Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Art of Femismancy, Part 1: Maje Island

In a couple of previous posts here, I have accused Obsidian Entertainment of (in addition to other political correctness) rampant feminism (a.k.a. misandry) in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. Some might consider this an exaggeration. So, just to shut you gaggles, I'm taking time during my second playthrough over the next couple of weeks to tally up all the supporting cast, male and female, and see how many are portrayed in a positive or negative light.

I'm writing these up as I encounter them, so based on my game route I may miss some. Deal with it. Some degree of subjectivity is inevitable, though I'll do my best to reference Deadfire's own dialogues and descriptions.

Some basic rules:

Any minor character counts, which is to say any character with a name and/or some kind of personality or onscreen interaction, even if short and shallow.
Nameless redshirts you mow down on the field don't count here, though some random encounters and bosses with observable characteristics might.
Vendors and tavern keepers generally don't (taking your money doesn't tell you much about them) unless they, again, play some bit part in a quest.
Party members are also addressed only in isolated interactions for each location i.e. their recruitment event or behavior during a quest.
Skipping interludes with gods and goddesses.

"Positive" blue characters are either good (justified in their actions (even wrong actions) in some implicit or explicit way or allowed to morally slam others) and/or dignified which is to say good at their job, display courage under fire, respected in their community, able to stand their ground in an argument, etc.

"Negative" red characters may be evil (villains, lowlifes, scoundrels by the general definition of society at large) without being allotted moral justifications for their evil actions, and/or losers: weak, incompetent, sniveling, drunks, deadbeats, cowards, despised and denigrated by others with impunity, etc.

"Neutral" black text names generally break even, blend the two. A character may be portrayed as competent but selfish, pathetic but helpful, condemned by others but actually in the right, and so on. Alternately, being minor episodic roles, some are just too bland to characterize or don't really interact with others during their appearance.

Note: the explicit on-screen interactions weigh much more heavily than any implied characteristics. The whole point is to assess how Obsidian wants us to view characters of both sexes, how the writing team painted them, not just how we view dwarf / elf culture or whatever. Whom are we being programmed to hate?

Obsidian's main trick throughout the game is to juxtapose a positive female with a negative male, thereby emphasizing the female's superiority, so wherever this fits I'll try to list them as pairs.

So it begins:

Maje Island

Benweth (m) - obviously intended as a completely unambiguous villain. Not only did he directly attack you and insult your ship to boot, but he's a sadistic, reckless, greedy, stupid, lazy, power-hungry, power-mad, every-deadly-sinning pirate according to everyone you meet. A "limp-cocked nut-twist" according to Serafen. Naturally a white male, presumably straight.

Eld Engrim (m) - pathetic old drunk in your crew paired up with the adorable plucky young orlan orphan Vela (f) - amusingly, despite being an obvious clown, Eld Engrim's allowed a halfway positive characterization as a lovable old curmudgeon in his role as babysitter, rendering service to a female. Everybody loves Vela.

Beodul (m) - helpless, trapped in cave afraid to move past traps
Irrena (f) - sassy, bravely gritting her teeth through her broken leg, openly ridicules Beodul after they're both saved - "was he crying"

Galian (m) - drunk deadbeat guest at inn
Thorel (m) - innkeeper, a whiny fatass with a dopey voice, but at least he's a nice whiny fatass with a dopey voice.

Rinco (m) - a lying, sniveling card player presumably dependent on his serious, professional wife
Mokeha (f) - native, beats Rinco to a pulp because he's a sore loser who insults her noble savagery
Let's review: Mokeha responds to insults with grievous bodily harm and robbery, something which (legality aside) would immediately get branded as "toxic masculinity" by a modern audience if she'd been male and would be unthinkably villainous if she'd been male and Rinco female, no matter what insults the female throws at the male.
As a feminist ideal of a strong woman, she's of course immune to judgment. Forget beating her in retribution - if you even try to intimidate her into coming back to own her crime, her entire village including Ikawha the overpowered spellcaster turn hostile and, given you're level 3-ish with an incomplete party by that point, instantly curb-stomp you in the first round of combat. Learned your lesson? Never try to make a woman take responsibility for her own actions.
So, in truth, your only options are to either side with the brutish thug Mokeha or whine to her and insult Rinco, her victim, to butter her up to at least get Rinco's money back.
Wow. Nice roleplaying "choices" there.
Bonus feminist points as Rinco's only acceptable worth during this whole argument is instrumental, as provider for his family, not as an individual with an intrinsic right not to be so savagely beaten that he becomes bedridden for spouting a few angry words over a card game.

Savia (f) - sympathetically overworked local sheriff
Rum-Dumb Riggere (m) her drunken prisoner. Do I need to explain this one? Even ignoring the word "dumb" right in the male character's name, their dialogue is laid on very thick
also Savia vs. Ilari (m) whom she sends you to subdue, a thug and looter and even literally a whiner when you attack him.

