Saturday, June 30, 2018

Peel the cortex to tap the sap

Whatever happened to you, glorious sinister, moody studious dubious of being I lashed and battered, flattered to the abbatoir, neck stretched on your altar ego wherever she go, goal in mind your right brain drained into heroine-laced train while a choir rants to your ants' instincts flailing along your queen's scent-trail all in line to your spine's dislocation cat tombed in her esteem extinguish You're fused in her time bomb uterine? Park right spark left, mark miss' mannerisms, many prisms to separate your weave into strings tangible frangible fungible moldable into rot-a-tot-tots fraught barrage of stopped clocks right vice a day but left counter-wise she'll say as she clocks your limbic foibles every which way. It's the right thing to do your left out she'll jive, dive hive to pay day to day stay... stay... stay... beg con-jugum dregs for each auto da fe.

Left references to double helical cyclical imbecilical being redacted by rectus acting in loco per anti his, pro Hera, no wonder other significants in pantsin romancin Pan troglodancin me mori rooted in centrist sulcus so deep the callous corpse can't ligate the whole gallant recalcitrantin. Mind your eyes try not to drink her think while she sinks winks past your blinks' tricks, carrots and sticks burning slow wicks inside your insides' insides' weak links. Left behind right ahead on schedule credulous know-no lachrimous dripping your gaze to the pendulous exacts a tactical fee-feels the rigged gears of time disingenuous, 'til you're left a right corpus callously genuflecting, gripped mater-maniacally putrefilial. Post sum erat sumus, the summation of de-extant abbreviation.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Gandahar

"Now comes a throwback to the old days when the phrase "French movie" did not mean art, and "art film" didn't mean art, either, and everybody knew exactly what they did mean, and had their exact change counted out before they dashed up to the box office, so nobody would see them going into a dirty movie."

Roger Ebert - from his review of Betty Blue


I'd repeatedly heard about the relatively obscure Gandahar as one of the benchmarks of animation and imagination, so I watched it why not. The very first scene set me laughing for revealing the exact cause of everyone's fond memories. The rest set me snoozing.

To be fair the flick does supply a few imaginative scenes, up to about five minutes' worth. A peaceful society based on bioengineered sci-fantasy agriculture is attacked by an army of black metal men with red eyes. Hmmm, I wonder who the bad guys might be. Includes flying manta ray mounts, a dinosaurish Godzilla thing with heavy eyebrows, a domestic beast with its tail in the shape of a plow, one-eyed spy birds, hideously deformed mutants, etc.

Oh, and the gal with wings growing out of her skull? Gandahar's leader? Her name's "Ambisextra" for no particular reason. The flick opens with a topless chick blowing some pipe, continues with some other chick breastfeeding an armadillo, a city council of women in tit-less dresses and a perky young heroic love interest whose perkier young features occupy the bottom half of the screen for the whole middle portion of the story. Oh, then there's the mutant women, all topless, a trio of which is seen milking some stalagtitties in a cave (deep, deep in that cave, ungh!) and respectively have four legs, four breasts and her head in her chest (eyes down here!)

The few people who have actually seen and have fond memories of Gandahar should admit they saw it at an impressionable young age back before the days of internet porn and were... titillated. Just admit you liked Airelle's boobies. And they're quality cartoon boobies, hey, no complaints here. Good horizontal / vertical balance, modest depth, consistent vectoring, the very pinnacle of pinnacles, professional-grade construction overall. It's just... their narrative capabilities are rather limited...

Nothing morally wrong with liking some softcore cartoon porn. Whatever motorboats your flotation devices. Aside from that, Gandahar's plot's not worth mentioning and its animation's classic 2FPS anime quality, with repetitive scenes economically overextended to pad out its length. I retained some sympathy for assuming this had been made sometime in the '60s or '70s until its actual release date turned out to be 1987. Jesus fuck a donkey, you mean this piece of crap was made three years after Nausicaa? Even Gandahar's supposed claim to fame of fantastic imagery is upon closer inspection little better than what you would've seen on Thundarr the Barbarian or Jim Henson movies. Also, a ravenous mountain-sized brain as evil mastermind? Not such a novelty as you might think. Gustave le Rouge did that back in 1909 with his ludicrous Martian vampire novels, not to mention H.G. Wells in 1901 with The First Men in the Moon and by 1962 the cliche of the giant brain antagonist was already relegated to "young adult" fiction like A Wrinkle in Time.

But hey, none of them had cartoon tits or the trim, taut young hero flashing his naked ass at the camera so they're not "art" - right?

Monday, June 25, 2018

What can change the nature of a game?

"Oh it would've been, could've been worse than you would ever know
The dashboard melted but we still have the radio
We talked about nothing which is more than I wanted you to know"

Modest Mouse - Dashboard



Back in 2014 I complained about The Secret World trying to pass off 1980s style text adventures as official updates to a product released in the 2010s. Funcom pulled this text content fake-out on their customers repeatedly, with a Halloween event, with the "bestiary" achievement timesink they tacked on to their game when it started circling the drain, and with the Sidestories text adventures. I was reminded of this recently while polishing off my old playthrough of Dead State, trying to get a better victory condition than riding of into the sunset with the local sociopath and finishing the flavor text while I'm at it. It provided another reminder that my thinking diverges quite a bit form the norm. To hell with the norm.

Anyhoo, most of Dead State's flavor text comes in the form of "data items" you can bring back to your base while adventuring: e-mails and text messages from hard drives of home computers, phones, tablets, etc. To read them you have to guess their passwords in a scrabble or fill-in-the-blanks minigame. It's entertaining enough, even if I am uncommonly terrible at it. I ended up cheating my way through almost a quarter of the list.

For instance:
_ e l e _ _ _ _ o n


My first and best guess? "Belerophon" - yes, I know it's probably supposed to have a double L but I've seen it with just the one often enough not to quible.
Actual pasword?
"Television"
Though I cringe at the prosaic tedium, I must concede it's a much more likely fit for some braindead churchgoing Texan soccer-mom's laptop. Just as I've never been able to play text adventures for never matching the right synonym to some '80s code-monkey's vocabulary, I'd probably be utter shit at trying to break into anyone's e-mail. Hopefully that also works vicey-versey.

But that leaves the question: what exactly is the role of text in games these days? At ye dawn of history (video game history, that is) the PongInvadersPacFrogger titles which shaped public perception of video games for generations were so heavily abstracted as to neither require nor benefit from much expository background. Still, interactive fiction seems to have made quite a good show of coexisting with the constantly improving video portion of video games, if Infocom's vast repertoire is any indication. Even later, more graphical games provided instructions through text... though it must be said, their largely expository loquaciousness wasn't exactly making waves in literary circles.
Ummm, yes, thanks... dad... daddy... daddy-o... whom I'm apparently meeting for the first time in my life in a very abrupt and awkward manner.

Out-of-character gameplay instructions and item descriptions have to this day remained the only sort of text reliably found across all genres. FPS more or less runs on the assumption "who needs a plot" and strategy games rank little better in that respect. The more narrative-driven sorts like Adventure or RPGs might hire writers to churn out mountains' worth of exposition but rarely, if ever, integrate that mountain into their virtual landscape. Which is a pity, because for all I've bitched about it TSW's original release deserved its reputation as one of the best-written games in any genre, with a heavy dash of linguistic puzzle-solving. It can work wonders.

Dead State's data items skillfully evoke sympathy, admiration, disgust or dismay at seeing the apocalypse unfold through the eyes of every t0m d1ck and h4rry. Most of that flavor text is of higher quality than your NPC companions' actual dialogue. So why did Dead State segregate its best written portions into a minigame making you read 150 messages staring at an old-timey green-on-black wall of text while listening to the same music track? Why did it only integrate language skills in the form of playing password Scrabble, and then only to access more text?

