Saturday, October 31, 2015

And Horror the Soul of the Plot

"Kiss it to life, tear it apart
I'm a treacherous thing to keep in your heart
Clean all your wounds, curse all your bones
I'm a treacherous thing to bring in your home"

Ego Likeness - Treacherous Thing

It's all-hallows' eve, Samhain, upon the witching hour of which the veil between our world and that of the dead shall be rent asunder and spirits both terrible and malevolent shall pour forth to wander the darkness. Beware! Beware and... be wearing weird masks to fool the ghosts? Okay, so the story-weaving kind of breaks down at that point, but the point remains! Though most harvest festivals tend to be rather upbeat they can't entirely efface the memento mori of waning daylight and the Celts at least made a good go of incorporating both sides. So, on this festival of death, I'd like to remind you of a couple of Edgar Allan Poe's somewhat less read short stories on the topic of mortality.

Morella and Ligeia often get lumped together in discussion and not without cause. The plot, by numbers, would sound almost exactly the same. The central tone, however, differs with the nature of the title characters and their perception by the narrator. These stories were already being edged out of school curricula by the time I was in high school (as we are no longer permitted to read anything portraying a woman in anything less than glorifying light) and though I'm guessing you've all read The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado with their safely male villains, I would urge you to read at least the shorter of these two, Morella, before going on here. Though, it must be said, Ligeia is the better story and contains one of Poe's best poems as well.

To start, the two central characters are very different women. Morella is a prototypical goth, an image emulated by every teenage girl penciling ankhs below her eyes, her melodious voice a growing shadow on the narrator's soul, her influence constricting toward morbidity. She lives her death. In contrast, Ligeia is a proactive intellectual in every respect and fights for life despite her thematically-appropriate black eyes and hair. No wonder one narrator loves Ligeia while the other gradually starts to hate Morella. Morella is rot and poison, a disease upon the soul.

But what about their crimes? The plots are similar to a point. Narrator marries M / L and studies metaphysical mysteries under their tutelage then M /L falls ill and begins wasting away from nothing in particular, from loss of life in itself. Another female enters the picture and by the end of the story is revealed to be the vehicle for the second coming of the witch. Yet Morella fabricates her own vessel, the "daughter" which did not breathe until she herself had ceased to do so. She causes no harm because there is nothing to harm there. Ligeia on the other hand can pretty safely be interpreted to preternaturally murder poor hapless Rowena to orchestrate her return to the living.

Then there's the matter of what type of life would be regained by each act. While Ligeia is almost post-human in her intellect and an unparalleled will capable of elevating those around her, Morella merely uses the narrator, saprophytically feeding upon him, propagating herself upon his life, reducing him to her needs. While Ligeia is a self in itself, an undeniable personality, Morella's mitosis yields a living death in which the self cannot be acknowledged for fear the charade will fall apart. Ligeia fights and defeats the universe, reasserting her own features over Rowena's, while Morella merely tries to cheat it - and gets caught. Maybe Morella would've been content with her new life and would consume no further, and maybe Ligeia's narrator will be her next victim in her quest against the worm. Whatever we might imagine the final tally of their conflicting means, motivations and ends, they both make excellent characters, not merely as macabre ghost stories but as anti-villains taking purposeful action to escape the human condition.

Both stories drip nihilism: Ligeia quite explicitly through the poem The Conqueror Worm, Morella implicitly through her ultimate failure. I don't think it's necessary to read Ligeia's resurrection merely as the narrator's opium dream; seems like the sort of anus-extruded over-analysis which graduate students routinely produce while groping for a thesis which will fool most of their professors most of the time. However, we don't know how long her borrowed time will last, whether Rowena's corpse won't disintegrate under the weight of a single word as Morella did. Maybe the Lady Ligeia will have her victory snatched away from her - and that is a horror worthy of All Saints' eve.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Memetic Sterility

"Well treat me like the sea, oh so salty and mean, a-ha-ha
Well treat me like disease, like the rats and the fleas, a-ha-ha!
We'll discard who you please like the leaves off a tree, a-ha-ha
Let's shake hands if you want but soon both hands are gone, a-ha-ha, haha!"

Modest Mouse - March Into the Sea

So I'm listening to someone talk about minimum viable populations and I thinks to myself, I does - has anyone estimated this for humans? But then of course when we discuss humanity's survival, what we're really talking about is the persistence of human civilization. A few extra lice-ridden apes mucking around digging up roots and worms with their bare hands to gnaw on as they huddle in the bushes hoping the wolves don't find them, that's not exactly what we're going for with this whole evolution thing. Thought is the individual. Ideas make us what we are, the greatest of them being the idea of the self, what we normally call self-awareness. The packaging is increasingly superfluous.

So if human survival is the survival of ideas, that sets me thinking: is there such a thing as a minimum viable population of ideas? Ignoring the apes which house these, the ecosystem for ideas, can we talk about a minimum viable population size within the memetic milieu? How many thoughts make up a sentient society? Or at least a living system - does the pack of music composition trends hunt the herds of instrument forms for sustenance? Or are instrument forms parasites subsisting on the population of musical forms available at any one time? There's no real room for a pibgorn in Enter Sandman, any more than deer can graze in a parking lot.

