Sunday, October 30, 2016

Death Is a Lonely Business

"Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad."

It's almost Halloween. October is Bradbury Country, that country where it is always turning late in the year, the demesne of that thousand times great grand-père of Salem blood who looms over so much of the best of our worst, floridly penned and thoughtfully strained to its grim conclusions. In 1993 I squatted on a rancid faded musty sofa on the third floor of a Little Italy student apartment in Chicago and I'd just learned what a fire escape was and watched a few fleeting images of the cartoon adaptation of The Halloween Tree on a black and white TV with an honest to goodness antenna (ask your parents what one is) and what bothered me most about the whole arrangement was that the TV's little futuristically curving yellow plastic casing had a large crack on one side. But that's neither here nor there.

I'm old now. Then again I've always been old and that's how I picture Bradbury, perpetually old and knowing the world too well for anyone's good, a mind steeped in the flow of time. The horror of tomorrow and tomorrow.

"Then it is time for the wall.
The wall of a little room, that is [...] there's that wall near your bed to be read with your watered eyes or reached out to and never touched, it is too far away and too deep and too empty.
I knew that once I found the old man's room, I would find that wall.
And I did.
[...]
For there his name was, on the wall. I almost fell, leaning down to squint.
Over and over, his name was repeated, scrabbled on the plaster on the far side of his cot. Over and over, as if fearful of senility or oblivion, terrified at waking some dawn to find himself nameless, over and over he had scratched with a nicotine-stained fingernail.
[...]
swam in and out of focus as I stared, for it was all the nights I ever dreaded to see somewhere up ahead in the dark ages of my future. Me, in 1999, alone, and my fingernail making mice-sound graffiti on plaster..."


It's almost Halloween. It's turning late in the year and like the past several years I'm getting the urge to revisit and finish once and for all my short story about the ephemeral vampire. I probably won't. Instead I'll probably split the difference and head down not to Bradbury's Venice but to the Santa Monica, California of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, a game I played ten years ago, and from there I might remember a past containing an immortally immaterial future. Tomorrow it'll be me, in 2049, alone, lying not on a metal cot but on my futon on the floor, my fingernail making mice-sound graffiti on plaster...

Death is a Lonely Business gets classified as a mystery novel, but that superficiality twists around the same thread vibrating with the dust-witch's dry cackling in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the fate thread, the simple taboo horror of impermanence. If, as a child, you ever loved the sight of weeds grinding their way up through cracked concrete, read it. False futures, bright pasts darkening the present, the macabre drama of human failings, signs advertising canaries dead for half a century, an entire crumbling town where the wagon trains finally stopped and fog, fog, fog, plenty of fog. It's deliciously indulgent, it's noir, it's much of madness and more of sin, and horror the soul of the plot. There's no mystery to it. It's a cavalcade of existential misery and while it's not the best thing Bradbury's ever written, it's still beautiful work.

Tomorrow, at midnight in October Country, the veil between this world and the next will thin and the monsters of human memory will pour forth, the over-stretched eidolons of our own worst natures dressed in fur and white bed-sheets. Those of us for whom this holiday is every day are haunted by the grimmest of all, the abyss itself staring back and through us at the world, that we might grow to hate everything, all, anything in the world.

Fellow proprietors of the Apocalypse, read Death Is a Lonely Business.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Pillars of Immersion

Do you know what this is?
It's a picture of two of my characters in Pillars of Eternity cranking their arbalests. See, as crossbows became more powerful that immensely high tension in their strings quickly became too much for anyone to pull back by hand so you had to ratchet the damn things back to re-load them. That Futurama joke about the wind-up guns? They actually did that in the middle ages.

I rarely praise visuals in themselves. Game developers seem to be of the opinion that video games are all about the video and even the most disgustingly primitive, repetitive, dumbed-down kiddie hack'n'slashers will often benefit from beautiful, even inspired visual artwork... to the detriment of everything else. Same thing goes for movies. It's one of the few areas in human culture where quality gets appreciated more often than not. We're primates, members of an entire sight-dependent order and have been for fifty million years. (Unless you're religious, in which case Jesus... or some such nonsense.)

We appreciate purty pick-a-chures.

This is not one of those cases. PoE's graphics were decent, but nothing to write home about. They were enough to tell the story Obsidian wanted to tell, and that was that. However, PoE also serves as an excellent example of a company doing more with less than their competitors. Those crossbows aren't all that high-res or minutely textured but by gum, dey's gots cranks!
Old cranks.
But enough about me.

The simplest little bit of extra effort frequently goes a very long way, like the flavor text appended to the houses in PoE's obligatory zombie-themed portion of the main quest:
Yes, you already know that entire city district is full of zombies, but the word "rancid" worked into that setting as you casually pass by the streets really adds something to the decor.

And, needless to say, I want this chair!
Yeah, anybody could've sat an ogre skeleton down to suggest sitting on it but it takes an artistic mind to make it look... functional. Pad it. Make it look like something someone would actually use on a day to day basis and it becomes all the more grim and sinister even without a skull appended, even without triple-shaderly bump layer mapsotropic filter fapping. In bullet time.

Finally, perhaps one of the least appreciated (yet often lacking) elements of immersion is creating and maintaining coherent themes for various areas of the game. While Savage 2 was crashing and burning despite being a decade ahead of its time in terms of its combat mechanics and various other strong points, I posted a critique on their forums addressing, among other things, its misconceived artistic direction. The first Savage game had placed players in a post-apocalyptic setting with loinncloth-clad humans fighting Moreau-ish elevated beast-men among the ruins of our long-lost civilization. The humans used cold, sleek medieval mechanicals and projectiles and the beasts had bone clubs and nature magic. Savage 2 mistakenly eliminated the distinction between the two factions, both of them using magic and overusing flame graphics for total badassness like oh emm geez so awesumz!
I tried telling them: if the humans use fire, the beasts should be using water. If the humans have swords, the beasts should have spears.

