Friday, September 29, 2017

None gains or guesses what it hints at giving

"I cannot tell why some things hold for me
A sense of unplumbed marvels to befall,
Or of a rift in the horizon's wall
Opening to worlds where only gods can be.
It is in sunsets and strange city spires,
Old villages and woods and misty downs"

H.P. Lovecraft - Fungi From Yuggoth XXVIII - Expectancy

I maintain that the ending of The Lord of the Rings is one of the saddest in all literature. The survival of humanity scores a pyrrhic victory at best, and more rightly an insult to the superhuman wisdom and grace of the noble elves doomed to fade, to relinquish the world to short-lived, small-minded petty vermin.
To us, that is.

While my familiarity with H.P Lovecraft can't qualify as exhaustive, a recent reading of Fungi from Yuggoth has put the various disjointed yarns about fish-monsters and morbidity in perspective. Most of the Fungi are more or less what you'd expect from Lovecraft, florid descriptions of Bosch-like monsters and shuddering invocations of unknowable dangers lurking in the shadows. A little over halfway through the collection, however, several poems slip into a surprisingly touching, soulful melancholy which centers the author's viewpoint.

"I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town"

It's a sentiment familiar to many who scoff at their contemporaries' stumbling re-enactment of the human tragedy echoed in crumbling masonry from Babylon to Boston. One can't call it nostalgia though, as its sufferers have often never known these places, nor is it glorification of imaginary "golden ages" in themselves. Lovecraft was by what I've heard of him, like his hero Poe, too much of a snob and a dandy to really fall for romantic medievalism or the charms of quaint rustics keeping the old ways. The human world, in all its lack, is a cruel trick to play on sentient minds.There must be something more. There should have been something more.

It's more of a lament for the unfulfilled promise of past possibilities, the presque vu of man's fumbling helplessly within grasp of his rightful divinity, age after age, generation after generation, the constant backsliding into bestiality. Degeneration, not merely the loss of the elves but of the elvish blood of Numenor, the loss of promise in the secondborn. For all his grave warnings about the terrors of the cosmos, Lovecraft's most famous denouements as often as not yielded a human devolution (The Lurking Fear, The Rats in the Walls, etc.) In light of all accomplished in the past, the pettiness of the present is worse than stagnation, a betrayal of our own promise, and the insanity induced by eldritch horrors is less a comment on the vastness of the universe as on the diminution of human intellect.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

She's put-a-tree in motion!

My DnD character once fought a druidess who'd enchanted treants to read minds and inflict disease on their victims.

She blighted me with psy-ents!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Shelter 2

Why do game developers so often forget they're supposed to be developing games and not movies? Two years ago I praised the small independent game Shelter, a... badger simulator, of all things, for its beautiful and original atmosphere so refreshingly well integrated into gameplay that even a stodgy, sour old snarler like me could get emotionally attached to mothering my cubs. While very linear and lacking replay value, it delivered a unique experience more than worth its indie title bargain bin asking price, one of those rare little gems you find yourself playing breathlessly through the night. Shelter 2 has a smidge more replay value. It's also taken me four tries to get into it despite the warm and fuzzy anticipation incited by its predecessor.

I had originally planned to word this post a bit more harshly, but in the course of trying to snap some screenshots for the purposes of condemnation I wound up enjoying the game more than I had to date. To do so, you must largely ignore the cheesy fluff tacked onto the Shelter 1 formula in lieu of production values. Ignore the stupid little two-sentence text interludes which rather disrupt and intrude upon your lynxy life rather than illustrate it. Ignore also the cheesy fantasy-themed prologue/epilogue blathering about your lynx following the stars (they're just breadcrumb trails like in any other game, ok?) Ignore that either of these "features" could've been much more seamlessly integrated into the right-click scent overlay. I can only assume the project lead wanted to justify the added expenditure of hiring more official writers. Ignore the unbearably romantic moonlit soiree in which you meet your new beau at the end of each playthrough. Sniffing out a new mate, if anything, should've been handled via sniffing.

