Thursday, September 29, 2016

The spine-tingling misadventures of the coccygeal comrades

Pillars of Eternity's got its share of bugs. The biggest one I've found so far (aside from a couple of good old CTDs) is a failure to clear combat states at the end of combat. Sometimes it can be very aggravating, such as characters never getting up after receiving a wound or the rogue ability "shadow step" getting locked in the "on" mode permanently. Other times? Bugs can be pretty funny.

After one fight, two of Kana's three summoned skeletons remained on screen, immobile and untargetable. Quaint in itself, but not worth a second glance. Then I moved to the next area, and the next, and kept wondering if I'd inadvertently triggered some new quest about a skeleton invasion of the Dyrwood. Took me a while to realize these weren't watcher visions but that I'd merely acquired two permanent, immobile, invincible and utterly useless skeleton pets.

I'm'a call'em Ilium and Ischium. Ilium's the upper one of course.

Here's Ilium and Ischium braving the halls of power:

- and the darkest dungeons (Ilium's fallen prey to a desk mimic! oh noes!)

And naturally who could forget that delightfully naughty bonehead brothel romp:
Ilium and Ischium Do Defiance Bay.

Of course, even the mightiest must fall. Our calcified heroes met their match and were eaten in one fell gulp by that bugged out invincible perma-aggro flying dragon skeleton from Skyrim.
The end.
(Who the hell am I kidding, there's no end to bugs.)

I think more people would've gotten pissed about that Skyrim bug if the sight of a dragon shearing its own flesh off, disintegrating in mid flight at supersonic speeds and whooshing among the clouds as a skeleton weren't so totally friggin' metal!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

ST: TNG - The Measure of Picard Squared

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.

Sometime a decade and a half ago-ish I watched a bit of this adaptation of Moby Dick and was somewhat disappointed by Patrick Stewart over-acting every single scene. Then I actually tried reading Moby-Dick and realized that, ummm... nope. He wasn't. The book itself really was that self-gratifyingly purple. I'm not one to complain about the classics being boring normally, but come on, how does anyone stay awake through the first half of that thunderous ode to cod-netting and harpoon-polishing?
Anyway, the point being: not Stewart's fault. Back to the future.

Seriesdate: 2.09
The Measure of a Man

"With the application of a little care, Wes, the paper can be utilized again."

Another one of my favorite TNG one-liners, right up there with Guinan's "You're a droid and I'm a-noid." I mean, okay, the 24th century's supposed to be a post-scarcity society where you feed any waste matter into the replicator to be repurposed as hot dogs, so Data really would not be concerned over wasting so simple a material as wrapping paper. Still, it's such a welcome scene to all of us uptight nerds.

A roboticist wants to chop our favorite android's brain up for study, which is ok since he's not a human... I mean person... I mean sentient, free-willed individual. Look, the basic premise here's actually pretty weak. It's the 24th century. These people live under the Prime Directive. Their best neighbours have three hearts and detachable eyes. Nobody would bat an eyelash at any of Data's inhumanity and they should be much better equipped mentally to call Riker out on his bullshit show-stopper argument.

Though ostensibly centering on Data and his claim to personal agency as a sentient being, this entire plot served more as a vehicle for fleshing out other characters and the Federation setting. We get one of those always welcome scenes of Guinan playing the wise old hero's advisor behind her bar, a bit of the natural kinship between the ship's engineer and the ship's mechano-man and a decent bit of social commentary on Riker as the duty-bound devil's advocate forced to work against his own comrade.
Hey, hey! Put that back you jackass!
By the way, wasn't that robot arm scene so much more badass in Terminator 2?

Prick us, do we not quote? Given the central role of personal freedom in the whole sub-genre of robot-themed SciFi, as soon as the word robot was coined by Karel Capek back in 1920, then so masterfully by Isaac Asimov in 1950 and yet again by Philip K. Dick in 1968 and so many others in between, I think TNG's writers must've realized they could add little to the central question of robots' rights. So the episode instead deals mostly with Picard standing up for Data's already assumed right to exist.

Up until this point in the series, the general consensus seems to have been to build Picard up as a larger than life father figure: a war hero and stern disciplinarian who holds great respect for sentient life of all kinds. Here, however, we get to see his relationship with his own crew. Humble enough to take advice from the bartender when necessary and intellectually capable of reasoning through his defense of Data's personhood instead of adopting some idiotic all-purpose "life is sacred" stance. The central theme had been done to death. The devil's in the details and this episode yammers through some details, among its somewhat heavy-handed references to slavery.