Further, what other ecological precepts might we adapt to this system? Can we talk about memetic inbreeding depression? How mono can a monomyth get? As the Luke Skywalker meme is selected for over all other alleles at the hero locus, as we lose Ender Wiggin and Valentine Michael Smith to an increasingly homogenous, ballooning population of Luke-clones, does the resistance of the hero-bearing sentient system to diseases like religion or postmodernism also decrease? How few individual thought patterns you see fleeting across a Twitter feed still carry the Feanor allele? How long before the entire population is wiped out by a single pandemic, by the latest quack nostrum or racial panic or sinking the whole world's resources into promoting the latest boy-band? The world was nearly wiped out, and is still in such danger, when the weapon meme could not adapt to the stochastic pressure of nuclear fission. We had to dredge up and breed up the nearly extirpated notion of the double-edged sword, more elusive than white tigers in a weapon-meme population dominated by the invincible high-flying bomber and ICBM. We still don't know how to curb the proliferation of the "profit motive" which shows such a great predilection for inbreeding and such ravenously large litters when it does.

How long before the precept of personal social status, now mating with itself in old and new forms from wealth to fame to conspicuous consumption to the number of friends on Facebook and the number of achievement points on Steam, ostracizes all divergent thought processes and thought becomes unable to procreate, unable to formulate new thought?

How long before sterility?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Talk about boning

While ransacking a necromancers' lair in Skyrim, I ran across a skeleton wearing a gold necklace. Is it just my imagination or is the idea of necromancers prettifying their pet skeletons kind of suggestive? Gets lonely in those dank crypts, y'know.
Much as I like Tim Burton, if my Argonian self runs into a zombie in a wedding dress I'm popping an invisibility potion and running the other way.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

May the hype be with you

I'm really starting to want to see The Force Awakens. Yes, I know, I know, after Jar-Jar, midichlorians and the rest of the cutesiness, whinyness and random nonsense of the prequels, I promised myself I'd avoid anything to do with Star Wars, as I'm guessing many, many others had as well. However, our corporate overlords are pouring so much freakin' money into the damn thing that good or bad (most likely bad) it'll become an instant cultural touchstone for the current generation and for once, I wanna be a part of the moment, damnit.

It's not just the marketing or special effects but the fact that they apparently cut Harrison Ford a check fat enough to get him to stop trying to divest himself of Han Solo as he's been doing for the past forty years. That, and they've got Gollum playing the dark side... and they dug up Max von Sydow for some inexplicable reason... and some kind of cameo by Simon Pegg.

More than any of that, though, I hated J. J. Abrams for turning Star Trek into Star Wars... which makes me curious to see what he makes of Star Wars itself. If you can't hack it as Roddenberry you may as well settle for Lucas.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lockdown Artistes

"Spendin' all your money on me and spending time on me
I'ma make make make make you work
Make you work-work, make you work!"

The Black-Eyed Peas - My Humps

Pickup artists have been making more and more appearances in pop-culture, mostly as the butts of jokes, which position they have earned in spades. Their emphasis not only on "lines" but on preset behavioral performances, skits almost, to elicit a response from their audience is downright vaudevillian past the point of self-caricature. On one hand this is little more than a continuation of males' inferior role in sexuality from the dawn of time. The burden of effort in securing mates falls by default entirely on men (uterine real estate being a seller's market; sperm very much the opposite) and the image of the preening, strutting peacock of a man attempting (and by default failing) to woo a woman who repeatedly slams him down as cruelly and self-servingly as possible from atop the pedestal of her femininity has been one of the most common features of pop culture throughout history. We don't even need a Brunhilde or Penelope to remind us of women running their potential mates through the wringer. Suitors are default targets for abuse.

On the other hand, pick-up artists earn their vilification by a historically novel approach, plucking the most rotten fruits of the social sciences to level pop-psychological analysis at women's heads - territory heretofore inaccessible by design to men. By a handful of gimmicks inherent to female evolutionary psychology they aim to trick their target into evaluating the potential of a sexual encounter with the pick-up artist much more favorably than she normally would - methodology which by all accounts fails as often as not, but then hope springs eternal, don't it puppies?

Here's where the dominance of feminist rhetoric in public discourse skews our response to what should otherwise count as no more than comedia dell'arte buffonery, staged suit complete with (I'm guessing often literal) slapstick. Women, in politically correct parlance, did not evolve from apes. Men, sure, we can heap any amount of ridicule we wish (and are in fact encouraged to do so by feminists) on men for their instinctive behaviors. No-one wonders if it's correct to lambaste any man or men in general for desiring sex or for voicing or displaying any interest in sexual cues like breasts. We meekly accept our social punishment for the caveman part of our brains which dictates so much of our behavior without ever asking our opinion on the matter; we know that every time our eyes track a particularly cleft display of cleavage, it's not by our own volition but a response built into our species from prehistoric times.
Women, on the other hand, are presumed holy. Their behavior, no matter how ludicrously pre-sentient, is never permitted scrutiny by the political correctness police. Take the most shameless, brainless gold-digger acting out her prehistoric impulses to entrap a male of high social rank who will dedicate all his material resources to her, and you're expected to word her simian behavior as "liberation" or some sort of humanist enlightenment. We are not allowed to admit that women are no more evolved than men.