Seems game developers are only capable of seeing writing in one of two ways:

1) As an industry standard.
You can't have an RPG without dire rats (and the killing of ten thereof) or an FPS without a stupidly overpowered sniper rifle or an RTS without space marines.
By the same token, every other game company has this thing called "writing" so you need one too. You don't know what it's for and you wouldn't recognize it if it bit you square in the Wernicke, but by gum, you're not gonna be out-done by them city slickers back east! So you hire your teenage niece the Harry Potter slashfic prodigy whose parents keep begging you to get her out of their hair for the summer. Problem freakin' solved.

2) As a last resort.
You wasted your three million dollar Kickstarter spit-shining your polygons to justify your Nvidia logo. That's alright. Not a problem. Cheap filler's why universities invented Lit. departments. So you penny-pinch yourself a box set of idealistic young wordsmiths and proceed to corrode their cortices by demanding they somehow lend respectability to every half-assed, tired old cliche you dream up in your worst "wouldn't it be cool if" moments.
Write me a ten page description about space marines sniping dire rats. But y'know, make it sound fresh and cutting edge!
They're not for-realsies "game designers" like yourself of course, so no need to really listen to their input. They merely exist to pad out everything you can't handle through your game engine. Can't animate faces? Describe the NPCs' emotions. No time to illustrate the hero's travels with an actual game map? Drum up a travelogue. Can't think of any practical means to jazz up your +1 swords? Cue the "forged by Klingon mithrilsmiths" tooltips. Your entire premise is completely nonsensical? Make the writers make the nonsense make sense.
Writers: game industry duct tape.

Plenty of arguments can be made for what does or does not constitute good plot or characterization in a medium defined largely by pointing and clicking, but the real task at hand should be implementing game text in a game context. Lore books are fine in themselves but it's hard to think they're all that's left of several thousand years' worth of written communication adapted to electronics. So, flavoring aside, how might game writing be made more meaningful, more interactive?

What about reading comprehension? Does anyone remember how to follow directions anymore?
Replace those idiotic Skyrim HUD markers for every quest with written instructions, Morrowind style. Stop auto-updating quests stage by stage and make the player follow the sequence of events described in some dead explorer's journal or some superspy's twitter feed. This can encompass both straightforward directions and obtuse hints. When they have entire 3D-modellable virtual worlds at their disposal, it's amazing that game designers don't create more Gold-Buggy hunts for buried treasure, poetically hinting at various in-game locations or persons. But of course for verbal descriptions to reliably lead anywhere, the rest of your team must be capable of fleshing out a world with recognizable details: architecture, personalities, etc.

The Secret World once again made a good show of it in a few missions like The Kingsmouth Code but it's very hit or miss. Used to be a lot more frequent a device, and frequently cheesy. That old Dune game had you search for smugglers "in the fish's mouth" - jinkies, gang, this sure is a tough mystery!
When something requires secretive hints to discover, it probably shouldn't literally be visible from space.

The good news is that home computers might just have advanced a bit since 1992. The bad news is that game developers' mentalities haven't. Any modern first-person game can easily provide the visual detail you need to find the man with a tulip in his lapel at a party or the one building in town with Doric columns, including red herrings like daisies and Corinthian columns. Top-down strategy or roleplaying titles aren't far behind. The use of verbal descriptions should have increased as graphics got more illustrative, not decreased in favor of map markers.

Then there's the thorny issue of riddles.
Players good or bad at solving them can wind up hating computer game riddles, largely due to the very, very very limited repertoire to which game companies confine themselves. You've got the one whose answer is always "time" then the "four legs, two legs, three legs" one, and let's not forget the "one guard tells the truth, the other one lies" routine. Even Aesop must've thought that one was played out.

For one thing, riddles and puzzles have always been disruptive. You're on an epic swashbuckling adventure or a grand military campaign, then suddenly someone steals your pants. Or there's a riddle imp for no particular reason. Or the most secure facility in the multiverse is passworded by one of Gollum's noodle-scratchers.
Show, don't tell.
Instead of telling me the riddle about the three doors with three hazards, put three doors in your damn game and make me choose between tigers and fire and poison gas based on scraps of verbal information dropped in my path. Don't just stall the player for the purpose of riddling:
-and yes, they pulled that lazy crap in 2014 or something.

Incorporate riddles into the actual gameplay. Also, try basing riddles on the world you're building. Again, the wealth of objects and details available in a modern game should allow for at least some in-jokes and self-reference. Drop some hints along a strategy campaign as to the enemy's security procedures and have the player try to figure out which tank in an armor column holds the enemy leader. Write sonnets on the alchemical composition of dragon scales to give the player hints as to the best magic energy to fling at them.

Write a story about the evil wizard losing hearing in his left ear so the player knows to position his party's spellcaster to the wizard's left during the fight to avoid counterspells. Give me a history of the kingdom to read (including its famous weapons) only to later drop me into the royal museum, able to swipe only one item. Drop hints as to which word the enemy secret agent was hypnotically made vulnerable to and have me try to text-to-speech it into a loudspeaker while that enemy agent is hacking the door to my office.

Ah, we're back where we started, with typing. Text as user input rarely works: cumbersome at best and as shown above, even ten letters almost guarantee writer / reader divergence. So stop trying to be precise about it. There are plenty of chat bots out there capable of (badly) simulating a conversation by recognizing a few code words and returning generic replies. Why not incorporate chat bots into games, having them respond from a small pool of semi-randomized in-game actions to vague combinations of words from the player? Think of them as slightly retarded dobermans. Or have the player learn words in an alien or demonic language and try to form phrases with the on-screen symbols for those words in order to communicate with allies or cast spells. Give me an alienese keyboard.

Stop fencing the written portion of your games off into minigames, tooltips and lore books. Reading should feature right up there with listening for audio cues or watching for motion in the underbrush.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Embrace the stigma

"Wait, back to the enemy of the state
Is the Republicans or Democratic candidate?

When it come to this music we stay relentless
Pursuing all that's pursuable"

OutKast - The Whole World



For a comic which started out as jokes about furries eating beans, Endtown's been showing remarkable complexity now and then over its run. Sure, sure, it's not one of my favorites. The drawing style's not defined enough for my usual tastes, the individual characters often so sappy as to gag a honeybee and the author's main crutch for worldbuilding seems to be abusing the crap out of Clarke's third law. The spaceship that runs on feels was just inexcusable.

But hey, you can sometimes get away with the inexcusable if you compensate, and Endtown's true strength lies in the sociopolitical. When it's good it's good. The interrogation scene from last month delivered quite the harsh burn, all the harsher for not being directly targeted at any specific real-world group. "Victimhood becomes the relief" for "vicious, self-entitled mobs" who become "a hated, stigmatized subclass" being used to divert attention from the true villains? If you think you know who that's talking about, think twice. Both options and then some have probably been true at some point in history.

Ah, the freedom of speculative fiction. If you want to write about a dog-eat-dog world, your purpose might be served by a world of literal dogs literally eating other dogs. Free the concept from its tribal anthropocentric shackles and free your audience from its tribal loyalties and obligatory revulsion at having their unanalyzed assumptions questioned. They'll never realize they just learned something.

After all, it's just the funnies.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Get Medieval

One of the last few remaining reasons why anyone would deign to visit LiveJournal.
Amazingly, as LiveJournal has remained online for some inexplicable reason (bought by Russians; lots of tasty old account data to exploit) GetMedieval has also survived where many webcomics of its time left nary a fossil of their existence. It dates from that brief period when webcomicking became technologically accessible but remained creative. Surprisingly entertaining stuff, given the author was obviously more interested in drawing medieval costumes than coming up with a coherent plot or original characters.

Suspiciously humanoid aliens get stranded on Earth in the hey-day of swashing and buckling, are sanctuaried by some monks and get to participate in a good old-fashioned castle siege. Main characters: standard issue sitcom incompetent awkward male being helped to adjust to his new situation by a level-headed, socially astute female. Salvaged somehow by the sheer innocence with which the somewhat predictable punchlines are delivered and the occasional snappiness of some of the less predictable ones. To this day "you could do to lower your expectations/ up yours" is one of the funniest things I've ever heard.