Seriesdate 2.13
Time Squared

Double your cue-balls, double your fun.
Look, we just had an extra captain's uniform to fill so we cloned him why not.
This ship ain't big enough for the two of me.
He's dead, Jim... lucky we made a backup copy!

The Enterprise runs into a shuttlecraft containing a duplicate Picard... from the future! Well, a mere unimpressive six hours into the future. Hilarity ensues, and also total party wipeout unless the good captain can negotiate a solution with himself. Amusingly, this episode plays on the question of continuity of the self which was addressed more explicitly in The Measure of a Man: a copy of yourself is not yourself. It's later addressed from the opposite viewpoint (the moronic viewpoint) in another season 2 episode, Up the Long Ladder, but I don't want to get ahead of things. I'll comment on that when I discuss Pulaski. Of course the whole thing really gets heated once you run into the Star Trek transporter debate, but anyway. Thankfully, the writers once again manage to dodge the trap of dwelling too heavily on this issue.

It's also not much of a time travel story. Time travel plots tend to knot themselves in notoriously convoluted mazes of causality. Gerard Klein's Les Seigneurs de la Guerre, Robert Sheckley's A Thief in Time, even Robert Heinlein's All You Zombies managed to cram several different events and timeframes into what... five pages of very short story? This ain't that.

The episode's plot would be disappointingly linear, but then again this is more of a character study of Picard himself. Attempts had previously been made to define him as a strong-willed leader, most notably Where Silence has Lease, but that was such a cheap, ham-fisted caricature that it hardly counts. It portrayed Picard as pig-headedly determined to self-destruct the Enterprise instead of making Sophie's choice. If he'd lacked that basic capacity to make a hard decision he would've tripped over himself before clearing Neptune's orbit, much less any galaxies far away.

Here instead is a grimly determined but rational captain willing to die for his ship, willing to kill his own duplicate for his ship, and more importantly capable of maintaining a cool enough head under fire to see which of those alternatives might logically work best.


I don't particularly like either of these episodes. Star Trek was at its best when it managed to nail down the SF short story appeal of mind-twisting gimmickry. New life and new civilizations, that sort of thing. Creature episodes, futuristic technology episodes, nonsensical physics technobabble, etc.

However, for those better episodes to truly work, the basic setting and core cast had to be developed. Episodes had to be dedicated to revealing how exactly the Federation functions and what might threaten it, how each character acts and interacts with the others. Throughout season 1, characters had stumbled around nonsensical slapdash plots possessed of no coherent behavior patterns or personalities. It helped a lot I think that unlike the original series which was more ham-pered than helped by Shatner, TNG managed to land itself a pretty good actor in Stewart, capable of carrying off the strong leader role while still leaving room for nuance. A lot of other characters were later developed in relation to him.

Gradually throughout season 2, Picard's role shifts from delivering cliched speeches on the value of life to arguing and fighting for valuable lives, from simply reacting to or presiding over events to truly directing his subordinates on the best course of action. He starts acting more like the central figure of the cast he's meant to be, instead of merely an overbearing figurehead de jure.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday

Y'know, I was going to do a Star Trek post tonight, having finally reached the point where The Next Generation started getting good, but I made the mistake of refreshing my hit-tracker here and my thought process got derailed.

Here's one of the goofy details which convinced me that actual people occasionally land on this blog and not just automated indexing systems. Nobody reads this blog on Sundays. Don't get me wrong, I average less than one real hit an hour to begin with (try to think of yourself as part of an exclusive club) but still, it's noticeable. Friday evenings are pretty empty too, but Sundays more so. Whether because it's Dah Lawd's Dayuh and you're scared Jesus will get pissed if you click in church, or just because people tend to spend this free day with their families, this day's always a gaping white negative space in my already exceedingly sparse hit counter. At least during the day. As Sunday evening sweeps over the globe, a few scattered hits trickle in once again.

Yeah, I see you, Safari user on your iPhone and French Firefox user. Too good to read my blog while barbecuing? I see you over there you fuckers. Sunday's over. Start feeding my ego again with your attention.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Neo Fake-O

"Rock is deader than dead
Shock is all in your head"

Marilyn Manson - Rock is Dead

There are a lot of good old games out there. We play them, sometimes for nostalgia's sake but also because they date from a time when idiotically cheap, simplistic and repetitive gameplay was left more to the care of console manufacturers and PC games were the nerdy, more involved and thoughtful alternative. Making allowance for dated technology, more was often done with less in the '80s and '90s than you find now.