Waenglith (f) - Eothasian priestess. Meh, call her neutral, her main interaction is with another female, Xoti, whose heroic calling she fails to acknowledge, though she is also given a male redshirt to smear with hot wax while he whines pitifully. Kinky.

Governor Clario (m) & Captain Darmo (m) - largely neutral disinterested professionals, though Clario being more interested in the animancers' results than their lives is obviously intended to make us dislike him. You're even allowed to rat his motivations out to Benessa (f) so she and the other old female animancer at the digsite can loudly voice their disdain for him... regardless of the fact that whatever his motivations, he did wind up sending them a rescue party.
vs.: Ikawha and Benessa below

Storm Speaker Ikawha (f) - noble, dignified leader of the local tribe, a force of nature, savior of the island, savior of your ship, very put-upon by the demands of Clario, the (male) foreign colony leader... three sentences into her dialogue and you're practically blinded by her halo; she's almost as bad as the queen.

Benessa (f) - leader of the surviving animancers at the dig site after her (male) boss conveniently got himself killed "she looks to be only midway into her thirties, though the serious set of her mouth makes her seem older"
"Engferth" or rather your old buddy Aloth (m) who screwed up a first-level spell and set fire to some tents instead of chasing away the encroaching wildlife. Apparently despite his spellcasting having been a match for several dragons and not one but two archmagi in the original campaign, he still has to play his nebbish role as the butt of jokes in this one.
If you reveal his identity, Aloth gets browbeaten for working under an assumed name and is banished from their company, barely able to meet Benessa's eyes for his shame. You get no option to stick up for him or tell the retarded bitch off for getting pissy about her lab assistant's secret identity as a famous hero who's unravelled more mysterious ancient magitek than she's washed beakers. He hurt her fee-fees by not telling her his life story. Never mind his actions alongside you in Defiance Bay likely saved her entire profession from defamation and outlaw status, against his better judgment.

Old Druid (m) - a.k.a. map encounter guy with boar herd - somewhat hostile, but also relatively dignified, competent in his chosen profession, a Noble Savage presumably defending his homeland from yadda-yadda. Helped my fellow druid out in my first playthrough. So yeah, finally, there's a positive male character. All you have to be is a primitive backwoods ignoramus smeared in pig shit and you're golden.

Captain Furrante (m) vs. Serafen (m) - interestingly, their first showing is fairly neutral. Later on, Serafen the tribal native becomes a principled, heroic survivor with a tragic past while Furrante's refined Old World mannerisms doom him as a villain to be deposed, but for now Serafen's just a trash-talking underling and Furrante offers you a chance at revenge against the pirate who stranded you on Maje Island. The difference only becomes apparent once Aeldys (f) comes into play. Furrante is against her, therefore bad.

Next stop: Neketaka!

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Jain's Death

Jainism is insane. It's so insane it makes even regular insanity sound sane by comparison. When you hear about people wearing cloth masks over their mouths their whole lives because they're afraid to accidentally eat a bug, you might reasonably assume an unwarranted phobia of such critters. But noooo, the Jains have to go one better. It's because they adore the little darlings too much to risk hurting them!

However, insanity can make for good reading. The Jain's Death is a very short 60-panel comic about... well, shit, the title covers about half and any more would be spoiling it. Suffice it to say the mindset of absolutist ahimsa will be so alien to most readers as to provide a quick but entertainingly novel spin on a well-traveled concept. What karmic banking lacks in violence it certainly makes up for in self-righteousness and nitpicking. By the last line of dialogue, not even the Rod Serling twist you might think is coming will be the real one.

Even if you don't agree with the mentality (I certainly don't) this was a well-executed story.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Easy cognition, easy morality, Obsidian style

"And what will that leave, that Third World insanity? Will that put an end to all life, of every kind, everywhere? When our planet becomes a dead planet, by our own hands?
He could not believe that. Even if all life on our planet is destroyed, there must be other life somewhere which we know nothing of. It is impossible that ours is the only world; there must be world after world unseen by us, in some region or dimension that we simply do not perceive.
The terrible dilemma of our lives. Whatever happens, it is evil beyond compare. Why struggle, then? Why choose? If all alternatives are the same.
We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious."

Philip K. Dick - The Man in the High Castle

Major end-game spoilers for Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire

One of the many problems with fanaticism aside from the active harm it causes is that like physical substance addiction it tends to take over one's entire thought pattern. The addictive self-righteousness of constantly proclaiming your holier-than-thou adherence to the one true faith tends to eclipse other, more mundane considerations... like the quality of your work.

In the world of cRPGs, this came out in a big way with Siege of Dragonspear, by most accounts a parasitic hijacking of a classic game series by shameless profiteers. Quite a few dissatisfied customers complained about the game's shallow, utterly gratuitous social justice activism. Fine, whatever. The more interesting reviews came from those with the wherewithal to note that Dragonspear also lacked any relevant qualities as a game, that it was a completely buggy mess missing entire sections of its promised functionality, riddled with terrible interface and other design choices, a linear series of 10x10foot rooms with no meaningful roleplaying choices, forgettable characters and total content amounting to other games' last act. Regardless of what you think of political correctness, the more immediate issue was the design team hiding their incompetence and laziness behind said correctness. It's Beamdog's glaring assumption that they shouldn't need anything besides proselytizing to sell their shoddy product.