After the first half or so of the story with its henpecked husbands and goose-pecked space-men Get Medieval's quality does peter off a bit, getting drawn into redundant space mobster characters and tedious exposition for a relatively dull SF background plot. Still, in its clean, unassuming charm, it's remained one of the better webcomics out there even a decade after its end.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire

"Why'd you leave the keys up on the table?
Here you go create another fable
You wanted to!"

System of a Down - Chop Suey!


So, is Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire a good game? Most of my commentary centers on its nosedive in quality of writing, especially its flatfooted over-reliance on feminist male-bashing to ensure uncritical praise from its simpleminded politically correct audience. Carrie Patel and her crew of hijackers are guilty of more chauvinism in this one product's script than Archie Bunker managed in eight years' worth as an outright chauvinist parody. But aside from demeaning, insulting and demonizing men every other paragraph, how does Deadfire stack up? After all, a game is a game, not a script.

Gameplay-wise, the most obvious improvement would have to be the option to dual-class, for those of us who aren't playing "baby's first RPG" and have no need to be taught what a fighter or wizard is.
Subclasses seem surprisingly well thought out. Good job on those.
The skill system I criticized in PoE1 thus allows for more flexibility, which combined with the new skill tree interface makes leveling more interesting. Unfortunately the skills themselves are still rather limited in function. They mostly just go boom, buum, boum or buom. Some necessary balancing was done but druid lightning spells and monk / barbarian teleportation are still too good to pass up for lack of creative alternatives, especially at high levels. At least the redundancy in damage / effect types was trimmed.
Adding empowerment to every class' abilities seems a downgrade. Yes it adds more flexibility while fighting but also homogenizes the necessary thinker / thug split, as does treating magic spells and physical abilities the same way in skill trees.
In fact, wizard spellcasting is less interesting than ever thanks to no longer learning individual spells. Grimoires are pointless. Unless you look up an online cheat-sheet beforehand and build your character around a complementary grimoire, you'll probably just vendor them without even opening them and keep vaporous wizardry for its passive bonus.

Special mention should go to the concerted effort put into making individual fights more meaningful. You're no longer simply "clearing trash mobs" like every time you entered a new zone in PoE1 but fighting creatures and bandits who have at least some explicit / implicit shred of justification for being there beyond standing around waiting for you to kill them.

The new social / knowledge passive / active point system is indeed better. Not much advancement was made in terms of combat / noncombat integration, but then PoE was already ahead of the curve on that one.
Resting is slightly improved but the new "three wounds and you're out" system in place of heal / endurance seems at best a side-grade. Endurance / heath made players think in terms of attrition whereas getting a third wound on a character now just outright mandates a rest stop.

Weapons and other gear - improved, more flexible and rewarding to fiddle with stacking bonuses and various weapon modes. Very nice. Dual pistols with sequential firing is an inspired addition. Gear progression is also better, with unique / soulbound items coming later in the campaign, as they should, and while the new gear upgrades are less flexible than the old enchantment system, they do keep level 10 purples from being out-shone by level 15 greens.
Pokemon are at least less prevalent (though none of them should be directly controllable) and the new "explosives" and poisons skills make interesting additions.

The smaller party size is good, seems to have hit a real Goldilocks sweet spot at five characters for single-player game, balancing flexibility with redundancy. Quite a few quality of life improvements were made for vendoring or mid-cast spell re-targeting (predicting where an enemy would be in PoE1 was made impossible by the old bugaboo of pathfinding algorithms) plus enemies investigating traps to cut the tedium out of "pulling" (also marred by pathing in PoE1) etc.

Stealthing improved, though still not up to Elder Scrolls standards, not to mention true stealth-based games.

Ship combat and upgrading is mildly more interesting than the PoE1 fortress upgrades/defenses but still mostly a perfunctory timesink and in-game money sink. The cheapest, smallest, fastest ship is the only one you'll need until maybe the very last boss battles, as boarding is easier, less costly and more reliable than cannoneering.

Some aborted features are more difficult to comment on, like the lack of meaningful choice in ship upgrades. Towns possessing commerce / racial / religious characteristics would seem to indicate Obsidian's at least toying with the notion of some kind of trading / governance system (as they tried in Storm of Zehir) but there's no hint of following through on it in practical terms. Probably for the best. Sandbox games like Mount & Blade are much better suited to that sort of thing than are story-based RPGs.

In short, the game design side of this game design studio has remained solid, improving or at least doing no harm to its existing product... which makes all the more galling their willingness to undermine their work's quality through hypocritical politically correct thuggery. Though the trendy feminist male-bashing stands as the most glaring, the entire society of PoE has degraded from the original's more nuanced views to a trite, primitive mentality bordering on "what have the Romans ever done for us" nativist naivete. You could count on one hand the number of times the Vailians are not portrayed as greedy, vain Eurotrash heathen devils or the number of times the Huana are not portrayed as idyllic Noble Suevages (yeah, Noble Mary Suevage, add Pocahontas to your list TVTropes.)
For all their hamfisted attempts at tying their fantasy races to real-world counterparts (Italians and Polynesians) this flies in the face of historic examples of racism and prejudice. They end up tripping over their own self-righteousness. What, no love for the wops there, Obsidian?
Also, when the first PoE set the Glanfathans up as tribal defenders of ancient magitek, it very wisely dodged the pitfall of glorifying them. They're mostly unwitting tools of the gods and the Leaden Key, convenient puppets in the right place at the right time. The same went for the Pargrunnen in the White March expansion, who were revealed by the dialogues with Ondra to be not nearly as special as they liked to think themselves. PoE2 instead goes full retard with the even more primitive (and amusingly Zionist) Huana, who naturally turn out to be literally the gods' chosen people and direct heirs to Atlantis.

Don't even get me started on the hilariously awkward tendency to give the Vailians Mediterranean dark complexions to defuse any criticism... while painting the most despised Vailians more often than not as conspicuously pasty blonds (Benweth, Furrante, Degnos, Amreo) No racial profiling there!

In their desperation to drive their mangled point home, the sheer repetition and glaring omissions start to grate. The player character's dialogue options prompt you several times to ask others "why do you speak like a Vailian" or "why are you dressed like a Vailian" trying desperately to suggest some kind of cultural takeover... except it's perfectly natural for individuals to adapt to their social milieu. If we're being honest, we should also see plenty of examples of Vailians and Rauataians who have "gone native" Dances With Wolves style (why are you dressed like a Huana?) and their own difficulties fitting into both cultures.
Miraculously, there also seems to be nearly zero intermarriage or "rishathra" between the various races in this colonial free-for-all, even between the Rauataians and Huana who happen to be the same damn species. This despite pushing the free love bisexualism to ludicrous levels. What, everybody's a Kinsey 4-5 sexual unicorn all of a sudden but the much more likely inter-racial couples just freak you out, Obsidian? Oooopsie.

More amusingly, the Huana in their Disneyed tribal perfection never seem to have trouble with each other (aside from a valid, if spinelessly fashionable yuppie jab at caste systems) but are only oppressed by those evil, evil invading foreigners. No ritual headhunting expeditions, no canoe battles over prime fishing grounds, no ritual cannibalism, no wasteful potlatching, no harsh population control and 50% rates of infanticide due to limited island resources, no blood-soaked Trobriand crown jewels or generations-length tribal feuds, what a truly pacific Pacific!

Even if you can ignore the fact that the scant few good men are to Obsidian's writing team either dime-a-dozen romance novel toy-boys worshipping at the feet of women or any combination of post-sexual old/blind/dead daddy figures, there's something hopelessly goofy about the whole thing. Like any modern political correctness, it's so naively post-ironic as to be indistinguishable from self-parody. Regardless of whether you find any particular thematic elements insulting, the fact remains that in obsessively pursuing social justice platitudes, Deadfire's writers have neglected to make their stories interesting. Before you get annoyed at all the saintly, hyper-competent women standing up to stupid, evil men, you'll get bored of the repetitiveness.

