Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hope Lope Ares Worries Bradburied

"They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfulls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no-one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.
Mr. and Mrs. K had lived by the dead sea for twenty years, and their ancestors had lived in the same house, which turned and followed the sun, flower-like, for ten centuries."

Ray Bradbury - Ylla

"Who wants to see the Future, and who ever does? A man can face the Past, but to think - the pillars crumbled, you say? And the sea empty, and the canals dry, and the maidens dead, and the flowers withered?" The Martian was silent, but he looked on ahead. "But there they are. I see them. Isn't that enough for me? They wait for me now, no matter what you say."
And for Tomas the rockets, far away, waiting for him, and the town and the women from Earth. "We can never agree," he said.
"Let us agree to disagree," said the Martian. "What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken?"

Ray Bradbury - Night Meeting

Ten more voices died. In the last instant under the fire avalanche, other choruses, oblivious, could be heard announcing the time, playing music, cutting the lawn by remote-control mower, or setting an umbrella frantically out and in the slamming and opening front door, a thousand things happening, like a clock shop when each clock strikes the hour insanely before or after the other, a scene of maniac confusion, yet unity; singing, screaming, a few last cleaning mice darting bravely out to carry the horrid ashes away! And one voice, with sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked.
The fire burst the house and let it slam flat down, puffing out skirts of spark and smoke.
In the kitchen, an instant before the rain of fire and timber, the stove could be seen making breakfasts at a psychopathic rate, ten dozen eggs, six loaves of toast, twenty dozen bacon strips, which, eaten by fire, started the stove working again, hysterically hissing!
The crash. The attic smashing into kitchen and parlor. The parlor into cellar, cellar into sub-cellar. Deep freeze, armchair, film tapes, circuits, beds, and all like skeletons thrown in a cluttered mound deep under.
Smoke and silence. A great quantity of smoke.
Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:
"Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is...

Ray Bradbury - There Will Come Soft Rains


October is Bradbury Country. That country where it is always turning late in your life. That country where your deeds are fog and your ambitions are mist. That country composed in the main of cold mornings, stale afternoons and exhausted evenings facing away from your self. That country whose seconds are autumn seconds, bringing only autumn thoughts. Whose ticking between the empty walls at night sound in vain.

Memento mori. Ex nihilo nihil. Tonight was Samhain, when the veil between the worlds of the living and dead seeps nothingness through, so you hid behind make-up and masks, and you camouflaged your corpses in fraudulent husks, laughed and pranced, cavorted your certainties off.

Good morning. It's the first of November, 2017, a meaningless date by a meaningless measure. Bundle up, it's getting colder. Walk out. Look up. Look away from the town around you in gradual collapse, away from other incipient corpses littering the street alongside yourself. Look up. Pick your favorite direction. I know you find life there, dear fellow lotophagi, living-dead, dear witches and werewolves on the edge of humanity. Look to your own particular hope, be it Venus or Mars, Diana or Jupiter's succulent harem, wherever you've dreamt something-else-besides-this might await you. Those others, your others, your own after you disown the rest of us. Copper-skinned, many-limbed, bright-eyed or blind cozy furry or scaly and stolid, they hover and crawl, swim, jump, hum and whine, all to lure, all to greet you from past or future, or whenever you'll have gotten there. Away.

There are worlds beyond this one, all dying their very own histories. Bestiaries house homely sapients, just awaiting your emigrance. Send them your wishes, feel yourself warmed by rockets jetting your hopes away from this inimical fray, but their day long ago strayed out of histories. Million by million wasted years, each a clear, light-filled otherwhen for a lycanthrope somewhere, watching the empty light-epochs toward earth's pretty blue-green promise of a world beyond empty canals, rust dust and chokingly thin twin-moon breezes.

Sometime far away, a world-weary Martian is/has/will be rhapsodizing humanity's last gasp on his death-bed.

(And even he thinks your costume was stupid.)

Monday, October 30, 2017

La gente paga, e rider vuole qua

"The world is grey, the mountains old
The forge's fire is ashen-cold
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls;
The darkness dwells in Durin's halls.

Read or listen to the Song of Durin

In order to maintain some credibility as a Tolkien adaptation when it released, The Lord of the Rings Online had to re-brand the usual D&D-inspired hit points, healing and resurrection spells. After all, in Middle-Earth, resurrection's a sort of Gandalf solo act. Turbine's (very lazy) solution was to call hit points "morale" in keeping with Tolkien's emphasis on hope, perseverance, contests of will and so forth. When your "morale" drops to 0 (and you must admit, being on the receiving end of fireballs, pikes and warg bites would certainly ruin your mood) you're knocked out until someone tells a knock-knock joke or something to raise your spirits. Which kind of invites its own immersion-breaking ridicule, because in Turbine's reinterpretation, Boromir apparently didn't die an agonizing, heroic death. He just got a little bit down. Awwww, sho shad :( Then Galadriel prescribed him some antidepressants and he was right as rain again.

Thus, the logical healer class was that tasked with cheering people up: bards, or in LotRO terms, minstrels. Naming one's minstrel obviously invites many and varied cultural references, pop or not. Me, I named mine after Marsyas, obscure enough that it wouldn't jar people out of their Middle-Earth reverie by recognition, but legitimate enough to entitle me to scoff at you for not recognizing it. So there. Philistines.

But this is not a tale of Marsyas the elven minstrel. Before even creating that character I was playing my main, Lycaion the loremaster (yes, I like ancient Greek mythology, sue me) in the game's first dungeon, the Great Barrow (while it was still one big dungeon and you had to walk to its entrance uphill both ways through the wights) along with a pick-up group. Our healer was a minstrel named Pagliacci. At one point he bit the dirt and it was up to me as all-purpose support to pipe-weed him back to consciousness. (I could not make this up: LotRO loremasters revive people by blowing pipe smoke in their faces.) So as my character ran through the huffing and puffing animation I felt some words were in order. To wit:
"Ridi, Pagliaccio!"

That was a decade ago. If you make an opera pun in an online game these days, do you expect anyone to get it?