But that's making a great big stinkin' heap of allowance right there. Old titles were a chore to get running properly and even when they did, their technical limitations defined gameplay more than their actual, intended mechanics did. Case-in-point: Baldur's Gate 2.
That's me killing my arch-enemy Irenicus. Actually, that's me and my entire party sitting a screen and a half away, bored, while somewhere hidden in the fog of war my skeleton warrior beats Irenicus' brains out all by itself. It's a tough fight. I could go all-out sending my hasted meat shields in along with a horde of animals in hopes Irenicus won't decide to one-shot me with his stupidly overpowered death spells, all the while shearing off his magical defenses as I had prepared to do, being a mage myself. I was ready for an epic battle, a blazing torrent of apocalyptic magic flashing enchanted axes and guzzling potions by the barrel... but, I mean, why work up a sweat when Viconia can solo the fight with two casts of a third-level spell. Of course, this little cheat only works because as far as BG2's AI is concerned, out of sight is out of mind.

And speaking of sight:
Yes, that is actually a valid firing position with full line of sight as far as the Infinity Engine can discern. Jan's crossbow is apparently so high-tech as to shoot around corners... or through two meters of solid concrete. But hey, at least that's one less fight ruined by the moronic pathing algorithm. At least you can mostly tell what those shapes are, unlike... here:
I think I did five double-takes before figuring out what the hell kind of building I was looking at. I kept wondering how that tiny door could close such a wide entrance stretching nearly to the street corner. Then I thought it must be a ramp of sand leading inside. Or maybe it's just a solid wall or - oh shit, it's an awning! A tan colored awning against a two-dimensional backdrop of tan walls and tan ground and vaguely darker tan roof. I can't remember, was that shop's name "Koala Bear in a Sandstorm?"

Look, I'm just saying... technological advance is a positive thing.

Baldur's Gate 2 is actually pretty damn great. There were a lot of good ideas in old games, a lot of passion and creativity and dedication and complexity and challenge and atmosphere and depth and cleverness. Things you don't really get from today's mass-marketed lowest-common-denominator, Hollywoodized, MMO-tainted offerings. However, let's not get carried away with the nostalgia here. Keep the baby, throw out the bathwater. Screw this idiotic "neo-retro" hipster bullshit that's sprung up in recent years with platformers and adventure games and roguelikes. I want the drive for quality and advancement of the craft we used to see in pixelated '80s and '90s games... not the pixelation itself. Fuck your newly-antiquated technology or faux-faded trendiness.

I'm going to play Pillars of Eternity now. Then maybe Tides of Numenera. Then maybe see if Dragon Age 3 is as good as Origins was.
Then I'm going to pray the strategy genres attempt the same revival RPGs have.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hillary's Primaries

"Suddenly there was war and the mothers, they screamed
For revenge and reprisals, for another war"

Wumpscut - War

As Bill Maher and others like to point out, media darling Donald Trump has gotten away with spouting insults and slurs no other politician would have dared voice openly in previous decades. Everybody loves a foul-mouthed motley fool. Then again, it's the derogation which doesn't attract attention which reveals more about a society's biases, its implicit moralistic assumptions. Case in point: feminism. So here's a golden oldie from Hillary Clinton, delivered at a feminist pep rally back in 1998.

"Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat."

Boy howdy, that sure sounds "primary" don't it? Oh, I'm so sorry if my being torn limb from limb playing meat shield for you might inconvenience you in some way... For anyone curious as to the endlessly verified truism that men are overwhelmingly victimized by war, you can simply take a look at casualty statistics or pretty much any country's demographics after a war. Here, try Russia's demographics, specifically the seventy-plus WWII section. War, like every other blood sport in history, has boasted a much larger share of female fans than female performers. It takes two to tango, but only one to get pushed down the stairs.

Look, for my purpose in this post, I don't particularly care whether or not Hillary Clinton is actually a feminist. As far as I can tell, Hillary's a Hillarist and nothing else, and banking on the feminist voting block simply profits her. If her various puppeteers told her biting the head off a live bat would get her ass onto the big fancy chair any faster, she'd hop the Crazy Train in a second. No, the real issue here is that nobody takes issue with a politician declaring the lives of half the world's population irrelevant on the basis of their sex.

Imagine the thundering, world-spanning outrage if Bill Clinton, good old slick Willy, had said something like "men have always been the primary victims of breast cancer; men lose their wives, their mothers, their daughters" etc. How quickly would his career have been over? Now instead of the outrage we might all expect at such psychopathic disdain for human lives, at classing one gender as disposable servants to the other, imagine that he'd get applauded for it, lionized and immortalized as a progressive humanistic visionary for such rhetoric. That's the world we live in.