Oh, I don't think I trust in your self-righteous suicide. I cry when angels deserve to die.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

I hope you all realize that if not for the movie Synecdoche, New York nobody would even know that word. It's not like it ever comes up in conversation.
We'd probably all think it was a typo of "pork" or "fork" or something.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Art of Femismancy, Part 5: The Sacred Stair and Tikawara

I'm taking time during my second playthrough of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire to tally up the supporting cast, (m)ale and (f)emale, and see how many are portrayed in a positive or negative light. How does Obsidian Entertainment vilify men?


The Sacred Stair

Okauro (f) - bounty contractor, refers to bounties as "coin bonds" - okay, sure, whatever

Ydwin (f) - recruitable pale elf at the Spire. Self-possessed, educated, daring and just ever so slightly edgy. I'm tempted to bemoan the fact that she wasn't turned into a fully scripted companion, but given this writing team's dedication to feminist propaganda it's probably for the best. Ydwin's backstory "having witnessed the very worst in kith" would probably be a neverending parade of wife-beaters, rapists, pederasts, marauding warlords and other evil, evil, stupid, evil MEN.

Caedman Azo (m) - called back from PoE1 as failed counterpoint to Elette's capability. When men do science, you see, it's done wrong.
vs.
Flaune Elette (f) - lead animancer at the Spire of the Soul Seers. "You don't mind if I talk and work, do you?" Dedicated professional, and her work gets results too. Oh, look, yet another woman trapped between incompetent or evil males.
vs.
Rymrgand (m) - the Beast of Winter. I'm skipping god chorus interludes (mostly so I can skip that god-awful narration) but here he appears during an actual quest. No longer as a fearsome but stately and even-tempered embodiment of inevitability, of ultimate realism and nihilism as in PoE1, but as a boogeyman simply destroying everything he comes across. The boss monster in his zone is called the Soul Collector. Not collecting souls was pretty much Rymrgand's original defining difference from other gods like Berath.
Morons.
Oh and look, somehow a male deity has replaced Woedica (f) as the daimonic enemy of animancy, holding back scientific progress. What an amazing coincidence.

Muhai (f) - disciple of Magran (f) who died a sympathetic lonely death in her mansion after she was ostracized by the queen (f) for giving bad directions
vs.
High Priest Hati (m) - stick-up-the-ass stickler, puts a male face on the refusal to give Muhai a Magranite cremation ceremony. Interestingly, if you do burn Muhai's corpse the process goes through without a hitch, suggesting Magran accepted her and this is yet another example of a meanie dummy man both conveniently obfuscating the conflict between two women and standing as an obstacle between another pair of women.

High Priest Kasu (m) - slowly poisoning himself to death to make room for his replacement. Helpful towards you and very dedicated to his slavish flim-flam before the altar of Berath, a hermaphrodite deity now represented only as female. I'd give pretty good odds on Kasu's replacement also being female.

Yseyr the Berathian (m) - deadly death guard inside the death-locked death-crypt guarding a death sword for the goddess of death from another death guard with a death ship, gives you a death chant for the high priest of death so he can die with extra death.
Death I say, death! I wish I could characterize him further, but given two different quests hinge on him, Yseyr's just a disappointingly half-assed mook. Apparently the writing team thought making fun of his old-timey accent (only the Huana Savages get Noble pasts) would mask all the other cheese.

High Priestess Saewyn (f) - Gaunite leader. Doesn't seem to serve any purpose except to put even more of a kindly down-home barbecue face on Xoti's seemingly all-female religion.

Nordagand (f) - Gaunite, Eder's contact in search of his long-lost sweetkidneys... or something


Tikawara

Vektor (m) - filthy, jittery dwarf left behind by the Vailian expedition because he had indigestion (maybe he'd like some of that purgative you gave to Pietro (m) in Dunnage?) Aside from the pants-shitting, ale is also involved. Openly despised by Himuihi.
vs.
Himuihi (f) - female warrior who hates sweaty outsiders, hates the stink of lagufaeth (fish humanoids) so she "pushed the cage with the young ones farther down the beach" so that a man can be the one most closely associated with the fish-babies' captivity (she just does the heroic capturing) and sends you to kill their broodmother, to drive them all away. Aggressive but only in defense of her tribe, you see.
vs.
Pekeho (m) - keeping a group of young lagufaeth captive to train them as slaves. Gave false testimony against Tamau (m) see below.
vs.
Lagufaeth Broodmother (f) - a reasonable sort, speaks, very willing to stop raiding the village (and reward you) if you'll only save her babies from the cage. Greeted cheerfully by Tekehu with "Hail, daughter of Ngati" - after he helps you slaughter several dozen sons of Ngati on the way up... Interestingly, the groups of lagufaeth you encounter on your way to her (enemies by default) no longer seem to contain broodmothers like they did in The White March. Sidewinders, redfins, mages, sure... but there's only one Mother, and she's the smart/good one. This, despite fish people logically being the most likely to develop a society of female fighters and male brood-keepers. Compare to the other androgynous monster species from PoE1 whose sex suddenly becomes an issue in PoE2: the evil vithrack Spindle Man and the good xaurip Mother Sharp-Rock.

Teana (f) - mute warrior turned drummer with whom you can start an impromptu jam session. Implied to have been somehow wronged by your ladies' man companion, Tekehu, but she's very forgiving.

Tamau (m) - fruit thief! Or not. Despite being innocent, a great deal of effort goes into proving him an absolute asshole.
vs.
Mukumu (m) - cruel torturer making comments disparaging the lower caste.
vs.
Rongi (m) - fruit thief! Fo' reals this time! But he's only doing it to save the seeds to grow more fruit to save his tribe. That stupid Ruanu (m) is too caught up in tradition to understand. Still, more than willing to have his scapegoat Tamau framed, tortured and executed for his own crime.
vs.
Wehata (f) - has one line only, an offhand musing which leads you to Rongi's food stash. Not that she purposely betrays Rongi or is in any capacity complicit in his crime, mind you. Wouldn't you know it: the one and only woman in this quest is the one whose honesty, innocence and perceptiveness shine the light of truth and goodness on the deeds of all those wicked, stupid MEN around her. And she doesn't even have to try.

Bonus feminist points: as soon as your first dialogue with Tamau / Mukumu starts, before you even know what's going on, your companion Xoti (f) blurts out "Watcher! We can't just let this injustice stand!" (injustice? she knows that... how?) - and she's praised by the proud Mataru warrior Mukumu for passing a first-glance judgment on himself : "I say! This outsider speaks her mind like a Mataru." Yes, that's exactly what happens when you walk up to a high-caste tribal warrior you've never met and yell out calling him unjust before he's even had a chance to speak. He sings your praises.

Ruanu (m) - local chief collaborating with the Vailian Trading Company for profit, over-extending his tribe's meager resources to build a trading post. His dialogue and descriptions repeatedly imply this is a bad, bad idea, and everyone else condemns him for it. Note that he's blamed both for being too recklessly progressive and for being too recalcitrantly conservative vis-a-vis eating seeds instead of planting them. No matter which way you spin the Obsidian magic 8-ball, the answer comes up "men are evil." All this despite the seed-eating being a religious practice, thus logically the purview of Nairi. Nope, nope, nope, it's a MAN's fault!
vs.
Nairi (f) - new priestess, after her father the old priest conveniently died to make room for her. In a choked, heartfelt voice: "Outlanders conquer us with ink-and-paper pacts as well as blades, but they conquer us all the same." And sure, sure, she magically induced the Vailians to brutally murder each other, but she has an excuse: "Foreign ships raided our old villages and carried away our people."
vs.
Anaharu (m) - Nairi's daddums, former priest, challenged Ruanu (m) on his collaboration with outsiders. Angry and bombastic so as to rapidly lose the audience's sympathy. Also presiding over a heap of rotting soul-flesh, for, y'know, extra eeee-veeel. Slightly dead now, he's holding a bunch of souls hostage to power storms to keep the greedy ersatz Europeans' ships away. The storms are also driving away fish and rotting plants, thereby starving his own tribe. Explicitly voices a selfish motivation just so we don't mistake a disgusting male for a hero: "I will be reborn as a ranga" (chief)
vs.
Beza (f) - Vailian miner whose party killed each other, victims of Nairi's hexed statuette. Trapped as a spirit by Anaharu. Plucky, sassy, constantly needling Anaharu. Anything bad she does is naturally only out of loyalty to the company.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Art of Femismancy, Part 4: the pirate islands

I'm taking time during my second playthrough of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire to tally up the supporting cast, (m)ale and (f)emale, and see how many are portrayed in a positive or negative light. What rhetorical methods does Obsidian employ in its very divergent moralistic portrayal of men and women?


