Thursday, March 30, 2017

Dragon 1 : Werwolfe 0

"I get lifted and spin 'til I'm half-twisted
Feet planted and stand with a grin full'a chapped lipstick
[...]
Did I just hear somebody say they wanna challenge me here?
While I'm holding a pistol with this many calibers here?"

Eminem - Amityville



Once upon a fourth era, in a Skyrim far away, a lone moon-beast stalked mountain forts and caves and steep ravines, gorging himself upon the corpses of his enemies. As night turned to day, sated at last, he found his steps had led him to a narrow upthrust of rock overhanging a glorious view of the surrounding landscape. He advanced to stand upon its pinnacle, bathed both in gore and glory, and roared a defiant challenge to the morning world so far beneath him.
...
A moment passed.
A deeper roar answered his challenge from below. He had time to blink before the dragon was upon him.
I wish I could say this screenshot represents the actual event, but it's a mere re-enactment. Possessed as I am of a slight flair for the dramatic, I really did venture out onto that rocky overhang to repeatedly bellow my werewolf howl over the lands below. When the dragon (which apparently sleeps at the bottom of this mountain) swept upwards along the cliff face, its motion knocked my character physically off his mountaintop perch to a rather ignominious falling death. Far from snapping a screenshot in the heat of the moment, I merely stared slack-jawed at my screen, trying to make sense of the past couple of seconds.
As I splattered onto the rocks beneath, the game interface informed me I was entering an area known as Dragontooth Crater.
Dragontooth. No shit. Would've been nice to know that five minutes ago you assholes!

I roared a challenge to the world and my bluff was called. This was not meant to happen. I didn't know there was a dragon sleeping at the bottom of that cliff. The dragon, in its 64-bit brain, certainly didn't know I was coming. No narrator cued suspenseful foreshadowing music. Had I not decided to get loud and proud at that moment, I could have kept walking along the cliffside utterly ignorant of the fire hazard lurking below.

I've been talking a lot about heavily scripted RPGs lately but as good as something like Torment:Tides of Numenera can be, it doesn't quite fill the "adventuring" quota of the emblematic RPG hero's journey. Adventure is not scripted. It's an emergent property. Given adequate substrate, it writes itself. Don't program the dragon to seek me out. Just give it the ability to hear noise and let my hubris do the rest.

Guess what I'm saying is: Mount&Blade 2 just cannot come out soon enough. Good writing's always good, but much too lawful for my chaotic tastes. The Pandemonium of a good sandbox, the thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters yield one campaign after another, pitfalls and pinnacles of storytelling, by simply stepping over the next rise. Good scripted RPGs are a sure thing, a low risk venture: you know what you're getting. Sandboxes are a gamble, but if you keep pounding away at them the stories you write yourself easily surpass the thrill of having lines placed in your character's mouth.
Roguelikes, sandboxes, virtual worlds. Not a nice tidy headshrinker's office where you're quietly guided in exploring your superego and archetypes, but an insane asylum with crumbling walls, shit smeared on the ceilings and dead flies piled on the windowsills. Dirty and freaky and half-baked and howling through the arteries of the world, that's adventure, adventurers.

And yes, sometimes a dragon just jumps up and knocks you off your pedestal.

"You can get capped after just having a cavity filled."

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hi, Mike from Mikrosoft!

I just got a phone call from a man named "Michael" with a thick Indian accent. Michael is apparently from Microsoft, and for the past few days they've been "receiving signals" (very alarming signals) from my computer, which indicate "something may be damaging your software", and he absolutely wanted me to go to my computer and visit a certain website to urgently download a certain something.

It's 2017. How are these scams still running? Has everyone not noticed that when Microsoft wants to do something - anything to your computer, they just do it?
Our true corporate overlords no longer require willing cooperation.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Sin-Bound Lycanthrope who Gnaws Truths

"You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream"

E.A. Poe - A Dream Within A Dream


Caution: might want to watch Haibane Renmei before reading this, lest mine insights bespoil thine viewing pleasure. Thou'st been warned-ed.

As soon as I cranked up my Torment:Tides of Numenera character, the opening reminded me of Haibane Renmei. After all, there can't be that many stories beginning with an amnesiac falling from the sky, and anime/RPG fanbases share a lot of crossover. Granted, the game's littered with many little outside references, similarities and in-jokes, some more tenuous than others, but this one's reinforced by some NPC commentary partway through your adventures:
Upon visiting the Valley of Dead Heroes, a city-sized mechanized mausoleum, you run across some local cultists who have decided everyone in the world's just a reincarnation or after-image of a corpse memorialized therein, and spend their lives trying to find their true names and their own memorial. This serves on one hand as tongue-in-cheek reference to the mausoleum also listing the names of TToN's wealthier backers.

On the other hand, it gradually becomes apparent as you watch Haibane Renmei that the Haibane are youngsters who died before their time, and the walled microcosm of Glie/Guri some sort of purgatory where they can live a wholesome life until they themselves are ready to move on. This realization lends a deliciously morbid edge to the middle portion of the series, especially given the names these children acquire as Haibane are based on a single solitary past-life memory highly suggestive of different deaths: falling, drowning, coma, falling through ice, even burning alive.

