Wednesday, August 30, 2017


"You say you wanted evolution
The ape was a great big hit
You say you want a revolution, man
And I say that you're full of shit"

Marilyn Manson - Disposable Teens
(No, I've never heard of these "Beatles" of which you speak)

Compelled by whatever mysterious force leads me to hold out hope for AoS games, the single-unit RTS concept which gradually decayed into so-called "Arenas", I'm currently checking out Gigantic. Before anything else, I have to say it's hard to find any video game these days that can't be made to look good in screenshots. While I've defended "cartoonish" graphics in the past, Gigantic's decor outright copycats the flat, blocky, frame-starved, anime-inspired children's cartoons which have become the norm since the '90s.

Higher-resolution textures will no doubt follow (at low-low DLC prices I'm guessing, as per industry standards) but still, they're obviously targeting a very young crowd here. Most of the voiceovers even sound like Disney characters (Mickey Mouse in the case of the alchemist above) and the basic gameplay follows suit, rushing you through frenzied, spastically twitchy battles with no pre-game strategic choices beyond team composition (and even that is sabotaged by being unable to see your enemies' choices to counter them.) Gigantic is not even a MOBA but a fighting game, Kombat with a K most Mortal, a genre by definition aimed at button-mashing, braindead little tween vermin with no attention span.

So why does it feel more cerebral than any of the DotA, LoL, Smite etc. variety of 5v5 slapfest? I've long said that AoS games took entirely the opposite turn from what they should have been. Instead of growing into their full RTS complexity, they aimed lower and lower toward the idiot-friendly nadir of FIGHT! Gigantic instead takes that moronic slap-happy premise, adds a few MOBA-themed map elements and manages thus to build on its original theme instead of denigrating it. You find yourself picking moves and countermoves to counter your enemy instead of just min-maxing the one obvious build everyone uses for your character, opting for defensive walls to alter the flow of combat around the map, using personal resources for the team's good, all features conspicuously absent from DotA-clones. It does away with the slavish adherence to DotA's three lanes and last-hitting AI soldiers, instead tying your character advancement intrinsically to your teammates.

Most interestingly, it sneaks a major change in mentality into its basic thematic elements. Like any MOBA, you're fighting to destroy the enemy team's chess-king. However, instead of a static, useless building, this is instead one of two "gigantic" creatures whose booming voices double as announcers, ostensibly ordering you about the map, invincible unless they directly attack each other. Towers can be rebuilt and receive a similar treatment, becoming slightly mobile summonable creatures which provide utility to players. Instead of blocking lanes, they count as player kills, can be bypassed or assaulted as deemed necessary, yet nonetheless provide, if anything, an even greater focus for combat than defensive towers in MOBAs.

All this along with other minutiae serve to shift the focus from individual character advancement to team objectives. There are no AI-controlled mooks for you to farm. You are the mooks. Stylistically, the two warring entities are not you and your enemies but the "gigantic" beasts about whose feet you scurry at breakneck rodential speeds to try to set up the big bosses' attacks on each other, the only opportunities to truly advance in a match.

This single change in perspective, in itself, is enough to make Gigantic noteworthy among its competitors, the necessary optic reversal for every multiplayer game and not just MOBAs, away from individual self-aggrandizement and toward group objectives. And hey, you know what? Maybe they're right marketing this to kids. The current crop of gamers is a waste. Grow a new one. Get 'em young. Maybe after such saccharine small-team cartoonish ultraviolence, the kids playing this now will be more ready in five years to involve themselves in truly "massively multiplayer" virtual worlds instead of simply looking for a place to farm up imaginary status symbols.

Maybe this is the only way to ever build anything: instead of trying to salvage a crumbling edifice, rebuild it from the ground up. Albeit too limited in scope to be truly interesting, logically building on Gigantic's precepts could yield great things down the road. And I'm not just saying that because I like the very apt title I received at the end of one match:

Saturday, August 26, 2017

No Sparkling Furries!

I sat through Pete's Dragon earlier this year. Not an experience I'd recommend, unless you happen to be babysitting a child of at most seven or eight. Much as the Wikipedia article amusingly puffs it up as a "fantasy comedy-drama adventure film" what it is is a disposable, simplistic cut-and-dried Disney kids' flick with none of the wit, social references or double-entendres which make better "family movies" palatable to the rest of the family. Dime a dozen.

In fact, the only thing which caught my attention was the dragon itself. They gave it fur. Presumably this makes it not only more huggable on screen but more marketable as an overpriced plush drool-catcher for whichever life-sapping little parasitic monster you're hoping to render comatose for ninety minutes by renting the movie in the first pace. Seriously though: furry dragon.