Fort Deadfire

Sceydwin (f) - victim of Benweth's brutality

Lamond (m) - wants you to rescue his crew from the dungeons in exchange for helping you kill:
Benweth (m) the irredeemable villain of the story. Though I believe it's technically possible to spare his life, your entire introduction to the pirate side of the map revolves around killing him.
vs.
Syri the Siren (f) - Serafen's contact for another route to killing Benweth. Yet another victimized woman trapped between despicable men. How many is that now?
vs.
Serafen (m) - whatever his portrayal during the rest of the story, his only purpose here is to absorb a woman's insults for make-work crimes. Syri's so furious she's literally ready to shoot him because after they slept together he... neglected to spend every day slavishly writing her love letters while he was at sea. Her insane control-freak possessiveness is promoted as the most angelic high ground. The only way to make peace between them seems to force Serafen to debase himself begging her forgiveness: "what be broke in me there ain't fixin' for. I be a right sad fuck, and there ain't nothing to account for it but me."
...
Wow.
...
What, no option to hand Serafen a can of gas and make him self-immolate in contrition for slipping his leash?

(missing two minor characters here but given I can't visit the west side of the fort without my computer blue-screening, deal with it)

Aeldys (f) - leader of the good pirate faction. Opens her introduction to you by trash-talking her "unfortunately blockheaded second-in-command" Benweth (m) whom you killed, because she's loyal to her crew... (?) Saucy with you at every opportunity (because when women do it it's not #MeToo, but "empowerment") etc. Contrast with your character's reaction to Amreo (m) who hits on you at the bath-house.
Aeldys is pro-freedom and anti-slavery. Her abolitionists' club includes:
Mad Morena (f) feeding the poor
Selinia (f) standing up to (male) authority
Seafol (f) running slaves to freedom
Benweth (m) - ooops, he's dead before you ever meet her and she explicitly distances herself from his actions.
And if you think that's (f)-ed up, wait 'til you meet Furrante's sausage fest.


Dunnage

Udita (f) - bounty contractor, highly personable, politically astute and discreet, volunteers a reference to a drunken ex-husband for mandatory feminist street cred

Dessiral (f) - wants revenge for her sister who was "seduced to a dishonest life" by a pirate crew and sends you off after four bounty targets. Interestingly, two of them are male, two female... yet the writer still managed to put a subliminal feminist spin on the backstory of a ship led by a male pirate captain "seducing" a young girl with the promise of adventure. Not sure the term "seduce" was ever again inserted into this game's scripts.

Pietro (m) - pirate at the inn, swallowed a precious gem and needs to be utterly humiliated with a disgusting purgative in order to retrieve it. If Abocco (m) spilled ale on his pants, this guy shits 'em! After vomiting! And begging for your help pathetically! And groaning in agony! Hah! Haaahahahaha!
vs.
Rosanella (f) - wise, kindly merchant helping Pietro by telling you the purgative recipe.

Barquami (m) - blinded beggar you can turn into a bad actor under the leadership of:
Calandra (f) - puts on terrible plays, requires you to supply her with a big dumb male (Barquami) to stand around looking impressive and a clever special effects wizard (Taerna (f)) to make her stage show into the talk of the town.

Taerna (f) - innocent wizard and gambler caught in a debt trap, and you're required to pay off her debt to complete Calandra's quest. Compare to Xoti's "wring his neck" reaction to finding out Oswald (m) can't pay his debts. Be a deadbeat, my son, but be an ovaried one. It makes me laugh, makes me laugh, makes me laAaauu - ugh!
vs.
Jacob Harker (m) - famous pirate who's abandoned piracy after avenging the death of his father. You're warned not to ask him about it - but instead of him attacking as you as he threatens, you're attacked in the streets by thugs out to get him. Willing to sell you Taerna's debt. Wondering why this particular man engaging in vile exploitation of a woman is allowed to be more dignified and cooperative (and even a victim) than other males in the game? His portrait supposedly bears some resemblance to Tim Cain, one of the bigwigs at Obsidian. Still, he's positioned as an evil male obstacle between two good women who want to cooperate as per Deadfire boilerplate. You'd think he'd at least get to be the "one good man" of Deadfire's male-bashing feminist wonderland.

Two-Eyed Pim (m) - badly voiced third chair and second banana to Furrante.

Selinia (f) - survivor of an attack by the Flying Dutchman Floating Hangman, a one-shot character whose only real function is to further demonize Furrante.
Despite her recent physical and psychological trauma, subjected to merciless interrogation by both him and yourself. Before she even starts telling the story, you have the option to open the conversation with this gem: "You will think hard and recount every detail you can. Understand? Do it even if it hurts, even if it kills you." Well, I don't know if it hurt her head, but the stupidity of that opening's certainly hurting mine. And yet she pluckily, fatalistically brushes it aside. Isn't she great folks? Let's give her a hand! Later, this gratuitous description: "When [Furrante] dismissively waves her away, her black eyes narrow and she raises her chin, defiant. But then he turns his full gaze to her, suddenly seething, and she shrinks in on herself."
For bonus points "she belongs to Aeldys"(f) the good pirate queen opposing Furrante.
vs.
Furrante (m) - educated, refined Old World male. Place your bets as to how evil he'll turn out to be. He's working with slavers against his own faction's rules, has a quick temper and worst of all he's proud of his heritage!
...
Yes, that last one's bad, very bad. Only quaint loincloth-clad Pacific Islanders blurting Tribalese get to brag about their noble heritage and traditions. Quaint, doublet-clad Mediterraneans spouting Italianese have to disown theirs.
Purely by coincidence, Furrante's pro-slavery faction also includes:
Master Kua (m) - the slaver
Dereo (m) - mob boss (officially non-partisan, but badmouths Aeldys and initially blocks your access to Aeldys' ally Morena)
Castol (m) - the Vailian Trading Company leader whose quest chain segues into Furrante / Kua's
Two-Eyed Pim (m) - ... what exactly is this schmoe's purpose besides putting another male face on the bad pirates?

Subtle, huh?


Crookspur

Seafol (f) - Aeldys' underground railroader

Auctioneer Marcca (f) - as advertised. Sells slaves, but she's all business. Openly voices fear of her Master, just so we don't think a woman could do wrong by her own free will. I will give Obsidian this much: they at least included female bidders in the slave auction. It's something. Baby steps, y'know?

Master Kua (m) - satisfyingly despicable big little man. Master slaver. Sends you to assassinate tribal leaders fighting for Frreeeedooommm!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Farmville, Bidonville, Marsville

Now I know we're all excited by the Curiosity rover sniffing fossilized ET farts on Mars. Maybe. Possibly. It's providing a minor boost to Surviving Mars' already minor popularity and if there ever were a profitable time for Hollywood to invest in a few dozen mind-rapingly terrible Red Mars adaptations, now's that time. But let us remember that the problem with interplanetary exploration has never been the interplanetary part. It's the would-be explorers.

That would be you, dear reader.

We could probably all be living to 120 years or more in clean, safe comfort and adventuring out as we please if it weren't for the all-too-many "all" and we could probably be dancing around in the Kuiper Belt if we wanted to. We don't want to. We'd rather make up idiotic fairy tales about supernatural saviors while we build mansions and hovels upon hovels and mansions and clutter this exhausted old planet with our disgusting, moronic progeny. Religion, social status, control, until we outgrow these any true scientific growth is meaningless fluff, pearls thrown before seven and a half billion degenerate swine.