The first half of pick-up artists' great crime in the public eye is addressing the cavewoman, acknowledging that most female behavior, just as males', consists of inborn automatic patterns which can be triggered while sidestepping the rational mind. There is of course a very real ethical objection to be raised here. Treating a sentient individual as a machine to be manipulated for one's own purposes, carrying out social interactions not through equal conversation but by tripping automatic switches in their primate brain, is the vilest sort of degradation short of physical torture. The second half of the puppies' crime lies in trespassing on female power-mongering and head-games... because this is exactly what women have done to men since humans became human.

Subverting your interlocutor's instinctive responses, playing on another's insecurities, giving out false, self-serving subliminal cues, we view it all as so very despicable when used by men against women. So tell me again why women paint their eyes and lips. Feigning interest in a man via wide, interested eyes has been so prevalent a tactic during human history that even before make-up took off as its own industry, women were willing to pour poison in their own eyeballs in order to bypass men's defenses. As for ruby-red... labia... let's not even get into it.... repeatedly and ecstatically. Of course those behavioral changes are nothing to the physical. Women's lips are unnecessarily shaded by default, after all. Adding a second set of buttocks on your chest to constantly advertise sexual availability whether you're coming or going and keep men constantly on edge is probably the most obvious alteration, but the more insidious is not sexual but the large array of neotenized features and behaviors: falsetto voices, crying, babyish facial features, etc., all lowering men's guard, inducing a desire to protect and provide for. Women's manipulation of men is built into them.

The oddly vociferous revulsion to puppies' antics stems largely, I think, from a sort of "uncanny valley" perception, a funhouse mirror reflection in a few men of women's own arsenal of behavioral modification. A pick-up artist's performance is a rehearsed, stilted reiteration of what comes so naturally to women that it interweaves all male-female interaction without ever being noticed. If you consider "negging" reprehensible, watch a woman gently wrinkle her nose or pout at her partner's behavior and see him immediately squirm, or see her alter his appearance in some minor way, straightening his shirt, any minor pretext to find fault with him, to set herself up as a benefactor "putting up" with him and himself as a dumb slob who should be thanking his lucky stars she looked his way. Negging is nothing to nagging and nit-picking. In an odd way, pick-up artists, through their desperation to be better equipped romantically, ended up looting the opposite sex's armory. They're some of the most feminine men in history.

As a last point, consider that the two mirrored crimes against sentience (the recent behavioral modification used by pick-up artists and the time-honored, all-pervasive, perpetually controlling female attitudes toward men) have different goals. Pick-up artists mainly seek an evening of sex, a mutually pleasurable act costing any modern woman a couple of hours and a few calories of energy. The threat of unplanned pregnancy which underscores so much female instinct no longer applies in any civilized society. Women's manipulation of men on the other hand still pursues marriage, enforced monogamy and lifelong servitude, a surrender in perpetuity of his material resources to her and the offspring which she's much more likely to want than he is... because planned pregnancy is another destructive, unanalyzed, primitive impulse which afflicts the female more pervasively than the male of the species.

Yes, it is important to teach women to protect themselves from such control... and much more important to teach men to protect themselves from it. Both sexes should be more aware of their instinctive weaknesses, but that awareness cannot be reached while we feel obligated to treat men as instinctive brutes and women as enlightened innocents.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

ST: TNG - Kids 'n Codgers

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: 1.16
Too Short a Season

The one with the reverse-aging admiral.
I must say that when I saw this as a ten-year-old, I was pretty much sold on the reverse-aging schtick and couldn't figure out how they did it. Looking at it now, it's obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about cartilage that that's not an old face, and the actor didn't really pull off the raspy old man voice and speech patterns either.

Aside from that gimmick, there's very little to this episode, too little sci in the fi. They overplayed their hand with the make-up and ignored most other aspects. With a better actor, some less predictable writing and more attention to detail, this character and his plot could've been dripping with pathos. As it stands, you're mostly left waiting for the inevitable overextended gasping death scene and patronizing moral of the story, both of which pop up right on cue.

Seriesdate 1.17
When the Bough Breaks

Won't somebody please think of the children?
Legends tell of a meeesteeerious planet of mythical godlike technological prowess, which none of the trillions of sentient beings observing that sector have ever... oh, wait, there it is... and it eats babies!
Look, tech-talk is hard. We get it. No-one can accurately gauge what future technological ability may or may not render ludicrous. So, we can probably forgive TNG's writers for not realizing that as soon as planet Aldea un-cloaked, even for a second, it would've reflected an electromagnetic image to every telescope aimed anywhere near it, not to mention subspace scanners and whatever other hocus-pocusry we care to invent. Unfortunately, this is one of those episodes which took technobabble so fully into the domain of babble that it managed to make no sense even within the suspended disbelief of pretextium crystals and solid holograms.

Back in the 80s and 90s, the big environmental disaster talk centered not on global warming but on ozone depletion, and in the interest of feigning social consciousness this was shoehorned in as the reason for the Aldeans' sterility and subsequent wicked-witchy child-stealing. This might be laudable except that ultraviolet radiation would probably fry everyone's skin to a crisp and murder the planet's microbiota before it produced such a specific deep-tissue effect on germ-line cells. But hey, it was the tail-end of the cold war and the word "radiation" was still synonymous with taboo magic. Here's where the aforementioned babble gets squared, because while this might've made for an amusing plot gimmick in any other episode, it makes absolutely no sense for a planet which has been constantly surrounded by a light-bending shield for millennia. If the cloaking device didn't manipulate anything outside visible wavelengths, it'd be completely useless.
Oh, right, I forgot, it's not ultraviolet light, it's ultraviolet RAY-DEE-AY-SHUN! OMGWTFBBQ!!!

