Tuesday, January 31, 2017

-and We're All Really Puny

"It's big and black and inky
And we're all small and dinky
It's a big universe and we're not"

I loved watching Animaniacs when I was nine or ten. I loved the unabashedly goofy parodies of movies my parents watched, the overextended puns (polka, Dot?) and especially the little half-minute interludes like Useless Fact and Good Idea, Bad Idea. Like most, I wholeheartedly enjoyed the show's take on "educational" content, segments created not so much to make children memorize but to make children think about a certain topic. You may or may not have committed Yakko's virtuoso rendition of the countries of the world to memory, but you sure as hell walked away thinking "wow, there's like soooo many freakin' countries in the world" and it made you more likely to pay attention when the topic of geography came up in class or (heaven forfend) crack open an atlas on your own time.

I maintain though that the real high point of the whole show was the "It's a Great Big Universe" song. Characterizing "the entire human race" as gap-toothed yokels on safari:
- it also dared to enter the Twilight Zone of the truly mind-bending with the line about the universe being "maybe just inside a little jar" but more importantly it didn't try to completely efface the inevitable existential angst of the scale of the universe, of the Total Perspective Vortex. A fan wiki informs us the song parodied Monty Python's Galaxy Song from The Meaning of Life "albeit with a slightly more upbeat ending message" but in a way it works to even more devastating effect to have placed the line "it's a big universe and we're not" in the middle of the song only to follow it up with even greater and greater scopes of universality.

To my shame I never connected the two songs even after I watched The Meaning of Life many years later. In more recent years I'd assumed the cartoon must've followed on the heels of Carl Sagan's famous "pale blue dot" speech but it apparently predates it by a year and a month.

So there prances Yakko Warner, gamboling somewhere between Eric Idle and Carl Sagan, confident that children's minds will not break from the strain of acknowledging their own insignificance. The ending message is more upbeat, sure:
"its a big universe and it's ours"
and in itself that was a crucial message for children to hear, because the universe is not gods' or devils' and it's not ruled by fate or the great cosmic Chi (-a Pet) or any other bullshit. It's ours. As pathetic as we are, we infinitesimal specks of apeshit are apparently the only ones capable of purposeful action. It's up to us to reshape infinity.

Can you tell children that these days? Do any children's cartoons dare to depress kids into tears one verse with their own insignificance then saddle them with a universe's cares the next? Or have (as it seems to me) we made the mistake of raising millennials with the false impression that their precious fee-feels are the point of all existence, that the universe stands or breaks asunder on the knife edge of political correctness, that all perspective must take a back-seat to the fear of committing "micro-aggressions" against one another?

"And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space
'Cause there's bugger-all down here on Earth!"
Monty Python - The Meaning of Life

Sunday, January 29, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Skill Books

So, as you bleed your way through Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, you'll encounter a few of these:
Ability boosting books. Each increases one specific skill one level, a freebie equivalent to a quest reward's worth of experience points. Sell them to a store and the store will re-stock it, allowing you to gain the bonus twice.

I hate 'em. In theory. In practice, I can't keep my hand out of the cookie jar. This time around I'm justifying it by telling myself I've picked a difficult path by focusing on guns instead of melee so I'm really just evening out the game's imbalances. That exculpates me of abusing a blatant exploit, right?

Still, my personal weakness of character aside, these gimmies represent a significant if hardly game-breaking flaw in an otherwise solid character advancement system. Role-playing games should be about player choice. Your character's stats and skills should not be automatically padded to compensate for your lapses in judgment. If you choose to go the whole campaign without allocating any points to lockpicking then run across a locked treasure chest, that's your problem, and you should suffer for it. Among the most blatant such freebies were Dragon Age: Origins' attribute boosters in The Fade.
The amount of attribute points (several levels' worth) was bad enough; worse yet their pre-determined ratio of +4 DEX, +2 CON and so forth. If you're gonna hand out attribute points fine, but let me be the one to allocate them. Hinting to players that they may want to invest in their Strength stat for future challenges is fine, but don't hold their hand and outright give them strength points.

I've already ranted against the over-use of activated inventory items in a previous post, but it amounts to the same idiocy.

Bloodlines' skill books can only be used to gain two specific levels out of the five possible for each skill. So if you're too low, you'll have to catch up. If you've already passed that level, you just screwed yourself. Along with their static, non-randomized nature, this resulted in every cheat guide telling players exactly what skills NOT to raise above a certain level until they can abuse the skill books. On your first run-through it feels like your foresight in investing in certain skills early on instead of relying on books is being punished; on subsequent playthroughs it feels like this giant freaking exploit's being shoved in your face. Use it or you're a loser.
That's my character sheet upon leaving Santa Monica. Two computer points, two stealth points and one firearms point were acquired for free, more or less doubling my character growth so far.

Don't even dare say that players who want a challenge should just deny themselves an obvious bonus. It's those lacking foresight who should be denied a safety net. If players end up foregoing a crucial ability as their "dump stat" then it's either informed personal choice, so our self-flagellation's our own business, or they're just retards and their whining should be publicly mocked, shamed and shunned. Retards should suffer.

That humorous excerpt from the Computer skill book would be funnier if I hadn't actually named my family's first desktop computer "Chip" and written it in marker at the top of its monitor. Hey, I was thirteen and it seemed punny at the time.
And yes, it was retarded of me and I do suffer every time I remember it.

Friday, January 27, 2017

ST:TNG - Wesleyitis

"Y'all gonna make me lose my mind
Up in here, up in here
Y'all gonna make me go all out
Up in here, up in here
Y'all gonna make me act the fool
Up in here, up in here
Y'all gonna make me lose my cool
Up in here, up in here

Y'all niggas is characters, not even good actors"

DMX - Party Up (Up in Here)

Before I go on to the main event: Wil Wheaton was not a good actor in The Next Generation. He was a mediocre wannabe child star whose portrayal of his role consisted mostly just of looking confused or over-emoting. I don't particularly care what he's done since then. I'm aware he's made a name for himself online and I've seen him guest starring on The Big Bang Theory, but nothing I've read or heard by him has ever seemed erudite, artistic or clever enough for me to actively take notice of him.

That being said, Wil Wheaton was also not a bad actor. Certainly not by TV standards, or by Star Trek standards. I'll still take him over Shatner anyday. He seemingly got a lot of hate during and immediately after TNG's run, most of which really should have been directed at the incredibly cheesy scripts the poor guy had to read off without bursting into laughter. Give him some credit for managing to make the best of bad writing.

