Thursday, July 20, 2017

Legendary Fail

"You said someday you'll change
But even a fool will tell you
Someday never comes"

Brandi Carlile - Someday Never Comes

Partial list of bugged features I've personally experienced in The Secret World: Legends :

stuck animations
switching instances to join your group splits groups
ground targeting will not function while queued after another ability
cone AoE hitting even when off-target, at infinite range
invisible ground AOE (many, many examples)
stuck "in combat" for several seconds after fights
tankless groups created by groupfinder algorithm
pvp health rebalancing will only feign working if you swap gear
inventory items flickering in and out of existence
mobs killing through walls while unreachable
mobs going into infinite regeneration mid-fight (no, not evading)
instance bosses misfiring their skills and insta-gibbing the whole group
instance boss running out of the playable area
a different instance boss running out of another playable area
mission item permanently unobtainable if your inventory was full when you clicked it
mission item only activates AFTER the player relogs and re-does most of a mission
"walk through portal" final step of a multi-hour mission chain teleported me to a wrong location and therefore refused to complete

Add to this the fact that TSWL managed to BSOD my computer, a feat even games officially in Beta or Alpha can't usually attain, plus many many other freezes, CTDs and other flavors of fail. Hilariously, most of the bugs in Legends aren't new. They just haven't been fixed since TSW's launch five years ago. Legends simply duplicated and propagated existing problems and piled on with more serious crashes.

I filed a bug petition.
A week later a GM finally replied, apologizing for the delay.
Delay? Fifteen minutes is a reasonable timeframe. Half an hour to an hour is a serious delay. "Delayed" overnight is already pushing the boundaries of the term.
Putting your customers on hold for a solid week means you've capitulated running the show. You are now the joke.

At this point, I'm half in this for trainwreck appeal. This ain't opening night we're talking about, either. Nearly a month after Funcom's big re-launch of a five year old product, the bugs only seem to be multiplying. Hilariously, even that timeframe confuses new players. I've run into three starry-eyed young novices so far who've made comments like "wow, this game looks really good for having come out in 2002/2004/2007!" The very speed with which TSW rendered itself obsolete seems implausible and puts it barely a step above vaporware. When you hear of a re-launch, you picture something at least a decade old.

So what about the relaunch itself? Out with the old, in with the... old, again. As I recollect, soon after its 2003 launch, EVE-Online scandalized its players by rolling back server and character data about a week. It was seen as a shameful display of incompetence. Funcom has now pulled a five-year rollback, dragging all its most faithful customers through the same inane instance-farming marathon all over again. Pragmatically, this serves the function of reconnecting a minute (and continually dwindling) playerbase fragmented by their relative positions on the years-long WoW-clone MMO iterative gear-accumulation treadmill. Just don't expect Funcom to admit that openly. Also don't expect them to admit to purposely slashing benefits for subscribers (and lifers) in favor of aggressively pushing their new pay-to-win cash shop currency "aurum."

The best that can be said of Legends is that it at long last resolved TSW's woefully unbalanced, redundant chore of a skill system, and in all fairness the new interface is much smoother, more intuitive and responsive. Unfortunately, Legends achieves this end by throwing out most of TSW's leeway for player choice, skill variety and synergy. Weapons' effects no longer interact with each other and with target-lock removed from the interface, combat resolves to hitting whatever's in front of you - literally. While it's easier to get into, it's also more dumbed down than ever.

As for new content, there is none. There may be, in the future. Honestly, seeing how bugged the new old content is, I'd love to see them try to implement some new-new zones and instances just for the faceplant comedy value. While considering what tone I'd take with this post I at first thought I'd praise the development team for actually putting an impressive amount of work into Legends. The new tutorial works flawlessly, I must admit. Then, bugs aside (many, many bugs aside) I remembered my own complaints on this blog from three, even four years ago that TSW's updates had quickly diminished to plain text, a trend only partly interrupted by the two Tokyo expansions. While Legends might look impressive in one glance, it represents years of absent balancing or content updates, years of TSW trying to drown its customers in mindlessly repetitive timesinks (AEGIS upgrades, scenarios, the Museum of the Occult) while never addressing its gameplay issues.

When these long-overdue fixes to their shoddy work finally came, they came bundled with renewed demands that players pay into the cash shop for a "new" re-branded product which so far amounts to even less than the old. But hey, their loyal customers are still rushing to create third-party interface cheats to make up for the game's inadequacies, because as previously noted, it's entirely possible to be both incompetent and crooked in the game industry yet still draw a crowd of enthusiastic slaves from gamers.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

C Larsen; C Larsen Run

"Oceans slowly rise
Time to fly"

Syntax - Time to Fly

Isn't it funny that a trillion tons of ice riding the ocean currents count as just one tiny datum in the overwhelming berg of evidence as to how irreparably fucked we are? And still, the glut of apes thickens. Just little caplets of ice poking above the flood of idiocy in our "news" media, floating out of sight, out of mind. We've got bigger fish to fry.
Until we don't.

Run, monkeys, run.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Princess Brooks

The Princess Bride was not a great movie. There, I said it. Fire tomatoes at will.

I'll grant that in its better moments it managed to straddle the line between trite starry-eyed faery-telling and obnoxiously nitpicky deconstructionism, to denote both self-awareness and dedication to its subject matter. Still, on the whole its fan-base seems to spend more time quoting the flick's various catchphrases than watching it, because to actually watch it is to be exposed to the massive amount of filler between those one-liners. It's the sort of movie which can make falling down a mountainside look tedious by dwelling on the stunt doubles' every single tumble. Every monologue is a line too long, every pause a second too pregnant, every line of exposition stretched to two, every establishing shot a few frames over-exposed. This does not negate its many memorable moments, but it does dilute them unnecessarily. Call me a disorderly attention-deficient child of the internet age if you must, but there's simply too little going on in every scene, too little information density to trap my awareness.

I don't know whether Rob Reiner was infected by this directing style via his father's collaboration with Mel Brooks, because the closest analogy I can think of would be Brooks' own films. Yeah, we can rave about all the hilarious one-liners in Spaceballs or History of the World but that's ignoring the miles of dead air between them, cluttered with minor characters making faces at the camera. Once you get the basic joke of sparking a giant doobie, said doobie's on-screen presence itself is just not that impressive. Nor is the bad guys' repetition of "we've got to get them." Too little challenges our expectations, too little detail sparks mental connections.

This does not resolve to a simple generational fad, either, or budget constraints. The Monty Python movies came out a decade prior, with less funding and more lines, jokes and new ideas. And sure, Princess Bride wasn't primarily comedic like Brooks' parodies, but it still seems to follow the same school of thought in constantly condescending to the audience's slow reaction time. It shows a mental separation between performer and audience, the carnie's disdain for the marks.

How well this feature translates into the internet age is anyone's guess. Optimism would dictate that closer dialogue by creators with their audience would eliminate it, yet cynical awareness of one's virtual surroundings begs the question: how many bloggers, vloggers, webcartoonists, pod-casters and youtube personalites wrap their scripts in slow, overwrought redundancy to make sure you rubes get the punchline?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

I'm very random sometimes.
Sometimes is the best times to be random.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What's HoT, What's DoT and What's Not

The Secret World was re-launched a few weeks ago (more on the "new" version's merits some other time) so after a year's absence I've been chugging along, replaying all the old missions. Hey, at least it's less of a grind than TSW's pathetic excuse for "end-game" content, endlessly repeating the same three instances.

In the due course of "second verse, same as the first" I happened to glance at some loading screen hints informing me of a very helpful "feature." Maybe it's new, maybe it's been around a while and I never noticed. Apparently, re-casting a Healing/Damage Over Time ability on the same target will automatically complete the prior cast's healing or damage remaining on the clock.

By what definition are these abilities "over time" then? The main point of the "over time" concept is to make you consider your timing, ensuring you're not wasting resources on redundancy or long-term spells for short-term targets. Yes, you should have to think about that. Those incapable of such tactical planning should fail. Hard. Retards should suffer.

I'm painfully aware this is no isolated example. The entire history of online games since 2000 or so has been a nonstop dumbing-down and oversimplification. Older games feature epic lists of missing features, gameplay mechanics eliminated or trivialized into uselessness for fear of scaring away the mindless, spineless, clueless mass-market casual filth. Breakable crowd control, specific buffs / debuffs with specific counters, resource management, fairness, group combos, player influence on the game map, stat balancing, long-term character specialization choices, roleplaying choices, organized raids, specific gear use beyond mere stat buffs, self-sacrifice, "no classes, no levels" and anything and everything gets gutted from each game in turn to draw in the mouthbreathing, knuckledragging, brainless sub-sentient human trash incapable of even counting five seconds on their DoT's timer.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Barik Echoes

"Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
Can he walk at all
Or if he moves will he fall?