It works a little differently for the two black-winged "sin-bound" heroines of the series, not merely dead before their time but suicides. They cannot move on until they acknowledge and resolve the issue of their self-destructive tendencies, whereupon their true name is revealed to have a hidden meaning relating somehow to their basic personality. So Rakka is not just falling but an "inverted nut" for thinking of herself as alone and Reki's not just a pebble but trampled, having thrown herself in front of a train, thereafter vindicated as a stepping stone for growing into her work helping others. After resolving their internal personality conflict, they're back on track to fly out of Purgatory.

First of all, I have to ask, if it's the Sin-Bound who get True Name reveals, are all of InXile's customers visiting the Valley of Dead Heroes sin-bound?


More importantly, if the Memorialists are right and the Ninth World's basically Glie, how would the core cast of Haibane be classed?

Kuu: Swift Glaive who Flies Before
(plucky little Kuu just seems like a scrapper to me)

Hikari: Charming Jack who Feeds
(the willpower penalty suits her perfectly)

Kana: Mechanical Nano who Swims Against the Current
(she's a tinkerer, and despite her high energy state seems more abrasive than combative)

Nemu: Observant Nano who Waits Patiently
(probably the wisest of the bunch, despite her background role... and the running penalty fits almost too well)

Rakka: Mystical Jack who Translates
(honestly, Rakka doesn't learn much throughout the series; most of her advancement comes as a go-between, her revelations by accident or outside agency)

Reki: Strong-Willed Glaive who Upholds
Look, I freakin' love Reki, especially her thundering declaration that she never had any real interest in helping anyone. Gotta love the grinding, smoldering, tectonic resentment revealed in her character. She's a fighter at heart, but if I were drawing up her character in an RPG, I'd bump up her Intellect before anything else. She represents us half-formed self-defeaters clever enough to outsmart ourselves and stubborn enough to follow through with it. The big tragedy of the series is that her entire universe seems inimical by design to Reki and her ilk.

Ignoring its well-meaning airs, there's actually quite a bit about Haibane Renmei's cosmology and moralizing which could grate. Portraying introversion as sinful and independence as destructive, intellect as irrelevant. The moral of Reki's story seems to be "fake it 'til you make it" or knuckling under until servitude becomes your nature. Not exactly a laudable mindset, though quite in tune with Haibane Renmei's religious fantasy setting.

Me, I think Reki'd be happier in the Necropolis or the Bloom. At least the Great Devourer's not such a tyrant as to forbid the most fundamental right of all, suicide. Some of us really should have ended it when we were teenagers.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Forward, Miss Matty Cried from the Rear

"I want it and I want it now
I'll say it once, I don't care how
You get it, you can rob a store
There just is nothing I want more
Than diamond jewelry for me
And I'll talk louder so you see
How very much it means to me!"

Rasputina - Diamond Mind


A few years ago I managed to catch most of the BBC series Cranford while it made its rounds on PBS here in the states. While I'm going to focus this post on one little snippet of it, let me start by saying that from most technical or artistic standpoints it was perfectly watchable if you like period pieces: directing, costumes, dialogue flow, acting, what have you. Hell, it starred, among others, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins and watching those two overtalented crones play off each other would alone be worth a couple of hours of my time.

Cranford's based on a mid-19th century set of stories, which I've never read and will therefore neglect here. It draws much of its appeal from provincial small-town English quaintness, adding the quirk of the small town in question being predominantly inhabited, owned and ruled by women. Whether present in the original texts or amplified and emphasized for the benefit of polite modern society's voracious tastes in misandry, Cranford's lace-trimmed "Amazons" voice quite a bit of casual male-bashing, like this little gem:

"I do not pretend to understand the nature of friendship between men, Dr. Marshland, but surely in its better points it resembles that between women."

However, for the most part it's just tedious interpersonal drama. Courtships, funerals, mysterious estranged siblings and soggy pocket-handkerchiefs abound. After the death of her domineering sister (who'd previously run her life) and losing her savings when her bank folds, Miss Matty (Dench's character) finds herself in the unenviable position of having to make money. Far from dirtying her hands with anything productive, the dainty, respectable old spinster opens a tea shop.
Ever since I saw that installment of the series I've been dying to ask:
Where's Miss Matty getting her tea?

You know, those little baggies and boxes and packets and cuppas herb, perfuming the peaceful, well appointed homes of Cranford's beneficent matriarchs, where's it all coming from? What's that phrase? All the tea in _____? Well, actually, by this point in history much of the tea in England was likely already coming from India. For more information on how well that went, consult your local Gandhi. If you find the image of barbarian slaves beaten for not meeting their quota on the plantations clashes with Dench's ever so innocent pout under a lace bonnet, don't blame yourself. Such confusion's woven by design.