Not that it's all that surprising. As one of the tired old myths most abused in modern media, right up there with fairies or vampires, dragons tend to go through endless reiterations and permutations to keep them smelling fresh while retaining brand-name recognition. Still, there's a point beyond which you've deconstructed the original idea so far as to be left with nothing. You want to give your dragon chameleonic glamor magic to stay hidden from Google's satellites? Fine, whatever. Make it a nice, goofy, helpful, saccharine house-pet of a dragon? Whatever, that's kind of implied by the slur "Disney" in the first place. But the scales have got to stay. Whether they're lizards or snakes, whether they breathe fire or poison, winged or not, whether their blood makes your skin poke-proof or not, dragons are reptiles. They appeal to our instinctive fear of the slithering in the grass, the alien, cool, slick, un-mammalian tetrapods next door. And you know what? That sells to kids. Snakes are freakin' cool! Dinosaurs? Fuhgeddaboutit. Watch a five year old bob its head along with an iguana and tell me you can't sell scales to snots. Idiots.

Dragons are imperious reptiles. Vampires bleed people and can't go out during day-time. Zombies decompose and like to chew the fat. Elves are better than you. Werewolves are misanthropes with anger management issues. If you can't make that work, then you've got no claim to the myth itself. Let sleeping wolves lie, don't rape the classics and try, just freaking try to maybe come up with an idea that stands up on its own. Maybe "giant, furry, flying chameleon with puppy-dog eyes" is enough in itself without misappropriating some random title of legendary nobility. Regardless of how many disparate bits of classic folklore went into those myths, we have reached a consensus on them. We know, intuitively, what these names signify, the core around which all the fluff can revolve. It takes a speshul kind of hack to miss a point so obvious.

Enough with the stupid sparkling!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Colony Colanders

This is a colony ship in GC3.
I was going to play No Man's Sky's latest patch, but they managed to screw up even their last remaining selling point, the pretty graphics, by refusing to load high-res textures. So until that bimbo of a game gets her hair done, I thought to revisit another one of my disappointments of recent years, Galactic Civilizations 3, which is spicing up its very dull basic gameplay by making you pay for DLC packs upon DLC packs. Hey, gettin' fleeced is an adventure in its own right, right? Right.

But hey, in all fairness, they did make some very major improvements to the game itself as well, completely free of extra bonus charges. Like, for instance, the colony ship model spins its domes now. I stared at it for a few seconds in admiration before bursting out laughing. Either they flunked their high school science classes or they really should've put a smidge more thought into this.

So, if you're into SF, you've probably seen the classic glass-domed Mothership cliché with a jolly green park for the colonists' frolicking pleasure. Why all the green? Fuck if I know, 'cause even if we genetically engineer plants to thrive in the extremely sparse energy density of interstellar radiation (look up the inverse square law) I'm guessin' good old chlorophyll won't fit the bill. How much blue and red light can there be outside the Kuiper belt? Never mind.

Let us not get distracted by the pretty lights. If it's scientific enough for twelve-year-olds reading Animorphs in the '90s, it's good enough for a sprawling multimillion-dollar "Science" Fiction strategy title in 2015. Garden domes it is. Never mind that big open spaces are kind of a no-no when you're constantly worried about micrometeoroid punctures decompressing you to death, plus it makes air circulation needlessly harder, shut up, I want my interstellar cabbage patch!

So. So: if you're into SF, you've probably also heard about spinning ships along their axis to create artificial gravity because nobody wants to float around in microgravity and do cool high-flying ninja moves; that's no fun. Also keeps your bones from liquefying over time, but that's kind of a secondary concern to "big cool spinny thing" visuals. They did it in Ender's Game and 2001 so it's legit space cowboying. So the domes now spin around the colony ship's middle. Never mind that if the point is to expose photoreceptors to light, you'd probably want just one surface, oriented continually toward your nearest light source at any one time, whatever star you're passing by, without wasting energy and spinning your ship off course. Never mind that you'd probably want to prevent any radiation from wasting off into space, so they'd be opaque from the outside.
Double lime-green spinny-domes just look cooler. Shut up. Shut up!
(Space tourists like taking pictures, okay?)

All that? That's not even the funny part. Now look at their orientation again. You're centrifuging objects outwards, meaning that's where you want to put your floor, not the ceiling. In GC3, you're basically smearing your colonists and livestock all over the glass bubbles. It's an interstellar carnival ride. Wheeee! - up until you funnel them all into a bone-crushing mosh pit at the top/bottom of the domes.

Yeah, sure, its a pulp SF video game, not a dissertation, but as with my complaints about Star Trek "science" the purely rectum-derived pretextium crystals and other make-believe don't grate nearly as much as when the book / show / game's writers and artists try to toss in something that sounds plausible, to lend themselves some legitimacy. Well, until you give it the mere second's thought which they apparently thought would put their project over-budget. Seriously, if you're paying someone to draw pretty pictures anyway, why not pretty pictures that make sense? Show some minimal effort. There's suspension of disbelief and then there's gratuitous stupidity.