You can also see this as part of the decline of the Elder Scrolls series. The various cities in Morrowind all had their specific personalities as military garrisons or imperial ports or magician enclaves built out of spires with no ground entrances, but years later Skyrim, while it did wonderful things with landscaping, was disappointingly banal in terms of architecture. Every town looked the same, despite the buildings being arranged differently.

Here, on the other hand, is PoE's gate to the core of the temple of the water goddess, Ondra:
It's made of water.

And the music you hear throughout the temple is the instrumental accompaniment to the ballad about the water goddess' lost love which the bard sings in the tavern back in town.

The extra mile. There's more than one way to walk it.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Good Cop, the Bad Cop, and the Ugly System

"Five war aeroplanes that had long slumbered useless in the distant arsenals of the Rhinemouth were manoeuvering now in the eastern sky. Evesham had astonished the world by producing them and others, and sending them to circle here and there. It was the threat material in the great game of bluff he was playing, and it had taken even me by surprise. He was one of those incredibly stupid energetic people who seem sent by Heaven to create disasters. His energy to the first glance seemed so wonderfully like capacity! But he had no imagination, no invention, only a stupid, vast driving force of will, and a mad faith in his stupid idiot 'luck' to pull him through."

H.G. Wells - A Dream of Armageddon
(1901)


Wow... does that sound like prescient vision of Trump the ever-sham candidate or what? As I've said before, these set types of power-mad, power-hungry control freaks never change.

Election time is nearly upon us here in the eww ess of ayyy and the whole world's watching... if for no other reason than to predict where this paranoid declining empire's bombs will fall next. With the current ideological disarray, ease of fundraising and the willingness of the public to give money to any rabid baboon spouting their favorite rhetoric, running for president has during the past decade become a for-profit enterprise. It's free publicity, inasmuch as the public's money is always free. So we've had, if nothing else, a very, very entertaining couple of election cycles over here in "the land of the comparatively free" as Ambrose Bierce so aptly put it back when Hearst had started playing kingmaker. In fact, the election should probably be held on Halloween to commemorate what a freakshow this has all been.

Personally, I miss Herman Cain. Can't beat him for sheer confusion factor, and things just aren't the same without him contradicting himself every other sentence and spacing out for a minute at a time and quoting the honored poet Pokemon. But, hey, at least we got him shuckin' and duckin' in Trump's general direction, and those two could not make for a better Vaudeville duo: the dopey, confused straight man and the high-strung, twitchy, abusive clown. I love that as proof he's not racist, Trump dug up Cain to prove that, hey, some of his best billionaire friends are black!

Look, Trump is not going to win. He's trailing Clinton by something like five to ten points and has been for nine out of ten months this year. He was never going to win and had no intention of winning. His entire campaign's been nothing but a sequel to The Apprentice, a publicity-boosting ego-trip filmed before a live captive nationwide audience. Fatcats like him nowadays run for president because they can get you to pay for their campaigns and then pay for their memoirs (all ten volumes) and buy the commemorative t-shirt and buy stock in their companies. You're being fleeced, chumps.

There is of course a very valid reason why no dignified Republican candidate cropped up this time around. This election's been decided for six years or so. It was always going to be Clinton. And no, it's not going to be because of some tinfoil "left-wing media conspiracy" that reactionaries are always so paranoid about. The U.S. has no left-wing media, aside from Bill Maher and maybe NPR on their good days. It's a system with two right wings. Also, as much as I might be expected, given my disdain for our feminized society and sheer disgust with feminism, to blame her being elected on the feminist vote, even that would be dishonest. Clinton will be elected for the same reason Obama was elected the first time around, and it's got nothing to do with ideology, either justifiable or faulty. It's just Money, and I do mean BIG MONEY. She's the fattest cat.

She's got the best name-brand recognition. When Clevon back in the sticks finally shuffles half-drunk into the polls he'll only remember there's been two heads talking on television, with some vague idea that one guy's a tough do-er of great deeds, the kind of alpha male you really wanna get behind, but on the other hand the other's a tough chick and it's nice to do nice things for girls and this one looks cool in all the TV ads, eyes upturned to the sky with a resolute expression, almost as dashing as them leggy blondes shootin' zombies in them thar mooovies. Finally, he'll go with the name he's heard repeated most because she sounds so successful that it's almost as if she's already won and politics works like horse racing, right? You don't wanna pick a lewzer, as Trump so kindly reminds us. Besides, there's only two choices.

Right?

Here's the thing. Ever since the U.S. came to be dominated by its military-industrial complex at the end of WWII, the fatcats have only gotten fatter. During Republican presidencies, they push with all their might to up-end any laws keeping them from stripmining everything in sight in their quest to enslave the world. Naturally this prompts some minimal pro forma public backlash like Occupy Wall Street and it's time to send in the good cop, some Democrat to placate them with lots of pretty populist speeches while really just playing a holding position, waiting out the public's canine-length attention span. After a while another bad cop can step in, terrorizing the populace with boogeymen overseas and explaining the real reason things haven't changed in the past eight years was all that "over-regulation" holding back the benevolent "job creators" from instituting a Utopia of a car in every pot and a chicken in every garage. Lather, rinse, repeat with every new generation. That's how reactionary programs from the early '90s like Cap-and-Trade become the supposed "progressive" and "liberal" alternative in 2010.

The thing to remember about the "good cop, bad cop" routine is that the good cop is on the bad cop's side, and neither is on yours. The trick, as in any shell game, isn't figuring out which shell to pick. It's that the ball is never on the table to begin with. All options lead to you losing.

-so long as you let the good cop and bad cop define your actions. The Tea Party movement was the most comically moronic and backwards bunch of superstitious hillbillies and grade school dropouts to grace the realm of politics, but in one respect they deserved respect: they went for option "none of the above." They saw the system's broken and sought candidates from outside the system. In this they were merely being manipulated by the same fatcats trying a new angle on the bad cop's shpiel, but inasmuch as they were willing to throw their lot in with someone they believed would break the cycle, the teabaggers were more progressive than all of the lazy, college-educated yuppies taking the safe bet of siding with Clinton, a Republican in all but name.