That scent overlay itself (highlighting prey and zone transitions when you right-click) shows the half-assed implementation of new features, as it's not only missing the applications above but the logical extension of tracking scents. Despite a complete lack of programming knowledge, I'll go out on a limb and guess it would've been trivial to make prey drop blobs of "scent" every so often which fade over time, creating de facto gradients by which to track them, instead of just seeing them highlighted in bright red from across the map. At the very least this functionality could've been prioritized over the nonsensical implementation of "collections" of items for which you're expected to comb all the various maps. Yeah, 'cause that's what lynx life is all about: collecting sticks and leaves as keepsakes. I'm a lean, mean, hunting machine shaped by evolution for pouncing on backs, snapping necks, sheltering my young and... scrapbooking. Oy...

The distinctive artistic style employed by both Shelter games is still lovely, and more immersive than that of projects with a hundred times the budget. I'd find it hard to overstate the emotive impact of the deceptively minimalist but highly fluid construction-paper visuals and moody soundtrack, and everything you as a player do in that world takes on the bittersweet air of an ancient ballad.

If only there were more to do!

Sure, most of the elements from Shelter 1 seem included, but most of them are so toned down, pared down and dumbed down that it takes a couple of cat lives just to realize they're there at all. You can still shake the odd tree (for bird nests, not apples) but they're few and far between. There's a natural disaster (mudslide and/or flood; forum chatter just calls it "the blob") but you can safely and calmly amble away from it and just watch it dissipate from high ground. Every once in a while something will screech and snatch one of your young; that I can only assume is the eagle, but as it happens so quickly and without warning as to always take place off-camera, it carries none of the tension and player involvement of the original swooping terror. In contrast, wolf attacks might be a threat if only their dramatic buildup weren't overemphasized, giving you ample time to reach cover. With the "mountains" DLC you can run into a bear, but getting mauled by it is fixed as easily as snatching up one measly gopher meal. Even sneaking has been taken out of player control: the game now crouches your character when it deems fit.

In fact the rarity, inevitability or triviality of all other activities leaves chasing down small prey as the single defining endeavor of Shelter 2, but while sprinting across the landscape trying to intersect the path of a zig-zagging bunny has its charm, this wears thin after a few hundred repetitions, especially given their completely predictable movements in an open field. Even this is hopelessly trivialized by the sheer abundance of prey, so thick that on several occasions I've caught a rabbit or gopher by accident, tripping over it while chasing its neighbor. Your kittens run no danger of starving.

The expanded maps and more freeform movements allow for a larger dose of the simple pleasures of exploration: discover clifftop shortcuts, a meteorite crater, a mammoth corpse (and it's in a perfectly logical spot too) walk the ice over frozen rivers or listen to the wind blowing in off the seashore. Too bad most will never play even the one or two hours needed to sight-see any of that, since Shelter 2's bunny-chasing smorgasbord utterly fails to engage the player, to provide any sort of challenge or tension or tragedy. That survival horror element of natural competition I praised in the original is wholly lacking in the sequel. Though a much less egregious offender than Defense Grid 2Dreamfall or Trine 2, I can't help but notice the same tendency in Shelter 2 toward preening, cinematic passivity detracting from actual gameplay. Does this stem from a lack of inspiration, Hollywood envy, a snobbish art major resentment of an interactive medium or a cynical attempt to justify hiring more artists and "writers" bleeding customers for a bloated, overbuilt product?

Is this nothing but the old bait and switch profiteering? I can't help but notice these titles are all sequels.


edit, fifteen minutes later:
Turns out if you're quick enough to turn around when you hear the eagle screeching, you can catch it trying to flutter off with one of your kittens, and a successful pounce will not only save the kit but bring down the predator for the young'uns to feast on its flesh. Turnabout is fair play.

So, yeah, I'll give 'em this one. Works out beautifully.
For those of you who, like me, were put off by this game's weaker elements or unjustifiable yammering about constellations and romantic... cats... try to skip over that and give it another chance or three. There's some quality buried under there.
Did I mention that eagle kill went down atop a mountain plateau under the shimmering veils of the northern lights?

Friday, September 22, 2017

You Got Old Twelve Years Ago, Brent

"Another protester has crossed the line
To find the money's on the other side"

Green Day - Holiday

Scott Kurtz made a funny. That this should surprise me at all seems a bit sad, as PvP was one of the first webcomics I ever read, if not the first. Green as I was, the notion "wow, here's one about computer games" actually struck me as a wonderful novelty back around Y2K, and I found Kurtz an amusing dork for being into that roleplaying shit like Ultima Online. Sure I was playing Diablo at the time and wrote fan fiction about my Diablo character but that was totally different of course.

