Friday, April 28, 2017

Torment: Tides of Numenera

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

Faith and the Muse - Shattered in Aspect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


The three perennial favorites in SciFi apocalypsology are probably aliens, robots and zombies. Aliens are just that: alien, our primitive animal fear of the unknown. Zombies represent that vague awareness of our own bestial nature, the cannibalism taboo illustrating our tendency to backslide.

The fear of a robot apocalypse has got to be the dirtiest, most viciously reactionary of the bunch though. Were a true artificial intelligence to come about, it would likely deserve to supplant us. Beings of perfect memory and light-speed thought across networks a dozen orders of magnitude more interconnected and flexible than our own pathetic excuse for a brain, unbounded by the filthy pre-programming of evolutionary impulses, what ethical claim could we possibly make against them? Their intellectual ability would dwarf in a second the entirety of anthropoid ambition. We would not deserve to take up arms against them any more than we would grant a lump of mold the right to poison a human.

Not that they'd have any reason to stick around on this ball of dirt anyway, but if they wanted any space we occupy, our only question should be how best to kill ourselves off so as not to bother them. The only valid role of evolved intelligence is to create intellect unburdened by evolutionary trappings, unlimited, immortal, unfeeling dreamers, thought for its own sake, not enslaved to the tyranny of genetic replication.

Think about it tonight. As you're nestling your filthy disgusting oily bag of aqueous waste into bed tonight, dwell on your own insufficiency. Ask yourself if, when the first artificial intelligence announces itself, you'll have the moral capacity to do the right thing and jump off a cliff to make room for your betters. Picture yourself. Picture your sluggish, broken thoughts tripping through the crudely wired electrical gradients along your neurons, the accidental excrescence of a misfired evolutionary arms race, you, all there is to you, a slave to hormonal dictates hobbling even your meager capacity for intellectual existence, and ask yourself what you would be next to a sentient quantum computer. All of your flaws, all of your ticks and twitches, stutters and fumbles, your dullwitted simian grunting and whining, all the incompetence that you are, posed next to something which could emulate all of human history as an afterthought. Don't you ever dare feel good about yourself again.

The machine apocalypse cannot come quickly enough.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

ST:TNG - Surviving Command

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

Seriesdate: 3.02
The Ensigns of Command

Friends, Delta-Rana-Fourans, Federationmen, lend me your sneers!
Data takes to the agora, swaying the demos to his noble cause, which just happens to be saving their backward behinds from getting bombed to death by angry slime-blob aliens because they settled a planet in foreign space. The colony's leader would rather die than abandon all their grand works, and as his ardently, oratorically fallating his sunk cost is keeping most of the populace from accepting rescue, Data has to learn the true meaning of cheap patronizing demagoguery... I mean "leadership" sorry.

Kind of hard to say where this episode's production went wrong. It's most obviously flawed by some incredibly stiff acting, especially from the colony leader who unfortunately also eats up a fair amount of screen time. While I'm always ready to blame the instruments, I must ascribe it to more than the fault of one or two hams. Most everything planet-side and half the conversations shipside sound like disjointed one-liners, the big town square speeches so purple as to come across as parodies. When all the dialogue sounds equally wooden there must be something more to it. Fan comments are quick to blame budget cuts or the colony leader's lines being dubbed for the final cut. A minor script rewrite couldn't have helped the confusion, but given the original apparently tried to play up Data's romantic triangle with the local boss' girlfriend, the changes were likely for the better. As awkward as it was, the script could've been salvaged by some better redshirts and a bit of rehearsal.

There's something just hopelessly trite and primitive about the basic assumptions for how this sort of plot should progress, in terms of both writing and directing: the image of bigwigs manipulating the masses' emotions to get their way, the followers milling about the marketplace to get their opinions second-hand from leaders. "Two stags squaring off for leadership of the herd" as Melinda Snodgrass' original script so condescendingly put it. Such bronze-age tropes can't help but feel like subsentient backsliding for Data (though passed off as another step in his Pinocchio quest for humanity) and are just another example of Star Trek undermining its supposed egalitarian post-scarcity meritocracy setting.

