Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Oversocial Atavism

"We are informed [...] that you experienced a major atavism today involving antisocial violence."

So Perry Nelson, the protagonist of Robert Heinlein's For Us, The Living, is accosted by the authorities after punching his perceived sexual rival in a fit of jealousy. He then spends some chapters discussing social mores in a futuristic minimum security psychiatric day spa. It's a ... slightly odd little book.

That is, however, a phrase I'd love to see enter public discourse not only in the case of violence but also social manipulation. If someone should display symptoms of religiousity or babbling about all-caring creators:
"Sir, you appear to be experiencing a mythopoetic atavism involving idealized parental figures."

If it's someone fired up about moral superiority for being born the politically correct nation or race:
"You experienced a tribalistic atavism. Care to review your ancestors' actions more objectively?"

Perhaps most importantly, any woman attempting to abuse subliminal cues of sexual availability, familiarity and closeness, neotenized vulnerability or neediness to influence male behavior should be accosted with:
"Your falsetto voice, artificially highlighted innocent eyes, overly-familiar body language and falsely reddened lips suggesting aroused labia indicate you are experiencing a 'precious little princess' atavism leading you to believe you're entitled to favorable treatment. Your prosocial manipulation of others' instinctive protectiveness belies your hypersocial parasitism."

She would then be politely escorted to a psychiatric day spa in which she is made aware that sentient beings converse as equal, rational individuals and not by attempting to subvert each others' primitive codependent impulses for personal gain.

The day when subsentient manipulation of another's instincts and emotions is viewed as despicable primitivism, not by law but by common consensus among civilized beings, intellect will have begun to advance past the state of naked apes.

Monday, June 26, 2017

How many nun-chuck nunchuks could a non-nun Chuck chuck if non-Chuck nunchuk nuns could chuck Chuck none(Chuck's) nunchuks?

2017/06/29 - edited for greater clarity and logical consistency.
Yes, I'm serious. Shut up.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Pandora: First Contact

"Stratocaster strapped to your back
It's a semi-automatic like dad's.
He taught you how to pause and reset
And that's about as far as you got.

It's a hit! - but are you actually sure?"

Amanda Palmer - Guitar Hero

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was to turn-based computer strategy games what Planescape:Torment was to cRPGs at around the same time: a classic, not widely popular so as to redefine the genre but routinely cropping up in its niche market's "best of all time" lists even to this day. Unsurprisingly, this niche market coalesced largely out of fans of the various science fiction books which Alpha Centauri cited as inspiration, like for instance Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom's Pandora novels. Multifaceted, philosophical, allowing for the player to express more personality than even RPGs, SMAC came across as an interactive rewrite by the player of the sort of daring, visionary science fiction we all proudly displayed on our bookshelves.

Though some of Alpha Centauri's technical limitations and repetitive gameplay features have been surpassed over the decades, the mystique of terraforming a hostile (and very) alien world has persisted, prompting repeated demands by fans for a spiritual successor. While I quite correctly guessed that Firaxis' own Beyond Earth would not fit that bill, its flop got me to look around for other attempts, possibly from smaller developers more willing to play to niche audiences rather than the hoi polloi. Turns out that just a year prior, a tiny studio by the name of Proxy had released Pandora: First Contact, waving to fans of both Alpha Centauri and Herbert's transhumanist acid trip.

So what the hell, I took the bait, and relocated my den for a time:
Note the flock of pterodactyls at the bottom of the image. Important plot point!

But more on that later. As a strategy game, Pandora's full of good (or at least intriguing) points. Resource system: what you see is what you get; the two minerals you acquire on the map are two extra minerals in your city's production queue. True to classic 4X-ing, there's little to no penalty for overexpansion beyond production / upkeep costs for units and buildings. A common pool of harvested food / minerals is combined with localized consumption, so you can purposefully and very satisfyingly massage your empire into cash / mining / military sectors. Cities' sphere of influence can grow far beyond that of the Civilization games, acquring more and more hexes. Formers can act like SMAC's supply crawlers, gathering resources from unclaimed hexes.

Alpha Centauri fans will immediately recognize the modular unit customization window, where you select a basic chassis for its movement speed then slap on the armor / weapon / ability you prefer. This, along with city management, unit orders, upgrades, research, are all handled through a surprisingly smooth, intuitive interface minimizing flipping through windows. Capturing native life forms is a bit of an adventure, requiring you to build a pool of specialized units, and even sacrifice some redshirts to tame yourself some of the local megafauna, at least twice as powerful as the best early-game units.

