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.
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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.


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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

Doggerel

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

Dreamfall

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!


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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

Tyranny

"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!

Ahem.
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 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.



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*P.S.
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.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Justice Is Asocial

Decades ago, chatting before the teacher came in back in my high school biology class, a vaguely religious type huffed and puffed that "the world needs more righteous people" to which a skinny little blonde hippie chick piped up: "yeah, righteous, not self-righteous."

I don't normally bother staying topical around here. I'm more about intravening in deep (t)issues. Also, as a dedicated escapist I barely keep up with the news half the time anyway. I am however amused by this whole uproar over Stephen Colbert calling Prezzie Trump a cocksucker, mostly because of the willful ignorance displayed by both Colbert's fans and detractors. The bit itself was actually not much, a fairly mediocre comedian's tirade. I chuckled, though more at the skinheads/Rogaine crack.

While highly amused that Trump's degenerate redneck supporters have suddenly found themselves so breathlessly, apopleptically concerned over insults to the honor of homo-kind, I can't help but note some very good points being made in the process, like: if Colbert had said this about Obama, he'd have been fired, from Comedy Central, from CBS, from a cannon into the sun. Maybe, maybe not. Colbert's after all gotten away with a lot of cheap, crass insults over the years, as have his innumerable right-wing counterparts who called Obama Hitler for eight years straight. You're supposed to get away with such things in a free society. Still, it is true that the audience laughing along with Colbert at Trump's expense is the same which threw fits over every single minute slight brought against Obama's social rank as president, like when a governor wagged her finger at him. Oh noes!
Of course, it's Trump himself who's lowered political discourse to this level but one can't help but notice the self-styled left wing utterly failing to maintain the high ground.

Which is a funny comment to interject in the midst of all this babbling, since it's not the simple act of lèse-majesté which has everyone's panties in a bunch but a perceived implicit slight against homosexuals. You could have taken greater offense to Colbert's follow-up insult to the president's dick size, which by the same microaggressive rationale might wound many more people even more grievously by implying we should be defining our worth by base reproductive attributes. Instead, everyone's scrambling to align themselves with the interests of a morally unassailable social caste.

On a completely unrelated matter, on May 9th, about a week after Colbert's fateful show, the cartoonist and über-gamer John Kovalic decided to post a Dork Tower strip ridiculing those (like myself) who might dare attack the glorious pinnacle of modern moral righteousness. Ironically, the strip falls flat thanks to the same unselfconscious puffed-up ignorance which has made a farce and insult of the "social justice warrior" in the first place. The very term "virtue signaling" serves to remind us that signaling is often used by animals in dishonest fashion, to bluff or seduce or otherwise manipulate others by lying, physically or behaviorally or both. To signal virtue is not necessarily to have virtue, but it seeks virtuous treatment by others.

True justice is not social. That's why you see her blindfolded. It's impersonal, objective, cold to the point of frostbite but fair. Justice does not see the person but only weighs the deeds. To be a social justice warrior is to be a shallow, facetious, hollow caricature of do-gooding, much like the seedily homicidal holy paladins which Kovalic himself has lampooned in his Dungeons and Dragons comics. The SJW seeks to designate a social position as the absolute good and implicitly align herself with it, as a means of advancing in social rank, as a means of attacking others with impunity. It's a primitive, animalistic competitive mechanism. The SJWs chant their slogans, tone-deaf to any nuance, overemotional and under-analytical, willfully blind to anything which does not build up the platform on which they've chosen to make their stand.

So it's only fitting that pro-homo rhetoric should now be used to attack Donald Trump's detractors, because long, long before all this was a left wing practice, the right wing did it better and with more panache. Who should make the greatest social justice warriors of all but backward, reactionary, tribal, religious, Luddite backbirths? We are, after all, talking about fundamentalism here.