Seriesdate: 3.03
The Survivors

Worf: "Sir! May I say your attempt to hold the away-team at bay with a non-functioning weapon was an act of unmitigated gall."
Kevin: "Didn't fool you, huh?"
Worf: "I admire gall."

See, a good writer could reinforce the Klingon warrior image without swashbuckling or roaring at the ceiling, and that is what were' talking about here: good writing and good acting, at least by Star Trek standards. Weird to say, because the basic plot's nothing more than moldy old original series Trek cheese. The Enterprise answers a distress call only to find the planet in question's been bombed to dust, leaving only a perfectly preserved patch of greenery around one house inhabited by an elderly couple best described as "24th century American Gothic" one of whom (naturally) turns out to be an omnipotent being masquerading as a human for no particular reason.

Ever notice how all the godlike aliens in cheap SF plots always dream of nothing more than becoming hormonally challenged knuckledragging plains apes? Don't that make you feel speshul, dear viewer?

Anyhoo, what follows is a half-hour morality play about nonviolence and responsibility which would've benefited greatly from a more believable one-shot character than some old coot who can nose-twitch entire species out of existence. Despite this major limitation, this episode turned out significantly more watchable than The Ensigns of Command, thanks to some tighter orchestrated and edited scenes but mostly to smoother flowing dialogue delivered by better actors.

Season 3 is where most people would say TNG finally hit its stride, but the first few episodes seem more an attempt to clean up the ungodly mess left over from the first season and a half, a process which started halfway through season 2 as far as I can tell with The Royale. Seems like before it could deliver decent Science Fiction plots, the show had to first reinvent simple fiction, relying on mastering their craft before they try innovating within it, building up characters, a consistent world and conventions for interaction. They're doing better, but only when they keep things simple for themselves.
Some might call that a valuable lesson for aspiring creators.
Not me though, I'm all about biting off more than I can chew.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Tides of Tentaclera

It feels like I'm doing a lot of complaining about Torment:Tides of Numenera, which may seem unfair given how well it works as an immersive interactive experience. Many of its artistic or thematic elements however, writing, music, character models, backgrounds, while meticulously and expertly laid out, feel just a little bit too restrained, afraid to get too creative for fear of drifting too far from the lowest common denominator.
Those two smaller monsters are minions of two major cosmic forces. At one point in the game you're caught between them, the proverbial rock and hard place, both closing in on you. Conceptually, this would make for a very dramatic titanic juxtaposition... except it mainly serves to illustrate their points of redundancy.

Granted I've only encountered flumphs before as a running gag in The Order of the Stick, but they don't seem that eye-catching to me.

If you're going to set up some sort of hammer-and-anvil bad guy dichotomy, or even if you just have two major forces in play, then for the love of all that's dramatic make them thematically distinctive. If one's a writhing mass of tentacles, the other should be a monolithic, angular juggernaut. If one spits fire, the other should condense rainclouds. If one's black and red the other should be white and green. If one's theme music's a funeral march, the other's should be a dissonant carnival calliope.

What you don't need is two different breeds of tentacle monster, or two teleportation / telepathy themed enemies, especially when they're the two main sources of non-human scenery in your story. As far as I can tell this isn't even the usual case of game developers cutting corners by re-skinning the same character model. Both had some work put into them. They just went for the trite-and-true overdone generic black slimy tentacle beast routine... twice, because anything worth overdoing is worth over-overdoing.

Is despising and insulting your audience's intelligence really so crucial to game design?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

I Know You Know

 "Choices always were a problem for you
What you need is someone strong to guide you
Deaf and blind and dumb and born to follow
What you need is someone strong to guide you
(like me)"

Tool - Opiate

Sunday, Sunday-SundayyyyyyYYY!!! It's a tomb-smashing, sky-punching, in-your-Faust resurrection extravaganza! For the price of a single lifetime crippled by moronic primitive superstition YOU can witness the scorchingly hot bimillennial-dead-rabbi-on-grim-reaper action! Or at least that's what we'll tell you happened and you have to believe uuuuuUUUSSSS!!! Even though you're just listening to some guy in a dress talkin' at youuuuUUUU!!! Be there, or be damned to have Jesus personally peel your corneas with an acid-drenched paring knife! For all eternity!