Fine, the Ringworld might've been inherently unstable, but at least it wasn't upside down!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Regular Boys, House Paint and Dead Baby Jokes

"Life's been treating you nice
You better be wise - and enjoy your moment
Take one look at yourself through your eyes
How you treated your life it wasn't wise
'Cause it's getting closer"

Infected Mushroom - The Legend of the Black Shawarma

Heparin's a very common blood thinner, routinely prescribed in hospitals. If necessary, it can be neutralized with protamine sulfate. <- Important plot point.

Back in 2007, some babies died due to overdoses of heparin, which is supposedly not uncommonly administered in very small doses to support some neonatal procedures like intravenous lines. They were mistakenly given dosages from the wrong bottle at 1000 times the concentration and promptly expired, not very painfully one should think, but still rather gruesomely.

Us plains apes being so parentally invested by nature, dead babies are just the sort of tearjerker which gets multimedia corporations salivating. Still, probably nobody would've thought much of it if a Hollywood actor's progeny hadn't narrowly escaped the same fate a couple of months later, by which expedient the usual three-ring circus was erected, complete with televised performances by random schlubs and ditzes on the street agreeing that babies bleeding to death was a bad thing, very bad, yes, very bad. Something had to be done! Won't somebody pleeeaase think of the children?

At the time, yours truly happened to be working as a temp for a pharmaceutical company supplying some of those midwestern American hospitals which found themselves under baby-bleeding scrutiny when the pitchforks and torches came out. Oh, I wasn't doing anything fancy, call it warehouse work, except unlike most of the other warehouse workers I occasionally read those little fine-printed leaflets full of instructions we put into medicine cartons so you can toss them out when you get home without even unfolding them.
Yeah, that's right. You're not fooling anyone. We were on to you all along!
Thanks to my unusual reading habits, I recognized the name protamine sulfate when it rather abruptly replaced much of our work schedule, bumping such trivialities as chemotherapy drugs to the back of the line.

How about your reading comprehension? Can you tell what had happened? What the moral of the story is, or at least what it was from the lofty viewpoint of a pharmaceutical corporation executive?
Phase 1: dead babies
Phase 2: media frenzy pushing hospitals to do "something" about that evil, evil heparin, like buying the antidote
Phase 3: profit!
My bosses' bosses' bosses knew they could strong-arm hospitals into buying completely superfluous overstocks of medication as a show of compliance to outraged watchdog groups. Note this step makes no damn sense in the context of the accidents, which were caused by indirect miscommunication between the hospitals' ranks of technicians and some perhaps too similar labels on the heparin bottles. Nobody had complained of a lack of protamine sulfate. They weren't sitting there twiddling their thumbs watching babies hemorrhage to death for lack of an antidote. There was no threat of a sudden increased rash of heparin-related baby deaths, especially after the scandal had hit the media and every hospital's staff was already on high alert. It was, un-intuitively, a non-sequitur, and who the hell knows in what ways hospitals' services suffered to the effect of causing other accidents while they were distracted by all that bullshit?

But my pharmaceutical company knew it could bleed (pun intended) hospitals for some extra cash, with your public outrage to cudgel administrators into submission. Ever wonder where all those prohibitively high hospital costs come from? Sometimes even a simple story takes a page to tell and involves TV actors and your own ignorance. Nobody remembers the big heparin outrage of aught-seven a decade later, but the panic had practical repercussions at the time, offered the big dogs a chance to take a few more bites out of the public. This is how empires fall: a tiny self-serving exaggeration, a contract on false pretenses, a cheat at a time, a thousand times a second, from every industry and school and media outlet. Rot. Auto mechanics overcharging, headshrinkers prescribing an unnecessary bottle of pills, high school students cribbing final projects, construction companies opting for the cheap plywood. Dead babies, and the profit to be made thereupon. All of Rome, fiddling in tune with Nero.

I won't pretend I quit my job over that event. It was monotonous and potentially hazardous to my health and an entry-level career dead end and my boss was an asshole and my co-workers idiots and I wanted to go back to college, etc., all the usual litany of motivations played a bigger role. But it was always in the back of my mind, along with all the rest of the villainy we've come to expect from big pharma. The actual baby deaths were excusable by human imperfection. Hospitals don't go out of their way to get sued, but they deal in life and death and even the smallest mistakes can have massive repercussions. Shit happens, and when it happens in a hospital, it's always a massive pile of shit.

What I could not excuse was the behavior of my superiors, who took a positive step toward a negative outcome and consciously made a bad situation worse for their own profit, feeding on public fearmongering and disinformation. And I was in on it. In a very minor way, sure, qualified flunky, but I was as culpable as any of Goldfinger's minions working the big laser. For an entry-level job it paid pretty damn well, but I've always felt a bit guilty for doing their bidding.