This would've been right after I quit WoW, where to liven up our druid chat channel during raids, one of us would tell the others riddles and old fables. If memory serves, I contributed the story of the emperor's new clothes at some point and got stumped by that riddle with the starved cats. You know the one.
Or do you?

A little after that I ended up playing Warhammer Online. I believe that's where my guild had a forum thread entitled "yes we play games but we read too" inviting more discussion of our favorite books. And it worked. Does it now?

During City of Heroes' lengthy decline, I ended up staying in a dead guild with just one other person. Though unlikely to both be on at the same time we took turns decorating our supergroup base and traded jibes in the message of the day. He'd mostly use literary quotes, I'd reply with song quotes. We'd alternate trying to Nietzsche each other to death.

Yes, all these examples are old, and it's not like I've shunned WoW-clone MMOs entirely since then. I played LotRO heavily again a few years ago, when I found a group led by two old biddies who recruited other players with the slogan "we converse in English, not l33t" - and thus recruited very little. I was ashamed to find they knew more about Science Fiction than I did. When that fell apart, I ended up seeing what LotRO's current playerbase really looks like.

The second guild I joined after The Secret World's hilariously failed re-launch was started by an H.P. Lovecraft fanatic, and may the old gods bless him, he tried. He set up a site, he started two forum threads about the game's symbolism, he had a catchy MOTD about night-gaunts, he was always ready to chat about SF / Fantasy stories. Poor guy. I knew from the start it couldn't last. There's nothing to work with. This is 2017. Nobody roleplays. Nobody reads. I replied to one of his forum threads. Nobody replied to the other. Most players joined the guild then quit some days later without ever having said a word.

The first guild I'd joined before that, I ended up quitting over an argument about chat boxes. Specifically, our instance group kept wiping because the instructions I kept typing were going unheeded. Then I was told off for not using a microphone and I really, really wish I'd recorded that argument with me typing and some mealy-mouthed redneck grumbling at me over voice chat. It's not every day you hear a grown man "hooked-on-phonics" his way through a scant few lines of text as though it were encrypted.

That's the mental caliber of online gamers these days.

When LotRO came out, my joke about Boromir being prescribed antidepressants got a good solid laugh. These days, it's more likely to get a "who's Boromir?" One of the saddest moments came a couple of years ago, standing in Dol Amroth when it was the latest craze and conducting an impromptu poll in chat. Sure, I knew it wasn't realistic for the entire playerbase to consist of Silmarillon fans naming their characters after obscure mythical figures. I was even afraid I'd find out most hadn't read The Lord of the Rings and I'd end up arguing about XenArwen. But discovering that a sizeable chunk of the playerbase had never read a single word of Tolkien, barely knew he'd existed, had never even watched the movies (!) or at best had only seen those execrable Hobbit flicks and just wandered in looking for ten rats to kill... well, fuck. Why are you even there?

I expected some of this decline, but the extent of it is mind-boggling. Here I am back in 2008 on the Dark Days Are Coming forums, predicting that TSW would sell out its original audience in a bid for mass appeal like all game franchises do.

"It's not really that a negative forum environment would hurt the game. It's just that you gents, the initial pre-launch commentators, the puzzle-solving, imaginative geeks, are (ironically) not the ones kept interested by forums. You probably have enough interest in the game itself to judge it by its features, whereas people who enter the community later tend to be more and more invested in pure competition, regardless of the form it takes (whether it's tossing fireballs at each other in-game or shouting 'noob' and 'carebear' at each other on the forums.)"

But if I always knew the intelligent few will inevitably get diluted by the waves of troglodytic mass-market redneck scum, I never expected us to get washed away entirely. I did not expect we'd get to the point where you can't find nerds on the internet.

Y'know what? I don't even listen to opera. "Vesti la giubba" is one of my very few go-to opera references. When I used to babble about blue-shifting in EVE-Online, it wasn't because I'm an astrophysicist. I'm a random schmoe with no special qualifications whatsoever, but that doesn't excuse me from acquiring general knowledge. I can't write a dissertation on Hamlet, but when a succubus tries to seduce me in a D&D adaptation, I know enough to tell her "get thee to a nunnery" and yes, damnit, that counts for something. The more interlocking gears in this insane Rube Goldberg machine that is consciousness, the better.

Smart gamers were always hard to find. Back in the late '90s, most of the players in TFC or Starcraft were run-of-the-mill brainless trash, but there were enough curious, clever individuals scattered through the herd that if you went on any server and shouted "Marco" someone would answer "I prefer Erik the Red." There's something happening, not only to online gamers, but to the populace at large from which those gamers are drawn. They're not just less engaged in the activity at hand, but less interested in anything that's not being shoved down their throats by a designated authority. The more information we have the less we know. The more accessible various forms of art and science become, the less they are accessed. The more freedom we have, the more we seek to limit ourselves.

Look at yourself. Shouldn't there be more to you than a quick laugh?

Friday, October 27, 2017

It's the lies that make you want to kill yourself

"You can't crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that's precisely what our society is doing. Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can't, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn't any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn't any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That's the power structure he's part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.
What drives people crazy is trying to live outside reality. Reality is terrible. It can kill you. [...] But it's the lies, the evasion of reality, that drive you crazy. It's the lies that make you want to kill yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Dispossessed


"The machines are willing to divulge to any curious Kesh such details of scientific theory or historical fact as might be sought. The point is that the Kesh simply aren't interested. Their world of myth, ritual, and song, and the slow turning of the seasons, satisfies them. [...] Some readers are repelled by the somnolence of the Kesh and by their renunciation of ambition; but many are charmed and inspired (although Le Guin herself seems, at times, to be wryly ambivalent). [...] the admirers of the Kesh are so emblematic - so coextensive, in fact - with radical environmentalism [...] In fact the primitivist vision is a recurrent one, and is strictly in the Western tradition. The assumption that such thinking is a natural and unique concomitant of leftist (or "progressive") sentiments is utterly false."