Want to make a difference in an election? Back a third party. Libertarian, Theocratic, White Power, Black Power, Green or Pink or Beige Party, hardline Marxists, Feminists screaming for the eradication of all males, I don't give a shit at this point. You can argue over your respective brands of insanity later, when the U.S. gets a true political system in which varied viewpoints can be voiced and heard instead of a jailhouse interrogation with both options leading to further time in this ideological prison.

Write in a candidate who didn't run a three billion dollar campaign.
Then we'll talk.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

ST:TNG - Q

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.
_____________________________________


Superman's a bad character, even by the relatively low standards of superhero comics, a simplistic power fantasy with more powers than most deities in old legends. Because he's a bad character he also suffers from a very weak rogues' gallery (aside from Lex, who's still legit.) To dredge up even the slimmest threat to Supes' own invincibility, most of them seem to be copycats of himself, either other Kryptonians or literal Clark Kent clones or bona-fide gods. Probably the most ridiculous of the ones I read through in a few issues of Superman before giving up on him in favor of the far more interesting X-Men was Mr. Mxyzptlk. Whereas other villains and Superman himself were overbuilt in proportion to the world they inhabit, Mr. Myx was just... nothing. Able to do anything, he was left with nothing to define him, no strengths or weaknesses except for his ridiculous dismissal spell gimmick.

So, talking about Q today, I can't help thinking Q amounted to TNG's own version of Mr. Myx: a completely flat overpowered antagonist lacking any defining characteristics, motivations or purpose.



Seriesdate 1.01 - 1.02
Encounter at Farpoint

I started these episode reviews in sort of a weird way, by skipping right over the show's pilot, which is sort of unfair because it was more professionally executed than pretty much everything else in season 1. It's got star and it's got trek, it's got mysterious alien creatures and technobabble, the acting's better rehearsed and the special effects more polished than in later, more blatantly rushed episodes.
It's got miniskirts!
It's also gibberish. The image above of Q's show-trial of the human species has nothing to do with anything that we think of as Star Trek, with warp speeds or the spirit of discovery or transporters or dilithium crystals or strange civilizations. The Star Trek universe may be vast but it still consists, at its best, of events on a certain scale, that of starships, their engines, force fields and crews. Here, stupidly enough, the very first episode blows right past its own selling points.

Desperate to set off with a bang, Roddenberry &co. crammed everything they possibly could into the pilot, wildly swerving from romantic subplots into quasi-imaginary tribunals set in the past and the Enterprise saucer section separating. Aaaahhh! Why is it separating? We've barely seen it in one piece for five minutes. It was still fresh! That's the sort of gimmick you pull out of your ass when the show starts getting old and you need something new to show the audience besides your regular routine. In the very first show, by definition, the routine is still fresh!
I have to wonder if the reason for season 1's low quality afterwards was simply that they blew their wad with the damn pilot.

And of course presiding over the whole mess we have Q. Instead of establishing the setting, getting to see what "business as usual" looks like for the Enterprise, instead of starting with some standard plot about phasering space-zombies or somesuch, instead of gradually ramping up the thrill and threat of the Enterprise's... enterprises... as the series goes on, the pilot slams you in the face with an omnipotent being.
There's a decent episode buried in this two-parter but it consists of about twenty minutes of a colony on a barren planet holding a giant space jellyfish captive. That perfectly valid Star Trek plot is buried in an hour of tedious tete-a-tete between Q and Picard belaboring the point of human social advancement while adding nothing to the story itself. Paradoxically, there's little for an omnipotent character to actually do but talk, since all actions are equally accessible.


_____________________________________________________
Seriesdate 1.10
Hide and Q

Riker becomes a god. I mean a Q. Whatever.
Q returns, and offers to ascend Riker to Q-dom for no particular reason.
Riker is tempted and before long starts Jesus-ing it up, spewing miracles left and right. Then he returns his godhood for a full reimbursement of humanity because he's learned a valuable lesson about earning one's rewards and power and not taking things for granted and blah blah blah, is this freaking Sesame Street or something?
I'd comment further but unlike the pilot which was poorly conceived but well executed, this thing also drags endlessly, with more time spent on close-up reaction shots than plot or action.


It feels like... intermission. We interrupt your scheduled trekking through the stars to bring you some completely unrelated shallow moralizing containing no relevance to the rest of the series. Good plots have tension and a balance of power. Good characters have individual driving forces and limits. The problem with these omnipotent trickster characters who can do anything is that you can't ever let them actually do anything. Any action they undertake in true proportion with their abilities would completely wreck every other story element, so everything they do is always just for show, just make-believe... in other words, irrelevant. A better writer, Tolkien knew this well enough when he relegated Tom Bombadil to his secluded hut in the woods, and that's where Q should have stayed, lording over some isolated planet like the various gods, super-aliens and almighty energy clouds from the original Star Trek series.

That this episode's as close to being non-canon as possible without actually being fan fiction illustrates how poorly Q and his powers fit the rest of the show. Can't remember anyone in the rest of the six years of the series turning to Riker and asking "Hey, umm, dude, remember like, that one time you were a god? Was it cool?"



______________________________________________________
Seriesdate 2.16
Q Who

The very first Borg episode. Weird to include it here because while Q was an ill-contrived antagonist so powerful as to never fit the frame of reference of 24th century spacefaring, the Borg were beautifully conceived, a mighty menace with a unique aesthetic nonetheless rooted in the same narrative space as humanity and the Klingon and Romulan empires and all the rest. I'll return to this episode when I get around to discussing the Borg.