I stopped reading PvP over a decade ago, and skimming its archives now I can't say I'm sorry I did. Though I doubt that even when struggling its popularity ever waned below the average of online cartoonery, it did get quite a bit of grief for gradually moving away from its initial online gamer focus. To his credit Kurtz was relatively honest about snubbing his old audience in favor of embracing the all-too-human condition, and even after the strip degenerated to a plain-Jane relationship comedy, he still managed to pull off the occasional memorable showstopper. It just wasn't funny anymore. The only reason I even visited the site today was for the spin-off comic, Table Titans, which recaptures some small modicum of the old adventuring spirit with an eye toward gamer foibles. Whether it's a GM dramatically setting the scene with crumbs in his beard or a gamer swooning at having an incredibly amateurish portrait drawn of his character, it's still funnier and more lovable than the old cast's frequently overextended dating/family/office dramas. Unless, of course, you've lost your sense of perspective and quality and instead of ridiculing incompetence as we all should, you think some worthless idiot's Diablo fanfic should be held up as worthy of attention.

I was checking back on Table Titans, incidentally, after letting a couple of months go by to run out a particularly long-winded violin concert of a self-absorbed RPG character origin story about growing up on the mean streets of Provo, Utah. Like Pandaren in World of Warcraft, the April Fools' jokes of a decade past become the accepted norm as general intelligence drops. A lack of game humor in itself wouldn't have soured PvP... if it had been replaced with something equally imaginative, insightful or snappy. However, the sheer mundane tedium of story arcs about softball and mall santas is only compounded by the mountain of political correctness Kurtz built around his monetization strategy of championing cartooning in the new online medium. With respectability came the lowest common denominator and self-censorship, and two decades later "ale and whores" sadly still appears the funniest thing he's ever written. No wonder the only recent PvP strip which really made me smile was today's call-back to the innocent days of panda maulings, when his humor wasn't subjected to a veto by fear of the moral majority. The same writer who in his more youthful vigor rightly lambasted newspaper comics for their shallow, moralizing activism ("I never learned how to read!") has degenerated to ensuring his cast looks like the village people, self-flagellating over his white hetero male guilt and tackling social issues while strewing eggshells constantly before himself so as not to bring offense.

Doesn't matter that you've got nothing to say so long as you say it in rainbow technicolor.
Vacuous posturing sells.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Beautiful Tyrannous People

"If I was beautiful like you
I would never be at fault
I'd walk in the rain between the raindrops
Bringing traffic to a halt"

Joydrop - Beautiful

Spoilers? Yeah, Tyranny.

Much as I like Tyranny and its setting, characters and role-playing quandaries, its visibly rushed production left many aspects pixelated around the edges, including some characters' personalities. In many cases they simply betray a schizophrenia obviously borne upon multiple writers' quills (and takes on each persona.) The bloody-minded, bold and resolute Verse whom you meet in Act 1 for example simply doesn't speak like the jarringly soulful sympathy-hound which seems to crop up randomly from her psyche during some dialogues. In fact a quick comparison of the game's various NPC companions, quest-givers and bosses shows a marked tendency to lend more dignity to or "redeem" characters occupying a favorable social role. Ask yourself which gender of NPC would receive the moniker "Brown-Bottom" and you'll quickly realize that despite a fair attempt at building a world of villains and misery, the writers' prejudices led them to play favorites.

This certainly becomes apparent with the Archons of War and Secrets who bracket most of your campaign. Granted that the Voices of Nerat was very consistently built up as a prototypical irredeemable sociopath, but somewhere along the way we lose track of the fact that Graven Ashe is only meant to look the lesser evil by comparison to his chief antagonist. Gradually, where the brilliant, philosophical Nerat receives a classic mad scientist's narrative treatment, the comparatively simpleminded but fatherly, protective Ashe is spoken of only in terms of his positive qualities. Does anyone even remember, by the end of the story, that Graven Ashe is an unflinchingly genocidal racist? Or that his scorched earth strategy would yield not only the destruction of the Chorus, but the agonizing starvation of whatever's left of an entire territory?

