Sunday, February 28, 2016

Coming Soon: Orcix, Goblinix and Trollix

Well, that's about enough of Firefall for now. If it's still around next year (which I doubt) I'll look into it again. After finding a bugged mission, I chose to travel to another one only to find my aerial mode of transportation was bugged and everyone else knew it would get bugged because it's been bugged for some time. Then my character fell through the world, which was about the most exciting thing that happened to me since I came back. Meanwhile the crafting system still isn't in and won't be for... well, probably for however long it takes to fix the gliders too.

This is what happens when you blow your entire budget on redoing the same pointless cinematics ten times over.

But it's those cinematics I want to really talk about, or rather more generally Firefall's aesthetics. The bouncy crayon-box plastic doll look of Copacabana may not be for everyone but three years ago it certainly succeeded in declaring itself new and fresh among the endless re-iterations of elves and orcs cluttering RPGs. Not all that new, really, but given an entire generation's worth of lowered standards, providing slightly different giant bugs to set on fire will get people's attention. Better yet, the token evil humanoid NPCs weren't your standard dumb troglodytic brutes spewing broken English to make the player feel superior to them. Though still bland enough not to scare the idiotic masses away, the Chosen in their initial presentation came across as mysterious, intelligent foes whose inscrutable machinations left plenty to the imagination. They showed little to no interest in interacting with their prey.

It should come as no surprise that as Firefall increasingly WoW-ed itself, the Chosen too began to approach orc-normal familiarity. Instead of growling out a few cryptic phrases as they trample you to death, you're treated to lengthy monologues by cackling Chosen villains torturing poor heroic damsels in distress. Oh noes! Someone call Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Not that it's the only change. Your technician, Aero, no longer seems to have a troubled past. Oilspill, the swamp-rat mechanic who formed the other half of your NPC adventuring party, was side-lined in favor of a blond-haired, blue-eyed dependable soldier archetype, to which was added a libidinous old moustache-twirling rogue whose dialogue would make Weregeek's El Pantero blush... except El Pantero was created as a hilariously bad pastiche of such Zorro-esque cliches, while whatsisface hitting on the token heroic tough chick in Firefall lacks any such self-awareness.

Still, it's the Chosen who seem to have taken the brunt of the duncing. Yes, they degenerate from slightly creepy, mysterious embodiments of the unknown to endlessly monologuing Snidelies, but that's not enough. How can you decisively drive home the point that they're now no different from goblins and ogres, that Firefall is becoming a warmed-over World of Warcraft?

Meet Ogrix, your designated punching bag for a couple of lengthy early missions, the big stomping fat guy who AM NOT TALK GOOD ENG-LISH !

See, it's important to remember that games these days don't get dumbed down for lack of knowledge of better choices, but because of a concerted effort across the industry to lower the audience's expectations, to control the market, to prevent competition. Aesthetics are absolutely a warning sign of a game's overall quality, and vice-versa. This change in the Chosen was implicit the moment Firefall's resource acquisition started getting simplified. When you see an online game adopt WoW-ish features or lack thereof like a lack of a player economy, a lack of meaningful long-term persistent map objectives, a lack of anything which might mentally challenge customers, make no mistake: Ogrix is right around the corner.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Leftover Sycophantry

Damnit, I wanted to talk about computer games today but that bastard over at Leftover Soup did something again. He has a very bad habit of doing something. I've bit my tongue time and again (or would that be my fingers; though that would turn confusing as I actually have a nervous habit of biting my fingers) to prevent myself from writing tedious, lengthy blog posts on trains of thought his comic or comments appended to said comic have sparked.

The freedom created by webcomics' original lack of financial pay-off yielded a heavy dose of social commentary, with many authors slapping their disjointed thoughts online to vent as they could not in real life about anything and everything. Patreon brings death to that freedom, but that's a big-ass can of gut-instinct-worms I really shouldn't allow to parasite this reaction post. In any case, Leftover Soup follows that proud dying tradition, hitting everything from race to gender to religion to the military to... ida know, hell, there was even an incontinent three-legged sheepdog involved at some point.

This week's flavor's police brutality and the bureaucratic brutality of the police/legal system as a whole, a topic on which I mostly agree with the author. I say "mostly" because I don't think he's nearly forceful enough in his views on the matter. Yes, he is absolutely right in pointing out to those who criticize his criticism that he's already included a sympathetic cop character in the comic in the form of Cheryl - a bit too sympathetic as far as I'm concerned. I disagree with him a helluva lot more when it comes to religion or gender relations, but you know what? That's fine. He gets to be wrong, as a basic right of sentient individuals. I'm not indulging in "everyone has their opinion" or some other anti-critical, anti-intellectual bullshit postmodernist self-serving rhetorical means of placating, subverting and silencing those around oneself. Tailsteak is just wrong sometimes. Dead wrong.