For now, I'm just amused that by Q's third appearance, the show's writers had apparently reached the same conclusion as I have about their Mr. Myx' immersion-breaking nature. Q's no longer shifting costumes every five seconds or conjuring houris for Worf as in previous episodes but serves merely as plot vehicle to get the Federation into contact with the Borg. A bad antagonist passing the torch to a much better one.
90% of what was wrong with TNG, in one screen

Still, it grates that something as momentous as the first Borg encounter should be brought about by some schmuck snapping his fingers. A slower build-up, with probes and ships going missing at the edge of space, grainy video of Borg vessels destroying border settlements, etc. would've worked much better. In fact this process had already been begun in the season 1 finale, The Neutral Zone. Q's presence adds nothing that a well-placed wormhole wouldn't have served just as well, and wastes screen time with the usual banter about what a bad boy he is.
The problem with a bad character or gimmick isn't just that it's bad in itself but that it warps other story elements around it, dragging them down. For instance, why is Guinan doing a woo-pah sort of move from a cheap kung fu movie all of a sudden? This image became quite famous (to her credit, Goldberg pulled it off as smoothly as could be expected) but much like Riker's stint as deity in episode ten, it's never mentioned again. She's squaring off against an omnipotent being in a finger-wiggling contest, utterly out of character for her as the wise old counselor, yet afterwards nobody ever seems to remember they've got a Q-equivalent do-er of voodoo aboard the Enterprise. It fit about as well as midichlorians.

Q was obviously intended as a major player from his bombastic introduction. Much like other first-season mis-steps however (*cough*Wesley*cough*) he was already getting sidelined by the second half of season 2 in favor of greater coherence. With every appearance he uses his powers less and less. By the fourth one, he ends up completely human. Science fiction should at least make some show of logical causality, throw around terms like lasers and antimatter or space-time fluxcakes... whatever. Finger wiggling? Not SciFi, people. Leave it to Harry Potter.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Like he's never heard it before

Hey... hey, wait... dude, I got one.
Why did English teachers boycott The Expendables and Transformers?
...
They hate bad Grammer.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Pillars of Eternity, Nemo and The Mindless Rabble From Which You Sprang

"Gentleness, sobriety, are rare in this society
At night a candle's brighter than the sun"

Sting - Englishman in New York


So this is me in Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes.
Years ago it earned me an accusation of truculence from an acquaintance I've sadly alienated since but it does sort of illustrate much of the game's appeal. I've seen people ask, flabbergasted, why anyone would play Fallen Enchantress with its almost nonexistent AI, its relatively low production values, its generic setting, its slow pacing etc. True, all true, but it also allows you to stamp that game world in your image, hitting that sweet spot between sandbox and fully fleshed out imaginary world allowing the player to design modular units and factions... and when you start up a new game with your custom leader and empire, the first thing you see is your very own creation speaking your words.

So tickle me pink and call me a xaurip's uncle if Obsidian didn't paraphrase half my character description and insert it into Durance's very first dialogue in Pillars of Eternity!
Hey. Hey!
Where's my writing credit you bums? Durance even looks like my Elemental self.
Eh, fine, alright, fiiine, the whole "I care about what's on the inside" schtick complete with denouncement of tribal identities has likely been repeated innumerable times by greater hacks than I since the enlightenment. I'm hardly the first to mock and slander granfalloons. I grudgingly concede primacy in such matters to Captain Nemo and a host of other Byronic antiheroes. But man oh man, there's Durance holding a bright little candle up to the facetious smokescreens of political correctness. Whatever few doubts I still nursed as to my enjoyment of PoE vanished as soon as I ran across those first couple of paragraphs at Magran's Fork.

Gonna diverge now ever so slightly but I want you to keep Durance' little diatribe from above in mind.
When Alan Moore slipped Nemo in among the rest of this Victorian-era freakshow in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he did the character a great disservice by slapping a turban on him. It's not that Nemo's supposed to despise his Indian heritage any more than he does every other nation in the world, but the guy went to superhuman lengths to efface any such primitive tribalistic distinctions aboard the Nautilus, to the point of fabricating an entire artificial language for his crew's use so everyone would have a bad accent but none could tell. Nemo, Corsair extraordinaire, citizen of the world and self-appointed enemy of pyramids of power, would be the last character in the multiverse to willingly don such a ridiculous badge of religious slavishness as a fucking turban!

I'm willing to bet Moore and O'Neill know that. The problem with the league of bombastic titles (from the little I saw of it in its movie incarnation) is that it panders to a juvenile audience suckled on and addicted to the facile, shallow moralism of identity politics. The audience wants to take the perceived moral high ground of saying turbans are just as cool as baseball caps... all the while missing the point that no individual should feel socially obligated to wear either. The true victory of equality would not be the partitioning of the world into a myriad self-justifying brands of chauvinism, but their erasure to free individuals from under the heel of such power hierarchies.

I've seen forum comments about Pillars of Eternity bemoaning the lack of varied accents among the various characters. Apparently players wanted the various Inuit, Polynesian and other distinguishably unAmerican characters to talk in funny voices like Apu from the Kwik-e-Mart because (and everyone repeat after me like good little sheep) we respect their diversity!
Bullshit.
You don't respect others as individuals by demanding they play up their role in your little tribal identity pigeonholing.
Never mind this has been a thorny issue in Hollywood movies for a century, most famously lampooned by Mel Brooks in History of the World Part 1 where the Parisian poor exclaim "we ahre so poohr we don't even 'ave our own languaje.... jus' dis stoopid aks-hent!" Playing up trivial differences for freakshow value diminishes all but the most shallow characters. People with accents are not accents with people. We all sound like Richard Dawkins in our heads.

Pillars of Eternity does let itself get dragged into the victimology poker game to some extent (if much less than most mass entertainment these days, including the news) so I'm all the more amused (but not surprised) to see a few of its customers still complaining because enough is never enough to feed their constant need for validation as champions of the designated weak. The damsel's never distressed enough for their tastes. I should think Siege of Dragonspear should have served as sufficient warning as to what happens when that type get their way.

See, I actually like that Sagani's a straight-talkin' ranger archetype with a sense of humor who just happens to have hunted seals instead of deer, and Kana's just a big ole' song-quoting nerd who happens to have grown up in a library on an island instead of a library on a continent. The differences are good, and should be mentioned. We're long overdue for some Pacific landscapes and iconography in games, as well as those of the Arctic circle and the Equator and a myriad other places. Good characters however are defined by internal, individual traits, not ... how did Durance put it?
"whatever liar's tongue coats" their names.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Arrow (Green or Otherwise)

"Stick it to them like a phoenix rise
There's nothing grander than a big surprise.
They cannot hurt you with their sticks and stones
About time - take them right between the eyes!"