However, the true teacher's pet must undeniably be named Sirin. I refused to even go near her during my first playthrough, as her mind control superpower strikes my chaotic neutral, Pandemonium-bound lupine self as the absolute creepiest thing in the game, beyond Kills-in-Shadow's manic bloodlust, Bleden Mark's omnipresence or even Nerat's... well, y'know, Nerat. There's little in the conceivable multiverse so inherently vile as controlling another thinking being's thoughts (and therefore being) and yet despite the Archon of Song's casual abuse of this Geneva contravention for her own entertainment, we're repeatedly pushed to swallow the notion of her as an idealistic do-gooder lecturing everyone around her on their character flaws.
Seriously? "Won't somebody please think of the children" delivered by a villainess who snuffs out the very light of reason within flesh by a mere syllable? And the only thing my character can respond to her utterly impractical, shortsighted, nonsensical and insubordinate caterwauling is a stale, snappish little "shut up Wesley" designed only to make the mouthy little brat seem even more sympathetic?

Who the hell Maryd this Sue? There's obviously a disconnect between the initial character design and its ultimate implementation, evident in her very powerset. Where the textual description of her powers comes across as blatantly offensive (both practically and morally) her talent trees make her into a largely team-friendly omnivalent buffbot with none of the thematic coherence of the other characters (why exactly does she have a boulder attack and a lightning storm attack?) Someone desperately wanted to make Sirin look good instead of the capricious spoiled banshee her basic character embodies, and hugely overshot the mark. While we can easily accept that every sadistic powermonger on Terratus would envy her abilities, there's absolutely no reason why everyone would be letting the sanctimonious snot browbeat them without mind control even being mentioned. Even the ostensibly scarier demons like Bleden Mark and Nerat get called names and denounced occasionally, at least behind their backs.

Archon or no Archon, Overlord's pet or not, Sirin gets away with more bullshit than the rest of the cast put together, never getting called out on anything and always getting the last word. Leaving aside the cognitive dissonance of the sole voice of benevolence coming from a teenage girl (has no-one at Obsidian actually met a teenage girl?) where exactly did Sirin acquire her ethical guidelines? From a brief lifetime locked in an ivory tower under the tutelage of the megalomaniacal ancient evil world dictator?

Or let's word these questions another way: had Sirin been a male with the same mind-shattering power, how would he have been portrayed?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kill Six Billion Demons

Spoilers pertaining to the webcomic in question follow here, though this one's certainly no mystery novel.

First off, let us doff our hats to that truly stellar title! I mean, that's the sort of title you normally only find emblazoned in a dripping blood font on death metal album covers. Yet it just rolls off the tongue like bile, an effect the author seems to have quite consciously created, given the one panel in which it visually rolls in incendiary glory from the mouth of an otherworldly terror. And... AND! that's just as you learn this proclamation of doom's no less than somebody's . freaking . Name .

Whew. That's setting a loud decibel level, alright.

I hold world-building to greater relevance than most, and this comes with a staunch appreciation for bombast, for the lavish grandiloquence which built up our ancestors' folklore from the depths of Tartarus to the top of Mount Olympus, from Diyu to Sheol and Niflheim. It's hard to go over the top with material inspired by the rantings of witless, illiterate, flea-bitten bronze-age bards who thought caves and mountaintops were whole separate realms of existence, so a story drawing on classic mythology usually does well to include a primitive's incredulity and sense of wonder at the vastness of the world ("We're going to see the elves, Mr. Frodo!")

Like most modern media products, Kill Six Billion Demons falls into a lot of politically correct posturing, so the revelation that the prophecied hero simply must (naturally!) be replaced by a heroine prompts exhausted eye-rolling rather than raised eyebrows. The frequently trite interpersonal side of the story falls in step, with one of the heroine's two advisors being a trans-sexual angel who at one point rails against her fellow angels' trans-phobia: if god made us sexless, what sense does it make to insist all angels are male?
Actually, by that same logic, what sense does it make for you to want to play dress-up in the first place? If it's no big deal, why are you making such a big deal out of it?
The second heroine's advisor's arguably much worse, being an author avatar, and any of their scenes together comes across more like an embarrassingly overemoting self-insert slashfic of a more dignified plot running in the background. Needless to say this good demon's a quirky, plucky little girl who nonetheless embodies awesomah powah! And she wants to be good but wouldn't you know it the universe is somehow plotting to temp her to evil, presumably to be redeemed by love's true lesbian kiss or some schlock* at a later date.
Though eschewing heroes in favor of heroines, villains of course remain decidedly male, with the most notable exception launching into a rant against the male gaze as her self-justification.