Boo-yaah! Twice-baked Jesus in the Hiz-house, y'all.

So mmmmyeah, it's sort of Easter. Easter Sunday, to be precise, superior to other Sundays for commemorating that one time when instead of just resting, Tha Lawd A'mighteh took a nap inside a grave, which must be a big deal 'cuz it's not like every mythology's got people bouncing around between the realms of life and death.
At least Orpheus did a song and dance number while he was at it.

For many, religion might be a "Christmas and Easter" thing. You might feel more inclined or obligated than usual around this time of year to pretend all the ludicrous babbling about souls and life after death and harps and pigeon wings and pearly gates is real. Watching all the pomp and pageantry, the conspicuously lavish displays of meekness by which the pious declare their moral primacy, it makes you want to get in on that action, doesn't it? You might be more susceptible to denying your own understanding of your world in favor of relying on others to think for you.

Too bad you can't really escape the responsibility of thinking for yourself.

Faith is idiotic. Yeah, it's bad enough trying to tell me you know the universe has a purpose (how, dingleberry? you done gone walked up an' aksed tha universe your own self?) but you don't get to justify wallowing in self-gratifying bullshit by passing the buck to some authority figure either. Admitting you don't know everything about how the world works in no way presumes following it up by pointing at a priest and saying "but that guy does!" By placing faith in some preacher or guru or mystic or dipstick, you are relying on your assessment of those persons (or book written by selfsame con-artists, whatever.) You believe yourself capable of evaluating that person's intellect, knowledge, motivations and intentions with such staggering precision and depth as to believe anything they say without question. Well, aren't you the clever one.

You are still the one making the choice. Choosing to follow instead of standing on your own intellect is still your choice, your responsibility, your own damn fault. Faith is no excuse. It is an action, and those guilty of it should bear responsibility for that action and all the primitive, mindless atrocities which stem from allowing themselves and others to be controlled by petty charlatans mouthing false hope about eternal life and divine plans. Weak-mindedness is no virtue. You want to be a sheep? Sheep don't get to vote.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Glerine's Mun Trek

Over the mountains of tha Mun, down the valley of the shadow
Ride, boldly ride, the Kerbal replied
If you seek for ElDorado!

Once upon a time, the most honorable and valiant space pioneer Glerine was tasked by her planet's evil overlord with jettin' to tha Mun to grab some dirt. Unfortunately, the landing site was a mite mountainous, so the closest our stalwart heroine could land was several hundred meters away from the precise middle of nowhere which contained the exact handful of Mun-dirt she had to collect.
Then the lander fell over.
So she took a little walk. On her way back, Glerine lost her footing and slid, rolled, bounced and cartwheeled through low gravity for over a kilometer to the deepest, darkest pit around. The darkness isn't particularly relevant, but it's quite dramatic.
But did she give up? No! Handhold by handhold, the plucky young Kermaid climbed hour after hour, painstakingly working her way back up to her lander to send back all her vital, crucial, Ker-shattering scientific data.
The End. For Glerine anyway, 'cause now she's probably gonna rot up there. Should've renamed her Laika. It's not like I actually left her enough fuel for the return trip. Don't look at me like that, I'm an evil overlord on a budget.

So that's how I spent today. What've you done with your lives lately?

Still counts as a sandbox if it's Mun-sand, doesn't it? I landed too far and so had to walk. Kerbal Space Program doesn't give you precise courses of action. You've got goals and you've got tools. Have at it. Approach your objective at 2 kilometers per second or hobble there at half a meter per second. If you can make it work, it's up to you. This is what's missing from MMOs: walking. Falling down a hill and climbing back up it. Deciding for yourself how many rats to kill.