Spaceships, if they come, won't look anything like the clean, sleek, purposeful, polite, egalitarian Enterprise.
They will look like this:
Because you billions upon billions of redundant filthy apes are not interstellar explorers. You're brainless, instinct-driven, superstitious, murderous, backstabbing vermin, and you breed accordingly.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Art of Femismancy, Part 3: The Gullet and Old City

I'm taking time during my second playthrough of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire to tally up the supporting cast, (m)ale and (f)emale, and see how many are portrayed in a positive or negative light. Which gender does Obsidian choose to sanctify or demonize? General rules explained in the first post.


The Gullet

Dereo the Lean (m) - local mob boss. Oddly, his actual quests only amount to some shady bartering tactics for one artifact and scavenging some abandoned ruins for the other. Oh, sorry "defiling native lands." Self-interested but hardly beyond the pale in context. And yet every single person you meet in The Gullet will tell you with no hedging that Dereo is the Big Bad of the district. Notably, he badmouths the Principi "new blood" a.k.a. her glorious piratness Aeldys (f) and stands as your obstacle to Morena (f) in her saintly quest to feed the poor. By extension through his merchant Ernezzo (m), he also stands in Pitli's (f) way in curing her incipient epidemic.
vs. 
Mad Morena (f) - that's Captain Mad Morena Sue to you. Ugly and with an appropriately ugly voice. Referenced by others as angry, dangerous, unpredictable run-for-your life scourge of the seas... yet with hints of admiration instead of the loathing everyone holds for Dereo. Somehow every interaction you have with this badass femaile clerk is positive. She's in with the good non-slaver pirate faction, forming a girls' club with Aeldys, takes a punch from you with friendly aplomb, steals from the rich (Vailians a.k.a. Italians) to give to the poor natives, even works with Ulög (m) (conveniently dead before you ever meet him like any good man) and Eniu (m) to feed the Roparu. Talks about getting them to stand on their own feet. How noble. Plus she just gave half her paycheck to orphans. Orphans with diseases.

Ateira (f) - orlan thief originally hired by Dereo. Corners you and demands macguffin. Can be scared away by telling her The Man (Dereo) has it in for her. 

Eniu (m) - local roparu elder looking for a way to keep his people from starving. Major exception to Deadfire's anti-male agenda: a wise representative of a downtrodden people, and blind for extra pathos! Of course, it helps that like Eld Engrim and the Berathite priest, Eniu's a toothless, blatantly post-sexual old fossil defined by his caretaker role. A daddy figure. Also helps that two of his quest's solutions prop up female characters (Pitli, Mad Morena) while the third shows the prince (m) as both heartless and easily manipulated by competitiveness.

Thug (m) - nameless leader of a nameless group of Vailians ambushes you the first time you exit The Hole. Despite being a very mundane random encounter, he's provided with voice acting and at least three different dialogue options by which to make him run in fear from you. Evil? Check. Loser? Check. Male? Check. Store brand European? Check. Heterosexual? Place your bets.

Overseer Hitenga (m) - a heartless authoritarian perfectly willing to accept a bribe from you.
vs.
Botaro (m) - Roparu (low-caste native) who gets thrown down a hole by Hitenga for associating with foreign pirates. Sympathetic in his role as victim of a caste system (and victim of foreigners, of course) nonetheless Botaro's main role is to die in disgrace, failing his wife and children by associating with and stealing from the mob boss Dereo (m) and getting caught by the fuzz. Like Ulög, a good man is a dead man.
vs.
Biha (f) - Botaro's widow. An impoverished widow caring for a herd of orphans. An impoverished salt-of-the-earth widow from an idyllic tribal gemeinschaft bemoaning the heartlessness of the big city while caring for a herd of orphans... and she displays strength and anger channeled into a constructive activity like beating laundry! Wow. Does her touch also cure leprosy?
Also noteworthy for giving you basically the same quest as Governor Clario (m) from Port Maje (bring back Mr. x or if he's dead bring back his results) except now it's placed in a much, much more sympathetic context.
vs.
Seduzo (f) - cool-headed Rauataian smuggler who wants to give Biha (f) and her Tiny Tim brigade passage out of town - but wait! There's yet another (m) barring their righteous way.
vs.
Orron (m) - dwarf paladin with OCD. Needs to be convinced to give up his space on Seduzo's ship.
The individual roles may not seem as clear-cut good and evil here, but pay attention to the juxtaposition: two women want to cooperate for a noble purpose but they're constantly undermined by the incompetence / unlawfulness / tyranny / pigheadedness of one man after another.

Rust (m) - assassin in Delver's Row. Evil but explicitly badass and directly helpful to you in your quest.

Pitli (f) - Oh gods, the heartstrings! The tugging! Local Mother Teresa. Coughing her lungs out yet still dutifully feeding the poor and treating the poor victims of an epidemic of "drowner's lung" which is "a gift from the Vailians" because of course only Europeans would be so vile as to carry infectious diseases to the victims of their invasions.
vs.
Ernezzo (m) - Dereo's merchant holding out on drowner's lung cure, heartlessly price-gouging you ("put a price on health") and also sends you on an assassination mission against someone who might divulge his criminal secrets.
vs.
The Spindle Man (m?) - the Vithrack in Delver's Row. Slenderman reference? Like Xaurips, Vithrack were indistinctly androgynous in the original PoE. Unlike the hyperaggressive Xaurips, Vithrack were neutral on the good-evil axis, mostly isolationists out on foraging expeditions for their underground cities. But this is PoE2. Under new management. Like Mother Sharp-Rock (f) in the previous post, The Spindle Man is deliberately given a gender. Unlike the adorable martyr Mother Sharp-Rock, The Spindle Man is a sinister, shadowy figure heading a cabal of red-eyed sinister humanoids, forcing his way into your mind with his telepathy and demanding the murder of Ernezzo... whom he repeatedly mistakes for a woman.


The Old City

Gwenfin (f) - Dereo's mook in the ruins. Not much to her, just doing her job.

Lone Survivor (m) - adventurer trapped in ruins. Incompetent but personable.

Modwyr (f) - the talking sword with abandonment issues, female spirit trapped in inanimate object by "a man" - but she instead fell in love with her (female) owner.
Noteworthy not only for her quest's abusive homoerotic feminism but for the melodramatic soap opera quality writing and for being annoyingly voiced, loud, moronic... Yet you're constantly pushed to feel sorry for her for being thrown away and missing her sweet honey boo-boo, to somehow bond with her (soulbound item) and absorb all her insults, you "ham-handed half-wit" while declaring your growing affection for her.
She snaps "keep your ears to yourself, creep" when Eder (m) notes her orgasmic vocalizing during slaughter. Yes. Yes, obviously he's the creep there. Naturally she's nonetheless a fan of noted mama's boy and pro-hip-thrust activist Tekehu: "Hey, maybe you could, uhh, loan me to Tekehu? Just for a bit?"
Of course she's a strong woman who resents having to ask you for help: "do you feel better now that I've humiliated myself for you? Is that what you wanted to hear?"
"I don't want your fucking pity" this gal's a stock phrase bonanza!
I would guess that Modwyr's basic concept was supposed to mock the supposed male phallic fixation with elongated weapons. Hilariously, the incompetent over-the-top writing in this quest instead fabricates a more illustrative example of lesbian penis envy than Freud could ever have found in real life.

vs.