Despite such all too common tendencies, that background running behind the trite, shallow, snowflake moral posturing more than makes up for it. That villainness eventually gets called out on (part of) her bullshit, if not nearly as strongly as I'd have preferred, and the frequent by-the-numbers railing against male sexuality (every villain owns a brothel in this story) is halfway allowed to meld into a much wider landscape. KSBD sidesteps the pitfall of its contemporaries like Eth's Skin of grinding the story to a complete halt to bring you this public service announcement. Locale after locale of its mythical world is illustrated in ludicrously detailed crowd scenes, and the splash screens expositing each new backdrop are (and no other word would fit) epic. Basing its story largely on the mythical themes of south-western Asia instead of the elves and dragons we've all grown to yawn at, the artist also puts staggering amounts of work into the convoluted, endlessly re-iterative Rococo parade of angels and devils this entails. If nothing else the sheer visual detail, easy to grasp at a glance but always offering more under closer scrutiny, makes KSBD stand out among the usually perfunctory or amateurish comic "art." It rarely forgets its sense of grandeur and fantastic exploration.

It's not enough to render the comic's bouts of sour old political correctness palatable, but it's enough to mask the taste. It makes "what fresh hell is this" sound appealing. And, when not playing in tune to modern moral guardians, the dialogue proves itself very endearing in its flowery bazaar manners and rhetoric. An attention to detail ranging from the cadence of syllables to wondrous vistas to scuffs on clay pots to the expression of wing-eyes goes a long way.

*Seriously, could you not have waited a little bit longer to trite yourself to death?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Self-DeterminEd to prove - ?

"Therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
I am determined to prove a villain"

Billy Wagglepoker - Dickie Tres


"I'm the last of my guy friends to have never gotten married, and their wives - they don't want them playing with me. I'm like the escaped slave - I bring news of freedom."

- Some Other Billy


Consider the world feminists declare is defined by patriarchal oppression, where any man deemed unfit by women or not subjugating himself to female whims must be immediately brought to heel or if not, branded a villain. Consider that the irrational slavishness to which any American man must swear allegiance in order to run for any political office higher than dog park commissioner includes not only superstitious belief in the supernatural but marriage as well.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Far Cry

Despite being the talk of the town when it came out, Far Cry failed to even temp me into buying it. Damned if I know why it's even in my GoG library now, except as part of some package deal. Still, having bought it I feel somehow obligated to give it a chance, so off I go!

I won't bother with many screenshots. As a graphics card trial-by-fire, Far Cry's been proudly shotted and screened all across the internet by endless l33t-d00dz in the thirteen years since it came out. Suffice it to say there's lots of pretty foliage to admire. I must admit the game successfully both marketed and delivered its main selling point of large, lush, smoothly landscaped outdoor levels, and as level design goes it's quite good. As for everything else, well...
I can't tell whether that magazine was left lying around as ironic self-mockery or whether FarCry's developers really had deluded themselves into thinking they held some kind of artistic high ground over redneck shoot-em-up games. Granted, the high damage/health ratio of gunfire makes you think more actively about cover, positioning, steady shooting and such than you would in the Dooms and Duke Nukems of the '80s and '90s, but this was nothing special. By 2004 the trend toward "realistic" FPS games was already in full swing and other examples like the Half-Life mod Day of Defeat had years prior already implemented frailty more decisively, and done it online both ways through the snow.