Much as I said in reference to the internet phenomenon Leeroy Jenkins, I don't particularly care about the player behind the role so much as the role itself and its impact. Like Tasha Yar, Wesley Crusher makes a good object lesson in how not to develop a character. Now on to my take on that dread malady inflicting so many ST:TNG scripts, Wesleyitis.
Seriesdate 1.06
Where No One Has Gone Before

Already discussed here but it set the tone for most Weasely episodes after. Wesley's scenes had pretty much nothing to do with the rest of the action. Every five to ten minutes characters were simply forced to stop whatever they were doing to gaze in rapt admiration and lavish servile adulation on the Enterprise's wunderkind... who hadn't actually done anything yet!

Seriesdate 1.08

Baywatch in space!
There's a decent SciFi plot about a sentient race reaching the capacity for self-governance buried somewhere in this episode but you'll have to dig it out of the endless gratuitous panoramas of chiseled and/or curvy young blond(e)s in loincloths. If you manage that, you'd still be left with scene after scene of Picard and Beverly Crusher lamenting poor, innocent Wesley about to be put to death for jaywalking. Never mind the real question should've been of enlightened despotism, superstition, selective enforcement, yadda-yadda. We need to take half an hour to discuss how much we like Wesley, how dedicated we are to Wesley's safety, how we're all willing to get court-martialed to save Wesley, how special Wesley is, it's always Wesley, Wesley, Marcia!

One of the biggest issues with an artificially inflated character like this is that it just gobbles up screen time by the reel. Everything he does, every line, every gesture, every pregnant pause requires an extra layer of gravitas to reinforce his specialness in the absence of his actually doing anything special.

Seriesdate 1.13

More critically, a disease like Wesleyitis will spread inexorably to cripple the rest of the cast, and if you want a perfect example you can watch the first episode where Data's evil goateed alternate universe twin brother "Lore" is introduced. Lore deactivates Data and impersonates him. Wesley sees through the blatantly obvious ruse but nobody else does because only Wesley gets to be special! The entire crew needs to play dumb to make Wesley look clever.

More so, Wesley needs to look like a martyr willing to go against the current to stand for what's right, the last righteous man, etc. but of course since his whole situation is actually so safe, so simplistic, so... milquetoast, it's the other characters around him who suddenly have to begin telling him off for no reason instead of kissing his ass as usual to make us sympathize with our poor downtrodden boy wonder's plight. It gets to the point where Picard has to switch gears, completely against his image as a stern, calculating father figure, and begin acting like a hotheaded petty bully.

Though I think we can all agree the phrase "shut up Wesley" should've cropped up much more often.

Seriesdate 1.19
Coming of Age

"It's a good thing you're cute, Wesley, or you could really be obnoxious."

So sayeth the first of Wesley's one-episode love interests. Already discussed here but I wanted to add that this particular line grabbed my attention. Wesley's obnoxious precisely because he's cute, because we're supposed to buy him as a transcendent genius yet also somehow the all-American boy next door, praised and adored six ways from Sunday but also somehow struggling against some imagined antagonistic resistance to his messianic destiny.

Seriesdate 2.10
The Dauphin

Oh, ye gods. What is there to even say about this one?
Wesley falls in love with a beautiful young high-cheekboned space princess, except she turns out to be a shapeshifting space yeti princess instead! Oh noes!
Aside from the groaningly bad planetary romance plot, it was funny watching Wheaton get slightly out-acted by his one-shot romantic counterpart (not even a professional actress apparently) and something about the other shriveled old shapeshifting yeti nursemaid's costume and demeanor immediately reminds one of a Bene Gesserit, especially when squaring off against Gurney Halleck.
This could've been a great story about two strong-willed young people each choosing to follow a promising career or the greater good instead of indulging in a romantic entanglement, or each unwilling to be subsumed by the other's personality, a sort of One Day, One Room scenario. Instead it's forty minutes of sappy adolescent angst that'd make Romeo and Juliet roll their eyes and gag, brightened only by a few short scenes of the crusty, hard-nosed old bat arguing with Picard, Pulaski, Geordi or Worf or whoever gets in her way.

Take notice: Wesley's romances must needs fit the "star-crossed" recipe. It can never be the case that they meet and turn out to have hilariously nothing in common, or the girl turns out to be a racist sadist with bad breath or heaven forfend, she's perfect but just has no sexual interest in our hero. Wesley gets the cream of the crop and they all fall madly in love with him but wouldn't you know it, the universe itself conspires to keep them apart!

So I gotta say, Wes, buddy, so she gets a little hairy in the mornings, so what? She's a shapeshifting princess. You're not gonna do any better. Go for it, dude. Hit that like it's a shag rug.

Seriesdate 1.17
When the Bough Breaks

And yet, Wesley's mere presence didn't spell doom for quite every episode in which he appeared. Here, despite playing a fairly central role, his impact is limited to that of a clever and brave young space cadet and not allowed to completely overshadow the rest of the cast. Kidnapped along with other, younger children, Wesley's mostly shown to act as their de facto leader without simply setting all things to rights by wiggling his nose. A hero, but within marginally more believable bounds.

Seriesdate 2.15
Pen Pals

By mid season 2 the show's writing had begun to improve, and this included a better sense of the wunderkind's proper proportions among the cast. Epidemics of Wesleyitis still occurred (note The Dauphin aired just five episodes prior) but when Weasely occupied the B-plot instead of the main event he grew gradually more and more bearable. Here he's put in charge of a geologic survey team (or the 24th century equivalent thereof) and winds up running the correct scientific test to help Data keep a cute little girl's planet from exploding. Some tediously drawn out coming of age dialogue between him and Riker still eats into the science fiction plot and the more interesting discussion of the prime directive, but at least the brat's not farting rainbows any more. His superior intellect supports Geordi and Data's own superior intellects and their greater experience.

Seriesdate 2.17
Samaritan Snare

The main plot here's worth discussing another time. The B-plot involves Wesley and Picard riding a shuttle to a space station.

Two men in a boat. Again, the trite and superfluous coming of age crap eats sizeable chunks of air time, yet much less painfully than before. Their dialogues are used more efficiently, not only to lavish attention on The Chosen One but to also reveal more about Picard and at the same time reveal more about ordinary life in the far future. Picard's storytelling does a good job of outlining a society still changing, still advancing, and Wesley seems more like a young ensign learning from an honored superior and not the promised child blinding all others with the light upon his brow. Cheap and effective scenes, when used sparingly. I like 'em.