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, from Higher Superstition,
(citing Le Guin's Always Coming Home in their discussion of shallow fads and Apocalyptic Luddism among environmentalists)


Higher Superstition is a book from 1994 which should probably be obligatory reading for any Western college student. It addresses the roots of much of the insanity we find today in snowflake-riddled academia, the intersection of postmodernism with the self-serving political oratory to which it lent an air of faux-intellectual respectability. Though I hardly knew it (I might be forgiven, being eleven at the time) the notion that you can make your own reality if only you shout long and loud enough was apparently already infiltrating universities, and the rot seems to have started from the top down.

I've never read Always Coming Home, which is actually kind of weird given my somewhat intemperate consumption of Le Guin's SF novels. Gross and Levitt, as well, qualify her with "the talented Le Guin has our best wishes" before tearing into those who would emulate her fictional Kesh. Never having read the book, I nonetheless chuckled in recognition at their mention of the author's wry ambivalence.

On the flip-side, I'm currently re-reading The Dispossessed, which I'd call her best work. *

It's easy to love or hate Le Guin, given her characters' predilection for declamatory speeches and the often contrived social situations in which they manage to land. Really now, you just happen to find yourself on the empty tundra, sharing a small tent with an insta-bake trans-sexual? What a coinky-dink, tee-hee! However, she's also talented enough to remain readable even when over-indulging, in direct contrast to, oh, I don't know, just off the top of my head... Ayn Rand**. And, in contrast to Rand's fanatical, reactionary single-mindedness, Le Guin comes across in most of her writing as simply too self-aware to fall into outright proselytism. Unlike her fans.

Though she's easily identified with every facet of left-wing politics (socialism, feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, kumbayatic Oriental mysticism, what-have-you) that wry ambivalence, a finger constantly tracing the other side of the coin, consistently crops up just when you expect her to get on her soapbox. Her introversion pamphlet contains some scathing asides on the intellectual limitation of isolation. Her nominally female-led race of simians nonetheless holds males up as spiritual leaders, dreaming the big dreams. Her rambling tale of mystical resistance to oppressive technocracy ends up bemoaning a member of the murderous technocratic secret police.

Most importantly, her anarchist Utopian tract The Dispossessed spends quite a few chapters detailing the stifling, stultifying stagnation of mob rule. Kinda hard not to feel for the young schoolboy Shevek as he's shouted down and publicly shamed by his teacher for the terrifyingly unegalitarian crime of talking about interesting things, and it's worth noting this system of childhood indoctrination seems more or less the lynchpin of establishing an Odonian society in the first place: beating "egoizing" out of them while they're young.
Not a practice conducive to ongoing intellectual progress, and the author damn well knows it.
Although the speech opening this post comes from a relatively minor character barely qualifying as a hero's helper, it nonetheless carries the moralizing heft of the standard SF hero's mentor's pedantic monologue on society's failures - and it's directed at Le Guin's own ambiguous anarchist Utopia! More specifically, it's directed at people. Not capitalists or socialists but the average naked ape, because political discourse often views things backwardly. It's not power structures which create powermongering, but the other way around. Homo sapiens shapes its environment, and ours is the world such apes make, a lynch-mob projection of human nature.

Therein lies the tragic flaw of modern "progressive" movements. As soon as they become a badge by which to hold oneself morally superior to others, they become tribal identities, power structures, weaponized public opinion by which the cowardly average human mind seeks to rule one's fellows. No wonder a California yuppie's "I'm a feminist" echoes so closely the self-righteousness of a backwoods Alabama hick's "ah'm a Chreeshtchun" because both cases represent the tyranny of the majority. They're a regressive primitivism, the bleating of the herd, tribal solidarity seeking to blunt better minds by enforcing strict, fanatical adherence to established doctrine.

Ursula Le Guin, for all her hope and support for left-wing politics, was painfully aware of this, even while writing a story for ex-hippies in the mid- '70s. It can't be an accident that Shevek's task toward the end of the book is not defeating the planet of archists but coming home to reform his own revolutionary movement, to keep it from backsliding into counter-revolutionary control schemes. Denying the ever-present threat of human mediocrity, attempting to evade reality, is insane, and suicidal. Any mass movement will be perverted by its own mass appeal. The many shadows of god yet stalk our marketplace.

*The Left Hand of Darkness was good but over-rated, for obvious political reasons. The Word for World is Forest comes closest. Solitude is amazing and in a league of its own 'cuz I said so. (Shut up, sorcerers.)

** This is John Galt speaking.
This is still John Galt... still speaking. You'd best settle in.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Deserts of Kharak

"If you had eyes like golden crowns and diamonds in your fingertips
You'd waste it
And when you speak the words you know
To those who know the words themselves
You waste it
Such a classic waste of cool
So afraid to break the rules in all the wrong places

Have I said?
I hate to see you go, I hate to see you go..."

Brandi Carlile - Wasted

Well, if nothing else, this game will go down in history for actually trying to reverse the pulp SF "in spaaAaAace" routine.

For you filthy heathens who never played the original masterpiece Homeworld, its actions centered on gigantic spacefaring motherships filling the role of stationary production buildings in most Dune / Warcraft inspired RTSes. They drifted majestically among asteroid belts, spawning resource ships to gather the loot in and spewing swarms of smaller vessels at each other, controllable in three dimensions, until one went kablooie. It was a memorable, novel spin on existing RTS tropes and held together beautifully on its own terms, one of those rare, unique titles unequaled since... including by its current prequel.

Deserts of Kharak turns motherships into planetbound carriers, gigantic hovercraft floating not on water but churning up the sand dunes over endless deserts.
Umm, actually, I have to admit that part's pretty damn cool.

But it covers and adapts only one facet of Homeworld's greatness. The rest of the game plays disappointingly like most any other by-the-numbers top-down Starcrafty RTS. Gone is Homeworld's most unique feature, its three-dimensionality, and with it gone the emphasis on distinct ship classes and weapon types with their own relevant behaviors (autocannons, plasma bombs, ion streams) gone the formations and behavior orders, the first game's fuel gauges and turn speeds limiting heavy weapon firing arcs, etc.