I'm not a big FPS fan. To me, FPS is a user interface, not a game genre, and the ones I can stomach are the ones which manage to provide an immersive atmosphere, like Half-life and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. In contrast, pretty rustling bushes aside, Far Cry's aesthetic portion was almost entirely phoned in. You play some kind of nondescript badass secret-soldier-super-agent-type... guy... dude... of sorts, yet one whose dialogue can't even muster the questionable dignity of Connery's "'elloe Pushy" all the while your enemies are taunting you with crotch-grabbingly witty one-liners like "I'm gonna tear you a new one!" that would've seemed trite and tired even in junior high - all voiced by only the finest-quality unpaid interns.
Somehow, this is all delivered in earnest.
You trudge through lots of box-filled warehouses. The villain's an unabashedly German mad scientist. Also, there are goblins. Or, y'know, big muscular growly simian things with claws and teeth and somehow even less personality than the chimps they're supposed to have mutated from.

I suppose all this might yet pass muster if the enemies' AI was not as simplistic as their aesthetic, but the grand total of two behavior patterns wears thin after the first five or six chapters. Dumb as bricks but heavily armed and abundant, it's more the randomized, utterly nonsensical nature of their movements which can surprise you. Yet, again, getting shot by some random grunt who ran aimlessly into the brush and got lost for five minutes only to come up behind you accidentally makes clearing each level a mind-numbing pixel-hunting chore. That's not even counting the part where they can see through walls.

All in all, Far Cry's actually not as terrible a game as I always assumed, though as always I have to ask why developers have historically tended to cut corners on easily amenable bells and whistles. Good ideas cost no more than bad ideas, especially when you're already spending an arm and a leg on your fancy new graphics. Would it have killed them to think up some enemies that are... not goblins? Big guns, big trucks indeed.

Whatever, they were selling graphics and the graphics sold, no matter how unimaginatively they were used. I wonder, how many of these hopelessly generic "grunt with boomstick" shoot-em-ups have I missed over the years?
And do I really care?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Yes, Global Warming is as real as your low IQ

I will not talk about the weather, it bores my readers, I will not talk about the weather, I will not talk about the weather...
Ah, fuck it.
You idiots!

The American empire is evacuating an entire state. Southern Asia's heading for mass starvation for getting flooded out of its few scraps of food. Things will only get worse. Hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons, anything affected by temperature gradients, which is pretty much everything above morlock level, it will all get worse. Worse and worse and worse, decade after decade.

Fun fact: in November 2016, Florida voted for Trump, a global warming denier.
So, y'know what? Go fuck yourself, Florida. Drown in piss for all I care.

Any disaster in Asia, natural or un-natural, produces staggering numbers of victims. Solution? Keep breeding! No matter that you're licking your last grains of rice out of the mud, keep cranking out the next overcrowded generation of illiterate, superstitious primitives.
They make good sneakers.
Hell, even India, a surprisingly organized and reasonable place compared to its neighbors, is still growing its comically overstuffed and underfed masses despite exporting most of the world's incompetent pharmacists, and its most famous intellectual abroad is a shamelessly anti-intellectual mystic.

Meanwhile, in the Bible-thumping West, no politician is even willing to say the words "population control" much less impose such measures. They. make. good. sneakers.

So y'know what, fuck the world. You retarded apes deserve whatever's coming to you. You kept breeding, you kept praying to imaginary supernatural forces, you kept breeding, you kept beating down the nerds willing to enter self-imposed slavery to try improving your lives, you kept breeding, you kept warring, you kept breeding, you kept starving, you kept breeding, you kept emotionally manipulating each other, you kept breeding, you kept rejecting transhumanism, you kept breeding, you stared global catastrophe in the face and decided you'd rather increase your Exxon-Mobil stock value, you kept breeding and breeding and breeding, swarming billions of you degenerate fucking vermin gnawing at the few intelligent individuals in the world.

Fuck the world. Humanity should be abandoned to its fate. There is nothing left in this species worth fighting for, nothing worth saving. This is the Fermi paradox in action. Evolution produces intellect, then drowns it in a tsunami of retards. Cast pearls before swine and the swine will only choke you to death with those same pearls.

Embrace the apocalypse, and watch it keep breeding.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Secret Notes to the Game-Master

I recently revisited Civilization 4... and more recently uninstalled it to keep myself from playing it nonstop. Maybe it's because of its many positive qualities though that its few flaws tend to stand out. For instance, suicidal war declarations:

What are you even thinking, Lincoln? I'm not some agrarian backwater which you might hope to quickly subjugate with your superior population and production capabilities. I've got twice your cities, better upgraded. I'm the top empire in the world and you're the last.

