Tuesday, February 28, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Child(e) of Malkav

"Not a silent one
But a defiant one
Never a normal one
'Cause I'm the bastard son

A 44 full of bullets
Face full of pale
Eyes full of empty
Stare full of nails

Mad boy grips the microphone with a fistful of steel"

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

So, ummm... this is what passes for Malkavian heavy protection in Bloodlines:

The hat is very floppy. I swear they must've put more effort into animating that hat than half the game's combat animations.

Insanity's in no short supply in computer role-playing games, but as a rule it's reserved for non-player characters, usually villains or quirky one-shot comic relief quest givers, or more rarely a comedically plucky Mad Hatter type of sidekick. See my comparison of Jan Jansen and Grobnar Gnomehands. Vampire: The Masquerade includes a playable "class" rendered insane by its vampirism. As I don't play tabletop games this is mere conjecture on my part, but I would assume Clan Malkavian's perfectly playable in its original tabletop milieu. A flesh and blood (mostly blood in this case) game master can allow a player to go nuts while translating that player's actions into game mechanics.

In a medium dependent on scripted interactions, on the other hand, you can't have the main character going off-script. I don't mean that metaphorically. There is a literal script! So I guess the best you can do is write insanity into the script. So to get the point of Clan Malkavian's quirks across, your dialogue choices are all re-written, ranging in weirdness from poetic license to utter gibberish. In one conversation, my three options of charming repartee were:
"Bingo chips and fuzzy dice"
"Chicken-strip pheromones"
"Pieces of eight"
For added flavor, most vampire/ghoul NPCs will upon first meeting you feed the running gag of commenting what a pain in the ass it is trying to hold a conversation with someone who sees the world in shades of corkscrew,
while the humans you interact with tend to assume you're just drugged out of your skull:

For the most part, your choices in advancing dialogues as a Malkavian are the exact same ones as every other clan's, simply re-worded. The show must go on, after all. Nonetheless, in trying to implement playable, interactive insanity instead of just passive flavor text, Bloodlines' developers seem to have run into the problem of definitions.
What is crazy, anyway?

Most seem to define insanity simply as wild, uncontrollable behavior or false beliefs, but this doesn't quite cover it. Everyone can have fits of rage or euphoria. Having a phobia doesn't necessarily qualify you either. You can be utterly creeped out by spiders or closed spaces without assuming these to truly be the worst things in the world. The real definition might run more along the lines of this punchline from a webcomic partly concerned with mad scientists, Skin Horse.

Insanity's not just imagining something unreal. It's being unable or unwilling to tell the difference between reality and unreality. If you want a popular real-world example, just listen to a couple of minutes of Alex Jones. It's not just that he foams at the mouth, screeching at the top of his lungs while imagining he SOUNDS PERFECTLY REASONABLE!!!!11(one) but he can go from zero to Bedlam in under sixty seconds. He will start a sentence with some utterly trite and mundane ranting you'd hear on any talk show, how this or that group of politicians is running the country into the ground, etc., then top it off by concluding they're all shapeshifting lizard-kings from beyond Uranus! The insane don't constantly sound insane. They just can't tell when they do. Insanity's the inability to discern bat from shit.

In this respect Bloodlines' dialogue rewrite worked very well, sneaking a meaningful word in here and there among the gibberish, but in itself it would not have been enough. If Malkavians' perception of reality is tainted, then this taint must mingle with the mundane. If it's part of the game, then it must occupy the same space as other game elements. So, while pimp-strutting around Downtown, you get drawn into an argument with someone very rude and pushy.
During various dialogues, sinister voices will whisper half-intelligible warnings in your ear. The people you drive mad using your Dementation discipline deliver their new lines with the same aplomb as they'd give you the time of day, even when you convince them you're their childhood pet turtle or, why not, themselves:
TV broadcasts, while normally completely innocent of the existence of the supernatural, begin to include in your paranoid interpretation repeated hints that they're all out to get you!
These are of course slipped in with the same enunciated, matter-of-fact droning monotone as the rest of the news segment.

Bloodlines fans will cite the goofiness of a Malkavian playthrough, but if goofiness were constant and predictable it would grow monotonous. Every Malkavian in the game has a different feel: Grout's paranoia, Tourette's mood swings, Vandal's manic bloodthirst, your own ramblings, even your own ghoul's adorable lunacy. Better yet, the mix of normal and abnormal can make you act insane, sitting around waiting for your television set to speak more messages to you personally, trying to find other street signs to talk to. After all, talking to your TV might just be something all vampires do... right?

I've seen a couple of comments on various forums complaining that your many insights and premonitions in dialogues don't really mesh with the demands of the narrative as a whole, that the Malkavian playable character knows too much to be playing the mook for others. After all, you know LaCroix's a jester and Strauss wears the crown, know how to hurt VV and unmask Ming as the Mistress of Mirrors from your first line of dialogue with her. However, it begins to seem perfectly natural in context, given that your character would not, could not act on the correct impulses for being unable to know which of his random trainwrecks of thought to follow.

Yes, I'm sure we can all imagine many other game mechanics we'd like to see implemented for an insane playable character, but consider how striking and memorable an effect Bloodlines achieved utilizing only text and a few minutes' worth of extra audio. In any discussion of the game you'll find countless players recounting their Malkavian playthrough fondly and even excitedly. It's a wonder we don't see more such examples in cRPGs, given that it would require no great overhaul of a campaign, that such an effect can be achieved perhaps even more convincingly by scattering insane choices among saner ones, indistinguishable and... tempting.

New conspiracy theory: Alex Jones is a Malkavian. Sssshhhh! (It's a secret.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Truth Under Duress

"I fought the war, I fought the war, I fought the war but the war won!"

Metric - Monster Hospital

When I first encountered the "truth" anti-smoking ad campaign back in the early 2000s, I must admit to finding it both impressive and encouraging.  Here was sleek, professional, big-league propaganda for once on my side of politics. My side, it should be noted, is generally so naive about realpolitik that it once thought Captain Planet would get kids to stop buying oversized smog-belching automobiles. Behold the power of monkey-love!

The Truth ads have made a comeback these past couple of years, still slick and hard-hitting and emotionally manipulative... but no longer on my side. Now, they want us to "finish it!"
I never signed up for finishing it.