On the other hand, I feel no guilt as to my "privilege" in being middle-class, for not being forced to work a grunt job for Bond villains my entire life. I owe the world nothing for what I have - only for what I do.

This brings us, weirdly enough, to page 3550 of the webcomic Questionable Content... but then if you've read any of my posts you know I'm all about the long-winded, awkward segues. An artificial intelligence gets a shiny new humanoid body as a present from his human companion, who happens to be filthy stinking rich. He runs around bragging to all the other robots until one of them verbally bitch-slaps him for rubbing his good luck in her face (which she recently had to get re-upholstered as it was falling apart; she's broke) and then he spends a couple of pages sulking over his white hetero male guilt (note the author made his new body at least two of those, for extra pedantry - and his antagonist nominally female) in tune with the mandatory self-flagellation of the contemporary left wings of Western politics. How can you live with yourself, being all... regular deluxe, like that?

"What utter bullshit" thinks I, before realizing how similar it was to an e-mail exchange from a couple of months ago in which someone (a "regular boy deluxe" in his own right) bemoaned his guilt at worrying about what color to paint his house "in a world full of people who can't afford a house in the first place" and I told him off, possibly a bit too forcefully, as is my wont. Then again... remember the horse from Animal Farm, T?

Is your car larger than utility and physical comfort would dictate? Does your fruit come from farther away than it should? Are you throwing out your old phone for no reason other than Apple's advertising? All these are potentially negative actions in and of themselves, and should be judged individually, but the simple fact that you can afford a car, or fruit or a me-myself-and-I-phone is not in itself an ethical quandary. Guilt over "privilege" is that protamine sulfate being shoved down your throat, the unnecessary antidote to an illness already past, a pretext for others to control you, to use you to prop themselves up as moral dictators. Fuck 'em. Shit happens. If you think yourself responsible for others' poverty, then are you doing something to make them poor? Are you making them put their trust in primitive superstitions, and breed without limit? Are you the one spreading the lies that "all's fair in love and war" or "you can't argue with success?" Are you the one teaching them how to emotionally manipulate each other? Are you advertising the latest quack nostrum? Are you spreading moral panics and fomenting witch hunts? Are you promoting irrationalism?

Or are you just a crumpled caryatid beating yourself up for not doing enough to prop up a civilization being torn down by that very same vulgus who have convinced you that you owe them something just for existing?

How much money you have is not the issue. How you got it is. Are you henching for Goldfinger?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Clevon, the Lesser Evil

"I'll be your scapegoat
I'll be your savior
I'm the better of two evils"

Marilyn Manson - The Better of Two Evils

Planetside 2 seems to be stagnating a bit after Sony sold off SOE. Its painfully uncreative monotony of tanks and assault rifles, while lacking any of the first Planetside's Science Fiction immersion, has nonetheless attracted a stable following of drooling rednecks eager to deafen each other with military slang. Seriously, I've never heard so many southern accents over voice comms. Though most of the intelligent leadership which made things interesting at the game's launch has wandered off in search of something more engaging, I still find it possible to get into semi-organized squads about half the times I randomly decide to log in.

Hey, it's still more purposeful coordination than you'll get in other online games. Sadly, PS2 lacks the necessary interface features (beyond waypoints) to integrate strategic / tactical planning (nothing like Savage 2's RTS command interface) but they did at some point implement the ability to draw directions on the map.

Now, anyone who's visited the Internet will tell you the inevitable consequence of letting players draw on the map:

Granted its rather rare to see something like this (the screenshot itself dates from this past winter) so I assume Daybreak's facetiously policing morality and taste like every other company. Nevertheless, PS2's playerbase comes across as just slightly different. They're idiots, sure, but they can occasionally push an objective.

Anyone who's played the game can tell from the screenshot above that, aside from his questionable aesthetic tastes, the artiste in question was also leading his platoon into a pointless, inevitable three-way stalemate instead of being satisfied with holding one of the most easily reinforced positions on the map. Nevertheless, he was leading. He was providing initiative and a focus for a group of forty players, and if you've logged into any online game over the past decade, be it MMO, FPS, RPG, Arena, whatever, you know how increasingly rare that is. A few of us told him he's an idiot. Then we kept playing, because the game is the game, and the practical effects of his game-play outweighed the sheer irrelevance of anything he said. No insults, whether drawn on the map or shouted over voice chat or typed, will ever blow up an enemy tank column. Having someone to call for a coherent missile launcher defense will. The game is the game. It is its own world, and the worth or guilt of any player should always be weighed by how much it impacts that world. The greatest crime he committed was obscuring more relevant information on the map with his crayon scrawls. That has practical repercussions within the game. That matters.

