in contemporary politics and its congenital horse-blinders ensure the equally insulting portrayal of Troi's intended is at best ignored, and more likely somehow claimed as patriarchal oppression of some sort.
Quoth Tyler Durden: is this what a man looks like?
Son, put that chin away before you hurt someone. For the love of fuck, he's a fawning, diffident prettyboy artiste drawing endless pictures of the woman of his dreams... and he's wearing a turtleneck... in space! Like every damn female ideal of masculinity in every romantic novel and comedy, his every interaction centers on his being despised or used by the women around him until he makes a grand gesture sacrificing himself for his lady love, at which point he's condescendingly bestowed "nice guy" status. Physically and economically idealized, young, behaviorally reinforcing his upper-class manners at every step, utterly spineless in his dealings with women and possessed of no further motivation than servile self-sacrifice to gain a woman's favor; here's a dirty little secret: Prince Charming was no more individualistic a figure than the damsel in distress.
By the end of the episode, Troi gets to keep her life aboard the Enterprise while he's abandoned his... for love!

Of course it doesn't stop there. The traditionalists in the episode are crass and low-brow, the liberals are flighty hippies prancing around naked, the planet of peace is coincidentally also somehow the planet of weakness, Riker as the jealous boyfriend, a guest appearance by Lurch from the Addams Family, the... oh, screw it. On to the next train-wreck.

Seriesdate 1.12
The Big Goodbye

It's not worth going too far into this episode's plot because even more so than the previous one, most of it has nothing whatsoever to do with Star Trek. It's the first holodeck episode, in which Picard and a few others get trapped in a pulp detective novel - hilarity ensues. Holodeck episodes were emblematic of a major problem with TNG. Where the original series suffered from a highly ritualized sequence of events, episode after episode (Enterprise threatened, shipboard drama, away-team sacrifices a redshirt, Kirk saves day and makes out with hottie, beam-us-up-Scotty) TNG digressed from the themes and concerns of the Enterprise and Federation much too often and jarringly.

However, I've lumped these two episodes together because Wikipedia lists them as concocted by the same writer and both show the same central flaw. The good Mr. Tormé (co-creator of Sliders, apparently, among other things) certainly showed mastery of pulp fiction tropes in general but seemed utterly lost as to what made for good Science Fiction. Both episodes would be entertaining enough for romance / detective niche audiences, but both do more to undermine TNG's central themes than build them up. Sad, because The Big Goodbye managed quite a few good lines and the actors certainly sank their teeth into the cheesy fedora-period acting. Spiner, as usual throughout the series, tends to act the pants off the rest though.

Overall, watching the series in order increases my amazement that TNG ever made it past its first season. Half the episodes were just utterly random filler seemingly motivated more by re-using sets and costumes lying around the studio to save money than actually promoting TNG as Science Fiction.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Polloi-er than Hoi Rest, 1

Amazing how many minute, subliminal degradations we suffer without even looking back, like the now proverbial frog in its slowly heating water bath.

When did the word "encumbered" become too high-brow for use in computer games? Did the knuckledragging communications major who first instituted the change pause even for a second to think that replacing the term with an entire sentence made the message so much more... cumbersome?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Small Price to Pay for Greater Prices Paid

"His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering and pain
Demands devotion, atrocities done in his name"

Nine Inch Nails - Heresy

I might go in depth as to the hypocrisy of using construction cranes born of secular engineering to build edifices of religious brainwashing like the Masjid al-Haram in the first place, laugh at Allah's impotence in building his own damn palaces, but that's not my focus right now.

A decade ago, I might have taken some morbid curiosity in hearing the mindless sheep try to justify a hundred and eleven deaths among the faithful in the safest abode of their faith as an act of god. You can hear some of the most astoundingly circuitous and self-contradictory rationalizations in such cases as minds crippled by a lifetime of dependence on the comfort of moral authority twist themselves in knots looking for gods in sandstorms. I've found that I don't do that anymore. After a while their tortured unreason becomes too macabre to entertain anyone but the sadistic fatcats pulling the strings of such social control mechanisms as religion. There is no use in addressing the faithful. Their minds, their individuality, their being is gone, effaced, steamrolled by lifetimes of kneeling and chanting, by merciless indoctrination through childhood emotional and often physical abuse. I want to take this opportunity to address another social group: the apologists.