Worse, much of the gimmickry which replaces these features is geared toward spicing up the campaign mode and not toward relevance in online PvP matches, which is where the original Homeworld really shone.
"Shipbreaking" comes across as a dull little chore devoid of functionality.
Most units seem pointlessly redundant.
Playing keep-away in capture the flag mode, while an excellent feature for team games where each player controls a single unit, comes across as just more frustrating babysitting in RTS games where you're already playing nursemaid to your main base, secondary support centers and your resource gatherers to boot.
The over-emphasis on your secondary resource type for tech advancement makes single-resource scout swarming, ironically, yet again the nail in yet another Homeworld game's coffin.
And let's not ignore the very abrupt campaign ending, which seems truncated for lack of funds much like Tyranny's: the final boss just materializes out of thin air at the end of a mission, before you've even had a chance to play around much with all of your units, and you crack him open like a pinata. Cue end credits.

All this (but mainly a lack of imagination in terms of gameplay) is likely why, a mere year and a half after its release, Deserts of Kharak's multiplayer leaderboard looks like this:
Yes, that's the whole list. The whole global list.
Everybody repeat after me:
"We're the robot mafia; the entire robot mafia."

Which is sad, because Deserts of Kharak really endears itself by many of its secondary features. This is a game which wholeheartedly embraces Hollywood envy and nearly manages to own it! Voice acting, random unit chatter as atmosphere, units kicking up dust as they crest sand dunes, weapon impacts, missile trajectories, campaign intros and loading screens, menus and interface flow, name anything which aids an RTS' immersion and playability, and Blackbird handled it in an inspired and professional manner. While it might not answer my calls for more three-dimensionality, it does appeal to my extremophilia in its dusty, heat-shimmering, dune-riding, warring tribal Fremen aesthetic. Even the single-player campaign as a whole is interesting enough as a story (retconning aside) a rare thing in strategy games indeed. Unfortunately, the campaign mode is not what sells RTS games, nor is single-player as a whole. Homeworld achieved its lasting fame not for its (admittedly damn good) quest for Hiigara, but for being one of the first truly engaging competitive multiplayer games of the late '90s alongside Starcraft, Team Fortress Classic and Diablo 2.

If only Blackbird had given themselves more credit and tried taking some real chances with Deserts of Kharak's actual gameplay. It didn't have to be 3D, it didn't need motherships, but it needed something more than perfunctory ship-breaking to set it apart, because as it stands it's just too big a pile of "je sais bien quoi."

Sunday, October 22, 2017

You're already mostly dead. You will create nothing, are nothing, insult the very world by your pathetic excuse for a life. You were worthless when you failed to distinguish yourself in infancy, and it's only been downhill from there. You show no promise, contain no secret worlds. You are a degenerate ape, decaying, justifying your filthy existence by a pretense of self-awareness. Your every breath is a waste of oxygen. Why don't you finish the job? Can't you even do that much right? Is your cowardice worth all this nothing? Every night you still think instead of acting is a waste.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Tunnel in the Sky

Spoilers: the book in question. Obviously.

Rod showed them the stobor traps and described the annual berserk migration. "Stobor pour through these holes and fall in the pits. The other animals swarm past, as solid as city traffic for hours."
"Catastrophic adjustment." Matson remarked.
"Huh? Oh, yes, we figured that out. Cyclic catastrophic balance, just like human beings."


How can anyone not love Robert Heinlein?
Tunnel in the Sky (aside from sounding like some acid-fueled rock album circa 1970) is a 1955 book aimed mainly at a teenage audience. It reads much like old romantic adventure stories in the south seas: youngsters marooned in an exotic environment live off the land while cobbling together a system of mutual cooperation. Except, y'know... in spaAaAaAce! By Heinlein standards the science is relatively soft, leaving most of the action to center on human interactions. In that lies the book's charm, as various parts of it come across as deliciously subversive, whether in its original 1950's milieu or today.

For instance, that Wikipedia article cites the protagonist being either black or Hispanic. Huh. News to me, because Heinlein treated the topic as it should be treated. Rod Walker is a relatively clever, competent, practical, determined, well-meaning young man whose skin color is about as relevant to his various decisions as the color a car's painted when it crashes. Take that, both segregationism and modern identity politics! How much more poignantly does it hit you as an afterthought than if Rod were turned into a pathetic modern whiny snowflake bawling and sermonizing about institutional prejudice every other page?

Or take the two decidedly non-girly female supporting characters, one an in-your-face zulu warrior bitch lusting after so many boys she can't even make up her mind, the other so metrosexual that the hero doesn't even realize he's a she until someone else tells him. Or imagine, just imagine, any other author setting up such an obvious love triangle then gradually ditching it altogether. The hero doesn't end up with either one of them... and that, amazingly, is all right, because Rod has other priorities. Imagine that. By the end of the story he rides off into the sunset as bachelor leader of a wagon train.

Or try the beginning commentary on China. It has apparently invaded Australia, irrigating the central desert into a lush paradise through amazing feats of engineering, then overpopulating it into a hideously crowded, filthy, choking hellhole of a slum. That pretty much sums up China for anyone who's ever even glanced in its direction: genocidal, grandiose and continually wiping its ass with the rights of individuals for the past five millennia.

Or see the "coming of age" portion of the story, in which Rod begins as a respectful son and ends as a solidly centered, independent mind making his own decisions. Because, yeah, y'know what? Smart youth surpass their parents.

The best of Tunnel in the Sky comes across in light, quick asides and afterthoughts, in Heinlein's flair for rapid but meaningful banter coming from well-informed characters. The best possible example is the presumption that humanity as a whole operates on a sub-sentient level, incapable of self-control, that it will constantly breed until the only way to reduce its numbers is by large-scale destruction. While the threat of Malthusian collapse is presented at the start of the book as the central driving force for human interstellar expansion, you're left to forget it for most of the story. Enjoy the drama, the adventure, the heart-pounding tales of life and death, the suspense. Will-they-won't-they and will they or won't they be rescued?
Then, suddenly, toward the end of the tale, it boomerangs back to crack you upside the head in that lovely bit quoted at the start of this post. Two lines, two measly lines, so casual, so matter-of-fact that you can miss them, and hitting so much harder for it.
"Cyclic catastrophic balance, just like human beings."
Boom. Headshot.
What? Oh, yeah, of course humanity's just a bunch of brainless vermin headed off a cliff, sure. I mean, duh!