Glad I dodged that bullet. Unfortunately, Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire seems to suffer from a smaller degree of the same problem. Unlike Dragonspear's reputation, Deadfire's actually rather promising from an abstract game design standpoint but its writing has obviously suffered compared to PoE1. For a Role-Playing Game, especially a story-based one, this is not to be shrugged off.
This is how I chose to end my first playthrough. As in the first game, you end by making a monumental decision by siding with one of several deities who embody various philosophical or sociopolitical ideals. This decision is said to affect the fate of the world, and in my case I went with the god representing the heat death of the universe... with somewhat predictable results. I'd picked Rymrgand's option to grind baby souls to dust at the end of the first game so what the hey, I thought I'd go for an encore in the sequel, for consistency's sake. That, and Deadfire's shallow storytelling and nonstop wall-to-wall misandry had me about ready to end that world anyway. Yet when my character tries to explain that choice, those are my only two options? "I just hate life" and a valid but still shallow claim of nihilism?

The intellectual depth of the gods from the first game, their philosophical overlap, seems to have completely vanished. Rymrgand was a god of death, finality, entropy, decay, yet this did not necessarily mean a straightforward apocalypse, much less a petulant "let's blow up the world" one-liner. In fact the quest to gain his favor in the first game dealt with a population of elves desperate to escape Samsara and find peace in one-ness with the universe. Where is that aspect of Rymrgand worship now? How does Obsidian's anti-white, anti-male rainbow-sprinkle politically correct gibberish mesh with insulting one of the core beliefs of half a billion Buddhists? (Plus quite a few Hindus as I understand it.)

Compare that truncated, simpleminded, peevish two-line denigration of nihilism above with this discussion of Rymrgand's philosophy from PoE1:
Rymrgand grinds worlds to dust but he does so when it suits him, gradually, painstakingly, inevitably. In itself, this might've made an excellent plot hook for a canonical transition to a third PoE game. Set it in a world gradually fading as entropy grips the veins of Eora, a barely perceptible apocalypse with societies struggling to hold themselves together in the face of dwindling birth rates and natural resources. Mad Max with dragons and magic wands.
Be honest with yourself. You would play the shit out of that.

Or take the supporting arguments provided by Ondra and Skaen above. Maybe an act of destruction merely prevents a greater evil, an eternity of slavery to the Queen that Was. Maybe disintegration prevents the rise of abominations and the greater misery which pretty routinely cropped up in PoE1 when souls were misplaced. There is such a thing as a fate worse than death. Maybe a fallow season is needed to enrich the soil for new growth. Maybe we need a scorched earth strategy to stop an enemy on the cusp of victory.
Where are those arguments now, that nuance, in Obsidian's reinvented Eora?

Or was all that consideration TL:DR maybe?
Is this just a matter of cutting the length of in-game text?
Hardly. Compare the almost identical length of dialogue I screenshotted for my last post about Deadfire, dealing with firing one petty bureaucrat of one trade company. You don't think the fate of the world warrants at least that much consideration?
But of course that wasn't just about firing the (male) trading company representative, but replacing him with his (female) second in command, a repeating pattern throughout your adventures. When it came to justifying their anti-male chauvinism, Obsidian saw no problem with filling page after page with very detailed, passionate and well-supported reasons why almost every man you meet just happens to be either stupid or evil or both, and juxtaposing them with glorified saintly women. No amount of "boys stink, girls rule" was too much.

Note this was done while most side-quests utterly lack any sort of roleplaying choices. Labyrinths, cannibal shipwreck survivors, the vampire lord of an entire island, the secret of teleportation, murderously xenophobic Noble Savages, hell, even the fate of the world; Deadfire's littered with material which should have been better integrated into player decision-making, or at least padded with more justifications.
Why, instead of fleshing out the number or moral depth of choices made by the player, was so much energy reserved instead for propping up the pedestal of femininity?
Because you just hate men. All of them.
Your self-justifying postmodern absolutist moral relativism, your fanaticism, your narcissism seemed more important to you than the actual quality of your storytelling.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


"'It's a parasite; it's capable of attaching itself to a host, such as a man, and controlling the host. It is almost certainly extra-terrestrial in origin and metabolism.
The lab boss sniffed. 'Extra-terrestrial parasite on a terrestrial host? Ridiculous! The body chemistries would be incompatible.'"