So what's wrong with it? Well, to start, even Pandora's good points fail to mesh or are more limited than they seem. Endlessly expansive cities negate the use of supply crawlers. The unit design system's largely a chore of implementing the latest completely linear tech upgrade. The AI, while possessing some notable strengths like countering your infantry with vehicles or calling a peace when the natives are about to get restless, is largely an idiot, alternating war declarations with treaty request spam. From one turn to another it'll demand tribute then offer you tribute, denounce you one moment then praise you the next, break pacts the turn after forming them. It's like playing against Trump! And, like Trump, it overcompensates for its ineptitude by getting bankrolled by invisible outside interests and refusing to pay its taxes. Though it's become somewhat of a truism that the AI in strategy games always cheats, Pandora's mounts insurmountable numeric bonuses even at medium difficulty.

Along with a supercharged stream of early-game neutral enemies (monsters) and a tech tree whose demands at least on my game settings scale very poorly against player growth, this yields a pretty dull, predictable setup. If you survive the early swarms of bats and walking fly-traps, you'll then clear off your neighbours and nonetheless end up losing the tech race to faraway enemies out of your control. The end.

For a fan of Alpha Centauri however, a few more lacks readily disqualify Pandora from it's claim as a spiritual successor. Terraforming is pathetically anemic: no boreholes, no elevations, no rain shadows, no water bases or water improvements, no long-term way to weaponize the local wildlife. The wildlife itself, along with the Alien Crossfire -inspired alien invaders never really go anywhere either, again failing to compensate for nonexistent AI planning with brute stats. The giant pterosaurs are only one sign that "Pandora" refers to James Cameron's, painfully shallow, simplistic CGI excuse for a movie and not to Herbert's novels. While tootling some decent music and attempting to build up a backstory, there's no memorable world-building to speak of here. The faction leader personalities are overtly copied one-for-one from Alpha Centauri but lack any personality whatsoever, despite some hamfisted attempts at characterizing them through flavor text. Random stabs at comedy are more jarring than relieving ("the sky is crying", really now?) The aliens are all disappointing little green men or kaiju, refusing to adopt anything as creative (and nightmare-fueling) as Herbert's nerve runners. Planet, the defining Herbert-inspired demiurge overshadowing your entire personal story in Alpha Centauri, is also utterly absent, with no big idea to replace it.

Despite some solid notions of strategy, their shallow implementation and lack of aesthetic charm fail to legitimize this game as anything other than a future quaint oldie to scrounge out of the bargain bin for a few hours of "meh" and a month-later uninstall. Painless, but also joyless to play - and even if I saved you, there's a million more in line.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

You've Come a Long Way, Baby-Daddy

A few days ago the proud nation of Hallmarkia celebrated "father's day" to the best of their wallets' abilities, or so the advertisements surreptitiously blaring at me from various websites informed me. The Home Depot, for instance, informed me dear old dad will disown me if I don't buy him a shiny new Dremel, and touted itself "the toy store for dads" for providing such service.

Apropos of nothing, remember that Futurama episode "Roswell that Ends Well" where they go back in time to 1947? The professor and Leela try to shop for a microwave oven, and the carpet-bagger of a sales clerk, never having heard of the Microwave brand, tries to sell Leela a gas oven with a foot-soaking tub at the bottom "since, as a woman, you'll be standing in front of it all day."
Leela promptly kneecaps him and sets fire to Farnsworth's tie.

So I guess for Mother's Day we'll all be heading to the housewares or appliances section of our local supermarket, or as it's now known "The Toy Store For Moms" filled with happyfuntime gifts for the discerning indentured servant. Or at least I assume that's the case, what with us living in this horribly oppressive patriarchal society requiring constant feminist policing.

And hey, for all you husbands who actually got that Dremel (along with hints that if you're a good boy you'll be permitted to assemble her new bookcase) go ahead and rev it up and tell her where she can stick it.

Friday, June 16, 2017

ST: TNG - Enemy Defectors

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

Seriesdate: 3.07
The Enemy

Oh noes! Geordi's trapped on The Planet of the Cliched Dark Stormy Night with a mean old Romulan! Can you kids at home teach our heroes a valuable lesson about cooperation?

Whoa, time out. First off, that is some Tom&Jerry level resilience there. I don't care how Romulan you are, unless you're visiting a planet with the gravitational pull of the Little Prince's asteroid, half a ton of (suspiciously rounded and even-sized) boulders falling on your head will require more than an engineer to pick you back up. Even just one of those falling off a cliff would snap a humanoid spine.