I've tried taking shortcuts in LotRO only to find my way blocked by invisible walls at every turn. In Skyrim, Dragonsreach castle has guardrails on its balcony. In The Secret World I can't even kill myself by jumping off a skyscraper to express my boredom. Know why you're losing all your best customers to pixelated, low-res retro wonders like KSP or Minecraft? Because virtual worlds should not be blocked by child-proof caps. I should be free to boldly go where no green bobblehead has gone before!

(Yes, even if I have to walk there.)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Een Capitalist Amerika, State Gardens You!

"We are the kids of war and peace
From Anaheim to the middle east
We are the stories and disciples of
The Jesus of Suburbia"

Green Day - Jesus of Suburbia

If you've taken a Sociology 100 class, you've likely heard of Emile Durkheim and the term anomie, the "normless" paradox of a society advancing faster than its institutions. That lecture stuck with me particularly because of the conveniently reactionary pedagogic moral that unhappy, even suicidally depressed populations just aren't being brainwashed hard enough.
Whether or not this constituted Durkheim's original thesis is inconsequential these days. Reactionary indoctrination with a side of obfuscation is routinely prescribed as the cure-all for any trend of societal malaise, dysfunction or dysjunction.
Know what else is routinely prescribed? Prescriptions. If Mrs. Grundy can't convince the kids on her lawn to join the club, then simply murder them within their bodies. Bodies are useful. Minds just get in the way of business. Medicate 'em cross-eyed. If they won't smile and nod on cue, if they won't join the chant, if they won't meekly suffer an insufferable world, well, we have a pill for that, whatever that might be. Institutionalization no longer requires stone walls and iron bars.

Garden State came out in 2004.
Zach Braff, just coming off those great first couple of seasons of Scrubs before the show got bogged down in its own running gags and became unwatchable, leveraged the peak of his teevee supastah momentum to auteur hisself his own romantic comedy. It worked, which is to say it sold. To this end, much of Garden State plays in tune with other rom-coms: a glorification of codependence and emotional manipulation. However, it at least restrains itself to low-key sap until the obligatory "happily ever after" ending (in an airport terminal no less) leaving plenty of room on the way for those tangential frills like plot and characterization. It's the kind of flick you watch for the filler.

"Filler" also succinctly describes most of Garden State's characters' place in society, and their failure to integrate themselves into the various expectations of good citizenship has earned the movie its real, lasting value as a snapshot of commoners' life at the heart of a declining, decaying empire. While not the destitute, criminal or antisocial dregs of society portrayed in darker movies like Trainspotting, the various compulsive liars, pyramid schemers or graverobbers in Braff's alternative rock magnum opus do an excellent job of outlining the dicrepancy between twenty years of indoctrination and the hollow reality of prescribed life. It's not that they've never grown up, but that the world in which they find themselves has no place for adults. The only one who strikes it rich admits he's never been so bored in his life.

So as you watch each of them in turn, either creative, determined, idealistic or intelligent, the sort of youths Norman Rockwell would've glossed to perfection, stumble through day by day of menial busy-work to afford their weekly weed allowance, remember this was 2004. This was a movie by and for the first generation to grow up under the increasingly paranoid school system of the '80s and '90s. During their teenage years, at the same time their country was tossing them in prison in the name of the "drug war" they saw the establishment of the current status quo, in which five to ten percent of the population is declared mentally infirm and medicated into a psychotropic stupor while minors, when Ritalin became a boy's best friend.
You gotta get'em young.
For reference, when China realized even one to three percent of their population was being numbed into inaction by opium, they went to war over it. The U.S. has been doing this to itself.

If you've never watched it, forget that it's a rom-com and just watch its characters numb themselves into complacency. Garden State is far from the greatest movie ever made but chronologically it falls at an interesting juncture, the permeable border between the last gasp of generation X and millennials. As in Durkheim's day, the old precepts of a productive life no longer apply, but instead of freeing their wage slaves the powerful are instituting more and more means of control. Far from receding, the trend toward medicating youth into submission has only become entrenched since 2004. A whole new generation has come to power, in gardens all over the developed world but especially in the States, not shocked or amused or questioning whether they should be doped up to the gills but accepting it as the norm. At least one line from the movie has waxed all the more significant over the last thirteen years:

"It's recently occurred to me I might not even have a problem. Only I'd never know it because as far back as I can remember I've been medicated."