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P.S.:
Oh, and by the way, Colbert, as far as I can tell, wasn't even calling Trump gay. He was calling him a whore.
You fucking morons.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

ST:TNG - Samaritan Watchers

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: 2.17
Samaritan Snare

Due to half this episode being muddied by viscous Wesleyitis and an insipid (and terribly acted) B-plot about Picard going into the shop to rinse the rust off his pacemaker, the main plot's greatly reduced. LaForge teleports to a ship run by a dopey, pudgy species of tweedledums.
They are Pakleds. They are far from home. They look for things. Things to make them go. Their ship is broken. Can you make their ship go? Once LaForge does so, they decide to keep him to make them stronk. Turns out any idiot can point a gun at someone, and the stupidity makes the gun no less threatening. Taken hostage, LaForge outwits his captors into surrendering.

While the main idea of babyish cretins exploiting others' generosity, looting and kidnapping their way to greatness is solid, the execution's lacking. Not enough time could be devoted to gradually unveiling the Pakleds' unlikely star-cruising career, so this is delivered as fairly dry exposition. On the other hand, too much time was devoted to establishing their dopey, mumbling, waddling mannerisms, which by way of repetition without nuance grow thin after a couple of reiterations.


________________________________________

Seriesdate: 3.04
Who Watches the Watchers


Hmm. Minus five points for the very tenuous application of Plato's old noodle-scratcher. Then again, I pun half my titles so I'm in no position to talk.
Aside from that, this one's a classic. Right off the bat, even Patrick Stewart sounds more confident and comfortable delivering his standard introductory monologue. Everything's better. Outdoor shots are shot out of doors and not on some poorly-lit sound stage littered with plaster boulders (see The Last Outpost or Hide and QQ.) The actors move and interact with each other more naturally, beyond mere choreography. The special effects support the action instead of being gratuitously showcased. The social commentary's more than facetious political correctness. Best of all, it takes a moldy old SF plot straight out of 1930s young adult pulp magazines and manages to get it to a striking approximation of "right."

There's an old romantic adventure story trope of gun-toting Europeans reaching some primitive tribe who immediately starts worshipping them as gods. Call it imperialist propaganda if you like but that shit goes down more often than you'd think. SF codifies its equivalent in Clarke's third law, whether portraying human gods as aliens or humans being mistaken for gods by aliens. So, in this episode, the Enterprise resupplies a trio of anthropologists observing a planet of "proto-Vulcan humanoids at the bronze-age level." They look more like Romulans but never mind. An equipment malfunction wounds the anthropologists and one of the natives, who in a drugged-out stupor (conveyed by a greased camera lens, really breaking the special effects budget with that one) witnesses Picard giving orders in what he thinks is heaven (sick-bay) and upon being sent back down brings the gospel of the almighty Overseer Picard to his people. All that's missing is a volcano in the background. Hilarity ensues.
Actually, for once it really does, as watching a religion spring up through all its predictable phases in the space of half an hour, Penguin Island style, is a satirical gold-mine.

I believe I have seen the overseer. He is called... The Picard!
Granted, it's not all perfect. Liko, the wounded Mintakan, received his vision of "The Picard" under conditions of physical and emotional stress and was thus understandably susceptible to a rapid slide into delusions of the supernatural and becoming a revival tent Saint Paul. However, Nuria, the level-headed leader of the colony who only gets the story second-hand, should not have turned proselyte so quickly.
It makes perfect sense for Troi to help Riker infiltrate the Mintakan village, but once there we devote no screen time to her applying either her telepathy or her skills as a mediator to the situation.
The anthropologists are surprisingly uninvolved in discussions with their objects of study.
Such corners were likely cut in the interest of cramming the whole plot into forty-five minutes. Also, what the hell was the props department thinking with these bows?
Yeah, they dressed a very modern bow from a sporting goods store up in some rags to make it look vaguely wooden... except they didn't even bother with the grip? Or the arrow? Were there seriously no Robin Hood surplus props lying around the studio? Bah.