You false humanists, those of you who adopt the sick patronizing view that even though you don't personally believe in gods or at least in personified religion, you would keep faith alive for the peace of mind it offers others not as enlightened as you, justify this. Justify one hundred and eleven deaths. Justify the deaths of those who felt compelled to be there, not for personal growth born of their own individual understanding of the world, not as part of a self-actualizing program of aesthetic, scientific or ethical development but for the fear of being flayed alive and boiled in piss for all eternity if they don't constantly express their obedience to religious authority or for the mercenary motivation of forty virgins and a mule or whatever the fuck imams promise those they subjugate these days.

Had a crane fallen on an overcrowded movie set documenting the history of religion, or on a convention center in which religious artifacts were being sold for their historic and aesthetic value, or on a school in which the human ape's weakness for authoritarianism is explained to allow individuals to protect themselves from such control, it would have been a disaster.

Had five hundred people been killed or injured in some street brawl over the distribution of natural resources, had this been some mining accident in which five hundred miners died to extract copper or molybdenum or whatever else keeps our economy going these days, had there been any actual productivity or intellectual advancement or anything at all real been the cause of the gathering, we could at least say the price was too great.

There is no trade-off here. This is not a setback in humanistic growth. It's not a flip of a sine wave but a deeper dip of one of humanity's lowest points. It's an accidental wrong taking place in the midst of a much greater intentional wrongdoing. A hundred and eleven people died performing a mindless stone-age ritual of abject, sadomasochistic submission before a horde of robed and perfumed charlatans. To all you apologists: if you're going to support this, take the mantle of divinity upon yourselves. It suits you just as well as it does those you protect. Look at the next hundred and eleven people you meet on the street and imagine bashing their heads in with a sledgehammer after - after! - making them give you their wallets and making them kneel before you to kiss your feet.

There is no difference between you doing so yourselves and passing the buck to some chanting con-artist.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Up to Eleven with Broken Knobs

Far over the misty mountains cold, my sauron treks 'midst graying boles
Dirty little secret: I'd never played Skyrim before now. I decided to give it a pass in favor of Dragon Age: Origins which I'd originally passed up in favor of Oblivion:Shivering Isles which I got into late because I was still playing Neverwinter Nights 2 and its expansions which I played through slowly because I was busy replaying Morrowind which I bought late because I played Neverw- ... well, you get the idea.

Skyrim's won a very good reputation for itself, yet something about the chatter around the game always set my teeth on edge. It was coming from the wrong people. I got into Morrowind originally because I heard good things about it from dreamy, nerdy roleplayers steeped in fantasy literature and stories of days of yore, from Miniver Cheevy types like myself. If Skyrim has won the respect of such niches at all, their voices were drowned out in a gigantic mass-market chorus of "OMG, totally badass" spewing out the console FPS rabble, from the likes of Halo fans.

And damnit, I must concede that even after just a couple of hours of playing, this game is indeed badass in many ways. If nothing else, the best graphics money can buy go a long way toward immersing you in your new lizard/cat skin. I play so many classics and indie titles that I sometimes forget just how good a show the fatcats can put on when they leverage their obscene wealth toward glitzing the masses in. Reserving judgment as to just how far into the maw of the lowest common denominator Skyrim may have slipped, I will say that even if the actual gameplay proves utter crap, I'll still enjoy spending time in this as an exploration game. However, my first impression has yielded a couple of observations.

1) This was obviously developed as a console game. Not only is every menu designed to be navigated with a gamepad's mini-joystick but computer gamers were deliberately given the finger. You can't bind anything to the numpad but, hilariously, the escape key can be accidentally bound like any ordinary key, leaving you at a loss as to opening the settings menu again until you figure out to take a detour through your quest journal.
More relevantly, the inventory system betrays the preference for small-minded consumers instead of megalomaniacal nerds. Instead of opening up an inventory or spell book where you can see your wealth and power arrayed before you in a field of icons, Skyrim's menus, even more than Oblivion's, shunt you through endless subcategories. It may seem like a small detail but it embodies a crucial difference between those who demand large amounts of information and those focused only on a constant linear stream of stimuli.

