Saturday, December 29, 2018

Wake Disgust

"I dig, I creep
I laugh and sleep
I roll in thunder
I steal and plunder
I twitch, I grow, uh-huh
Sometimes I wonder
My mind so slow
I gotta hold on
To my disgust"

KMFDM - Disgust

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"He who knows not and knows not he knows not, he is a fool - shun him;
He who knows not and knows he knows not, he is simple - teach him;
He who knows and knows not he knows, he is asleep - wake him;
He who knows and knows he knows, he is wise - follow him!"

Cited by Isabel Burton in The Life of Sir Richard F. Burton as "Arab proverb"
- attributed alternately as an Arabian proverb, a Sanskrit proverb, a Persian proverb or to Omar Khayyam or to Confucius or to hell knows how many other sources

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"For the pusillanimous person is worthy of goods, but deprives himself of the goods he is worthy of, and would seem to have something bad in him because he does not think he is worthy of the goods. Indeed he would seem not to know himself; for if he did, he would aim at the things he is worthy of, since they are goods. For all that, such people seem hesitant rather than foolish. But this belief of theirs actually seems to make them worse. For each sort of person seeks what [he thinks] he is worth; and these people hold back from fine actions and practices, and equally from external goods, because they think they are unworthy of them.
Vain people, by contrast, are foolish and do not know themselves, and they make this obvious. For they undertake commonly honored exploits, but are not worthy of them, and then they are found out. They adorn themselves with clothes and ostentatious style and that sort of thing; and since they want everyone to know how fortunate they are, they talk about it, thinking it will bring them honor."

Aristotle - Nicomachean Ethics


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"For today the petty people have become lord and master: they all preach submission and acquiescence and prudence and diligence and consideration and the long et cetera of petty virtues. What is womanish, what stems from slavishness and especially from the mob hotchpotch, that now wants to become master of mankind's entire destiny. Oh, disgust, disgust, disgust!"

Friedrich Nietzsche - Thus Spoke Zarathustra

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"'Pusillanimous' captures the opposition to 'magnanimous' suggested by the Greek [...] 'Magnanimity' is the traditional Latinized form of megalopsuchia (lit. 'having a great soul') [...] Aristotle's virtue of magnanimity is often taken to be opposed to the Christian virtue of humility. But it is not clearly correct to oppose the two virtues. Aristotle certainly opposes lying about one's own merits or other people's, if one acts from a desire to ingratiate oneself with others"

Terence Irwin, translator's notes to Nicomachean ethics

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"He continued to congratulate the citizens of Earth on their successful contact with another planet, another race. He managed to imply that the exploit was the personal accomplishment of every citizen, that any one of them could have led the expedition had he not been busy with serious work - and that he, Secretary Douglas, had been their humble instrument to work their will. The notions were never stated baldly, the assumption being that the common man was the equal of anyone and better than most - and that good old Joe Douglas embodied the common man. Even his mussed cravat and cowlicked hair had a 'just folks' quality."

Robert A. Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

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"That immortal ass 'the average man' sees with nothing but his eyes. To him a planet or a star is only a point of light - a bright dot, a golden fly-speck on 'the sky.' [...] Let us leave him snoring pigly in his blankets and turn to other themes, not forgetting that he is our lawful ruler, nor permitted to forget the insupportable effects of his ferocious rule."

Ambrose Bierce - The Moon in Letters

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"Your fellow players reported you for abusive language multiple times."
Thus Blizzard Entertainment's form letter chooses to inform me of my latest suspension from Heroes of the Storm. I've also been permanently banned from League of Legends, Smite, Paragon (in the less than a year it was actually up) and Sins of a Dark Age. Yup, I got banned from vaporware.



I confess special pride in that one. Not many people can extract paid programmer worktime to get personally banned from something never to be.

The lack of a permaban from Prime World likely stems from a lack of English-speaking Russkie game masters who could actually read my insults to their ambiguously noble heritage. I've also been sanctioned in The Secret World, The Lord of the Rings Online and other online games and been kicked out of more guilds than I care to remember for my intolerance of human stupidity. According to the three Secret World cabals who booted me in the span of two weeks last year, I'm "totally negative" and "super pompous" and "such a candy ass" - and if I'm not mistaken, that combination of traits qualifies me as a philosopher. Or at the very least "Mr. Perspective" as a lone sympathetic ear dubbed me on a guild forum. That bunch not only kicked me out but took the time to hunt down my character and backstabbed me while I was still in their guild.

Online games provide a tidy microcosm for human behavior. First off, they used to be at least partly about worthy exploits, about challenging oneself and out-doing others. Not since 2005. Vanity's the name of the game. Easy "achievements" and plenty of status symbols obscure any hints of worthwhile gameplay to make competition safe for those unworthy of commonly honored exploits.

Second, online games are filled with griefers openly sabotaging their teams. It's an effortless process: just sit back and refuse to cooperate. Yet the only people who will reliably get punished are the victims who use "abusive language" against those who are, in context, causing actual material harm.

Third, companies make a big show of engaging in the slacktivism of letting automated algorithms ban players based on chat transcripts. Or better yet, on sheer unpopularity as represented by the number of reports one receives. Pontius Pilate can always claim it was the people ("your fellow players" a.k.a. that immortal ass "the average man") who chose Barabbas.

Fourth, the rabble will reliably choose Barabbas every single time. They love to be led to an easy answer. That's what makes cheap demagoguery so useful a tool of social control. Griefers are a problem, sure, but every single time I try to stand up to a bully and impose fairness I've found all others will bend over backwards to defend the bully from the grim spectre of fair-play. To the point, mind you, of sacrificing their own free choice to appease the bully's capriciousness.

This post began not with online games but with Aristotle. The word "megalopsuchos" reminded me that I had never looked up the context of another famous appellation for "great soul" - maha atma. Wikipedia assures me (albeit with few citations to back it up) that "The spiritual lore of India speaks about the existence of this congruence in great people ("Mahatma") through the expression "Manassekam, Vachassekam, Karmanyekam Mahaatmanam"" Unity of thought, word and deed. Integrity. A concept which crops up with some regularity in every society advanced enough for formal interactions beyond kinship groups - and one which is ignored just as regularly.

Great minds can be wrong. Folklore is replete with the malformed half-thoughts of inferior intellects, further dulled by grinding against the lowest-common-denominator for centuries on end. Religious pablum even more so. However, when finding the same train of thought ambling across time and space, media and cultures, it may very well be either a big lie or a big truth.

Our contemporary culture glorifies pusillanimity. We acknowledge no sin greater than giving the devil his due, except perhaps the devil demanding it himself. We grow up indoctrinated into white guilt, male guilt, hetero guilt, and don't you even dare admit you're not sexually attracted to obesity! Above all we must never acknowledge superior intellect. We're forced to spend every single day pretending to believe in the fundamental equality of retards, cretins, morons, imbeciles, jocks and reality TV fans to thinking beings. We oscillate wildly between pusillanimity and vanity, self-flagellating one minute over our ancestors' sins then beating our chests the next over the self-righteousness of our sexual preferences.

Western society has grown unbearably slavish. It's a culture of over-socialized endorphin addicts constantly begging each other for their next fix of social approval. Sure, it may seem unfair to use online games as an example. Some of those players are sadists, morally opposed to fairness from the start. Some are children, incapable of ethical reasoning. Some may be new to the game and uncertain of correct choices. Yet in every single game lobby there will be at least one other of you who know you're being mistreated but would rather roll over and take it instead of calling it out... because you cannot stand to have others dislike you, even for a half hour, even for a minute, even across cyberspace in a casual activity. If you can't find your spine even on the internet, you've probably misplaced it in real life a long time ago.