When Wesley passes his Starfleet exams, it's not to any world-shaking consequences and no hangers-on wait at his elbow to tell him how great he is, unlike in "Coming of Age."

Ironic that Roddenberry et co. created Wesley Crusher a decade after the term "Mary Sue" came into being in relation to bad fan fictions of the original Star Trek universe, as though they aimed to parody themselves. Endless rants have been scribed on the topic, I'm sure.

I'd rather frame things thus: Wesley was a fantasy character misplaced in a science fiction setting. Science Fiction is bottom-up. Fantasy is top-down. SF is evolution while Fantasy's creationism. Things happen in Fantasy books because "it's magic" because of the mysterious machinations of wills beyond the ken of mortals. Things happen in SF due to rational agents making them happen out of nuts and bolts. The Wesley in Pen Pals uses scientific (by Star Trek standards) knowledge to arrive at a plan of action and executes it with limited and not entirely predictable results - but that's a rare occurence. The Wesley in most Wesley episodes need do no more than lay on hands to a starship engine and furrow his brow to make it work. He should have been Ender Wiggin. He was written as a prelude to Harry Potter. Instead of a super-intellect who learns from real-world phenomena and builds his understanding of the world, taking action according to his abilities and the constraints of his environment, Wesley was introduced as simply... "special" in some nondescript magical way. Every single person he meets fawns over him ceaselessly, he meets no adversity whatsoever, yet at the same time we're meant to buy his being oh-so put-upon in some nebulous fashion, until other characters have to be re-written around him in order to fit these fantasies of perfection and persecution.

Now, while Harry's annoying enough at Hogwarts, he was an utter disaster aboard the Enterprise.

By the end of season two when he became borderline bearable, it was already too late, time to excise the tumor because no treatment could fix the damage already done. If you're gonna come up with a character like this, first try to figure out whether you're writing SF or Fantasy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! The Ocean House

As this series of posts runs through the entire length of the classic computer role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, assume spoilers.

"Rain just falls at magic hour
It's just the sound of you and me
Time twitching murmurs of our friendly machine"

Goldfrapp - Pilots (on a star)

Welcome to the Ocean House Hotel!
You get sent here as part of Jeanette and Therese Voerman's quest chain to find Bertram Tung so you can find the warehouse you're supposed to blow up so you can advance from Santa Monica to the Downtown area, which arguably makes this part of the main quest chain while feeling like anything but a main event. I tend to like "haunted house" themes in RPGs and adventure games, chasing an intangible quasi-foe by uncovering whatever sordid crimes and misdemeanors yet bind it to this plane. They tend to involve the exact opposite of hack'n'slash or pixel-hunting and strive for atmospheric locales and half-glimpsed terrors, making for excellent counterpoints to the usual zombie-slaying routine. The entire "survival horror" subgenre of adventure games was built around this sort of thing, but I'll gladly stack the Ocean House chapter of Bloodlines against any of them.

The basic plot's nothing to write home about. Jealous husband turns axe murderer, yadda-yadda Stephen King yadda-yadda. Until replaying the game now, I never consciously realized how it managed to pull off so captivating an effect with so sparse an array of objects and characters.
The two apparitions never stick around more more than a second's glimpse. A lot of old-timey black and white photographs fly off the walls toward you in a threatening manner, vases explode and at one point all the pots and pans start poltergeisting around the hotel's kitchen.
Now we're getting somewhere! As you huddle there in a corner trying not to get beaten to an ignominious final death by tin crockery, you start to realize the noise is the whole point. An eerily silent hotel basement suddenly erupts in a cacophony of metal clanging, an effect achieved with little more than the generic noise the objects would make when tossed around in-game anyway. Rarely do you see (or rather hear) so much achieved with (apparently) so little.

Bloodlines' failings in fully utilizing the Source engine for visual effect were more than compensated for by an inspired aural background throughout the game. While other locales feature apt musical scores or well-acted character voices, the Ocean House glories in short, succinct and to the point sound effects unequaled since yon olden days of radio dramas.

As soon as you enter, a storm begins to sound outside (as it must in a ghost story, natch) and will not abate until you finish your quest but will drift out of earshot occasionally when the artistic direction calls for stifling silence instead. Discordantly twanging single strings resonate from nowhere in the back of certain corridors. Staring into an elevator shaft through the broken doors you can hear the wind whistling - needless to say it's made to sound almost like the wailing of thin, desperate voices. Attempting to walk upstairs along empty halls you fall through the crumbling staircase only to immediately hear slow, deliberate footsteps... from above you! Stuck in the basement, you uncover the first few clues as to the grisly murders perpetrated herein, including this delightful tidbit:
Your next stop is of course the laundry room, where something rattles heavily in a single operating laundry machine until it stops and creaks open at your approach to reveal... not a severed child's head! Psych!
A slow, awkward little clumsy piano tune congratulates you on managing to start the elevator. You enter it only to hear a monstrously evil voice cackling as the doors shut. You brace yourself, expecting to fall or to be trapped forever... only to find the doors pinging politely open for you on the second floor. Jump scares are easy. Averted jump scares, now that's a whole different matter. Successfully alternating the two is what makes for real suspense. Only after you exit the elevator do you hear it, out of sight in the locked room next door: the unmistakable sound of a metal blade striking meat and bone and being extracted with effort again and again, continuously.
As I remarked in my comments about The Secret World's Faust Capital mission, part of games' value as artistic medium lies in carefully frustrating the player by sometimes making him feel powerless, helpless to affect a certain situation despite an entire arsenal of supernatural or futuristic abilities. Everything in the Ocean House retreats perpetually just out of your reach, glimpsed or heard but disappearing as soon as you open the next door.

I remembered the ending to the Ocean House as slightly disappointing, but this was apparently due to my playing the scandalously incomplete release version of the game. You ascend the hotel to an apparent idiotic Super Mario platform-jumping nightmare tangle of collapsed ceiling beams... only to have the friendlier of the two ghosts helpfully reconstitute the room momentarily to its sunny 1958 glory -
- leaving you to effortlessly cross the last few steps and retrieve the macguffin, her locket. A heartwarmingly anticlimactic but fitting, bittersweet finish for an otherwise gloomy and gruesome story. Yet there was something missing. No, really, there was something literally missing because the incomplete soundtrack to my old version of the game lacked that rich, warm female voice suddenly crooning "if I lived forever you just wouldn't be so beautiful as the sun." This, in a vampire game, from a ghost begging you to banish her. Like a stake through my shriveled heart.
I love it!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel

Talkin' 'bout Robert Heinlein's book by the same title. Personally I do not currently possess even a swim suit, much less a space suit, and I've proven myself shamefully sedentary.