I more recently played with a hyperactive little shit who constantly spammed voice chat with overexcited war movie catchphrases. Cluttering voice chat with white noise is counteproductive. I loathe it. And yet... I have a mute button. I muted him and kept playing. In fact, I supported him in asking the platoon leader for a squad leadership position because I knew this attention-starved little meth-head would actively place beacons and update waypoints and provide transportation for our squad... and he did. Then I called him a degenerate retard as I muted him, then we both kept playing.

The game is the game.
It is not a chat room. It is not a social club. It should most certainly never be a "safe space' for the spineless millennial snowflake Gestapo policing language and choking the life out of any public interactions.

The Secret World's recent re-release as "Secret World Legends" has been filled with endless numbers of bugs. Anything and everything is bugged, from graphics to items, monsters, whole missions or instances, crashes to desktop, etc. At the same time, Funcom's very aggressively trying to force players to buy amusement park money by selling items, inventory space, even character movement speed increases for cold hard real-world cash. Of course, they refuse to put any of this income into bettering the game itself, only cranking out more glitz. Among other things, they've refused to pay for anywhere near enough customer support to handle their playerbase's desperation at the product's nigh-unplayable state. Petitions pile up. As I mentioned, response time to three of my petitions for bugged missions and gear took anywhere from five to eight days, with the item being irrevocably lost.

When I cursed out the retarded trash in General chat, I was harassed only an hour or two later by a GM who took the time to personally materialize in game next to me threatening to ban me. When this is developers' single focus, morally cleansing their games' chat box, is it any wonder multiplayer -anything- has become such a joke?

Meanwhile, every single redneck, valley girl, dudebro, jock and church lady in TSW is mindlessly grinding the same instances over, and over, and over... so long as someone else leads the team. So long as someone else tanks, so they can continue to measure their social status in terms of DPS meters. So long as someone else organizes the raid so they don't have to think about goals. Their demands for oversimplification are what's destroyed MMOs. As much as I despise PS2's redneck brigades, they are still preferable to the painstakingly polite but actively counterproductive population of most online games. I will gladly take the racist, drunken, dick-obsessed crackheads so long as they actually work towards the activity's logical goals, toward playing well.

I've been banned temporarily or permanently from half a dozen different games for calling retards retards, and in each and very single one of those games I was addressing degenerate vermin actively sabotaging their teams, actively damaging the game itself, not the chat box. Quitting in the middle of a match, refusing to work toward team goals, abusing exploits, refusing to try anything with a difficulty level steeper than the bunny slopes, any and all of this should be a bannable offense before harassing your own customers over their chat is even considered. All we've gotten with this idiotic politically correct head-chopping is a population of cowardly, brown-nosing schoolyard bullies, shoving you down the stairs then crying when the teacher shows up because you called them doodyheads.

Worse yet when the teacher coddles the bullies, neh? Isn't it amazing that you can grief to your heart's delight in any multiplayer game yet the only thing that will actually get you banned is cursing out a griefer?

And how fucking sad has this culture gotten when hicks and hillbillies show clearer thinking than urbane modern society? Did John Galt already steal all the nerds off the Internet when I wasn't looking?

There's a line I used to repeat when recruiting players for teams a decade ago in CoH:
LFM for whatever. "Must be able to follow simple directions."
That was usually the only criterion I considered worth adopting. It is the main criterion by which gamers should be condemned by game-master authority: their gameplay. Once you have a population of pragmatically cooperative, honest, dedicated players, then worry about the aesthetics of their moronic babbling.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You can spread your wings as wide as you want but you'll still drop.
Someone stole all the air.
The gutter's waiting for you.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

ST: TNG - High Crusher Symbiosis

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 1.22

Hey-hey, kiiids! Who wants to learn about drug addiction?
Drugs're baaad, mmmkay? So don't do drugs. 'Cuz they're baaad. Mmmmkaaay?

So you rescue two species of aliens from a damaged freighter-
Yes, aliens, those are aliens in the picture. You can tell because their noses are a little bit wrinkled.
Totally alien!
Anyway, it turns out both of their species can shoot lightning from their fingertips. Cool huh? So now we've shown you that, let's forget all about them Palpatining each other to death and instead launch into a tedious half-hour utterly transparent morality play about crack addiction. 'Cuz sci fi.

Look, I've frequently said that good SF is often social commentary, and at its best the genre can blow our minds with practical and ethical scenarios transcending the human condition. And then there's crap like this: orcs in space, shotguns in space, nazis in space, cowboys in space, samurai in space and hell, why not, crack addicts... IN SPAAAAAACE! Cheap, lazy, nonsensical plots lifted from public service announcements, but you're not allowed to criticize them because we are tackling social issues. Turns out one of those Palpatines is an (unwitting) addict and the other his pusher selling narcotics under the guise of antibiotics. Cue lots of "but we need our fix" and "not until you pay up, bitches" dialogues. The whole cheese wagon kind of skips its tracks when fresh-faced good-boy Wesley Crusher sits down with some responsible adults to ask why people become addicts - and is answered, true to form, in groaningly pedantic catchphrases that may as well have been ghostwritten by a high school guidance counselor.