Anyhoo, what really makes the episode is the Mintakans themselves. The standard version of the technomagical presto-divinity routine relegates the natives to the status of wide-eyed, mumbling, gullible, excitable dimwits prone to attributing anything and everything to supernatural causes. The Mintakans on the other hand are rational beings with a tendency to show up our current society's own taboos, as Troi's exposition to Riker demonstrates:

Troi: "Mintakan emotions are quite interesting. Like the Vulcans, they have highly ordered minds. A very sensible people. For example" she nudges him aside and struts ahead of him "Mintakan women precede their mates. It's a signal to other women."
Riker: "This man's taken, getcher own?"
Troi: "Not precisely... More like: if you want his services, I'm the one you have to negotiate with."
Riker: "What kind of services?"
Troi, grinning: "All kinds."
Riker: "They are a sensible race!"

More importantly, the writers did not shy away from the question of faith. A conference with the anthropologist pulls no punches in outlining the devolution threatened by a religious revival in the Mintakans: barbarism, repression, holy wars, inquisitions, pogroms. The failure of the intervention would likely ultimately render humans as reviled in Mintakan mythology as the Overlords of A.C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

Mintakan society abandoned religion a millennium ago, and we're given to understand that only the extraordinary conditions of the humans' appearance to Liko overcame their natural rationality. This reverses the old volcano god routine into a perfect illustration of the rationale behind the prime directive. Instead of the mighty civilized people elevating the primitives, too-early contact nearly sends their society backsliding a thousand years into slavish, simpering, anti-intellectual religious idolatry. There's a respect for independent thought, for innate intellectual ability, for stoic Vulcan reason in the script's attitude which is itself a taboo in popular entertainment with its constant reinforcement of mindless emotionalism and codependence. Yet unlike Home Soil which over-exposited its slightly similar theme, Who Watches the Watchers is aided by Stewart's excellent acting in the conversation with the colony leader Nuria.
Nuria: "Perhaps one day my people will travel above the skies."
Picard: "Of that I have absolutely no doubt."

The sense of awe his voice and fixed gaze carry in those seconds manage to eclipse the more conventionally dramatic next scene when he offers himself up as a sacrifice to convince the other natives of his mortality. Here is the captain of an interstellar spaceship with enough firepower to scorch this woman's entire planet, a sky god staring and whispering in hushed, rapt admiration to her in her cheap linen rags. What Picard is witnessing as Nuria watches her planet's clouds from the other side is the potential and promise of these people, intellectual growth itself, the only meaning to be discerned in existence. It's a finer moment than you can find in a thousand hours of television and Stewart captured it perfectly.

For all its unevenness, when TNG was good, it was damn good.

Now think of the Pakleds again. For all their unpleasantness, their story could just as well have been handled the same way, to even more poignant effect. After all, Clarke's protagonist in Childhood's End makes it clear he doesn't believe the Overlords' appreciation of humans is any more than that of a man for his pet dog, liable to bite his hand once in a while, yet the affection is there nonetheless. We can despise the Pakleds as they are now, but if they are capable of intellectual growth then we can still stand in admiration of the advancement itself, of progress.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Banished Bubba's Buboes

I've praised the city village-building game Banished around here before, along with its restrained, dignified aesthetics, promising reinterpretation of video game economics and some of its amusing quirks. One of these is its population growth mechanic.

In order to breed, couples need their own house, and villagers can live up to their eighties but women only breed until forty. This results in waves of population growth followed by decline as old codgers continue to occupy their old houses, preventing new families from moving in. Even as they die and young couples take to cranking out the bambinos, it takes another ten years for these to get to about twenty years old (don't ask) and become fully functional underlings. Thus, the waves of dieback can grow quite significant, to a third of your population:


In the early years it can actually cost you the game, if you allow your entire population to advance past breeding age. You can shore up your numbers by admitting nomads to your village. Sure, they're uneducated, unhealthy, unequipped and unwashed, but what could go wrong?
The little upward spike to the tail-end of that graph in the second image marks the introduction of a hundred-odd new bodies to the village in an attempt to smooth out the boom and bust sinusoid. The immediate sharp decline with which the graph ends marks the PLAGUE!