Equally nonsensical was the schizoid characterization of the aliens. Their utterly beatific attitude overall and the knee-jerk petty child-stealing off the first ship to pass by their world simply don't mesh, don't make for believable storytelling. Either they're too smart to act that stupid or too stupid to act that smart, and the clash of those disparate realizations breaks apart any sense of urgency or dramatic tension. It's hard to feel sorry for the Enterprise's kids as they're realizing their greatest potential and downright criminal to see them snatched back, when that potential is denied them for the sake of animalistic parental possessiveness. Such backwardness, the condemnation of individuals to the human condition, went against the grain of Star Trek's pretense of an otherwise forward-looking attitude. It was, however, perfectly in tune with television programming in general.

While much better than some of the truly godawful episodes preceding them, both examples above remind just how slowly and painstakingly TNG came together. The first season was both promising and terrible, but it was mostly just astoundingly uneven in quality, with everything from writing to acting to effects varying wildly from week to week. Various episodes pile on gratuitous gimmicks which have no place in the Star Trek universe, forcing the viewer to willfully ignore them later on. If Aldea's central computer has the power to bounce the Enterprise halfway across the galaxy, it could've done the same to the Borg invasion. If there's a fountain of youth on whatever planet, you can bet every civilization out there would've started a war over it. If Data and his brother are the only AI's why does the holodeck keep spewing out sentient characters?

It's as though every episode were being written not only by a different team but on the assumption that it would be the last one. Eat, drink and write fancifully, for tomorrow we get cancelled?

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Blackwell Epiphany

"Half of the time we're gone but we don't know where"

Simon and Garfunkel - The Only Living Boy in New York

I've been avoiding The Blackwell Epiphany though I bought it as soon as it came out last year. I dread endings and sequels in general, mostly because we've all seen so many bad ones. Here, we're not talking about a real sequel, though Epiphany is a good bit longer than the previous chapters. The five Blackwell installments are really just one adventure game, one semicontinuous plot released over a decade.

As I mentioned in my original post about them, this is part of their charm, as one can see both concept and execution evolve through its iterations: slight modifications to the game engine, mechanics, artwork, characters and overall tone. For instance, Rosa starts out the first game using mostly her notebook with an occasional desktop computer search and by Epiphany is exclusively living on her smartphone like any member of Generation Facebook. Or see for example the terribly cheesy ending of the first game (The Deacon) being retconned offhandedly at the end of Epiphany. Not that I'm a fan of retconning, but as an acknowledgement of past mistakes it sometimes serves its purpose. The writing also evolved, from the somewhat goofy, sardonic hijinks of the first game to a film noir style in the second, gradually evening out somewhere between the two by the fifth installment (though I personally am happy to see an RPG or adventure game go as "noir" as it can.)

Take the gushing pages of fanboy praise on GoG or in critic reviews with a grain of salt. Critics have little to choose from in an outdated market like adventure games, and good niche games will always produce a large percentage of fanboys within their small audience. The Blackwell games are not great. Good, solid work certainly, and a category above many other indie titles released mostly to fleece hipsters who'll buy anything with pixelated retro graphics, but also lacking that extra kick which makes for a truly memorable title. It lacks the believable characterization of April Ryan in The Longest Journey, the lavish prettiness of Syberia's backdrops, the intricate puzzles of Resonance, the macabre pathos of The Cat Lady.
Conversely, it also has better puzzles than The Cat Lady, better dialogue than Resonance, better secondary characters than The Longest Journey, etc. Second or third place in every category still puts your toes on the podium, and the Blackwell series is well worth playing.

As for Epiphany itself, as I cant resist a bad joke I must say it's no epiphany.
I am so glad rotten tomatoes can't really travel through cyberspace.
But anyway, it's a fitting ending to the series. It does not disappoint. It also does not exceed, excel or transcend. The puzzles are decent, mostly on the simple side with a couple of non-sequiturs (plus sometimes you'll wander around knowing exactly what the answer is but just needing to get one of the NPCs to say it out loud) but still more logical and complex than adventure games' infamous tendency toward the esoteric and obtuse. Just hard enough to always remain interesting while sticking to the precept of making failure impossible in such a game. You can only get stalled for a time.

In terms of storytelling, I for one thought the ending was much too overblown, but I can see the desire to escalate the scale of conflict for a grand finale after a decade of development. The dramatic reveal was also somewhat predictable from my point of view but maybe I'm just jaded. Overall, the characters really came together, the dialogue moved at the perfect pace and the plot's book-ends held up very nicely. Epiphany's greatest achievement though is probably its finely-tuned click-per-reward plot advancement keeping the player engaged from beginning through end, pruning clues away as they become obsolete, providing just enough hints through characters' banter and overall ensuring an enjoyable playthrough.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Big Head Press

Stuff like if Robert Heinlein got drunk and started scribbling NRA pamphlets. Visit Big Head Press for all your libertarian propaganda needs!