Basically it's half Heinlein brilliance and half unnecessary concessions to an imagined audience - conceded by Heinlein or his editors, I couldn't begin to guess. The cuddly aliens are good and the ugly ones evil, natch. It suffers from a half-baked, highly cliched ending worthy of the unworthiest Hollywood hack. Aside from that, more than one chapter ends in some ridiculous, telegraphed cliffhanger or deus ex machina, evidence of its original serialization. In that, however, also lies the book's greatest strength: escalation.

There's this teenage boy, you see, from Anytown, U.S.A., very smart and hard-working and laudable and relatable and all that sells. Then, as the title suggests, he acquires a space suit (through means likely intended to cozy up to F&SF's advertisers, a soap jingle contest.) Then he ends up traveling to the moon. Then he travels further... and further... and further still. It's not like you don't see it coming despite the protagonist's artificially innocent sense of wonder but it was Heinlein's gift, as with many good authors, to make you want to pull back each new curtain, to flip each page thirsty to unveil every new vista grander and more mind-boggling than the last.

It comes across as not predictable but fitting, just as in Wells' The Time Machine you read of the time traveler skipping minutes ahead to test his machine and then days and then you can't wait to see the aeons fly by and you just know, it just fits so well, that by the end he will reach the end of all things, a perspective which dwarfs all human ambition to nothingness. Heinlein unfortunately shies away from an appropriately nihilistic ending but Have Spacesuit, Will Travel carries that same awe which must grip us medium-sized mammals at the inhuman scale of time and space. We've seen the spiral diagrams of the age of the universe with human time as a nail's breadth sliver of irrelevance; we've seen the infinitely regressing "Powers of Ten" documentary montages zooming out from pale blue dot to swarming insensible disco-lights among which even our galaxy gets lost. Heinlein manages to make it personal, not so much through the two heroes as through the common thread of the spacesuit in question, dusted off and patched up and donned yet again for each step of the journey, described in such painstaking detail that you can almost taste the chafed gaskets.

I'm having trouble classifying this as a juvenile or "young adult" book regardless of its official denomination. The protagonists are young. So what? Is a story about octogenarians only meant to be distributed in nursing homes? So it's got a painfully trite happy ending. Big deal. So do Great Expectations and The Odyssey, not to mention every single R-rated movie belched forth by Hollywood. Deus ex machina plot devices? Have you ever seen a TV drama? What exactly's supposed to condemn this as juvenile? Maybe it's all the arithmetic, the main character doing the math every other chapter to figure out how many thousands and millions of miles he's traveled. Yeah, that must be it.

Everyone knows mature stories are all about the feels. Math, engineering, science, transcendent intellectual inquiry, it's not like you actually find those in serious literature so they must be, ipso facto, juvenile.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Santa Monica

As this series of posts runs through the entire length of the classic computer role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, assume spoilers.

Welcome to Bloodlines' rendition of Santa Monica, California. I'm sure this is what it must look like in real life too.
The bum with the placard never ceases to amuse me. I know the trope's been popular in other games and TV shows like Futurama as well but honestly, after having lived half my life in the midst of two large urban centers I have to say you learn to expect this sort of thing. It should be included in Sim City. Your town can't be said to have hit the big time until you produce lice-ridden, foghorn-voiced street-corner prophets in knit caps and torn mittens.
This guy though, this guy's got it goin' on. Just look at that professionally stenciled lettering!

There's actually very little to be said about the Santa Monica zone itself. It's an introduction, and while this in no way makes it dull, it does mean most stories started here will be continued in later acts and better discussed there. Most RPGs make some show of obfuscating the "main quest" with some sort of preamble, yet nevertheless feed you cinematic teasers about the evil big evil evil necromancer/dragon/devil/archdemon you'll eventually face down in a climactic finish. Bloodlines on the other hand successfully buries the main event for its entire first quarter or half, tantalizing you instead with a tangle of other storylines stretching from one major zone to the next. News broadcasts foreshadow quests you'll only discover once you reach Downtown and Hollywood, leaving Santa Monica feeling... homey. Provincial. Under the radar. Beneath contempt. While the Downtown hub houses most of your important contacts, I think it was important for your own lair to be placed in a small-time drizzly backwater, a nice place to call home.

It carries a feel for exactly what's missing from most games: a sense for contrast, scale and proportion, a realization that experiences are only "special" in contrast to the mundane, the supernatural only noticeable in juxtaposition to the natural, the inhuman in contrast to the all too human, the grandiose in contrast to the petty. So you start slow, not mowing down entire armies of zombies/goblins/etc. as you would in the first few quests of most RPGs, but knocking a few human drugrunners over the head in a ramshackle cottage by the beach. Like that other old masterpiece Planescape: Torment, Bloodlines gets a lot done with dialogue, lending your character a more tangible personality through your social (or antisocial) interactions. Under scrutiny most of your deeds in Santa Monica aren't supernatural, and even as crimes they border on petty larceny. You read some poor sap's e-mails and blackmail him over cheating on his wife. You trick some numbskull into paying you for a piece of driftwood. You can intimidate a random pedestrian into giving you his watch. You break and enter local human businesses. You take some bounty hunting work "under the table" from nasal voiced, pudgy, greasy old Arthur Kilpatrick and his fantabulous Krime-puter!

Even the vampires you meet are predominantly "thin bloods" or those so weak as to barely qualify as more than leeches. However, now I'm getting ahead of myself. The warehouse job you pull off to move on to the Downtown zone isn't worth mentioning, except to say it would've scored off the charts in the crate review system and was exactly the sort of thing I was speaking against when I pronounced my extremophilia. Other quests and chains are more inspired but warrant their own posts to discuss them in terms of game design.

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Item of interest:
2016 was the hottest year ever recorded. Big surprise, right? After 2014 broke the record and 2015 pole-vaulted over that one? It's called a trend, kiddies.

Item of disgust:
The reactionary self-serving maniacal baboons voted into the presidency by a majority (-2 million) of troglodytic rednecks have spouted shrill and repeated promises to destroy the scant few regulations attempting to keep U.S.-based fossil fuel profiteers in check.

Item of interesting disgust:
Ninety dolphins just committed seppuku in Florida. Maybe they're protesting our stupidity, maybe just trying to jump out of the boiling pot. Who the hell knows? All I know is it's looking more and more likely they were the smarter mammals all along. "So long and thanks for all the fish" indeed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Remember the Gordian Knot?