Robert A. Heinlein - The Puppet Masters

Infuriating that of Heinlein's three best known works, two are among his worst written. Along with Starship Troopers, The Puppet Masters recalls the few times he allowed himself to slip from measured, self-aware individualism to rambling chest-thumping jingoism. It dates from 1951, a ripe time for tales of insidious aliens masquerading as real people, thinly disguised morality plays about the subversion of holy capitalism by those damn dirty communists! This was the heyday of the red scare, with Grand Inquisitor McCarthy turning up the heat on the anti-communist paranoia simmering through the previous several decades. That same year, John W. Campbell's 1938 Who Goes There was dredged up and adapted into a movie, before it became "The Thing" years on. It only took a couple of years for the likes of Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury to come out with their own alien doppelganger tales (though really, for Dick this sort of paranoia was to be expected.) From then on the "pod people" trope was set in stone as a pop scifi staple.

1951 also happens to be two or three years before the discovery of the structure of DNA. Yet both Campbell in 1938 and Heinlein in 1951 made sure to at least note the implausibility of compatible metabolic/pathogenic processes across planets. The sheer complexity of life in its levels upon levels of organization lends even minute differences the potential for sweeping effects. A single mutation in the nearly four thousand base pairs comprising the hemoglobin gene yields sickle cell, and throws a wrench in the plans of one P. falciparum of sanguine bent. How close a match do you think you'll get between organisms which didn't even evolve using the same genetic code? If an alien parasite found you, it wouldn't know which end to start nibbling.

Science Fiction's golden age came with the resurgence of "hard" SF in the 1940s and 50s. That'd be when Heinlein went as far as to dedicate a couple of paragraphs every other chapter to the arithmetic of interstellar distances... in a young adult novel... and the young adults ate it up! The Puppet Masters is more pulpy, somewhat disjointed, with awkwardly interposed gratuitous sex references and repeated pointless digressions into glorifying the brainwashed murderers employed by the establishment. However, it still paid more attention to the science of its fiction than any of its endless "pod people" copycats through the decades. As after the Verne / Wells era, Science Fiction went slowly into decline, and we are now once again in a 1920s/30s mass-appeal phase. The SciFi Syffy channel specializes in bargain bin monster flicks of such "quality" as would've made Abbott and Costello roll their eyes in disdain. Our two best known SF franchises are both movies: Star Trek and Star Wars. Both were past their prime two decades ago. One has degraded from a Utopian tale of exploration and discovery to a militaristic Action RPG. The other was never more than science fantasy to begin with, a continuation of the planetary romances of SF's dark ages.

I would not want to live in the 1940s but then again neither did most of the people of the '40s. If nothing else, maybe this at least rendered them more capable of looking forward than we are now, still mired in messianic black hat / white hat heroism and narcissistic, myopic social justice tracts masquerading as futurism.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Today, I re-potted my cactus. So there, if that's not a life-affirming symbol of continuity, I don't know what is.
Unless it dies, of course.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hecate bobs her hair

"But when we contrast the state of man in the opening of the twentieth century with the condition of any previous period in his history, then perhaps we may begin to understand something of that blind confidence. It was not so much a reasoned confidence as the inevitable consequence of sustained good fortune. By such standards as they possessed, things HAD gone amazingly well for them. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for the first time in history whole populations found themselves supplied with more than enough to eat, and the vital statistics of the time witness to an amelioration of hygienic conditions rapid beyond all precedent, and to a vast development of intelligence and ability in all the arts that make life wholesome. The level and quality of the average education had risen tremendously; and at the dawn of the twentieth century comparatively few people in Western Europe or America were unable to read or write. Never before had there been such reading masses.
The precedents of history were all one tale of the collapse of civilisations, the dangers of the time were manifest. One is incredulous now to believe they could not see."

H.G. Wells - The War in the Air

"Hey, brother, what ya thinking?
Leave that old record spinning

That good old sound is ringing
They don't know what they're missing"

Caravan Palace - Lone Digger

"Could've been a passing thing
Just a little boom-boom-bang
But we keep going again
And going again!"

Earl - Tongue Tied

War never changes. (Hey, guess what classic cRPG Werwolfe is currently re-playing?)
At the dawn of the twentieth century, war loomed inevitable in the minds of many willing to acknowledge such inevitabilities. Most were unwilling. War came, and went, and was declared obsolete. Everything was better forever for a decade or two. Most, faced with declining hopes, only sought to re-affirm their standard of living. It was the roaring twenties, the prohibition era when everyone was drunker than ever, when a crisis of overproduction was addressed by increasing production.

We know better than that now. We buy excess food and burn it. I find it entirely fitting that swing music should begin to make a comeback. The Cold War is decades past. As in the interbellum, half the masses of the developed world throw themselves into a forced frivolity while the other half embrace nationalism, fundamentalism and conservatism to their logical conclusion of fascism. Half the public thinks inventing new personal pronouns will solve the world's ills while the other half is practicing their swastikas. Oh, it's all intersectional. The world would be so much better without those straight white males, wouldn't it? I hear they drink baby blood. #finalsolution? Me Too!