Nomads and traders increase the odds of an epidemic in your village, and this bunch apparently hailed direct from Caffa. I didn't even know about that feature until it happened to me and I looked it up but it fits so damn perfectly, yet another example of Banished's elegance. A triumph soured, my attempt to speed my town's recovery turned into an added five-year slump (visible in the first graph, the small spike in the third trough) and ironically the population cycle was finally dampened by a well-placed double epidemic a generation later.
Like an uppercut from a dragon. Look, ma, no cutscenes!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wolf Totem

So, I watched a wolf movie 'cuz wolves are amazing (like, duh, y'know?) and while not the fanciest flick I've ever seen, it flicked my fancy enough to scan for the director's name at the end.
Jean-Jacques Annaud. Meh, never heard o' da mook, thinks I, before actually looking him up and realizing I've seen (and either liked or at least not actively disliked) half of his career.

Enemy at the Gates and Seven Years in Tibet were pleasant enough, in a prettified Hollywoodish sort of way.
I take some issue with The Name of the Rose for some of its deviations from the novel, but can't really hold the director at fault for crowd-pleasing story changes.
The Bear's probably his most unique movie qua movie, blissfully free of human babbling for the most part and can give Bambi a run for its money any day.
I would've remembered his work most easily if told "he directed Quest for Fire" which albeit inexcusably sexualized was among the best, if not even the best big-budget grunting hairy paleolithic apeman epic adventure film I've ever seen.
But let us return to our sheep-eaters.

Wolf Totem might as well be a poor attempt at "Dances With Wolves in Inner Mongolia" for its cheesy setup: city boy learns the mystical ways of savagely noble nomadic peoples. Complete with forbidden fruit love interest and old chieftains speaking dire prophecies. Watch enraptured as adequately competent actors politely resent centralized authority!

However, once you get past the awkward reiteration of various archetypes, the cinematography beautifully depicts old steppe scenery, from sweeping seas of grass to cataclysmic weather to costumes and mannerisms and old customs uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, to the wolves themselves. More than just pretty, the various scene-setting, panoramic and action sequences can at times be breathtaking. Also, while the script's eco-friendly moralizing is delivered in the usual trite and naive hippie fashion, let's keep in mind very little of it was actually fabricated.
That hungry wolves are more prone to attacking humans and their livestock in winter has been observed by every temperate region in the world for several thousand years.
Superstitious primitives really are prone to offering up surprisingly reliable and sophisticated practical rules for interacting with their immediate environment, not because their shaman-addled brains have the first clue as to underlying causes but because all the other superstitious primitives who didn't follow such best practices managed to stumble into early graves.
Finally, even without relying on this one novelist's semi-autobiographical account and apocalyptic visions, it should be no news to anyone that China's propensity for ecological disasters ranks second only to its utter disdain for human life.

Wolf Totem's no masterpriece, but it's an uncharacteristically honest (if limited) product of a political system trying to put up a show of atoning for its irredeemable sins, and thanks to its directing and technical skill quite a few of its scenes will stick with you.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

+5 Everything Damage

I've been gushing about Pillars of Eternity and Tides of Numenera's improvements on RPG tropes for the past few months but they both drop the ball when it comes to meaningless proliferation of ability and damage types. I complained about this trend in one of my earliest posts here, and four and a half years later I'm seeing no signs of improvement.

Whatever creative potential the Numenera setting's "esoteries" (magic spells) might have in the pen and paper version is utterly lost on TToN. From level 1, my nano was pigeonholed into shooting a basic magic missile spell, which I could switch, at will, to any damage type I please. Later you of course get the "greater magic missile" or "missile storm" spell which is not just any-purpose but all-purpose.
Leaving aside for the moment the issue of trivializing magic by limiting it to moronic pew-pew, there is no point in pretending to include six different damage types in your combat system unless you're actually going to make players choose between them. The same goes for status effects:
While that item from PoE is a rather extreme and unique example (most items protect against a couple of those) that litany of status effects perfectly illustrates the problem. It is not feasible to even attempt to predict which type of effect will be used by enemies, so you end up relying on the "suspend all negative effects" items or priest spell.

Why do game developers so routinely shoot themselves in the foot?