Garbage - Right Between the Eyes


Last week's jaunt into televisiotainment also included a partial first season marathon of the Arrow series, and I must say that unlike the various action flicks I caught, Arrow proved quite the pleasant surprise.

To be fair, I know absolutely nothing of the Green Arrow comic books so I don't know whether any fans are up in arms about whatever changes were brought to the character or world. I'd heard him mentioned while playing City of Heroes a decade ago as inspiration for the Archery / Trick Arrow powersets but never gave him a second thought. While watching the first couple of episodes of the series I assumed he must've originally represented Marvel or Dark Horse's attempt to rip off DC's highly successful Batman character. For the life of me I cannot explain why DC itself would invest in a blatant copycat of its own intellectual property, and at a time when Batman was still fairly fresh in the public mind... but meh, if I ever fully understand the multitudinous pits, mires and sinkholes of corporate mentality, please mercy kill me. Some depths of idiocy are better left unplumbed.

In any case, Arrow comes pre-packaged with all his own versions of Commissioner Gordon, Robin, Batgirl, Alfred the butler/maid, Catwoman and even the "rich boy with cool toys" and parental martyrdom origin story, all obvious from the start. I don't think I spotted a Joker... yet... but maybe he shows up later on. However, I'm not concerned with the tediously cribbed basic concept so much as with the TV series itself.

Arrow is good TV. Not great, not Firefly or the first season of Lost, shows which brought something new for their time within the realm of television, but good within its genre. It retains enough comic bookish ludicrousness to remain true to the whole masked vigilante routine while at the same time allowing its characters realistic expectations, motivations, expressions and gesticulations. The first few episodes of Arrow I've seen manage the amazing feat of the first Batman and X-Men movies in the new millennium of lending dignity to a genre treated otherwise pretty much by definition as trite and campy.

I've said before that Hollywood's flirtation with good imaginative fiction lasted only about a decade, bracketed more or less by the Lord of the Rings Movies at the start and the mind-flayingly terrible Hobbit movies at its decline. As part of that larger trend, superhero movies as well quickly sank back down to their intellectual level in the '80s and '90s, sometimes terrible and sometimes mildly memorable, but either way nothing to write home about. However, let's not forget those wastes of screen time did justify somewhat more serious investment in superhero cartoons, and the X-Men and Batman cartoons of the '90s were vastly superior to most children's television, which tends to be openly derisive of its audience's intelligence.

I'd be curious whether that aftershock, that side effect on cartoons from the '90s is being duplicated with live action superhero TV shows now. Arrow's not breaking any artistic boundaries but that minimal dignity to which it clings elevates it above most mass-market entertainment.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Nochd Vs. Generic Monk

"When she wishes she wishes for less ways to wish for
More ways to work toward it"

Metric - I.O.U.



This is Nochd Nightbringer. To be precise, since I've recruited him into the Feral Empire and my capital always has one of two predictable names he's now Nochd Nightbringer of Nyctimus ... and for extra redundancy he carries a midnight stone in his pocket. He's not happy to see me. Since I've been over-using him in battles, Nochd has almost accumulated more wounds than he has hit points. At the moment he's got both a flesh wound and a rotting wound, typhoid fever, broken nose, is missing a finger and blind in one eye, is hallucinating and (quite understandably under the circumstances) is deathly afraid of dying. Given everything he's been through, maybe his extra cherry topping of amnesia's more of a blessing.

Curing him of all that will consume my empire's entire treasury for about a decade. Then I'll probably end up running him through the wringer all over again. We always hurt the ones we love, and I love this guy.
Why, I hear you ask?

As your kingdom / empire in Legendary Heroes grows, you're occasionally presented with the option to recruit one of two random schmoes. Nochd belongs to the very first pool, level 1 n00bs who haven't even decided on a class yet. Not that it takes a literary critic to figure out Nochd's every detail, his shadow magic, his background story, the dagger he uses as starting equipment, all scream D&D-inspired assassin / shadowdancer. He even starts with a high-level assassin ability, the teleportation spell Shadow Shift. Hm. But then if he's already got that, why bother training all the intermediate abilities; why make him an assassin at all? Let's make Nochd an iconoclastic shadowy, sneaky...  stalwart plate-clad defender. See, just a few levels into the defender skill tree lurks another teleportation spell, Rescue.

Next to time manipulation, invisibility or mind control, teleportation's one of those insanely game changing superpowers that routinely constitute entire multi-issue villain plots in comic books or central top-tier superhero powers. In PvP games they can hardly be implemented without completely unbalancing everything else. In single-player games they can make for interesting challenges, opportunities or gameplay styles ... so long as they're accorded their due importance. There's a reason you can only castle once in chess, after all.

Nochd can double teleport, swapping an enemy into a deathtrap and an ally into perfect striking position and finish off his triple combat action with a stunning attack (or if you're lucky like I was to get that blink ring he's wearing, yet a third teleport.) But Nochd is rather unique in his setting. Elemental: Legendary Heroes was a weak game in many ways, but at least the power to ignore positioning wasn't handed out to every Tom, Dick and... Zahua.

Yeah, I'm talking about Pillars of Eternity now.
That's Zahua, the Monk NPC from the White March expansion. Two seconds ago he was at the top of the screen. Now he's dashing across the battlefield second by second, stunning two enemies and debuffing everything in his way. It's called Flagellant's Path, and it's one of the most stupidly broken single gimmies I've seen in games in a long time.
No cooldown. Unlimited uses. More range than even most spellcasting. All you have to do is absorb a little initial damage and you're off! Now that's some castling. Or maybe en passant capturing... look it was a workable metaphor up until now, alright?
Yeah, as a level 11 ability's it's sort of an "end-game" power trip and it may seem unfair to compare a TBS with a stop-and-go RPG but really in terms of battle size, unit numbers and blocking mechanics, both games are quite similar. They define a front line in battles, and unlimited bounciness is just freakin' imba! Teleportation, invisibility, mind control, time manipulation. Just like castling in chess, they need limitations, they need to be accorded proper scenery-chewing villain monologues and their requisite kryptonites because they're not just a better kind of ammunition or armor, not merely a little speed boost. They change the rules of the game.