2) If dragons are supposed to be the 'big thing' don't throw one at me in the opening tutorial. One of the clearest delineations between the mindless masses and a discerning audience is the masses' utter lack of appreciation for scale, perspective and a gradual build-up. Joe Average assumes that if bazookas are teh awesum, then every movie should be nothing but bazookas from beginning to end.
Morrowind's opening sequence introduced you as a prisoner exiled to the far reaches of the empire. You stepped off a creaky boat in a backwater port town and were received through the provincial customs office. You soon got some hints of being destined for greatness, but they were left as hints and there was no need to throw you into a battle full of golden saints in the first five minutes of the game to "wow" you into continuing to play.
Oblivion knocked it up a notch. You meet the Emperor and witness his assassination - but at least it was a fairly small affair. No ogres, daedra or sky effects.
Skyrim's introduction is basically the 1812 Overture but skipping the music and keeping just the cannons. Giant dragon blowing a town to shreds. Biggest thing in the game, right on top of you, right off the bat. No foreshadowing, no anticipation, no discovery or exploration or any buildup whatsoever. What a wonderful way to say that you're marketing to retarded gradeschoolers who just want to clap their handsies at the big shiny boom-boom.

edit 2018/09/06
Changed a was to were.

Friday, September 11, 2015

From Dune to Tanaris... and back?

"I dream of gardens in the desert sand"
"This memory of Eden haunts us all"
Sting - Desert Rose

Yeah, okay, fine, just playing with you, that's not the real link. Here's a link to a youtube clip of the actual song if you want a listen. Given my recent Star Trekking and the topic of this post, I just couldn't resist referencing that woefully false-advertised "adaptation" if only to remind myself that despite Hollywoodization and Lynch's rampant insanity mangling half the book's elements, the movie still kicked several different varieties of ass. What a missed opportunity, though: I think we'd all like to know who'd win a fight between Captain Picard and Sting, if only Kyle McLackluster hadn't gotten in the way.

Anyhoo, seamless segue into my real topic: the game Dune (available on Abandonia) was unfortunately based mostly not on the novel but on the movie, thus carrying over some of the creativity and WTF-ness of its visuals and its random gimmicks like weirding modules. Add to this a lot of concessions to video gameyness and there's relatively little of the book left over yet still just enough to capture the feel of Arrakis. Visually it actually held up remarkably well over the years despite its pixelation, thanks largely to some liberal and skillful use of color gradation.

By today's gameplay standards, Dune fits no category. While it had RTS elements it came nowhere near the trendsetting fast-paced "fire lazorz pew-pew-pew" appeal of its sequel. As an adventure game it was actually quite bland, mostly interposing minor story-based checkpoints on your path to global domination, the adventure side of things functioning more as a tutorial to the strategy mechanics than as a driving force. Its strongest points lie outside such pigeonholing. It serves as a such a valuable reference precisely because while it used a fairly modern graphic interface it dates from before the industry limited itself to such restrictive genres.

See, Dune was made while game concepts were still being built up instead of being pruned to fit perceived pre-existing market demands, and the general assumption was still that an increase in scale and complexity was inherently good. It was assumed that games would keep growing, that the goal was no less than the creation of entirely new worlds, coherent, interconnected virtual landscapes. Pay attention to three elements in particular: time, space and autonomy.

Passed. Not merely in some abstract, purely cosmetic fashion, days went by on a scale within about an order of magnitude of real-world time. Repairing a sabotaged spice harvester took a certain amount of time. Battles lasted some time. Plants grew over time. Your periodic spice payments to the emperor had to be on time. Perhaps most importantly, travel took time, and that ties into the issue of:

Distances had to be traversed, both by yourself and by your various troops. Ordering a Fremen troop to arm themselves with the laser guns you just captured at a nearby fortress entailed their taking a day-trip to pick them up. Fast-forwarding while traveling meant you might miss some important troop movements or other events which happened while you were busy taking a joy-ride on a giant Freudian symbol, so long trips were riskier than short ones. While you traveled, it might even happen that your destination fell into enemy hands, resulting in your getting shot on sight on arrival.

Crucially, a game which attempts to be a world must balance player agency with creating a coherent but mutable background. The world must both live without the player and yield somewhat to input. Here, Dune excelled. You could kick off a seeding campaign but had only a rough idea of how fast or how far or in what direction the vegetation would spread - in other words, how much space it would occupy and over what time frame. You could invest some time in picking up Gurney Halleck and dropping him off at a sietch to train the Fremen, and he would continue to do so, giving the action both a personal element and a global significance. Smugglers, saboteurs, the enemy's armies or your mother, all led their own lives which just happened to intersect with your actions in various ways.