In PvP games featuring different damage types to be defended against by different armor, the number of options is more often than not limited to two: physical and magic, or physical and "energy" if you're in a SF setting, or "soft" and "hard" damage in Planetside, etc. If you get up to four, as in EVE, you already start seeing them routinely combined for offense, and players ignoring specific defenses in favor of all-purpose safety blankets. I'm sure anyone more versed in game theory than myself would readily name various cogitations on the maximum number of choices before not-choosing becomes the best logical choice. The lady or the tiger? Dodgy choice to begin with. When it's "the lady or the tiger or the tiger or the tiger or the other tiger" you end up collapsing in the arena in resignation or trying to jump the wall.

Nevertheless, it is possible to institute a wide array of choices in PvE so long as you give players some means of scouting or planning ahead. The Lord of the Rings Online, before it got dumbed down into insignificance, had quite a few examples of creatures to be countered by specific abilities (minstrel/loremaster undead dazing for example) or weapons made of one of three particular metals. In an MMO, players would know what kind of dungeon they're planning to run and stock up accordingly, a dynamic carried over from tabletop games. If your D&D group's planning to raid the Tomb of the Bloodless Butler on Thursday, you probably know to stock up on holy water and starch-piercing wooden stakes.

In story-based single-player games, however, developers usually opt against letting players scout ahead in favor of suspenseful secrecy and plot twists, which means including any specific damage/ability counters in the game mechanics is either purely cosmetic, or worse, a whole barrel full of red herrings. Do yourselves a favor and stop wasting development time on implementing options which you'll only waste more employee hours homogenizing into irrelevance two patches later when your play-testers throw up their hands in frustration at being blindsided.

Do it right or not at all.

Monday, May 1, 2017

In Absentia Absentia

It's midnight and you should be dead already. Steady hands are in short supply, eyes dry since two decades' December remember the first past fast lost last future surrender, no presents in the present. Presence displaces un-faces, retraces telomeric regression, chimeric persuasion of a future distended to Presence discredit with unsung scores of regressing sores, spots hippocampally situated. Diluted intent intently dilettadabbles in fables relenting their morals in favor of floral promises to dreary marble edifices resounding lachrymal disingenuities to smother perpetuities. Present cadence voraciously subatriates ventriculating disdainfully against presence posterity with criminal neutrality. Posterior unity as to Presence discongruity perpetuates Presence futility, extraneous extance, degenerate genity generous only in thermodynamic disparity. 'Mid nights' periodicity Presence diss corpore but vanity sullies intent on dissent with lubadub sinphonies. Each night mediocre potentia choker Presence revoking sing chiseled moniker marbling invoker of Presence redeemed by rectangular perpendicular absence restorer knife/noose/jump/shoots/drug/hug the track close. Chug-a-chug your redemption, pen a last Presence mention, defection your peace declaration, but we all know you won't grow past your slow degradation. Your absence present, happy day long away they would thank you eventually. Your absence would free them, beg Presence no more than a requiem, all it has ever been, never the courage to absent the corporem. It's past midnight and it's just another day and you still haven't done it yet, set your clock for the next, set your bet for yet another regret.It's past midnight and you're not absent yet.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Torment: Tides of Numenera

"Like the diamond that cuts the light
The radiation from a single mind
We have outlived ourselves
For many a ruined year"

Faith and the Muse - Shattered in Aspect


Once upon a timeless inchoate void, there was a computer role-playing game called Planescape: Torment which received widespread, lasting (and well-deserved) praise for its quality writing and reliance on roleplaying to advance the plot instead of mowing down a linear progression of faceless baddies. Unlike most computer games, RPGs included, Torment's texts read like immersive fiction with smoothly flowing dialogue and evocative descriptions.

However, Torment wasn't a choose-your-own text adventure, and there was more to its appeal than meaningful dialogue options or shooting the breeze with NPCs. The "Planescape" portion of the game's title indicated its setting, a spin-off of the most memorable concept to come out of Dungeons and Dragons, the alignment wheel and the multiversal world built on said alignments. Much of the game discussed heavens and hells, purpose and freedom, and penned characters based on these ideas according to their appointed spokes on the great wheel. It maintained coherent themes grim enough to imbue your actions with repercussions. Its music, décor and character models sustained that

In contrast, Planescape: Torment's self-appointed successor features a happy shiny magic door through which orphans can go to find adoptive families. Almost two decades later, to whatever extent Torment: Tides of Numenera might represent its new Numenera setting it offers precious little torment. (As to its content of tides, it kind of goes up and down.) The two games' dissimilarity is not entirely a bad thing, and in fact Tides manages to bridge some very serious cRPG pitfalls from which its predecessor suffered.