The problem is much deeper than modern feminism. Our very biology has imposed on us for millions of years a higher value for the life of child-bearing females, and though we as a species are long past the need to boost reproductive rates (quite the opposite now) we still carry that instinctive bias. We, both male and female, favor women's safety and dismiss that of men.

Yet we should, by all truly progressive standards, be moving toward a society not of biological units of genetic propagation, but of free sentient individuals with equal opportunities for life and all the other stuff you can't really get if you're dead. We should be moving toward a society in which a politician who dismisses half the population's very right to exist so casually, so serenely, so off-handedly, should be drummed off the stage and preferably into a padded room. We cringe and rage (and rightly so) at stories of societies where women's lives only matter in terms of their service to men. Yet we ignore the much more pervasive truism throughout the world that men are expected to live their lives chained to the needs and whims of their reproductive unit, to prove their worth to women in order to be permitted to mate with women as their life's goal, to provide for women, to protect women, to absorb all dangers and adversities they can in place of women.

That we skim past statements like Clinton's without so much as a second glance proves only how brainwashed we are, and how susceptible by instinct to the malignant diatribes of female chauvinism.

Friday, September 16, 2016

My MMManifesto - Illegality (with EVE as negative example)

"Perdido en el corazon
De la grande Babylon
Me dicen el clandestino
Por no llevar papel"

Manu Chao - Clandestino

While they dutifully kiss Blizzard's ass as everyone in the game industry feels obligated to do, old-school game designers will sometimes guardedly admit some of the central flaws of World of Warcraft and the endless hordes of copycats it's spawned. For instance, no player choice in profession. Not enough roles to play; everyone's a fighter, punching ten to the tenth rats into submission. Theme-park MMO's are not the engrossing virtual worlds they should be, complete with homesteads, trading, player-controlled economy and politics, etc. Instead, the "kill ten rats" paradigm has completely dominated the online scene for the past fifteen years, allowing no other roles to grow around it. Some are of course promising to fix all that and everything else to boot, like Richard Garriott and Mark Jacobs, whose respective ersatz holy grails we will assuredly soon be able to peruse at fine gaming retailers everywhere.

Of course, such promises have been made since before World of Warcraft cemented the pattern. The year before WoW came out for example, EVE-Online stumbled onto the market promising, as virtual worlds once did, to be "like reality, only better" and touted a slew of virtual lifestyle choices at its customers' fingertips. I've gone into some of the goods and bads in my previous EVE posts here but this time I'd like to focus on the issue of illegality with regards to NPC factions.

Every such world has NPC factions. They ensure the bottom doesn't fall out of the game, in various ways. Using WoW as a recognizable reference point, ignore here the issue of opposing factions like that of WoW because they render legality moot. A Horde player is never expected to maintain the status of a law-abiding citizen with respect to the Alliance and vice-versa. Ignore also faction grinds, in which the player is only expected to gain reputation, with no flip-side available. To create a relevant choice, illegality must be a valid alternative to legality, attained through purposeful player action.

For instance, EVE offered the option to attack NPC cargo ships. Convoys occasionally leave NPC space stations. Destroying them hurts the player's reputation with those NPCs. Purposeful action? Yes. Valid alternative? No, because the value of the loot was never competitive with that attained by attacking designated enemy NPCs. The reward in such a case would need to compensate for the detrimental consequences, or better yet be unattainable otherwise, allowing player market demand to foster criminality.

On the topic of attainability, EVE also included smuggling. Each major NPC faction had its list of no-nos ranging the usual gamut of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. My own proud, traditionalist Amarrian people, for instance, jealously upheld their divine right to enslave lesser races, while foolish foreigners considered human cargo illegal. Fancy that. As with pillaging convoys, smuggling was never properly incentivized. Had it been, I'm willing to bet it would still have been done the wrong way, through NPC merchants. The right way would be to prompt player demand for some illegal good which would have to be moved through NPC territory. Spell reagents, construction materials for player housing, sweet-sweet magic potions, some marijuana ilegal, that sort of thing.

No matter the offense, the proof is in the pudding. Or rather the proof is in how quickly the town guards pound you into pudding. A world in which you want to foster a certain degree of nominal rebellion as both desirable an risky begs the question of punishment. Here's where you simply cannot leave things to players. While I wholeheartedly support implementing official blacklists for player clans to govern as they wish, according to whatever criteria they wish, if you as a game developer want something spanked right you gotta spank it yourself.