Is he live or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?"

Black Sabbath - Iron Man

Minor spoiler: Tyranny, Barik


When I evaluated Torment: Tides of Numenera I said it fails to live up to its claim as successor to Planescape: Torment, and I stand by that. Aside from other aesthetics, the various personalities you meet tend to stop short of the monomaniacal stature of the original tormented. Tides' antivillainess can't hold a candle to the inscrutably sadistic Ravel and your companions seem hopelessly hopeful, lacking that pleasingly pervasive expectation of doom, of sliding inexorably down the universe's undertow.

Tyranny's no match for the original Torment either, but its grim setting allows for a bit more thematic overlap. For example, take your (archetypically) loyal walking panzer, Barik, permanently stuck within a tangle of metal slabs and coils wrapped around him by the monstrous strength of a magical storm. (For bonus villain points, you can actually become the proximate cause of Barik's doom during the pre-game roleplaying choices.) Barik's plight gets played off as sort of a running gag in various dialogues, a gag which grows increasingly macabre as you gain an understanding of just how debilitating his "condition" is - culminating in this dialogue:

Torment fans will probably facepalm at that point and wonder how they didn't see it  coming all along. Barik is basically another Vhailor, a modern fantasy version of El Cid Campeador riding into battle indifferent to pre-existing health conditions like death. He achieves this status more successfully than Qara from NWN2 in her role as proto-Ignus, unhampered by NWN2's kid-friendly limitations. Barik will not die so long as his cause lives.

We met the characters from Torment in their decline, the entire plot consisting of a denouement of lifetimes' worth of adventuring and power struggles. There's a lot of potential in revisiting those archetypes in the making, elaborating the kind of personae and plot twists which can make an Ignus or a Vhailor. One can imagine a Tyranny sequel set centuries after the first, coming across a hollow humanoid form of rusted, tangled metal bands which suddenly booms: "I have... AWAKENED!"

Now, what I'd really like to meet is a proto-Ravel, in the process of weaving herself into her power. Better yet, I'd like to play her.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

From Wells to Fargo

"Capitalism has made it this way
Old-fashioned fascism will take it away"

Marilyn Manson - The Beautiful People

Happy firecracker day everyone!

Ah, yes, yesterday Americans celebrated their peaceable economic acumen by wasting lots of money on makin' big boom-boom. Which differs from the usual routine in keeping the boom-boom at home instead of tossin' it over the neighbors' fence. But it's all done politely, you see. Every SUV now comes with a fainting couch in a sensory deprivation chamber, should any members of Generation Facebook decide to feel micro-aggressed by pigeons crapping on their windshield.
Damn you! Let the robins wear diapers! Save our brothers! Can I get an amen? Can I get a hallelujah?!

Of course, not too long ago in your great-great-grandparents' time, Western society found itself sclerotized by another crop of oversensitive moral dictators fastidious to the point of paralysis. Remember, chickens have dark or white meat, never legs or breasts, and Queen Victoria died in 1901. In the decade before that, H.G. Wells wrote his most famous science fiction books: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Of his career in the four decades after that, most of us haven't heard a peep. Several years ago, I opened up a volume of his complete works to revisit time travel and topped that off with another and another, becoming weirdly fascinated by the path his writing took.

To some extent, Wells' grasp on his own narratives does seem to have loosened. For one thing, his growing obsession with aircraft litters his books with somewhat tedious rhapsodizing on the glory of flight, play-by-play commentary on imaginary aerial combat, convoluted visuals of airplane shapes (most of them ludicrously impractical) etc. The War in the Air is, unsurprisingly, the worst offender in this, yet still manages to overcome it through some chilling prognostication of World War I a decade before it struck. Wells saw the inevitable in the endless build-up of armed forces and armaments which would, by virtue of their very existence, manage to get themselves used at some point. To the man who later coined the phrase "the war to end all war" the system of alliances and global empires only needed a spark of good old Prussian bellicosity to yield the inevitable conclusion. Even if he overstated the immediate importance of aircraft, it only took another three decades for reality to catch up to him, for WWII to become a "war in the air" between the Luftwaffe and RAF, an interweaving of carpet-bombings.

But as eerie as The War in the Air can be to read on its own, it's freakier in the context of Wells' better written, non-SF novel Tono-Bungay, describing the decline of English society. In the rise to fame and fortune of confidence artists selling patent "medicines" and manipulating the economy of an entire nation you find the socio-economic substructure of the military-industrial complex. The willful ignorance of the public, the commoners' enthusiasm in reducing themselves to numbers in the balance sheets of the rich, the eagerness to believe "the big lie" all screech gleefully from Wells' pages at you in recognition. The society Wells described was the last gasp of the Victorian era, with its insecure rising crust constantly vying for a seat on the latest bandwagon. The very model of modern major-generals had already been set at the height of Victoria's reign in 1879, after all, an archetype of aesthetics divorced from reality. Fashions came in the mail, and the mail came often, from places exotically uncivilized.

So here we stand now, a century and a smidge later. Yuppies drink their "fair"-traded coffee out of disposable recyclables and every university student can recite the latest talking points of social activism but not yesterday's chemistry lecture. Snooty grocery stores fill entire aisles with Tono-Bungays by the barrel-full: homeopathy, naturopathy, voodoo-opathy, patheticopathy, you name it and we'll drink it, because reality's all in the nomenclature. Everything's a War On- and everything's a -gate, everything's a scandal, mock and weep to taste. Titles are bought, futures sold on credit. The 2008 crash made uncle Ponderevo look like an amateur, and everyone decries the costly and impractical space program while Lockheed Martin rises in the polls. Everyone wants to give money to the poor, and the diamond industry expects a steady growth of 2-5% per year.

Add to all this Wells' earlier musings on the unmooring of youthful aspirations in The Wheels of Chance in 1896, the youths who presumably, a decade later, invested in Tono-Bungay: "And when we open the heads of these two young people, we find, not a straightforward motive on the surface anywhere; we find, indeed, not a soul so much as an oversoul, a zeitgeist, a congestion of acquired ideas, a highway's feast of fine, confused thinking." 
Look at the snowflakes, at Generation Facebook, the Bunthornes of our time, the coming collapse, a hermetically sealed world of pre-chewed opinions, so breathlessly enthralled by fad and posturing, each a knight in shining armor, each flying as many banners as they can grab from each other: "spiritual" / "progressive" / "pro-life" / "animal, right?" / "feminist" / "ellgeebeateeovertheheadee" / "athlete" / "organizer" and a hundred other titles and orders in their own self-described aristocracy. Crinolines or yoga pants, their skills nonetheless restricted to feinting and fainting, this is a world which ranks "manspreading" somewhere above beheadings as cause for condemnation. Our panem comes sliced (though no-one knows by whom) and our circenses Olympically intersectional: little brown dogs chase little black Sambos through the rings to the cracking of Mrs. Steinem-Dworkin-Grundy's tightly-gripped rainbow whip.

And oh, the juiciest little tidbit's what's been growing in the cracks, the festering sores behind the carefully posed lace fans:
Decades of overly-polite moral repression, policed speech, padded corners and childproof caps, facetious niceness, taboo reality, mask the reactionary upswing until it connects. Are we talking about the first half of the 20th or 21st century? The British Empire, The Continent or The Colonies? Are we looking at the "big and blond and virile" Teutonic air-pirate prince of The War in the Air with his bird-faced attendant, or at a fire-haired robber baron and his born-again evangelical Catholic sidekick? Cossacks or cowboys? Does it matter?

After the capitulation of the intelligentsia to their own credulity and mysticism over the past few decades, how many rabble-rousing tribal traditionalists, how many snake-oil-peddling confidence artists, have sprung up over the past few years in one election and referendum after another in the U.S., in Britain and the rest of Europe? So in tune with the tribal primitivism of the invasive third world they claim to hate, both echoing off each other, amplifying each other, the waves syncing up. Sarajevo, Sudetenland, Syria, all sounds sorta similar. And, with the military build-up and hollow-centered worldwide usury-based economy growing unrestricted behind the scenes, are we now in Wells' position, staring down the inevitable?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Blob my barbarian bears

My recent complaints about the simplistic, uncreative aliens in the turn-based strategy game Pandora: First Contact bring to mind the consistent lack of creativity in game monsters as a whole. Even RPGs with slightly artsy aspirations like Torment: Tides of Numenera will promise an astounding world of mind-bending futurosity, then restrict themselves to little green men and painfully trite black slimy tentacle monsters. It's especially jarring when a game promotes itself as the spiritual successor to a title it can't even manage to imitate, as Pandora does. Alpha Centauri's ersatz nerve runners didn't just benefit from a solid backstory and flavor text. They interacted with terrain (hiding in fungus) and reacted to player activity.