But never mind, technobabble aside...
Wait, did someone say technobabble? As in, wounded Romulan #2 aboard the Enterprise "is going to need a transfusion of compatible ribosomes in order to recover?" Ribosomes. Right. I can just picture one of the writers flipping through the dictionary and thinking "huh, lookit dat, rye-bow-sowmes, that sounds biomological-like!" Ribosomes are too complex to be replicated aboard the Enterprise... which routinely fabricates whole steaks to exact molecular specifications and can re-assemble entire humans from teleporter records.
Also, a few hours' exposure to magnetic fields breaks down your synaptic connections. That's why chemists just take off their rings, car keys and wristwatches before wading into an NMR lab like they own the place. They're sick of having synapses and ribosomes. Particle accelerators routinely liquefy everyone that comes near them. Also, those magnetic balance bracelets? Those totally work! (*wink-wink*)

I know most complaints about Star Trek "science" center on its insane physics but at least on the physics side they had the sense to insert pretextium crystals and other yet-to-be-discovered 24th-century scientific principles. Whenever it came to biology the writers seemed perfectly comfortable rattling off medical jargon as though they had invented these mystical incantations themselves. On the scale of Trekkish insanity, ribosome-eating magnets rank pretty low but it probably still prompted Gates McFadden's doctor to wash her mouth out with soap.

Okay, technobabble aside, this episode seems to serve two main purposes: to continue the more coherent character development which started with season 3 and to expand on the goings-on in the universe outside the Enterprise's shield radius. Toward the first end, Geordi as gadget-goading chief engineer gradually supplants Wesley's messianic nose-twitching to address technical issues, and their indirect interaction in this episode in particular, with the eager young space cadet coming up with a beacon to help the more experienced, trained professional, reads a lot like a bad character passing the neutrino torch to a better one.

The issue of politics is represented by larger-than-life Romulan bombast.
If TNG was to move past original series tropes to a more fleshed-out universe, it needed some more believable alien races. The Ferengi were much too buffoonish, the Betazoids more or less a fantasy race ill-suited to a SF setting, the Q more so. Vulcans epitomize progress, a race of cold-blooded introspective monks, but that leaves little room for other drama. Klingons work well enough as Federation foils, though you wonder how those drooling jocks manage not to blow themselves up at every turn and overusing them would've gotten old quickly. What Star Trek needed were some good believable antagonists so as not to keep resorting to singular aliens with godlike powers at every turn. The Romulans fit the bill as Vulcans-gone-bad: imperious, calculating, disdainful of lesser races. Uncreative as a concept but honestly so (down to their name) they simply work within the series, not because they're particularly interesting but because the developing Star Trek universe desperately needed a go-to evil empire or two.

Amazingly, the show's writers managed not to render them too cartoonishly, baby-eating evil. Albeit indoctrinated in their manifest destiny as rulers of the cosmos, this story already establishes them as capable of cooperation and placing some value on the safety of their subordinates.

The episode's main flaw is leaving Worf's refusal to help a Romulan (by donating ribosomes) unresolved, dedicating several scenes to grandstanding about eyes for eyes then dropping the matter abruptly.
Like I'm doing now.

Seriesdate: 3.10
The Defector

A thematic continuation of The Enemy, the plot here has the Enterprise pick up a Romulan defector warning of impending war. Despite some weakness (pauses too pregnant, monologues too monotone) the script does an good job of portraying the larger political background in which the Enterprise floats, the sort of thing utterly lacking in the original series. We get to see chains of command, treaties and traps and interplays of allegiance.

None of it is particularly sci-fiyish. The opening, an unreasonably extended Shakespearean interlude, kind of sets the tone. One gets the feeling that in 1989 there was still a serious shortage of screenwriters, actors and other professionals comfortable with SF. In many cases, TNG resorted to trite, recycled plots and settings from detective or romance novels, especially when it came to the cheap cop-out of holodeck episodes. The Defector achieves its effect mainly by being played as a historical drama, SF as written by Alexandre Dumas: intrigue, posturing, loyalties and a lot of blathering about fighting good fights and family ties but not much in the way of boldly going or strange new worlds / civilizations. It better suited the actors' training, at least.

Still, while not one of TNG's high points these two episodes filled a necessary quota of overdue world-building, laying out the backdrop against which the more dramatic conflicts played out. The level of power and conventional villainy of the Romulans serves as a measure for the later, more dramatic and creative Borg. The discussions of cloaking and stealing technological secrets set up the plots of many other episodes in later years. And hey, at least The Defector contains that memorable scene of the Enterprise being ambushed by two cloaked Romulan ships... which are in turn ambushed by three cloaked Klingon ships escorting the Enterprise.
This was TNG finally reaching its version of maturity: special effects fitting their purpose, characters developed, limitations established, political universe mapped. When the phasers go pew-pew, you finally have some idea why they're pew-pewing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Of Combos and Conjunctions

"You and me, we're in this together now
None of them can stop us now
We will make it through somehow"