I still read his comic and comments. He is right more often than wrong and damn clever at being both, which is what art is supposed to be: expression. Pretty sure I even tossed him a few bucks some time ago and will likely do so again once he finishes it. What I don't do is write letters to the editor attempting to censor this or that view expressed in that one particular work of fiction, demanding that he voice my opinion through his work.*

To the point: in the comment to today's comic, as in a few past instances, he takes a conciliatory, almost apologetic tone in response to what I'm guessing is some vociferous pressure from his readers to lay off this or that social group, ideology, ice cream flavor or hair style. This is a problem. It's not enough that he gave them Cheryl, not enough that even without Cheryl they might like 80-90% of the comic; they demand supplication. What's worse, he doesn't seem to have completely internalized the realization that this will not be enough either, that no amount of kowtowing and self-flagellation for one's thought processes can ever compare with the communal public's utter lack of thought processes. You will never be "me" enough for my tastes, Tailsteak. You will never provide bland enough reinforcement to compete with a facebook friend list. While you still have three or more working brain cells you will never provide a loud enough echo chamber to compete with the social media circle-jerks your readers likely use as their frame of reference for discussion.

Focus groups are the death of creativity and objectivity both. That oversocialized tug of war of compromise toward the lowest common denominator yielded "news" stories about kittens up trees long before teh internets went pop and in the era of one-click social sanction recalcitrance has become a necessity. You'd think webcartoonists of all people would readily think back to a recent example of an individual mind collapsing under social pressure. Its name is Tatsuya Ishida.

Creators, if your audience's comments start coloring your work, sequential or otherwise, as you're working it, it's time to stop reading them. Your mind is not a damn democracy. Yeah, maybe years later you'll look back and think "I was a bit too hard on the pigs" but at least it'll have been your own past error, your own personal growth and not the mutant, half-formed brainchild of getting completely mindfucked by the zeitgeist. Fuck tha thought po-leece.

Damn, this ran long, and I've been trying to ramble less too. That bastard needs to stop doing somethings.

* I did this one time only, and if I ever meet Christopher Baldwin I'll have to apologize for that e-mail he never even read thirteen years ago.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Les Precieuses Ridicules

I would just like to add my voice to those reminding everyone of the origins of World of Warcraft's Pandaren playable race. They were an April Fool's joke. That's how far the game and the industry around it regressed over the years, that a topic so ludicrous as to cause predictable (and justified) outrage would years later become fodder for the next generation's identity. If you are playing a ... cannot believe I'm even saying this, a humanoid panda and calling it an RPG, you are a joke. No, literally, you are a walking, rat-slaying, spauldered, dunce-cap-wearing, cheap April Fool's joke. You're eating a lemon snow-cone and raving about its amazing tangy taste while Blizzard pulls up its pants behind you, giggling at your stupidity.

This perfectly encapsulates the MMO market for over a decade: companies trolling customers who have become so stupid as to take the trolling more and more seriously because YOU ARE FUCKING RETARDS!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Alien Cargo

"I can tell you what they say in space
That our Earth is too gray
But when the spirit is so digital
The body acts this way"

Marilyn Manson - Disassociative

I found it, I found it, I found eeeettt! Wheeee.
You remember that movie? The one with the spaceship and the cold and the virus or maybe it was a fungus and there was this thing, you know? You know the thing, it was inside the other thing?
Heh, that bit never gets old.

I've been racking my brain for over a decade trying to remember this movie I once saw on the SciFi channel before they stupydyzed their name, so mucho thanksias to Mighty Emperor for being one of those losers who meticulously catalog their likes and dislikes. Though not officially a SciFi unoriginal, it was apparently made specifically for that channel, which I'm sure will surprise anyone familiar with their more recent masterpieces like Sharknado 2 or Giant Space Clams of Doom or whatever animal taxon they've scraped down to in trying to bring back the fifties.

But yeah: once upon a time, the SciFi channel had passable taste in Science Fiction instead of running nothing but cheesy Twilight knock-offs and C-series monsters of the week. Imagine that: a place where you could catch an episode or two of choice classics or maybe a new, intriguing, slightly atypical speculative flick that wouldn't otherwise get a chance at air time, like Alien Cargo.

On the surface it certainly doesn't sound like much, which partly explains its undeserved obscurity. Standard "rage virus" scenario... in spaaaaaace! Plus smarmy, Hollywood-pretty twenty-somethings as heroes to boot. Devils, however, make a habit of lurking in details. After the attention-grabbing intro the action slows to set the scene: two star-crossed... well, solar-system-crossing lovers at any rate, work together on a cargo ship hauling cobalt from Titan. Gradually, in between the blatantly obvious exposition and foreshadowing, you start noticing this isn't the usual action flick disguised as science fiction, from the clang of magnetic boots to the microgravity floating boxes, the exterior shots of blocky, industrial-looking spaceships, the clean metallic interiors, the leisurely but not slow pacing, the dramatic set-ups cut off always one line short of indulgent. Alien Cargo displays some pitfalls of pulp SF and most scenes come across as telegraphed in that "no time for rehearsals" way that TV shows often have about them, but in addition manages to paint, through a myriad little details, a simple, unassuming love of the genre. There's very little of horror or conflict in its plot and presentation, but much of that old-timey spirit of exploration and progress. It had an idea, a theme, a situation it wanted to illustrate.