So in what other ways might we move past the gimmick of "a barbarian bear" using standard movement mechanics and unit stats?

What about monsters coalescing from smaller constituents? Say two mind worm boils randomly enter the same square. They coalesce into a larger boil with the unique property of attracting more boils from any neighboring square into itself. As it grows its attractive range grows as well. Should be easy to implement in a flat turn-based TBS like the Civilization games and their clones: add another square or hex to its radius of effect. Maybe such brain vermin might gain more abilities and not just stats as the swarm grows. It should be particularly amusing combined with invisibility mechanics or simple fog of war. Breathe a sigh of relief as monsters seem to wander out of your lands only to be blindsided by their re-emergence as an unstoppable wave of destruction.

Easily adapted to less sci-fiyish settings as well. Substitute "charismatic leader." Maybe the rebels that spring up in your lands flock to a particular Luke Skywalker, boosting his army.

Or hey, why don't we make better use of that classic of B-horror, The Blob? Give me a blob that doesn't just grow in stats ("experience points") as it grows, but literally grows, taking up more and more squares / hexes as it engulfs your units, terrain improvements and bases.

What else, let's see...
Why can't we adapt those noise-sensitive, sessile tentacles from the first Half-Life to TBS? Place an invincible (or nearly so) and immobile monster on the game map, capable of striking at any of the hexes surrounding it. Scale its aggression with nearby potential targets' ... movement speed, let's say, as a stand-in for noise. So it would swat at any fast-rolling batmobiles but infantry units would slowly trudge past in relative safety. Maybe it tolerates any quiet terrain improvements but attacks any noisy / polluting industrial areas, imposing a quiet amishy farming lifestyle in its surrounding terrain.

Also, why don't flying monsters make nests? I don't mean regular monster spawners, but that wandering neutral monsters should, ida know, lay an egg or something every once in a while. Bring the egg back to base before it hatches in x turns, and you got yourself a tame monster unit.

Turn-based strategy games seem a fairly sterile, stiff medium, but even here there's so much room for creativity outside the expectations of the unthinking.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Oversocial Atavism

"We are informed [...] that you experienced a major atavism today involving antisocial violence."

So Perry Nelson, the protagonist of Robert Heinlein's For Us, The Living, is accosted by the authorities after punching his perceived sexual rival in a fit of jealousy. He then spends some chapters discussing social mores in a futuristic minimum security psychiatric day spa. It's a ... slightly odd little book.

That is, however, a phrase I'd love to see enter public discourse not only in the case of violence but also social manipulation. If someone should display symptoms of religiousity or babbling about all-caring creators:
"Sir, you appear to be experiencing a mythopoetic atavism involving idealized parental figures."

If it's someone fired up about moral superiority for being born the politically correct nation or race:
"You experienced a tribalistic atavism. Care to review your ancestors' actions more objectively?"

Perhaps most importantly, any woman attempting to abuse subliminal cues of sexual availability, familiarity and closeness, neotenized vulnerability or neediness to influence male behavior should be accosted with:
"Your falsetto voice, artificially highlighted innocent eyes, overly-familiar body language and falsely reddened lips suggesting aroused labia indicate you are experiencing a 'precious little princess' atavism leading you to believe you're entitled to favorable treatment. Your prosocial manipulation of others' instinctive protectiveness belies your hypersocial parasitism."

She would then be politely escorted to a psychiatric day spa in which she is made aware that sentient beings converse as equal, rational individuals and not by attempting to subvert each others' primitive codependent impulses for personal gain.

The day when subsentient manipulation of another's instincts and emotions is viewed as despicable primitivism, not by law but by common consensus among civilized beings, intellect will have begun to advance past the state of naked apes.

Monday, June 26, 2017

How many nun-chuck nunchuks could a non-nun Chuck chuck if non-Chuck nunchuk nuns could chuck Chuck none(Chuck's) nunchuks?

2017/06/29 - edited for greater clarity and logical consistency.
Yes, I'm serious. Shut up.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Pandora: First Contact

"Stratocaster strapped to your back
It's a semi-automatic like dad's.
He taught you how to pause and reset
And that's about as far as you got.

It's a hit! - but are you actually sure?"

Amanda Palmer - Guitar Hero

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was to turn-based computer strategy games what Planescape:Torment was to cRPGs at around the same time: a classic, not widely popular so as to redefine the genre but routinely cropping up in its niche market's "best of all time" lists even to this day. Unsurprisingly, this niche market coalesced largely out of fans of the various science fiction books which Alpha Centauri cited as inspiration, like for instance Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom's Pandora novels. Multifaceted, philosophical, allowing for the player to express more personality than even RPGs, SMAC came across as an interactive rewrite by the player of the sort of daring, visionary science fiction we all proudly displayed on our bookshelves.

Though some of Alpha Centauri's technical limitations and repetitive gameplay features have been surpassed over the decades, the mystique of terraforming a hostile (and very) alien world has persisted, prompting repeated demands by fans for a spiritual successor. While I quite correctly guessed that Firaxis' own Beyond Earth would not fit that bill, its flop got me to look around for other attempts, possibly from smaller developers more willing to play to niche audiences rather than the hoi polloi. Turns out that just a year prior, a tiny studio by the name of Proxy had released Pandora: First Contact, waving to fans of both Alpha Centauri and Herbert's transhumanist acid trip.

So what the hell, I took the bait, and relocated my den for a time:
Note the flock of pterodactyls at the bottom of the image. Important plot point!

But more on that later. As a strategy game, Pandora's full of good (or at least intriguing) points. Resource system: what you see is what you get; the two minerals you acquire on the map are two extra minerals in your city's production queue. True to classic 4X-ing, there's little to no penalty for overexpansion beyond production / upkeep costs for units and buildings. A common pool of harvested food / minerals is combined with localized consumption, so you can purposefully and very satisfyingly massage your empire into cash / mining / military sectors. Cities' sphere of influence can grow far beyond that of the Civilization games, acquring more and more hexes. Formers can act like SMAC's supply crawlers, gathering resources from unclaimed hexes.

Alpha Centauri fans will immediately recognize the modular unit customization window, where you select a basic chassis for its movement speed then slap on the armor / weapon / ability you prefer. This, along with city management, unit orders, upgrades, research, are all handled through a surprisingly smooth, intuitive interface minimizing flipping through windows. Capturing native life forms is a bit of an adventure, requiring you to build a pool of specialized units, and even sacrifice some redshirts to tame yourself some of the local megafauna, at least twice as powerful as the best early-game units.

So what's wrong with it? Well, to start, even Pandora's good points fail to mesh or are more limited than they seem. Endlessly expansive cities negate the use of supply crawlers. The unit design system's largely a chore of implementing the latest completely linear tech upgrade. The AI, while possessing some notable strengths like countering your infantry with vehicles or calling a peace when the natives are about to get restless, is largely an idiot, alternating war declarations with treaty request spam. From one turn to another it'll demand tribute then offer you tribute, denounce you one moment then praise you the next, break pacts the turn after forming them. It's like playing against Trump! And, like Trump, it overcompensates for its ineptitude by getting bankrolled by invisible outside interests and refusing to pay its taxes. Though it's become somewhat of a truism that the AI in strategy games always cheats, Pandora's mounts insurmountable numeric bonuses even at medium difficulty.

Along with a supercharged stream of early-game neutral enemies (monsters) and a tech tree whose demands at least on my game settings scale very poorly against player growth, this yields a pretty dull, predictable setup. If you survive the early swarms of bats and walking fly-traps, you'll then clear off your neighbours and nonetheless end up losing the tech race to faraway enemies out of your control. The end.

For a fan of Alpha Centauri however, a few more lacks readily disqualify Pandora from it's claim as a spiritual successor. Terraforming is pathetically anemic: no boreholes, no elevations, no rain shadows, no water bases or water improvements, no long-term way to weaponize the local wildlife. The wildlife itself, along with the Alien Crossfire -inspired alien invaders never really go anywhere either, again failing to compensate for nonexistent AI planning with brute stats. The giant pterosaurs are only one sign that "Pandora" refers to James Cameron's, painfully shallow, simplistic CGI excuse for a movie and not to Herbert's novels. While tootling some decent music and attempting to build up a backstory, there's no memorable world-building to speak of here. The faction leader personalities are overtly copied one-for-one from Alpha Centauri but lack any personality whatsoever, despite some hamfisted attempts at characterizing them through flavor text. Random stabs at comedy are more jarring than relieving ("the sky is crying", really now?) The aliens are all disappointing little green men or kaiju, refusing to adopt anything as creative (and nightmare-fueling) as Herbert's nerve runners. Planet, the defining Herbert-inspired demiurge overshadowing your entire personal story in Alpha Centauri, is also utterly absent, with no big idea to replace it.