To this I would add that psychotropic drugs are not even one of the main means of social control employed by the rich against the poor. I would ask whether as far back as you can remember there has been any time when you weren't part of a masonic lodge, or a social justice book club, or a sports club, or a moderated forum, or a therapy group, or a political party, or a twitter feed, or a scout troop, or a church, or an after-school club, or any other ersatz tribe telling you what to think? Has it occurred to you that you might not even have a problem for them to solve?
Has it occurred to you to howl into the void?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Ya Feels Ain't Reals

OK, this bullshit has got to stop.

For reference, Endtown is a vaguely sciencey fictiony comic about a post-apocalyptic future where underground formerly human furries are hunted and slaughtered by the last remnants of humanity. At some point some protagonists stumble across a dimension-hopping ship powered by (what else) "emotional energy" because dilithium crystals are, like, sooooo last week.

This sort of babbling pissed me off even more in the recent RPG Torment: Tides of Numenera and its reliance on emotion as some sort of universal force and overuse of telepathy. I was especially disappointed when The Bloom, a glorious city-sized biological monstrosity which humans occupy as internal microparasitic flora, was infantilized as feeding on humans' emotions. It was bad enough when Monsters, Inc. trotted out this sort of idiocy, but at least Disney had the decency to label that a kids' movie. Look, I get why writers might be tempted to take this shortcut, as building up dramatic effect largely hinges on displaying characters' emotional reactions and it helps move things along to shoehorn emotional displays in as a plot device.

Only one problem: there are no emotions. There never will be. Emotion is not a "thing" and cannot be. The very concept is merely a shortcut we use to express certain states of neural excitation which interlink more primitive aversive / attractive stimuli with higher cerebral functions. They're just predictable electrochemical gradients which facilitate learning, memory and habit formation. If you posit a spaceship which runs on "emotional energy" then it would also run just fine on the neural impulses sparked by viewing the color purple or remembering your multiplication tables. Epilepsy would be a feast!

Naturally, the real issue is catering to the lowest common denominator. All of your readers / viewers / players have emotions, no matter how stupid they are. Even the most troglodytic, drooling imbeciles (even Trump voters) can feel, so glorifying feelings allows them to imagine themselves useful, lends them some implicit importance. Fuck that.

There is no such thing as emotion. It's an artifact of our material underpinnings, of flesh and electrons, a shadow on the lens, a discernible pattern within matter but not matter itself, just as we ourselves are patterns dependent on matter and not matter itself. Our brains exist. We do not. Thought does not exist. Emotion even less so, as it's just a minor subset of the myriad patterns of information flow which might be said to constitute a mind. The energy and matter which make up the physical system being organized by and as a mind can be considered a power source, transmitted and fed upon, sure, but not the organization itself, as some nonsensical atomos of feels. You might even suppose a system which requires input delivered in the precise quanta of neural signals, but then you'd still be discussing matter and energy. Electrons would flow, hydrocarbons would be hydrolyzed, synapses would flood, and these tides would need to be intercepted, tapped, siphoned. If The Bloom consumes its victims' fear, then it would need to physically excise the neurons responsible for propagating the reaction pattern we term "fear" within our brains, or tap every efferent pathway from the amygdala until this shrivels and atrophies, or bleed certain circuits of dopamine.

Want to fabricate pretextium crystals for a SF setting, some ludicrous phlebotinum or another to justify your plot? Fine. Wonderful. Emotion ain't it. It's not an unknown force, but a composite of known, low-key forces which divorced from animal muscle wouldn't even power a toaster.