You like to be liked. You like it so much that you're willing to downplay your own intelligence and accept any and all abuse so long as it gets you a pat on the head. And every time a feminist bullies you over some imaginary original sin of masculinity, you meekly take the punch. Every time muslims blow up another restaurant, you make excuses for them. Every time christians shut down another abortion clinic, you make excuses for their tyranny. Every time educational standards are lowered in order to give mongoloids diplomas, you pat them on their pinheads and hand Homer Simpson the keys to the nuclear power plant. Every time adolescent attention-whores try to police your speech, making you call "them" "uncle" you do so, for fear of bringing offense. Every time fatcats rip you off, you call it free enterprise and supporting the economy. Every time your coworker is given time off because he chose to saddle himself with a litter of offspring, you meekly shrug and shoulder his workload. Every time your country invades another you wave a flag and join the patriotic circle-jerk. Every time your home town sports team wins a match, you cheer. You've never watched them, but you cheer along with the crowd anyway. You like to be liked, and you've never even thought about it. Not once. Every single fucking time.

"He who knows and knows not he knows, he is asleep - wake him"

Better yet wake yourself. Instead of making some bullshit New Year's resolution this year that you'll just break by mid-January, resolve instead to give yourself some time alone. Play a single-player game instead of an online one, and take stock of your own ability, preferences and actions. Pass on the next sports game and go watch some documentary about Ancient Greek contests instead, and let yourself think about it. Alone. Listen to some music that you've always wanted to try, instead of just the stuff approved by your wife. Cancel your Twitter and Facebook accounts. Buy yourself a single opera ticket and go without your grousing husband. Or your chattering hen brigade. Buy yourself a theater ticket and challenge yourself not to laugh along with the rest of the audience. Turn off all the electronics and lie down in a quiet room for a few minutes. Don't call it meditation. Don't call it anything. Just let yourself be with yourself for a bit. Grab some inanimate, emotionally neutral object next to you, squeeze it, and think about where your self begins and ends. Look up the Wikipedia entry on the physics or chemistry of [...] and don't discuss it with anyone else. Just think about it. Teach your self to think.

Give yourself time to shed a lifetime's worth of brainwashing. Then, as your thought gains more and more integrity and you spend less time debasing yourself by kow-towing to others' preferences and joining social clubs, you may find that the degenerate vermin who comprise the lower 97.5% of this species' IQ distribution truly don't register as the same species as you at all. Abusive language is the best such disgusting filth deserve, or better yet disinterest.

You may just be one of the few capable of independent thought. As a totally negative, super-pompous candy-ass, you have my admittedly limited sympathy.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Hopscotch, The cRPG

"And running is something that we've always done well and mostly I can't even tell what I'm running from"

Amanda Palmer - Runs in the Family




Leap
Burrow
Flight
Shade Shift
Void Glide
Oil Splatter
Leaping Flames
Tactical Retreat
Cloak and Dagger
Phoenix Dive
Nether Swap
- and of course, "Teleport"

... are all teleportation spells in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Not to mention all the abilities which approximate the same effect:
Blitz Attack
Battering Ram
Backlash
etbetera.

I could probably find more but I'm only halfway through the game. I've repeatedly made this point in previous posts. Some superpowers prove so consistently immersion-breaking or game-breaking that they should be allotted much more sparingly than mere laser eyes and lightning bolts: time (or turn) manipulation, telepathy (or mind control) invisibility and, of course, teleportation.

D:OS2 handles three of those four quite well.
Manipulating action points or turn frequency is restricted to a couple of abilities and effects.
Invisibility is easily countered by AoE and doesn't yield the usual griefer-friendly one-hit-kill we've been taught to expect by MMOs.
Mind control is difficult to achieve and readily countered.
Teleports on the other hand were handed out like candy on Halloween.  At least four different skillsets offer them at early levels and every single encounter after newbieland seems to feature teleporting enemies. And enemies which can teleport you. And enemies which can teleport both themselves and you. With little to no cooldown.

All this leapfrogging might be less aggravating if I weren't officially playing in "tactician" mode. You keep using that word... Tactics is out-thinking, prediction, positioning, forming ranks and deciding order of engagement. Some degree of stochasticity is quite welcome, but when your enemy gets to ignore all the ground effects you lay down, when every positional gain gets reversed every single round... usually more than once... you lose the entire point of having front and rear guards, ranged and melee attackers. Overusing teleportation not only shrinks worlds but yields "a toilet-bowl swirl of players getting rewarded for taking the easy way out." It invalidates the main combat dynamic of a team RPG.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Capisco, Patron!

"Taoists, Krishnas, Buddhists and all you atheists, too!
Merry fuckin' Christmaaas
Tooo yoouuuuu!"

South Park



Jordan Peterson is a warmed-over Emile Durkheim, prescribing regression into primitivism, tribal identity and superstition to cure social instability. 20th century totalitarianism might warn us to be careful what stability we wish for.

Sargon of Akkad was an incisive, moderately gifted commentator on the abuses of social justice activism some years ago, before he began to toe the right-wing nationalist party line on each and every issue. It's done wonders in securing him a devoted fan base.

Lauren Southern's a spin doctor trying to provoke "gotcha" moments from anyone Fox News hates.

Milo Yiannopoulos is, like the previous two, the basest breed of "anything for fame" shock jock. Bonus points for tripping my sociopath-dar more than my gay-dar.

Sam Harris is an anti-theist who nonetheless loves him sum head trips. Though infected to some extent by the assumption of the inherent rightness of those declaring themselves "left wing" he's proven one of the sanest people on the planet over the past couple of decades. Granted that's not saying much in this species, but still...

So, on a completely unrelated topic I do read a lot of webcomics, so the shift away from PayPal tip jars to Patreon subscriptions hardly caught me unawares. I hated the idea from the first. Crowdfunding is great as long as you're funding a specific work. Funding a person in the vain hope of productivity just reminds me of Trent Reznor's decades-long slump after The Fragile. Not to mention Patreon's reward system prods artists to spend more time servicing their donors than pursuing actual projects. Nevertheless I finally gave in at the start of this year and set up an account for the sake of my favorite cartoonist. Now I've deleted it, following Sam Harris' example, in protest. Much like the accounts of several right-wing shock jocks (including the middle three in that list) which Patreon deemed morally offensive and deleted.

Note, I largely despise these assholes. Harris is the only one on that list whom I actually like. I concede a grudging respect for Peterson's observations if not the conclusions he draws, and though he wasn't banned I'm curious to see if the hot air he's blowing about starting a competing crowdfunding service with Dave Rubin will come to anything. But if you think my opinion of them should have anything to do with whether they're permitted to speak, you're missing the point. Free speech is free to all.

Note again, censoring the internet is no new idea. It is, in fact, as old as the internet. The American government makes routine attempts at it and China (true to its police state form) has quite a head start in the field. The problem with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, PayPal, Patreon and other such household names is that they're de facto monopolies in their given field. The nearest competition is not worth mentioning. Thus they offer a backdoor to censorship, a way for political interests to circumvent legality and achieve totalitarian control by playing the moral guardian card. When Wordpress brags that it "powers 33% of the internet" they are implicitly declaring their power to rule on what 33% of the world will read tomorrow. Grand inquisitors could only dream of such reach. If you think only the people you like will abuse it, I've got some real estate to sell you on Venus.

When your local mafioso tells you "never go against the family" you might as tell him he's not your real dad... while you still can.

______________________
P.S. And yes, Google itself is a whole other can of worms.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Midnight In the Game of Good, Then Evil

"Will you reco'nise me
When I'm stealing from the poor?
You're not gonna like me
I'm nothing like before"

Emeli Sande - Heaven


I hadn't really gotten into cRPGs by the time the movie adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil came out, or I would have probably immediately latched on to its pivotal scene... about pivoting... as a great gimmick for an interactive medium. Accused of murder, a local Savannah, Georgia citizen turns to a local witch to magic his-self a favorable trial outcome. They spend two hours in the graveyard rolling bones and recanting incantations and whatnot. The first hour, before midnight, is relegated to good magic, while the second, after midnight, for the working of evil. In the context of a murder trial, it brought to mind the question of inherent murderous ability and the turning point from quirky but upstanding citizen to KILLKILLKILL.

Which happens to fit computer gaming like a glove. So how would an hour for good and an hour for evil translate into cyberthingies? First of all it would have to be single-player. In multiplayer there's no half-point and the question's moot: everyone goes for the win, for harming other players as much as possible or for imbecilic grandstanding. Single-player's where we flatter ourselves, pretending to be heroes. To stay true to the core concept, the game would also need a true midnight, a distinct shift between good and bad behavior. It must be deliberate, with the player actively choosing between beneficence and maleficence. This means the same events would take place but only the player's role would shift.