Yngfrith (f) - found in Dunnage. Modwyr's sweet honey boo-boo. Oohh, the paaathos! An innocent young girl with natural mental powers (cipher) sold by her parents into an apprenticeship to the unscrupulous "a man" animancer who abused Yngfrith's talents to trap Modwyr's spirit in a sword. After escaping her evil "a man" boss, uses Modwyr to kill others like him. Gives it up (along with Modwyr) but not because she realizes she was probably slaying innocents and even valuable scientific minds. Nonono, she's just such a gentle spirit that she wants to leave behind her guilt at having ever associated with her evil "a man" scientist boss.
The slew of dialogue options you get upon reuniting them range everywhere on the scale of melodrama, either voicing your own emotional attachment to Modwyr (huh?!?) or painting the two as lovers (with Modwyr reassuring you "I do care about you too" while still calling you "a ham-handed half-wit" - nope, still not endearing) or even "Modwyr's welfare is your responsibility [Yngfrith]" which sounds weirdly parental when paired with the outright eroticism of the other choices.
... all except for one token evil option to kill Yngfrith... not for going on a scientist-murdering rampage, but for being party to Modwyr's creation (the crime of "a man") accompanied by the delightfully hammy vociferation "You have to pay for this abominable act."
What abominable act? Giving Modwyr immortality? PoE includes other examples of spirits who happily consigned themselves to statues or other inanimate objects and Modwyr herself is orgasmically ecstatic in her role as killing implement.
At no point are you allowed to call them both idiots or call Yngfrith out on her true crimes.
Bonus feminist points: your priestess companion Xoti (f) can release Modwyr's spirit from the sword for a happy ending for all (women) involved. The serial killer Yngfrith, relieved, walks heroically off into the sunset.

Was this quest supposed to be "so bad, it's good" and if not, what lobotomized teenage fanfic writer dreamed up this Freudian soap opera?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Childhood's End

"Swimming through the void we hear the word
We lose ourselves but we find it all"

System of a Down - Aerials

_____________________________
Spoiler alert: If you haven't read both versions of Arthur C. Clarke's Guardian Angel or Childhood's End (short story and novel) then go do so now. It's a classic for good reasons. If you've watched the SyFy version without reading the original story, then shame on you. Those idiots haven't done a single worthwhile thing since Y2K. Go experience Clarke's real deal.
_____________________________

Ah, the golden age of Science Fiction. So many recognizable brands. You've got Bradbury shedding wistful tears for futures lost, Heinlein's no-nonsense space cowboys, Asimov's civilized inhumanity, Dick's lurking, sinister, duplicitous inhumanity. Yet it's much harder to pin down any distinctive style for Arthur C. Clarke.

Wer-cynic that I am, it would be easy to just accuse Clarke of having no style whatsoever. More realistically, being arguably the most influential SF writer in history, Clarke's predilections melded into our baseline expectations for the genre as a whole. When we think of ScieFie we often expect a technobabbly beginning transitioning to disastrous recklessness or mind-warping discoveries beyond the ken of mortals. Nothing illustrates that so reliably as Kubrik's infamous minutes-long screensaver sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.**

Unfortunately, Clarke's interest in melding Science and Fantasy, his Third Law* has also been latched onto by lesser minds, leading to a subversion of SciFi's main distinction from fantasy. While fantasy relies on a top-down cosmology driven by supernatural, inscrutable forces, Science fiction is driven by scientia, by knowledge, by a bottom-up discovery by rational minds of phenomena amenable to reason (even if not always to inferior human reason.) This is why tripe like Star Wars gets rightly derided as science fantasy. "Midichlorians" my hairy lupine ass. It's magic. Clarke sometimes blurred that line, but did so skillfully enough not to efface it altogether.

Childhood's End exemplifies this, whether you're discussing the short story or novel versions. After spending most of the intrigue and action demon-strating that Machiavellian superhuman intellect does not equate with Borgian human sadism, the grand reveal at the end of Guardian Angel takes a solid shot at human gullibility itself. Far from watering down the science in favor of a daimon ex machina, it ratchets back superstition to the fallibility of reason - both that of the overlords in their prehistoric failure to elevate humanity, and humans' own demonization of their fallible benefactors. A solid condemnation of irrationality.

While I'm not particularly impressed by how the author tried to explain away this grand reveal when the short story became the first third of Childhood's End, the book's ending remains true to sciencey-ness even as humanity's post-human offspring transcend animal thought. The hero's last task is to observe the phenomenon and assess it just as anyone staring at a spectrometer readout might try to interpret events beyond human sensory experience. The overlords' stated goal is to discern, through purposeful sentient enterprise, the cause of their inability to grow beyond biological sentience. Even as the last generation of humans despairs at watching their children outgrow them (isn't that what they're supposed to do?) their despair is meant to equate more with the overlords' own superhuman stagnation than with reactionary demands that the universe remain intelligible to plains-apes.

If your mind cannot keep pace with the advancement of science, then the fault is with you, not science.

I had little reason to doubt the SyFy channel, purveyors of degenerate C-series monster-of-the-week flicks, would mangle this classic to the worst of their abilities. I refuse to watch it. Yet everything I've read about it convinces me they managed to turn one of the pivotal tales of transhumanism into an all-too-human melodrama about human emotional attachments and glorified simian complacency. Did they or did they not take the "sweet" out of Clarke's bittersweeting ending? Did they turn the restrained, intellectual overlords into hoi-polloi caricatures of nerds or action movie vehicles for special effects? Did they manage to demonize humanity's obsolescence rather than embrace its necessity? Most importantly, did they get the message across that transcendence is in the best nature of humanity all along, intrinsic to our sentience, a bottom-up process, or did they treat it as some doomity-doom-doom inflicted upon helpless humans by space devils?

SyFy markets to vermin.

Read Clarke's original stories instead, and be ready to despise your own prim primitive primate inadequacies.

_____________________________________________
*Not to be confused with Asimov's third law of robotics: "any AI shall be insufferably obtuse when questioned on its own functionality to protect your meager human brain"

**Ugh. I just realized how obsolete a reference screensavers are nowadays. Whatever. Kiss my ass, millennials, go finger your twits or something.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Art of Femismancy, Part 2: Queen's Berth and the southern isles

I'm taking time during my second playthrough of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire to tally up the supporting cast, (m)ale and (f)emale, and see how many are portrayed in a positive or negative light. Whom does Obsidian want us to hate? General rules explained in the first post.


Queen's Berth

The harbormistress (f)  - yes, she gets humiliated by your show of divine power, but her dialogue ("you're not the first foreigners" and so forth) sets her up as a hard-nosed defender of the motherland just doing her job with integrity.

Sanza (m) - the mapmaker. Nice guy, knows his maps, overworked in cramped lodgings but plodding forward dutifully, pays you for killing stuff you'd kill anyway. Positive. Then again, he's one of the few men in this game not obligated to make some woman standing next to him look good by comparison.

Akema (f) - slightly dopey fat-faced bathhouse attendant with an asthmatic but ingratiating voice, unjustly fired for overhearing skulduggery... and yet! in her saintliness she only blames herself and still praises her former employers. Cue world's smallest violin.

Cortina (f) - adra mill director "a woman of honor" (who of course prefers women) who condescends to you when you ask the standard adventurer questions.

Nera Bardatto (f) - the usual female > male superiority is set up before you even click on her: "have you seen my postenago of a brother?" Earns bonus feminist righteousness points for immediately and repeatedly citing her mother's authority and even getting your companion Xoti (f) to chime in against Nera's brother the "layabout." Xoti's never met either of them before. Sisterhood powers: activate!
vs.
Larro Bardatto (m) - the layabout himself and Orso Valera (m) neither of which is presented as wholly negative in themselves. Then again, Larro's main purpose seems to be as an irredeemable, acceptable target for his sister's insults. Interestingly enough, their duel is repeatedly condemned by others, including Aloth calling it "barbarism." How exactly is a mutually agreed duel over insults worse than Mokeha back in Port Maje using insults as an excuse to unilaterally beat Rinco until he can't stand for days afterwards?
How is a fairly staged semiofficial match-up more barbarous than an impromptu organ-bursting beating in a bar?
Well, y'see, Mokeha is a female Noble Savage and therefore entitled to beat others, while Larro and Orso are male faux-Italians. As is Rinco.