In the nineties, tobacco was still a worldwide public health hazard. Any enclosed public space reeked of cigarettes. Family restaurants relied on this hilarious thing called a "non-smoking" section, where you'd be protected from the other half of the room's carcinogenic emissions by a mighty bulwark of stale thin air. The captain of an airliner was as likely as not to get booed for turning on the "no smoking" sign. Tobacco companies employed entire armies of bought and paid "health professionals" willing to downplay the decades' worth of scientific evidence as to smoking's harm. The Body Worlds exhibition shocked polite society's sensibilities in many ways, not least of which was displaying a smoker's lung next to a coal miner's.

This ain't 1998. No-one can say they haven't gotten the basic, bottom-line message that smoking is bad for you, and it's been over a decade since I've even had to wrinkle my precious little nose at secondhand smoke, except of course around this one uncle, you know the one, every family has one. Anti-smoking campaigns have been one of the few clear success stories of positive social change, but now it's becoming yet another warning emblem against professional activism. From a legitimate grass-roots consensus on public health and safety it's now become, largely by virtue of its own success, a crusade to eradicate the last vestiges of a nominal evil which, under scrutiny, no longer presents cause for public concern.

"Finish it" you say? No thanks. Fatality moves are for fighting games. It's one thing to prevent individuals from having smoking pushed on them by social pressure, and quite another to police through social pressure every single choice individuals might make for themselves. It's one thing to treat a bad habit like the plague of our times when it's on every street corner and quite another to grandstand about it when it's just one of the innumerable minute variations in human behavior. Smoking is a choice. It's a personal risk now taken with full knowledge of its consequences. Thought implies divergence. Thinking beings, to whatever extent they're capable of thinking, cannot live as milquetoast-fed cattle with mittens tied to their jackets. We want some spice now and then. We no longer require a billion-dollar inquisition to inform us that cancer is bad or hunt down the last scattered, vanquished infidels. Nobody's blowing cigarette smoke in my face anymore. The few remaining individuals who choose to smoke have been politely stepping outside to do so for over a decade. You're done. You've been done.

The problem is of course that much like pushing cigarettes, pushing anti-cigarette ads is a business. "Non-profit" sounds angelic until you realize social activism still provides endless sinecures for communications majors with no marketable skills beyond professionally mourning society's ills. That parasitic beast, that queer aberration of our socially conscious modern world, the career activist, the priesthood of these newfangled shadows of god, will defend its turf as fiercely as any other. It will attempt to make itself seem necessary. It will continue to hunt down its chosen game unto mass extinction.

Never take legitimacy for granted. Rebels, if successful, will quite reliably become ironfisted dictators in turn. Any social movement, once established, will continue to move, driven by the internal momentum of a core of self-interested, self-justifying self-promoters, long after it's outlasted any relevance or objective justification.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Valhalla Hills

I never got into the Settlers games much, never really considering why. The Settlers copycat Valhalla Hills isn't helping my opinion of the game concept.

I picked it up a little while ago, guessing it to be something like Banished or the first Trine, a modern reconstruction, from the ground up, of a classic genre. The comparison with Banished would seem particularly apt, given that Settlers-style gameplay more or less grows out of city simulators, but it's certainly not a favorable one for Valhalla Hills. Where I raved about Banished being basically everything it needed to be and nothing it didn't, Valhalla Hills is filled with top-down, dictatorial, must-have features which don't mesh with the actual gameplay. For all its initial charm, it wears thin very quickly.

For one thing, it's set up as an endless achievement grind. Your villagers gain experience as you play and a big counter on the game's main screen tracks how many of them have "leveled up" to Valhalla. Instead of reshaping the world in your image, you're supposed to be chasing that idiotic carrot and presumably comparing high scores with other brainless dick-measurers.
In-game, you can chasecam any one of your villagers... in a cramped little cartouche off to the side that somehow doubles the game's demands on your video card. Not that getting up close and personal with your loyal subjects isn't a nifty feature in general, but make sure it actually fills that immersive role.
Why, instead of Banished's perfectly rational and informative graphs and tables, am I staring at unsorted error messages scrabbling over each other at the top of my screen pell-mell?
What is the point of forcing the player to place roads by hand if they cost nothing and can be removed at will?

Then there's aesthetics. Where Banished's visual design reveled in elegant simplicity, Valhalla Hills goes the route of blocky, distorted, Warcrafty cartoonishness but misses the point of choosing such designs in the first place. Cartoonish graphics offer the advantage of flexibility, yet every building in Valhalla Hills looks like the same wooden roofs ranging in color from tan to beige, and the villagers are little better in terms of specific markers of their professions.
Vikings in the desert? Huh? Why not vikings in Niflheim, or on ice floes or among the boughs of Yggdrasil? Did you really run out of nordic-themed maps that quickly?
Vikings making generic fish sandwiches? Where's my lutefisk?
Why is there not a single damned longhouse anywhere in sight?

It even manages to shoot itself in the foot in terms of basic thematic elements. The badly voiced English version of the opening sequence makes it sound as though the game's trying to subvert the "rampaging berseker" viking stereotype by placing vikings in a constructive environment... until you find out you'll be relying on axe-wielding horny-helmeted armies every single mission anyway. Even with a generous allowance for post-ironic hipness, the whole viking theme makes no sense and is never exploited, either for humor or drama.

In terms of mechanics, this is just a city sim. The infrastructure side of things contains some thoughtful interdependence between buildings, and the bulk of each mission consists of shoring up your resource network. Combat on the other hand is as simple as stocking up the best kind of each of three weapon types and simply overwhelming your opponents. Defense towers exist but are pathetically underpowered, apparently included merely to pander to the expectation that RTS mechanics will include such things as defense towers. Your main defense is simply building away from the sheepishly passive enemy AI in the first place.

Most perplexingly, the game does not even perform well. As with Star Ruler 2, I have to ask: why does it feel like I'm getting so much less with this glossier technology? Was the Unreal engine really necessary for a two-dimensional top-down city sim with battleaxes thrown in? Instead of Banished's population of just under a thousand, Valhalla Hills starts stuttering and skipping (on my machine at least) at around 150 independently interdependent homonculi. Worse still, these Svens and Carls are dumb as bricks! Couriers running back and forth with empty backpacks, healers sitting around forgetting to heal, laborers ignoring useful resources within their sphere of activity, take your pick. Larger maps prove too large for your villagers' AI to even navigate.