NIN - We're In This Together

While Tyranny's tangle of roleplaying choices must occupy the bulk of any commentary, its gameplay mechanics also deserve some mention. Skipping over the skill-based character development for the moment, let's take a look at combos:
Each of your tyrannous companions comes with two reputation-unlockable abilities requiring both you and that companion to act at once. While more powerful than regular skills, they're limited in use (once per combat or per rest) and require you to find an opportune moment for both characters, managing their global cooldown timers appropriately. Kills-in-Shadow's little teleport there is basically what the monk's Flagellant's Path from Pillars of Eternity should have been. Utility aside, they add quite a bit of aesthetic charm to your party make-up, making it look as though your team is really working as a team with each companion adding a bit of flair to your own character's combat behavior. Kills-in-Shadow's jumps meshed perfectly with my own "damn the torpedoes" attitude. After seeing how naturally combos work within Tyranny it seems odd in retrospect that they haven't been featured in every other RPG with NPC companions over the past couple of decades.

So I ended up wondering why, if combos add such satisfying aesthetic and practical options to single-player games with simulated teams, do we not see them in multiplayer RPGs with actual teams of multiple players? After a bit o' cogitatin' ah done 'membered wut you striplins ain't know no-how, dat we dun did dat in da olden days. If I recollect proper, why it were back in the spring of aught-seven when tha witch-king come down from Angmar an' done invadered tha down o' moldy cheese, we peoples free of middlin' earth would use these things called "conjunctions" or "fellowship maneuvers" to give our combat tactics that extra spit-shine:
When initiated on a monster, conjunctions stunned it and brought up a menu of four color-coded skills for each player in the group. Each player could choose to personally regenerate health or mana or damage the monster instantly or over time, but when executed in a particular pattern a conjunction could also trigger AoE effects or group-wide bonuses. The better coordinated your group, the greater use you could get out of such maneuvers. Among other things this lent a more relevant role beyond hitting things to Lord of the Rings Online's rogue class, the burglar, as best able to initiate conjunctions by sneaking up behind enemies to trip them, etc. Groups would plan ahead as to who would hit what color in what order. A couple of instances were even built around them.

My only complaint was that no matter how many times my groups called upon the "Tramp of Doom" it never summoned even a single succubus.

Now don't go buying yourself a LotRO subscription. I'm talking about the gameplay of yesteryear, not yesterday. As online game demographics shifted from the old nerdy crowd who wanted a challenge to casual mass-market brainless trash who want everything dumbed down until they can face-plant their way to victory, LotRO's various features were gradually stripped away leaving nothing but mindless loot-grinding. As of several years ago, fellowship maneuvers were deemed much too complicated for modern gamers and nerfed into irrelevance. Complexity sends millennials scurrying for their safe spaces.

I've been calling Pillars of Eternity and related games the "RPG revival" as a joke but dare we hope that some of Tyranny's ambitions might bleed into the industry at large, and even into MMOs? When my trusty bolverk Kills-in-Shadow and I heft our warhammers and stampede across the battlefield, I can't help thinking how easily she could be replaced with an actual player and how little it would take for coordination to once more become an ideal in computer games.

Just stop pandering to cretins.

Sunday, June 11, 2017


There once was a dog named Diogenes
Disdainful of human proclivities.
He hated pretense
And loathed the dense
And shocked the agora's sensibilities.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Eth's Skin and the New Mythology

I stumbled across the webcomic Eth's Skin recently, and before I get to trashing it, it bears mentioning it's actually decently made despite some stumbling. As skinchanging's a topic near and dear to my own heart, I went into it wanting to like it. Its setting manages to successfully dodge the standard fantasy RPG derived "there's a village near a forest" schtick, and I'm all for reinventing wood and water. The author seems to have wanted from the start to avoid overly-convenient magic, even for magical races... turns out fish tails are damned inconvenient for getting around on land. Overall, the visual style manages to hit that sweet spot between recognizable and detailed which makes for quality cartoonin', aside from minor quibbles like buckskin-clad characters' backpacks looking like they were bought at Sears. The faceful of mer-boobies you're treated to right off the bat seems a bit too desperate for attention, but what the hell, at least it's context-appropriate.

And then the "event" which kickstarts the adventure happens: the title character runs into a selkie and is entranced by her passive +5 mind control aura into grabbing her seal skin, thereby dooming her to a life on land. Now, an unlikely band of heroes must seek to remedy the situation... by teaching you to always respectfully ask what someone's preferred designated personal pronoun is!
Jumpin' whiplash, Batman!
Huh? What?!?