EVE allowed players to place bounties on each other. Presumably this would be motivated by unwarranted aggression. Piracy. You kill me without what I'd consider just pretext, I put money on your head and some hard-bitten, cigarette butt chewing stubbly macho antihero chases you down and brings your head to the authorities. Of course the real outcome was a quick and easy exploit for the biggest cretins on the server to make some money off their random acts of aggression. Piss off enough people to build up a bounty that surpasses whatever you might lose while dying, remove all gear, meet one of your buddies in a secluded place, have him kill you and split the bounty. Double your victims' losses, all through the magic of free-market economics. Respawn, rinse, repeat. As easy as billionaires declaring "bankruptcy" in the real world.

The carrot should be privatized. The stick, not so much.

Unfortunately, online game developers undercut any drawbacks to player actions by promoting alternate characters and multiple accounts, as EVE once again so aptly demonstrates. Who cares if you're no longer allowed to shop in such-and-such faction's cities when you can just switch to your crafter alt, buy everything you need and give it to yourself? Even if we foster black markets properly by creating tradeable rewards attainable only by criminal action against NPC factions, the repercussions for "criminal" faction standing cannot be anything avoidable by switching characters. Assuming that players will have multiple characters either via alting or multiple accounts and it is thus impossible to punish players, games should at least do a thorough job of creating real repercussions for any character which decides to live the life of the outlaw.

Just as the rewards for illegal action should be difficult or impossible to attain by other means in order to create demand for those rewards, negative consequences should also be unique to that faction. In EVE, and presumably the other few games which allow for "negative" consequences, you don't particularly have to care whether your character can no longer run missions in one area of space. Every other major area of space offers duplicate missions with roughly duplicate rewards. So how could NPC faction retribution sting a bit more?

First of all, if the punishment is exclusion from that faction's territory, then there should be something in there which the player can't easily get somewhere else. Denying access to playable content (dungeons, etc.) is not really an option, as this would undercut the value of the game. However, character skill training or other bonuses could easily be linked to faction reputations. Maybe the city of pirates is the only place where you can get training in your rapier skill. Maybe the temple where you need to get curses removed exists in only one city in the game world. Maybe the space station where you steal your highly lucrative melange is also the only one where you can get a missile targeting cyber implant installed.

Maybe any NPC faction you've pissed off just outright curses your character or installs a virus on your ship's systems, debuffing you with no saving throw. Hey, the money's good enough to take that hit, do that time for your crime, isn't it? Isn't it? You be the judge - you and that free player market. On a more subtle note, interweaving (gerrymandered, if you will) faction territories could pose literal barriers to players attempting to move to and fro in the game world, though that assumes a lack of game-breaking teleportation.

Of course, the main aesthetic component of an imaginary life of crime consists of sneaking through / around the territory of your enemies... or maybe speeding through it while yelling "ya'll never get me alive, coppers!" but hey, diffr'nt jukes f'r diffr'nt crooks. EVE, once again, handled the issue of town guards very poorly, although this was largely due to its larger overall problem with the antiquated zone line mechanic. EVE's version of town guards was to instantly teleport an unbeatable army on top of you. In terms of the aforementioned half-implemented smuggling system, you merely had a percentage chance of getting caught with illegal goods in your cargo hold at choke points - an untamed randomizer with no player agency whatsoever.

NPC faction defenses should be semi-permeable, observable and to some extent combatable or avoidable, ramping gradually up in difficulty. Patrols should path in semi-predictable patterns. (I cannot believe I'm saying this, but vanilla WoW actually got a lot of this right.) Further, randomly spawning assassins could begin to harass players as they more seriously piss off one or more of the powers that be. Interloping should not be merely a class ability (rogues, bleagh) but also achievable through forgery of documents/identity or disguises (crafting skills maybe?) Use direct negative impact on a player's character (i.e. stat debuffs and lack of access to irreplaceable NPC services) as hard drawbacks and make those difficult to remedy. Leave direct physical confrontation as a softer measure, a playable part of the game.

One last thing.
The image of the poor, low-class artful dodger has to be thrown out to some extent. If actions by which a player can profit from illegal activities are attainable with a low (or no) time investment in character development, then everyone will just create hordes of low-level alts to supply themselves with illegal goods. To lend negative repercussions some sting, they must apply to characters in which the player has sunk significant effort, meaning that negative faction reputations (and the benefits/drawbacks which come with such status) must be for lack of a better term an "end-game" pursuit. It should be only characters with a heavy time investment which are allowed to indulge in such activity in the first place, so that punishments for it actually matter.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Haibane Renmei

"Feather needs the bird, the air"

My Black Heart Machine - Feather

Here's one of those cases where my musical selection can be considered redundant, since Haibane Renmei's own soundtrack was quite captivating in itself, but I digress. Frequently. Also, while the instrumentation in that soundtrack was wonderful, the few English lyrics left a lot to be desired. 