Despite some solid notions of strategy, their shallow implementation and lack of aesthetic charm fail to legitimize this game as anything other than a future quaint oldie to scrounge out of the bargain bin for a few hours of "meh" and a month-later uninstall. Painless, but also joyless to play - and even if I saved you, there's a million more in line.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

You've Come a Long Way, Baby-Daddy

A few days ago the proud nation of Hallmarkia celebrated "father's day" to the best of their wallets' abilities, or so the advertisements surreptitiously blaring at me from various websites informed me. The Home Depot, for instance, informed me dear old dad will disown me if I don't buy him a shiny new Dremel, and touted itself "the toy store for dads" for providing such service.

Apropos of nothing, remember that Futurama episode "Roswell that Ends Well" where they go back in time to 1947? The professor and Leela try to shop for a microwave oven, and the carpet-bagger of a sales clerk, never having heard of the Microwave brand, tries to sell Leela a gas oven with a foot-soaking tub at the bottom "since, as a woman, you'll be standing in front of it all day."
Leela promptly kneecaps him and sets fire to Farnsworth's tie.

So I guess for Mother's Day we'll all be heading to the housewares or appliances section of our local supermarket, or as it's now known "The Toy Store For Moms" filled with happyfuntime gifts for the discerning indentured servant. Or at least I assume that's the case, what with us living in this horribly oppressive patriarchal society requiring constant feminist policing.

And hey, for all you husbands who actually got that Dremel (along with hints that if you're a good boy you'll be permitted to assemble her new bookcase) go ahead and rev it up and tell her where she can stick it.

Friday, June 16, 2017

ST: TNG - Enemy Defectors

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate: 3.07
The Enemy

Oh noes! Geordi's trapped on The Planet of the Cliched Dark Stormy Night with a mean old Romulan! Can you kids at home teach our heroes a valuable lesson about cooperation?

Whoa, time out. First off, that is some Tom&Jerry level resilience there. I don't care how Romulan you are, unless you're visiting a planet with the gravitational pull of the Little Prince's asteroid, half a ton of (suspiciously rounded and even-sized) boulders falling on your head will require more than an engineer to pick you back up. Even just one of those falling off a cliff would snap a humanoid spine.

But never mind, technobabble aside...
Wait, did someone say technobabble? As in, wounded Romulan #2 aboard the Enterprise "is going to need a transfusion of compatible ribosomes in order to recover?" Ribosomes. Right. I can just picture one of the writers flipping through the dictionary and thinking "huh, lookit dat, rye-bow-sowmes, that sounds biomological-like!" Ribosomes are too complex to be replicated aboard the Enterprise... which routinely fabricates whole steaks to exact molecular specifications and can re-assemble entire humans from teleporter records.
Also, a few hours' exposure to magnetic fields breaks down your synaptic connections. That's why chemists just take off their rings, car keys and wristwatches before wading into an NMR lab like they own the place. They're sick of having synapses and ribosomes. Particle accelerators routinely liquefy everyone that comes near them. Also, those magnetic balance bracelets? Those totally work! (*wink-wink*)

I know most complaints about Star Trek "science" center on its insane physics but at least on the physics side they had the sense to insert pretextium crystals and other yet-to-be-discovered 24th-century scientific principles. Whenever it came to biology the writers seemed perfectly comfortable rattling off medical jargon as though they had invented these mystical incantations themselves. On the scale of Trekkish insanity, ribosome-eating magnets rank pretty low but it probably still prompted Gates McFadden's doctor to wash her mouth out with soap.

Okay, technobabble aside, this episode seems to serve two main purposes: to continue the more coherent character development which started with season 3 and to expand on the goings-on in the universe outside the Enterprise's shield radius. Toward the first end, Geordi as gadget-goading chief engineer gradually supplants Wesley's messianic nose-twitching to address technical issues, and their indirect interaction in this episode in particular, with the eager young space cadet coming up with a beacon to help the more experienced, trained professional, reads a lot like a bad character passing the neutrino torch to a better one.

The issue of politics is represented by larger-than-life Romulan bombast.
If TNG was to move past original series tropes to a more fleshed-out universe, it needed some more believable alien races. The Ferengi were much too buffoonish, the Betazoids more or less a fantasy race ill-suited to a SF setting, the Q more so. Vulcans epitomize progress, a race of cold-blooded introspective monks, but that leaves little room for other drama. Klingons work well enough as Federation foils, though you wonder how those drooling jocks manage not to blow themselves up at every turn and overusing them would've gotten old quickly. What Star Trek needed were some good believable antagonists so as not to keep resorting to singular aliens with godlike powers at every turn. The Romulans fit the bill as Vulcans-gone-bad: imperious, calculating, disdainful of lesser races. Uncreative as a concept but honestly so (down to their name) they simply work within the series, not because they're particularly interesting but because the developing Star Trek universe desperately needed a go-to evil empire or two.

Amazingly, the show's writers managed not to render them too cartoonishly, baby-eating evil. Albeit indoctrinated in their manifest destiny as rulers of the cosmos, this story already establishes them as capable of cooperation and placing some value on the safety of their subordinates.

The episode's main flaw is leaving Worf's refusal to help a Romulan (by donating ribosomes) unresolved, dedicating several scenes to grandstanding about eyes for eyes then dropping the matter abruptly.
Like I'm doing now.

Seriesdate: 3.10
The Defector

A thematic continuation of The Enemy, the plot here has the Enterprise pick up a Romulan defector warning of impending war. Despite some weakness (pauses too pregnant, monologues too monotone) the script does an good job of portraying the larger political background in which the Enterprise floats, the sort of thing utterly lacking in the original series. We get to see chains of command, treaties and traps and interplays of allegiance.

None of it is particularly sci-fiyish. The opening, an unreasonably extended Shakespearean interlude, kind of sets the tone. One gets the feeling that in 1989 there was still a serious shortage of screenwriters, actors and other professionals comfortable with SF. In many cases, TNG resorted to trite, recycled plots and settings from detective or romance novels, especially when it came to the cheap cop-out of holodeck episodes. The Defector achieves its effect mainly by being played as a historical drama, SF as written by Alexandre Dumas: intrigue, posturing, loyalties and a lot of blathering about fighting good fights and family ties but not much in the way of boldly going or strange new worlds / civilizations. It better suited the actors' training, at least.

Still, while not one of TNG's high points these two episodes filled a necessary quota of overdue world-building, laying out the backdrop against which the more dramatic conflicts played out. The level of power and conventional villainy of the Romulans serves as a measure for the later, more dramatic and creative Borg. The discussions of cloaking and stealing technological secrets set up the plots of many other episodes in later years. And hey, at least The Defector contains that memorable scene of the Enterprise being ambushed by two cloaked Romulan ships... which are in turn ambushed by three cloaked Klingon ships escorting the Enterprise.
This was TNG finally reaching its version of maturity: special effects fitting their purpose, characters developed, limitations established, political universe mapped. When the phasers go pew-pew, you finally have some idea why they're pew-pewing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Of Combos and Conjunctions

"You and me, we're in this together now
None of them can stop us now
We will make it through somehow"

NIN - We're In This Together

While Tyranny's tangle of roleplaying choices must occupy the bulk of any commentary, its gameplay mechanics also deserve some mention. Skipping over the skill-based character development for the moment, let's take a look at combos:
Each of your tyrannous companions comes with two reputation-unlockable abilities requiring both you and that companion to act at once. While more powerful than regular skills, they're limited in use (once per combat or per rest) and require you to find an opportune moment for both characters, managing their global cooldown timers appropriately. Kills-in-Shadow's little teleport there is basically what the monk's Flagellant's Path from Pillars of Eternity should have been. Utility aside, they add quite a bit of aesthetic charm to your party make-up, making it look as though your team is really working as a team with each companion adding a bit of flair to your own character's combat behavior. Kills-in-Shadow's jumps meshed perfectly with my own "damn the torpedoes" attitude. After seeing how naturally combos work within Tyranny it seems odd in retrospect that they haven't been featured in every other RPG with NPC companions over the past couple of decades.

So I ended up wondering why, if combos add such satisfying aesthetic and practical options to single-player games with simulated teams, do we not see them in multiplayer RPGs with actual teams of multiple players? After a bit o' cogitatin' ah done 'membered wut you striplins ain't know no-how, dat we dun did dat in da olden days. If I recollect proper, why it were back in the spring of aught-seven when tha witch-king come down from Angmar an' done invadered tha down o' moldy cheese, we peoples free of middlin' earth would use these things called "conjunctions" or "fellowship maneuvers" to give our combat tactics that extra spit-shine:
When initiated on a monster, conjunctions stunned it and brought up a menu of four color-coded skills for each player in the group. Each player could choose to personally regenerate health or mana or damage the monster instantly or over time, but when executed in a particular pattern a conjunction could also trigger AoE effects or group-wide bonuses. The better coordinated your group, the greater use you could get out of such maneuvers. Among other things this lent a more relevant role beyond hitting things to Lord of the Rings Online's rogue class, the burglar, as best able to initiate conjunctions by sneaking up behind enemies to trip them, etc. Groups would plan ahead as to who would hit what color in what order. A couple of instances were even built around them.