Well, ok, it doesn't take over the entire tale of traveling and questing, but the many occasions of politically correct rhetoric are shoehorned so awkwardly into the narrative as to feel a lot more jarring than mere mermaid nipple eye-pokes. In one instance, the skinned selkie postpones a perfectly workable outraged tirade against the indignity and injustice she's suffered to calmly ask her attacker "what are your pronouns?" the better to complain about "their" crime. Seriously? I'd think if someone scalped me, the least I'd feel entitled to is casually mistaking his sexual identity.
Come on. By what storytelling logic do you devote an entire page to beating your audience over the head with "this is how to introduce yourself!"

There are better methods of interjecting such special group interests into an otherwise unrelated work. Jennifer Diane Reitz' three inter-related comic strips are full of homosexuals, transexuals and other designated "deviants" being oppressed by their society, especially in Pastel Defender Heliotrope. He/she/they/schlee obviously has an axe to grind, but at least it's lent some convoluted relevance within that universe beyond mere thunderous proclamations, a context and causality like religious authoritarianism or an alien race intellectually incapable of adopting change. The real story was about collapsing universes. At least it has some semblance of internal coherence, unlike pausing the action mid-conversation for a page at a time to show the audience this very important thing which is supposed to be perfectly beneath notice for the society in Eth's Skin.
That mountain you just tripped your narrative into? It's a molehill. An utterly inane molehill. Even the moles are asleep.

Mythical heroes, creatures and villains are not about these trite, mundane little details. Not that there isn't plenty of deviance and social commentary in mythology, mind you, whether intended by the original authors or not. Hell, chapter two of most creation myths is a nonstop orgy of sibling incest. The good stories, the ones worth remembering, feature those minor points somewhere in the background.

Achilles dresses like a woman and plays "hide the pickle(s)" with Patroklos and nobody cares because his actual, relevant persona was a bulletproof bad-ass with a freaky heavy metal origin story about skinny-dipping in the river of death! His choice of liaison is nothing in itself. We accept it as implicit motivation for the real action.
Baba Yaga doesn't launch into interminable weepy monologues on ageism; she's earned her wrinkles by learning all the secrets of the world and crafts flaming skulls and breeds magic horses and she'll boil you in a cauldron as soon as look at you.
Loki turns into a mare so he can get impregnated and give birth to an eight-legged little pony. Slightly confusing! Yet still, what idiot stops to ask the personification of apocalyptic chaos "hi, what's your pronoun?" His own wife probably doesn't even give a shit what he calls himself, considering the slightly more worrisome fact that instead of girl/boy, his sperm's apparently a pot luck of "girl/wolf/snake."

In one respect though, the author of Eth's Skin fits perfectly into primitive superstitious mentalities. Designate a taboo, and anyone breaking it is utterly, iredeemably guilty regardless of context. See Hercules enslaved for killing his family while brainwashed by Hera, Oedipus gouging his eyes out for crimes committed in ignorance mandated by the immutable laws of the universe, etc.

Eth steals (or dare we say "rapes" as that's what the act is hinted to symbolize several times over) Rel's skin, and repeatedly accepts all guilt in various browbeatings or soulful repentance.
Being mind controlled into doing something is no excuse for actually doing it! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea *braaaaaiiiiiiins* - culpa!
Never mind that just a hop and skip later we see Rel bragging about how her selkie magic's awesomah powah should trump anyone else's because she's just that irresistible.
No excuse! Otherwise you're victim-blaming!

Fuck's sake. Could you at least not trip over your own propaganda?

Eth's Skin has apparently not updated in five months, so it may as likely as not have vaporized as webcomics are wont to. I hope it comes back at some point. I want to see more stories about skinchanging, and I'm perfectly fine with using this as metaphor for the social ills of today, as long as the story avoids the monstrous presumption of portraying the superficial talking points and catchphrases of contemporary politics as the alpha and omega of ethics. Kory Bing, who colors the damn story, has her own comic about skinchanging symbolic of identity conflicts, yet Skin Deep still manages to dredge up some semblance of perspective. Eth's Skin on the other hand is so laughably emblematic of the doublethink of modern snowflake propaganda, the same imbecillic Orwellian Newspeak we thought we'd ditched back in the mid '90s with "womyn" and the banning of the word "black."

Here's a society in which everyone's non-binary to the point where it's supposed to be an accepted norm yet we must pause every ten pages to proclaim this! Also, when someone who openly brags about having power over you causes you to do something, it's no excuse to actually do it! Also, women are unstoppably powerful yet at the same time helpless victims who should never be called upon to analyze their own role in interacting with those evil, evil oppressive sexual aggressors.

This is what we've made of the grand fears and ideals of mythology, huh? Herakles asking the Nemean lion "what're your pronouns" before profusely apologizing for grabbing some skin. Please. Write your own stories, people. Don't just regurgitate fundamentalist pamphlets.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


A dozen chapters... and three, almost four of them involved some actual gameplay.