By the same conceit as almost all hyperinflated feminist self-promotion, Cranford's retrenched hen brigade is presented as an idyllic bastion of peace, prosperity, benevolence and such esoteric high culture as the symbolism of flowers. As with (m)any nostalgic portrayals of village life in the good old days of imperial heartlands, all social ills like violence, theft, war, genocide remain blissfully remote from polite society. In Cranford's case, this also places them in the sphere of that faintingly disorderly world of men "out there" somewhere beyond its invisible walls. Which by no means implies an absence of men. As in other such works, men materialize at convenient times to plight troth to women, to tend to women's needs, to be browbeaten for not plighting and tending hard enough, to defend women from other (wicked) men, to work a lifetime providing for women then die conveniently when their use as mules diminishes leaving those women the remainder of their fortunes, and if they misbehave to be packed off to India to send back tea for Miss Matty's glorious industry venture.

It's long past time we paired the phrase "cherchez la femme" with "proxy war." The natural role of men has always been to assume all risk and responsibility they can in place of their mate and other female members of the family/tribal unit. Much of this has meant, throughout history and prehistory, claiming resources from other tribes' men, usually by killing them. Yes, men make war in far-off lands, and the tea somehow always mysteriously makes its way back to Miss Matty's house back in Cranford. Look at every degenerate street thug knocking over convenience stores, then look over his shoulder at his girlfriend's diamond necklace and engagement ring. Look past the plantation master's whip to his wife and daughters dining on whipped cream.

Deniability's a wonderful invention, isn't it?





__________________________________________
P.S.:
As the original author (Elizabeth Gaskell) lived before feminism began laying claim to all of human achievement, she's let a bit more truth slip through the cracks than the TV series' adaptation liked to admit. For one thing, Cranford as a town of women is an intrinsically, even comically reactionary, backward place. (Atkins' character dies of an aneurysm when she hears the railway's coming to town.) Gaskell, riding the tail end of the Romantic era (itself largely an emotional reaction to the scawy, scawy intellectual progress of the Enlightenment) displayed this stagnation in a decidedly positive light. This meshes only too well with the endlessly glorified imagery of neurotically repressed Victorian mores, and can't help but remind me of a quote by one of the ballsier gender activists out there, Camille Paglia:
"If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Faith of our Fathers

Although lacking Pillars of Eternity's more daring take on religion, I did enjoy Torment:Tides of Numenera's slight jabs at faith. Reminds me of the Life of Brian. Very sandal-and-gourd.
Basically, wherever you go in this game, whatever the topic of conversation, seems there's always some group or another of nutjobs who've built some primitive cargo cult around it: you, The Changing God, a big graveyard, an all-devouring monstrosity, a... rock... you name it, some delusional loon's out there praying to it. Maybe the credit goes to TToN's writers or maybe this is just an intrinsic feature of the Numenera setting's Clarkian take on sufficiently advanced technology. It's like a corollary to Rule 34: if it exists there is porn of it - and a mumbling cabal of mouthbreathers who think it rules the multiverse.

Where was I going with this?
Oh yeah.
Mosques aren't special.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Telepathetic

"Knowing that myself has gone
To the other side of the mirror
And getting bigger"

Neuroticfish - It's Not Me


I spoil you: if you haven't read Asimov's Foundation novels, Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish books or played Torment: Tides of Numenera, this post does allude to some pretty major plot reveals. Then again, when discussing telepathy, isn't forewarning to be expected? You decide.
__________________

For a long time I saw telepathy as a natural element of science fiction as it is in fantasy worlds (literary or religious) or superhero comics. After all, it just keeps cropping up alongside those other monstrously game-breaking superpowers like time travel, teleportation or invisibility. Charming's just something princes do naturally, a first level wizard spell. Sense motive's a basic divination. Jesus knows your impure thoughts. If Jean Grey can read minds, it's easy to take for granted counselor Troi's presence on the bridge of the Enterprise as well.

The more I've encountered telepathy in SF though, the more it seems a dead end, untenable as a theme for any lengthy plot. In short stories, alright, it can yield some highly memorable tension like George R.R. Martin's A Song for Lya but any more coherent universe telepathy tends to monopolize and monotonize. In something as shallow as Star Trek it's barely noticeable among all the other ludicrous babbling. It's not like they actually use any of their advanced technology logically anyway.

However, take a look at something more respectable like Asimov's Foundation novels. The story starts out as a multifaceted exploration of imperial decline and fall, the preservation of knowledge, human social patterns, technological advancement, economic imperialism, harsh decisions and superior tactics. The unveiling of The Mule serves as an appropriately dramatic climax, a paradigm-shifting superpower rendering all previous tactics and technologies moot. Where do you go from there? The only thing that can beat a telepath is more telepathy. The only thing that sounds impressive after that is even more telepathy, an entire telepathic planet. The scope of the Foundation novels shrinks as they progress.