My only complaint was that no matter how many times my groups called upon the "Tramp of Doom" it never summoned even a single succubus.

Now don't go buying yourself a LotRO subscription. I'm talking about the gameplay of yesteryear, not yesterday. As online game demographics shifted from the old nerdy crowd who wanted a challenge to casual mass-market brainless trash who want everything dumbed down until they can face-plant their way to victory, LotRO's various features were gradually stripped away leaving nothing but mindless loot-grinding. As of several years ago, fellowship maneuvers were deemed much too complicated for modern gamers and nerfed into irrelevance. Complexity sends millennials scurrying for their safe spaces.

I've been calling Pillars of Eternity and related games the "RPG revival" as a joke but dare we hope that some of Tyranny's ambitions might bleed into the industry at large, and even into MMOs? When my trusty bolverk Kills-in-Shadow and I heft our warhammers and stampede across the battlefield, I can't help thinking how easily she could be replaced with an actual player and how little it would take for coordination to once more become an ideal in computer games.

Just stop pandering to cretins.

Sunday, June 11, 2017


There once was a dog named Diogenes
Disdainful of human proclivities.
He hated pretense
And loathed the dense
And shocked the agora's sensibilities.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Eth's Skin and the New Mythology

I stumbled across the webcomic Eth's Skin recently, and before I get to trashing it, it bears mentioning it's actually decently made despite some stumbling. As skinchanging's a topic near and dear to my own heart, I went into it wanting to like it. Its setting manages to successfully dodge the standard fantasy RPG derived "there's a village near a forest" schtick, and I'm all for reinventing wood and water. The author seems to have wanted from the start to avoid overly-convenient magic, even for magical races... turns out fish tails are damned inconvenient for getting around on land. Overall, the visual style manages to hit that sweet spot between recognizable and detailed which makes for quality cartoonin', aside from minor quibbles like buckskin-clad characters' backpacks looking like they were bought at Sears. The faceful of mer-boobies you're treated to right off the bat seems a bit too desperate for attention, but what the hell, at least it's context-appropriate.

And then the "event" which kickstarts the adventure happens: the title character runs into a selkie and is entranced by her passive +5 mind control aura into grabbing her seal skin, thereby dooming her to a life on land. Now, an unlikely band of heroes must seek to remedy the situation... by teaching you to always respectfully ask what someone's preferred designated personal pronoun is!
Jumpin' whiplash, Batman!
Huh? What?!?

Well, ok, it doesn't take over the entire tale of traveling and questing, but the many occasions of politically correct rhetoric are shoehorned so awkwardly into the narrative as to feel a lot more jarring than mere mermaid nipple eye-pokes. In one instance, the skinned selkie postpones a perfectly workable outraged tirade against the indignity and injustice she's suffered to calmly ask her attacker "what are your pronouns?" the better to complain about "their" crime. Seriously? I'd think if someone scalped me, the least I'd feel entitled to is casually mistaking his sexual identity.
Come on. By what storytelling logic do you devote an entire page to beating your audience over the head with "this is how to introduce yourself!"

There are better methods of interjecting such special group interests into an otherwise unrelated work. Jennifer Diane Reitz' three inter-related comic strips are full of homosexuals, transexuals and other designated "deviants" being oppressed by their society, especially in Pastel Defender Heliotrope. He/she/they/schlee obviously has an axe to grind, but at least it's lent some convoluted relevance within that universe beyond mere thunderous proclamations, a context and causality like religious authoritarianism or an alien race intellectually incapable of adopting change. The real story was about collapsing universes. At least it has some semblance of internal coherence, unlike pausing the action mid-conversation for a page at a time to show the audience this very important thing which is supposed to be perfectly beneath notice for the society in Eth's Skin.
That mountain you just tripped your narrative into? It's a molehill. An utterly inane molehill. Even the moles are asleep.

Mythical heroes, creatures and villains are not about these trite, mundane little details. Not that there isn't plenty of deviance and social commentary in mythology, mind you, whether intended by the original authors or not. Hell, chapter two of most creation myths is a nonstop orgy of sibling incest. The good stories, the ones worth remembering, feature those minor points somewhere in the background.

Achilles dresses like a woman and plays "hide the pickle(s)" with Patroklos and nobody cares because his actual, relevant persona was a bulletproof bad-ass with a freaky heavy metal origin story about skinny-dipping in the river of death! His choice of liaison is nothing in itself. We accept it as implicit motivation for the real action.
Baba Yaga doesn't launch into interminable weepy monologues on ageism; she's earned her wrinkles by learning all the secrets of the world and crafts flaming skulls and breeds magic horses and she'll boil you in a cauldron as soon as look at you.
Loki turns into a mare so he can get impregnated and give birth to an eight-legged little pony. Slightly confusing! Yet still, what idiot stops to ask the personification of apocalyptic chaos "hi, what's your pronoun?" His own wife probably doesn't even give a shit what he calls himself, considering the slightly more worrisome fact that instead of girl/boy, his sperm's apparently a pot luck of "girl/wolf/snake."

In one respect though, the author of Eth's Skin fits perfectly into primitive superstitious mentalities. Designate a taboo, and anyone breaking it is utterly, iredeemably guilty regardless of context. See Hercules enslaved for killing his family while brainwashed by Hera, Oedipus gouging his eyes out for crimes committed in ignorance mandated by the immutable laws of the universe, etc.

Eth steals (or dare we say "rapes" as that's what the act is hinted to symbolize several times over) Rel's skin, and repeatedly accepts all guilt in various browbeatings or soulful repentance.
Being mind controlled into doing something is no excuse for actually doing it! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea *braaaaaiiiiiiins* - culpa!
Never mind that just a hop and skip later we see Rel bragging about how her selkie magic's awesomah powah should trump anyone else's because she's just that irresistible.
No excuse! Otherwise you're victim-blaming!

Fuck's sake. Could you at least not trip over your own propaganda?

Eth's Skin has apparently not updated in five months, so it may as likely as not have vaporized as webcomics are wont to. I hope it comes back at some point. I want to see more stories about skinchanging, and I'm perfectly fine with using this as metaphor for the social ills of today, as long as the story avoids the monstrous presumption of portraying the superficial talking points and catchphrases of contemporary politics as the alpha and omega of ethics. Kory Bing, who colors the damn story, has her own comic about skinchanging symbolic of identity conflicts, yet Skin Deep still manages to dredge up some semblance of perspective. Eth's Skin on the other hand is so laughably emblematic of the doublethink of modern snowflake propaganda, the same imbecillic Orwellian Newspeak we thought we'd ditched back in the mid '90s with "womyn" and the banning of the word "black."

Here's a society in which everyone's non-binary to the point where it's supposed to be an accepted norm yet we must pause every ten pages to proclaim this! Also, when someone who openly brags about having power over you causes you to do something, it's no excuse to actually do it! Also, women are unstoppably powerful yet at the same time helpless victims who should never be called upon to analyze their own role in interacting with those evil, evil oppressive sexual aggressors.

This is what we've made of the grand fears and ideals of mythology, huh? Herakles asking the Nemean lion "what're your pronouns" before profusely apologizing for grabbing some skin. Please. Write your own stories, people. Don't just regurgitate fundamentalist pamphlets.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


A dozen chapters... and three, almost four of them involved some actual gameplay.

I hadn't heard of The Longest Journey back when it first released, and it was ironically the hype around the development of Dreamfall which prompted me to play it... and then skip Dreamfall when it released because of some negative reviews - justified as it turns out, for once. Now with the episodic follow-up Dreamfall Chapters underway for some years, I thought it time to decide for myself why I don't like Dreamfall, and thankfully Good Old Games stocks bad old games as well.

Dreamfall is basically a poster-child for Hollywood envy. The Longest Journey was one of the few games to adopt that short-lived fad which sprouted up in the years surrounding Y2K, 2.5D. Given that adventure games, already an outdated '80s throwback, have since survived by adopting a "neo retro" 2D sidescrolling perspective, that extra half dimension was already more than TLJ needed. Dreamfall adopted full 3D, and when I say "adopted" I mean it seems to have blown its wad on it.
In itself the eye-candy's not completely inedible, though it pales in comparison to the graphics of contemporaries from genres more apt to three dimensions (remember Dreamfall came out in 2006, same year as Oblivion, two years after FarCry and one year before Crysis) but there's nothing really inspired or unique to look at either. The bigger issue is the paucity of other features. Either the game engine broke the project's bank, or more likely Ragnar Tornquist forgot he was making a game altogether and just strung together endless cinematics. Aside from one or two decent sneaking gimmicks (the sleeping dog, for instance) you're left running back and forth through pointless empty dead ends until by sheer trial and error you stumble upon the one correct route with the exactly one interactable item. The MacGyver part of the game is almost entirely gone, as you usually only have one functioning item in your inventory, and your character even tells you when to use it. While there are a few visual puzzles, they're usually just that: visual, mindless image matching with no thinking required.