Cheaply animated but lovingly detailed as static drawings, the series contains exactly two bad scenes. The first is in the very first episode, the hatching scene, which went a bit heavy in its standard anime tropes of distorted faces and over-emoting. The second comes much later on, when Rakka collapses in tears by the side of the road. Too abruptly overly-dramatic. Aside from those three minutes or so, though? Haibane Renmei was brilliant, and has more than earned its place as one of westerners' main gateway drugs into -good- anime alongside Ghost in the Shell, Studio Ghibli's old movies and Cowboy Bebop.
And this is what it mostly consists of: teenage girls with wings and halos sharing quiet, soulful conversations in dusty rooms of stained, faded concrete. Old books, old customs, old clothes, old walls, old youngsters bearing old wounds. Old Home. It's beautiful.

It's slow. Probably the main thing you'll notice. Haibane Renmei progresses so subtly, so gradually as to make you question whether anything is happening at all. Fans of mecha mayhem and whirlwind planetary romances will have to settle for such "action" scenes as tidying messy rooms, picking up pancakes at the bakery and riding a bike - too fast! The most painfully mundane, hyper-realistic slice of life scenes mesmerize thanks to their contrast with the protagonists' other-worldliness. By the time Rakka washes her halo in the sink, the viewer's already prepared to empathize.

Yet still, somehow, information accumulates. Drip, drip, drip. Much of it has to do with the nature of Glie, the walled town which serves as the story's setting. Some years after I watched Haibane Renmei, I picked up my first Haruki Murakami book - as should happen it was Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and immediately recognized the source of inspiration for Glie, as Yoshitoshi Abe himself confirmed if I'm not mistaken. Aside from a few superficialities however, the two are almost diametrically opposed. Unlike the contracting solipsistic finality of The End of the World, Glie is place where time and experience accumulate, where guidance is sought and freely offered.

I could go into spoilerific detail about the individual "feathers" as the plot consists largely of the interplay of their personalities. As I've mentioned in the past I'm a sucker for broken little girls, so this series could likely moe me into submission without the benefit of a captivating setting, but it just wouldn't be the same. It was created with an obvious sense of nostalgia for idealized traditionalism, for functional, stable social systems. Old Home and the rest of the town emanate that good ole' musty gemeinschaft rightness and purpose, kalon chiseled by generations into the walls and cobblestones, a place of healing where shooting stars can root themselves for a while.

Be patient. Let the drops accumulate, episode by episode, until understanding comes naturally. Pay special attention to names and don't expect full disclosure. Bask in the bittersweet sense of loss and decay and the melancholy string quartet score. This is not what you think of when you think of anime... but in many ways it's what animation could and should encompass.

I'll talk about names and symbolism some other time. For now, set five or six hours aside to watch Haibane Renmei. If you have the patience for it and at least as much empathy as a lone, rabid wolf-man, you won't regret it. If nothing else, you'll always remember Reki and the three meanings of a name.

P.S. - I should not have to give this warning but as everyone should know, get yourself a subtitled version. Never watch dubbed anime.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Jan Jansen vs Grobnar Gnomehands

Been trudging through Baldur's Gate 2 over the past couple of weeks,  once more suffering the Infinity Engine's dated clunkiness for the sake of the classics created for it. Being a Chaotic Neutral sort of wolf, I ended up recruiting Jan Jansen the gnomish illusio-thief into my party.

It took a few dialogues with him to figure out why this felt vaguely familiar, only to realize he reminded me of Grobnar, the gnome bard from Neverwinter Nights 2. Despite the change in developers between the two games, these two were basically the same stock character: the goofy comic relief support role spouting random nonsense.

Except... I despised Grobnar. NWN2 was in most ways a kid-friendly reiteration of DnD tropes, plagued to a large extent by a "baby's first RPG" feel to the setting and characters. Just as Qara was a G-rated pale imitation of Ignus from Planetscape: Torment, Grobnar seems to have been a cutesy re-hashing of Jan Jansen. Except... I actually like Jan. What gives?

The trick to writing a good stock character seems to be allowing that character to own its situation. Grobnar, like most of NWN2's roster, lacked that extra layer of self-awareness. He was nothing but an annoying little pissant spewing white noise. Yet this ignored one of the most basic rules of the good old DnD alignment wheel: alignments, as I understand them, were not meant to be just quirks. Chaotic Neutral is not a mental disease. Jan Jansen spouts gibberish about turnips and his improbably large clan of relatives getting eaten by gryphons, but he does so as a performance artist who consciously enjoys promoting such storytelling.