All this would still have consigned it only to the status of mediocre afternoon basic cable slot-filler material, had it not benefited from an ending as startlingly good as Pitch Black's. So go watch it on Youtube in place of whatever giant snake or giant spider or giant koala monster movie SyFy's currently running. Note the cool detachment, the willful efficiency, the determined curiousity which used to define the behavior patterns of progressive, intellectual characters within the genre of ideas, these days all but forgotten in favor of science fantasy and space operas. That last shot of Alien Cargo's young protagonists has stayed with me for a dozen years, likely for that very reason. There's a beauty to it reminiscent of Robert Heinlein's original publisher-censored ending to Podkayne of Mars. We do not expect such rational, aware, intelligent choice, such simple, grim personal agency from such faces, from such heroes, in such films.

But really, we should.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Warhammer 40,000: Armageddon

Remember, it's not the size of your license that counts; it's how you use it.

Exactly a year after declaring my intent to look into that Slitherin' Armageddon thing, I did so! Well, actually it's almost a year and a month and in reality I played through most of it over two months ago, but my version of the story's more inspirational, so there. Just doing my part to feed all those starving numerologists out there. Life's been hard on them after 2000 and 2012 and all the other ends of the world I probably never heard about.

WH40K: Armageddon focuses on a very narrow portion of its game universe. Maybe it's just cheaper to rent a few neurons' worth of an intellectual property instead of a whole lobe but I'm betting the developer's own focus on traditional war strategy games also played a large role in the choice. When you spend all your time re-hashing World War II battles, even bland old orcs must seem giddily novel territory. At any rate, green skin and broken English is about as fancy as it gets, and if I thought the Ultramarines in Chaos Gate somewhat predictable and simplistic macho men then Armageddon's staunchly beige Steel Legion makes them look like a gay pride parade by comparison.

But then, as I remarked before, the whole Warhammer thematic milieu is about doing one thing well and if you feel like commanding square-jawed muscleheads driving big tanks with big fat cannons into battle, there's little more you can expect of a game like Armageddon in terms of aesthetics. It also lacks Chaos Gate's memorable music tracks but then from the start this is obviously a low-budget product. Still, Panzer Corps 40,000 manages to satisfy more than the likes of Dawn of War for preserving a squad management turn-based system instead of turning everything into a twitch-gamer click-fest. I don't play the original tabletop WH40K but as computer TBS goes, this is pretty decent. Lightly skim the tedious, hammy "for the emperor" dialogues in between missions just to get yourself in the mood then dive right to the hexes, trukks and kannons.

I'm badly outpositioned at the start of this mission by those godless greenskins holding the high ground, but that's okay because I remembered to bring artillery. See all those lines of squiggly white text on the right side of the image? You remember those from school? Can't blame you if you don't, since pretty much every other modern computer game does everything to hide them from you for fear of breaking your poor, simple, fragile gamer brain. Those, friends, those are numbers! So while that Ork Gun Trukk isn't the toughest thing on the battlefield, its 58 armor might still give my Ratling Snipers' 0% armor penetration enough trouble that if I had some nice squishy green-skinned infantry to point them at instead, I would.

Though I prefer more freestyle gameplay, the campaign mode works best with the precept of unit experience and makes an interesting challenge of not becoming overly-specialized. Of course overall it's not all that cerebral an exercise. Those yellow and blue mechs tend to be the all-purpose "I win" button throughout your campaign, the Big Cool Thing which is of course better than all the other things and priced just high enough to drive home the point that it's better without actually scaling its price along with its true strength and versatility. For one thing, they can walk through water.

For the other thing... that implies most things can't. Terrain is more than a backdrop. Line of sight matters, as do movement modifiers and initiative. Relative price has its place - my beloved Ratlings may be much less powerful or versatile than giant robots but at one-sixth the price they still chew through enemy infantry. Weapons don't just have maximum ranges but often minimum ones, and the combination of different weapons on the same unit yields optimal ranges, a concept I thought had died a living death with EVE-Online. Some of the limitations imposed on the player like turn limits and scripted events would have been better replaced with more competent AI but they serve their role in ramping up the difficulty. Not that it requires a PhD to play but Armageddon rewards and feeds thought within its cheesy "orcs with tanks" routine while Dawn of War did not, which is of course how these low-budget little niche products manage to stay in business among the slag-heap of Electronic Arts refuse on the market.

There are good and bad ways for a game to make you feel mentally challenged. You'll find some of both in Armageddon, which is more than can be said for most games.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

New Bang, Old Tricks

"I never would have pegged you
For what you have become
Everyone lies, everyone cheats;
Not like you've done"

Garbage - Dog New Tricks

I complained before, as a point of comparison with the webcomic Weregeek, that The Big Bang Theory has long ago lost its claim to geek humor and degenerated to standard sitcom relationship comedy tropes. I recently saw two or three season 8-9 episodes and was unsurprised to find the male-bashing has also ramped up in accordance with lowest-common-denominator proportions.

Of course, from the start the show hinged on ridiculing male nerds for their low social rank and therefore low attractiveness to female instinct, but this was tempered for a little while, if to a low extent, by jokes about Penny's ditziness, Sheldon's mother's ludicrous Texan Jesus-freak ramblings or Bernadette and Amy's own lack of social skills relative to Penny. As the seasons dragged on, the female characters inevitably began to pull rank on their male counterparts. Whether manifested by Bernadette berating three males for being slobs, Amy being constantly glorified in her demands that Sheldon change his stripes or Penny's capricious demands on Leonard and his spineless supplication before her, the show has only become more feminist as its quality dropped. Every female character must be presented as more clever, more socially astute and of course morally justified in every way over their lowly male servants, magnanimously teaching those inferior masculine brutes how to live their lives.