I hadn't heard of The Longest Journey back when it first released, and it was ironically the hype around the development of Dreamfall which prompted me to play it... and then skip Dreamfall when it released because of some negative reviews - justified as it turns out, for once. Now with the episodic follow-up Dreamfall Chapters underway for some years, I thought it time to decide for myself why I don't like Dreamfall, and thankfully Good Old Games stocks bad old games as well.

Dreamfall is basically a poster-child for Hollywood envy. The Longest Journey was one of the few games to adopt that short-lived fad which sprouted up in the years surrounding Y2K, 2.5D. Given that adventure games, already an outdated '80s throwback, have since survived by adopting a "neo retro" 2D sidescrolling perspective, that extra half dimension was already more than TLJ needed. Dreamfall adopted full 3D, and when I say "adopted" I mean it seems to have blown its wad on it.
In itself the eye-candy's not completely inedible, though it pales in comparison to the graphics of contemporaries from genres more apt to three dimensions (remember Dreamfall came out in 2006, same year as Oblivion, two years after FarCry and one year before Crysis) but there's nothing really inspired or unique to look at either. The bigger issue is the paucity of other features. Either the game engine broke the project's bank, or more likely Ragnar Tornquist forgot he was making a game altogether and just strung together endless cinematics. Aside from one or two decent sneaking gimmicks (the sleeping dog, for instance) you're left running back and forth through pointless empty dead ends until by sheer trial and error you stumble upon the one correct route with the exactly one interactable item. The MacGyver part of the game is almost entirely gone, as you usually only have one functioning item in your inventory, and your character even tells you when to use it. While there are a few visual puzzles, they're usually just that: visual, mindless image matching with no thinking required.

The zones are huge... and empty. You move through gargantuan hallways with sparse, repetitive decor reminiscent of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, with usually just the one interactable object at the end. To cover up their own lack of effort, the developers impose a lot of pointless effort on your part, using RPG-inspired fetch quests to make you run back and forth and back again along their unimaginatively linear oversized 3D backdrops.

I could think of other complaints as well. As I mentioned in relation to The Lord of the Rings (On- and off-line) it's a bit counterproductive to show the player a wealth of imaginative locales and characters, then try to build your entire game on the least interesting, most human elements. TLJ was a nonstop cavalcade of storybook tropes and adorable or amusing one-short characters. Dreamfall tries to get serious... and its supposedly imposing and menacing vaguely oriental theocratic human evil empire falls completely flat. Instead of building up the engrossing faerytale Arcadia laid out in TLJ, the sequel ditched nine tenths of it in favor of a new dream world based on pure imagination, which is to say the everything that is nothing.

Worse, the writing and voice acting which made TLJ so memorable were somehow completely lost in the shuffle. Most Dreamfall characters sound completely unrehearsed while some (Na'ane) were just painful to listen to. The greater fault lies in the writing. TLJ was a character study. April Ryan's personality, largely well-meaning but also snarky and capricious, pretty much made the game. Her replacement, Zoe, is so utterly flat that you wonder if the new fancy graphics somehow sucked all the three-dimensionality out of the dialogue. Even when April shows up, she's much more subdued than storytelling choices would mandate.

This is all too bad, because there's little else to do in this game other than sit and listen. While I've heard of a mouse-driven game and even a successfully keyboard-driven game (The Cat Lady) in Dreamfall I found myself keeping my fingers intertwined beneath my chin to keep from nodding off during the various interminable cutscene dialogues requiring no user input whatsoever. Hilariously, while thumbing through an online cheat guide to see if I could speed things along, I found the guide's writer telling me to just move to location XYZ and "Zoe will take care of the rest" meaning the game basically plays itself. By what definition is it a game at that point?

It's not completely impossible to pull this off. Some years ago, the "game" Dinner Date made interesting use of the Source Engine to create one hum-drum but painstakingly decorative scene which the player largely just observed while making meaningless contributions by clicking. Utterly unapologetic about this, it later even thumbed its nose at its dissatisfied customers with this hilarious little jab:
However, Dinner Date was a single self-contained scene with a specific creative purpose. It's exactly 25 minutes long and pretends to be no more than it is. Dreamfall was a torturous series of simplistic make-work chores alternating with endless tedious, stilted, badly acted and lazily written cutscenes. As a game it's barely there. As a movie, it's worse.

I can't help thinking that the praise he received for TLJ went to Tornquist's head, which is too bad. He's an excellent writer of dialogues for video games... except that what he apparently wants to be, and had by 2006 decided he already is, is another Ingmar Bergman. His later attempt at a multiplayer puzzle-solving game, The Secret World, flopped (*partly) due to once again over-stretching simple game mechanics into something they cannot be, trying to force side-scrolling pixel-hunting into cinematic three-dimensionality.