Okay, that's not entirely fair. Bieser et al.'s various comics do tend to share a certain thematic milieu but they are also good, fanciful futuristic storytelling in themselves and though the soapbox makes frequent appearances it's always clearly (and proudly) held up as such. My own favorite has been Escape From Terra, largely because it starts like shameless fan-fiction spun off  Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress... and manages to own it. But hey, if your flavor's guns more than economics, try The Probability Broach, or if you miss the sexual revolution, try La Muse. They're even selling A Drug War Carol, but strictly under the table. From there on, stuff gets a bit ... trippier.

Overall, I'm constantly reminded that libertarians believe in magic. No, really. No matter the endless civilizations' worth of evidence to the contrary, libertarians will still puff out their chests and, with a faraway dreamy look in their eye, proclaim that gosh-darn-it if only we abolished official taxes and police, people would spontaneously pull together and build a true Utopia of individual freedom, dignity, efficient industry and equal opportunity. Believe me, it pains me to say all this as I consider myself an anarchist at heart. Such visions, impractical as they may be to any real system of naked apes who will spontaneouly fabricate police and taxes (mafia and protection money) out of any amount of freedom they're given, nonetheless make for excellent escapist literature.

Which brings me back to Escape from Terra which caught my eye not least because of its spot-on title. That is what this is all about, ain't it? Besides the lure of Heinlein-esque straight-talkin', straight-shootin' cowboy archetypes, this is Utopian fiction and as always manages to charm through sheer hope, the fragile thing with feathers, the vision of a better world if only we could escape the current one. Watch some unnaturally reasonable, competent and clever everyman characters uphold the values of emergent anarchy among sentient individuals. It grows the head.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Shifting Demographic: Because It's There on Your Silver Platter

"And when we have the kids we'll tell them to remind we
Of where we were and how so we never get lazy"

Emeli Sande - Mountains

This is a great view. Given a bit of context, it's also emblematic of the game industry's decline in quality over the past two decades. It's from Skyrim, as any player who's played Skyrim will easily tell you, and I do mean any and every player who's played Skyrim. There's the rub.

The previous two Elder Scrolls games also provided the player with sweeping fantasy-world vistas, Oblivion especially earning a great deal of praise for the views from the mountains above the town of Bruma, encompassing all of Cyrodiil. We are after all talking about video games and visuals have always been the main boundary for developers to push, whether through new technology or artistic panache or (very rarely) both. Even the first game I played, Dune, was lauded for its lavishly pixelated 2D desert sunsets.

By the late '90s Morrowind was 3D and became famous for exploiting three-dimensionality to its fullest, not only through the (for the time) lush visuals in the player's immediate vicinity but for allowing the player to choose his vicinity. The sights you saw were a function of the sites you decided to see to. Explore dwarven or demonic ruins, big cities or untamed wildernesses, uphill or downhill, caves or peaks, rooftops or sewers, it was adventure a la carte. Exploration. Remember that word?

The Elder Scrolls series made its name via its relatively freeform nature. Anyplace might be worth visiting. You followed verbal directions (reading! what a chore, amirite, Generation Facebook?) to some minor location or another which was rumored to house something interesting... and it just might. That little door in the side of a hill might lead you to a ghost story, a magic sword or the last living dwarf, or the hill itself might give you the best view of Tel Aruhn. Up to you to find out.

Several years later Oblivion played up its technological advantage pushing the world fog out past the horizon, allowing the player to view nearly the entire game map from a few choice locations, by actually sending you up into the mountains through the main quest... but that location was not the only one with a good view. Peaks rose above it, with a minor pilgrim's path connected by bridges leading to a minor Daedric quest, and arguably the best vantage point in the game was to the east, the stuff of mere rumors bandied about town, a precipice marked only by a tent and a depressing journal.

The view of Skyrim which started this post is the view of Skyrim. There's a mountain in the middle of the game and the 3D map makes it rather obvious that this is the highest vantage point available providing a 360 view of the world. Had they left it at that it may have been a laudable optional objective, an obvious challenge for any explorer, an Everest to climb simply because it's there. The pioneering spirit, however, is nowhere to be found in modern big-budget video games, either on the developer or the customer side. The mindless rabble demand their stupidity be rewarded and endorphin-pushers are only too happy to provide undeserved validation. As with the overdone introduction and slaying a dragon before you're even out of diapers, this is just one more gimmie.

You're sent up the mountain by the third quest in the main plotline, just like that. Just like that, there's even a conveniently terraced highway leading right to the top, complete with tourist markers. It's Goblin Mountain all over again. What's worse, the top of the mountain, the top of the top of the highest point in the game, is also barred by your progression through the main quest, following the operant conditioning nightmare so entrenched by WoW-clone and Steam achievement mechanics: every reward is tied into obediently following linear instructions and new rewards are constantly dangled before you, contingent on following a longer but no less linear path.

Players are now too stupid to find their own objectives, too insecure to find they've missed something, too shortsighted to make plans, too narrowminded for a sense of perspective. Choice and challenge are dirty words.

Morrowind was not actually the most freeform game out there but it did sufficiently embody the concept to serve as a point of reference for the distinction between theme park and sandbox for much of the RPG / MMO fanbase. So even though I already knew The Elder Scrolls Online was a shameless WoW-clone, it's still sad to see that even its immediate predecessor had already given up the ghost, given in to the current dogma of market control. Skyrim is bearable, but given the series' constant decline I will not be buying The Elder Scrolls 6. So where to now?