So we can pretty much rule out a story-based RPG as too inflexible. With the main events predetermined and such a tight focus on the player's moral choices, a sandbox would also be less than ideal. Also, sandboxes tend to be infinite rather than an easily divisible fixed duration. A survival horror or first person shooter might fit the bill for the basic setup. It strikes me that I don't want this to be a slow slide into despotism, as Frostpunk so artfully portrayed. Thus, some game element must serve as incentive for the player to suddenly betray everything he's done so far. To break his stride. To break the game. No other genre handles that quite so well as roguelikes and their spin-offs, with their randomized and often game-breaking loot drops and enemies.

So:

Option 1 : Rappin' in da hood
First-person with the limited (but critical) personal agency of a survival title and some rogue-like game-breaking elements like randomized encounters / drops to force the player to switch sides around mid-game.

Option 2 : Fallen Angel
Ally the player with one of two factions. Faction resources get used up as you advance. Around mid-game you'd have no choice but to turn coat as you run out of steam, then become ever more dedicated to your new cause as you advance.

Option 3 : Bad Cop
Murder most foul. Or pickpocketing most foul. Or licking someone else's ice cream cone without permission most foul. It's not the crime that gets you, it's the cover-up. Start the player off as an upstanding citizen, a crimefighter even, then have him commit some petty crime and cover it up with an even bigger crime, then slippery slope the whole thing off to a grand finale like nuking the city.

That last option sounds the most novel to me, and it's restricted to a transition from good to evil. (The opposite could be true but opportunities for escalation once flipped to good are somewhat more limited.) Most game developers would likely opt for an uplifting redemption story to cater to degenerate snowflakes, but for gut-punch value and memorability you can't go wrong with going wrong. Very, very wrong.

Of course the two halves have to be balanced somehow. The player must be incentivized to both build up a karmic balance and to reverse it starting around mid-game. Option 2 offers an easy balance in the two factions' available resources. If both good and evil barely add up to enough to get the player to the endgame, this would create an incentive to hold out as long as possible with the first faction before turning. Starting the player off as a superhero slowly descending into supervillainy would probably tie all three options up quite neatly.

Just so long as the entire game pivots on fabricating a single moment in which the player is given the option between good and evil and freely chooses the opposite from what he's been doing so far.

Monday, December 17, 2018

TANSTAAFM

"Fe vældur frænda rogi"

Wardruna - Fehu

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"Caveat emptor is the motto we stand behind! I'd have to charge more if we followed health and environmental regulations."

Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes (1993/04/04)
______________________________


I'm a science fiction fan. Once you get past the monster flicks and primitive pulp ScieFie swashbuckling heroes IN SPAAAACE! (i.e. Star Wars) the genre has attracted a disproportionate number of gifted minds capable of looking past the human condition to true creativity. I especially like Robert Heinlein. I love the cowboy swagger his protagonists so frequently adopt, juxtaposed with their punctiliously civilized ethics and actions. Heinlein more than any other of SF's greats explored the role of the individual in the face of change and the unknown, of individual rights and responsibilities when reality shifts under one's feet.

He proclaimed himself such an individualist as to make Ayn Rand look like a communist in comparison, and much like Rand I've frequently seen Heinlein's books co-opted by those who worship profiteering and taking advantage of others' misfortunes. Except that, in direct contrast to Rand who seems to have mostly believed her own bullshit, Heinlein was a thinker first and an idealogue far down the list. Independence did not give his heroes license to abuse their fellows. Moreover, his stories carry an incisive self-awareness, an implicit admission that he is suspending disbelief.

He introduced us all to the acronym TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) yet the work in which he did so, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, hangs its entire plot on a free lunch. The lunar colony could never have achieved its independence without the aid of Mike the sentient supercomputer, a service the loonies had not purchased and whose value they could not begin to repay. The lunar revolution may as well have been subsidized.

The health industry has been in the news again in the United States. Whatever the current pretext for trying to undo the Obama's administration's minor improvements to America's shameful predation on physical illness, the real reasons are much less complicated. Most of those who hate the idea of government-managed healthcare know nothing about it. Their opposition is an ideological one, a fanatical one unburdened by perspective. They're true believers. They believe in free market capitalism. They believe in the right of the rich to abuse the poor. They are easily taken in by the propaganda of corporate governments claiming to be oppressed by the national government.

This is hardly a debate limited to health care. Three years ago I commented on the upcoming presidential election by likening it to the then-recent release of The Force Awakens, the most expensive movie in history with an advertisement budget larger than the production itself. No unique occurrence. Big businesses routinely invest more in destroying their competition than in producing good products. Any human hierarchy is a government which will freely wage war against other nearby governments when given a chance to do so and it is always the goal of every for-profit enterprise to eliminate individual choice, the ensure that each and every consumer can only choose their own product, at prices as inflated as possible. It doesn't matter how free your choices are when there's only one choice on the shelf, when the service you need is turned into a noose or a set of manacles. A "free" market is a market enslaved by its wealthiest robber barons. When the system finally collapses, the fatcats cut and run seeking another group of willing victims whose labor they can exploit. Our only defense against their depredations is regulation by an elected government answerable to its constituents. Our defense against spontaneously-occuring human thuggery and despotism is to entrust the public good to a public thing, a res publica, an overarching system of arbitration to keep our myriad tribes from exploiting each other. To keep every individual in society from unfairly exploiting every other individual in society.

So at times like these I can't help but think how tenuous a hold American-brand "libertarianism" (read: parasitic profiteering) keeps on Henlein's name. In Stranger In a Strange Land, Heinlein explicitly noted that Mike's nest brothers could pursue their personal growth only as their personal needs were assured by his nigh-infinite wealth. In Tunnel in the Sky the youths survive their hostile environment only by cobbling together a system of governance to impose fairness. In I Will Fear No Evil the brilliant painter is supported by an influx of cash which might uncharitably be called charity. In Job: A Comedy of Justice the hero demonstrates his self-reliance but is ultimately supported in his quest by the "hospitality" of a cosmic force. In Double Star politics is described as a dirty game but the only game. The cacophonous, boisterous town hall meetings of Red Planet, re-iterated less obviously throughout his works, display a presumption of government not as a matter of history or national identity, but as a universal human tendency and need, to be entered into consciously and purposefully and not left to chance.

Individualism, as worthy a goal as it is, paradoxically cannot stand on its own. For all his heroes' pioneering bluster, Heinlein seems to have known all too well that the good guys don't win without help. If only his fans would catch on.

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Market

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

To Make Life Mine

"Someone hold me
(Tell me I'm pretty)
Someone hold me
(Tell me you need me)
Someone talk to me
(I hate feeling lonely)
Someone, anyone,
Rescue me, set me free

It's all bullshit anyway,
I cannot be what you say"

My Black Heart Machine - It Beats Like This



I've done a lot of bitching about Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire over the past year, pissed off at seeing what should have become the new reference point for cRPG series get turned over to a writing team of self-righteous incompetents. It resulted in a betrayal of the first game's setting, a self-indulgent fanfic filled with repetitive bigotry.

It also brought back what should be an obsolete tradition in cRPGs, NPC romances. Starting with Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate 2, the Black Isle / Bioware / Obsidian genealogy of party-based tabletop-inspired cRPGs have usually allowed you to cozy up for some corollary campaign canoodling and hump your hired help. The newer revival of such story-based campaigns (InXile's Torment: Tides of Numenera, Obsidian's own excellent work Tyranny and the original PoE) have thankfully tended to do away with such nonsense. Its return in PoE 2 was both badly written and noticeably intrusive.

It didn't help that two of the adventurers-with-benefits options, Tekehu and Xoti, were the only main healers in the default companion roster (chanters notwithstanding) which almost ensures you'll drag at least one of them along on a first playthrough. Both were designed as romantic from the ground up and their role as such is pushed on you, quite incongruously, right from the start. Tekehu's the lowest sort of romance novel detritus, a mystical prince with a-may-zing hair, meeesteeerious origins and great expectations, who nonetheless needs emotional manipulation to achieve his full potential. Everything he does is in the name of his divine mother (seriously, his battle cry is "be- HOLD ME, MOTHER!") except the madcap partying, for which he's constantly ridiculed and condemned, needing to be tamed by the love of a good woman. In his very first dialogue, my character was falling into the tall handsome prince's dark shining eyes for no particular reason.