For all its roleplaying immersion, Planescape: Torment's combat side was woefully lacking, tacked on in deference to DnD expectations but clumsy and vaguely extraneous. You greatly cleaved and magically missiled waves upon waves of trash mobs on your way to and from quest NPCs, mostly letting your party autoattack until you heard Dak'kon say "the karach sings true!" A bit of a chore. It was and has been the standard leveling grind expected of cRPGs, and T:ToN blessedly does away with it, granting character experience for completing tasks and not for racking up a head count.

As discussed vis-a-vis the issue of stealth, removing at least some of the incentive for indiscriminate killing serves more than a purely aesthetic purpose. It opens up new styles of gameplay.
Meet Tides' crisis mode:

Not, not combat mode. Tides has no combat mode. In the place of punchy-time you get crises, which most often include some punchiness or the option of pugnacity, but also punching time-cards or serving punch. While turn-based conflicts and usable items are not uncommon in RPGs, I've never seen one incorporate non-combat aspects of gameplay quite so seamlessly. Use your turns to attack, interact with the environment, complete objectives, attempt to negotiate with NPCs, show the enemy what you've got in your pocketses, whatever your gallbladder desires (and the monkey writing the script remembered to bang into the typewriter.) In the example above, the crisis mode is actually used to handle a conversation with several NPCs. Combat situations grow much more naturally out of advancing through your story than they do in most RPGs.

Combine this with an excellent character stat system using STR/DEX/INT stats as consumable resource pools as well as passive boosts, thereby reviving the laudable concept of resource management so lamentably shunned by the rest of the game industry these days. Pile onto all that goodness a gear system that doesn't just pile on redundant stat-boosting duplicate armor pieces and usable items which cannot simply be endlessly accumulated in your inventory and rotated into your quickslots as fix-all solutions. Tides solves most of the problems cRPGs have created for themselves over the past decades. It's also, overall, a meticulously, minutely and masterfully scripted journey free of bugs, exploits, loose ends or redundancies. It's probably the second game of this type I've played (besides VtM:Bloodlines) in which I didn't wind up with a gigantic pile of useless cash by the end. For some (like myself) the dampened stochasticity grates a bit as I prefer my RPGs to tend toward open-world sandboxes (see Mount&Blade) rather than toward linear adventure games nailed to a specific plot, but one can't deny how impressively tightly woven InXile's product is. In terms of game mechanics and player interaction, this is what third-person cRPGs should be from now on.
Hell, it's what they should've been years and years ago if the game industry didn't refuse to improve its products as a matter of principle.

...

However...

For all its well-deserved accolades, one title I cannot lavish on TToN is a spiritual successor to Planescape:Torment. When I first played Pillars of Eternity I had the distinct feeling its title was no accident, these people are in it for the long haul, that the game was a platform meant to kick off something big, the "RPG revival" as I half-jokingly labelled it. Tides, while using PoE's basic engine, avoids PoE's much edgier setting and writing in favor of selling its gameplay improvements to a wider audience. What this amounts to, unfortunately, is the old routine of abusing an existing niche audience for free publicity to bait and switch your product to appeal to a new, presumably wider audience. When Chris Avellone (who wrote for both games) said they were very different projects, he was likely understating matters a great deal, and it certainly doesn't feel like something geared toward fans of the first Torment.

Before I judge InXile too harshly here, I will admit it's been eighteen freakin' years since everyone learned what can change the nature of a man, so maybe they couldn't entirely count on repeat business from an audience of nameless ones. Unfortunately, adapting to a new market now means marketing to millennials (or as I've called them, Generation Facebook) a sniveling crop of overemotional intellectual cripples who'll duck and cover for their safe spaces at the drop of a head. Planescape:Torment was largely a tale of rebelling against one's own nature. Millennials are an entire generation incapable of producing a counterculture movement, so addicted to constant social reinforcement they couldn't even be bothered to rebel against their parents, much less themselves. So, perhaps inevitably, there's very little torment to be found in the tides of numenera.