You know, much as I try to opt for lesser-known titles over the latest EA tripe to storm the market, sometimes obscurity's just the destined mate of mediocrity. Glad I bought this on sale, sorry I bought it at all.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Farmer in the Sky

Writers sacrifice to strange altars in order to secure a paycheck. Robert Heinlein wrote at least three stories about boy scouts, published in Boys' Life, which publication I hadn't even known existed until a couple of months ago. If you ever hear this wolfman say "scout's honor" don't believe it!

I've run into two of the stories during my perusal of various RAH material I'd missed up until now. A Tenderfoot in Space is pretty obviously written to order, cramming every page full of references to uniforms and merit badges and The Scout Law leaving little room for the Venusian "boy and his dog" adventure it proclaims itself. Its forty-odd pages flow decently thanks to Heinlein's indisputable flair for dressing jargon in banter, but still, not something you'd bother reading unless ten years old and/or already a fan-atic of either Heinlein or scout boys or both.

Farmer in the Sky on the other hand I must characterize much as I did Have Spacesuit, Will Travel: an interesting self-contained Science Fiction novella which should never have been subjected to publishers' pigeonholing. Better yet, it doesn't suffer from Spacesuit's laughably overdone late-game heroics. Like other "Heinlein juveniles" its most juvenile quality is a willingness to think. It focuses on challenges and acceptable risk, loss and recovery and progress instead of the maudlin navel-gazing and the glorification of the mundane human condition which characterize accepted Literature. Despite any recriminations against "genre fiction" it doesn't allow any plot elements to completely dominate the story. The hero brings his Boy Scout uniform along but this is obviously treated more as emblematic of his trying to maintain continuity in his life than an endorsement of or advertisement for paramilitary youth organizations. Amusingly, despite the forced shoehorning of references to the organization every dozen pages or so, Heinlein subverts his own pandering by showing the hero gradually outgrowing his concern for Boy Scout membership.

Plot: teenage boy re-settles on Ganymede with his family to become part of the terraforming effort, which in this case consists of a helluva lot of farming. Simple enough, until you realize you've gotta make your own soil. Of course the image of wild west homesteaders being used to terraform a planet piecemeal instead of more planned, sweeping, decisive industrial processes may be questionable, but that's the beauty of the whole thing. It raises questions. It makes you picture the mindset of those who would breathe rarefied air at one-seventh earth gravity, watching Europa drifting across the face of Jupiter above a plot of makeshift lifeless regolith and think "I'm home" and take charge of their situation. It's another rare example of that romantic pioneering spirit which used to be at the heart of Science Fiction during the days of Wells, Doyle and Verne but was subsequently lost in the commercialization of science itself, in the deluge of space operas and planetary romances, of petty motivations suffocating intellectual curiosity.

Heinlein had an amazing knack for mixing prosaic realism with the justified expectation that the universe is perfectly capable of amazing us at every turn. That such measured, rational neophilia is considered juvenile speaks more of the stultified nature of this decomposing all too human society than of the fiction it will only deign to publish as "juvenile." Perhaps we should consider Bill's decision in the end not to return to California to further his education but to build up a new system of higher learning on Ganymede itself.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Plot Diagram

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

If Santa Monica's an extended exposition, the Downtown area filled the role of rising action in Bloodlines' plot diagram. The major players show up, combat ramps up, missions crop up left and right and you start getting enough experience points to really skill up your character. Everything is up, up up!
You're a rising star. You may still have quite a bit to learn, neonate, but you're in the thick of things now. Where in Santa Monica you mostly interacted with humans, your adventures Downtown become ever more vampiric. Instead of using your superhuman abilities on mere kine, you now begin to run into the intrigue and brutality of others like yourself. You discover one of those random news stories you've been listening to in Santa Monica now growing into your tale's main conflict.
Of course, even for a story-based game the old theories about proper narrative form must give way to the demands of an interactive medium. Downtown is where most quest threads come together. It's Bloodlines' Neverwinter, its Imperial City, and it's likely the first place you picture when remembering the game. Skyeline Apartments on the left houses one step each of three different quests, knotting together a masterful impression of how the fringes of the World of Darkness intersect daily life in the city. The Confession, a night club just down the block, is where your character routinely picks up some cash for your day job... so to speak. You meander between your scheming Camarilla contacts and the rowdy Anarchs at The Last Round. You learn to play the game, not just its mechanics.
Your actions Downtown, while no longer as mundane as in Santa Monica, still waver between human and vampiric concerns.

By the time you reach Hollywood, you're a force to be reckoned with, and the question of proper application of that force comes to the forefront.
Hollywood is schizophrenic: half weepy self-indulgence, half voracious stalker in the dark. Half pretty, half ugly.
Hollywood is conflict. Split between the most and least human of the playable clans, the Toreador and Nosferatu, it's where you begin to see the greatest effect of roleplyaing choices. VV's ever-changing moods, Imalia's fit of rage if you insult her, the choice of whether to make Strauss a laughing stock by revealing the origin of Isaac's gargoyle, the possibility of masquerade violations in the "old friend" encounter and the zombie quest, all mean your gameplay can diverge here more than anywhere else in the game. To really drive the point home, add to all this the start of quests hearkening back to your first few Santa Monica and Downtown nights (the playwright, the southland slasher, pin-up girls, Mitnick's break-ins) for extra contrast.
Hollywood's where it becomes clear you've left behind the human condition for good. You no longer put up any pretense of fighting for the meek and downtrodden. If nothing else, chasing a poor helpless stuttering, whimpering, crying fool around the beach and slowly beating him to death to uphold an arbitrary rule drives home the point of just how far down the rabbit hole you've fallen.