How many of these ten-season tirades does it take to brainwash, say, a boy in his early teens? How many instances of a morally unassailable, indignant woman, arms crossed, laugh-track at the ready, browbeating a straw-man for not fitting himself more perfectly to her demands for how he live his life does it take to harden men's already subservient instinct into the family unit? 'Cause it seems enough is never enough. How many times do we need to watch a replay of Larry Linville being demonized from low to lower to lowest social rank while Loretta Swit becomes gradually deified season after season? How many Homer Simpsons and Tim Taylors does it take to beat an independent male mind into submission?

Funny that we have no problem condemning Ricky's moral authority over Lucy but don't even notice the myriad more modern examples of media pandering to chauvinistic gender roles.
Cue laugh track.

Monday, February 15, 2016

ST:TNG - Coming of Conspiracy

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: 1.19
Coming of Age

Everybody loves Wesley! The girls want him and the boys want to be him. No, seriously, this episode provides at least one of each.

Fawning; it comes in bulk now.

Also, his mother loves him. That, plus his boss, his teachers, the nerds and the jocks all put together. So yeah, severe Wesleyitis infesting this episode. The promised child is up for entry to wizarding school so we spend half the show in a series of Starfleet exams. In all fairness it makes for some nice background on the Star Trek universe and even the Weasely scenes aren't so bad except in dedicating half their air time to various characters standing around telling him how amazing he is. No, really. You are. You're amazing. Really and truly. And did we mention how amazing you are? But he doesn't win first place; awwww, poor Wesley. Doesn't that make you love the Wesley even more?  Sympathize, damn you! So, by the end of the episode we learn an important lesson about perseverance, right kids? Come on, love the Wesley.

The episode escapes utter triviality by introducing what was obviously originally intended as a major overarching plot for the whole series: a sinister alien race infiltrating Starfleet! In the non-Weasely subplot, an admiral and his aide come aboard the Enterprise on a top secret hush-hush mission to talk to the entire crew. After interrogating everyone and concluding that Picard still has his wits about him they ask for his help in uncovering the nebulous something-or-other. He declines, knowing full well he'll be an even bigger hero if he waits a few episodes for the conspiracy to grow and the explosions to start. That is how you curate your damn public persona.

Which brings us to:

Seriesdate: 1.25

Holy shit that guy's head just a-sploded!
Wait, back it up a bit. The conspiramacy sub-plot form Coming of Age continues, interrupting the Enterprise crew's spa day so Picard can beam down to a secret hush-hush futuristic space meeting with other space captains in a space... mineshaft. Okay. I mean that's not very sciencey for a TV show but I guess they can't all be winners. They inform him the infiltration of Starfleet has grown to appropriately megalomaniacal proportions so he won't lose any hero status for stepping in to save the day. Then they're off to get blown up or mind-controlled like good little redshirts to demonstrate just how mighty a foe our heroes will defeat.

After a weirdly lengthy, chatty, expository time-filler of an introduction (twenty minutes of a forty-five minute show) the Enterprise is finally off to Earth to investigate. Picard beams down into the blatantly obvious trap while the rest of the crew deal with the first of the infiltrators, the admiral from the previous episode. Turns out Starfleet's top brass is being taken over by insectoid brain parasites.
Wait, don't leave!
I know, it's an Animorphs sort of plot, in addition to having already been done in Wrath of Khan and so many other body-snatchers type stories.

This is about where I started seeing a strange dichotomy in the episode. On one hand, it's actually pretty tightly, professionally directed, acted and edited with good special effects for its time, more so than most of its predecessors. On the other hand, the writing, both in terms of basic plot and various small gimmicks, is pure first-season slapdash nonsense. It doesn't fit into either the pacing or general feel of Star Trek. Sharing a writer with two previous episodes, Haven and The Big Goodbye, it also shares their reliance on hopelessly pulpy contrivance.

Being infected with a brain parasite, as should happen, has only two side-effects. It lends a decrepit old admiral the incredibly hulky power to beat up Worf and throw Geordi through a closed door. Luckily the doors on the Enterprise are apparently made, instead of some space-age diamond-coated plasteel carbon matrix whatever, of 2mm wood paneling... just in case you wanna toss an engineer through them.
The second effect is unveiled when Picard sits down to dinner in the lair of the suspected enemies of all humanity, the very moment of the big dramatic reveal which confirms to the audience that the guys you thought were bad? Those guys? They really are bad guys! Really bad guys! You know how you know they're bad guys? They eat bugs!
Also, if you've ever read a comic book you know that's a villain grin right there. Muahahaha. I'm eating bugs and loving it 'cuz I'm evil! There follow a couple of minutes of close-up shots of perfectly harmless (and incidentally, edible) mealworms writhing in bowls alternating with disgusted reaction shots of Stewart and the other characters scooping handfuls of suspiciously inert noodly-looking (I'm guessing Chinese take-out) into their mouths. In any case, Riker shows up and passes his bluff check as one of the converted and we're narrowly cheated out of seeing Frakes eat a bug, which would've raised the gratuitous, childish ookiness of the episode to Fear Factor perfection. The two valiant space-men phaser their way through their lesser enemies to the boss encounter: the inquisitor from the previous episode, now host to the main swarm of bugs.