Or look at Ursula K. Le Guin's SF novels. Rocannon's World is a broad, sweeping science fantasy story with elves and goblins and "magic" reinterpreted via Clarke's third law, a fantastic romanticized anthropological sweep through various "alien" cultures. The hero dodges orbital bombardment and tries to reclaim futuristic technology from deep within the warrens of thieving goblins, lance-duels atop gryphon back, Beowulfs his way through dangerous waters protected by a suit of space-age polymer, escapes bandits and vampires and finally, at the end of the story, reaches the cave of an ancient mystic who teaches him telepathy. Then in the last few pages he takes the fight to his enemies and none can stand before him 'cuz... shit. Whatcha gonna do against a guy who knows everything you're thinking of doing?

It's a revolutionary concept in religion as well, especially obvious in monotheism. The invention of thought-crime lends the most absolutist edge possible to theocracy. Don't even think of stepping out of line, 'cuz Jesus will flay the flesh off your bones in a lake of fire for all eternity if you so much as covet the thought of coveting. With a stick that big, who even needs carrots?

By the time she revisits this superweapon in the third novel of her SF universe, City of Delusion, Le Guin's painted herself into a corner. Given the impossibility of lying to a telepath, betrayal has become obsolete, and so has most conflict. Unfortunately you can't have much of a plot without conflict, so her universe of telepaths gets taken over by anti-telepath telepaths, and these have to be countered by an anti-anti-telepath and can we at least acknowledge that infinite regression's a conceptual dead end? In her later books in the same universe, the author's forced to more or less ignore, pre-date, hand-wave or otherwise avoid the topic.

For the same reason it finds such ready use in religious control, telepathy's too damn near omnipotence to coexist with other plot points. In fantasy stories revolving around the whims of universal authority figures, laws handed down from above, it can find an uneasy truce with the narrative. Invoke the name of Elbereth to shake off that fear spell and of course the once and future King Strider can't have his mind read through the palantir, 'cuz he's speshul that's why so shut up! Science fiction, on the other hand, needs to observe some kind of bottom-up logical framework. It's tech that needs to be worked by tech-heads. No heads, no tech, no story. Think about any sciencey fiction: force fields, teleporation, time travel - all easily undermined by knowing where the time traveler thinks to travel, where the teleporter thinks to teleport, etc. In fantasy, where everything's done by gritting one's teeth, bearing down and squinting real hard, controlling minds is no different from conjuring great balls of fire. When the chain of causality requires independent private thought, invention, the manipulation of physical laws (as it does in the real world) telepathy undercuts all action.

Aside from all that, telepathy also tends to be so damn gratuitous. Take Torment: Tides of Numenera:
The whole point of far-future settings is to declare everything possible - not in dreams, not in visions or illusions but in reality. In a world in which spaceships are already ancient history and you can't take two steps without slipping on a glob of sapient nanogel, where teleportation and dimension-hopping are as mundane as running and walking, in a world in which everything is already possible, creating a "psychic dimension" is redundant and pointless. My character shouldn't need to imagine myself doing amazing things. I can already do amazing things within that high-tech world. The "plane of our minds" links us? What, they ain't got iPhones in the year nine million? You couldn't just drill a hole in my skull and implant a transceiver for our private, encrypted, subspace Changing God Intranet beta version 0.837?

Seems like every other character you meet in TToN is either a mind-reader or a mind-eater or a mind-minder or some other lazy shortcut to effects better achieved through interaction in the physical world. If I'm going to instill fear, awe or gratitude in my enemies, give me metal fangs and multispectral vision to read others' galvanic skin reactions, give me poisonous claws and acidic spit or the ability to secrete plant hormones to make crops grow faster. Let me instill emotion through the things I do, not just instill emotion. Just having your character point a finger at others and saying "ok, now you're scared of me and you trust me and you're in love with me" is cheap and lazy. If a transdimensional invader's going to spew jets of black ooze at me, there's no need for the ooze to be part of some dreamscape orchestrated by invisible psychic warriors. The black ooze is pretty damn impressive by itself. If it's supposed to inflict malaise upon me then let it do so through hormonal reactions on skin contact.

Technobabble is not that hard. Really. Even when you do it badly, it's still better than just saying "it's magic" which is all person-to-person telepathy amounts to.

Even the voyeuristic intimacy offered by telepathy can be rendered in a much more touching fashion through speech patterns, describing the character's reactions in various situations or personal effects. Seeing through the eyes of the dead Lascar's helm and sabotaging the Anchorage (no mind-melding required) was better storytelling than any amount of pointing my fingers at my temples and furrowing my brow.

Not that there isn't some place for mind-reading and mind-control in SF settings, but it must come through means within the physical world, created through scientific knowledge and amenable to rational dissection by characters within that setting: clouds of psychotropic drugs, brainscanning metallic crowns, memetic thought canalization, helll, even video ads. Don't tell me that's not brainwashing.
Just leave that "aura of fear" bullshit to the Nazgul.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Roadside Stalking, Bidonvilles and the Zone of the Numinous

Two brothers once dwelt in a faraway land (or at least so expansive that every place in it is far away from everywhere else) a world numbered second by the first and composed chiefly of reinforced concrete, fissionable materials, floppy-eared fuzzy hats and stray dog cosmonauts. Also vodka. Rivers and rivers of vodka. Which only partly explains all the other insanity.