Xoti was, if anything, even worse. I can only assume it's what the writing team assumes (or wishes) would appeal to strong-minded men, a simpleminded, ignorant fanatic hillbilly given to swooning. I deliberately avoided the romantic dialogue options like hugging her close to you in a tender embrace when she's had a bad dream. Don't ask me where the hell that even came from in the absence of any previous sign of emotion. Nevertheless, the dialogues progressed on the assumption that you'd picked the option her writer wanted you to pick. Not to mention her slashfic-grade descriptions:
"The tip of her tongue, a peek of dusky rose, dabs at the corner of her mouth, leaving a glimmer of wetness."

Even avoiding most of her inane repartee and picking only the darker, less touchy-feely routes leads to this gem:

***
Me: "You're being called to a higher purpose, Xoti. Embrace the harvest - the darkness of the fall."
Her: "Suppose I am. Must be a reason Gaun's showing me these things." Absently, she thumbs the flat of her sickle. "Sometimes I hear them like a whisper in the back of my mind."
Nod "Me too."
She offers you a wry, knowing smile. "We'll figure this out together."
Carefully, she slips her hand into yours. Your fingers easily entwine, palms pressing together so tight you can feel your heartbeats between you.
Shoulders squared, she looks off into the distance.
***

No, seriously now, WHERE THE HELL DID THAT JUST COME FROM???
"Hey, boss?"
"Yes, underling to whom I've barely spoken three lines this whole time?"
"Ah bin fantasizin' on rippin' the souls outten ever-one in tha world."
*cue violins and rain of cherry blossoms*
!
...
... one cannot help but feel we skipped a few crucial turns in the conversation there.

Better yet, your only two available responses are:
"Is there anything we can do to alleviate your nightmares?"
and
[Say nothing] - which by the way leads to the same subsequent quest step of her unburdening her soul at a temple.
No, I'm sorry, that bombshell of turning into a mass-murdering soul collectrix needs a third reply option:
"Bitch, you cray-cray!"

Ah, but that's in keeping with the usual cheese and crackers invited by romantic interludes. To date the only such character self-possessed and complex enough that I would consider her worthy of attention is Morrigan from DA:O.
At least Annah's one passionate kiss from Planescape: Torment was a very brief interlude.
When bandits held a crossbow to Jaheira's head in BG2 I just attacked and let them shoot her. I'm a cloth-clad mage and she's my team's tank, it's her damn job. Turns out making the tactically sound choice as party leader was the wrong answer. Oops.
I sure as hell wasn't about to start anything with that grand ham from NWN, Aribeth.
Elanee from NWN2 seemed intriguing for a few lines, but she got very needy and whiny very fast.
And so on. Safiya from Mask of the Betrayer was more promising but still fell short.

No matter the game, playing at romantic favor-currying brings the inevitable realization that this has nothing to do with anything. (Another reason Morrigan stood out: her agenda was actually contextualized.) It adds nothing to the game universe's immersiveness and as far as character development yields outright cognitive dissonance. No, I don't think my character, the diamond mind standing as the multiverse's only bulwark against the all consuming shadow (there's always an all-consuming shadow) should spend half his time genuflecting before and applauding some codependent belle's one-woman play about her oh-so-gooey fee-fees.

Even on the rare occasion when they're handled with passable skill, cRPG romances sap development time and funding. Minigames in general tend to do so (gambling minigames are a classic example) but at least most can be integrated into gameplay (Elder Scrolls lockpicking for instance) and this is simply not the case  with romances. While it's safe to assume the greater world around your adventure incorporates plenty of emotional manipulation, codependency and mammalian pair-bonding (baby adventurers have to come from somewhere after all) this background assumption need not be spelled out.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Europa Universalis 3

"Ra-ra-Rasputin
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on"

Boney M. - Rasputin



Why am I such utter shit at this game?
And I do mean this game, Europa Universalis, in particular.


After two decades of glaring at a computer screen, I've scrounged myself enough meta-gaming savoir-faire to hold my own in most genres and purposely make things harder for myself. I play RPGs in squishy tank-less teams and city sims on harsh, rocky landscapes. I've never had the reaction speed to do great in online FPS games, but I can usually play a shock trooper or out-predict and flank the enemy to get a few cheap shots in.

Strategy games feed my nerdy conceit best. I was nuts for Starcraft, Homeworld and other RTS until it became obvious they always degenerate into mindless "actions per minute" click-spamming. Grandiose, sprawling turn-based strategy has retained its appeal, but for two issues:
1) Their very scope makes them unwieldy at best online. Most online games run for 15-60 minutes. A good hearty TBS campaign will run for 15-60 hours at the least.
2) Most developers mistakenly assume a slow pace must be for the slow-witted, and put no effort into designing challenging AI. The Heroes of Might and Magic titles, for all their immersive charm, were always noted for their dearth and not depth of abstract reasoning.

If the first point is pretty much unavoidable, it's nice to see the second being addressed. I bought EU3 several years ago, and until those control freaks at Paradox make #4 available DRM-free on GoG, it will remain my only exposure to the series. In all this time I have never yet made it to the end.

Oh, I've been rather successful on occasion. I've taken tiny two-territory principalities and quintupled their size, built sprawling colonial empires across three continents, monopolized every trade center I could reach, you name it. Yet I've always either bitten of more than I could chew militarily or succumbed to entropic decay. The inflation rate rises, the rebellions mount, my reputation plummets. History ends. Or rather, disgusted with my own incompetence, I flee in shame.

With its gigantic size and long-term empire building, Europa Universalis appears a 4X game at first glance. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and even comparisons with Civilization end at the overall similarity to Risk. EU3 imposes severe restrictions on exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination. Everything you do comes with costs and repercussions. Even diplomatic messages must be carried by diplomats and small countries get as many of these as large ones, making it more difficult to maintain good neighbour relations as a ballooning hyperaggressive imperialist. Given the same is true of trading, EU3 made a good show as not just strategy but a sandbox game placing full world domination beyond your reach but allowing you to choose your own objectives. Be a transoceanic colonial power, a defender of the faith, a small, reclusive trade-savvy nation bribing your way to survival, expand east or west or not at all. Fight land wars in Asia.

The ways you can fail are endless. Troops suffer attrition in territory that can't (or won't) support them, missionaries cause unrest and take time and money to work their magic, good military leaders require a consistent decades-long investment in "tradition" and trade centers present a constant weighing of their potential value to the cost of investment. Enemy powers opportunistically take advantage of you being weakened by one war to open up another. Alliances are unreliable. Provinces will gleefully revolt due to half a dozen different motivations and if you let the unrest build long enough will easily drown your military in a numeric tide of unwashed masses.

A few real-world historical events like the Protestant Reformation happen on cue and countries have their distinct historical agenda (i.e. Castille in 1399 does NOT like them musul-men in Granada) but every single game takes a different course.


For my current game I decided to play as Novgorod (look it up) and conquer Sweden and Norway to compete in Atlantic colonialism. That plan fell through when Denmark allied with Scotland and the Teutons to slow me enough that I couldn't reach the shore in time.

So I switched gears into full Red Army land swarm mode. After a couple of desperate defenses against the Golden Horde putting myself into decades' worth of debt hiring mercenary armies I decided to just conquer them why not. Slow going, that land war in Asia. Each victory requires you to pause and put down the resulting unrest and revolts, and Siberian travel times only compound the misery. Each conquered province takes decades to quiet down and endless efforts to smooth over the global reputation loss incurred by annexation. Even my former stalwart ally Lithuania eventually turned on me and had to be put down.