Screw the Prime, Secondary, Tertiary and all other directives. Sure he says "we seek peaceful coexistence" but fuck it, the guy's bulging with parasites and that's just creepy so eat phasers, bug-boy. They blow up his head (it's okay, the inquisitor was an unlikeable character from the start) then blow up the momma-alien inside his torso.
Wait, why and how was he walking around without any internal organs whatsoever?
Okay, so, for one thing that's probably the goriest single scene in the entire series... and despite the fact that I always loved this kind of thing, I cannot for the life of me remember the episode from when I was ten. Don't ask me how they got it past the censors. That is some X-Files level monstrosity right there.

For the other thing, what the hell were you people smoking?
It's not just a matter of pushing the limits of that sleek, clean, upbeat Utopian adventuring inherent in the Star Trek concept. The series did so on several other occasions much more successfully. The problem's just how utterly random a lot of the scenes were, culminating in the no-explanations-necessary bug-eating. From the parting comment about the brain-bugs having sent out a beacon, it's obvious they were originally meant as the recurring villains the Borg eventually became, and the show really dodged a bullet on that one. "It's been done" wouldn't begin to describe it. The Borg on the other hand merit their continued name recognition.

Even ignoring the physical nature of the conspiracy, the entire conspiracy plot, like many details from the first season, was simply introduced too early to mean anything. Okay, so there's a threat to Starfleet. So what? Starfleet meant nothing to the viewers yet. You have to define the status quo before you introduce a threat to it. It's not quite as bad as having all the characters stumbling around drunk before the audience has even seen them sober, but still along the same fault-line.

Also, if anyone should've been made to eat bugs, we all know it was Wesley.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

It's a Whole New Fall Game

Firefall spammed me bragging about all they've updated and inviting me for a month-long "VIP" session so despite being busy with EVE at the moment I decided to visit and see what they've done with the place. Before I get to the visual aid, allow me to provide some background.

I'm not entirely sorry I looked into Firefall. The original concept included some good ideas (or at least slightly different, which counts for a lot in today's homogenized MMO market) and the utter trainwreck it gradually became makes a quaint object lesson in game resign. Red5's "recent history" on Wikipedia alone would warn any would-be developers off relying on a single investor (especially the part where they're not paying their employees) as it becomes apparent that the project's gradual, repeated redesign was likely a result of a corporate overlord visiting a few times a year and demanding more WoW-bell.

Though Firefall had an occasional good point here and there to set it above some of its competitors, especially in its second or so incarnation, it betrays the curious failing of being simply the worst-managed business investment I've ever seen among games. Yes, there are a lot of bad games out there, but in most cases you can see method behind the madness, some Machiavellian (or Bond-villain) scheme for fleecing customers. You can see the corners being cut for profit, the attempts at inducing gambling addiction or some kind of dependence on the game's stimuli in its customers, the... ida know, boobs or something, but in any case that something quite blatantly is meant to benefit the product's peddlers. True in most cases, but not for Firefall.

It's been remade in at least four major installments that I can place. The first time I jumped in it revolved on arena PvP fights. The second time I saw it (the most promising version) I spent an almost pleasant time searching for resource nodes to craft objects for a player-based in-game economy. By two years ago it had become a "kill ten rats" daily mission-running routine, but at least it was still mostly open-world. Now it seems an endless sequence of instanced missions laden with cheesy cinematics, but I'll get into that in some later post. In between these various major stages it managed to trip through a slew of arbitrary reworks of its player classes, resource system, missions, etc. I'm not talking here about the sort of redesign suffered by most WoW-clones, in which later updates gradually dumb down the general tone of "endgame" content. Firefall has redesigned the same elements again and again... and again and again and again. Missions, voiceovers, cinematics, zones, anything and everything has been randomly removed or replaced with a side-grade of itself, usually repeatedly. Every time I've come back to the game I've had to replay the introductory mission sequence and it's been altered every time. Years of development seem to have been gratuitously flushed down the drain.

So I kinda knew not to get my hopes up when I clicked their latest spam. Sure enough I couldn't even patch the game but what the hell; an uninstall and overnight reinstall later, I was in, baby! Well, partly in. Just the tip. I was stuck at the loading screen through several reboots because they'd once again redesigned the class system, deleting the player's core classes after you reach a prestige class, and the system wouldn't accept my choice of prestige class and kept GOTO 10-ing on me. Finally though I was in, and rushed to the crafting stations to clear some space in my overloaded inventory... only to find out crafting had been disabled until the next no, wait, until two major patches later. Well, at least they're setting goals for themselves like highly effective computer people are apt to do. And redo.

Keep in mind I logged in because they officially invited me after a year and a half of well-earned absence. This, all this, is what's supposed to inspire me to return to the game. This is them showing off.

Then it was deja vu all over again running through some introductory crap about bandits and ogres, and then (wait, this is the kicker) I tried to spend some of the amusement park money that came with my offer of a month of VIP time.

Check-mate, good sirs. I declare myself defeated. I've seen and ranted about a lot of shitty games but even in the darkest depths of misdesign hell, when every other feature is broken, when there's no balance and your items get deleted and the servers crash and your character's suddenly naked in a volcano, you can bet your sweet ass the cash shop and PayPal links still work!