So you gotta swing, swing, swing like it don't mean a thing my flappers and dappers, queens of the ring cycle gotterdameragnarockandrollit. Skidoo, skidoo, while the world spins beneath you. When the truth can no longer be kept quiet beneath your crinoline, drown it out in a trumpet-blast of heel-clicking. Victorian heads couched in faint mores belong in the sands of time.

It's two minutes to midnight.
Pumpkin time, Cindy.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Surviving Mars

Y'know those strange games which seem to do so much right that you're actually surprised when you find yourself not fully enjoying them?
Surviving Mars is one of those games.
Like resource acquisition and base-building? Then allow me to extend you a bubbly welcome to the bubble red bubble planet of bubbles. To go along with the by now canonical SciFi image of transparent habitation domes, the overall aesthetic of human structures adopts a sleek, airy, futuristic architecture of soft curves and suspended platforms, something between Star Trek and The Jetsons. Even your drones and shuttles look like Wall-E extras.

It works well enough in itself. Those apartment complexes, mines and factories look like interesting, engaging places to live and work. Unfortunately this safe, cozy rotundity is neither taken to its logical, space-age extreme of floating rings and laser lights nor offset by any other game elements. The writing, as I complained, leaves a lot to be desired in its blandness, and further hobbles itself through pedantry:
Seriously? "Alcohol is not the answer?" Was this thing co-written by Betty Ford and Barbara Bush?

The music deserves special mention, as Surviving Mars pays due attention to this oft-neglected aspect in post-Y2K games. In addition to a standard light techno background music soundtrack we'd expect from such a title, it provides three in-universe "radio" stations with different themes. Unfortunately, two of those three themes are surfer music and a country medley that would've better served Sim Farm. It's all actually rather inspired and even justifiable. Of course your colonists choking on red dust would be nostalgic for blue waves, and all that lively banjo strumming supports the general constructive atmosphere of the game. Still, I can't imagine much crossover between science fiction fans and "fun in the sun" surfer ditties. Something besides easy listening would've been quite welcome. Whatever happened to blasting Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra as the sun crests the horizon?

Unfortunatelier, those radio stations are deejayed by some of the most annoyingly bland, forced, artificially relatable personalities imaginable, enough to make you minimize the game whenever one of their inane little interludes intrudes on your brooding over the latest impending disaster. In addition to their grating bonhomie, their monologues run a very narrow gamut of presumably safe topics from baseball to kebabs to cultural inclusivity. With that, the whole rest of the game's aesthetic is thrown into a new perspective, not just smoothed and sleek and awkwardly restrained, but padded and kid-safe.

Which is a pity, because Surviving Mars is actually a surprisingly challenging and involved game. While it may be marketed as a city simulator, placing apartment blocks and factories comprises barely half the action. Each playable space agency has a slightly different style. Europe, for instance, thrives on research. From the very start, choosing your map involves balancing natural disasters with resource availability. Then comes scouting out your initial landing site and cobbling together a sufficient pile of resources using automated drones and building a life support network before you can even put up your first habitation dome. This robotic aspect continues throughout the game as you keep rocketing precious metals back to Earth and returning with whatever processed goods your colony lacks, all while constantly scouring the map beyond your domes for spare metal and research bonuses.

Take just one possible event and its many outcomes. Wherever a meteor hits it might: break machinery, puncture a dome, disable vehicles, leave behind a small chunk of metal or polymer or even spawn an "anomaly" to be explored for research. Other disasters are less forgiving. I had a very promising colony completely wiped out by an unusually long 6+ day cold wave.

To spice things up further, you're given one "mystery" or randomizable challenge, each run. As with the aesthetics, this can be a mixed bag, quickly descending into annoyance at feeling railroaded, forced to trudge through a specific scenario before you've even had a chance to grow your colony. After it ends, there seems little point in continuing to play. It both cuts into the sandbox appeal of city building in the short term and undermines its continued appeal in the long run. Building domes becomes, after a while, very repetitive as your citizens demand the same creature comforts in each.

Despite Surviving Mars' various high points, it feels hopelessly restricted. Again, it's a pity. This is a professionally made product. It plays smoothly, provides both a fair array of options and challenges, addresses all the necessary bells and whistles... but does so in an unnecessarily self-restrained fashion. Upon trying to quit, you're greeted by the old joke from Alpha Centauri:
Except Alpha Centauri dared to use as its inspiration some of the most daring, spine-chilling, nail-biting of major SF literature, and its gameplay options reflected this. You could be an iron-fisted dictator nerve-gassing your enemies into submission and sinking entire continents. Surviving Mars is like a cheap TV-grade Star Trek script inspired by those much better stories, and despite some engrossing resource management its ultimate lack of scope should make its creators ashamed to quote such a classic.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

ST: TNG - Hero of the Week

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: 3.23

Spock's daddy tops off his centuries-long ambassador career by gently caressing Picard's face. D'awww...
Vulcans meld in your mind, not your hand
V.I.P. (Vulcan Is Prissy) Sarek comes aboard the Enterprise to criticize their drapes in preparation for an assuredly sumptuous treaty-making soiree (which we never actually get to see; extras cost money, alright?) with a never before seen alien species (err, make that never seen all episode; make-up costs money, alright?) and needs a little something to steady his nerves before the big night. Turns out he's going senile and in danger of losing his stoic Vulcan emotional control. Most people would settle for a shot or three of whiskey, but Vulcans apparently would rather dump their butterflies into someone else's stomach.
... As disgusting as that sounds, it's not half as invasive as telepathy.