"Burn the bridge, stall the machine
Cut those ties, come kiss the guillotine
Blow your mind, break the routine
Leave everything behind, come taste the gasoline"

KMFDM - Gasoline

It's generally accepted that RPGs lose most of their nuance and flexibility in the transition from tabletop to desktop, from pen and paper to mouse and keyboard. I'm especially aware of it since I tend to play spellcasters, and when your character can reshape the very fabric of reality you end up asking yourself quite often why you're doing everything the stupid way.

Take possibly the most common RPG trope: getting on NPCs' good side by performing tasks. Golly gee, how do I get the king to trust me? Well, since I'm an illusionist, lemme just quickly mind-control the crowned clown into giving me whatever I want.
Guards won't let me pass? I'm a conjurer. Instead of an intimidation check, why can't I summon a demon with a fear aura?
Farmers want me to catch their chickens? I'm a druid. Why can't I just empathize them back or entangle them in roots?
Why would I need a ten foot pole when my character already uses a ten foot pike in combat?
Why doesn't my laser pistol double as a laser pointer?
If an asteroid needs to be moved, why can't I just shove a few dozen missiles up its hind crater? Action and reaction, biznatches!
Why can't I use my pistol to mug pedestrians?

In short, why forget all our combat-oriented pyrotechnics as soon as we've killed the last goblin or space-goblin? RPG developers customarily brag about non-combat gameplay as a separate feature, segregating everything into isolated minigames. Does no-one remember that swords make passable plowshares? Well, let's see.

There's FTL, a Roguelike throwback whose moronic "neo retro" faux-pixelated format hides an appreciable amount of substance.
Cloaking devices, missiles, scanners, hacking, even your ship's good old trusty engines can occasionally be used in dialogues outside of combat. Crewing your vessel with aliens of different species will open up yet other options.

Admittedly, I really got on this topic by replaying V:tM-Bloodlines. Some of the playable vampire clans possess mind control powers, and these were integrated into a great many dialogues as stand-ins for the good old-fashioned Persuasion skill check. Here, for instance, my Malkavian's pissed off an NPC and can try to avoid repercussions:
The white text is just regular dialogue. The green option's provided by the "Intimidate" dialogue skill. Apparently my lunatic self is just that scary.
"Who you tryin' to get crazy with, ese? Don't you know I'm loco?"
Given that I'm a supernatural lunatic, I can also use my combat-oriented dazing crowd control "Dementation" skill in this dialogue to directly project (some of) the voices in my head into good old Vandal here and afflict him with a fit of mind-wiping hysterics. After all, if it can stop a pistol-happy crackhead in his tracks in combat, why not a mild-mannered hospital orderly out of combat?

However, top prize in this contest goes to the more recent title Pillars of Eternity for going beyond socially apt combat skills and attempting to incorporate physical abilities and fire-and-lightning spellcasting into noncombat decision-making.
You'd encounter various challenges during your travels which would likely leave one or more of your party members wounded and weakened unless you succeed a specific skill check, bought the correct adventuring supplies or... one of your characters is able to tell the laws of physics to shut up and sit down. Ironically, I'd been perplexed at a very similar scenario while playing Dragon Age: Origins, stymied in my attempt to cross the lake to the island with the Circle of Magi Tower by a guard's refusal to paddle me across in his boat. Boat? I happened to be playing a mage who could flash-freeze a squad of enemies in combat with a single word. Why not just solidify an ice floe and do the polar bear thing across the lake?

Granted, overusing such reasoning would rapidly make for too many shortcuts and very dull games. Still, for something so easy to implement (check for presence of skill, insert dialogue option) it's conspicuously absent from big titles the likes of Skyrim, The Witcher, Dragon Age, not to mention MMOs. It becomes obvious that the problem is not implementation but developers' disdain for their own customers, a reluctance to offer too many choices, a refusal to reward preparation for fear of making the unprepared feel stupid.

Neither will I accept the argument that such options would necessarily constitute overpowered freebies. Casting Kalakoth's Freezing Rake in that scenario above can use up that spell for the day. Afflicting Vandal with the giggles costs blood, same as if the Dementation discipline were cast in combat. Such costs and penalties can be scaled and balanced.

No, the only issue at stake here is the stupidity of the public. The public is linear. A wealth of options bankrupts impoverished minds.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

ST:TNG - Peak Performance

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 2.21
Peak Performance

Ah, the last episode of season 2. Well, technically there's one more after it but that's a silly little clip show and not worth mentioning. Obviously all of the real effort in keeping their audience's interest for next season went into this one instead. You could achieve that with a breath-taking, game-changing cliffhanger (can everyone say "Locutus of Borg"?) yet in this case TNG's writers perhaps more wisely opted for cramming as much Star and Trek into one thrilling installment as they could, to leave off on a high note. Unfortunately, this leaves no room for introducing any sort of novel SciFi concept or plot but hey... everybody loves a plain Jane car chase scene every once in a while, right?

The Enterprise engages in a war game scenario, with Riker, Worf, Geordi and Wesley (plus assorted redshirts) taking control of a derelict Federation ship and squaring off against the Enterprise with the rest of its remaining crew. No sooner do they start, of course, but a Ferengi ship butts in demanding loot and plunder!
Our brave heroes aboard both Federation ships must outwit their more conveniently antagonistic new opponents instead of putting each other down. The episode's got everything: engines warping, torpedoes exploding, officers giving orders and panicked ensigns giving reports, snarling aliens and technobabble by the barrel full! No matter who you liked among the crew, the script makes sure to feed every major character at least a minute or two of dialogue. It falls into some plot holes, to be sure. Worf hacks the Enterprise's sensors because (being its security chief) he knows its codes, but no way in hell should he have been able to do the same to an unknown Ferengi ship. Various Enterprise systems fail without explanation to create necessary tension and plot hooks. Still, we get to see Worf as more than a growling thug and Troi doing her schtick as ship's counselor and best of all one of those classic scenes of Data doing his super-speed mechano-man routine.
Look, special effects! The secondary plot involves the Federation observer for the war games being a really obnoxious, very hateable nerd who thinks he's smarter than everyone else. Thus, Pulaski recruits Data to kick Poindexter's ass at video games. Data loses. Cue several inspirational speeches to boost Data's confidence. At the end of the episode, Data "wins" by dragging the game out, harassing and cockblocking his opponent without seeking any further goals until the other simply flips the board in rage and frustration and gives up.