Nope, not in Firefall they don't.
I cannot begin to fathom what's going on with this thing. The project's been off the rails for so long it's probably being pulled by Jed Clampett's mule at this point. I'm tempted to say its investors destroyed it (as is often the case) but who the hell would still be sinking money into this thing after five years of stagnation, ditches within last ditches and backsliding? Maybe it's the programmers themselves creating a sinecure for themselves. I'm just enjoying an occasional gander of the freak for my two bits.

edit 2019/07/29:
Fixed a couple of typos.

Firefall did go officially go belly-up some years after its obvious death. May it long serve as an object lesson.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


(No, not the movie or TV series. Made you look!)*

This is about stargates in EVE-Online.
So that big bilateral glowy thing surrounded by spaceships is a stargate. They're used in EVE to travel between solar systems. Pretty exciting the first few times you go through them: your ship vanishes and you're sucked into this whooshing, rumbling tunnel-vision sciencefictiony wormhole graphic just like in Contact and then you find yourself in a whole new solar system (which is mostly just like the old one, but that's a topic for a different discussion.) Sometimes there are NPC ships by the gate for added flavor and in NPC empire space, even (I could not make this up) space-billboards!

However, no number of bells and/or whistles can disguise stargates' true nature as zone lines and in this respect, despite its server and graphic updates over the years, EVE is showing its age. Zone lines are such an outdated mechanic that online games long ceased even advertising their lack as a positive feature. It'd be like that hotel near where I used to live in the mid-90s that still had a giant billboard advertising "COLOR TV" in a rainbow-colored font. Far out, man, like totally groovy!

By zone line I don't mean just that thing in most games where the terrain changes color and a title like "The Crossroads" or "The Underdark" flashes across the middle of your screen yet your character keeps moving around normally, but a major discontinuity in the game world. Old-school zone lines are places with their own separate rules or where the rules change abruptly. They're loading screens, where players are incapacitated while their game client loads the new zone. This makes them prime locations for spawn-camping in any game with even a slight opportunity for griefing. You can still see them in the form of transitioning to separate continents, entering or exiting major cities, etc., but in older titles they made a patchwork of the game map and it took many a year for developers to figure out that they needed to provide buffer zones for players while they loaded a new zone. Those permeable edges between safe and unsafe locales were themselves open to endless abuse.

EVE contains over five thousand solar systems, each of which is actually its own miniature zone. At EVE's launch, this allowed CCP to create the largest interconnected (if discontinuous) game world online. Yeah, they kinda cheated on their definition of space by using empty space but still, the sheer size of EVE was quite impressive but had to be subdivided for technomological reasons beyond my ken. Those divisions became problematic, being not only choke points for player traffic but spots where your computer would hang while loading until you loaded to find yourself hung out to dry by spawn-campers. As technology improved and CCP added a grace period of automatic cloaking it became less of a sure-fire death but being such a pervasive feature was never removed entirely. EVE's basic design had embraced it too decisively, incorporating it into its basic travel mechanics and aesthetics. It remains a millstone around EVE's neck, a shameful anachronism in 2016 when you can seamlessly ride or fly across entire maps populated by over a thousand warring players in Planetside 2 and its like.

This brings me back to the image above. That's a spawn-camp, and nine tenths of the time it's what passes for PvP in EVE. Sit there for hours on end with a dozen of your buddies hoping an enemy will mistakenly jump through so you can feel big about yourself for getting your name on a "kill-mail" notification to be posted on half a dozen websites and measure your e-peen accordingly. No objectives, no shifting battle lines.

So, if you hear of EVE as the one single PvP MMO take it with a grain of salt. EVE is an antediluvian relic from before WoW raped to death any attempt at a rational definition of an MMORPG, before every single developer eliminated PvP from persistent worlds for fear of scaring their new hapless, aimless and gutless brainless mass-market customers away. It retains a number of inherently positive features like open PvP and depletable resource nodes which you'll not find in any noteworthy competitors, but it also retains some of the failures and limitations of decades past, compounded by its own half-measures in updating such mechanics.

Spawn-camping is not nor ever was PvP.

*Note to self: write real blog post about Stargate.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Religion Causes Quantum Autism

"Cut the head off
Grows back hard
I am the hydra
Now you'll see your star"

Marilyn Manson - Antichrist Superstar

The Amazing Meeting has gradually been replacing TED as my source of inspirational Youtube videos. While lacking that glitzy tech expo gadgetry and gimmickry for sheer "wow" factor, skeptic conferences are thankfully also less tainted by TED's chronic corporate infestation, and the speakers seem more uniformly intelligent without being intermixed with sideshow attractions. Except of course for the magicians. Abracadabbling aside, TAM provides an interesting look at "woo-woo" in everything from kickboxing to neuroscience and the unhappy intersection of same.

So I ran across a TAM video about vaccines. After a decade of immunity, the richest country in the world now has measles. So TAM invited a guy to talk about the last noticeable outbreak two decades ago in Philadelphia, when the biggest culprit, unsurprisingly, was religion. Parents refused to vaccinate their kids 'cuz geebus.

Note to self: launch new bumper sticker - "Jesus is my lymphocyte."