Two centuries later my territory now stretches from one end of Eurasia to the other, so with the Eastern front at last safe I turned my attention back to conquering Europe or at least taking revenge on dose durn Danes. Only to find myself cockblocked by Hungary. Since my navy amounts to jack squat in the face of Danish shipbuilding, I'd planned to fight through the remnants of the Baltic states and hit the Danish core provinces by land, then sweep southwards into Europe one Germanic outlier at a time. Hungary, in the meantime, has snapped up the remnants of Lithuania (which I'd conveniently weakened for them) plus split Poland with Bohemia, eliminated the last of the Teutons (also weakened by me while fighting my way to Riga) and nabbed the Romanian and Bulgarian provinces from the Ottomans.

Meaning Hungary now presents an uninterrupted cordon from the Baltic to the Black Sea and Adriatic, completely blocking off my access to Europe. While I was warring over Asian land they used the easy conquests I'd handed them to also invade Austria, Switzerland and half the German principalities, becoming a military superpower in their own right. I could take 'em... if not for their military alliances with France, Britain and Castille, three of the four major colonial empires, any one of which could turn the tide against me. Alliances which, in a game where such alliances tend to shift from decade to decade, it has faithfully maintained for well over a century while I gnash my blunted fangs in St. Petersburg, try not to piss off Ming China in our bid for the last Khanates and race the Persians to conquer the declining Ottoman Empire.

All the while Hungary dutifully patrols its border with me, from sea to sea, defending the entire rest of Europe, snubbing my Asiatic empire with a hemisphere's worth of seemingly unbreakable alliances at its back. I try to remind myself this is just an algorithm and it hasn't achieved sentience.

Europa Universalis is a difficult game to get into. It doesn't quite work like other strategy sub-genres, right down to faking real-time by a rapid succession of simultaneous turns. However, it's well worth the time investment. Historical and geographic trivia alone provides quite a bit of entertainment and as a strategy game it outshines more popular titles in both grandeur and minutiae. More than other games, its endlessly, spontaneously reconfiguring 1281 provinces make for a living breathing sandbox with unique challenges. Above all you'll have to learn to be patient. I've ended more than one attempt by defeating my enemies yet incurring so much war exhaustion that my own peasantry rises up and steamrolls me. Or, more frequently, amassing such an infamous reputation as to bring the wrath of the entire world on my head. Us lycanthropes ain't cut out for diplomacy.

Can't wait for an EU4 package deal on GoG, whenever Paradox gets tired of milking individual expansions. Damn Swedes. Knew I should've annexed them faster.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

ST:TNG - Brothers, Data's Schizoid

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.
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Seriesdate: 2.06
The Schizoid Man

Some guy named Graves is dying.
Oh, I get it! Hahaha.


Also, the Enterprise acquires a female Vulcan doctor assisting Pulaski, never to be mentioned again. Pity, too, since that Vulcan businesslike demeanor would've been in keeping with the welcome shift away from Crusher's motherly incongruity aboard an exploration vessel and toward Pulaski's professional dedication. But anyway, Graves is dying, but he's a cyberneticist who's learned how to upload himself to a computer and he conveniently asks how to shut off Data. Then Data starts acting unusual. Hmmm. I wonder what happened. The rest of the episode trudges through the obvious conclusion at snail's pace, relying on Brent Spiner's moderate success in aping the older character's mannerisms for plot progression.

Despite a couple of arguments as to Data's inherent right to his own life as a sentient being he receives little or no development, the episode being instead a case study of the mad scientist's moral moral dilemma. Interestingly, it concludes in true Star Trek fashion not with a defeat of the ambiguous villain but with a voluntary capitulation. Seeing his experiment in immortality is causing unwarranted harm, Graves willingly takes the ethical choice of suicide, erasing himself from Data's brain. Bonus points for displaying Graves' disdain for Data's life but his growing concern over his harm to humans, portraying ethics as the arbitrary balancing act it is and not an absolute.

Surprisingly good toward the end for a season 2 episode.

________________________________________

Seriesdate: 4.11
Data's Day

See, this is why I'm not a fan of Dr. Beverly Crusher and by extension Gates McFadden's influence on TNG.






Data wants to dance at his friend Miles "Oy'm Oirish" O'Brien's wedding to Keiko O'Nipponame so he asks Crusher to teach him. Hilarity ensues but not before cluttering five minutes of a 45-minute show with tappa-tappa-tappa and slow dancing. It's pure filler and an unwarranted concession to McFadden's SF-unfriendly artistic skills. In her defense, she seemed rather good at it. Guessing the many cuts to the feet of doubles performing the tap routines were entirely for Spiner's benefit and not hers. But the whole ordeal still had nothing whatsoever to do with either stars or trekking or strange worlds or new civilizations or Data's quest for humanity. Of all the science fiction plots I've always wanted to see written, interstellar tapdancing ain't one.

Worse yet, this wasted screen time would have been much better dedicated to the A-plot involving a Vulcan ambassador who turns out to be a Romulan spy in one of the few truly intriguing plot twists in Star Trek history. Plot aside, the entire episode is framed as Data's correspondence with a certain Mr. Maddox, detailing his progress interacting with humans in the social sphere. He boasts of his new algorithm capable of predicting human emotional responses. Of course the smart guy's plan fails hilariously, and repeatedly, as per comedic trope requirements. By the end, Data re-affirms his fervent wish to degrade his superhuman self by attempting to degenerate into a human.

What really clinches the atmosphere here is looking up the name of the character with whom Data's been e-mailing back and forth. Bruce Maddox is the same Starfleet cyberneticist who had demanded the android be torn apart in the name of science back in season 2. In another show of classic Star Trek utopianism Data, instead of holding a grudge, encouraged his antagonist to continue his research at the end of that episode. The writing team stuck to their guns and now two seasons later we find Data casually supporting his former would-be executioner in the pursuit of knowledge. It was this sort of positive thinking which made Star trek stand out. Not mere feel-good sap (though it offered plenty of that too, unfortunately) but cold-blooded cooperation for an objective greater good, juxtaposing Federation social progress with Romulan conceit and deceit.

___________________________________________

Seriesdate: 4.03
Brothers


(alternate title: Three Spiners in a Week)
That episode with Data's badass powerwalk through the corridors, activating forcefields at every step to block his pursuers.


Turns out our heroic androic was built with a hardware backdoor, and daddy's calling him home! So he turns into a total robot and mechanically executes a brilliant plan to hijack the Enterprise and meet his maker. Yes, literally.

This episode could easily have bombed. The shipboard standoff eats up a solid fifteen minutes, yet it never gets boring as we empathize with the crew's dawning realization that Data's suddenly betrayed them. It includes a B-plot about kids fighting which could easily have come across as cloying homeyness yet is instead played lightly and straightforwardly enough to merely provide its intended contrast without seeming intrusive.

Once Data (played by Brent Spiner) teleports down to his destination he finds his creator, Noonien Soong, played by Brent Spiner and a couple kilograms' worth of chin putty.



They're soon joined by Data's evil twin brother-droid (broid?) Lore... also played by Brent Spiner. The writers had some fun with this little trinity too, constantly interjecting lines like:

"I always loved that face."
or
"Tell me. Do I look somewhat... uhhh... familiar to you?"
or
"Do you believe that we are in some way alike, sir?"

- all of which went right over my head when I was ten years old. Yet it's still one of the most memorable episodes in TNG's seven-year run. One-man plays are risky business, and watching Spiner shadow-box for half an hour could easily have dragged the audience yawning to the complaints department. The producers gambled on the actor's nuanced grasp of his character by season 4... and won. He beautifully set apart both Data and Lore's dichotomy from Soong's crotchety, paternal, half-senile rambling.

_________________________________________

Data was, along with Worf, a scarce element from TNG's first-season fumbling to truly exceed expectations. While Brent Spiner seems to have fallen short of world-class acting ability in general, tending toward clowning, he absolutely nailed the Data role from the start, including any and all deviations from its baseline such as Lore. The series, with its very, very shaky start, was lucky to have him. It took several years for most of the core cast to grow into their roles, to learn the restraint necessary to portray good SF (and longer for the directors to allow them to exercise said restraint) so for the first couple of years they were leaning quite hard on Patrick Stewart's Royal Shakespearean talents, to the point of repeatedly cloning him. Spiner rapidly received much the same treatment.