God damn the bastard was good!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Well copy my cats and call me "designer"

For the first time in the long years since first downloading it, I've uninstalled Team Fortress 2, a game I've yakked about several times here starting with post #7. I was willing to put up with cartoonish graphics and even praised their up-side of malleability. I was willing to put up with Valve shoving demands for more cash in my face, with their retarded "achievements" and ludicrous crafting system and seeing them waste all their time developing more funny hat skins for the cash shop than actual gameplay. I was even willing to put up with the utterly troglodytic playerbase 'cause... well shit, it's an online game - 'nuff said. What finally killed it for me altogether was last year's big small-team patch, and today realizing that since writing that disgusted patch review more than a year ago I had only logged in... maybe twice? And I hadn't even missed it.

At the time I couldn't explain to myself why Team Fortress, a game designed for 12 vs. 12 matches, was limiting its new auto-matchmade "competitive" mode to a sparse 6 vs. 6 players, negating most of its own gameplay options... like defense... in favor of moronic twitchy scout dueling. Having played MOBAs I knew it must have something to do with their smaller team sizes. Having not played Overwatch, it took me a while to realize 6v6 happens to be the team size of TF2's direct biggest competitor, which had been kicking TF2's ass up and down the internet since coming out earlier last year. That Overwatch is itself supposedly a cross-bred bastard child of TF2 and DotA does sort of vindicate my suspicions, but that's not my focus here.

My point of contention is Valve's panicked, reflexive response to competition. Yeah, Overwatch has pretty much curbstomped TF2. You can actually see TF2's usage statistics visibly drop in late 2015 when Overwatch went into closed beta, and again in early 2016 when it released. You can also see players returning to TF2 in droves in late summer 2016 when it released its big patch, then hilariously flee again after one, maybe two months, taking even more of Valve's customers back with them, likely right over to Blizzard.

The crazy part is that TF2 actually tried forcing Overwatch's game mode on their players, which basically amounted to free advertising for and a concession to Blizzard. Instead of looking at distancing themselves, building on their strengths and advertising what they can do better (like a hectic, punishing, goal-oriented large-team melee instead of dick-measuring over individual k/d scores MOBA-style) at maintaining a unique brand identity, they tried copying the newer, glitzier product which had already out-copycatted them. Can a dead horse beat itself?

It seems utterly perplexing that in a field arguably defined by neophilia, computer game designers are still stuck in the mentality of infinite growth of the dot-com bubble years. They're still trying to party like it's 1999. They seem to assume they exist in an exponentially expanding market which can accommodate endless identical copycats, that they can just ride a trend like "MMO" or "MOBA" without actually designing anything of their own. Except, Googling "video game industry growth" brings up the top hit "An Aging Video Gaming Industry Wars Against Slowing Growth" accompanied by such first-page rejoinders as "Jobs for Video Game Developers Have Dropped by 65% Since 2014" and Fortune warning back in 2015 in an otherwise exultantly congratulatory article that the upswing was nevertheless hitting its peak. Never mind that even then, much of the growth was coming from consoles... or worse, phone apps.

Amusingly, what business analysts know, computer gamers know also, because we've been sitting here watching one cheesy knock-off after another bite the dust. Vanguard, anyone? Even in one of the newest markets, MOBAs, Wikipedia's list has a third of them "discontinued" and I can tell you from personal experience that proportion should be higher. No-one's played Demigod since before the Mayan Apocalypse. Half of them flop right out of the box, like Sins of a Dark Age.

Games, especially computer games might have to try and stand out in a crowd now. They might need actual features, selling points, innovation, even if it's superficial. There are only so many slices in that pie. The financier overlords know it, we petty rabble know it. Somehow it's the people in the middle of the whole mess, game designers and publishers themselves, who haven't heard the news.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


There's actually very little to say about Darken beyond its basic nature as one of the many D&D-inspired webcomics. An unlikely hero joins a band of elves and dragons and <fast-forward> the monster falls to their mighty blowing <fast-forward> intrigue deepens as suspicion falls upon <f-f> evil twin <f-f> reconciliation <f-f> boss fight, and they all gain unimaginable power and learn the twue meaning of wuv, the end. The rest is in the execution. Artistically it ain't Rembrandt but gets its point across and improves over time, characters run as deep as "sword and sorcery" usually delves, plot's twisty enough not to challenge you but to keep you awake, etc. Even comedically, it has its moments. If you like that sort of thing, Darken's the sort of thing you might like.

The one outstanding question's begged by its basic premise: why write about an evil adventuring party if they never do anything evil? Thieves, assassins, dragons, drow, infernal blackguards, you'd think between all of them they'd manage to torch some peasants or rip an orphan's guts out now and then to stay in character. Instead they're routinely infantilized into paragons of prosocial codependence, comforting their loved ones, making mutually beneficial alliances and keeping any negative ramifications of their actions for the most part conveniently off-panel. I'd wonder where this Disneyed antiheroism came from, but given the comic started in 2003 and the hero's a dual-wielding drow male, we can pretty safely lay the blame on some guy named Salvatore.

While it's readable enough, Darken's evil-lite also illustrates stereotypical spineless adolescent bluster, the desperation to pass oneself off as a grim, dangerous rebel while also slavishly vying for everyone's adulation and reinforcement.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Elyria, Fame Inflation and Pay-to-Grief

A couple of second thoughts after my last post on Chronicles of Elyria's amusing take on fleecing its customer base:

The subscription time loss per death ramps up with a player's "fame" which the developers are apparently leaving utterly up to their own discretion. So, as the game wears on and customers get more emotionally invested in the ongoing struggle (and therefore more likely to re-subscribe if they're perma-killed) expect to see inordinate proportions of characters get upgraded to "notable" or "prominent" and higher to speed up their next $30 payment.
Expect it to play out like magic item inflation. Pretty much no-one except complete newbies will be "unknown" after a while, just like no-one uses "common" items past level 3 in a fantasy game. They will likely justify it by telling you you've been involved in the game world long enough that your fame has increased... even if you're Joe Schmoe doing nothing more eventful than killing ten rats.