Very little of this episode makes sense. First off, if Sarek was broadcasting emotions at such a decibel level as to affect regular humans all over the ship, he should've rocked Troi's sonar like a marching band. Also, of all crew members to potentially have their mind shattered by an unspeakably intimate sharing of neural pathways, there must have been hundreds more expendable than the freaking captain of the ship! Maybe you need the right mind for it... but then why a non-telepathic Homo mundanicus whom you've just met days ago? Why not Sarek's younger Vulcan assistant, who's already been telepathically linked to him for months? years? Why not his wife? After all, it's her job to mentally castrate him. Or maybe the other assistant, a close confidant of years past? Why not Troi, y'know, the ship's official telepath? What do you even keep her around for if not to mind-meld with ambassadors?
Oh, right.

Eh. Fans probably find it easy to forgive such trespasses and get drawn into the acting instead. Stewart was at his usual best, both cold-bloodedly confronting his social better and hamming up his newfound Vulcan emotions after the mind meld. The portrayal of Sarek also manages to keep up with the show's resident Shakespearean, unlike many guest stars.


Seriesdate: 3.25

This one's about an amnesiac mutant alien messiah.
But first, let's spend a few minutes ridiculing Geordi some more for being despised by women, after he already absorbed Wesley's insults about it in the previous episode under Sarek's influence. No, no, really, it's okay, because after getting brain-zapped by the A.M.A.M., he finally works up the courage to subject his self-worth to a woman's judgment. He thanks the A.M.A.M. profusely for this gift of slavishness by the end of the episode, instead of asking the obvious question: "did you or did you not give me brain cancer?"

Meet the Amnesiac Mutant Alien Messiah, and his Amnesiac Mutant Alien crotch bulge. He suffers from hot flashes. Apotheotic hot flashes! As should happen, his entire species is primed to transcend their physical form, but a shadowy (everything's shadowy in space) government conspiracy keeping the wrapture under raps keeps killing off all the incipient godlings. Boy, ain't that always the way? Luckily, it only takes one fully actualized A.M.A.M. to infect the whole population with divinity, and if you think this story's beginning to sound familiar, then you must be an A.C. Clarke fan.

Most action / drama TV shows tend toward villains of the week. The original series of Star Trek certainly did. TNG, given its greater emphasis on a polite, utopian society, tended rather toward heroes of the week, introducing positive episodic characters helping to solve a particular technological / astronomic mystery.

Unfortunately Science Fiction doesn't really thrive on characters, but rather on ideas. Transfigurations subjects you to an utterly forgettable string of cheesy, sappy commentary on the A.M.A.M.'s virtues, going nowhere until the entire backstory gets breathlessly exposited in the last five minutes. Even lifting your basic plot from one of SF's "big three" doesn't amount to much if you cram it into the end credits. Not much in the way of boldly going. Sarek fares a bit better, but ultimately resolves to "the one with Spock's dad" and some palatable thespianing.

Hard to classify either of these episodes as anything other than filler. Having some schmuck stand around expositing is cheaper and more audience-friendly (read:idiot-friendly) than actually playing out a true SF plot with all the bells and whistles. You can get a lot of "futuristic" mileage out of some chin putty and a leotard, and telepathy's always very budget conscious, depending as it does on the "special" effect of actors squinting and grunting at each other.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Deadfire Herchipelago

"You're not some baby [girl]
Why you acting so surprised
You're sick of all the rules
Well I'm sick of all your lies"

Garbage - Why Do You Love Me

Slight PoE2: Deadfire spoilers follow.
Like any reasonable person, I've abandoned all other concerns this past week to dive into Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. Not that I thought it would be an outright masterpiece (and it isn't) but for better or worse it's become painfully obvious that the cRPG revival largely hinges on its success. PoE 2 is meant to reverse-engineer the lasting influence of Baldur's Gate 2: not a proof of concept nor a risque pioneer but a trendsetter. While an ambitious project in many ways, it clings to the lowest common denominator to widen its appeal. Shelving a full game design discussion for some later date, I have to note the somewhat glaring thematic issue of gender relations.

For one thing, the NPC "romance" options conspicuously (and thankfully) absent from PoE, Tides of Numenera and Tyranny have made an unwelcome comeback. Apparently my choices are between a redneck bimbo religious fanatic and a murderous nationalist fanatic. Hm. Pass. Maybe if that intellectually integral, metaphysically dissonant nerdette Ydwin had made it to full scripted companion status...