The writers made this awareness come through in dialogues such as his taunting of Viconia, where the player is allowed to join in on the joke and feed Jan extra material ... which Jan picks up and runs with, batting not one bushy eyelash in the process. He knows it's bullshit. He just loves being able to spout bullshit. When push comes to shove Jan shows actual awareness and concern for his family and occasionally some rather cool-headed insights during your adventures.

Chaos allows for pockets of order. Randomness is not homogenous. Freedom less so.

Given the six year lapse between the two games, I wonder how much of this difference between our two gnomish jesters can be taken as illustrative of D&D's own decline toward the idiotic simplification of the alignment system in 4th edition?


edit 2018/11/15
For two years now I've been trying to think of a way to fit Jan to the old "My Name is Yon Yonson" rhyme but it is just freaking impossible to rhyme with Athkatla! Anyway, here goes turnips:

My name is Jan Jansen
A victim of scansion
I live in Athkatla
In a grand turnip mansion

As a wizard and thief
I can beggar belief
With stave or a cutlass
And then vanish briefly

The goblins I meet
As I walk down the street
My name ask exactly
And so I repeat:

My name is Jan Jansen
A crossbow distraction
Abstractedly tactful
Chaotic recursion
And so I repeat:

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


"When we arrive, sons and daughters
We'll make our homes on the water
We'll build our walls alluminum
We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon now"

The Decemberists - Sons and Daughters

It's been one hundred and fifty-two years since my people were Banished to this harsh mountain hinterland we now call the village of Nyctimus.
It's a rainy spring day in Nyctimus, and trade is brisk.
Thirty generations have come and gone. A hundred or more nomads have found sanctuary within the bounds of our settlement. We have grown, and prospered. It is now spring once more and with the thaw, trading boats glide their way downriver from the north, slipping under simple yet stylish wooden bridges, bringing... chickens.

Chickens? Look, I have chickens already you useless peddlers, ship me some damn stone if you wanna make a sale here so I can finish building more schools. Can't you see poor Shilomena the farmer condemned to live her life bereft of education? Sheesh.

In fact, the chicken pasture is doing a roaring good business supplying the nearby miners with eggs and Nyctimus-fried chicken (mayor Werwolfe's own secret original recipe) so those miners in turn can supply the blacksmiths with coal and iron, which, combined with wood harvested from orchards and foresters, yield the steel tools by which all tradesmen ply their various trades. Including teachers. What the hell teachers do with steel tools I shudder to think, but it may have partly motivated Shilomena to skip her education. Just sayin's all...

Shilomena works a bean field along with three other farmers. Life is good. The fall harvest is plentiful and Shilomena's house, just down the road a bit, is bursting at the seams with a healthy supply of varied foodstuffs. Her clothing is warm and her sturdy stone walls heated with a bounty of fuel (including coal, which I keep telling her not to take because the blacksmiths need it more) so she and her family suffered not in the slightest from this past harsh winter. The tavern across the river brews a delicious pear ale so she can party after work, supplied by nearby orchards. If she complained of any ailments, five herbalists and three hospitals would quickly do away with them, so she's as healthy as a ... a cow, I guess, since there are no horses in Banished. In fact, she and her husband just had a daughter. The ale may have had something to do with that too. Congratulations!

But I still need stone.
See, Nyctimus has had its share of hurdles in the past. Fires, a tornado, a severe shortage of clothing about sixty years back (not as fun as it sounds) pestilence among the livestock, a lack of churches, taverns and cemeteries to keep the populace happy and productive, a major outbreak of dysentery just a decade later... life's not all sipping pear ale by a coal fire, y'know?

Still, through the brilliant leadership of its mayor Werwolfe, Nyctimus has grown under a constant population boom these past few generations, to the point where it once more strains its carrying capacity.

Much of this story is true. Some I've shamelessly embellished for the sake of showmanship. If you like old-school city simulators, buy Banished. It strips the genre of most of the disgusting mass-market baggage acquired in the decades since SimCity's heyday* and distills the original formula to its requisite struggle to maintain an interdependent flow of resources through the indirect actions of meandering NPC numskulls. Excellent both in its gameplay mechanics and its deceptively simple aesthetics, it eschews any specific time and place for its setting. You do not rule Paris in the year 1950, nor Memphis in 2700 b.c.e. but a generic vaguely pre-industrial agrarian society. From that understated quaintness your own mind is free to build endless stories, much like Shilomena's illiterate bean-farming life or the saga of Anpu Tahet. Like Mount&Blade and other expansive, NPC-filled games, Banished takes on a life of its own, replete with tales of both individual and societal misadventures, the sort of virtual world on which we can only wish MMOs would be based. Its graphics and music, its scope and pacing, all add up to a beautifully immersive experience.