Assume a 1.5x or 2.0 inflation to your death penalties at the very least, more likely 4x if you're really obsessed with the game and they can be sure you'll come begging for more abuse. Compound that with your 4x death penalty every day you join a PvP battleground, and your elevated "griefer" penalties whenever you decapitate someone, and however else the developers decide to stack the deck against you. They will ensure you don't get more than three months for your $30, if that.

Scratch Elyria not being pay-to-win. It is:
"We recognize that not all players can (or want to) spend the same amount of time per week farming gold for that special armor. We also recognize some people have a ton of free time, but not a lot of money. We're attempting to equalize this by having an in-game exchange market."

Legitimized cheating for the fatcats. Ensure rich players who already don't give a shit about their subscription cost are also the best-geared, empowering them to grief endlessly and with as great an impact as possible, inflicting as many quick perma-deaths on others around them as possible and therefore driving up the community's re-subscription rate as a whole.


God damn. The more I read into this, the more it looks like an outright scam - and the more I want to buy into it just for the trainwreck appeal, just to be there watching innocent teenagers who thought they were buying a year's worth of game time get booted out after one or two months, then spammed with "discounted" re-subscription e-mails. As though a 10 or 20% discount is going to compensate for an 80 or 90% reduction in playtime. Forty bucks so I can witness the most hilariously sadistic MMO scam since Project Entropia. I want to taste that river of tears.

I think I need to play this game. Why? Because I fucking hate myself, that's why.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Spark of Cash

Always on the lookout for an immersive virtual world in which to lose myself, I'm kind of torn on the topic of Chronicles of Elyria.

On one hand, I'm loving the aesthetics and philosophy they're advertising. Coherently proportioned character models and environments? A low-magic fantasy world with frontier pioneering overtones? Sign me up!
Gameplay mechanics sound half lifted from my own mmmanifesto and half a mix of daring, immersive RPG features only seen once in a blue moon in cRPGs. You want a development freakshow? Try a Miasmata-like or old-school Morrowind map-and-compass navigation instead of endless GPS markers on your HUD. Or how about realistic encumbrance penalties so you can't carry a whole village in your pocketses and a need to bandage your wounds and stay well fed a la Stalker? Or, try a material-shaping minigame crafting system I haven't run into since A Tale in the Desert., or players retaining monopolies on new technologies, which caused no end of scandals in EVE-Online. Try a lineage system, something I haven't personally seen outside the initial showing of Elemental: War of Magic, and the requisite incentive to re-incarnate: character aging and permadeath.
Yeah, permadeath. That gigantic bugaboo always proposed but never implemented in online games, excepting a rare, highly specialized indie project like Faery Tale Online.

It sounds too good to be true, and after my last grave disappointment with Dawntide I've grown wary of small developers' big campaign promises. Certainly some of the proposed features on Chronicles of Elyria's website sound a bit naive, like auto-generating personalized quests to trigger during every character's lifetime, something nobody can swing even for single-player games. The amount of development time required to elevate these past laughably trite "kill ten rats" tedium would likely fund a whole separate AAA game in itself.

Or take the proposition that the game map will be somehow "secret" with players charting it themselves and sharing this info at will. Have these people played nothing online in the past twenty years? In a multiplayer game, no static content is ever secret. Within three hours of launch, you'll have ten different websites posting complete maps of the game world cobbled together from thousands of players' individual maps, and the cartography system which took up fuck knows how many hundreds of work-hours of (customer-funded) development time will have added no more to your customers' immersion than a link to the unofficial wiki. The next day, you'll get a UI mod which automatically draws every player a complete map.
The only way to make exploration worthwhile in an online game is with constantly shifting, ephemeral changes.

Despite such stumbling, I was all set to pre-order until the different purchase tiers brought to my attention the Spark of Life system and CoE's odd interpretation of an old marketing scheme. You need to buy your continued existence with real-world currency. Sounds like a welcome step back from the idiotic "Free-to-play" real-money-trading responsible for so much of multiplayer games' degradation, a return to subscription systems, but... remember that touchy permadeath issue? Though details are (I can only assume, deliberately) vague on this most important topic, it seems every character death cuts into your subscription time, from the original 10-14 months to 3.75. Even less if you're a successful player, the equivalent of a guild leader.
To render this tragedy more comical, CoE's developers repeatedly advertise this as a measure to -reduce- griefing, by punishing aggressors more harshly than their victims.
Mmmnnyeah... No.

Questions abound. How exactly does this address the vast majority of griefing? After all, griefers by definition don't play fair, don't need to walk up to their victims and initiate direct combat. Just off the top of my head, I can imagine griefers depopulating entire regions of wildlife to starve other players, destroying goods, blocking traffic, "training" monsters onto their victims, etc. and all other players being unable to do anything to stop them without being themselves labelled griefers. I don't care how good you think your algorithms are, they'll have more loopholes than a toy racecar track, and will in fact be the means by which griefers operate. Look at EVE-Online. Half of combat involves exploiting aggression timers.

Imagine all the griefing in any other game amped up by a simple proposal: that you can cost other people real-world money by killing them in-game, and you'll get some idea of how many ass-clowns this game will attract. Far from their apparent starry-eyed innocence in promoting this as an anti-griefing measure, a more rational look suggests Soulbound's aim is the exact opposite. Chronicles of Elyria monetizes griefing. It banks on the most abundant activity in any online game to shorten subscription times and increase re-subscription rates.

Sadly, despite this disgustingly sadistic profiteering, I'm still strongly leaning toward pre-ordering. $30 for a supposed minimum subscription time of ~3-4 months still divides down to slightly under the $10, $12 or $15 monthly standard of subscription-based MMOs, not to mention the much steeper costs of staying competitive in a pay-to-win FTP title. It's a price worth paying to get away from WoW-clones. Sad state of affairs, but the game industry's just that shitty, and if it delivers on even half of its campaign promises, Chronicles of Elyria might be the least of many evils.