As with other episodes wrecked by either Wesleyitis or an overdose of social activism, I have to remark that the basic plot about cultures subjugating each other via subterfuge could have made for a solid, classic speculative tale. Could, had the writers been less obsessed with linking their fictional drug Felicium to the crack epidemic of late '80s American inner cities, to the point where they go out of their way to specify that the purification process increases its addictiveness. Never mind that all the rambling moralizing about addiction (and the motivations thereof) which eats up much of the episode ignores the biggest plot point that the addicts in this case don't even know they're addicted, being under the impression they're injecting a palliative treatment for a highly virulent endemic plague.

At least the gimmick of withholding the ship replacement parts was spot-on.

Aside from that, there's the issue of Beverly Crusher, who benefits from one or two decent "medical detective" scenes sussing out the real issue behind the non-existent plague, but otherwise spends most of the episode browbeating her ship's captain over his lack of compassion in enforcing the Prime Directive. She wants to cuddle the addict planet's hurts away, and non-interference be damned, because of course how could a doctor of all people tolerate abiding by a statistically proven methodology like the Prime Directive?


Seriesdate 3.12
The High Ground

Beverly Crusher's been taken hostage by Irish separatists!
Errr, sorry... I mean, she's been taken hostage by "Ansatan" separatists on the planet Rutia IV. They just contain an inordinate proportion of redheads and their leader's name just happens to be "Finn" for no particular reason. Also it's explained they're rebelling because "seventy years ago we denied them independence" hint-hint, episode written in 1990. Except, y'know: IN SPAAAAACE!
Oh, also? Totally alien hair streak there.
Largely free of first-season baggage unlike Symbiosis, the script's technically decently enough written and executed, with detailed sets, lots of extras, choreographed phaser battles, a toned-down Wesley delivering quaint technobabble about untraceable dimensional shifting teleportation, and a surprisingly competent actress playing the one-shot role of the local security chief.

Still, something beyond the cheap analogy to Irish nationalism rubbed me the wrong way and looking at the credits, the writer's name immediately jumps out at me. I've heard Melinda Snodgrass applauded by various fanboys over the years but so far I can't help but bristle at certain rants both in this episode and The Ensigns of Command. It's not so much the writing itself (dramatically purplish speeches I can stomach, and even cheer on (and occasionally deliver)) as the constant unspoken, unanalyzed assumption of the masses as meek, obedient cattle to be prodded and herded by charismatic charlatans or fanatics already occupying leadership roles. She may have been what put me off the Wild Cards book I skimmed as well, though it's a bit too long ago to remember.

Aside from that, once again, a greater problem arises: it's Beverly's time to shine! Except she doesn't. She plays out a bland Stockholm syndrome scenario, bemoans violence every five minutes and pines for her son and asks all the leading questions to set up the rebel leader's speeches, and I can hardly blame this on Snodgrass, as it's pretty much a constant for Crusher's character. She's the mother hen, the caring one. If I had to encapsulate my preference for Dr. Pulaski, it would be her stiff-necked, goal-oriented, dignified stoicism in the same situation, whether she was taken prisoner or merely stranded behind quarantine lines. Pulaski simply fits the image of the highly-trained exploration ship's doctor much better. The position begged a cerebral researcher, not a cuddly general practitioner to wipe everyone's noses.

Then again, Crusher wasn't written as a doctor. She seems written to fill out the weird-ass nuclear family unit that was obviously intended at the start of the series along with her son and Picard, a notion which thankfully disintegrated sometime around season three. Unfortunately, McFadden was cast in that role and built it up accordingly. In the mire of the first few dozen episodes' randomness and confusion, her consistency was one of the few high points, but as the series gradually found its footing her over-emoting began to clash with that chilly SF emphasis on plot above characters. While not nearly as glaring as Weasely, her character still belongs to some different genre. TNG was not a family drama.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Beastwoman Smells Guuud

"Won't be hard to pull you underground
And won't be long 'til you love me
And I'll be coming at your back to bring you down
Leave you with an open wound
Left to die alone like an animal"