Chinatown's falling action. You've hit your stride, and little of the vampiric world seems new.
You're a true terror of the night and are offered more than one opportunity to beat your chest as you shatter your foes' opposition. Though certainly... colorful, your available options here decline steeply. Whether by conscious design or lack of funding (keep in mind Troika bankrupted itself finishing this game) Chinatown's quests do not diverge, offer no alternate paths of completion, no poignant tales of horror or woe, but merely open ample grounds on which to unleash your supernatural abilities. In places it's painfully aware it may be jumping the shark (demon) but it doesn't dwell on it, focusing instead on keeping the action going. Most of your time here will actually be spent in isolated combat zones. It's streamlined, wrapping up the little left to wrap up before your final choice of denouement.

Bloodlines was served very well indeed by its pacing and sense of contrast. Though plenty of games are arranged in acts, either explicitly or implicitly, few manage to make this feel like a natural progression instead of a harsh limit splintering the overall experience into minigames. It helps a great deal that Bloodlines' side quests can as a rule be completed at any time, without the transition to new "acts" rendering them unavailable or automatically killing off key NPCs. For its time, this made the game feel very, very fluid and free despite the linear, story-based nature of much of its content. Nevertheless the acts are there, each zone and its associated quests following a specific narrative function, allowing you to feel not only your growing power but also your increasing alienation from the mundane human life still tangible along that first sleepy street in Santa Monica.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Stealth Mowed

Wellp, Pillars of Eternity made me want to play a duel-wielding rouge for once, aside from my usual mage/druid routine.
That's me stealthi... I mean sneak- I mean scouting the temple of the Quiet Slave. Normally I'd laugh off game designers' attempts to re-label overused concepts as ludicrous, vacuous, gratuitous attempts at branding. Your mana bar still contains mana even if you call it "energy" or "power" or "sprituoulousity" or whatever random crap you've come up with. In this case however I find it warranted, and apt. PoE doesn't really have a stealth feature, not as it's usually understood anyway, as the ability to sneak around opponents. As I noted in the image above, you can almost always be detected from significantly farther away than the distance you'd need to close in order to sneak by unobserved, even for a character invested in stealth. Instead you enter Scouting Mode in order to do exactly that: scout ahead spotting traps, take stock of enemies before they see you and maybe plant a trap of your own but little more.

This seems largely a capitulation to the difficulty of implementing any sort of stealth mechanics in a D&D-ish party-centered RPG. In fact the best implementation I've seen of stealth in PoE's precursors was in Icewind Dale, where it served pretty much the same function of scouting just slightly ahead to spot for a strong opening move against each group of enemies.

Say my rakish roguish (s)elf there does manage to tiptoe past the cultist. Then what? What am I supposed to do about the rest of my party, who couldn't sneak past a deaf mole with a head cold? If I have to bring them along, there's no point in stealthing past. If I don't need them to complete the objective, then why bring them along at all? A system dependent on careful interdependence of rocks, scissors and papers won't work very well if the rock can complete everything by itself.

So stealth tends to work much better in games where you're by yourself. Ironically, given the iconic role of the tabletop D&D thief / rogue, computer game stealthing tends to play much better not in RPGs but in FPS games, which are inspired more by Hollywood action movies.... in which stealthing would be considered a boring waste of screen time. Even James Bond spends more time blowing people up than sneaking past them. Survival horror games center on hiding even if they lack hard delineations of stealth, and they're almost by definition not only single-player but single-character. Of FPS games, it's the ones centering more on surviving than killing, like Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl or the more experimental projects like Sir, You Are Being Hunted which tend to be memorable for stealth mechanics. In fact the most famous stealth-centered games like Thief or Assassin's Creed seem to have straddled the line between the two genres.

So maybe it should be no surprise that the Elder Scrolls games, among the most FPS-like of RPGs, also feature a very accessible, very useful stealth mode.
- and they also happen to be single-character games. Hire an NPC redshirt in Skyrim and your ability to stealth past anything drops to "not a Leeroy's chance in Jenkins." Of course it's not like I'm trying to sneak past that mechano-spider in that screenshot. Just positioning myself to shove a very critical arrow up its tailpipe, much as my rogue would in Icewind Dale or Pillars of Eternity. Regardless of my ability to bypass a fight, I almost never do. Somehow, as soon as we get back into the realm of RPGs, solo or party-based, stealth tends to become not a way of avoiding a fight but a prelude to fighting.

Why is that?

Let's have a look at V:tM - Bloodlines.
That's a stealth kill. Bloodlines was an RPG. It had classes and experience points and backstory and varying approaches to mission completion. For one thing, many missions require you not to kill anything. Of course that still doesn't entirely explain why you find yourself breezing past enemies in stealth mode even when you're not restricted from bathing in blood. It also borrowed a very Thief-like mechanic of one-shotting any non-boss enemy just by sneaking up behind it. If you can mow them down so easily, why not do it anyway? There's something missing. Loot. In the example above, every single one of those girls, interrupted, drops a knife. You can only carry one knife at a time. Yeah, I've got the means and opportunity, but what's my motivation?

Party size is a factor, sure. So's playing different roles, some of which are not stealthy. However, the biggest stumbling block I can find between FPS and RPGs in this respect is the reward system. FPS games tend to give you very limited inventory space. You can only carry so many guns, with limited ammo. Killing everything in sight doesn't gain you anything. D&D-inspired RPGs on the other hand have you chasing down every last enemy on every map for the experience points. Pillars of Eternity tried to address this by only giving experience points for the first few kills of every creature type, but unfortunately it kept the incentive of loot drops, so you still end up chasing down every last goblin and ghoul if for no other reason than to turn its skin into potions. Same goes in the Elder Scrolls games. Kill 'em all. Never know when a few ogre prostates will come in handy. Who knows, the next enemy might have something good.

Bloodlines rewarded you almost exclusively for completing missions. No experience points from killing and very little loot, and so by dis-incentivizing the Schwarzenegger approach to problem solving it rendered other approaches viable.

So far I've purposely restricted myself to single-player examples, because in multiplayer stealth becomes much more an issue of balance and teamwork rather than direct rewards. However, I played World of Warcraft back when it first came out, along with its clones, and in vanilla WoW rogues and druids really did use their stealth ability to bypass "trash mobs" and cut to the end of missions while other classes had to wade through the hard way. In fact, one instance (Lower Blackrock Spire) was routinely run by groups composed of a 3/2 split of druids and rogues, sneaking past all the trash mobs to kill the boss in a quarter of the time it would take a normal group. This was of course because in a game with respawning mobs and infinitely regressing "end-game" goals, the incentive is to maximize the rate, not the absolute value of gains. Still, the same principle applied: killing "trash" mobs was made less palatable and thus stealth made not just a prelude to but a viable alternative to fighting.