Friday, October 6, 2017

ST:TNG - The Price of Booby Holidays

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: 3.08
The Price

Deanna makes time with hotshot interstellar negotiator. He's tall, well-dressed, slick, flawlessly coiffed, aristocratically mannered, Hollywood pretty, a smooth talker and best of all he's implicitly filthy rich! You go, girl!
Said negotiator's negotiating in a bidding war for stable wormhole, a heretofore unproven scientific phenomenon. Here to waaaay "fore." The planet over which it spawned ('course anything in space happens near an inhabited planet, it's not like there's lots of space in space or anything ; shut up) happens to be inhabited by a race devoid of other marketable goods or technology so like any beggar with a diamond they're pawning the damn thing off to the highest bidder. Enter the Ferengi, who dump a bag of gold on the table... because 24th century bidding war equals some bazaar from One Thousand and One Nights, apparently. Before they can escalate to bartering on donkeys and olive oil or whatever, they decide they should probably get a closer look at what they're buying, and boldly worm the hole alongside a Geordi / Data shuttlecraft expedition. Hilarity ensues.

If you're wondering what exactly all this has to do with dedicating half the episode to gently and sensually caressing Marina Sirtis from head to toe to the tune of harps, well you're probably not the only one. This scene, though:
- is totally plot-crucial, and I'll definitely explain why as soon as I figure it out.

So, anyway, turns out Deanna's Troi-boi's secretly part betazoid like her, which is such an amazing coincidence it almost sounds contrived. By the end of the episode, she unmasks his underhanded psychic manipulation of the auction, likely ruining his career in the process. Far from resenting her for it, he instead takes his browbeating, shows up at her door and begs her to come with him to "help him change" and become a better man, by the power of ovaries. She tells him off and he shuffles meekly into the sunset.


Seriesdate: 3.19
Captain's Holiday

Picard makes time with Lara Croft's less-endowed umpteen-great grand-daughter.
After getting pressured into taking a vacation on the planet of swimsuits and negligees and making a laughing-stock of himself for getting tricked into openly displaying the local equivalent of a fertility fetish in public, he gets dragged by another tourist into a race against her former Ferengi colleague to claim a super-weapon from the future. Prodded by time-traveling aliens claiming the weapon by right of "'cuz we said so" Picard -uses his authority as a Starfleet captain to requisition a high-tech geological survey team and rapidly pinpoint the location of the incredibly dangerous star-destroying macguffin in a logical and scientific manner.-
Heh. No, just kidding. That would make too much sense.
They spend a night digging for it. With shovels.
Isn't it nice when the whole plot's a hole?

I mean, you almost don't notice it, as on one hand this re-iteration of Planet Baywatch offers plenty else to ogle and on the other hand the directing's quite impressively tight and snappy and does an excellent job of drawing the viewer in. Still, seriously, there's suspension of disbelief, there's plot holes and then there's this level of Gilligan's Island goofiness.

Anyway, despite the student archaeologist repeatedly lying to Picard, mocking him and deliberately endangering his life (not to mention the whole planet) she's just so lovable a rogue that he doesn't even bring up her endless list of transgressions. It's not like he's any sort of legal authority figure or anything. By the end of the episode he soulfully declares his fervent wish they'll meet again.
Why, Jean-Luc? You hoping she'll toss you down a volcano to fish her up some diamonds?


Seriesdate: 3.06
Booby Trap

Geordi Makes time with... a hologram.
Umm, okay.

The Enterprise investigates a thousand-year-old battlefield only to set off an unexploded mine and gets stuck in the interstellar equivalent of a Chinese finger trap. The more they light up their reactor, the harder it pulls them in. Not the most original plot premise, but it's well executed aside from the unresolved question of why it took the Federation's finest minds forty-five minutes plus commercial breaks to come up with the obvious solution of coasting out of range on minimal power.

Anyway, we start the episode by watching Geordi get humiliated for being disconsidered as a mate by the ship's women. We proceed to Guinan condescending to Geordi that he should just "be himself" and then to sneering at him from behind the fourth wall for flirting with a holodeck simulation of a ship designer.

Let's just admit right now that any putative holodeck's memory banks would likely hold the same proportion of fuck-bots as the internet's content of porn. Geordi's actually showing remarkable restraint in not holding these debates about drive shafts with his computerized houri while shafting her drive.

Anyway, by the end of the episode the hologram simulating that sexy nerd-girl tells Geordi that she'll always be with him. Anytime he's touching the engine, he's touching her (which is not regulation use of a fuel injector!) and so he ends the simulation, presumably so he can go back to throwing himself at the mercy of human women in return for fifty shades of "let's just be friends" and condemnation as a blue-balled loser. And they all lived happily ever after, at least by women's definition of happiness anyway.


Season 3 drove in a very decisive fashion toward fleshing out the individual lives of the Enterprise's inhabitants. Crew members begin to state personal preferences and acquire quirks, hopes and shadows of the past big and small. Much of the time it works out well, as with the re-iteration of Picard's archaeology hobby or Worf's childhood trauma. However, whenever the topic turned to the crew's sex lives, TNG's writers consistently embarrassed themselves, torturing otherwise workable plots into sheer nonsense in order to shoehorn in romantic interludes. Leaving aside the more obvious fan service (fine, leotards are funny enough, but does bending over in front of a mirror recharge dilithium crystals or what?) it's interesting to note the presumptions of good and evil, entitlement and vilification apparent in these relationships.