Genitorturers - Lecher Bitch

Minor Tyranny spoilers.
While Obsidian's recent RPG Tyranny suffered more than its share of problems, mostly revolving around its unsatisfyingly truncated last act, it offered among its better features the companionship of an NPC roster running the gamut of an evil overlord's minions, lackeys, henchmen, grunts and toadies. Ya got the fanatics, collaborators and conscripts, the bootlicks and backstabbers and the scheming usurpers, and of course no evil overlord's army would be complete without a breed/brand of nominally inhuman monsters to confirm, by proxy, the villain's own place outside the cozy, empathetic bonds of human normalcy.
Meet my trusty bolverk, Kills-in-Shadow.
Though she seems to spend most of her time scratching her hairy pits or even hairier teats, this girl really comes through for you whenever you need some heads bashed in or limbs ripped apart. Her playstyle's a perfect complement for my own mix of squishiness, suicidal aggression and crowd control. Unable to equip any armor, waiting for me to initiate before launching herself into the fray, dashing across the battlefield while knocking enemies on their asses, howling and yelping when she gets in over her head, she'd be a laugh riot even if she weren't both well-written and well-voiced.
Her dialogue manages to play up the moldy old routine of the primitive and/or imbecile musclehead who hasn't mastered personal pronouns (what TVTropes calls "Hulkspeak") while somehow coming across as quite natural, clever and even weirdly... poetic, at times. Beastwoman speech strings varied adjectives around a few evocative verbs to great effect, and belying its initial awkwardness, you quickly learn that Kills-in-Shadow suffers little impediment in communicating her feelings on any number of topics. Often this entails a concise, lurid bluntness. Possibly the scariest moment in my first playthrough came when Kills-in-Shadow confessed getting a bit frisky toward my character -
 - especially since it's not clear whether she intends to ride me like a pogo stick or floss her fangs with my intestines or both in whichever order. As with Barik's particular quirk suggesting a similarity to Vhailor from Planescape: Torment, several conversations with Kills-in-Shadow bring to mind Ignus' freewheeling mania, a loose cannon you can barely manage to keep rolling away from yourself, though unfortunately in terms of gameplay she doesn't seem to ever go as far as turning against you like Ignus could.
Or maybe I just like her too much and consistently stayed on her good side... by bitchslapping her down to enforce pack hierarchy.
In any case, she counts among the various reasons to consider Tyranny a truer spiritual successor to the original Torment than the more kid-friendly Tides of Numenera claims to be.

The success of the character hinges partly on some good voice acting maintaining a quick, excitable, rolling tempo to that third-person caveman routine which prevents it from sounding stiff or dopey. Largely, however, she and the whole beastwoman race were solidly designed from the ground up for both an instantly recognizable thematic place within Kyros' world and for internal consistency. Not as stupid as they seem but for the most part lacking self-control or a measurable attention span, their dialogues reveal an appropriately bestial synesthesia, a hypersensitive maelstrom of haptic, olfactory, visual and aural data keeping their decision-making solidly mired in the obsessive bloodthirsty "now."

They're a welcome slap in the face to furries and their tendency to infantilize the object of their fascination, to every mewling catgirl on the internet, and every vegan werewolf begging for treats. They break modern cliches left and right, not least the more recent bemoaning of racism among fictional elves and goblins. Tyranny's various human societies share an almost universal racist prejudice against these sentient predators, but it's for the most part entirely justified. They prove themselves at every turn to be vicious, impulsively murderous and largely deserving of their gradual extermination. They make Larry Niven's Kzinti look clean-cut, clearheaded and reasonable by comparison. Kills-in-Shadow's on your side after all, the evil, ravenously megalomaniacal side of the story and ironically, it's arguably the most evil and sadistic faction in the game which is even willing to enroll beastmen at all rather than hunt them to extinction. These ain't heartstring-tugging beaten puppies.

As for Kills-in-Shadow, she's quickly earned her place in the roster of truly memorable cRPG henchmen, with the added distinction of being one of the least likeable or sympathetic.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Bootstrapped out of Zombiehood

"I might
And you might
But neither of us do though
And neither of us will"

Modest Mouse - Might

I flipped through Robert Heinlein's By His Bootstraps years ago and didn't think much of it. Before I get to spoiling the ending for you, let me say despite being one of his weaker scribbles, it's worth reading if you like time travel stories.

Upon re-reading it now, I find myself mostly comparing it to Heinlein's later re-hash of the same theme, All You Zombies. Unfavorably. Can't figure out why so many Heinlein book covers advertise "by the author of such-and-such and By His Bootstraps" when its writing is both less expressive and more repetitive, its themes less daring, its characters less memorable and its action more disjointed than most of the master's tales. Sure I could resign myself to saying that Bootstraps was one of his earlier works and in the seventeen intervening years he'd learned a few tricks so of course All You Zombies was better... but then what kind of fanboyish old geek would I be if I didn't over-analyze it?

Zombies is better, but why is it better? Technical flaws aside, there's also a glaring discrepancy between the two protagonists. While the Unmarried Mother comes across as angry and bitter, this is justified by life experience. Bob the university student, on the other hand, is a thoroughly unlikeable sort of sniveling, two-faced, overentitled, drunken faux-intellectual, nearly the last person deserving of a far-future kingdom of eloi to lord over. Maybe Heinlein only wrote him in keeping with the story's title as appropriately Munchausen-ish, an undependable blowhard.