But I don't doubt they would've found some way to ruin her, to turn her into some feminist icon instead of an individual. Deadfire makes such a show of toeing the current snowflake party line as to constantly sour its limited storytelling potential. For one thing, every party member seems enthusiastically homo- or bi-sexual, in defiance of all statistical expectations for a heterosexually reproducing population... even Aloth, all of a sudden.

Speaking of Aloth, as the least desirable to female eyes (the nerd, and not a rich one either) I wasn't surprised to find him relegated to the status of comic relief to an even greater extent than in the original. Whinier, prissier, everyone's punching bag, it seems like his every dialogue has him ridiculed, humiliated, pushed around, abused, shit on... and meekly swallowing it all. All this, despite being able to one-shot an entire squad of fire giants? Had Aloth been female, such treatment would've swamped Obsidian with hate mail.

Not that he's out of place. As usual, respectability is a prize not to be earned but won with femininity as the perennial trump card.

That screenshot is about where I realized even the last male leader in the game was about to get thrown out, with no particular foreshadowing and with a kangaroo court to lend the proceedings an air of legitimacy. Of Deadfire's four major factions two are headed by females, two by males, an ostensibly even split. The males, of course, can be ousted and replaced with their female seconds and you're heavily prodded by ample moral reasons (slavery, native rights) to undermine them. You're given no such incentives or even options to replace the endless parade of chieftesses with their male subalterns.

It's a very stable pattern. Narration of the main storyline was heavily increased and the male narrator replaced with a female (and incompetent) one. In the council of the gods, the males (Skaen, Galawain, Rymrgand) are grudgingly allowed one irrelevant token appearance each. The discussion is entirely carried out among genderless Wael and the four staunchly female goddesses, plus Berath always in his/her female half. Female villains are always of the tragic flaw variety (usually "for my people" to the point of "a single tear rolls down her cheek") while the few irredeemable villains are always male (the Splintered Reef, Crookspur, etc.) All traitors are male. All thieves are male. All designated losers are male. In quests with predetermined outcomes, if the NPC you're helping is female, she'll somehow miraculously escape any disasters and / or assassination attempts.
If there's a last survivor of a failed expedition tenaciously clinging to life, standing up to the villain, it'll be female.
If there's a last survivor of a failed expedition shamefully groveling before the villain or ready to be sacrificed, it'll be male.

The saddest part, as usual, is that we accept and expect such abuse.

Perhaps worse than the outright male-bashing permeating Deadfire is its revisionist agenda filling the game world with warrior women. PoE's universe makes a habit of parodying real-world cultures in a misguided, shallow pastiche of multiculturalism. Everyone talks in funny accents and tosses foreign-sounding buzz-words around because We Respect Their Diversity! They make a pretty good show of it, to the point where most references are easily recognizable... yet it rapidly breaks down when every heroic soldier you meet is female.
Remind me, did Renaissance-era Italian city-states fill their militaries with women? Were most famous pirate captains female? Were most Polynesian warriors female? I've already gone over the idiocy of such propaganda. Women have always used men as stepladders and ablative armor for their own purposes, for easily distinguishable biological reasons. Women play the power behind the throne not because they're oppressed into doing so, but because they can, because figureheads frequently roll and it's just safer to latch on to every new replacement king while still being bowed at. Let them eat cake and have it too.

Obsidian showed a hefty streak of female chauvinism in PoE 1 and Tyranny but it was tempered, if I had to guess, to a large extent by a certain writer of Torment fame who has since left for greener pastures. Deadfire shows none of those attempts at instilling sanity into modern propaganda, and is a much weaker product for it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

I'm talking about WWIII

A light blight might fright quite brights' sight-flight from trite heights and sleight kite smite's site-bite to slight fight for rights quite rightly tight.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

Surviving Bad Writing

After spending the past few months trudging through the likes of Arcanum, Dead State, UnderRail or The Apotheosis Project, I decided to finally play something more modern. Something that isn't just a blatantly unfinished, bug-riddled Y2K era quasi-vaporware... or nostalgic throwback to same.

So I jumped into Surviving Mars. Given that I've yet to actually win it even once, I'll hold off on a full rant. Suffice it to say that while no masterpiece, it's actually a solid product with all aspects given at least some attention. If you're into sims, go for it. I feel that for once I got my money's worth, and that's a rare thing in computer games.

For now, I'm a bit annoyed at its writing. I don't mean the subject matter or plot or too little writing or too much writing. On a line-by-line basis, Surviving Mars' flavor text fails to lend its setting any sort of personality. It doesn't flow, it doesn't evoke or conjure, it doesn't dance or tug or tingle. It just doesn't do.
Can you tell those are supposed to be aliens talking? Neither phrasing nor vocabulary convey any impression about the speakers' personalities, their situation, their sensory experience (these are supposed to be telepaths by the way; Martian telepaths) or anything beyond a vague awkwardness.