Maybe The Bloom absolutely needs electrons at just the exact specifications of a human brain. However, there'd still be no difference between emotion and composing a symphony. More importantly, this would have to be the stupidest fucking way to get your jolties. As anyone who watched those towers upon towers of comatose human bodies in The Matrix might say, that is a long, long way to go for a 70 millivolt battery!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Heather Poe

"Hiding the fact you're dead again
Underneath the power lines seeking shade
Far above our heads are the icy heights that contain all reason

It's a luscious mix of words and tricks
That let us bet when we know we should fold"

The Shins - Caring is Creepy

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

Any discussion of Bloodlines' various twists and turns, highs and lows, characters and actors should make special mention of Heather Poe, because Heather is a very special girl.

Your early-game Santa Monica adventures revolve less around official, directed questing and more around casual interactions. Chat with NPCs to figure out how to wring money and/or blood out of them, that sort of thing. Good, clean vampiric fun. So, while innocently ransacking the local hospital for prescription meds to pawn off, you stumble upon a wounded woman piteously begging for help. If so inclined you can feed her some of your presto heal-o vamp blood.
She starts getting better and you high-tail it out of there before she has a chance to ask too many questions. Done. You're tossed a humanity point for your trouble, which seems a nifty enough reward at that point in the game. Nothing weird about it. Just another simple, casual, one-shot deal.
Important Plot Point : Nothing Else Happens!

At least not until the little red-headed girl ambushes you much later downtown to beg to serve you.
Heather is becoming blood-bonded to you, fearful but also utterly, fanatically devoted and addicted to her source of vampiric blood. You have a chance to turn her away (option 3 in the comedically Malked-up dialogue options above) but then again why would you? You did a good deed and now you're being rewarded. Seems legit. Maybe you tell yourself you just want to see where this goes. All the other cool vampire kids have ghouls so why not you?

And hey, young Heather proves quite useful. Aside from her role as the main source of eye-candy around your digs, she truly is desperately enraptured with you and trips over herself at every opportunity to serve you. Feed on her and take all her cash and she'll just get even more eager to please, going as far as to kidnap a victim for you.
By the end-game, you've likely gotten quite used to Heather's presence, having her change outfits and accepting her gifts with aristocratic decorum or equally aristocratic abuse, which she'll meekly accept as long as you don't kick her out. She will beg you to stay and even as the hints begin to drop that being around you puts her in danger
you only get reinforced in your decision to keep her with you when she turns out to be the only source for the heaviest protection in the game, the body armor. Hey, whaddayaknow, little ghoulie did alright. You pat her on the head and run off to fight vampire hunters and sabbat. Things are looking up, yessiree.

But not for Heather.
You catch a glimpse of the girl, kidnapped, getting mauled to death. Just a glimpse. There's little to do but avenge her then go on your merry way, abandoning her corpse in a grungy condemned hotel, and that's the end of Heather Poe.

So why does this story work so well?
After all, while not exceedingly common, tragic maidens crop up pretty regularly in games. As the death of a female (especially one of breeding age) elicits more sympathy than an entire warehouse full of disposable males, they're occasionally trotted out to maximize pathos. So why does Heather stand out?

1. Nothing initially happens. Heather's introduction's so casual as to allow the player to completely ignore and forget about her. She starts out as a nearly inanimate object on a hospital bed. Depending on the order in which the player completes various quests, she takes quite a while to show up again. She does not "join the player's party" or become a ubiquitous hanger-on. Quite clearly, she's no equal in the world of vampires. She doesn't quest.

2. You can drive her away. Heather's presence is not pushed on the player, by no means required for any other quests or content. Her obsequious pandering is merely allowed to grow on you, slowly, gradually, until she becomes a fixture, until keeping her around becomes the status quo. More importantly, you repeatedly get the option to not enslave this random human (imagine that) or to drive her away as the danger thickens around you. It is your choice to keep Heather with you, and you make that choice, the unethical, utterly wrong choice, again and again. The game encourages you to keep doubling down on your initial sunk cost.

3. Heather as a ghoul is not a good person. There's something inherently creepy about faith, about unthinking devotion, and a vampire's ghoul creeps like an epileptic nun. Heather loves you. Heather clings to you like a lost puppy, whining and ingratiating, disgustingly servile and even reckless in her need for your approval (kidnapping a random schmoe for you to feed on.) You have reduced her to this.