What could this Lincoln AI possibly hope to accomplish by attacking me? He'll take that one city, sure. Then before he can even reach the next one I'll have assembled a dozen troops and beat him back. Then I'll march right over and bash his cheating skull in! Of course, I won't do that because I gave up, because his utterly suicidal attack achieved the real goal of  breaking my stride. Taking the time to build up a real army would drop my development below that of Suryavarman and Boadicea... so it would make sense if one of them had attacked me as a consequential rival. Instead, some penniless stooge from across the continent launches a kamikaze attack motivated by no in-game animosity (note we're the same religion and we've been trading and at pace and everything else which the game tells you makes other factions like you) which makes no sense, either pragmatically or immersively.

It makes no sense, at least, if the AIs are meant to mimic other independent agents within the game world. It makes perfect sense if you assume the game as a whole is playing against you and is sacrificing one tiny portion of itself to screw you over. The richer civs continue to compete against you economically while a poorer one takes the bullet for them to weaken you.

Except that's by no means how Civ 4 presented things. It's generally accepted (and resented) that the AI in strategy games always cheats. Shenanigans such as above are less off-putting than the usual route of outright giving computer opponents massive hidden economic bonuses but they nonetheless stand out as cheap, non-sequitur anvil drops. Civ 4's diplomatic system was meant as a means of avoiding conflict, but it quickly became apparent the AI was programmed to either ignore it when convenient or fake its way out of it, especially if the player starts getting ahead in the world. Competence must be punished. You'd often see two factions declare war on each other, fight little or not at all and spam you with constant demands to turn against one or the other, deliberately lowering their diplomatic standing toward you so they can turn against you.

While any and all of this can come across as interesting mimicry of real-world events, games have rules, for the player to evaluate and use to whatever end. AI opponents should stick by the official rules. Being less abstracted than chess means maintaining in-universe motivations. A dark age civ should not be playing as though it knows about oil-driven economies or the end-game spaceship construction. They're not supposed to act as though they're in a game.

The game itself should not be meta-gaming!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

ST:TNG - The Hunted Vengeance

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 3.09
The Vengeance Factor

Road warriors: totally alien!
Worf: "Your ambushes would be more successful if you bathed more often."

Ooooh, sick burn, dude. Worthy of Stan Lee.
Wait, leather jackets in an industrial wasteland... what am I saying? This setting was obviously inspired by William and/or Mel Gibson. Where did interstellar raiders get studded leather vests? Must be all those space-cows grazing on asteroids. Best not to ask I suppose, but do you ever get the feeling the props/costume people are having more fun than anyone else in a SciFi show?
Hey, wait, wait, I got one: for the next episode, let's put 'em all in diapers and make 'em slap each other with squirrels. It'll look totally futuristic!

So anyway, the Enterprise tracks down some space-burglars to a splinter group of a formerly warring society which has only recently found peace, love and cupcakes. Picard attempts to negotiate the reunification of the last warlike outlaw clans with the rest of their species, little realizing he's only facilitating the assassination of the outlaw chieftain by Riker's new hundred-year-old teenage love-interest Yuta who-also-happens-to-be-a-damn-fine-cook!
I don't know why, but that last bit's important. Takes up like a quarter of the show. Apparently she boils a mean root. Hawt.
She's also about as sexual as a walking Frigidaire but nevertheless let's suspend our disbelief that she really boils Billy's bulbs, so it's a tragic shame* when she tries to suicide-fondle the rebel leader (it makes sense in context) and Riker's forced to phaser his new asexual girlfriend out of existence. Turns out Yuta'd been genetically enhanced a century prior to exterminate her clan's killers in revenge, via cooties.

Pretty decent plot by Star Trek standards. Even the technobabble's less forced than usual, the sets complex enough to be believable and Wesley thankfully remains in his seat. More jarringly, the bandit chief and his opponent, the career politician representing an entire species, show no more foresight or control over their emotions than a New York Italian auto mechanic, bellowing out their grievances loudly enough to shake the set. But hey, negotiations are high drama and that means YELLING. Aside from that, the plot begins with a quaint segue, the intrigue develops at a brisk pace (ignoring the screen time wasted on Riker and Yuta giving each other impromptu ocular exams) and the action escalates to a pleasingly dramatic denouement. Most of the episode's flaws can be dismissed as shortcuts necessitated by cramming a full story into forty minutes.