Now, look.
Star Trek's often been ridiculed for failing to accurately predict the technology of the future. In this case, however, they were freaking prescient, because almost three decades later anyone who plays computer strategy games will still tell you this is exactly how it feels playing against the AI.
Kinda hilarious that 24th century video games have no better graphics than Tetris... but they're holographic!

Friday, January 13, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Humble Beginnings

And so it begins:
Sure looks epic, don't it? RPGs, in their scheme of character development through the expansion of personal power, bank on the inherent appeal of "rags to riches" and too many titles skimp on the rags. I loved waking up on a slab at the mortuary in the slums of Sigil in Planescape: Torment, or dressed in rags on a creaky boat in Morrowind, or the taste of simple village life at the start of Neverwinter Nights 2. I never liked the opening of the first computer V:tM adaptation, Redemption with Christof's chest-thumping heroics, but Bloodlines?

You pick your clan and assign your starting stats and then you watch the opening cinematic to find out you're a contraband bloodsucker, vamped-up in contravention of vamp law, your very existence already on trial before you begin. Then your new boss officiously boots you out the back door into a grungy rat-infested alleyway, by which of course I mean the glorious road to adventure!

There's a lot to like about the way Bloodlines handled its introduction tutorial, like the audience at your sire's beheading consisting mostly of NPCs you'll meet later (in some cases much later) in the story, lending a delicious feel of the secretive, ingrown cabal to the whole affair, or the straightforward blend of in-character dialogue and out-of-character explanations of the interface.
Best of all though, your beginnings are truly humble. There's no talk of you being "the chosen one" or a demigod or a chosen of Gaia or carrying a shard of a magical artifact in your heart or destinies to be fulfilled, or punching a dragon on the nose right out of the cradle or any other sort of great expectations. No omens, portends or tea-leaves herald your coming. The proper term for you, dear player, is a "mook" and no more. As an adventure in mookdom, Bloodlines opens in an appropriately dramatic fashion. Ushered out along the cramped, stuffy corridors of the abandoned theater where you narrowly escaped execution, you can almost taste the cool night air in the piss-soaked back alley. Somewhere beyond your reach loom lofty high-rises but your immediate world consists of moldy wood and chain-link fences, dingy bricks slathered in gang graffiti and a single hairy bum mocking and deriding you while condescendingly offering to show you the ropes of vampirism.

After you get a handle on sneaking, hacking, cracking and cracking heads, you finally reach your first location within the game proper, home sweet home:
It could very well be the room Ray Bradbury described in Death Is a Lonely Business, a coffin-sized studio, room enough for a dying old man to scratch his name into the plaster by his metal cot over and over and over and over again, a moldering decrepit bower seeping senility into your mind. It's functional, too, as a home base should be. You can store blood in the fridge if you want. A laptop just out of sight on the left is one of your main ways of receiving communiques from sympathetic creatures of the night. You flick the TV on to hear news broadcasts foreshadowing upcoming quests and if you're feeling lonely you can always flip on the boombox and listen to The Deb of Night, Bloodlines' main source of comic relief, a late hour call-in show in which an urbane, educated young hostess tries in vain to extract meaningful conversation from the stoners, insomniacs, conspiracy theorists, night watchmen, stalkers and other dregs of society likely to be seeking entertainment at the witching hour of night.

I didn't even realize until now that what really makes the scene, the icing on Miss Havisham's cake here, is the very centerpiece of the ensemble. Look at that rug! The only splash of color in the place, and that of course faded like the rest, a scrawny over-stretched little thing vainly trying to cover up the musty dirt colored bargain-basement carpeting with its red and white floral design. It's touchingly pitiful.

Bloodlines was the first game to license Valve's Source Engine, the same used for Half-Life 2, Portal, etc. In many ways I think this was a waste of money. Tech demos for the Source engine highlighted a (for the time) very realistic physics system, the chunkiest of explosions, projectiles with ballistic trajectories and especially characters with a wide range of very detailed facial characteristics, expressions and movements. Compared to Valve's own use of their own technology, Troika's attempt barely seems to scratch the surface of what the engine could do. Characters' faces for instance have a more limited range of expressions, generally capable of only "intrigued" or "angry" plus a default neutral setting. Everyone walks with the same swagger or the same hobbled, pained shuffle. On the other hand, the environments in Bloodlines are beautifully detailed. The grime has depth. The wrought iron looks cold to the touch. The static on the old-timey TV looks appropriately grainy.
For all it lacks in animations, Bloodlines' environments are entrancing, and once again, functional. It wastes no effort but spares none either. The playable areas consist of adequately proportioned city streets, with vampiric infestation unobtrusively, saprophytically slithering among the outskirts and interstices of human life. Almost everything you do takes place in human spaces, abandoned or not. Look at this first street in Santa Monica. Do you see a role-playing game? Do you see mighty fortresses, scenery-chewing villains, damsels in distress and hordes of goblins and other boogeymen pacing back and forth waiting for you to kill them? Of course not; we uphold the masquerade here! Yet every building in this picture contains a playable location: the pawn shop, the tattoo parlor, the medical clinic, the apartment buildings on the far right and straight ahead, the art gallery just past the clinic. Those pedestrians? They're dinner.

It's said that good art can make you look at the familiar in a new light. Your own apartment's staircase is just past the pawnshop and to the right. You wanted a world of darkness? You're in it now, my friend. You swallowed that red pill. You're living the dream, and most dreams are perfectly mundane... until they're not.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Ever notice the slippery slope argument only applies to poor people? We're always warned you can't prevent poor people from starving or keep their insides from rotting, can't let them band together to pursue a common good, that's socializing and unionizing and before you know it they'll be communizing and Kremlinizing and possibly even caramelizing! Yet somehow it's never a problem to let rich fucks inflict as they please to everyone around them. No negative repercussions at all loom at the bottom of that particular icy hillside, no siree. Deregulate all you want. We's reeeal responsible folks here at MultiNatioMegaCorpulent. Us wolves, we're a stand-up bunch. You sheep, it's just other sheep you need to watch out for.

Monday, January 9, 2017

No Man's Sky

Planet Ebskafjalfu. Day two.
I hesitate to venture deeper into this planet's expansive cave systems, despite their abundance of exotic biological materials. Their extent is impossible to determine, their twists, branches and turns numerous and their exits so few that I fear I may find myself forever wandering beneath this world. Outside, the bitter cold saps my suit's power reserves in mere moments. It was a mistake to come here. One question still lurks beneath the surface, much as these many, many, many redundant iron stalagmites lurk beneath the planet's crust.