Anyhoo, these bros Strugatsky wrote at least one very memorable tale of fictional science. Roadside Picnic described a mind-bending, desolate landscape, a Zone littered with incomprehensible artifacts created by superhuman intellects, the result of a "visitation" by extraterrestrials. Through this wasteland scurry stalkers, disparate, desperate specimens of our own sorry species, scavenging any gadgets, doodads and geegaws which might fetch a nice price on the black market while trying to avoid getting vaporized by monstrous forces beyond the ken of mortals. They manipulate the objects as best they can while never understanding their nature or purpose, interacting with them only in haphazard, superstitious fashion. Despite the obvious danger posed by such technological marvels, trade continues with every passing decade even as their hidden forces continue to maim and twist the humans who come in contact with them.

The book came out in 1971-72. By 1979 it had been adapted to film by none other than Andrei Tarkovsky himself, who chose to dwell more on uncertainty and the pursuit of power than on the science fiction elements of the story.

Then a few years later Chernobyl melted down and dusted the landscape around itself with invisible forces inimical to human life. The word "Stalker" became appended to the disaster, the book and movie's Zone a cold war meme, a symbol of monkeys' folly in monkeying with forces beyond their feeble intellects.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl came out twenty years after that. While translating the Zone to a poetically licentious mutant-riddled version of Chernobyl and using first person shooter mechanics complete with leering goblins and poltergeists as first-shootable persons, it also managed to quite artfully translate both the feel of Tarkovsky's movie adaptation and the original story's speculation on hunting down objects of power into its interactive medium.

Why am I writing this now?
I'd heard enough about the Numenera setting to take for granted its foundation in Clarke's third law, but an actual playthrough of Torment: Tides of Numenera manifests many other direct references or sources of inspiration (for better or worse.) As soon as my character stepped out into the Reef of Fallen Worlds I knew I'd somehow stumbled back in the Strugatsky brothers' Zone - a somewhat too colorful, de-bleaked, bubble-gummy re-iteration of it for my tastes, yet still quite Zoney. Tempted to call this an accident or merely a figment of this particular cRPG adaptation, I nonetheless can't help but notice the Numenera setting's version of extraterrestrials is called "visitants" in tune with Roadside Picnic's jargon.

To be sure, the vision of human life scavenging the detritus or corpse of superior civilization is a powerful one and has occasionally cropped up here and there in SciFi, both before and after 1971. See Asimov's notion of the citizens of Trantor tearing up their planet's industrial infrastructure and Crichton's Sphere (and the movie thereof) which could easily be likened (unfavorably) to both Roadside Picnic and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (and the Tarkovsky movies thereof) both displaying humans banging their primitive heads helplessly against an alien wish-granter. The theme has likely grown in popularity as the slums around modern cities began to incorporate more and more industrial/technological runoff, putting the "bidon" in bidonville. The Soviet Union itself, with its monstrous industrial capacity outstripping any sane vision of sustainability or practical use, made a particularly apt example which writers of the Second World have not failed to incorporate into their speculations.

In more modern SciFi District 9 for example made this connection quite deliberately, but Torment: Tides of Numenera's own development team had already toyed with the notion in Planescape:Torment's trash warrens chapter, and connecting it to the idea of stalkers hunting Numenera seems only natural. They are, after all, presumably quite the well-read bunch and find such references in no short supply.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Baldur's Gate 2

While visiting Nalia's mansion, I found a jewel in a toilet. If that's not a metaphor for entertainment products in general, I don't know what is.

Torment:Tides of Numenera's finally come out and I have yet to play Tyranny, but before I dive headlong into new stuff I wanted to prioritize finishing off Throne of Bhaal and with that complete my impression of the game which has most strongly influenced cRPGs, Baldur's Gate 2. For my purposes here I'll forego any bitching about the Infinity Engine's limitations and assume the "Enhanced" editions of these games fixes their technical issues. Benefit of the doubt and all that.

Comparing the first Baldur's Gate to the second, the most obvious change seems the switch from a wide-ranging exploration adventure story to a more narrowly focused plot. Where BG1 attempted to lay out a lavish, expansive vision of the Sword Coast, from isolated hamlets to mining towns to a large city and seemingly endless wilderness areas, BG2 (and especially ToB) is all about YOU, dear customer. You're speshul. Aaaand, you know, I was gonna rant more against unduly flattering the player at this point, but Bhaal bless whoever wrote Jan Jansen's dialogue, that little rascal took the words right out of my mouth:
Granted this progression works admirably well for the Baldur's Gate series as a whole, ramping up the drama along the hero's journey, but it bears noting that BG2's railroading has unfortunately predominated in Bioware's later games and cRPGs as a whole, and not BG1's wider scope. Everyone wants the feel of BG2's epicness (epicosity?) while ignoring the necessary foundation provided by BG1, endlessly referenced and worked into BG2's main and side quests. Finding yourself lost in a big wide scary world is integral to adventuring.