The same was true in City of Heroes, where invisibility and teleportation were combined by some players to not just complete non-combat objectives but teleport their entire team right to the boss of an instance.

There's no strict reason for RPGs to fail so miserably at implementing sneaking. Like that old classic Bloodlines, they just have to outgrow and abandon the idiotic old mentality of hooking players through the operant conditioning routine of random loot drops and the gear and exp-farming treadmill.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rube Goldberg School of Economics

"Buy this car to drive to work
Drive to work to pay for this car"

Metric - Handshakes

I slid my mousepad aside to type this. On it currently resides an eight-dollar slightly dingy wired mouse. Behind me, still boxed, carelessly tossed into my semi-clean laundry suitcase lies its identical future replacement. I've started stockpiling wired mice. Long ago, when wireless mice first came on the market, I avoided them for the same reason most gamers did: their reaction speed was crap and they lost more Data than the Enterprise that time they dumped him into the desert to rot. I'm willing to believe designs have improved since then but I still see no reason to buy a much more expensive version of something that works perfectly fine. Stores, naturally, see every reason to sell a much more expensive version, so hunting the increasingly elusive wired mouse in its natural electronics store habitat has grown into a bit of a sport. Every time I've had to buy a replacement these past few years I feel like a poacher hoping to catch the last tiger by its disappearing tail. So yeah, I'm buying them at least one in advance now.

The table on which the mouse, pad, keyboard and entire computer sits is actually two picnic tables. I used to have a great computer table. It cost $30, a big-ass slab of particle board covered in cheap heavy-duty plastic with four sturdy, wide aluminum legs screwed directly into it, slightly curved in front for ergonomic reasons. Simple and to the point. The closest design I could find to it now at nearby stores (size, height, stability, etc.) cost $170, except I don't need a detachable side-table. I don't need to hide my computer tower in a tiny heat-trap wooden box by the dusty floor. I don't need a set of drawers, or top shelves waiting to fall on my head or a little door to bang my shin against, or a keyboard tray to poke me in the solar plexus, and most of all I could not give a flying cherry maple what the hell kind of wood it's made of!
So yeah, picnic tables. Simple flat surface at gut level. Stylin'.

I had to unclog my sink. Spent an hour at three stores looking for a simple plastic drain wand, which of course no store nearby carried because instead of selling you a reusable $3 piece of flexible barbed plastic they'd much rather sell you disposable $6 plastic bottles of single-use corrosive chemicals that'll melt your skin off as soon as look at you.

I drive one of the last cars without power windows. I was quite ashamed of this and thought it a great inconvenience, until I realized I roll my windows down about two to five times a year. Well crank my toll booths and call me a Spartan!

I wear pink underwear. Not because I bought pink underwear, but because I once tossed something red into the wash with them and, well, nature took its course. Turns out local stores no longer sell reusable dye catcher cloths, though they all have a shelf full of wasteful, disposable, consumable versions of the same product.

I read a scientific paper recently in which the researchers had to measure one linear dimension of a perfectly mundane, macroscopic object. They placed the object next to a ruler. Then they photographed the object next to the ruler, uploaded the pictures into Adobe Photoshop and used Photoshop's tools to read the ruler measurement. 'Cuz Science!
These people have doctorates. Then again, so do the dye-catcher manufacturers, I'm guessing.

This is a thermometer. That plastic used to be white, not yellow. After twenty-plus years of use and several moves, its readings are now off by at least half a degree. Pity. Might have to replace it. Might get fancy and buy one of those newfangled little dial thermometers. What I don't need (for the purposes of measuring whether my living room's colder than my bedroom) is a digital... anything! This design (reservoir, tube, liquid and scale) has been in use since the days of Torricelli and Gallileo for measuring temperature and pressure because it just fucking works. That's it. And hey, guess what? I never had to change its battery.

We don't just live in a wasteful society. We live in a society based on waste. Yes, I know we've all seen rants like this before. We've heard of planned obsolescence, especially when it comes to computers. We know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that automobile dependency was born of one of the few true conspiracies in history, to replace low-cost efficient public transport with wasteful one-user-per-five-seats private cars. We know we'll never use any of the mind-numbing wealth of "features" we're forced to buy with Microsoft Word for the sake of software compatibility, that dizzying array of templates, shapes, fonts, charts, ancient Sanskrit algebra and smileys that even magazine editors don't know what to do with. We don't like to think about it though, do we, even when it's so obvious in every single mundane piece of junk cluttering our daily lebensraum?

Capitalism avoids any product that works too well, any design too efficient, any solution too elegant. Companies instead pile extras into anything and everything: extra pieces, extra steps, wasted space and bonus apps. Every extra adds another five cents of production cost but another ten cents of justifiable price gouging. Every "disposable" is another sale. Unit cost is where percentage meets ka-ching! Just have to find some flimsy justification for it. For every wasted day of work, every wasted kilogram of copper, every wasted square meter of shelf space, some fatcat multibillionnaire investor increases his relative worth over you by another 0.05% That extra profit gets fed right back into market manipulation to prevent you from buying the better alternative. Well, market manipulation plus ale and whores. And Learjets. And private islands.

But of course we have to keep buying overbuilt gaudy trinkets or the whole world will grind to a halt! At least that's the general thrust of the confused babbling you'll get from any well-heeled economist's discussion of the topic. Every template and smiley and better mousetrap serves as existential justification for some poor schmoe to slave away every single hour of his waking life so he can afford to buy a digital wall thermometer for no particular reason, or new batteries for his wireless mouse. Why do you need a wireless mouse, Clevon? Gonna take it jogging? Is it full of 'lectrolites? Is it scrumptious, precious? Is it crunchable?

Do not even get me started on "smart"phones.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Multiple Choice

"When we set out on this journey
There were no doubts in our minds
We set our eyes to the distance
We'd find what we would find
We spoke our fear to the captain
Asked what his son could know
We'd never've marched so far
To be food for a crow."