In any case, good talk. Wildly ineffective I'm guessing in muzzling superstition but still, good facts well laid out there, doc. "A" for effort.
Poor guy.

So, over the past couple of years the biggest measles outbreak hit the Amish in Ohio, serving as one more timely reminder that as religious nuts go, the Amish count as harmless only compared to the head-choppers in the other hemisphere. However, what made all of us throw our hands up in despair was the Disneyland outbreak - and by the way, note the CDC rats spinelessly refusing to sully the Disney name. If only the Amish had as many lawyers as Disney, the section on their outbreak would also have been shrouded as "a religious group in Ohio."

The Californians who got hit weren't backwater or slum-dwelling religious nuts but nominally well-educated yuppies sipping superstition with their lattes. They're the "healing crystals" and astrology crowd. Here we have a wonderful melding of religion and Nietzsche's forewarning of the shadow of the dead God haunting us for millennia to come, because these over-entitled baboons weren't born into superstition. They actively chose superstition. Of course they didn't go for that crucifix and holy water stuff. Refusing vaccinations 'cuz geebus? Oh please honey, that look is so last century. They picked up the new, cutting-edge, celebrity-endorsed fad. "Autism" has such a thrilling, sleek and trendy 21st-century ring to it, much better than plagues and miasmas. Gout's disgusting, but autism's such a nice, clean, antiseptic, respectable middle-class affliction. It could only get better if it were quantum autism. (In fact, give it a couple of years.)

Buzz-buzz, the words go. The human ape's desperation for hierarchy will not be denied. In the absence of priests, the masses find new moral authority to subsume them and it's so much more fun to genuflect before a Playboy model, ain't it? Decade after decade, generation after generation, century after century the faithful mumble their mantras. Daniel Dennett wants me to believe churches are crumbling but I still trip over them on every street. Nietzsche sang at God's funeral but then he never met Deepak Chopra. Dr. Offit recounts the last time a religious exemption from measles didn't quite play out as advertised, and the decades seem to slip away. Fun fact: antichrist superstar Marilyn Manson hardly ever sang about religion, but the true warning embodied in his stage persona fell on deaf ears.
Whose mistake is Jenny McCarthy anyway?

So you know what, maybe it's time to stop trying to beat the puppet-masters and join them. Admit this whole "rational thought" angle's bunk and start spewing catchphrases. "Religion causes autism" - pass it on! Why and how? It does 'cuz sez me and that's how so there. Write it on one of those grade-school folded-paper fortune tellers; fundies eat that shit up. Draw it in maple syrup on a pancake and inform homeopathy addicts that a quantum Quercus fluctuation in the eleventh Acer dimension told you to tell them to vaccinate their damn kids! Then when those kids miraculously survive to adolescence, be there to show them just how to piss off their airheaded yuppie parents: by turning against blind credulity.

One way or the other though, we have got to corrupt the youth of Athens. This shit got old twenty-three centuries ago.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

You are weak (and also ripe for conquest)

"Master of puppets I'm pulling the strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me you can't see a thing
Just call my name 'cause I'll hear you scream"

Metallica - Master of Puppets

The Iridium Corporation is furious with me :(

I should probably pick a screenshot in which I have at least one green plus to offset all these red minuses but meh... that's just how I roll.

I've been giving Galactic Civilizations 3 yet another chance recently, hoping to somehow work my fifty wasted dollars into actual enjoyment, but as I mentioned in my previous posts about this expansive but uncreative waste of processor time, it's an outstandingly bland exercise in repetition. However, given how effectively its blandness molds itself to mass-market expectations, it does provide me a nice setup for me yammering about diplomacy in single-player strategy games at large.

Anyhow, the Iridium Corporation is furious with me. As you can see from the list above, that's partly because I suck at sucking up and my custom faction doesn't pay lip-service to their philosophical outlook and also because they're just jerks, but I'd like to focus on two specific causes for their declaration of war upon me:

1) You are weak
2) You are ripe for conquest

Was there a two-for-one sale on bellicosity? Why not just slap a "No Turtling!" logo on your game from the start? See, like most turn-based strategy games, GC3 theoretically offers several nominal paths to victory: technological, cultural, military, etc. In practice, it's set up to make it impossible to survive without a large military investment. Not content to dislike you to the tune of three angry red minuses, AI opponents fabricate a duplicate category to drive home the point that having a weak military is absolutely the worst diplomatic move you could ever make, bar none, period, no arguments, no way, no how! The rest of the game follows suit. Planets are utterly defenseless without ships to guard them, defensive structures (starbases) are anemic at best and bribing factions into liking you doesn't even work short-term. In the example above, they declared war on me just a few turns after we'd begun trading.

At its most basic, call it an abstract game design choice. "Turtling" in strategy games means hiding behind your own borders, fortifications, natural defenses, whatever, and diverting all your resources into gaining a technological or industrial advantage over your opponents. This being too subtle and patient an approach for the average mass-market deadhead, developers have increasingly punished players for adopting it even as they still pay lip service to it as a valid road to success, to retain some pretense of legitimacy as strategy games and not simply out-and-out brawls like Supreme Commander. Constant fighting however translates as "action, action, action!" to knuckledragging little cretins with backwards baseball caps, and that's where the money is. The more clicks, the more excitement.