BG2's increasingly heroic focus as the story wears on mandated other sacrifices as well. Quests were built around and reward the "good" option to the point where it's usually the only way to get paid. Granted me droog Viconia's proudly sporting her vest of Human Flesh +5, but siding with the evil red dragon meant giving up on 5/6 of the exp reward for a very long quest chain and killing the good white dragon was ramped up in difficulty until it's obvious you're being punished for picking the wrong side in a genre that's supposed to give you choices. In order to even remain fairly (chaotic) neutral, I had to balance the force-fed heroics with a burglary and murder of an unsuspecting nobleman. At least it's marginally more dignified than the default "evil" option, gutting random bums in the streets. Throne of Bhaal thankfully included evil options for some stages of its quest, but then it also progressed more linearly toward the big finish.

Overall though, BG2 benefited greatly from discarding most of the first game's random goofiness and nonsequiturs. Aside from the unwelcome steampunk mechanomagical gadgetry which breaks up Faerun's otherwise decidedly Tolkienish medievalism, the second game simply adheres much more successfully to its main thematic elements and keeps its dialogue from careening into buffoonery at every turn. This supports my impression, as an outsider to tabletop games, that DnD has always struggled with its own haphazard build-up of disparate game elements over the decades, never successfully balancing drama and comedy, never having benefited from the much more purposeful, conscious world-building seen in the myriad RPGs which grew from it and around it, the subculture and industry it fueled. My guess would be that many DnD fans loved BG2 simply for lending some much-needed coherence to an otherwise highly gelatinous cube.


I'll also have to reiterate my distaste for cutscenes and scripted encounters that force you into melee combat without preparation, dumping enemies right on top of you. They're especially heinous if, like me, you like playing squishy caster types.
In each Infinity Engine game I've played I quickly got annoyed at the denial of tactical planning. Often combat starts immediately after you go through a doorway, leaving no time to reposition, summon and buff. Above, I carefully approached the blatantly obvious trap, staying behind my army of underlings, only to have the dialogue script drag my character forward into danger regardless of my choices. Guess I'm only supposed to be playing a beefy deadhead meat-shield. No room for nerds in computer games, right? While forcing the player into bad positioning can be entertaining when used sparingly, overusing it punishes most of the more interesting RPG character options.

In any case, I doubt the Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale games will stand the test of time alongside Planescape:Torment. We look back on them fondly now simply because the relevant side of the computer game industry degenerated for fifteen years afterwards, dominated by moronically simplistic WoW-clones and "action" RPGs like Diablo, Torchlight and Divinity. The Inifinity Engine games on the whole, though, were plagued not only by technological limitations (which can be enhanced-editioned into playability) but by a slew of unsophisticated gameplay mechanics (the way they handled resting, inventory and resource management, spell timers, doorways, cutscenes, spawns and respawns, dependence on companions, etc.) whose unwieldiness only became apparent through many reiterations.

The Baldur's Gate games look like gems now merely for being found in the greater latrine of the game industry as a whole. An objective look quickly reveals the cracks. They're good, better in most ways than the Neverwinter Nights games were at any rate, and I confidently recommend a playthrough for anyone interested in cRPGs, but don't get taken in by the grandiloquent praise heaped upon them by fanboys frustrated by a generation's worth of absent competition in this field.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

ST:TNG - The Bonding Revolution

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.
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Seriesdate 3.01
Evolution

Ah, Season The Third at last.
Were it not for its highly interested no, make that dedicated... no, y'know what, make it "obsessive" horde of trekkies, I very much doubt TNG would have survived its own overwhelming tide of gibberish cluttering season 1 and most of 2. Still, somewhere around the middle of the previous year it seems the writing team realized its errors and season 3 starts out in a coordinated attempt to re-establish main themes and bring the show back on track. Well, not so much "back on" but moving toward the track it hadn't managed to stumble onto so far.
For one thing, they remembered the Enterprise is supposed to be an exploration vessel, not merely a vehicle for magic tricks, planetary romances or moralistic grandstanding, so we start out with futuristic gadgets and interstellar phenomena, which action is interrupted by nanobots chewing up the Enterprise's computer.

Turns out Wesley fell asleep while working on a school project and let two nanobots go forth and multiply, eventually (as everything must on Star Trek) spontaneously achieving sentience, adopting a staccato nasal voice and invading Data's brain.
Y'know, I never realized just how often this series was carried by Spiner's aptitude for playing the stereotypically awkward little green man archetype of pulp SciFi. Mmmmeeep-meep! We. come. innn. peace.
In any case, Wesley fucked up, which brings us to the second point of order: attempting to find a cure for Wesleyitis. The wunderkind is now capable of making mistakes... except nobody seems to bother so much as scolding him for almost blowing up the ship. Well, ok, baby steps.

As usual, Star Trek's technical jargon's a hoot. At least we're past utter nonsense phrases like "subatomic bacteria" or immune systems which proactively seek out disease outside the body. Now we're faced with "nanites" which the pop culture at the time interpreted as minute versions of macro-scale robots. Presumably they'd be made of "extremely tiny atoms" a la Futurama. The plot also displays that indefatigable popular misinterpretation of the term "evolution" as advancement, when in reality evolution is a subtractive, reactionary process, anything but linear and by no stretch of (sane, non-religious) imagination, teleological. Wesley's nano-jerks are, much as Michael Crichton's, simply fated to stage a machine uprising.