Sting - Something the Boy Said

I R spoilery before warned of tormented geeks were plane pillars lined with eternal blood.
No, playing a Malkavian's not rubbing off on me at all. Why do you ask?

So, about a third or halfway through V:tM - Bloodlines, the big cheese wants you to advance the main plot by tracking down a lunatic in his own asylum.
You can refuse. After all you have options (see? one-two-three of them) and one of them is to tell Princey-poo he's not the boss of you! Unfortunately Prince LaCroix's a Ventrue so if you insist on resisting and desisting he just mind-assists you into persisting. You still have three options.
I love that gimmick.

But enough about computer games for today. Let's talk webcomics.
Weregeek ran a quaint strip last week in which a D&D player eats some red berries.

Oh, wait, we're still talking about computer games, because I remember where I've seen that scenario recently. One of the last quests in Pillars of Eternity has you chase down the cause of murderous fits among some miners. Your trail ultimately leads you to the culprit, a gigantic mushroom of the kind you've fought all through the game, the kind that can spew psychotropic spores at your party members and turn them berserk. Its room is filled with spores. Dialogue ensues. I'm rather proud of the fact that when faced with the inhuman mind-altering monstrosity spewing a haze of spores, my first and only reaction was to breathe in deep.
Kana's meek attempt at talking sense into big bad lupine me is just hilarious.
Eating the red berries in this case results in you starting the inevitable boss fight confused and attacking your teammates randomly. Now, of course long-time RPG-ers have been trained to play the hero, to play nice, to try to mediate because when that dialogue option's available the rewards are artificially inflated in its favor so we can pretend to be morally upright. See my ruling in the case of Damocles v. Narcissus. The scenario presented in Weregeek, where the blatantly crazy/stupid option advances the plot, gains you new allies and gets you phat lewt to boot, has been overused to the point where players actively choose the supposedly risky or self-sacrificing option not for altruism or the adventuring spirit but because they cynically expect to profit more from it as per RPG boilerplate.

Of course, in my case with the radiant spore, I just wanted to see what happened. I even doubled down and asked it to tell me where it comes from because I honestly thought the game's writers would've included some quaint backstory about some mysteeeerious hidden boreal jungle valley ruled by an interlinked mycelial hive-mind... before I get my comeupins. I didn't doubt stopping to smell this particular rose would have some kind of negative repercussions. I was just willing to pay the piper when it came to that. Sometimes, curiousity really does yield a high feline mortality rate, and that's oh-kay!

Take Planescape:Torment for instance. You're repeatedly warned not to antagonize the queen bitch of the center of the multiverse by either mocking or praying to her. Try to just avoid the bad-ass giant floating broad with knives sticking out of her skull. Still, at one point you acquire a crude voodoo effigy of the Lady of Pain, and can proceed to poke the bear. Repeatedly.
Now a first offense results in Her Paininess showing up and locking you in the Player's Maze. A second offense means death - actually one of the very few ways your immmortal self can truly die in Torment. Visiting the player's maze is not necessary to complete the game, but hey, it's another zone to explore, right?

RPGs are supposed to be about player choice. Even if time/budget constraints restrict games from becoming truly endless "choose your own adventure" stories with every possible action covered, the goal should still be to offer players a chance to make their choice. Some of us happen to like red berries.

First of all, stop filling games with trite "kumbaya" scenarios. The myconid dialogue's much more plausible in Pillars of Eternity than Weregeek's reiteration. No, there's no reason to think an utterly alien creature just needs a hug to realize it wants to be your friend. If anything, a highly cohesive culture will be even more xenophobic. Like hates unlike.

Second, self-destruction's an art form. Allow the player to stand on principle, knowing it to be a losing proposition. See how many paladins give their money to orphans when it just means losing money, doesn't get them a reputation boost with Neverwinter or a fat exp bonus. See how many will still talk smack to the bigwigs when it means losing a mission bonus. Make it ambiguous, alternating good and bad outcomes (player's maze vs. death) for similar decisions in similar situations. Keep players guessing. Daring deeds are nothing without risk.

Finally, at least allow a pro forma display of personal choice. Even if genuflecting before the big vamp in charge is necessary to advance the plot, let me do so under protest. And, if you're forcing a particular gameplay choice or outcome on me, at least have the decency to admit that all your dialogue options lead to "yes sir."

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Male Tear Flambé

I like webcomics. I'm less interested, in general, in the ancillary odds and ends which grow around them: guest strips, crossovers, fan art, forums and so forth. This usually includes the cartoonists' own commentary. Most authors really do put their best work into the quips and quibbles of their imaginary two-dimensional friends, leaving their nonfiction ramblings somewhat more trite, conventional and dull by comparison.

Sometimes they can be interesting though. The author of Out There, a slice of life comic I check infrequently enough that I didn't even know it'd stopped updating nine months ago, also did a series of very concise (by my rather verbose standards) one-shot complaints about various overused and tiresome words, phrases, trends and tropes within modern entertainment. You know, what TVTropes should be doing if it still retained any point to it.

Anyway, the Cliché Flambé in question dealt with the glorified bitch stereotype, the female character constantly abusive of those around her, especially males (more often than not physically so) yet at the same time presented as a positive figure and constant object of romantic attention, affection and sacrifice by male characters around her. In fact the more she beats on them the more they trip over each other to grovel for her attention because "strong" women are sexy, you see. Men want her and (usually younger female padawans) want to be her. One of the most popular and long-running paragons of such virtue within webcomics would be Jeph Jacques' Faye in Questionable Content.

Monroe tactfully refrained from using specific examples, and more amusingly went the whole page without saying the "F" word - feminism. Think of what types of male behaviors a term like "masculinism" would prompt you to automatically picture. Picture the machismo, the overentitlement, a disgusting chauvinistic pig who expects women to drop whatever they're doing to sing his praises at a moment's notice, even as he berates and demeans them. Picture Ralph Kramden, except instead of a bumbling oaf he'd be presented as beautiful, always right and genuinely justified in all his abusive, self-centered bluster. Put him in a skirt and there you've got the modern feminist archetype, adopted by so many writers desperate for a pat on the head for being pro-woman.