If you're interested in open-world games at all, by now you've surely heard of No Man's Sky's woefully botched release version. Hell, by now the whole game industry's laughing their asses off at this butchered, tortured Quasimodo and breathing a sigh of relief at its perceived failure. I say perceived because despite its many problems, there's something quite right underpinning NMS' mountains of misconceived design choices and technical foibles and its detractors and competitors have been somewhat over-enthusiastic in trying to bury it.

If you had to pick the funniest faceplant in the whole mess it's likely the revelation, immediately upon release, that NMS will not even function on Intel graphics cards, which basically means it will not work on... most laptops, as far as I know. Even my desktop's Radeon took about a month of patches to successfully load the damn thing, and given that at least now it runs smoothly, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Oooopsie! Our customers can't use our product. While fairly scandalous, this in itself might not have doomed the project in the long run. A casual glance at the history of computer games would show many titles which have been patched, ported, emulated and seduced into functionality after poor releases and nonetheless went on to lasting fame within their niche audience. VtM: Bloodlines jumps to mind.

No, the real problem becomes apparent as soon as you try to click anything in the interface, as soon as you see the screen wobbling about, as soon as you find your quickslot inventory's made utterly impractical for lack of a joystick. This is not a computer game. It was developed with gamepads in mind. Hence, I would guess, its spitting in the face of so many of its customers and their graphics cards. Hence too most of its design flaws, as it addresses a gamepad audience, a button-mashing audience.

I'll go out on a limb here and say it likely means to remind players of the old classic Staflight, though knowing that one only by reputation this is mere guesswork on my part. Regardless of its specific source of inspiration, NMS undoubtedly falls into the greater category of sandboxy, open-ended, freeform open-world games, and in ignoring this simple fact its designers utterly misjudged their target audience. Sandbox exploration games are a narrow niche. NMS instead tries to sell itself to the mindless mass market, to twitchy little snots on their Playstations. I return to my original question: where's my damn compass?

In Miasmata, my industrial-age natural philosopher carried around a paper map and revealed portion after portion of it by triangulating his position based on surrounding landmarks. He traveled while occasionally glancing at his wristwatch and an utterly mundane plain old magnetic compass with a red and white needle and a big ole' "N" for North. In NMS, my galaxy-trotting spacefarer's Jetsons-quality spacesuit, while able to manufacture goods, protect me from acid rain and teleport stuff to my ship's cargo hold, somehow lacks any piece of equipment that can detect magnetic North. Despite every planet you visit having a day-night cycle, you are not permitted access to even the simplest time of day estimate.

In Sir, You Are Being Hunted, you could acquire a blank map on which to place a few waypoints for yourself. NMS lacks even this minimal functionality despite its much, much larger environments. STALKER made you chase around for rare resources with a limited inventory but also allowed you to create temporary stashes for yourself, to plan your movements ahead of time. It allowed you to detect enemies before they reach you with visual, audio and radar cues. NMS dumps enemies on top of you, both on planets and in space, and makes you shoot at them. Planning a trading run in Mount&Blade involved knowledge of the goods likely to be found in each city and their relative prices, cost/reward estimates of detouring to visit outlying villages, the army's food consumption and viability of side objectives like quests. In NMS, trading is as pointless as filling up your inventory and dumping everything off at the only station in your current system.

These are all examples of games with more or less sandbox and/or exploration themes, and their developers understood that the basic point is to provide the player with the tools to plan ahead and consciously choose a course of action.  In contrast, everything about No Man's Sky's interface and interactions makes you feel as though the game's trying to play itself and staring at you accusingly for interfering with its masturbation. Your weapon holsters itself without your approval. Your HUD hides or re-appears by itself as the mood strikes it, with no options for what you want displayed. Initiating any dialogue makes you sit through several seconds' worth of un-skippable, unavoidable cutscenes of your interlocutor's face and welcome text gradually floating up. You land at random spots on random planets and mine whatever shows up on your close-range scanner and isn't carbon or iron. Your only real waypoint points you back toward your ship. Enemies teleport in of their own accord. You shoot them. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Everything about NMS seems to have been designed for the worthless degenerate rabble who get scared by information. You're not permitted numeric values for your weapons or armor. You're never supposed to think in terms of maps and routes. You're never allowed to look too far, to plan ahead. You're expected to mine whatever's in front of you, kill whatever's in front of you, talk to whatever alien's in front of you. Endless "achievement" unlocks constantly block out your screen with undeserved and unwelcome praise and adulation for something as simple as walking. You're expected to be a braindead teenage stoner, a Station Player and not a desktop gamer.

And yet... still. Underneath the awkwardly, insultingly, cripplingly simplistic user interactions lurks an actual sandbox greater than anything I've seen for the PC before. I was not joking when I said I could get lost in those cave systems at the start. In fact, I did, twice, wandering beneath randomized caverns looking for a way out until my suit's life support ran out. The crafting system's nothing to write home about but it's set up to handle multiple resource / product tiers so there's plenty of room to expand upon it in the future. The planets are huge, and the planets are endless. The algorithms which generate them are solid. I have never found any place altogether useless or inaccessible, and at least in survival mode moving from cover to cover to avoid environmental hazards makes things interesting enough. Minerals are in fact destructible terrain you vaporize with your mining laser, sculpting them out of the surrounding dirt. Albeit largely cosmetic, NMS even includes a language system having you discover words of alien languages before you can understand NPCs' flavor text and unlock certain rewards.
Wait, the warrior's "nostrils" - what nostrils?
There's a lot to work with, here, if development were to continue. A better inventory and market system (see EVE-Online) combat more strategic than an idiotic arcade shooter, some rudiments of logistical planning built into the interface so more intelligent players can plot their own courses and save waypoints and notes. Actual maps made to be read and interpreted by the players and not merely point the way to the galactic center. Stop telling players where to go and start giving them the information to decide for themselves. Cut the interfering scrolling and automation from the interface and give us some customization options instead. I shouldn't get killed while your idiotic letterboxing pop-up achievement unlocks block my vision and prevent me from interacting.

The overarching long-term gameplay desperately needs larger attainable goals beyond "accumulate cash" or "go over there" but the first major patch after release has already introduced a base-building system. As I recently rhapsodized, a home, sweet home can do wonders in terms of centering the player experience. Most of all, NMS badly needs to get away from the mindset of forcing the player to merely react brainlessly to pop-up adventure-bites. The randomization and freedom of sandbox games should fuel purposeful, intelligent action, not merely prompt re-action.