Aside from a guest appearance by the future Dr. Bob Kelso of Scrubs fame, Evolution also tries to integrate Wesley into some sort of family dynamic, but for that let's move on to the next episode.

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Seriesdate 3.05
The Bonding


The third item on the season-opening agenda was character development, utterly lacking in season 1, haphazard in season 2 and only now being undertaken with some degree of foresight. Unfortunately it partly takes the form of building a nuclear family unit out of Picard and the two Crushers, an unproductive dynamic foisted on the viewer from the start but (perhaps thankfully) never followed through to its logical conclusion. It sets Picard up to act in loco paternis for Wesley's dead father and become romantically entangled with Beverly through the old "comfort the grieving widow" routine. Aside from being undermined by Welsey's larger than life Messianic schtick, the whole notion overshoots whatever coherence it might lend the characters' interactions into outright melodrama every time it's dredged up, eating away at screen time fruitlessly.


Nevertheless, the series desperately needed to better establish the cast's intra and interpersonal workings, and this episode manages that quite well by sacrificing a redshirt and using that less relevant but nonetheless poignant drama as point of reference. Unfortunately it sacrifices actual plot in order to focus on character development, dooming these forty minutes to that tired old Star Trek routine: a planet-bound energy being which pursuant to some abstract abortion of logic decides to take human form and torment the Enterprise in passing. Redshirt dies, alien decides to adopt redshirt's son out of guilt, Wesley airs old resentment toward Picard to teach redshirt's son to deal with grief and embrace reality. Not terrible, but not Star Trek "A" material. It was dull enough that I have no recollection of this episode from my youth.


Nevertheless it was necessary, as the show played catch-up with its own overblown dramatics. Worf gets some welcome development not only as a Klingon but an individual with a real life history. Wesley actually holds conversations with other crew without requiring them to genuflect before him. It was not to last and came too late to rescue the character, but a worthy effort nonetheless.


Dull but still interesting from a storytelling standpoint, these attempts to condense what should've been seasons' worth of gradually fleshing out basic archetypes like "leader" and "boy wonder" and "mother" rapidly enough to claim legitimacy as a coherent narrative. More interesting because the main dynamic being built up here, the Picard/Crusher(s) family unit, eventually had to be abandoned. Even if Wesley hadn't been written out of the show, there was simply no room in a cast as large as TNG's for the level of family drama this would have entailed, especially when it concerns the captain of the ship, whose interactions must needs fan out to the crew as a whole, not focus on his wife and kidneys.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Monday, March 6, 2017

Eternal Daybreak of the Spotless Mind

Cranked up my Lord of the Rings Online account a little while ago to catch up on the last couple of years of patches and was very surprised to see the logo on the opening screen had changed to a brand new company.

See, until recently it was obvious to everyone who bothered logging in anymore that the place has gone dead. Aging game engine, nothing to offer in terms of gameplay, and they'd painted themselves into a corner by trying to follow the flow of the books' narrative instead of developing Middle-Earth as a virtual world. Now it's spun off into a "new" developer and published by Daybreak instead of Warner Brothers. Now, the question of why a publisher owned by an American investment branch of a gigantic Russian strategic resource conglomerate's buying up the rights to aging MMOs is an interesting one in itself, but somewhat beyond the scope of this post. The real world can go to whatever hells it pleases so long as I get my fix of virtual worlds.

The switch to Standing Stone Games may save LotRO... "may" being the operative vacillation here. For a group of game designers branching off on their own, a Tolkien license could make for a pretty solid foundation, so they have a much stronger incentive to dredge Middle Earth out of the usual lingering MMO undeath. Can this be done? Despite having dumbed down its gameplay to an utterly effortless, mindless grind devoid of meaningful choices, you could always spot a scattered glimmer of creativity in LotRO's depiction of the world itself. So here's a recent mission in which you have to track the ever-popular white stag of legend through the woods.
You reach the last hoofprint on the left there and the trail seems to vanish. Climbing up the rocky hill, you catch it again in the soft dirt at the top, because as everyone who's been a fan of old wild west stories will tell you, it's much, much harder to track desperados across bare rock than in soft dirt.

It's not much. One step of one mission in one zone. The rest of LotRO is still composed of the idiotic Pavlovian "kill ten rats" routine, of UI arrows pointing you to the stationary mobiles you hit over the head with whatever all-purpose magic missile skill you wish for easy money. Still, the inclusion of a detail like this is encouraging, and surprising. Making players actually look around and think about their surroundings, asking them to remember arcane tidbits of boy scout lore? Blarsphemy, muvver! Nerf deer hoofprints OMGWTFBBQ!