There's nothing special about Zahua. Any monk can get this. No pre-requisites, no planning required. Complete freebie. PoE was clearly a better game within its own genre than Elemental, but it's got a terrible habit of just handing you such goodies with no effort or choice required on your part. I mean, damn... how can you suck all the fun out of teleporting? By making it too easy.
Not that Nochd's double-teleport routine was any big secret. His special use of Shadow Shift was obviously meant to leave such options open, but the game made you work for it: a little luck in recruiting him and a string of purposeful actions on the part of the player.

Nightcrawler's supposed to be special, damnit!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Anna Galactic

"When it comes to envy y'all is green
Jealous of the rhyme and the rhyme routine
Another dimension, new galaxy
Anna Galactic planetary"

Beastie Boys - Intergalactic


Ah, my favorite cartoonist finished another comic. It's a good day in wolfe-land.
Good, not great.
Christopher Baldwin's Anna Galactic's the third Science Fiction comic I've read by him. For a guy who used to invest all his time in bohemian navel-gazing he's certainly taken a weird shine to the least emotional genre out there. Not that I'm complaining. I was an old Bruno fan and I've always been a SF fan and now the two realms have coalesced with (mostly) glorious results.

Unfortunately, the latest is also the weakest. Not bad but not up to the standards set by his own previous successes. Spacetrawler was expansive and daring and didn't pull its punches and fleshed out in all the necessary minutiae without dwelling on them and everything we could want from a good soft SciFi story... and probably an incredibly exhausting project for any author. One Way was an excellent precept delivered intelligently and decisively but suffered from being shoehorned into a one-year schedule.

Anna Galactic seems to have been developed partly in answer to all those who unfairly criticized One Way for its harsh ending. It's got much more of a sanitized and unchallenging "young adult" feel throughout, complete with lovably goofy but faithful comic relief sidekick. The central idea, revealed only toward the end, is solid SF material. Unfortunately, the delivery centered entirely too much on quasi-suspenseful action movie tropes and the most interesting bits, revelations which should have taken entire chapters, were trunctated to mere telegraphed one-liners or worse still... exposition. The discovery of the ship's true mission on the planet should have taken a couple dozen pages in itself instead of being monologued by the captain in two panels and meekly accepted without the slightest hint of "WTF" by the other characters.
This guy really seems to have an issue with burning out before the end of his projects and just phoning in the big finish.

Still, it was a good basic plot with some interesting filler, and at least he's still willing to put atypical ideas out there. Not great but worth reading

Monday, October 10, 2016

Pillars of Eternity

So this is me (in PoE.) I wavered between elf or dwarf before seeing that godlike can't use helms. If anything allows me to relive the Morrowind routine of playing a shoeless Argonian, it can't be all bad.



I was planning on writing more Baldur's Gate 2 posts, and then starting in on my longform "let's play" of VtM: Bloodlines but all my roleplaying has gotten sidelined in favor of breathlessly combing through Pillars of Eternity. Strangely, for someone as opinionated as my lupine self, I find myself hesitating in even qualifying it as good, bad or anything in between.

I had a chance to back Pillars of Eternity during its Kickstarter campaign and passed it up offhandedly, having grown quite weary and wary of hipster "neo retro" idiocy promising to bring back the '80s, '90s or whatever. I somewhat regret it now. While PoE makes a few unnecessary concessions to BG2's antiquated formula, it also manages to succesfully re-create its best elements with modern technology. Most amusingly, it comes across as both overly-ambitious and half-baked, as all the best games of the turn of the millennium were wont to bite off more than they could chew, and in that sense it marvelously recreates that old-timey PC game miasma of untapped potential.

Its stat system is excellent but the spells and abilities making use of those stats are somehow both underdeveloped and redundant. It harms its otherwise careful balance by handing the player an army of summonable creatures and other freebies. It falls prey to the tired old +5 resist all routine, undermining its otherwise solid system of immunities and vulnerabilities. It hands you a beautiful fortress lacking the functionality to truly make a house a home. It taunts you with customizability then simply hands you every single spell and ability instead of making you choose. Its writing careens between brilliance and mediocrity.

In short, even its failings are fascinating.

In discussing it, it's impossible to avoid comparisons with that other Infinity Engine stepchild, Dragon Age. Pillars of Eternity is in many ways Origins' poorer hillbilly cousin: another attempt to establish a completely new intellectual property cashing in on the old D&D adaptations' popularity by copying their gameplay style. Origins was much better polished, more complete, better tested and balanced and fleshed out. PoE, however, dares more. It's uneven, lower budget but not afraid to do more with less, more creative and sometimes stumbling, slightly less politically correct and darker, more mature in its themes and writing and also sometimes self-indulgent.

Dragon Age sorely disappointed its audience after the Origins campaign. It built a name for itself then sold itself out for a cheap quick buck. It couldn't consistently deliver the same big-budget Hollywood-envious production values while maintaining quality.

PoE could be the start of something great. It has left itself a great deal more room to grow, both in terms of aesthetics and game mechanics. We can only hope it won't go the same route of using sequels to merely fleece their existing audience, and if the rather promising White March expansion's any indication in comparison to the pathetically trite Awakening expansion for Origins, it might not. PoE got a late start and a visibly rushed development for its first installment, but it has every chance of outlasting Dragon Age in the long haul.