"You say we're going to move somewhere with neighbours less crazy
You know I'm going to be there 'cause I trust my baby"

Mount & Blade 2 cannot arrive quickly enough, and I hope it has mountains.

Monday, October 12, 2015

ST:TNG - 11001001

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: 1.15

The episode with the bulb-headed aliens who talk like modems (which had barely become a public technology at the time.)* Despite the Enterprise being hijacked, there's little or no high drama here. Though hampered by a major digression into another holodeck adventure (about half the episode being eaten up by Frakes making goo-goo eyes at an imaginary jazz fan) this whole thing seems to have been constructed to allow us to focus on the crew as they respond to a crisis. Characters were paired off so we could watch their interactions, which give off a good vibe of the well-oiled machine the Enterprise is supposed to be
The effect is largely supported by the casting and make-up choices in designing the aliens themselves to look non-threatening.
Oh, come on, they are frikkin' adorable! Making heavy use of human females' more neotenized features to prompt a favorable reaction in the audience, they cast short, slim, dainty young women to play the aliens and further enhanced the aspect through make-up until they're so baby-like that they induce an immediate and overwhelming protective response in the viewer. Even in acting the parts they seem to have been instructed to mimic neotenized movement patterns, toddling about and gesturing jerkily, uncertainly.

It's noteworthy to describe the make-up as a point of contrast. The Bynars are basically anti-Ferengi. Both are short with bulbous heads, but where the Bynars' features are smoothed and appendages minimized, the Ferengi's ears, noses, chins, teeth, etc. were enlarged and they were even given an old-man fringe on their back of their heads.
From The Last Outpost
The Ferengi sneer and growl while the Bynars whimper. The Ferengi are mean and vicious antagonists while the Bynars require our help, one demonized, the other exculpated. One is ugly, the other dainty.
One was designed to be hated, the other loved.
The Ferengi were defined as all-male.
The Bynars were cast as all-female.

That, however, is a matter of the overpowering undercurrent of human gender relations. I doubt the make-up crew or even the writer / director were fully aware of their own bias. In terms of conscious choices the episode was rather well orchestrated, holodeck filler aside. Yar and Worf in their sports uniforms, Data and LaForge working their engineering magic, Picard and Riker striding in lock-step to the armory to regain control of their ship, even ensign Crusher on guard duty, it all managed to show the crew in action while spotlighting the crew and not the action. This should have been the first episode after the pilot, not that idiotic drunken flirting nonsense. Here's the most noteworthy moment, though, turning off the self-destruct sequence which they'd started to keep the Enterprise from falling into enemy hands:
Look at that timer! One minute and fifty-three seconds. You know what that is, people? That's maturity.
By the late '80s, the last-second bomb defusal and "cut the red wire" were already cheap tropes. The active decision not to resort to an overused gimmick is not only gratifying to see in a Hollywood context but perfectly supported the episode's greater effect, the fake-out of the Bynars never having been a real threat and the focus on the functioning of the Enterprise and its crew instead of an external event. Bravo.

* Just realized that the younger generation probably doesn't know what a modem is. Look it up. Ah, for the days when people programmed computers via audio-tape.**

** Yeah, you should probably look up what audiotape is too. Oy, I'm getting old...

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Off Switch

Something happened in Turkey today. Never mind what. Could've been anything.
Wanna talk about it?
You can't. Just like that. In fact, you can't talk about anything.

Buried halfway through Wikipedia's rapidly-accumulating pages of summary on the event lies (if certainly not the most urgent) the most wide-reaching issue with the whole mess. One measly line:

"The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) announced a temporary ban on all press coverage of the bombings following a request by the Prime Ministry. Restrictions on social media platforms Twitter and Facebook were enforced within two hours of the attack."

This is not some tiny illiterate jungle-choked South-American village controlled by a dozen-strong machete-toting junta. Turkey is a NATO country. Nor is this a specifically Turkish problem or the first or last time the net neutrality issue has cropped up all over the world, and unfortunately the bigger issue of censorship has begun causing such fatigue in the public that we gloss over it as a mere footnote. We learn to count ourselves lucky: at least the aristocracy's not literally cutting out tongues anymore. The yoke grows comfortable.

There will always be bombings, assassinations, riots, wars and scandals, anywhere and everywhere, so long as the human species remains human. Censoring the fourth estate is its own can of worms, but holds a certain internal logic. Mass-media outlets are power structures with their own interests, tools of the rich just as governments and industries are, and quite apt to simply exploit any event to increase their own power. That's vertical communication though, distribution of messages by various factions among the power elite to the lower classes.

The much bigger issue here is horizontal communication, speech between individuals. I despise Twitter and Facebook and do not even bother using them but as they have become such vital tools of interpersonal contact in the modern world, an attack on them is an attack on basic human social life. With the flick of a switch, the rich and powerful decree that communication shall cease, for whatever pretext, anytime it suits them. This is the information-age equivalent of curfews and house arrest, martial law by the terabyte.

It may be just a footnote to the event as a whole but footnotes often prove more historically relevant.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Beowulf and Grendel

"There were giants in our midst
But they slaughtered one another in a meaningless war
Thank your lucky stars that we don't do that anymore"

Rasputina - Holocaust of Giants

It's become sort of a catchphrase that Poe wrote The Raven as both high and low-brow, pleasing both the pretentious and the uneducated. I think The Raven would flop today.