From the reviews I've seen of Dreamfall Chapters, his latest flop, it's yet more of the same.
Holy shit man, take a hint!

P.S.: Don't even get me started on the grinding parroting of the word "faith" in every other scene.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Practical Religion

The last church function I attended was a young cousin's baptism seven years ago. It went as you largely expect of religious affairs: long, boring, demeaning and nonsensical, but at least the chanting lulls you into a trance after a while. About to pass out, I finally perked up when the priest interrupted his thirteenth invocation by name of Jesus' pubic lice or whatever to switch tone a bit: "and now I believe it is time to address some practical concerns."
Wow. A priest giving practical advice? This was new! I was all ears, baby, assuming that as in fact a baby was concerned, he might give some tips on properly soothing an infant or somesuch.

Don't look at me like that; a lifetime of atheism has rendered me somewhat naive as to just how thoroughly disjointed from reality the religious mindless can get.
When the man said practical, I heard practical.

He began to piously explain that as the little brat had received a slathering of holy water, the parents were now responsible for properly disposing of said Most Holy of Waters. So when you wash the squealing little monster you have to keep the bathwater, preferably not just once but twice or three times in case she's still sweating out some leftover holy ghost. It can't go down the bathtub drain or the sink drain or the toilet drain (no, seriously, he enumerated the types of drains - without breaking his trance-like lilting chant) or mingle with any other filth, refuse or non-human creatures of the lord (just in case it spontaneously renders them sentient, refusing to work on Sundays and quoting Aquinas.) Pretty sure you can't drink it either.

Don't even get into the thorny issue of the blanket they wrapped the kid in afterwards. That required at least a Master's in Ecumenical Laundry Science.

By that point I was more or less having a petit mal seizure biting my lip to keep from laughing so I can't remember everything the prissy, overdressed mumbling buffoon considered a "practical" use of bathwater. Watering potted plants with it was permissible as I recall. In fact, I have it on good authority the holy spirit is particularly fond of being digested by the symbiotic mold on the roots of geraniums.

In the name of the farcical, the stupid and the highly suspect, Heil Messiah!

Thursday, June 1, 2017


"Hear the cry of war
Louder than before
With his sword in hand
To control the land

Leathern armies have prevailed
Phantom Lord has never failed"

Metallica - Phantom Lord

Fall to your kneeeeeeees!
And bow down to your phantom overlord Kyros!

All rise. The honorable fatebinder Werwolfe now presiding.
So there's my first tyrant. Not even level 20 by campaign's end. Skills scattered haphazardly across four trees in a mix of magic and squishy two-hander offense that I could barely make work until discovering the "iron light as air" skill and Kills-in-Shadow's "stampede" combo, at which point I immediately began gavelling copious amounts of rebel ass into submission. Ah, but Kills-in-Shadow deserves her own post.

So how should I start describing Tyranny? First off, buy it. It's worth the money, if barely, even at release pricing. I preordered it because I was pleasantly impressed by Pillars of Eternity and wanted to see to what other use Obsidian would put its newly minted game engine. Unlike Tides of Numenera, which heavily modified the interface for its faux-futuristic setting, Tyranny chose to copy-paste most of it (literally, in the case of item icons) and instead focus on its setting and storytelling for Obsidian's secondary, unadvertised, left-handed side project. Ultimately, this makes it the slightly more interesting, though admittedly less accomplished product.

While Tyranny doesn't necessarily get excessive criticism, I'm somewhat perplexed that the criticism I do see appears utter nonsense to anyone who's actually played. Guessing a great many people saw the basic premise and assumed they'd be aiding a plucky, cartoonishly good rebel alliance topple the conveniently evil empire. While possible but much more difficult to attain than other paths, it's obvious throughout that this game's just not about holding the moral high ground. Denied their absolutist moral relativism, desperate to find something to dislike about the game, critics attack it in facile but nonsensical fashion. For instance, you'll commonly see reviewers deride Tyranny as a 15-20 hour game. Here's my first playthrough for comparison:
Almost 50 hours. I'll admit I obsessively explored all I could and there are an hour or two of AFKing somewhere in there. My second playthrough, granted, took only 35 hours. For a smooth, relaxed and not every involved run you're probably looking at just under 30 hours. I can only explain the idiotic "15 hour" complaints by assuming these people don't read. Much of your time as fatebinder is spent learning about the world you inhabit, largely through dialogues which can seem a bit tedious as they're overly-fragmented. To those especially who decided to hate Tyranny as soon as they discovered they weren't Luke Skywalker, I'm sure learning more about tyrannizing must've seemed an onerous chore. Then again, I'm guessing these are the same cretins who never read any of the lore books in the Elder Scrolls games.