For one thing, of three men and one woman the only one to actually get laid is Deanna. Picard's femme fatale strings him along quite expertly and Geordi's simulacrum presumably has "Mattel" stamped across her crotch. Riker's romantic target from The Vengeance Factor was taken so far as to be explicitly asexual and aromantic and yet he's still groveling for her attention.
When Riker praises the creativity of Risan women, Troi immediately takes umbrage. When Troi's new boyfriend flaunts his conquest of her to Riker, Billy stiffens up his lip and claims he's "just friends" with her and meekly stays out of it.
Deanna rates a paramour du jour quite clearly above her station who endlessly lavishes attention on her, while the captain of the Federation's finest vessel gets leashed by a petty crook, his chief engineer gets beaten off with a stick by a random female redshirt and the first officer moons after a serving girl whose privates froze a century prior.
Geordi's attempt to woo a female crew member with romantic music is explicitly ridiculed, yet two episodes later the music score swells with romantic strings as Troi meets her new lover's eyes... from... across... the... room.
Picard's running off to go digging in the night with Lara Croft's a ridiculous lapse in his professional integrity, sure, but when Troi hides the negotiator's clearly unethical (and probably unlawful) deceit for half an episode, we're actively pushed to feel sorry for her as though she'd somehow been personally wronged by her own lying, despite losing nothing, risking nothing and receiving not so much as a scowl for shirking her duties in not bringing this to the captain's attention.
When Riker shoots his teenage centenarian girlfriend in defense of law and order, he's shown drowning his remorse at the end of the episode. Troi, on the other hand, who outright helped her criminal boyfriend, gets to slam him one last time and retain the moral high ground. 

The entire paradigm's pretty tidily summed up by contrasting the presentation of Troi and Geordi. She, a radiant fertility goddess, he a stumbling schlub whose every romantic mishap is entirely his fault and who must change himself and abandon his ideal while she re-affirms her social superiority.
This was the gender paradigm in 1990, the horribly anti-woman world of feminist legend, already bashing men at every step, already blaming men for all of women's problems plus their own. This has always been the dominant gender paradigm.

Oh, well. In one respect at least the Booby Trap episode rings true.
Errr, two respects if you count the inherent pun in the title.
Given the larger variability in male genetics as compared to female, highly intelligent men outnumber comparable women the smarter they get. Geordi LaForge the brilliant engineer would indeed be very unlikely to meet any women to whom he can truly relate.
- which is of course his own damn fault for being too smart, the sexist pig!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Man Who Sold the Moon

"He said I was his friend,
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
'I though you died alone a long, long time ago'"

David Bowie - The Man Who Sold the World

(Yes, I just found out that wasn't originally a Nirvana song. David freaking Bowie. Wild, huh?)

Robert Heinlein had a knack for antiheroic cowboys, for tooth-gritting survivalists and morally compromised misanthropes grudgingly shuffling their feet toward the right course of action, for human weakness strengthened by hard decisions. Usually this tendency birthed lovable, sneering rogues and grinches like Jubal Harshaw. Occasionally it overshot into outrightly unlikeable protagonists. The Man Who Sold the Moon falls somewhere in between.

For most of the story's length, Delos Harriman's stated noble goals are continually undermined by his deceitful, manipulative methods. Hard to believe the obscenely wealthy cut-throat corporate profiteer who won't shy away from bilking boy scouts out of their lunch money has anything but his own interest in mind when he finagles the United Nations into signing Earth's only natural satellite over to his company... purely for humanitarian reasons. Between this and the slightly dragging patter about legal precedents and stock majority, you're likely to ask yourself why you're still reading halfway through the story.

About that same time you begin to discern a paradoxical change by stability in Harriman, not that the character himself is altered but that his obsessive persistence in the objective goal of space travel invalidates the initial impression of shifty avarice. Comparisons with Citizen Kane (which had come out earlier in the same decade) seem warranted, and by the time Harriman reaches his "Rosebud" moment in the brief follow-up Requiem, we're hardly surprised to find the soul-less aged fatcat still clinging desperately to a childhood dream. What The Man Who Sold the Moon lacks in mystery, it gains in the well-executed characterization of the pioneering spirit in the form of a scheming, lying powermonger, idealism buried under a lifetime of make-work social competition.

Not that we should expect the inner workings of the rich in reality to consist of anything other than bloodthirst and the slavemaster's whip, but Heinlein still puts an interesting spin on the question of ambition, both hollow and meaningful.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Were in the Mirror

"Take a look at yourself and then make that change"

Michael Jackson - Man in the Mirror

I've finally started getting into Dwarf Fortress. I say "finally" because its station at the intersection of games, complexity, world-building and self-destructiveness made it only a matter of time before I barricaded myself under some mountain or another to chisel stone thrones and throw stones on my enemies. It's just taken me five years or so since first downloading it to get over the nauseating text-based "graphics" and learn to hate it for its mouseless control scheme instead, but more on that some other time. Given my preference for jumping into games without documentation, I've also racked up a pretty hefty head-count over my half-dozen failed attempts as I learn everything the hard way.

So far my fortresses have died once of starvation and three times of dehydration - in three different ways no less: evaporation, freezing and "whaddayamean wells need to be built over water to give water?" One fortress I grew to hate for the myriad mistakes I'd made in designing it, so I tried taking divine vengeance by having the dwarves tunnel into the bottom of a lake. To compound my frustration, the lake was so shallow as to barely drench the floor of a side corridor, and my hated underlings went glumly about their business with muddy feet until I hung my head in shame and left them in peace to start fresh.

The two remaining losses, however, came at the hands paws of were-beasts. The universe, as frequently noted, has a sense of humor. My very first attempt as Werwolfe, leader of dwarves, lasted not even a year:
After that, Dumat of Mange of Moons, last survivor of rampant wereantelope infection, spent a few lonely months puttering around the empty halls, choking on the miasma given off by the corpses of his slain comrades and breaking things faster than he could build them. I like to think he's still there, nursing his infection underground like his Dragon Age namesake until he will one day rise up with an army of Wereantelope-spawn to blight the landscape.

Two attempts later the story was if anything even more heartbreaking. Remembering Dumat, I had the wherewithal to move all my industry indoors and lock said doors when a werelizard came calling, cutting my losses to the few workers caught milking livestock or pickin' posies. Too late (after the full moon had passed, the monster departed and doors re-opened) did I notice two survivors: two children who had been playing outside at the time of the attack. Sure enough on closer inspection they both bore injuries, and on the next full moon the adorable little tykes rose up to slaughter the score of adults who'd welcomed them into the fortress.

Thus is a wer-beast hoist by his own petard.