Amusingly, Beowulf and Grendel tends to get criticized for exactly the same qualities which earned Samurai Champloo such praise. While I'm sure critics convince themselves they're addressing actual issues of quality, this may be more aptly viewed as a crucial difference between the audience for chanbara or anime and the tweed blazer crowd which tends to go in for adaptations of the one lone epic the anglophone public has ever heard about. No, it's not ignorance. It's perspective. "Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor" as Eminem said.

Humanity doesn't change. Thirteen hundred years ago humans built elaborate self-serving delusions to support the social premises which allowed them to exploit and abuse each other, just as Hammurabi's ilk had thirty-eight hundred years ago... and if you don't think it's still going on now, watch five minutes of a presidential candidate's speeches. Listen to some economist relating the past month's rise and fall in the stock market with the same reverence with which skalds related the descent of Odin to the underworld. Watch a commercial to hear about all the evils which will befall you if you don't buy the latest tech-fetish.

The Miniver Cheevies who learn Old English just so they can mystically enunciate the unassailably high-brow ramblings of drunken, lousy medieval buskers will reel from any suggestion of kinship with the greater psychology of the human ape. To recognize that "forsooth" translates quite readily as "fo shizzle" constitutes a gross violation of taboo in any English department. Of course that's not the whole story either. The differences accrued through time and space are as important as the similarities, and the truly valuable reflections on and of the past are not only the most faithful but also those which can dredge up the miasma of bygone days while offhandedly denying the deification of ancestor figures, those which can bring it all home.

Beowulf and Grendel is a movie as much about myth-making as about the myth itself. Production issues and a tacked-on sex scene aside, this is the crime for which it was shunned by an interested audience whose interest lies more in glorifying their own interests than exploring them. Just as Snow White and the Huntsman was attacked for being both too subdued and too emotional, too mature but not sexual enough, Beowulf and Grendel gets lambasted for being too violent and not violent enough, too formal and too casually profane. No-one is willing to admit that Beowulf and Hrothgar probably really would have cursed like drunken sailors because they actually were drunken sailors! No-one in the audience wants to admit that human culture really does pose a dichotomy between pretentious, officious posturing and the filthy habits of the naked ape (as much for the spear-Danes as for the Toyota-Yanks) because the audience these days is too polarized between high and low brow, each decrying the other as shortsighted and unrealistic, each clinging to superficial in-group markers.

A movie that brings myth into the purview of human agency breaks the taboos of both the rabble, who will not acknowledge the existence of myths even as it continually re-iterates them, and of snobs who view culture as a garland bestowed unto them alone as a marker of social status. Yet there is a crucial difference between modernization used as a crutch and conscious use of anachronism as progressive iconoclasm. No, Beowulf and Grendel is not an accurate depiction of the epic of Beowulf, but neither is it "Clash of the Titans" or "300" or some other horrendous rape of classical culture foisted on the public every so often to keep it from considering its place in history.

Instead it forces an awareness of myth-making on its audience, of the prosaic roots of poetry, and for this crime was unfairly consigned to oblivion.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Faust, Interloper

"Money - it's a hit!
Don't give me that do goody good bullshit"

Pink Floyd - Money

(This one's for you, T)
(Also, I feel obligated to warn of a minor TSW issue 11 spoiler. Avert your eyes! Wait, no, don't, get back here, you!)
(But no, really, I'm writing this for those who don't play TSW. If you do and haven't gone through the Faust levels of The Eight-Headed Serpent, it's worth experiencing for yourself... then come back and tell me if you liked the effect as much as I did.)

See, it's crap like this that gets me back into The Secret World year after year: stories. Though its gameplay was hopelessly compromised by shoehorning in WoW-clone mechanics (like faction grinds and PvP battlegrounds) and though despite some desperate damage control the skill system is still stuck somewhere between redundancy and imbalance, TSW benefits from some true talent in the interactive storytelling department.

I've been catching up on issues 11 and 12, finding to my rather happy surprise that at least the pointless faction grind treadmill has been eased considerably, allowing players to cooperate more freely in the tacked-on "endgame" multiplayer portion of the game. Still, that's largely window-dressing. The meat, bones and most other body parts of TSW lie within its single-player adventure-game side.

Anyone remember the original Half-Life? Remember the Interloper chapter? You teleport to another dimension and have to make your way through an alien environment - but more importantly, it is not an environment defined by its conflict with you. You trudge through hungry fauna and surprise hapless vortigaunt workers minding their own business, tending what looks like mining equipment. It's not all about you, you know. Part of HL's charm was precisely this perspective, rather fresh in FPS games at the time, of not simply plowing through endless "baddies" spawned specifically for you to defeat, but being just one well-armed nerd making your way through a conflux of external forces. You were never really a hero until the very end.

TSW's main storyline is of Lovecraftian scope, one of vast, primordial forces and bombastic mythological figures. "Imagine eating the sunlight. Eating the sun. One bite at a time." Yet so far the writing team manages to offset their grandiose backdrop by guiding the player among the commonfolk, forcing you to slow down, to walk and consider instead of simply barreling through every corridor mowing down enemy after enemy. Contrast is key. So while tackling the eight-headed serpent, fighting your way up through the corporate ranks, through a skyscraper to the penthouse level, you are detoured through the various rank-and-file of Orochi megacorp's eight constituents. The setup would've made Poe proud. Each level centers on a single effect depending on the nature of whatever experiment has gotten loose - darkness, riddles, dodging the elements, pathos or disgust. Vignettes.