It's actually good enough to tempt one to skip right over the casual reference to Yuta's Acamarians apparently holding (and not using) the secret to near-immortality! Barely aged a day in a century? Holy shit, who wouldn't trade their libido for that?

As in the cases of the reverse-aging admiral and the cloaked planet that can repulse spaceships over an entire galactic arm, the impressive-sounding episodic technologies are sorely out of proportion with the larger setting. The Star Trek universe starts feeling like Tuck Everlasting, with random hillbillies squatting on fountains of youth left and right... and everyone else in the galaxy cheerfully waving at them as they amble on by on their way to death.
* Or is it?


Seriesdate 3.11
The Hunted

While auditing a planet for Federation membership, the Enterprise volunteers for some bounty hunting on the side, soon to be joined by a buxom transient girl with gambling debts, a gender-ambiguous tween hacker and a corgi named "one" - wait, wrong show...

So they catch the escaped prisoner, but not before he gives them a helluva time dodging his shuttle behind moons and magnetic fields and karate-kidding their security personnel.
Metallic paint you can't even see behind his left eyebrow: totally alien!
Turns out he's a former war hero (you can tell by his giant stubbly chin) part of a group of medically and psychologically enhanced supersoldiers which their planet used in their last interstellar war then exiled to the moon instead of re-integrating into society. You can also tell he's a supersoldier because he fights by flailing his arms high above his shoulders while keeping his torso permanently off-balance and pirouetting a lot. If you can act like a pro wrestler and not get your ass handed to you, you must be good.

Some illogic nags at the viewer throughout the episode, like when exactly did the alien prisoner learn Federation programming languages to hack the Enterprise's computers? Still, we get to see both Troi and Worf act as competent, dedicated professionals instead of just screaming at the ceiling or swooning, part of the ongoing season 3 character growth. There's little else intrigue-wise, the rest of the episode consisting of action scenes interspersed with Picard&co.'s growing disdain for the society they had praised at the start of the story, culminating in a surprisingly biting finale. The supersoldiers storm the castle, demanding to be let back onto their homeworld, and Picard simply hangs the government stooges out to dry, refusing to lift a hand against the mistreated war veterans, offering only psychological rehabilitation. Quote:
Picard: "- if the government of Angosia survives the night, we will offer them Federation assistance in their efforts to reprogram their veterans."

Quite a bit more stern than the usual sugar-coated moralizing we've seen from TNG thus far, but if Star Trek's serialized repetition can be praised, it's in providing improved reiterations of its own failures. Both episodes discussed today avoid the major pitfall of those discussed in my last TNG post. They don't bend over backwards to nail their plot to a specific real-world event like the crack cocaine epidemic or Irish separatism. The Vengeance Factor follows almost exactly the same premise as The High Ground, while The Hunted concludes with the same sort of governmental austerity as in Symbiosis, yet in both cases the action feels more immersive, less telegraphed, less insultingly "topical" in its real-world tie-ins.

I'm noticing a rash of military themed episodes around the middle of season 3. The antihero of The Hunted is basically a Rambo clone, which makes sense as Rambo III ("Rambo Does Kabul") had just come out the previous year and the producers were likely sitting on a few Rambo-ish scripts written in its aftermath... maybe not as imitation so much as "we can do it better" revulsion. That doesn't explain clustering a few Klingon / Romulan episodes (always guaranteed to contain "yessirs") together with several involving perfectly human totally alien! episodic species whose plot revolves around a rebel group or supersoldier assassins or some other plot seemingly written for Sylvester Stallone or Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Partly, the show might just have gotten a bit carried away with including stunts, props and shiny lights into a special effects budget which had been limited largely to costumes and camera dissolving for the first couple of seasons, and nothing says Industrial Lights & Magic like blaster crossfire. Implicitly, this tends to make the Stars feel less Trekkish and more War-ish. Personally I can't wait until I reach the more Science Fictiony plots.