Ironically, back in 2014 when Out There's writer was musing whether his fellow artists online might be writing such surreal female characters because they've never met any real women, a lot of marginally real but decidedly feminist writers at major media circuses like Slate and The Guardian were proudly proclaiming they Bathe in Male Tears. Even had t-shirts and coffee mugs printed. When challenged on their chauvinistic garbage, their common reply was to tell men to stop whining and learn to take a joke... which would actually be a really good argument if it didn't come out of the mouths of feminists, people who have built entire mountains of artificially inflated outrage out of utterly mundane molehills, built very lucrative careers out of trying to amplify cat-calling into some sort of anti-female Holocaust and foaming at the mouth about such heinous male crimes as "mansplaining" and "manspreading" and man- well, really just man.

Feminism's propped up by plenty of factors, from the cynically practical and economical to political hijacking of anything which might pander to a major voting block, to evolutionary psychology and more run-of-the-mill couch psychology as well. Among these, we must count the blatant impression that feminists learned their most profitable lesson as third-grade bullies: it's more fun to hit boys because they're not allowed to hit girls back.

After decades of this attitude permeating our entire society, decades of sitcoms filled with males portrayed as dumb schlubs who have to be set right by their attractive, politically correct, always-right-by-default female counterparts, decades of feminist writers blaming all the world's ills on testicles and men's desperation to please by kow-towing to such abuse, it's no surprise that comics with their more condensed format simplified that entire equation into the slap-happy "strong woman" cliché set against meek, supplicating male adulators. Feminism hasn't had anything to do with equality since at the very least the early '90s, more likely the '70s. It is a chauvinistic dogma of absolute good and evil meant to capture an audience by selling moral entitlement. We should really stop acting surprised that the fiction penned by artists with a proper modern feminist upbringing so often depicts petty bullies implicitly justified by being born the correct sex.

Monday, February 6, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Noncombat

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

Fat Larry needs ya hailp brutha!
(I think?)
Guy sounds crazier than a Malkavian to me, but maybe I'm just a jive turkey who don' no da sco' yo.
Despite Larry's insistence on katanas at high noon, the mission on which he sends you can actually be completed without ever shooting a fire. You are to infiltrate a parking garage where two street gangs are buying/selling a particularly valuable briefcase. Vampire stories being pulp fiction, you don't get to know what's inside it. You could of course do the bionic supersoldier schtick and grind your way through three levels of pistol-happy street trash or...
Sneak to the end of the hero's journey and grab the macguffin. As soon as it disappears the two gangs (presumably suspecting each other of the theft) riddle each other with bullets and you're free to ride into the sunset. If you're a Nos or Malk, just flip on your handy-dandy Obfuscate skill and run all the way to and from the bank.

In my last post I complained that Bloodlines' combat was repetitive, clunky and easily exploitable to boot. Only marginally enjoyable. Luckily, this ain't no MMO and you're allowed to be more than a slap-happy grunt hitting the first thing in front of you as you go. You can make full use of those eerie vampiric invisibility and mind control powers to bypass trash mobs and even complete some quests. For instance, one quest has you killing (or sneaking past) a floor full of Russian mobsters. The boss' door's guarded by his pet gorilla, whom my Malkavian character can dementate into escorting me into the room for the cost of a little blood.
Then for another blood point, inflict a fit of paranoia upon the mob boss himself, who shoots at his second in command and is easily dispatched by him.
Quest complete. You may now high-tail it out of the building having taken not a single swing at anything.

Note, this is a slightly different issue than simply creating single noncombat actions incorporating combat abilities. For noncombat options to truly be viable means of defeating entire quests, the quests themselves must be designed so as not to force combat. Clear all trash mobs once the quest's flagged as completed, or allow the player to escape. Above all, don't over-incentivize the combat option through either loot or experience points. Don't require the player to clear the boss room altogether in order to loot several redundant treasure chests. Award the pay-off for completing the task itself.

Bloodlines handled this very well thanks in part to its blood pool economy. As with most old-school games before the concept of resource management was trivialized for the idiotic mass-market, your "mana" in Bloodlines does not recover automatically. It must be replenished by feeding, and combat skills eat up a lot of it. Killing and looting all those street thugs might net me a few extra clips of ammunition, but if I end up having to down a single blood pack in the heat of pew-pew, its cost will still put me in the red... so to speak. Talk, on the other hand, is cheap.

The other and even more important aspect of incentivizing which made noncombat options work is of course Bloodlines' handling of experience gain, but that's a topic best discussed in relation to stealth.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

On Goblins, Ages, Sticks and the Blowing of Wads

"Your feet are going to be on the ground
Your head is there to move you around"

R.E.M. - Stand

Like most things inter-netted, webcomics benefit from both greater accessibility and creative freedom than are found in older media. Under these conditions it should be no surprise that logic takes a back seat to fanciful meanderings and superhero or fantasy-themed comics abound. Subject matter aside, though, authors also get to set their own pace without The Editor breathing down their necks to hook more readers or string them along. That being said, hooking and stringing are still part of any such a bid for attention, and it can be interesting to see a work pace itself (or more often, not) according to the timescale on which the author's thinking. Do you hold plot twists and escalations in reserve to keep your story interesting long-term or risk blowing your wad with a big attention grabber?

For fantasy-themed comics in particular, there may be a certain expectation to conform not only to a standard "hero's journey" narrative but to a typical Dungeons and Dragons or other roleplaying campaign, which imposes a crescendo of party formation, leveling up, resolving some Miss Marple quality palace intrigue, defeating incrementally harder enemies and so forth. Diverging from this can prove interesting but then again might unsuccessfully overstep the de facto bounds of pre-established tropes and set pieces.

The comic Skin Horse isn't the sort of high-fantasy shpiel I'm primarily concerned about today, but it does feature a rather apt running gag. One of Skin Horse's characters is exasperated at her favorite series of bodicerippers (about hot-bodied goblins 'cause why not) going off the topic of goblins into were-goblin sex and vampiric goblin sex and such. Do vampire goblins sparkle? One can only guess.