The potential is there. I'm less discouraged by a bare-bones release than most perhaps because I was one of the earliest to buy into Mount&Blade when they were accepting ten-dollar early beta preorders. It consisted of one town containing one arena and one tavern, but its skill, combat, supply management and overland/combat map integration were all solid. From there it eventually ballooned into six kingdoms, towns with dozens of trade specialties, army formations and reciting medieval poetry to your betrothed. No Man's Sky lacks a much-needed over-arching framework, but its exploration, resource and empire-building basics are solid. It could still become something great, if given the chance. Ideally, with a Spore-style automated creature/ship/building sharing feature it would easily gain the content to take the edge off the repetitiveness most complain about now.

I am however more discouraged by the game industry's renewed obsession with pushing game consoles and catering to console cretins. There is no reason to market grandeur to the small-minded, to button-mashing twitch gamers too scared of keyboards to ever play anything strategic. Stop trying to market massive scale and freedom of action to the mentally deficient incapable of formulating any course of action beyond hitting the next thing in front of them.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Feels, Disney Style

"This bridge was written to make you feel smitten
With my sad picture of girl getting bitter"

The Dresden Dolls - Coin Operated Boy

Hard to find a lower common denominator than Disney. We've all grown up watching their sappy, simplistic tripe with characters breaking out in psychotically upbeat musical numbers every five minutes. I hate them for indoctrinating generations of impressionable minds into touchy-feely facetious niceness. I hate them even more for buying up Pixar and Ghibli to lend themselves credibility.

The Disney label's made itself synonymous with everything trite and sappy and constipated. At some point the company leadership seems to have adopted Thumper's old line from Bambi: "if you can't say something nice don't say nothin' at all" and they tried shoving that idiocy down kids' throats for decades on end. In the '90s Disney movies allied themselves with the rising tide of facetious social awareness and multiculturalism through ludicrous tripe like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Everything's good! Everything wonderful! Everything's stupendous!

So like a lot of people I'm pleasantly surprised at Inside Out. Surprised, as most have said, that the flick would dare tell children it's alright to have unpleasant emotions. More surprised that "love" wasn't shoehorned into the core cast somehow. Most surprised of all at how the realization of the usefulness of sadness was portrayed.

Heroine fails at hockey. Is sad.
Parents and friends see her sad, rush to cheer her up, lavish attention on her.
Heroine is happy now.

That middle step is crucial, and I think the movie's writers said more than they intended with it. Displaying emotion is a way of manipulating others. What does your dog do when he wants a treat? He whines. Piteously. You can almost taste the pathos, the victimization, the injustice of it all! Portraying neediness, vulnerability or victimhood is just one more means of getting your way, and sneaking this message (perhaps inadvertently) on screen, even in such a subtle and faded context, is something I would never have expected of a children's movie, much less anything with the Disney label. Sadness (or at least showing sadness to others) can be a tool.

I was equally surprised at the villain in Zootopia, the populist rabblerouser playing off the masses' fear of a designated villainous ethnic minority.

Given the stranglehold Disney maintains on the zeitgeist, I'd like to consider this sort of plot device a favorable sign, a sea change in public attitudes, a willingness to acknowledge within public consciousness at least the existence of social and emotional manipulation. We can pretty safely write off millennials as a wasted generation, utterly obsessed with contests of victimhood, with ascribing social privilege to anything and everything the better to wail and moan for being oppressed for their sexual attraction to marmots or whatever the latest craze might be. But hey, maybe after this entire generation of self-described martyrs, the next one might be willing to admit that playing the victim is a self-serving action.

My little seven year old cousin loved Inside Out. She may not understand it all now, she may not realize the subliminal messages she's imbibing, but she'll remember it the rest of her life, just as I remember the mandrill from The Lion King whacking Simba on the head to get him to face his demons, despite never having analyzed the scene when I was ten.

Now go on, get out of here!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Wolfe to King's Throat

So. Been bashing my head against the computer opponent at Chess.com, rather fruitlessly. Maybe that's due to having always lacked the intellect to be any good at chess in the first place. Maybe it's because I haven't played in almost precisely twenty years. Maybe it's because I mostly don't stop to consider my moves and rarely pay attention to what the computer's doing but just keep clickity-clacking my pieces until I fall off a cliff. Whatever the cause, I can't get any higher than level 5. Amusingly enough it's possible to ... "rattle" the computer at level 5 with an aggressive pawn offense sometimes, and by exploiting this built-in weakness I have actually technically beaten it a couple of times. I lose most matches the exact same way, by opening up my king side to a knight and queen attack about three to ten moves into things, which is nice, relatively short and painless, the best one can ask of the inevitable. Level 6 proves impossible for little old me.

Smart people are good at chess. Our culture has quite categorically pronounced law and verdict on this matter. Idiots are bad at chess and I am bad at chess, therefore Socrates is mortal... or something to that effect. Don't ask me, I'm dumb, remember? If I weren't I could easily beat a game more outdated than lutes and codpieces.

Well, on the flipside of flippancy and all popular culchure aside, chess being an abstracted mental task (the very definition of intelligence) yes, I should be good at it if I weren't such a worthless moronic piece of trash.

All that aside, I'm reminded of something I'd forgotten from eighth grade. Every damn move in this game has a name.
This is apparently the Van't Krujis Opening. Could've fooled me, I could've sworn the computer just moved one stinking piece. Is it just me or is this an incredibly bombastic name for a flick of the finger? Is it at least the middle finger? I guess it kind of is from the look of things.

It's not fully extended though, which reminds me, that move above is also completely different from the King's Pawn opening because... well, I'll let you figure it out yourself. It took me a few seconds. To reiterate: I'm dumb. Also, chess players are bad at naming things. But it kind of got me thinking about my usual pattern in games. I learn faster than other players, find a system's more thermodynamically favorable layouts and then I move on to trying the next approach. If a tactic works too well then it's overpowered and I want it patched. But the thing is, I don't stick around any game once everyone knows everything, once it boils down to familiar patterns.

If I'd been smart about this I'd have gotten in on this thing during beta, playtesting it twenty-three hundred years ago. Then when anyone talked about chess nowadays I could just scoff:

"Pfeh! They never nerfed knights like I told them to. Game's hella full'a 'sploits."

Also, I used to be good with rooks and now I can't seem to find a use for them. Better with bishops than I used to be though.
No, I have no idea what this means but I'm sure several doctors in psychology, physics and philosophy have already written great bible-sized tomes of arcane lore on the topic. This is chess we're talking about after all. It's a smart people thing.