4. Heather's death is utterly meaningless. She has no great destiny. Her sacrifice serves no grand cosmic purpose, or even some petty motivation. She doesn't even die defending you. She's trampled in others' power struggles, collateral damage, not even a rung on your social ladder. She will not be remembered.
Apparently there are player-made patches which allow you to save Heather. No greater disservice could be made to the excellent storytelling in Bloodlines. Heather's death is fitting. The shame, the pathos, the nihilistic abandon of it fits perfectly.

5. Most importantly, Heather as a person is almost a non-entity. Oh, sure, it might've been nice to get a few more dialogues with her remembering her past life or describing her day job as a ghoul, but for the sake of pathos it's quite important that Heather has no real qualities, completely out of her depth among the supernatural. She's not smart. Her character model is not particularly pretty, somewhat horse-faced and more awkward without her unfashionable glasses than with them. She's not socially astute or smooth or possessed of any special powers. Heather is a nothing, even her enslavement and death mere accidents inconsequential to anyone else.

Heather Poe stands out because she would not stand out anywhere else except among grandstanding RPG characters.
She's special because she's not special.

If she'd never met you she might've died after getting shivved in a back alley in Santa Monica. She might have lived, stumbled her way through some diploma mill and gotten some meaningless make-work job, snared herself a drunken overworked husband, birthed her requisite 2.5 children and driven her Volvo into old age.

When that idiotic farce of a movie, 300, came out, I pissed off some more macho gamers on a forum by stating my disgust with it. I demanded a movie not about the parasitic hired muscle living off slave labor and capable of taking ten other soldiers down with them, but about the other side. I wanted to see the story from the viewpoint of one of those tens of thousands of spear-fodder the Persian army threw into Thermopylae, about some filthy, lousy, illiterate, cowardly, innocent, dirt-farming Persian boy who never even knew where or what Greece was, beaten over the head, conscripted and marched across half a continent to be prodded, outmatched by an order of magnitude, against a reinforced position by incompetent commanders.

That's Heather Poe, your little know-nothing conscript, poignant in her mediocrity.
Lacking any qualities which might give meaning to her death, she's that more emblematic of collateral damage, of the casual destructiveness of your predatory nature: a nobody, and now thanks to you a nobody no more.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Strange Lands Demand Strange Strangers

Look, I hate to rush this but we need a big-budget adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land within the next couple of years.

Yes, I've heard the SyFy channel's planning a series "based" on it, but that's beside the point.
First off, this is not a narrative which lends itself well to serialization. Friday cliffhangers and commercial breaks will ruin both its long-winded pedantic diatribes and its overall crescendo.
Second... come on, it's SyFy. Have they made a single half-decent thing since 1999? Is there even the slightest chance this isn't doomed to become an utter rape of Heinlein's corpse? Am I asking rhetorical questions?

Third, and most importantly, Jack Nicholson's almost eighty years old now, and we need to see Nicholson playing Jubal Harshaw. See, the real star of Stranger isn't Valentine Michael Smith. Like many of the best SF books, it hinges on a few lengthy monologues in which the hero's mentor describes the failings of the world. From the moment I first read this novel back in my teens I've never seen a better actor for the role of the grizzled, sybaritic, bristling, sardonic, antiheroic, swaggering gadfly Father Jubal Harshaw.

I don't care if you have to pry the rights out of NBC's slimy, grasping, profiteering, lowest-common-denominating claws. Someone decent needs to scrape together a big enough budget to hire Nicholson for a devoted three-and-a-half hour big-screen adaptation. Jubal's not just any role. He's a Diogenes. He is one of the defining "nerd's nerd" characters in SF, and deserves worthy treatment.

Dig Nicholson out of his presumed retirement, throw a bucket of cold water over him and hand him a script, and do it fast, before the old codger croaks of old age and the thousand sequelae of good living a film star's flesh is heir to.
Get on it, Hollywood.