However, why did Bootstraps necessitate a screw-up as main character? Zombies, as I declared in my last post about it, is a very Heinlein-ish tale of self-determination: somewhat darkly humorous, uncompromising and unapologetic in its grim individualism. Bob's future adventures with Diktor deliver almost the exact opposite amidst all that aimless blundering into inadvertent rulership over meek degenerate humanoids. Whether the young Heinlein himself thought this might sell better or he delivered it to publisher specifications, I'm going to guess the story he was writing might've grated against his personal idealism. Enough at least that he took a creator's vengeance on his creation, turning him into the only type of man who would be king: a bumbling charlatan.

Then again once again and again, maybe Bootstraps really did wind up as a mix of The Man Who Would Be King and of The Time Machine because its author simply hadn't sufficiently developed his own style quite yet and was still rehashing the literature of his youth. His greatness was yet to come. I find this interpretation particularly encouraging, as Heinlein was exactly my age when he published it.

Of course, he could actually manage to get published at my age.
Less encouraging.

Of course, he probably sent a manuscript out now and then too.
All I'm saying is, I find myself uncomfortably Boostrappy and insufficiently post-Zombic for my own tastes.
At least I've never wanted to be king.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Quantify my dairy colony

So here's me failing to declare my independence in the Civilization 4 modification Colonization.
The throng of ex-cons and workhouse flunkies at the bottom of the screen are waiting in line to get their ejumacayshun at prestigious Nyctimus University. Come see our team, the fighting Poxies, and their mascot Mangey the huggable lycan-trope!

I'd heard of Colonization back in Civ 4's prime, but game mods are an even bigger pain to sift through for quality than games themselves, so this has been one of the many I've passed up over the years. Given that it came bundled into GoG's release however, I recently had a chance to try it out. Decent, if obviously rushed decor, nice music, cheap, half-assed flavor text. As conversions go it's acceptable, definitely lacking the scope, balance and polish of its parent title but nonetheless complex enough that I've repeatedly lost track of my ultimate objective of stickin' it to tha man for getting wrapped up in stitching together my little colonial ant farm.

While converting dem heathen hinjuns into skilled jacks of all toils, pacing your trading so as to make the most of your European commerce before your king taxes you to death and conquistaing some d'oro on the side all add a bit to the game experience, Colonization's basically a resource management game. Maximize your raw goods acquisition and processing through specialized units, pick your cotton to ship it off as cloth, that sort of thing. This economic side all takes place in a space of intelligible, straightforward scalar values with few hidden softcaps or penalties for success, a system made to be gamed. An extra two units of sugar you harvest don't mysteriously morph into 1.73 simply to punish you for doing things right, and can be processed into rum at a known, player-controlled rate.

I can't speak for how well the Civ 4 mod emulates the original Colonization game, having never played it, so for me it's reminiscent rather of another title from around the mid-'90s:
Lords of the Realm was guilty of a lot more obfuscation of its exact formulae, but nonetheless offered the same rational, purposeful resource management. Granted, it's partly remembered for this because its combat side was crap, but the satisfaction of juggling peasant occupations from season to season hinged on grasping the value of those one to three-digit resource production and consumption figures. You were never just mindlessly clicking the "more grain" button but trying to approach a specific amount of grain you needed.

By the mid-2000s, Civ 4: Colonization was already a nostalgic throwback to the days of real numbers on screen - at the same time City of Heroes considered its "real numbers initiative" a risky, daring proposition to show players the exact values behind their characters' stats. Just as mana and ammunition were excised from RPGs and FPS games, strategy game resources have gradually drifted off-screen, out of sight and out of mind. Every building upgrade in Galactic Civilizations 3 or Sins of a Solar Empire gives an extra 20% or 50% to its particular resource while rarely or never bothering the player with the actual figures being multiplied, with the worst offender likely being the likes of Supreme Commander with its mindless piling on of bigger and bigger... stuff. Where resource counters show up at all it's increasingly in the form of pinball scores, ten thousand points a pop. More is just better you see, and the player is rewarded for the repetitive behavior pattern of incremental build-up instead of any understanding of the underlying mechanics, the careful weighing and balancing of options which has always meant true strategy.

Of all concepts to lose from games, isn't this one of the oddest: that games should be game-able systems? That the numbers governing in-game actions should be there for players to manipulate, and not hidden behind the scenery? This shift from the old frugal, interconnected, predictive balancing-act oikonomia of Lords of the Realm to an obsession with surplus wealth expressed apart from its underlying production numbers, is it just a fear of scaring away the idiots with math, or is it more a case of servile adulation of a core fable of capitalism, that "wealth" as a thing apart can just be... created?