The zones are huge... and empty. You move through gargantuan hallways with sparse, repetitive decor reminiscent of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, with usually just the one interactable object at the end. To cover up their own lack of effort, the developers impose a lot of pointless effort on your part, using RPG-inspired fetch quests to make you run back and forth and back again along their unimaginatively linear oversized 3D backdrops.

I could think of other complaints as well. As I mentioned in relation to The Lord of the Rings (On- and off-line) it's a bit counterproductive to show the player a wealth of imaginative locales and characters, then try to build your entire game on the least interesting, most human elements. TLJ was a nonstop cavalcade of storybook tropes and adorable or amusing one-short characters. Dreamfall tries to get serious... and its supposedly imposing and menacing vaguely oriental theocratic human evil empire falls completely flat. Instead of building up the engrossing faerytale Arcadia laid out in TLJ, the sequel ditched nine tenths of it in favor of a new dream world based on pure imagination, which is to say the everything that is nothing.

Worse, the writing and voice acting which made TLJ so memorable were somehow completely lost in the shuffle. Most Dreamfall characters sound completely unrehearsed while some (Na'ane) were just painful to listen to. The greater fault lies in the writing. TLJ was a character study. April Ryan's personality, largely well-meaning but also snarky and capricious, pretty much made the game. Her replacement, Zoe, is so utterly flat that you wonder if the new fancy graphics somehow sucked all the three-dimensionality out of the dialogue. Even when April shows up, she's much more subdued than storytelling choices would mandate.

This is all too bad, because there's little else to do in this game other than sit and listen. While I've heard of a mouse-driven game and even a successfully keyboard-driven game (The Cat Lady) in Dreamfall I found myself keeping my fingers intertwined beneath my chin to keep from nodding off during the various interminable cutscene dialogues requiring no user input whatsoever. Hilariously, while thumbing through an online cheat guide to see if I could speed things along, I found the guide's writer telling me to just move to location XYZ and "Zoe will take care of the rest" meaning the game basically plays itself. By what definition is it a game at that point?

It's not completely impossible to pull this off. Some years ago, the "game" Dinner Date made interesting use of the Source Engine to create one hum-drum but painstakingly decorative scene which the player largely just observed while making meaningless contributions by clicking. Utterly unapologetic about this, it later even thumbed its nose at its dissatisfied customers with this hilarious little jab:
However, Dinner Date was a single self-contained scene with a specific creative purpose. It's exactly 25 minutes long and pretends to be no more than it is. Dreamfall was a torturous series of simplistic make-work chores alternating with endless tedious, stilted, badly acted and lazily written cutscenes. As a game it's barely there. As a movie, it's worse.

I can't help thinking that the praise he received for TLJ went to Tornquist's head, which is too bad. He's an excellent writer of dialogues for video games... except that what he apparently wants to be, and had by 2006 decided he already is, is another Ingmar Bergman. His later attempt at a multiplayer puzzle-solving game, The Secret World, flopped (*partly) due to once again over-stretching simple game mechanics into something they cannot be, trying to force side-scrolling pixel-hunting into cinematic three-dimensionality.

From the reviews I've seen of Dreamfall Chapters, his latest flop, it's yet more of the same.
Holy shit man, take a hint!

P.S.: Don't even get me started on the grinding parroting of the word "faith" in every other scene.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Practical Religion

The last church function I attended was a young cousin's baptism seven years ago. It went as you largely expect of religious affairs: long, boring, demeaning and nonsensical, but at least the chanting lulls you into a trance after a while. About to pass out, I finally perked up when the priest interrupted his thirteenth invocation by name of Jesus' pubic lice or whatever to switch tone a bit: "and now I believe it is time to address some practical concerns."
Wow. A priest giving practical advice? This was new! I was all ears, baby, assuming that as in fact a baby was concerned, he might give some tips on properly soothing an infant or somesuch.

Don't look at me like that; a lifetime of atheism has rendered me somewhat naive as to just how thoroughly disjointed from reality the religious mindless can get.
When the man said practical, I heard practical.

He began to piously explain that as the little brat had received a slathering of holy water, the parents were now responsible for properly disposing of said Most Holy of Waters. So when you wash the squealing little monster you have to keep the bathwater, preferably not just once but twice or three times in case she's still sweating out some leftover holy ghost. It can't go down the bathtub drain or the sink drain or the toilet drain (no, seriously, he enumerated the types of drains - without breaking his trance-like lilting chant) or mingle with any other filth, refuse or non-human creatures of the lord (just in case it spontaneously renders them sentient, refusing to work on Sundays and quoting Aquinas.) Pretty sure you can't drink it either.

Don't even get into the thorny issue of the blanket they wrapped the kid in afterwards. That required at least a Master's in Ecumenical Laundry Science.

By that point I was more or less having a petit mal seizure biting my lip to keep from laughing so I can't remember everything the prissy, overdressed mumbling buffoon considered a "practical" use of bathwater. Watering potted plants with it was permissible as I recall. In fact, I have it on good authority the holy spirit is particularly fond of being digested by the symbiotic mold on the roots of geraniums.

In the name of the farcical, the stupid and the highly suspect, Heil Messiah!

Thursday, June 1, 2017


"Hear the cry of war
Louder than before
With his sword in hand
To control the land

Leathern armies have prevailed
Phantom Lord has never failed"

Metallica - Phantom Lord

Fall to your kneeeeeeees!
And bow down to your phantom overlord Kyros!

All rise. The honorable fatebinder Werwolfe now presiding.
So there's my first tyrant. Not even level 20 by campaign's end. Skills scattered haphazardly across four trees in a mix of magic and squishy two-hander offense that I could barely make work until discovering the "iron light as air" skill and Kills-in-Shadow's "stampede" combo, at which point I immediately began gavelling copious amounts of rebel ass into submission. Ah, but Kills-in-Shadow deserves her own post.

So how should I start describing Tyranny? First off, buy it. It's worth the money, if barely, even at release pricing. I preordered it because I was pleasantly impressed by Pillars of Eternity and wanted to see to what other use Obsidian would put its newly minted game engine. Unlike Tides of Numenera, which heavily modified the interface for its faux-futuristic setting, Tyranny chose to copy-paste most of it (literally, in the case of item icons) and instead focus on its setting and storytelling for Obsidian's secondary, unadvertised, left-handed side project. Ultimately, this makes it the slightly more interesting, though admittedly less accomplished product.

While Tyranny doesn't necessarily get excessive criticism, I'm somewhat perplexed that the criticism I do see appears utter nonsense to anyone who's actually played. Guessing a great many people saw the basic premise and assumed they'd be aiding a plucky, cartoonishly good rebel alliance topple the conveniently evil empire. While possible but much more difficult to attain than other paths, it's obvious throughout that this game's just not about holding the moral high ground. Denied their absolutist moral relativism, desperate to find something to dislike about the game, critics attack it in facile but nonsensical fashion. For instance, you'll commonly see reviewers deride Tyranny as a 15-20 hour game. Here's my first playthrough for comparison:
Almost 50 hours. I'll admit I obsessively explored all I could and there are an hour or two of AFKing somewhere in there. My second playthrough, granted, took only 35 hours. For a smooth, relaxed and not every involved run you're probably looking at just under 30 hours. I can only explain the idiotic "15 hour" complaints by assuming these people don't read. Much of your time as fatebinder is spent learning about the world you inhabit, largely through dialogues which can seem a bit tedious as they're overly-fragmented. To those especially who decided to hate Tyranny as soon as they discovered they weren't Luke Skywalker, I'm sure learning more about tyrannizing must've seemed an onerous chore. Then again, I'm guessing these are the same cretins who never read any of the lore books in the Elder Scrolls games.

Equally moronic the complaints about lack of replay value. Tyranny means to offer role-playing as it should be, with branching paths and an expression of the player's own personality through the accumulation of decisions big and small. While a far cry from the freedom of a sandbox game, Tyranny makes a damn good show of outdoing its competitors in appending repercussions to your choices. You get four main paths (including joining the rebels, though they're hardly as cuddly/saintly as most players would like) but they're hardly obvious and many decisions will cause entire zones to open at completely different times in the game (or not at all) to the point where you'll still be tripping over your poor life choices in the "conquest" introduction three quarters into your campaign. Even the basic "grab the loot" is occasionally played as a choice between greed and obedience, with some macguffins also doubling as overpowered combat items in their own right.