Terrible things happen in the game, sure. Y'know, technically. You hear of people getting maimed and killed and eaten alive and occasionally wipe your boots in some innocent's entrails, yet somehow the depictions of death and despair lack that visceral immediacy which brought Torment's torments to unlife. The depictions of poverty lack the due nihilism of a society's punching bags found in Sigil's slums. None of your NPC companions possess the looming menace of Vhailor or the vicious abandon of Ignus. The music never booms the full depth of those pits of despair known as the human condition. Even the Dendra O'Hur seem unnecessarily sanitized. Though Tides sets up ample opportunity for darker plot twists throughout its run, these are constantly muted, truncated, restrained.

It's not like the team lacked talent. Look at this:
Numenera's defined mainly by being a far-future science fantasy setting. The influence of the past would by then litter the entire planet: new ruins atop old ones, houses upon houses, Troys atop Troys. From the perspective of a billion years in the future it really is turtles all the way down, and the graphic artist who designed the background here managed to convey at least a hint of that feeling by sculpting the building's two levels in two different styles. Minor impressions like that grace many of the game's backgrounds, descriptions and items but are constantly held back by the overall design decision to keep things light and airy, sunny and optimistic.

Nothing so delineates this divergence as the utterly different natures of The Nameless One and the Last Castoff. As the Nameless One the dark deeds you unveiled were inescapably your own, regardless of your memory loss. Pillars of Eternity toyed with this idea as well through its soul permanence and awakenings. TToN on the other hand makes it clear that the castoffs are new beings born in the instant the Changing God leaves a body, and you are therefore an innocent ignorant, exculpated a priori of any misdeeds your body perpetrated before your Haibaneish fall from grace. How convenient. You are denied even the dignity of owning your faults.

This postmodernist absolutist moral relativism manifests in the replacement of alignments with tides as well. While the old good/evil dichotomy is certainly simplistic, it at least acknowledged the discernment of right and wrong. The tides on the other hand shy from calling anything evil while labeling you instead in terms of psychological traits like impulsiveness or egocentrism, which would be all well and good if the game's various events didn't then consistently link silver and red to negative outcomes and gold and purple to do-gooding along the predictable old perceptions and delineations of good and evil, except lacking the added nuance of order and chaos. If we're to take such a system seriously, then we'd need a lot more examples of gold-star altruism being used against the perpetrator (parasitism, confidence artists, etc.) or prosaically purple communism beating down the will of individuals, of red-blooded fights against oppression and silver-lined brows reaching for the lofty heights above the hoi-polloi.

What's more, the blue tide being linked to information-gathering probably ensures that every player will wind up defined as blue, especially on a first playthrough. Trust me, there isn't nearly that much intellectualism to be found in human nature. When asking questions opens up so many dialogue options, it becomes meaningless to reward the player for self-servingly advancing the conversation, and it's one of the two noticeable ways in which Tides manages to trip over its own means of interaction. The other is the rather claustrophobic feel of the game's various zones. Though packed with content, they're inescapably cramped by today's standards, making the whole setting feel a bit like a goofy little Whoville rather than the expansive vista of mechanomagical wonders promised by far-future Clarkian fantascience. Once again, this is a departure from the first Torment, which actually allowed for a great deal of exploration through Sigil's nooks and crannies.

Ah, well, I could go on.
(And I probably will, but another day.)

For now, a simple conclusion:
Play it! Tell your loosely-defined Facebook "friends" about it! Spread the (mostly) good word!
Torment: Tides of Numenera is one of the best cRPGs around, and its flaws are for the most part representative of the audience it addresses, which means you won't get much better themes in games until another generation goes by. Hopefully its rather bland artistic side will succeed in selling Tides' gameplay mechanics to a whole new up-and-coming crop of gamers which will then grow up taking them for granted as cRPG staples instead of the current "kill ten rats" industry standard. One can only dream.