So, about those Goblins. Originally subtitled Life through Their Eyes, the comic started with poignant in-jokes about the suspension of disbelief inherent in roleplaying and common RPG foibles, all seen from the "outsider" viewpoint of those measly level 1 goblins everyone hacks apart by the dozens immediately after creating their character. A band of goblins becomes adventurers. Interesting twist, ok. They kill some zombies, the other major convenient source of low-level fodder. Good, good, ok. They infiltrate a hostile human city, good conflict there.
Then... I can't even say it escalates. Instead of entering the middle range of adventuring difficulty, from zombies to ghouls and ghosts, from hobgoblins to trolls, from +1 weapons to +2 weapons, the comic suddenly acid trips into pan-dimensional eternally returning pocket universes, world-devouring demons, dungeons the size of mountain ranges, time-traveling duplicate clones and weapons made of unreality. The characters themselves become half-metalloid symbiotes or half-demonic or half stone elemental or... Jesus! No, really, if one of them became Goblin Jesus, it would actually make more sense at this point.

Needless to say, the plot also increasingly suffers from the time dilation seen in so many serialized works, with every dungeon taking from months to years to plod through for all the exposition it requires.

The truly sad thing is that these are good ideas. Rather, they would have been great ideas if spread out a bit or used for end-game scenarios, and are continually undercut by the realization that these are fourth-level characters talking about invading Hell. If the author had just paced himself for a couple more years of incremental weirdness instead of cramming every "wouldn't-it-be-cool-if" notion into page by page, then all these puzzles, enemies, weapons and dungeons would have made for highly creative and satisfying plot escalation. However, once you defeat your infinitely-powerful-reality-reshaping/annihilating-alternate-universe-psion-clone ... at level 3 ... where do you go from there? Sharks are not for jumping, people.

You can see a slightly less severe case of this in the webcomic Guilded Age. Though more concerned with gamer socialization meta-commentary than the fantasy world it presents, it makes a better effort to keep its heroes from wrestling with gods right out of the cradle. Laudably implicit, there is nonetheless a leveling scheme one can follow, with characters refining and expanding upon their ability sets as they go. Still, it makes rather too liberal use of cheesy gamer backstories like "last of his holy order" or "secret princess" or "tragic childhood" or "chosen champion of god # 437" and I can't help thinking the clashing armies and world-devouring abomination should've been prefaced with a handful of ogres and vampires or at least a dragon or two. It still sadly skips a lot of necessary small-time (or mid-time) theatrics.

Top prize for handling serialized RPG-inspired escalation however goes to The Order of the Stick with its keen awareness for overused pop-fiction tropes and RPG pitfalls. Though it started on uncertain footing, cramming masses of random monsters into one dungeon, over its fourteen years it's struck an excellent balance between breaking the fourth wall with metagaming jokes about D&D mechanics and keeping its characters proportionate to a semi-coherent fantasy setting. The same character who can Great Cleave hordes of zombies goes one-on-one with an ogre and can get defeated by umpteen D6 falling damage. The villains you kill at level 7 can come back at level 10 as nifty self-buffing flesh golems of themselves. By now it feels perfectly natural for a character to say "I love being high level" while killing frost giants and the rush toward the end-game face-off against the big bad trying to enslave the world has been quite appropriately built up. Where the author toys with giving characters power or adventures beyond their means, it comes with setting-appropriate limitations. The Order of the Stick maintains a consistent awareness of scale and proportions (despite occasionally and intentionally trampling same for dramatic effect.)

Now, of course there are other examples, many of which work well because they set finite, relatively short timescales for themselves, but they're topics for another time. For this post I was just thinking of open-ended or long-running stories set in the D&D -> WoW continuity of gamer culture, and I've yammered on long enough.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Combat

You'll hear Bloodlines fans praise any number of its features: its dialogues, voice acting, quest structure, music, humor, varied abilities and weaknesses, replay value, etc. - but not its combat. As I said before, the choice of licensing Source from Valve was a waste of resources. While it's true RPGs' immersion benefited greatly from adopting 3D, first-person worlds (as Morrowind demonstrated) it's no strict requirement (as Pillars of Eternity more recently demonstrated) and it's also clear that Bloodlines' programmers were not up to the task of squeezing the Source Engine for its considerable utility. While Half-Life 2's blatantly exhibitionist speedboat canal scene gloried in fast-paced, friction-enabled vehicular/ballistic physics, the best Bloodlines ever managed with the same tech was your character lurching a couple steps this way or that when using some abilities. More often than not it's just a pain catching debris on your toes and clattering it around the room as you walk. Combat in Bloodlines consists of repetitive left-clicking.

So it comes as both a curse and a blessing that so many off the combat encounters weren't just simplistic but so untested as to be exploitable. Of the four or five "boss fights" my Malkavian's encountered so far, I've already semi-intentionally glitched my way through two of them.
You ice dis mook in a box-filled warehouse. He slashes at you with a katana while bouncing around like Yoda and ducking in and out of sight among the four pillars of boxes (by the way, what the hell kind of company stores their product like THAT?) I'm sure it was meant to be a very exciting demonstration of vampiric abilities and also shove the game engine's vaunted three-dimensionality in your face, but for my melee characters it was just a chore repeatedly poking at the sucker whenever he got in range. For a ranged character... well, as you can see I'm just standing on top of a box where he can't land next to me and pegging him with cheap, disposable ammo. Fifty or so left-clicks later, done. Didn't even need to move my feet. How exciting is a fight you can win one-handed?

As for the other, there's a recurring problem with doors getting stuck on characters when opening or closing. It can force you to re-load in one of the shops and more frequently just annoys you by making you look for a specific angle where you can reach the door/grate/gate without getting sandwiched between it and a wall. So here's Jezebel Locke stuck in her doorway eating bullets:
Amusingly, I wasn't even trying. Opening the door forces you into dialogue, after which I backed away to ready my weapon, she tried to follow and got stuck in the closing door. Gotta love a game that just defeats itself.

Bloodlines is an amazing game... in most ways. It's also a classic example of how damaging early adoption of new technology can be, jumping on the latest bandwagon. Luckily it also provided the player with an unprecedented array of opportunities to get things done by unconventional means neither hacky nor slashy, so aside from a few boss fights the weak combat doesn't really hurt it as much as it could have. More on those means some other time.