He was inspirational, and Data-heavy scripts tended toward forward-thinking. But for all they leaned on him, there's something odd about Data's early character growth: the lack of it. His Pinocchio quest for humanity gets stated and re-stated ad nauseam, yet only around season 4 with Data's Day do we begin to see his steps toward the human condition: his pet cat, his participation in human rituals, his incipient emotions like nervousness, the trust his reliability has earned among the crew, etc. It seems the show's writers were either unsure as to how to portray inhumanly unemotional thought patterns or afraid such a portrayal would alienate viewers. His plots as often as not have him possessed by ascended alien intelligences or accidentally sapient nanotech or a downloaded cyberneticist or a backdoor over-ride from his creator or the ghost of christmas-past, or really pretty much whoever or whatever wandered along had even odds of taking up temporary habitation in Data's brain. While this did allow them to stretch Data's inhuman behavior patterns more theatrically, it left the character himself slow to develop. Even when not being possessed by space ghosts, he was being squared off against other AIs instead of being juxtaposed with the overemotional meatsacks around him.

Episodes like The Most Toys or Data's Day, where we see Data taking purposeful, independent action, are few and far between. Ironically enough, TNG's token mechano-man ended up treated more as a prop or plot device than as a character.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Divinity: Original Sin

For the love of critical fails, tell me how anyone thinks they can build an immersive interactive experience around crap like this:
Yes, that's a chibified skeleton with a bomb strapped to its back. The first time I encountered one in Divinity: Original Sin, it put me off the game for days... but not before screenshotting it for bitchery purposes. Priorities, people!

As I complained vis-a-vis Wasteland 2, there's a crucial line between telling a joke and being a joke. No reason RPGs can't include humor, but it must be in-universe humor, based on actions undertaken by characters within that universe. And sure, it's entirely possible for games to fall into needless self-indulgent drama, but the extent to which absurdity and farce can work in an interactive medium depends on the genre. One of the improvements brought by the second Baldur's Gate game over its first installment, one of the reasons it became such a classic, was ditching BG1's random goofiness. Almost to the same extent as old-fashioned adventure games, the success of RPGs depends on maintaining immersion. Hard to play my role when all the NPCs keep breaking character.

At one point some NPCs in D:OS say they're "shaking like chihuahuas" which might mean something if Rivellon actually included a place named Chihuahua from which the dog breed could take its name. It makes no more sense then a French poodle or an English bulldog in the absence of a France or England. Tip of the iceberg. Larian tried to build a whimsical fairytale world and fill it with personal drama but instead wound up with a bunch of personae lacking personality and fairies with no tales. Don't get me started on the way, waaay too many talking animals with completely mundane human personalities. Or the fact that being The Chosen One got old a long time ago. Add to that the aforementioned nuisance of unjustified medieval stasis (no matter how far back in time a prequel goes, it will always hearken back to an even more distant, even more glorious past... which looks exactly like the present and even more exactly like the future) and the terrible decision to base the entire game on 2-player online co-op, constantly interfering with any single-player playthrough. I have to say it looks like a fault in project leadership. The visual artists, voice actors and music score were otherwise top-notch.

In addition, much of its interface functionality rendered combat a chore, like pointlessly locking almost your entire interface while a spellcasting animation executes, compounded by such animations' undue length. Or a crafting system which is half crucial to your success and half pointless flavor-text chore, with no way for a starting player to discern valuable items. Or the "dynamic" combat camera constantly rubberbanding around in fights, potentially twice in a single combat action. At least that nuisance can be disabled, which can't be said for the exaggerated idle animations constantly making me miss-target attacks as my targets wobble about randomly. Or characters gaining no experience if knocked out during a fight, a universal no-no for any party-oriented game whether single or multiplayer.

So you have to wonder what's made D:OS even borderline playable. As with Dead State I must note an undue amount of amateurishness despite its creators having been at this game-design game for quite a while. And, just as with Dead State, it's salvaged in part by a nerdy dedication to creating interesting tactical options.


That's me about to rain icy death on some poor unsuspecting zombies. The bushes lining that cliff overlooking their campsite block simple ballistic projectiles like arrows or grenades, but not the scroll of Hail Attack my thief had in her pocketses. Line of sight can be blocked both by terrain and clouds of smoke or dust kicked up during a fight, and in a fair show of cutting the Gordian Knot, smoke clouds also block LoS out of combat, which can make thieving possible in otherwise counterintuitive situations. Positioning matters, as do attacks of opportunity, status effects and specific counters for same. Spells interact in logical ways. A wet character is more susceptible to electric shock or freezing and a frozen character can be thawed out by fire. Monsters possess resistances up to and including being healed by their native element (don't shoot fire at a fire elemental, dumbass) and such immunity can even apply to your own characters.

D:OS' greatest claim to fame however has to be its "surfaces" or ground effects left behind by magic. Using a poison spell leaves behind a poison cloud... a combustible one. Oil patches can both slow you and be ignited into a stable AoE firestorm. Fighting in a puddle can turn an otherwise minor shock effect into an AoE stun. You can slip and fall trying to cross ice patches. All in all, Larian took an excellent stab at elevating wizardry above stupid old magic missiles, at enabling magic to alter the game environment, to change the physical laws of the universe.

It's also interesting to see a modern RPG with a heavy (very heavy in fact) puzzle-solving element, even to the main quest itself. Placing objects, activating sequences of symbols, good stuff. But here I must once again bemoan some awkward implementation. Too many of the puzzles either relied on pixel-hunting (and that idiocy belongs back in the 1980s) or were blatantly meant to be brute-forced by simply trying various options, usually over several reloads. The entrance to the Source Temple was especially heinous.

Overall I can't say I'll be re-installing this frustrating little gem anytime soon, but D:OS definitely earned its fame and it's easily worth at least one playthrough. If you want creativity, look to Europe.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Did you hear about the physics student who rebelled against quantum theory?
They made him walk the Planck.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Serenity, peace and an excuse for living, Loretta

"I can't wait until
You can stash and you can seize
In dreams begin responsibilities
"

U2 - Acrobat

______________________________

"Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.
[...]
There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.
[...]
Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.
[...]
Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag."


Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
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"It's every man's right to have babies if he wants them."
"But... you can't have babies!"
"Don't you oppress me!"

Monty Python - The Life of Brian (1979)
___________________________________________

"So the secret to good self-esteem is to lower your expectations to the point where they're already met?"
----------
"Next, you convince them that the problem is not their fault and that they're victims of larger forces"
----------
"I need holistic healing and wellness before I'll accept any responsibility for my actions."


Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes (strips from 1992/02/11, 1993/06/06 and 1993/01/21 respectively)
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"Americans are losing the ability to see any issue as anything but a clash of two extremes. Subtle grays don't register."

David Craig Simpson - Ozy and Millie (2000/07/23)
___________________________________________

"One of the advantages in having a cause is that it saves you from worrying about what life means. (Indeed, this is what attracts many people to communal action.) Just as during World War II "anti-fascism" seemed a sufficient excuse for living, so the fight against one injustice or another has tended to deliver present-day activists from such maladies of privilege as intellectual doubt, cosmic weariness and boredom. While the revolution assaults any given establishment, the fact that an abyss waits at the end of life does not for the time being bother the rebel. Hatred of the system and concern with advancement of the war gives a man enough to think about. Only when the battle has ended does the freed soul turn and face the cosmic menace."

Alan Harrington - The Immortalist (1977) page 4
___________________________________________



Much virtual ink has virtually spilled over the past few years in attempting to describe, explain and excuse the "snowflake" social phenomenon among today's youths. Seeing a generation full of spineless, whiny, overentitled drama queens prompts a justifiable question of who pissed in the gene pool. But of course the self-gratifying, shallow social activism we've learned to associate with millennials is hardly a system of their own creation. Snowflakes did not invent narcissism. They merely excel at it.
Don't you, now? Who's the bestest narcissist? You are! Oh yes you are, yes you are, who's a good little girl? Here's a medal, here's a Steam achievement, here's a thumbs up and a "like" and a safe space all your own just for you being you.