You get more divergence by the first act of Tyranny than you would in an entire playthrough of most story-based games. Where your decisions would usually only spell a marginally different cinematic by the end, here they're constantly with you, carrying on from zone to zone, affecting your journey as well as the destination.

Aesthetics-wise, Tyranny sticks to an appropriately dark palette composed mostly of grays and browns, its sound/music is at times brilliant (especially the opening theme) and it manages to own its location themes of shattered landscapes, army camps and corpse-littered battlefields. The basic premise behind your character puts most other origin stories to shame. Your title of "fatebinder" in Tyranny is basically that of a judge - a battle-judge with lightning eyes and a license to kill (everything) but a judge nonetheless. You'll spend quite a few dialogues administering Overlord Kyros' "peace" deciding whether to use your dictatorial fiat for right, justice, law or greed. While in the Neverwinter Nights games for instance courtroom scenes were inescapably tacked-on, forced and irrelevant roleplaying in a maelstrom of hack'n'slash, Tyranny manages to integrate them because this is your character's freaking life!

The setting itself is equally interesting, dodging most fantasy tropes (no elves or dragons or heavens or hells) in favor of a gritty militaristic culture clash drawing largely on Roman expansion at the close of the bronze age, with provincial bronze falces clashing against legionnaire iron. This is given in-game relevance as well, with iron gear excelling in basic armor and armor penetration while bronze counterparts compensate slightly with speed and accuracy.

However, for all its good points, it's clear that Tyranny was left unfinished. Customers were legitimately dissatisfied with the ending, which abruptly truncates the last act before it even gets started as though the development team suddenly woke up one morning to realize they'd run out of money. Many of the accusations of "15 hours" can likely be traced to being hit in the face with the end credits when the adventure was just ramping up. Aside from leaving you with a fistful of stories that seem like they never got past their introduction (Bleden Mark is just the most obvious) this damages pretty much every aspect of the game.
The skill-based character progression runs out when you finally start figuring out what you're doing, for the simple reason that you run out of enemies.
While the first two thirds of the game feature carefully measured item advancement making you work for your gear upgrades, the last part bombards you with insanely overpowered loot seemingly out of nowhere.
The magic system has you collect modular spell components and combine them to yield a pretty wide variety of effects. Excellent! Then you're cut short just as you're getting enough "expressions" and "accents" to start making the most interesting combos like bouncing, piercing, stunning magic missiles.
As concerns dialogues the whole thing seems ridiculously front-loaded, as if the writers initially assumed they'd have more time. Even the basic disposable redshirt skill trainers in the first couple of zones are very eager to tell you their life stories in minutely detailed and verbose text trees, but by the end of the game the objectively much more important Big Boss NPCs can barely manage a paragraph or two of villainous monologue as you execute them.
In fact, for a game so dependent on writing, this thing desperately needed better editing. Characters' tone and speech patterns change abruptly, at times dipping into too-modern vernacular or seemingly being slapped together by separate writers. Even honest-to-goodness typos crop up here and there.

Someone fucked up the budget and/or production schedule. It happens. It's happened to a lot of very good games. For all that, Tyranny's a memorable piece of work, not least for its more mature take on the basic premise of playing the evil side. Graven Ashe and especially the Voices of Nerat's parting words to you, your pen-pal mentor's comments about the mythopoetic nature and growth of power in accordance with fame, Tunon's Lawful Evil Neutral adherence to his own rules, the portrayal of the various rebel groups' sneaky, backstabbing viciousness, it's all good stuff. Perhaps even more so than Pillars of Eternity's last-act conclusions about divinity, Tyranny dares to let its characters voice some uncomfortable truths. My favorite so far would have to be Lantry's response to the question "how do you feel about the evil invisible world-trampling Overlord Kyros whose minions almost tortured you to death?"

What is "tyranny" anyway? Is it just a matter of scale or overt power?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

You should have killed yourself when you were a teenager, when you still had the nerve, before your body's instinctive inertia overcame your better judgment. You knew then that you're trash, and you're worth even less now.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sandra and Woo

"Come on and take it easy, come on and take it easy
Take it easy, take it easy"

The Beatles - Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

"Girl with talking racoon" sounds like a pretty straightforward Calvin and Hobbes knock-off but Sandra and Woo has managed to avoid copying not only Watterson but pretty much anything and everything I've ever seen. Webcomics have aged. They've surrendered their creativity of two decades ago in favor of nailing down specific audiences and servicing them in return for a stable Patreon income. Sandra and Woo is one of the few to have remained fresh. It occasionally comments on video games without trying to copy Penny Arcade, ladles on the carnivory/herbivory jokes without falling into Kevin&Kell's repetitiveness, gets nerdy without XKCDing itself to death. It's a crypto-graphic, art historical, math puzzling, multilingual extravaganza with talking mustelids on top.

It's creative, if anyone remembers that term, and it's willing to take chances. The few times it gets political it does so in a conscious, free-thinking manner irreverent toward both traditionalism and current fads. While on rare occasions its humor does not translate very well, its sheer variety can blindside you. Despite its fantasy-themed goofiness, its characters' interactions manage to feel much more "real" by refusing to ignore mammalian nature to kow-tow to some ideology. And, while pandering much less than many of its competitors, it's still apparently doing well for itself. Maybe there's some hope for the internet yet.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Overly-Impulsive Cagey Demons

I recently started on my second playthrough of Torment:Tides of Numenera and took stock of which companions I had left to try. During my initial run I'd given a passing thought to the oddity of winding up with an all-girl posse (a pussy posse, if you will*) tanking for Matkina, Callistege and Rhin but hadn't given much consideration to the fact that I'd picked the entire female half of the cast while telling the three male mooks to take a hike without ever looking back. Weird, huh?

See, I hadn't actually set out to do this. I'd simply picked personalities after my own tastes: nerds and loners, savants and dark knights. I picked anyone dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, possessed of a dark, brooding antiheroic backstory or who seemed to have great potential (and Rhin's late-game "cobbler" and "cypher adept" abilities turned out as overpowered as expected.) I chose self-possessed intellect.

I threw out anyone who was hinted to be a fanatic or a comic relief blowhard or standard backstabbing roguish gutter trash. Wouldn't you know it, that turned out to be all the male characters. But hey, no-one minds when writers do this to female characters, right? No-one's ever bitched out Frank Miller for his comics' high whore quotient, right? So it's not like we're working with a double standard or anything. Right? Granted, I've been told Avellone eventually turned Erritis into something memorable against all odds, but the observation stands.

Dignity: now a gendered term.

Was going to demand royalties if anyone wants to use the term "pussy posse" as a band name, but apparently Leonardo DiCaprio already beat me to the term. Hollywood stars never sue anyone though, right?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Evil Losers

By now everyone's heard the sky is blue. Also, the Earth is round. Also, rich people have power. Also, grass is green and objects at rest tend to remain at rest and obvious cat is obvious. Also, a Muslim murdered 22 people and maimed 59. I learned about this yesterday and was... not shocked. I heard more all about it this morning for two hours straight during a major network morning show, complete with our dearest prez Trump condemning the act with all the poise, wit and eloquence of a snot-dripping kindergardener shouting "doodyheads!" More interestingly, this network managed to go for two hours straight repeating the same news article without ever saying the word "religion" ... or the word "Islam" or "Muslim" or "fundamentalist" or "irrational" or "degenerate primitive superstitious mindless mass-deluded fanatical vermin."

And yes, I know it's not just Muslims. This is what religion does. When the priest says "kneel" you kneel; when the priest says "kill" you kill. Christians have their own outbursts of fanatical murder, as did Jews (and do again through the ongoing crime against humanity that is the theocratic-in-all-but-name state of Israel) and so have Buddhists and Hindus and druids and whatever. Yes, every supernatural creed will do this but at the moment we really need to acknowledge the main group of genocidal cultists murdering us. Seems like the more shit Muslims blow up, the more close-walled theocratic Muslim ghettos infect civilized cities, the more innocents Muslims murder, the more crimes against humanity Muslims commit, the more countries Muslims lay waste, the harder our mass media try to avoid acknowledging the religious element of all this filthy medieval degradation. It's a hate crime to point out hate crimes.

Back when I was in junior high, the big story on everyone's lips was the unabomber. The entire United States cowered before that looming threat expanded to world-conquering comic book supervillain dimensions by a decade-long media frenzy. We love to hate Kaczynski because he was a smart guy and he was truly acting as an individual, a lone wolf, an anti-sheep. We'd hate him for being an anarcho-primitivist too if Joe Average knew what that was. He's a useful boogeyman for the rich to demonize anarchism, to feed the stereotype of the bomb-throwing anarchist, to justify cracking down on individualism. He stands out precisely because he's one of the very few such examples not killing in the name of some religious pyramid of power.