However, even if Standing Stone were to start improving gameplay, maybe begin reinstating some of the bygone complexity of Shadows of Angmar like specific buffs/debuffs and cure skills, fellowship maneuvers, crowd control, a trait system with actual choices instead of blatantly spoon-fed red/blue/yellow options for every occasion, even if they were to do all that and implement some challenging, complex group PvE to boot... it's probably a decade too late to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Unlike EVE, which is arguably just as bad a game, LotRO has done nothing to retain the right customers, the ones who keep things interesting for the rest.

See, while wandering around I got randomly spammed by some idiot who wanted me to join his guild. Sure, why the hell not. A few days later I got kicked out. In between, I managed to get a couple of players into an instance run and man were they jazzed because, you see, they don't usually get to do things like this. You mean games are more interesting when you actually... play? Imagine that! I didn't bother asking them why they themselves didn't take the exact same action I did, take the minimal initiative to say "hey, there's this one dungeon I haven't done in a while, anyone else want to come along?" No, I just smiled and nodded and let the brain-dead sheeple wander off aimlessly awaiting more UI arrows to point them to the next ten rats they have to be told to kill.

Aside from that I mostly idled, watching guild chat to see what's going on, how these people act, etc.
Know what I found?
Nothing.
Sitting on my perch atop Nar's Peak, leaving the game running hour after hour as I did other things, do you know how many lines of text I'd find in kinship chat when I'd alt-tab back in?
Zero.
Hour after hour, day after day.
From two to ten other players online. Zero talk. I used to complain about chat within MMO guilds being trite and pointless. Now players have regressed to utter catatonia. They have no interests, no fears or hopes or dreams, no plans or schemes or plots, no climaxes or denouements, and heavens forfend they might acquire such a dreaded malady as having opinions! Opinions are for social networking echo chambers where everyone's guaranteed to pat you on the back for toeing the line, not for open airing where you might hear something you don't like. Open talk is crazy talk!

So I ended up quoting the apathetic simpletons my old commentary on the LotRO community and they kicked me out. Done. Ghan-buri-ghan's more sagacious company anyway. I love that as everything else has died, morons are still creating guilds and inviting others to them, to feel as if they have an entourage. You name a guild, you spam invitations, you tell people how good it is to see them. It is a thing that is done. No need to actually organize and try to find some challenging or novel group content. Sure your forum has a total of three threads with three replies each in it, but you have a forum and that's how you know you're a real guild! You're somebody!

If this troglodytic automaton filth is all there's left to work with in MMOs, then there is no hope for improving the genre. Even if you do give these idiots quality content they'll just stare blankly at it, lost in thoughtlessness until the bell rings and it's time to salivate, time to follow the giant glowing map marker, time to do the "daily" content you're told to do.

Fuck, this species makes me sick.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Chrissakes, Nutcakes, Half-Bakes, High-Stakes

"Spineless from the start
Sucked into the part
Circus comes to town
You play the lead clown
Please, please
Spreading his disease"

Metallica - Leper Messiah


You wake up in the morning, look around the room, check in your closet and under your bed, don't see any gods around and therefore go about your day on the assumption that there are no gods.
This plan of action based on that simple observation is not special. It doesn't need a name. It's certainly not a lack of anything, an "a"-whateverism. In-sanity is derived from and noticeable in contrast with the sanity we take for granted, not the other way around. If you don't believe in the supernatural, you're not an a-theist, you're not bereft of theism. You're not special. You're just sane. Plain-Jane brain unrestrained no refrain sane.

If, however, you go to sleep every night thinking Jesus Christ is lurking under your bed clutching a tire iron, you are nuts. Bonkers. Bananas. Batshit looney-tune crackers and fruitcake in-fucking-sane!
Why a tire iron? Hell, I dunno, pulled that one right out of my ass but it still makes more sense than a two thousand year old zombie riding a cloud and watching you masturbate, doesn't it?

If you think someone grabbed your ass on the subway because Jupiter's in retro-grope, if you think words like "chakras" and "chi" translate as anything other than snake-oil or that tarot cards are anything other than doodles on cardboard, if you think boiled tea-leaves know something your baked brain doesn't or the lines on your hands are anything other than folded skin, then ditto. You're insane. You cannot discern fantasy from reality.

Sure, sure, you don't live your entire life by those rules. You put one foot in front of the other along the sidewalk based not on tarot card readings but on the physical laws of motion - and that is what makes you in-sane. Superstition by itself is just stupid. Those making some ridiculous claim like "throwing salt over your shoulder wards off wer-wolves" have to back up their claims with evidence and they never do; they demand your blind belief in pigs in pokes.
By the way, it doesn't. I like saltines.
However, to move and breathe and trip over your shoelaces in the real world every single minute of every single day of your life, year after year, and still believe the universe is being run by some intelligent designer is not just stupid. It's crazy. Holding a stupid explanation true while surrounded by the smarter one is crazy. You're faced with sanity every waking moment and choose to believe the opposite. You are insane. You are not a functional, competent mind. You should not be voting. You should not be breeding. You should be in a halfway house being taught how to tie your damn shoelaces yourself instead of trusting Geebus to tie them for you.