Explanations of this trend tend to over-emphasize (in true contemporary post-modernist spirit) nurture over nature. This superego plague has been inflicted upon us, we are sometimes told, by over-parenting and by psychotherapeutic institutionalization, by the wonders of the modern age. Valid criticism in both cases. But why then does modernity so closely resemble the shallow activism of fifty years ago? Why does it ape so perfectly the world of the previous turn of the century, the prissiness of Victorian mores? When patterns keep repeating within the human species, can we not admit that humanity is the pattern?

Nurture plays its role, sure. The information-age world has grown, for all its lacks, more productive on the societal level and more supportive on the individual level than any before it. We are safer and more free from drudgery than any minds before us. Liberated of demands on our physical (biological) support system, we find ourselves empowered to instead devote more time to living as ourselves, as individuals, as minds who happen to inhabit ape bodies, as intellect. Unfortunately, even the best of us cannot function on that level for most of the time, and most humans never look past their instincts. They are apes and can never be more, creatures of tribal conflict and reproductive competition. Giving them time to think merely fills them with a vague dread of expectations of self-improvement which they cannot possibly hope to meet.

Activists usually draw few material benefits, excepting a few head charlatans.
Socially, on the other hand, the attention and praise they receive meets the demands of our instinctive drive for social status. Picking a cause already dubbed noble allows you to spew mountains of unscrutinized chauvinist rhetoric upholding the CORRECT skin color or sex, etc. and to receive endless adulation not for what one does but for doing in the name of [...]
That their demands are often impractical with trivial (if any) benefits if acceded to (or outright nonsensical or unjust) should not surprise anyone. The act of making demands in itself is the sort of posturing activists crave. Psychologically, even on an individual level, activism allows for the fabrication of a noble martyr's self-image. Without ever having to prove the claim, just declare yourself to be the harbinger of a glorious future, morally and intellectually superior to all others, and at the same time entitled to retribution against your preferred targets of abuse. If not on the basis of your default skin color or sex, don't despair! Whether L, G, B, T, Q, Z, @, :) or any other flavor of irrelevant demarcation, you can cloister yourself with like minds and find existential justification in your basest attributes: what you stick and where you stick it.
All you have to do to prove your worth (even to yourself) (especially to yourself) is "self-identify as" being part of a speshul class of plucky rebels.

The pretexts may be new but the true root cause is the same basic human stupidity which has given rise to all the moral guardians of the past, the self-appointed thought police of religion, patriotism and mannerly comportment. Mrs. Grundy's just wearing a new hat.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Request a Hand

"Disarm you with a smile
Cut you like you want me to"

Smashing Pumpkins - Disarm


The most destructive human behavior of all is smiling. Not the inevitable enslavement, betrayals and annihilation of the self that's to follow, but that very first smile, the demand to forge a social bond, a chain, the clink of teeth rattling like Gleipnir. The demand that you let down your guard, that you subject yourself to emotional manipulation, should be viewed as a threat, if we were truly sentient beings and not flesh automata, extensions of our genetic imperative.
Meet every smile with a snarl. Bite the hand. The chain is sure to follow.

Monday, November 19, 2018

What else? - Oh, never mind...

"And die young"

Kill Hannah - Kennedy


Around 2011 I started watching Christopher Hitchens videos online, in my usual meandering, aimless fashion. By 2012 I'd grown to admire him enough that I eagerly looked up what he'd been doing lately. As should happen, what he'd been doing lately was dying, at 62 years old.

In the early 2000s I first read Cat's Cradle then Slaughterhouse Five. About a year after reading A Man Without a Country, just as I my mind was wandering back to the topic of Kurt Vonnegut, the morning news decided to ruin my breakfast by announcing his death. At least he made it past the average lifespan for a male in the developed world, at 84.

One of my favorite movies has remained Whisper of the Heart. Immediately after seeing it fifteen years ago I looked up the director to see what other movies he'd headed. None. Yoshifumi Kondo died after directing the one flick. He was 47.

And speaking of anime, after seeing Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika and Paranoia Agent I was eager to see what Satoshi Kon was doing next. Dying at 46, of course.

I just finished the game Divinity: Original Sin and I've been gathering notes for a post about it. As one of its positive aspects I was planning to praise the Divinity series' composer, whose superior work had stood out to me even while playing the otherwise dull aRPG grind Divine Divinity. So I finally beat the final boss, ran my victory lap and the credits rolled.
"In loving memory of Kirill Pokrovsky."
Man oh man, by this point in my life I had a pretty good inkling who that must be. 53 years old.
(Incidentally, for the love of Apollo and Marsyas both, someone check Paul Romero's pulse! He's exactly 53 now.)

If I'm about to look up a name who's impressed me, I'd give even odds he just recently kicked the bucket in middle age. Hell, I was a teenager in the '90s, and arguably the defining moment of our shift in youth counterculture from punk and grunge to goth was Kurt Cobain's suicide at 27. Edgar Allan Poe made it to 40 before winding up dead in a ditch. Literally. And as prissy as the bastard was, that would NOT have been the way he wanted to go.

The good die young damnit. Good news for me. I'm a worthless piece of shit and I'll never create a single thing worth mentioning. I'll outlive the lot of ya! Haaahahahahahaha!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

That Voodoo That You Rarely Do

"The roaches, the rats, the strays, the cats
The guns, knives and bats
Every time we scrap"

DMX - Who We Be


So there's this anime called Darker than Black about murderous secret agents with superpowers. It's less guilty of pushing its big cool gimmick than most other shows of its type. Nonetheless, said superpowers get predictably overused, especially since they sound cool on paper but in most situations don't accomplish anything that a pistol slug, taser or closed-circuit camera wouldn't do just as easily.
Seriously, in the time it took you to slash your own forearm and fling your disintegrating blood at your opponent, you could've unloaded five rounds of buckshot in his direction, with greater spread, range and accuracy and without sending yourself into hypovolemic shock.
Dumbass.

Three posts ago I was talking about party sizes in computer role-playing games and the importance of small hunting pack dynamics, a.k.a. the five-man band. I ended up mentioning the X-Men. Superhero teams make an interesting counterpoint to regular superheroics. A loner hero tends to need a bit of everything: strength, resilience, mobility, problem-solving ability. Try to think of a single superpower that Superman doesn't have or can't duplicate somehow. The X-Men were allowed more individual personality.

Angel flies. He doesn't tear tanks apart with his bare hands or summon hurricanes. He has wings and he flies and he flies using his wings. It's his thing that he does. Cyclops shoots eye-beams and Marvel Girl levitates things. Those are their things that they do. Oh, sure, over time the comic acquired more multi-purpose characters, but the original concept allowed for such counter-intuitive greatness as a wheelchair-bound superhero. Of course, you still have to ask yourself why Angel's not dropping tear gas canisters onto his antagonists' heads in that panel (dumbass) or why not a one of the many X-men ever carries a first aid kit. I don't know if you guys noticed, but you tend to draw attention in the form of bullets and energy blasts. Boo-boos happen!

In terms of roleplaying games, super and/or magic powers almost have to be expanded to all-purpose sets or schools. After all, so as not to sound hypocritical, let me admit I'd be the first to complain about a lack of complexity or versatility. However, it does get a bit annoying when everything you do revolves around your core gimmick. You fast-travel using your ice skill and shield yourself using your ice skill and crowd-control enemies using your ice skill and heal yourself using your ice skill and fry hamburgers somehow by using your ice skill. Secondly, it's also annoying to see a pyromancer doing 54 damage at 30 meters with a fire bolt and cryomancer doing 54 damage at 30 meters using an ice bolt. Quit milking it. If it's the same magic missile across the board stop trying to re-brand it. Thirdly, flapping his wings should not be the only thing Angel does. Would it kill you to toss a few grenades? Maybe carry a pair of binoculars? A net? Could you not at least shit on people while you're up there, you overgrown pigeon?

How much could one get done with ordinary implements of war and peace by adding one simple superpower? Just one. Could you build an online game around this? Maybe not a skill or class-based RPG, as it would kill such genres' core attraction of character development. It might, however, be the perfect way to spice up FPS games. Build an online MMOFPS with a decent physics engine and all the usual pistols or swords, horses or tanks, what have you. Then allow each individual player one, just one (1) singular superpower. Flight or x-ray vision or super strength or juggernuttery or teleportation or regeneration or whatever you want. Darker than Black's agents usually made rather more liberal use of mundane gear than the X-men did. Why not build a game around such agents instead of all-purpose Kryptonians?