Theodore Kaczynski killed three people. Ironically, that's also how many were killed in just one attempted mass murder by a brainwashed gun-toting anti-abortion Christian redneck just a couple of years ago.

Over a period of a decade and a half, Kacyznski managed three victims. His total "injured" victim count over seventeen years is the same as the number of dead victims of yesterday's religious bombing. That's just yesterday. Tomorrow's another day.

We all know Kaczynski's name. Try memorizing the names of all the Muslim attempted mass murderers in the past seventeen years. To make it easy for you, stick with the ones who killed at least three people.

The real kicker was listening this morning to the newscaster telling me authorities are investigating whether yesterday's bomber was part of a larger group.

Yes, he was. It's called Islam you fucking retards!

Our Great Dictator Trump would of course save us all except that at the moment, like every other White House corporate puppet before him, he finds his lips planted on the Saudis' posteriors with such ardor that you can't even see his carrot top anymore. Yeah, those foreigners are all rapists and Evil Losers... unless they've got oil or borscht, right Donnie?
We only like evil winners.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Stake in Tales

Tailsteak's got two major comics online. A very long time ago I ran into 1/0 and skipped it for its cringe-worthy art style... or lack thereof. In the meantime, The Order of the Stick and xkcd have built up my tolerance for shaky, indistinct amateurish scribbling, so as a prelude to Leftover Soup's impending ending, I ran through the full 1/0 archive as well. Aside from the two comics' separate highs and lows, there's something fascinating about the author's own intellectual advancement.

The Tailsteak of 1/0 is among other things still fighting off his own streak of religious apologism, most notably in turning Marcus, the strawman pompous nerd, into a strawman unbeliever as well, refusing to acknowledge the blatantly obvious existence of his creator. By Leftover Soup, though hardly anti-religious, his new main characters have themselves rebelled against religion at some point in the past (Ellen) or are in the process of outgrowing their religious indoctrination (Jamie, Deist, raised by "crazy, fall-on-the-floor Pentecostals.")

Leftover Soup mostly takes place in the sphere of modern identity politics rather than in a philosophical headspace concerned with storytelling mechanics. Tailsteak (in both comic and commentary) expounds on oppressed minorities and sexual orientations and hates the people he's supposed to hate (like anyone telling men to stop being doormats to women.) Much of the story revolves around Jamie the overprivileged-white-hetero-male-designated-loser rendering service to prove his worth to mate and ascending to the sainted status of "boyfriend" while absorbing his paramour's friends' abuse and degradation with all the serenity of an ox.

And yet... the very last scene concerns not in the slightest the rom-com trope of the man declaring undying devotion and two lovers kissing while the credits begin to roll. Instead it shows two male characters shaking hands and agreeing to teach each other about pop culture and cooking for themselves. That's right, he Bechdeled that shit. Two men are having a conversation not about bitches and hoes. For all his dedication to political correctness, white guilt, male guilt, hetero guilt, atheist guilt, this is how he chose to cut things off: equality, independence and willing cooperation.

Regardless of disagreeing with most of his politics and quite a few of his storytelling choices, I'm getting the same sense of wonder noted in Captain Picard a couple of posts ago, watching a rising intellect see the clouds from the other side. Tailsteak's shaking off systems of indoctrination at breakneck pace. Will he advance to independent intellectualism, backslide into reactionary zealotry or swaddle himself more securely in the safety blanket of our contemporary politically correct circle-jerk? It's anyone's guess. Looking forward to his next project.

I would in fact have a request. Your Marcus was a triple strawman: nerd, atheist and transhumanist, and the third you've never addressed. Explore inhumanity.
Above all, keep moving.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Diabolic Paths of Od Nua

"it takes minute detail, it takes holy life, it takes dedication, it takes dedication
and you couldn't do it if you're not the seed of God
and so the path through these great corridors
(these are corridors unto His perfection)
and i went through that last segment
where i went through these dark serpentines
i passed through that corridor
where they sat, where they are

this is all a dream
a dream in death
and so i went through that window
and the tower of hell and the great serpentines of the highest order"

Godspeed You ! Black Emperor - Static

While Diablo 2 was Blizzard Entertainment's test lab for keeping players enthralled to an endless loot grinding treadmill, the first Diablo game was a worthy project in its own right, a compromise between the randomized roguelikes of the previous decade and the rising trend of scripted, story-based RPGs which came to be dominated by Black Isle's Infinity Engine games. Diablo earned its fame largely by thematic coherence, both in gameplay mechanics and its artistic delivery of the bleak grayscale "built on an Indian burial ground" B-movie haunted town routine. Magic specialness did not suffer from the rampant devaluation seen in loot grinding games like World of Warcraft and its copycats (there's a reason the DnD routine breaks down after twenty levels) and its four by four zones proceeded in a very satisfying fashion from intrigue to rising action to climax and denouement. Diablo was a DnD dungeon crawl. Play a fighter, rogue or wizard, dodge traps, track down macguffins slay ghoulish beasties and grab tha lewt! Though the Infinity Engine games tacked on a classic dungeon crawl here and there (Durlag's Tower, Watcher's Keep, more in Icewind Dale) Diablo embodied it, descending level by level through incremental badassery. The whole game was a megadungeon.

So, ironically, when I played Pillars of Eternity, the Endless Paths of Od Nua reminded me not of the Baldur's Gate games Obsidian ostensibly emulated but of Blizzard's more simplistic, more atmospheric downward spiral. This is not a bad thing. Diablo succeeded (some might say too well) in getting players engaged in the delving of its multi-tiered, nested cluster of adventures. You can see the same precept in many other games as well (Skyrim's Dwemer ruins for example, with a layer of Falmer biscuit underneath) but it's usually not laid out purposefully, consciouslly, unapologetically enough to really drive home the message. For all that open world adventures have to offer, there's a lot to be said for a well-executed, iterative escalation of thrills and drama. Something about the neural infrastructure we've inherited from our arboreal ancestors also insists such escalation must have something to do with verticality. It's either a glorious climb up mount Olympus or a daring descent down deep dark dungeons of doomy despair. You half expect Virgil to materialize at your side to show you the way to Cocytus.

Like Blizzard decades ago when still capable of some creativity, Obsidian realized their labyrinth needed both diversity and some coherent recurring themes to keep everything together. For Diablo this was descending through sedimentary history, from gothic masonry to crudely dug catacombs to volcanic caves to hell itself. For the Paths of Od Nua it's the visible bits and pieces of the gigantic statue and repeated hints of the true nature of the Master Below interwoven with the Engwithan opera plot. About the only element out of place were the adra beetles, mostly because their placement was too random and out of sync with the thematic build-up.

Both adventures benefited greatly from the player not knowing just how far the rabbit hole goes (barring internet spoilers) from simply discovering another and yet another set of stairs at the end of each level, building up and stretching expectations with each new descent. After all, you basically start out exploring a church basement. The Endless Paths even, hilariously, keep teasing you with red herring big bads which seem like an appropriate climax to a mere side quest, only for each one to declare "huh? Master Below? no, no, you're looking for that other guy" before pointing you to yet another set of stairs. There's a lot of fun to be had with the inevitable observation that DnD's absurdly oversized dungeons must house their own monster-eat-monster ecology. Best of all, the dungeon does have a definitive beginning and end, obfuscated for dramatic/comedic purposes as it may be. You're not simply rerouted to the start for everything to respawn with 10x the hit points. You've earned your victory.

Games have an artistic side and art is less about the basic concept as about the execution. My basic preferences run toward sweeping open-world adventuring, but Pillars of Eternity's little old-school jaunt through the nine circles of this-and-that gave me a sense of glee you don't normally find in modern monetization strategies .... errr, I mean "games." The Endless Paths of Od Nua are a work of art.

So I have to wonder: why don't we see more of this? Give me a game ostensibly about a basic "cops and robbers" setup only for one robbery to blow open an oversized labyrinthine sub-basement sending me to rescue hostages from aligator-infested sewers only to be drawn into an abandoned subway tunnel adventure with ninja hobos which leads to old World War 2 bunkers covered in mutant ducks, beneath which is the secret underground lair of a mad scientist who, it turns out was really only trying to save the world from the dire threat of morlocks from the steam age fighting the descendants of an old Roman legion, who themselves are trying to escape the lizardmen coming up through lava tunnels which lead to a 65-million-year-old cavern filled with dinosaurs and the ancient alien spaceship which really wiped them all out and yes, I could probably keep going.

Seriously, don't tempt me. I've got misfiring brain cells and I know how to use them.