Note that what I'm describing here seems less and less an RTS/Adventure hybrid as Dune is officially labelled and more of an open-world game. Like Morrowind, STALKER, Alpha Centauri or Mount and Blade, it serves as a single-player illustration of the inevitable Platonic ideal of a persistent world. Replace Dune's Fremen, Harkonnen and smugglers with multiplayer clans and you get yet another vision of the un-achieved grand escapist fantasy, of a true MMO. Moving slowly across a vast landscape, able to affect a small portion of the game while constantly running across other actors acting on their own portions of it to their own abilities, watching the product of such changes alter the world around you gradually, isn't that the matrix, the thing we'd abandon our meat for?

Dune was made in 1992. Twelve years later, World of Warcraft's success destroyed any such grandiose ambitions in favor of static, slot-machine gameplay. It's now almost twelve years after WoW's launch. Isn't it about time we remembered the Platonic ideal of virtual worlds, got back to expanding on the promise of MUDs, Sim Ant and Dune? Minecraft has whet a lot of players' appetites for the sort of old sandbox elements the industry as a whole has tried to bury, but are there now enough cavemen who can see the forms casting the shadows we call the game industry?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Been there, spouted that

So, just a month after writing a post about the doomed prospects of interstellar colonization, I decide to catch up on what one of my favorite webcartoonists has been doing after One Way. Halfway through things I run into the line "military dictatorship colony" written months before the announcement which prompted my own ramblings. Granted a scenario being tossed into the mix so early into a story relegates it to red herring status, which is even more insulting, but still... Baldwin you magnificent bastard, stop pre-empting my ideas. You're becoming almost as much of a jackass about it as that Neil Gaiman fellow.

Monday, September 7, 2015

ST:TNG - The Battle

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: 1.09

The Battle

So... Picard doesn't remember the solar system in which he scuttled his first quadrillion-quatloo spaceship and invented his very own famous military maneuver which put him in academy textbooks? Even though he remembers all other details about the event and rattles them off like your drunken uncle re-telling his traffic accident for the hundredth time? See, it's little gimmicks like such unnecessary set-ups for expository dialogue which jar the audience out of their requisite suspension of disbelief.

However, aside from that and some overacted headaches on Stewart's part, this seems the first truly good episode of this series. Not just an overly-theatrical re-hash of Original Series tropes like The Last Outpost or a blatant pretext for testing the audience's preferences like Lonely Among Us, it manages a workable story in itself while advancing the series' meta-plot. The Ferengi, though still buffoonish, were greatly toned down from their original showing as drooling bald baboons into a much more believable spacefaring race. The cackling villain playing with a torture device in darkened rooms is balanced by his second-in-command's much colder profit-minded attitude, and several interactions, whether friendly or hostile (the two captains, Riker and his Ferengi counterpart, captain and doctor) are pleasingly egalitarian.
Die! Well! Kahp-ten!
Even the Wesley Crusher role was for once actually well-written and fit into the setting and action, offering up the fruits of his genius to solve a couple of puzzles while not saving the universe by his mere existence or overstepping the bounds of his rank.

Historically, the most interesting observation is that this is basically a story about post-traumatic stress. Its inspiration, however, may not be instantly obvious to today's viewers. Written not only a decade and a half before King Bush II's decision to pour gas on the middle east's various fires but years before his father's own invasion of Iraq, this episode is a product of the mid-80s realization that the Vietnam War's scars were not healing. "Combat fatigue" didn't neatly end with the end of combat and people beaten and brainwashed into becoming murder-o-matics weren't turned back into model citizens by a parade and a medal. It may seem like good, clean fun but Picard's closing line "let the dead rest and the past remain the past" was and should still be considered controversial in its various possible interpretations.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Gander Geese

Oh, this is gonna be fun. Ahem:
Intercourse remains a means or the means of physiologically breaking a man's will: communicating to him cell by cell his own depersonalized instrumentality, drawing it from him, tearing it from him by pulling him into her, over and over, grabbing and engulfing until he gives up and gives into her— which subtraction is called completion in the female lexicon. In the experience of intercourse, he loses the capacity for integrity because his body—the basis of privacy and freedom in the material world for all human beings—is trapped and sundered of its genetic and generative essence; the cohesion of his physical body is—neutrally speaking— violated.