That is, if Torment:Tides of Numenera doesn't eat them both alive.
Let's hear it for the RPG revival!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Maggie

"I listened to the words he'd say
But in his voice I heard decay"

NIN - The Day the World Went Away


As I mentioned in my last post, zombies are old news. We've seen the shamblers and the runners and the pukers, all grabbing and biting and growling and spewing. You can try to freshen up such decomposing tropes in an artistic way, as 28 Days Later did with the bleakness of a post-apocalyptic world. You can sexualize it as Return of the Living Dead 3 did with that unfairly fascinating s&m zombie chick. You can dilute it in generic action sequences as Resident Evil: Afterlife did, though in that case why are you even reaching for zombie material in the first place?

Or... go back to the basics. Individual humans going feral, biting other individual humans. Recapture the low-key primordial fear of infection, of the disease beneath your skin and the stench of rot from which our fruit-fed primate brains reel in terror and disgust, the slow grinding purulence of the inevitable. The panic of being forced to transgress one of our gravest taboos, cannibalism. The intrinsic fear of losing one's mind, the self.

Meet Maggie.
No, not the bearded guy, the chick behind him.
Maggie's a zombie. Well... not yet. Maggie's turning into a zombie. Her father Herr Governator wants to protect her from all the people scared of zombies and thankfully for once the story's about the journey and not the destination. As much as I liked 28 Days Later or World War Z, I dislike the instantaneous zombification in newer zombie movies. The turning is a worthy sub-plot in itself, an opportunity for intrigue, suspense and pathos too casually discarded in favor of clearing more screen time for slo-mo gunfire.

Maggie's plot creeps slowly enough along, but never stalls. It deserved more appreciation than it got from either critics or the mass market if for nothing else at least for the whiplash value of seeing Little Miss Sunshine in such a bleak role. Schwarzenegger's kind of a toss-up. The simple knowledge of his on-screen persona sets him up to strap on half a ton of military hardware and go Commando through the town as far as viewers' expectations are concerned, and might have led to much of the perceived let-down. Ironically though, his playing such a restrained, even passive character works well within the context of a story about not only what can be done but what should be done. It leaves room for decision, for characters' personal choices. The whole thing achieves a Bradbury-style juxtaposition of small town quaintness and horror tropes, more visceral and gripping in its narrower scope than high-kicking heroics would allow for, playing on social mores instead.

Zombie interest stories. Let's make that a sub-genre. Or would that be a sub-sub or sub-sub-sub-genre by this point? Halloween's coming up. Add Maggie to your list.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Bullet Time Part XIV, Redux (remastered with new frames)

"Accelerate, accumulate
Looked for you downtown
Wound up in a movie with no story
Now it's late and you are nowhere to be found"

Metric - IOU


In addition to giant robots, my little jaunt this week into the action flicks of the past decade has also included one of the Resident Evil movies. Does it really matter which one? Oh, all right, it was Afterlife. Supermodel shoots, stabs an' 'splodes stuff. There's your synopsis. For a video game movie it's actually not that bad a shoot-em-up, so long as you curb your expectations. I can't be the only one though who thinks it should've been Michelle Rodriguez who landed the leading role while Milla Jovovich suffers her tragic death scene in chapter two. Jovovich is doing fine as far as the role's limited acting scope goes, but she's more of a cold-eyed futuristic SF heroine while Rodriguez is just so apt for that pugnacious plucky survivalist routine. Yeah I'm typecasting, but still.

Slight aside, did you see all that patriarchal oppression in this movie? Those heroines carving heir way through hundreds of nameless, faceless male mooks? How dare they make a woman do all that work by herself! Someone call Anita Sarkeesian and hand her another million dollars to vacation at the U.N. and screech about the injustice of woman's work.

Heheh. Hey, fun exercise:
The Resident Evil movies have skipped the 900mil mark in profits. Someone find me a billion-dollar action movie franchise in which a male hero and his male sidekick mow down row after row of female redshirts, cheerfully tossing shuriken through women's eyes, shooting women through their chin with blood spurting out the top of their heads, stabbing women in the face with machetes to the swell of an unapologetically triumphant soundtrack, caving women's chests in with shotgun blasts, sliding beneath women to shoot them in the crotch with coin-shot for a big applause moment.

Ask some Hollywood pretty-boy... ida know, let's say Ashton Kutcher, if he'd like to commit career suicide by starring in it. See if Sony Pictures wants the distribution rights. It'll give you some idea of whether our contemporary Western society despises women or men more. And hey, if you somehow find or make that despicable billion-dollar series of movies featuring male heroes curbstomping armies of women, then I might condescend to consider the question of whether women are "objectified" by our modern world.

Eh, that's just window-dressing.
The real issue I take with Afterlife's the, ummm, let's say pre-corpsified nature of those mooks. For a zombie movie, it's a bit light on the zombies. Yeah, the prison escape scene features some good old-fashioned "braaiiins" but most of the fights and chases are human on human. Having never played the games aside from a demo fifteen years ago, I can't speak to the script's adherence to source material in this, but I do find it correlates with the two movies I discussed on Wednesday.

Zombies, kaiju and giant (possibly transforming) robots. All pretty tired subject matter after half a century and more of constant re-hashing. The sane solution would be to expand more upon the central theme, to return to the source material and try exploring whatever details have been under-represented since the 1950s, and I'll get to a good example of that tomorrow.
The standard Hollywood solution, on the other hand, is more slo-mo explosions, and as I said last post we've passed a weird point in action movies where the audience isn't even expected to keep track of the action anymore. It doesn't particularly matter which of the monster's arms got ripped off or which of the hero's guns jammed or who's chasing whom.

In the midst of all the dramatic camera shaking, we're instead expected to breathlessly anticipate that totally bad-ass slow-motion shot of the heroine reaching for the sword on her back. The action-packed pre-amble to action. Oh emm geez, here it comes.... she's gonna grab it... she's gonna grab it... OMG can you believe she grabbed it?!? Such suspense! And hey, with every bullet-time weapon-switch taking up half a minute of air time, who's got room for zombies in a zombie movie anymore? Audiences apparently show up for an abstracted, genre-independent, distilled form of badassery: a melange of subliminal second-by-second sensation composed of long legs, big metal somethings with more detail than pixels, sunshades, growling things with bad skin, assault rifles, rippling biceps, chunky-style explosions and ten-second slow motion head turns, all set to a continuous teeth-rattling THX tiger's roar of indiscriminate white noise. It's Ray Bradbury's "family" come true... that prescient bastard. Or maybe we're just halfway to "Ass - The Movie."