Yet possibly the most cathartic moments were created simply by placing the conflict within a corporate environment complete with all the standard fear and backbiting inherent in keeping the lower ranks under constant tension, the facetious company picnics and casual Fridays dressing up the incompetence, pettiness and destructiveness divulged through post-it notes and old e-mails. Usually, it's just a prelude to fighting the monster of the day at the end of the level... usually. The true stroke of genius was Faust Capital's beta-security level.

There's nothing to fight. No monsters roam these halls. You enter tense, weapon at the ready, only to stumble into a room full of office workers typing and sipping coffee, undisturbed... uninteractable... droning on. After scanning the room for anything, any point to the setup, you move on... to a nearly identical room. Then another one, and another, and another. Room after room of row after row of noninteractable NPCs, a circular hell of varnished, stultifying futility in the midst of a world-class disaster which has demolished Tokyo, a fourth circle silent but for the clacking of fingers funneling wealth up the food chain. The greatest concern here is the thundering command on every whiteboard to vote on which brand of disposable plastic pens to purchase for the office.
Row after row, room after room.
After room. You pace past the rows of desks unmolested and unable to molest, powerless to harm or help.
The storm of violence of normal gameplay, that's one thing, but the creepiness of the eye of the storm, now that's masterful. Had they stopped here, TSW's team would still have achieved a grand effect, but oh hot damn, is there ever icing on this cake!

It's there in the last few rooms, not quite an Easter-egg but easy to miss. It's all the same grinding monotony, all the same figures typing away, life reduced to near-inertia... no chimes sound, no spotlights shine. You can walk right past it, you the interloper in this alien world. That's the whole point.
Holy shit. That thing's been stinking up the place for how long?
- and all around him the drones drone on.
Nothing changes. This isn't just Lovecraft with a side of Poe a la Dante, but Kafka for dessert. It hits with the gut-wrenching strength of a Terry Gilliam movie.
Every so often, at some of the endlessly repeating identical desks in endlessly, circularly re-iterated identical rooms, you find a worker rotting at his or her desk, slumped in their company-issue standardized office chairs, utterly ignored by the doomed souls around them.
Now here's where the interactive portion, the value of placing such situations in a game, makes the situation so magical: you just walk on by. You, the player, the hero, the dynamic apian ubermensch, just pass it by. You may want to scream at them all, to point an accusing finger, to drag the rot out of the system... but you can't. You walk the neatly polished tiles to the tune of clacking keyboards, complicit through inaction, and the automatic doors whoosh for you as you exit the fourth circle with not even a Virgil for company.

Brilliant. Whoever dreamt this up, whichever Funcom drones painstakingly painted this still-life deserve a raise... but we all know they won't get it, don't we? Anyone who's experienced a corporate meritocracy knows that's not how that circle spins. Ours is not to question why but to type until we die.
Check your pulse.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Count Your Sheep

"Le reve est bulle de vie
Un bien majuscule utile au chagrin"

Mylène Farmer - Dessine-Moi un Mouton

Squeezing through the crowd of gamer comics, superheroes, vampires and navel-gazing about twenty-somethings' dating habits, Count Your Sheep is a bit of an odd duck. You might call it a slice of life comic, but then nobody bothers concerning themselves with slices of the life of an eight-year-old. Not really. Calvin and Hobbes was more about politics than childhood. Where children are used as literary devices, it's normally as miniature adults illustrating a microcosm of human interaction, or as facile "goofy" laughing stock. Very rarely, for example as in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, is youth given its due as existence in itself and not merely a precursor to stagnant maturity.

Melancholy, self-conscious and often nauseatingly sweet, CYS doesn't quite set out to challenge or captivate its audience. It seems to have started, as I've remarked about others of the good old webcomics, as a simple idea, a shot in the dark, a one-shot gag reiterated with a few different punchlines until something grew out of those reiterations, a relationship between Ship the sheep and his young charge(s) running on the sort of good-natured humor that invites smiles more than laughter.

In fact, the most amazing aspect of reading CYS is just how much can be done with so little, how many creative slants the author added to the characters' basic interactions while keeping their private universe self-contained. It couldn't last forever, of course. As that containment broke, as meta-plot began taking over and finally new characters were added to spice things up, it gradually ran out of steam over the years. Ship's own gradual shift in personality from Katie's partner in crime to acting in loco parentis is likely the most symptomatic of this loss of focus. Still, Count Your Sheep at its best was a delightful treat for a weary mind.

Now, as the author was fond of saying, go to bed.

Friday, October 2, 2015

first we bow, mr Bean

It is too often quite cheerfully assumed that exposure to the idiosyncrasies of other cultures lends one the necessary perspective to discern the baselessness of human ritual in general. Having mastered both handshakes and bowing, both might reveal themselves as equally hollow gestures.
Yet the pride of mastering new modes of behavior, combined with the practical implications of access to new avenues of social exploitation, provides that any individual who gains such knowledge also becomes even more heavily invested in the formality and formulaicy of habitual interaction.
Beware the well-traveled, the expatriate, the journalist, the anthropologist. The master of social forms will be even more loathe to surrender an arsenal of acquired ritual than we less armed in the social arena.