Wow. Does the preceding paragraph sound batshit insane to you? It mostly does to me and I wrote it - not all by my lonesome of course but cribbing a bit (or snatch) of Andrea Dworkin's famous 1987 feminist gospel, Intercourse:

"Intercourse remains a means or the means of physiologically making a woman inferior: communicating to her cell by cell her own inferior status, impressing it on her, burning it into her by shoving it into her, over and over, pushing and thrusting until she gives up and gives in— which is called surrender in the male lexicon. In the experience of intercourse, she loses the capacity for integrity because her body—the basis of privacy and freedom in the material world for all human beings—is entered and occupied; the boundaries of her physical body are—neutrally speaking— violated."

The subconscious symbolism of sex is a valid area of inquiry... so long as one keeps in mind that male and female evolved side by side, each trying to game the system using their particular advantages with the sort of partly randomized success rate so common in evolved systems. Unfortunately we feel obligated to treat egotistical feminist propositions as righteous or at the very least significant, cowed into unthinking acceptance by our instinctive bias toward assuring female needs are met compounded by the thunderous unending claim of victimization. Were we capable of ignoring this dogmatic bias, how would feminist claims look? If either version of the preceding lurid, paranoid trip into a malformed, monomaniacal psyche sounds ludicrous, then they both do. If it's ridiculous when I say it, it's ridiculous when anyone does, and so much of modern pop-feminism from Twitter to the United Nations consists of precisely the sort of sadistic/narcissistic rambling normally only found smeared in feces on the walls of insane asylums (or the Bible.) It may very well be that after careful consideration we find cause to accept their claims but the starting point should always be the same skepticism with which we'd meet male demands. Equality implies equal scrutiny.

There may be some truth as well to Frank Herbert's infamous Honored Matres' control of men through sexual addiction but I've never heard anyone cite Heretics of Dune as serious academic discourse on gender relations. We understand that it should be taken as hyperbole, a cheaply sensationalistic literary device meant to spice up a work of fiction and boost sales of an aging series. The difference is that con artists and lunatics like Dworkin who couch their lunacy in political correctness and pretend their PseudoScience Fiction is real are glorified as social activists, handed book tours and university sinecures and a share in the male-bashing media circus. The very fact that she saw sex as basically some scene out of the movie Alien should have elicited a very harsh and thorough skepticism of any of Dworkin's claims on gender relations from any reader, male or female. Yet before her death she was not only a bestselling popular author but shamelessly pandered to by would-be academics and other intellectuals and is still routinely apologia'd and held up as an exemplary feminist... which, in all fairness, she was and is.

Random unrelated case: a women's studies professor at a 12000-student American mid-west university last year declared during a lecture that civilization only began when women sat around the fire to converse... based on what archaeological evidence? Fuck if anyone knows but she said it and you're obligated to believe her or at least pay lip service to her 'cuz ovaries. Imagine a male professor making the same sort of claim, that civilization is the product of men's epic poems told by hunting parties. Imagine how quickly you'd slam him down as a chauvinistic prick... and try to realize that the same reaction is warranted by some chauvinistic cunt trying to glorify half the species and demonize the other half. What's good for the gander's good for the goose.

By the way, I will bet anything that most of you inadvertently, semi-consciously cringed just a little bit at my using the insult "cunt" even though you'd casually glossed over my calling the man in that scenario a "prick" precisely fourteen words prior. That's how brainwashed we are. We assume, unquestioningly, that men deserve whatever abuse is hurled at them at the same time we assume a priori that women require special social, legal and interpersonal protections and favoritism. We're convinced that misogyny lurks around every corner but misandry can't exist because women are perfect and innocent and good and also, you shut up shitlord! Now, given my theatricality you might be asking yourself whether I'm actually male or I'm going to spring the plot twist that I'm female on you - to which I have to say that the Reflector of these reflections, who hopes that Reflector is not bad English, now Governess is happily of the masculine Gender and should be accorded the same consideration as a female speaker.

Yes, I'm paraphrasing again, this time from a much older source back in the days when feminism was not yet feminist but egalitarian and even more importantly aspired to Reason, when Mary Astell strongly but sedately challenged the public's prejudice:
'Tis a very great Fault to regard rather who it is that Speaks, than what is spoken; and either to submit to Authority, when we should only yield to Reason; or if Reason press too hard, to think to ward it off by Personal Objections and Reflections.