Granted, there was always a huge market for this back in the '80s and '90s, but it was mostly relegated to the likes of Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme churning out cheap knock-offs for the summer seasons. Meanwhile the big reference points within their niche markets stayed true to their premise. Terminator 2 was all about the androids and say what you like about Romero but at least the zombies in his movies still bit people, damnit!

Call me old-fashioned but a zombie movie should probably deal with zombification and mecha mayhem with cool gadgetry - transforming robots with robots transforming and not some ode to adolescent libido. We used to hear endless complaints about "genre fiction" being obsessively centered on a few plot gimmicks. Apparently the mass market can't even do that right anymore.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Last Decade's Robots, Today!

"With the lights out, it's less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us"

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit


I visited family this week, which means catching up on a bit of TV and movies. Whatever's playing. This time around it's been a non-stop action extravaganza - and thus a faithful reminder of why I stopped action-extravaganzin' in the first place. Nevertheless I finally got to catch the first of Michael Bay's Transformers movies and del Toro's Pacific Rim.

Transformers was obviously, insultingly and I would say mistakenly intended for a tween audience. Pacific Rim was markedly better, aimed at a wider audience if not exactly the intelligentsia. Standard plot. The comic relief nerds nerd it up, provide crucial information and get pissed on for their trouble while the badass hired muscle martial artists punch giant monsters with their giant robots' fists... and kick them... and wrestle with them. Finally, fifteen minutes into the fight I hear "engage plasma cannon!"

Wait, wait, hold on. Time out!
You had a freakin' plasma cannon this whole time and instead you got into a slapfight with Godzilla's wrinklier cousin? Who the hell put you idiots in charge of saving the world?
But hey, holding the superweapon back til the last second is too much a staple of Japanese kids' shows to abandon I suppose.

They're special effects flicks, both, so I have to wonder why their special effects were so ... rococo. We were all glad when CGI acquired more detail, but there's an upper limit to how much detail you can cram into a design before it becomes an overloaded eyesore. Both these movies somersaulted over that limit last decade, to the point where you can't tell why doohickey #4173 strapped to the mecha warrior's back is suddenly moving and Transformers' faces twist around in a nonsensical jumble of criss-crossed frown lines. Until now I wouldn't have even thought to place crows' feet on the list of everything a giant robot doesn't need, so I guess thanks for that, Hollywood. At least it's only the movies with the fattest CGI budgets who can afford to be this stupid. Yes, I'm linking the promotional image of Optimus Prime from the newest movie because apparently they haven't gotten smarter about it in nine years.

Look, the whole amazinawesomecoolness of the Transformers toys (into which I sunk every penny of my allowance during fifth grade) was seeing a hood become a chestplate, a muffler an arm-cannon and so forth. Lose identifiable features and you lose the, well, y'know, the Transformation!

Have we gotten so anti-intellectual now that even visuals must be rendered as unintelligible as to spare the audience the trouble of attempting to keep track of the action?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Give Them Rest, Already

"Pie Iesu domine
Dona eis Requiem"
(thunk!)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail



Been reading through my next selection from the collected works of H.G. Wells, which happens to be a short story collection (Twelve Stories and a Dream) and first off, I must say Wells wrote rather weak short stories. His novels present a captivating initial premise in rational, expansive detail then top it off with a mid-narrative twist to really get the adventure rolling. His short stories present that initial premise, somewhat truncated, then sort of devolve into a few predictable details. No twist. No build-up. He doesn't seem to have grasped any method of rapidly increasing the tempo toward a breathtaking ending which Poe's "one effect" entails. Or maybe I'm just jaded after a century of pulp fiction has turned his once original ideas into tropes.

But anyway, halfway through the collection I run into The Inexperienced Ghost, one of the better vignettes and also containing an amusing side-note:

"Now, Sanderson is a Freemason, a member of the lodge of the Four Kings, which devotes itself so ably to the study and elucidation of all the mysteries of Masonry past and present, and among the students of this lodge Sanderson is by no means the least. He followed Clayton's motions with a singular interest in his reddish eye."

Freemasonry seems to have been, in the nineteenth century, the chief go-to stand-in for meeeesteeerious machinations beneath the veil of society, the equivalent of modern fiction and conspiracy fiction about agents double-oh-something, hidden alien spaceships and mad scientists. Oh, those oppressive, all-tracking, reddish eyes! Poe's Fortunato condescends to Montressor for his lack of knowledge about secret hand-waving. Kipling's Men Who Would be Kings unearth Masonic symbols in Kafiristan. When Joseph Smith needed some random mystical-looking bullshit to imbue Mormon long-johns, he resorted to Masonic doodles.

Of course, now we benefit from a plethora of such mysteriants beside the good old Loyal Order of Water Buffalo. The KKK, in between drunken stumbles across the decades, built up its own tangle of fantasy-themed ranks and symbols. Witches' covens, political and economic think-tanks fed by ivy-league college fraternities and sororities, the CIA and NSA and three hundred other secret "security" forces, scientologists, church choirs, whatever. You can't swing a dead language without hitting a bunch of cloaked schemers babbling in that language about protecting the mysteries of the universe.

Some are more organized and do more damage than others, but after a few centuries and millennia of their bullshit isn't it about time we recognized the only truth transcending all secretive organizations? They're cliques and tribes. They're packs, herds, gangs, cartels, armies, religions. They're in-groups which out-compete outsiders not due to any deep understanding of the workings of reality but simply because they're willing to put their collective incompetence above your individual competence. They get ahead by favoritism and group cohesion, by mindless self-promoting obedience to groupthink, not because their hidden handshakes really might summon up Beelzebub or Skynet to smite their enemies.