Sure, Haemimont being a relatively small Bulgarian developer and this being a strategy title, not an RPG, they get some leeway. What about Funcom? The Secret World made its name as the best-written MMO online ARPG (and not much else) but by two years ago when it was circling the drain I remarked that even its literary merit was rapidly waning. Things did not improve after its fumbled re-launch as Secret World Legends. Compare the expressiveness, the florid id leaping from this paragraph in classic TSW style:

- with text for the same general game location which as far as I can tell was inserted for the Legends release:

Nobody talks like that! Not scientists, not office workers, not corporate ladder jockeys, nobody. It's like the white noise Geordi LaForge constantly spewed on Star Trek: TNG by way of technobabble, just an excuse to string together words like "extraordinary max dilithium dose experimentation subjects anticipated dosages" with no regard for their weight or vector. Oh, and by the way, it's "piqued" not "peaked" my interest. As in, your perfunctory prose has failed to pique my pinterest.

Why does anyone skimp on writing? I mean, even if you're a fringe Bulgarian studio, we live in the internet age. Anglo-Saxons abound. How hard can it be to find some loquacious limber-lalic logopede to liven up lit-errat-your? But more generally, why does any company skimp on quality writing, ever? Good writers are not expensive! Seriously, just go stand outside any university's literature department and wave a sandwich in the air. You'll be neck-deep in Shakespearean quotations before you can verb a noun.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Pin the tail on the brain lobe

"She's the kind of girl who gets her slings and arrows from the dumpster
The kind who tells you she's bipolar just to make you trust her

Boy am I the poster girl for some suburban sickness
Better keep a healthy distance"

The Dresden Dolls - Dirty Business (2006)

"Blake makes friends but only for a minute
He prefers the things he orders from the internet"

Amanda Palmer - Blake Says (2008)
As part of the rampant self-entitlement and attention whoring defining Generation Snowflake, we've seen a funny trend over the past decade of obsessive jackasses self-diagnosing as autistic or Asperger's cases and joining online echo-chambers of like-minded self-styled specialness. Autism became, for a while, the buzz-word on everyone's lips when a Playboy model convinced half the United States (with the help of Oprah Winfrey and most of the news media) that she understood vaccines better than all biologists put together. Though it does seem to have faded gradually as a pop culture fad, this only begs the question of what comes next.

It hits me about the same as watching the "goth" table back in high school, feeling the bile bubble up at the spectacle of preening drama queens claiming to be nihilistic, depressed and ostracized. I really was nihilistic, depressed and ostracized. You don't spend two hours a day putting on clown make-up and publicly reciting your bad teenage poetry if you're nihilistic, depressed and ostracized. And, nowadays, whether or not my lack of empathy, slight aptitude for language and logic and tendency toward obsessiveness might prompt some control freak of a headshrinker to label me an Asperger's case, I find no impetus to pigeonhole myself.

Of course, adopting a fake mole on one's cheek as a beauty mark is nothing new. In the decade prior to autism's rise in the polls (late '90s to late 2000s) the trendy white-collar psychological blemish to lend oneself a bit of intrigue was bipolar disorder. Before that, all the comfortably two-faced suburbanites were terrified they might secretly be schizophrenic. Before that... well, before that I'm pretty sure everyone was just snorting cocaine at the height of the '80s, so the trend breaks down somewhat.

Now, the naive might say the public's gained a bit of perspective over the past three decades. Maybe we'll finally be able to simply look at ourselves as existing on a wide, multivariate spectrum of human aptitudes, tendencies and foibles and leave it at that. Just relax our social expectations and simply accept each other on a case by case basis without the need for labels.


If you oligophrenes think that, then we must not be observing the same species of naked apes. So I have to ask: which disorder will become the next fad among the dullwitted and attention-starved? How will all the yuppies in the 2020s be excusing their own behavior? Post-traumatic stress is too easy. For one thing, all the snowflakes have already been abusing it in all but name; for another, the overabundance of actual war veterans and refugees can make it a bit of a taboo. Eating disorders? Always a good bet in the United States, but I'm not seeing it becoming a major trend. Everyone's still too busy claiming to be big beautiful hippos. My money's on obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Think about it. In a world of compulsive re-tweeting, what better way to re-brand one's sheepishness into pompous victimization? I can't help thumbing my smartphone 24/7, I got that Oh See Dee that's been going around!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Stop Ahead; Pay Troll

Replaying Pillars of Eternity one last time before its sequel comes out, I just noticed that one of your first fights against a troll happens on a bridge.

You hear "it's the little things" that matter, but computer game developers too often slash budgets on all the big things like playability. If your product's a mindless grind, crashes every five minutes, makes no sense from start to finish and kills me at random intervals via abstruse mechanics no-one could have predicted, then no amount of bells and whistles will mask the stench of bullshit. However, once a game gets its basics right (as PoE certainly did) these tiny little implicit jokes, artistic flourishes, flavor text, a good piece of music, all become critical in holding my attention.

From troll bridges to Grieving Mother's comments foreshadowing the ending to the meaningful little ditty being sung in the tavern in Stalwart, this game's only grown on me as I revisit it.