The apples have indeed fallen far from the tree.
Whenever you hear a woman make a claim of victimization, imagine a corollary like the one I created at the start of this post being claimed by some bushy-bearded, barrel-chested male lumberjack, by a strong, threatening figure instead of a sympathetic, superficially vulnerable little girl. Ask yourself: if a man claimed he was being abused in whatever area of society constitutes the current male crime of the week, based on your experience, knowledge and the evidence at hand, would you believe him? When women's groups make demands, imagine some burly, beer-swilling trucker or a pasty little male nerd demanding the same and ask yourself whether you'd still be so gullible, if you haven't been prejudiced by the dogma that women are abused by men in every way, everywhere and in perpetuity, the unanalyzed fundamentalist justification for feminist entitlement.

Modern-day feminists are themselves merely a new incarnation of various old abuse. They spout the same pretexts which they pretend to oppose:
Women are inferior to men because Eve was an imperfect copy of Adam's rib.
Men are inferior to women because the Y chromosome is an imperfect X chromosome.
Women are dumber than men because their skulls are smaller.
Men are dumber than women because they use fewer words on a daily basis (excepting male bloggers who just ramble on and on and on.)
Women are evil because they steal men's chi.
Men are evil because they invade women's bodies.
Men are closer to God.
Women have "different ways of knowing." Woo, and woo again.
Women are inferior because their uterus controls their behavior.
Men are inferior because their testicles control their behavior.

Same old bullshit with the polarities reversed.

The very term "feminism" should elicit, instead of the currently accepted reflexive sympathy, the same vision induced by any self-justifying "masculinism" - crass bigotry masquerading as humanism, which should have to work a helluva lot harder to support its heinous accusations and demands than paranoid, florid, self-serving dogmatism.

On a lighter note, speaking of geese and ganders, maybe Dworkin saw sex as so... intrusive because she was thinking of a duck penis. Now that thing'll enter and occupy ya six ways from Sunday! Also, if that's the case, Andrea, you were doing it wrong...

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The cake is a euphemism

So, say you create an online forum or sub-forum on the topic of... cakes. Three of the first six rules you set down are:
Do not agree with anyone saying everything but cake is terrible.
Do not post cake recipes or reviews.
Alert a moderator if a member suggests or endorses cake.

Some wer-cynics might say your reflexive aversion to the taboo subject of cake gets in the way of discussing cake.
Before you start combing for my name, I'm not actually on that forum. Just observing.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

One Way

"Come, as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy"

Nirvana - Come As You Are

You have been chosen to complete the most momentous event in human history since "fire - good!" by making first contact with an alien civilization. Such a rush. Of course you might stop to wonder why out of all the more qualified and more presentable members of whatever your profession you've been selected for such an honor, what with you being just slightly indecisive, abrasive, passive, callous, abusive, disruptive, depressing, whiny, awkward or just plain unpleasant. Luckily the rest of the spaceship's crew is just as annoying so putting up with them takes up most of your mental energy. It's all you can do to stop from kicking them out an airlock some days. Hilarity ensues.

So that's the webcomic One Way. Well, that's the setup anyhows. The speculative angle serves mainly as a vehicle for portraying characters in an enclosed setting to make the reader consider their reactions to sources of fear, hope, pride and other nuisances, though their personalities were drawn up as such merciless caricatures that the audience is prevented from truly identifying with any of them and taking sides. Nonetheless the science side of things is maintained well enough to make me wonder at the true ratio of techno to babble in the spaceship's journey. The story works. The characters work. The humor and tension work.

Unfortunately they should have worked a bit longer. The strip's worst quality is that it was apparently forced into a one year schedule and both humor and tension were unfortunately somewhat truncated here and there. Though designed as a finite project and well enough planned that it approximates its necessary length, I can't help thinking Baldwin would've benefited from allowing himself to go slightly overboard on this one, stretch it by another page or two building up the more relevant scenes. An added month or two to its run would likely have rounded it out much more satisfyingly. How much energy was instead shifted into cranking out the next paying project, drawing donation incentives and managing Patreon campaigns and customer demands?

As it is, it's good. First contact stories are under-represented in modern Science Fiction and One Way carries just enough of a Glos Pana undertone to make it captivating, while successfully centering on its own core precepts and characters. Good, but also a bit light... undeveloped... unbalanced... even telegraphed, something an amateur like myself might churn out on the best year of his life, and that should count as an insult to the mind behind Bruno and Spacetrawler.