Equally moronic the complaints about lack of replay value. Tyranny means to offer role-playing as it should be, with branching paths and an expression of the player's own personality through the accumulation of decisions big and small. While a far cry from the freedom of a sandbox game, Tyranny makes a damn good show of outdoing its competitors in appending repercussions to your choices. You get four main paths (including joining the rebels, though they're hardly as cuddly/saintly as most players would like) but they're hardly obvious and many decisions will cause entire zones to open at completely different times in the game (or not at all) to the point where you'll still be tripping over your poor life choices in the "conquest" introduction three quarters into your campaign. Even the basic "grab the loot" is occasionally played as a choice between greed and obedience, with some macguffins also doubling as overpowered combat items in their own right.

You get more divergence by the first act of Tyranny than you would in an entire playthrough of most story-based games. Where your decisions would usually only spell a marginally different cinematic by the end, here they're constantly with you, carrying on from zone to zone, affecting your journey as well as the destination.

Aesthetics-wise, Tyranny sticks to an appropriately dark palette composed mostly of grays and browns, its sound/music is at times brilliant (especially the opening theme) and it manages to own its location themes of shattered landscapes, army camps and corpse-littered battlefields. The basic premise behind your character puts most other origin stories to shame. Your title of "fatebinder" in Tyranny is basically that of a judge - a battle-judge with lightning eyes and a license to kill (everything) but a judge nonetheless. You'll spend quite a few dialogues administering Overlord Kyros' "peace" deciding whether to use your dictatorial fiat for right, justice, law or greed. While in the Neverwinter Nights games for instance courtroom scenes were inescapably tacked-on, forced and irrelevant roleplaying in a maelstrom of hack'n'slash, Tyranny manages to integrate them because this is your character's freaking life!

The setting itself is equally interesting, dodging most fantasy tropes (no elves or dragons or heavens or hells) in favor of a gritty militaristic culture clash drawing largely on Roman expansion at the close of the bronze age, with provincial bronze falces clashing against legionnaire iron. This is given in-game relevance as well, with iron gear excelling in basic armor and armor penetration while bronze counterparts compensate slightly with speed and accuracy.

However, for all its good points, it's clear that Tyranny was left unfinished. Customers were legitimately dissatisfied with the ending, which abruptly truncates the last act before it even gets started as though the development team suddenly woke up one morning to realize they'd run out of money. Many of the accusations of "15 hours" can likely be traced to being hit in the face with the end credits when the adventure was just ramping up. Aside from leaving you with a fistful of stories that seem like they never got past their introduction (Bleden Mark is just the most obvious) this damages pretty much every aspect of the game.
The skill-based character progression runs out when you finally start figuring out what you're doing, for the simple reason that you run out of enemies.
While the first two thirds of the game feature carefully measured item advancement making you work for your gear upgrades, the last part bombards you with insanely overpowered loot seemingly out of nowhere.
The magic system has you collect modular spell components and combine them to yield a pretty wide variety of effects. Excellent! Then you're cut short just as you're getting enough "expressions" and "accents" to start making the most interesting combos like bouncing, piercing, stunning magic missiles.
As concerns dialogues the whole thing seems ridiculously front-loaded, as if the writers initially assumed they'd have more time. Even the basic disposable redshirt skill trainers in the first couple of zones are very eager to tell you their life stories in minutely detailed and verbose text trees, but by the end of the game the objectively much more important Big Boss NPCs can barely manage a paragraph or two of villainous monologue as you execute them.
In fact, for a game so dependent on writing, this thing desperately needed better editing. Characters' tone and speech patterns change abruptly, at times dipping into too-modern vernacular or seemingly being slapped together by separate writers. Even honest-to-goodness typos crop up here and there.

Someone fucked up the budget and/or production schedule. It happens. It's happened to a lot of very good games. For all that, Tyranny's a memorable piece of work, not least for its more mature take on the basic premise of playing the evil side. Graven Ashe and especially the Voices of Nerat's parting words to you, your pen-pal mentor's comments about the mythopoetic nature and growth of power in accordance with fame, Tunon's Lawful Evil Neutral adherence to his own rules, the portrayal of the various rebel groups' sneaky, backstabbing viciousness, it's all good stuff. Perhaps even more so than Pillars of Eternity's last-act conclusions about divinity, Tyranny dares to let its characters voice some uncomfortable truths. My favorite so far would have to be Lantry's response to the question "how do you feel about the evil invisible world-trampling Overlord Kyros whose minions almost tortured you to death?"

What is "tyranny" anyway? Is it just a matter of scale or overt power?