If everyone needs to shoot each other, if that's a core ability, then it doesn't need to be re-iterated a dozen times over for every single playable class with different colored effects. Just let everyone pick their medieval or modern or futuristic weapons of choice from a common pool, bought and sold and crafted and looted like gear in any other game. Let every individual's superpower be a game-changer instead. In fact, we already have one endlessly recurring example in multiplayer: invisibility. Rogues / assassins / infiltraitors / spies have been retardedly overpowered in World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2 or any other PvP game due largely to their stealth ability, and such classes have been predictably popular and over-played due to being overpowered since before Y2K. Flight, though more rarely featured, is similarly popular for much the same reason. Paired with even relatively weak weapons, these gimmicks routinely make players unbeatable.

Giving every player a choice of one game-breaking gimmick should be a way to both avoid the stereotypical five-man band or nuker / tank / healer archetypes and to prevent magic from becoming trivialized and homogenized. Guns, knives and bats (and band-aids) are all-purpose. Superpowers should be situational. Shoot your way through your enemies. When you reach a reinforced bunker wall, then you can spray your magic disintegration blood all over it, to achieve what guns alone cannot. Let superpowers take the place of five-minute-cooldown "ultimate" abilities. With a clever enough system of bonuses and weaknesses, it should even be possible to allow players to each design their own individual superpower at character creation. A Hulk-like jump followed by decreased movement speed, a self-damaging speed power or a flight ability paired with hampered aiming, regeneration paired with lethargy, etc.

Just stick to the core rule: you only get one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Heros Ex Machina

"Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer."

Voltaire


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Major spoiler alert for Pillars of Eternity 1's ending.
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One of your first adventures in Pillars of Eternity (#1) has you infiltrating Raedric's Hold to speak with and/or murderize Lord (coincidentally enough) Raedric. You can either fight your way through or sneak to him with minimal combat by helping one of his two advisors kill the other. And you thought workplace competition was cut-throat in capitalist societies. One of your choices of ally, Nedmar, is a priest and loyal old follower of the Raedrics. He speaks softly, inhabits a cozy study on the castle's top floor and though it breaks his heart, asks you to do what's best for the suffering people of his land even if it means siding with the plucky rebel resistance and killing the now tyrannical Raedric. The other choice, Osrya, is a disfigured, monomaniacal loner mad scientist haunting the castle's dungeon alongside her army of zombies and other fleshly abominations. She wants you to preserve Raedric no matter what atrocities he's committed (and will continue to commit) since he's paying her bills.

Kind of seems like an open and shut case of classic good/evil roleplaying choices, except for the unexpected twist of the woman being on the selfish "evil" side. Their interpretations of their nation's calamity remain in character. Nedmar the priest says you have to appease the gods while Osrya the scientist says it's the fault of mortal villains acting via technological means. It turns out Osrya was absolutely 110% correct and Nedmar was talking out of his ass. In fact even Nedmar's entire pantheon were secretly manufactured by an ancient civilization in order to bring the whole world together under one faith.

Religion is psychologically safe. It's a cozy upstairs study. Lets you feel taken care of. Saves you the trouble of thinking for yourself. "God did it" makes a convenient explanation - for whatever. Unfortunately it's also a very, very lazy non-explanation leaving you with the inevitable question of who or what, in turn, did that God thing in the first place, or at least "why did God do it?" It fails to answer anything satisfactorily, not only from a scientific perspective but from a storytelling one.

We've had fantasy storytelling forever. Folklore is replete with epic poems, fairytales and fables in which things happen "just because" some inscrutable supernatural will wills it so. About the second half of the 19th century, western society became increasingly aware of the value of rationalism, of knowing just how things work, and its literature branched out to reflect this growing consciousness through science and detective fiction. By the time superhero comics became a thing of their own in the 1940s such fiction had undergone decades' worth of pulping. The public was all too willing to revert back to its golden oldie superstitions. Nevertheless, Batman grew out of detective thrillers like The Shadow and Superman was among other things a logical reversal of pulp SF's planetary romances. Through the Silver Age, most of the most memorable superheroes like Spider-Man, Flash, The X-Men, Iron Man stood out against previous centuries' background of mystical superheroes like Siegfried and Herakles for embracing 20th century science, albeit superficially. Superheroes are demi-dei ex machina, emphasis on the machina.

This may seem like splitting hairs. Siegfried bathes in dragon blood, Spidey gets injected with spider spit, po-tay-toe / po-tah-toe, who cares, it's really all about punching stuff. The justifications for superheroes' powers withstand little more scrutiny than mystical babbling anyway... but that little counts for a lot. When you dream up kryptonite you're creating a substance with physical properties, and its role in the story is constrained by those properties. Fans begin to ask questions. Good questions. Like, what's its density? Valence shell? How exactly did so much of the stuff make it to Earth given the inverse-square law? Or where in the original planet's crust did it come from? What's its LD50 if Supes eats some on toast? In a hamburger with ketchup? In a homeopathic distillation? The same kind of inquisitiveness is not prompted by the unanswered questions of why, for example, Nessus' blood was poisonous in the first place and how many species could it affect (could it penetrate the skin of Achilles / Siegfried?) how long is its half-life sitting in Deianeira's amphora or krater or whatever, what exactly are its pharmacokinetics and renal clearance, etc.
Meh. Who cares. Centaurs are just weird like that, dude. Whatever, brah. God(s) did it.

Science is messy. It gets its hands dirty. "Scientific" explanations in fiction quite often reek of the sewer and cause no end of efforts at cleaning up some writer's spewing buzz-words like "gamma rays" or "ruby quartz" or whatever the hell Flash is snorting. Comes with the territory. Unfortunately, superhero comics were littered from the start with truly supernatural supes like witches, gods, amazons and Atlanteans, but they used to take a back seat. Used to. I take it as a sign of our times that the biggest names in superhero movies since last decade have become Thor vs. Loki and Wonder Woman vs. Ares, and that Spider Man was apparently retconned to have been bitten by a magic spider-pixie or some bullshit instead of a radioactive spider. As each generation since WWII degenerates farther and farther into anti-intellectualism, it becomes more and more susceptible to facile, shallow mysticism instead of facile, shallow technobabble. And yes, there are degrees to facile and shallow, even among punch-drunk comic book characters. "Abracadabra" is still lazier than even half-assed technobabble.

Games and gamers have the potential to turn this nocive flood around. To actively play a game instead of passively absorbing a story is to deal with game mechanics. Even with god-moding enemies, you're more likely to ask yourself how expansive exactly is Almalexia's mana pool, or how many total 9th-level spells per day Talona can hand out to all her most toxic players. You start thinking of the dice rolls behind the squinting and grunting of magical conflicts. Your fictional setting might need gods, sure; it might need the influence of vastly superhuman wilful forces. But it is important to root these forces in mechanistic vulnerabilities, even if the mechanics are not fully explained. If you must have gods then manufacture them, in universe, by means accessible to others within the same universe. Start assembling superpowers from nuts and bolts instead of starting with a "flying brick"effect and then trying to justify it. As unpleasant as Osrya seems, remember she is ultimately right, and her methodology infinitely more likely to yield coherent answers than kindly old Nedmar's kow-towing before his own tulpas.

You want to write better superheroes? Game the system.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Squid hats are very "in" this season

While wearing a funny hat in an online game I spotted someone else wearing the same hat and kicked myself at the impulse to message him "nice hat" as a half-joking acknowledgement. In the past I've repeatedly criticized others for praising me on having acquired and displaying such and such in-game item. It's not like I designed the damned things. I deserve no credit for the hat's putative niceness.

Our monkey brains, though, perceive no difference. We measure our worth in status symbols, not personal quality. Whether we made the loot or looted it, whether we hooked it or crooked it, our social primate instincts assert a need to flaunt one's booty. Assess status. Acquire status. Display status. Acknowledge status. Demand the acknowledgement of status. Form social alliances of convenience with others displaying status. Reaffirm social bonds by banding together against those displaying the wrong status. Subsume their status.

Then, just to make assurance double sure, seek more status...