As far as mechanics, it's primarily a logistics game. Most goods and services have a physical presence, and figuring out how to space out the various kinds of production and storage is crucial to success. I've failed scores of settlements in my first or second winter because I waste too much stone on roads, fail to provide them with firewood and they freeze to death, or because I've spaced my first fishing docks and hunting cabins too far from the first houses and food storage. The most frequent nail in my coffin has been... well, a lack of nails. Tool shortage. Your supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

In the time since I began this post, I've left my Banished village running in the background. It is now the year 156 and the education shortage has begun to leave its mark. Uneducated blacksmiths are less efficient, producing fewer tools. Tool-less farmers produce less food. Everybody might starve or freeze to death. The end. There's no treasury and no convenient fix-all tax sliders either. Your village runs on a barter economy. A tool shortage means less efficient quarrying and construction as well, rendering me less able to remedy the situation, except through the thousands of tools I cautiously stockpiled in my trading posts... but even that's a temporary solution.

Banished thrives on subtlety and foresight. Bug-free, smooth-running, easy to learn and just hard enough to master to keep your interest. Lovely piece of work, and well worth every penny. Excellent for anyone who wants to give city sims a try or experts who want an exemplar of the genre. Buy it.

* - Unfortunately Banished does feature at least one of the major ills of modern games, a list of achievements. And as soon as I saw them I just knew I had to build at least one "One With Nature" town. Damn you.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Prevention of the Lie

"Everybody's born to compete as he chooses
But how can someone win if winning means that someone loses?"

Scatman John - Scatman's World

How the hell did Death of a Salesman ever become popular in the first place? How did a narrative running so contrary to the central lies of capitalism, the surreal fables of upward mobility, ever make it past the censors, much less capture the minds of a population steeped in self-promotion and delusions of grandeur?

I mean, nowadays the populace at large, at least by my own admittedly limited everyday observations, will have no truck with the play. Along with the likes of Macbeth and The Raven, it burdens a few weary afternoons for high school students (who would much rather be Beyoncing at that moment) thereafter to be mentioned no more in polite company. Today's salesmen fear no death. But what influences rendered your grandparents' or great-grandparents' generation in 1949 so much more apt to admit the lies of their own social system?

Was it the lingering lessons of the Great Depression? The still festering wounds of the second war to end all wars? The fact that they could see their world improved by planning and not by competition, by the New Deal and not the glitzy machinations of Exxon Mobil's grand-pappy Standard Oil? The greater middle-class awareness of a hobo subculture prone more to destitute freedom than comfortable poverty? The memory of the term "wage slavery?"

Answer the riddle of forgotten Willy Loman's declining appeal as object lesson and you will likely also have answered a puzzling corollary of our time: Donald Trump's popularity.

You got to learn how to see in your fantasy.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Way Too Proximal

Ugh. So they tell us there's a possibly maybe potentially kinda habitable-ish (zone) planet in Alpha Centauri. Aside from resurfacing my long buried SMAC addiction, do you know what this means? We'll be seeing sooooo many damn cheesy half-assed SciFi plots about aliens from Proxi B over the next few years. This has all the potential to become the next Martian canal craze.

Oh well.

My story's gonna have gophers or something, I think. Yeah... the Mutant Space-Gophers of Proxi B. It's a winner. Hollywood, here I come!

Ah, well, joking aside I do loves me the big dreams. Look, I've repeatedly stated my skepticism as to the viability of space colonization, and not for any technical reasons. It's just that no matter the technical possibilities, our stupid species would screw it up royally. Like, say, by re-instituting royalty. Still, for that same reason, our idiocy as a species, we desperately need the ability to get out of each others' reach. When the nukes and plagues start flying down here on Earth, either some small remnant of the species is beyond the reach of whichever megalomaniacal cretin's slamming his fist on the big red button, or the galaxy can say goodbye to sentience.

We need to spread out fast before we become just one more confirmation of the Fermi paradox, the "self-destruct" quotient in the Drake equation. The main problem with Proxima Centauri's that it's just not far enough from this seething, virulent cauldron of simian stupidity called Earth. We need a helluva lot of hard vacuum to quarantine ourselves from ourselves.