Secondly, that same lowest common audience has grown up with the constant mass-media glorification of the American empire as well as those before it. The only way they know to be all they can be is by being square-jawed, gun-toting, tank-humping hired muscle. The game industry now toes the Hollywood line, a Thin Red Line as it were.
Think about what Stardock's diplomatic algorithm is really saying above. We hate you because you have no military. We hate you because you're not a threat to us. If this were a favorable stance everyone in the real world would be declaring war on Iceland. They don't because Iceland, astoundingly, turns out has its uses. A more rational diplomatic algorithm recognizes the value of trade partners. Sometimes it's more profitable to rip people off than to take them over.
Granted GC3 is a rather extreme example, as the "easy pickings" coefficient is simply set too high, resulting in most factions acting like Genghis Khan, but I'm curious how far this trend has spread these days. I could turtle in Civilization 4 to some extent and pay tribute but would still get attacked by civs much weaker than my own who simply saw one undefended city and couldn't resist the temptation. Routinely, my highest-rated ally would betray me with no diplomatic justification. How far will game developers go to punish those who plan ahead?

On one level this is simply lazy design. I can imagine it's quite difficult to create algorithms which take the long view of things, but AIs being immune to tedium and infinitely observant, they can easily spot the numerically weaker spots in a player's defenses. Developers take the shortcut of programming their single-player games to simply badger and harass the hu-mon into submission, to never let up. It's challenging... just not intellectually so. It's whack-a-mole.

However, it's also an internalization of the dogma of social domination spewed by the upper classes. Developers pander to their fatcat investors' politics: neoliberal economics, military-industrial lack of complexity, neoconservative family values, tribalism, plus the whole obedience training routine of achievement unlocks.

As one example, compare religion as a tool of social control in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri to a later game in the series, Civilization 4. Alpha Centauri contained a religious faction, but it was one faction out of seven with its bonuses and drawbacks just like the others. In Civ 4, published after the company had grown more and was addressing a larger audience, religion was not only a stabilizing influence on your medieval society (granted, homogenizing thought by indoctrination in primitive superstition is a great boon to the puppet masters) but more sickeningly, provided the bulk of your civilization's "culture" metric instead of appearing as the stranglehold on creativity it truly has been over the millennia. If you think I'm being unfair, do a Google image search on "madonna with child" - you could pave half a continent with the Byzantines' regurgitation of that tripe alone. What's more, the more religions your cities possessed even in a "free worship" society in the modern age, the happier your populace. Yeah, obviously that's what you get when religions meet, just a total ecumenical clusterfuck of peace and love all around. But hey, that's the line the rich are feeding us, so that's the line toed by spineless game developers.

Just as Cities XL offers you no choice but to pander to your "elite" citizenry as you tax the poor to death and choke them with factory fumes, just as everything in Space Colony boils down to ass-kissing and a fat paycheck, strategy games in turn reinforce the military side of the military-industrial complex. Where they pay lip service to the existence of ivory towers, they make sure to drive home the point that real winners destroy and subjugate. I suppose it's no accident that the best exception I know to this rule, Europa Universalis (in which bellicosity is the quickest way to get trampled) comes from Paradox, a Swedish studio, instead of the usual suspects.

As for the Iridium Corporation in GC3, it turns out they didn't actually have any combat ships that could reach me. Stardock's pathetic excuse for AI just really, really hated my lack of a military and wanted me to know it.

Monday, February 1, 2016


"Wear the sheriff's badge, put your toys away
They let us go saying let us pray"

Metric - Youth Without Youth

Brick was rather well received, if online reviews are to be believed, by both pros and... uh, cons? In any case (though it was no blockbuster) its juxtaposition of film noir in a bright suburban high school setting impressed through everything from style to dialogue to pacing and plot. I am also impressed, in retrospect, by some minor inclusion of that taboo corollary to villainous thuggish toxic masculinity, the villainous manipulative toxic femininity which pulls its strings, but as gratifying as that may be it's not the film's best social influence.
Skimming through user reviews on IMDB I see a couple of admonishments not to take the flick as commentary on contemporary youth culture. Fair enough, if Rian Johnson himself declared the setting secondary to the plot, a conscious spin on hardboiled detective stories to keep it fresh, but then Alien didn't primarily set out to create a great action heroine either. Write the role as neutral, then assign it polarity. What Alien did for gender, Brick does for youth.

As much as we envy youth we despise the young. For all the political correctness police decry ageism, most humans still define themselves partly by their superiority to their offspring and the next generation by extension, and Hollywood reflects this conceit in tiresome reiterations of "coming of age" plots in which youthful straw-men exist only as passive chrysalids to fail in imitating and be molded by the adults around them. Brick isn't some moralistic drug-war scare about drugs in suburban high schools but it did (perhaps incidentally) make a crucial point about the young. Its adolescent characters act as independent agents with their own motivations and not larval forms of adults repeating comfortably stereotypical childish concerns. It's not something anyone wants to hear in a species which rattles off phrases like "they're my damn kids" as easily as "it's my damn toaster" but throughout its quick-talking detective story flamboyance, Brick is as believable with teenagers as it would've been with grizzled factory workers.

That it was set in a high school implies nothing.
That it can be set in a high school means everything.