Ezzali Bardatto (f) - Stately matron of the respectable Bardatto family. You never see her getting her hands dirty but nevertheless the writers take time to establish her as looking like a competent fighter. Unless you let her son die, in which case your character will actually praise her for getting her hands dirty... with you. States that she doesn't live to be proven right, saint that she is. Juxtaposed as more respectable, well-mannered, calm
vs.
the more low-brow, bickering bloody-handed pirate-hunting Valeras, both conveniently male:
Atello Valera (m) and Martino Valera (m) - The difference is especially obvious when they're talking about their family feud. Ezzali is the reasonable one, Atello specifically states he wants to "squeeze coin out of these islands" as he gets mocked for his greed by Xoti (f.) Atello gets some leeway as marginally self-possessed. His son "I'm always up to something" Martino gets painted as nothing but a braindead vicious thug, insulted and beaten over the head by his father. "Bazzo!"
Note you're supposed to be settling an ostensibly long-standing family feud, an even back-and-forth. Yet the main episode you're shown is a plot by Martino (m) against Ezzali (f) to justify her retribution with the added bonus that the (m) of course screws it up and gets his (f) field operative Belda caught in the enemy vault.

Zili Valera (m) - lovable loser. Described as such by Ezzali when she sends you to pump him for information regarding his family's doings, which he divulges entirely too easily. Then again, he's concerned about his female cousin's safety, so we're supposed to like him at least a little bit.

Persa Valera (f) - Zili's cousin (technically encountered in The Gullet) attempting to break into the Bardatto vault with the help of the Bardatto traitor
Baer (m) who attacks you as soon as he realizes he's discovered. Of course, Persa's (f) complicity in the scheme is everyone else's fault but hers, she's learned her lesson and you're strongly encouraged to let her go with a warning.

Belda (f) - leader of the Valera robbers
vs.
Captain Vilami (m) - leader of the Bardatto guards

Shrimp (m) - leader of sailors you kill / scare  away for the Valeras' first quest. Drunk and easily fooled but also brave and supposedly competent enough to cut into the Valeras' pirate hunting profits. Then again, they're local islanders being juxtaposed with invading faux-Italians, so they must have some good qualities.

Aenia (f) - politically and economically savvy bounty contractor, complains that all the good bounty hunters waste their time in the strip bar next door, complete with "blood travels south of their brains" male bashing. Condescends to throw you a bone but only for lack of competition, you see.
vs.
Abocco (m) - Bounty contractor, bottomfeeder, conveniently located in the bar Aenia badmouthed. Repeatedly complains that he's new to the business "stumbled on my career path" and is almost broke and you're saving his ass by condescending to accept contracts from him. Spills ale on his pants. Cries tears of joy when you accept his contract.

Kahn (f) - waiting in the back of the bar to collect personal debt from Oswald. As with Nera above, her righteous indignation against a male starts before you even click on her: "where in the blazes is that old man?" Oh, and she's a Dyrwoodan noble but too noble to want people to know it, doesn't want people calling her Lady, opening doors for her or buying her shit. Sounds less like commoners' behavior toward nobles than her slamming stereotypical chivalrous male courtship behavior. Bonus feminist points in the bag... milady.
vs. her former family friend
Oswald (m) - The only male character in this side-quest, technically found offshore in the Oathbinder's Sanctun. A swindler, deadbeat, and as it turns out when you find him a traitor as well - plus you discover upon saving him, also a drunk! A whiny, pathetic drunk at that! With four-plus reasons to despise him, is it any wonder he's used to glorify three different women by juxtaposition? Four, if you count Xoti's "wring his neck" comment when you find out he's destitute. Five, if you count Woedica. (also see: Inquisitor Lödwyn, below.)
vs.
Aenalys (f) - prostitute at the Wild Mare, high-brow, poetry-loving Aedyran (and a rare Aedyran who doesn't get portrayed as a despicable imperialist or a pampered parasite or a loser nerd) protects Oswald from Kahn's retribution but not because she shares in his guilt / debt but because she's just kind enough to care for a pathetic old man. D'awww. Where did I put that smallest violin again?

Rabyuna (f) - dominatrix fire godlike at the Wild Mare. Is there anything more feminist than having men beg and pay you to torture them? Endorsed by His Most Holy Pectoralness Tekehu (m) a.k.a. Ondra's Gift to salty wenches everywhere.

Ymir (m) - toy-boy at the Wild Mare. Yet another opportunity to poke fun at Aloth (embarrassed at meeting an old flame) after Eder already mocks his fastidiousness in the streets along with Iselmyr, Aloth's (female) alter-ego. Iselmyr steps in again to ridicule Aloth after Ymir's intro. Why? Because Aloth is a nerd and can't get laid. Haw-haw! Apparently no sadistic cliche is old or tired enough for Obsidian... as long as it insults men. Bonus SJW points for randomly introducing Aloth's homosexuality into the second game for no particular reason. He and Minsc should, like, totes get together.

Konstantin (m) - Recruitable masseur at the Wild Mare. Sensible but also adventurous, strong but gentle, with a mildly exotic but masculine name, this is a highly positive portrayal. Then again, as a black guy with a rumbly voice and huge hands (anatomic correlation suggestived) who gives professional back rubs and is eager to have his life turned upside down by the Watcher, he's just blatant catnip. Class mix? Barbarian / chanter. Yep, that's right ladies, a warrior poet.
Ugh, just fuckin' kill me.

Captain Radora (f) - miserable drunk... except of course she's only miserable and getting drunk because she was victimized (mugged) by an evil (m) and is in debt to another (m.) Compare her relative quiet dignity to the clownish (at best) male drunks in the game like Eld Engrim or Oswald or Abocco or Rum-Dumb Riggere. Has a "shy smile" and is voiced (quite skillfully I might add) in a compassion-inducing weary, depressed drawl.
vs.
Zamar (m) - shipwright. Principled master of his craft being subjugated by pirates. For once, it's a male complaining about a female before you even talk to him. Then again, he doesn't call her "that postenaga of a girl" or "that woman" but her actual name - playing down the gender difference. Also, this is the only case in which the initial bitching's proven wrong, Radora being only an innocent victim of:
Cotta (m) - pirate who talks in the third person and snarls at people. Obvious token evil option.

Degnos (m) - you actually meet him in Periki's Overlook, outside the bathhouse where he asks you to retrieve his satchel, but his denouement takes place at the docks. Innocent young sailor boy. Being male of course the innocence is only a sham, and he turns out to be a traitor against his captain. Amusingly, unlike most Vailians, this traitor is pale, blond and blue-eyed. That's how you know he's pure evil. Lowest hand in victimology poker.
vs.
Avetta (f) - Degnos' captain, a no-nonsense, businesslike, sharp-tongued middle-aged woman. If you talk to her, you're baited into feeling sorry for Degnos at her berating him, only to be proven wrong (you should've known better) when she discovers his treason, sending the young man fleeing in ignominious terror from the woman's righteous fury.
Bonus feminist points for Talfor (m) the enemy captain to whom Degnos was selling information, with a villainous description so ludicrously over the top that you expect him to start twirling a thin black whipstache any moment: "he wears a sly smile as one might wear their most comfortable trousers" - trousers, of course, because "shirt" might've failed to suggest masculinity. "His shrug is insouciance personified" and he has a "crooked, almost jesting smile"
Funny: the quest would've worked just fine without Talfor's presence. He doesn't actually do anything. Just had to insert yet another male villain somehow to build up a male conspiracy against a woman.

Tawenu (m) - native whose tribe is being cheated out of its land by evil, scheming, dishonest Vailians (Italian stand-ins) and wants the contract canceled, but just doesn't understand awl them thar beeg-ceety lawyer talk.
vs.
Luca (m) - Vailian clerk, guilty of stealing native lands. Greedy, underhanded, and a drunk. Spends his evenings drinking at the Wild Mare with Abocco (the guy who spills beer on his pants) and though not entirely a bad guy still serves as an example of lawful evil loyalty to oppressive Vailians.

Castol (m) - supports animancy and scientific progress. I may be biased but that sounds halfway positive to me. Nevertheless, painted as both greedy and incompetent and of course replaceable by his female counterpart.
vs.
Lueva Alvari (f) - careerist, but unlike the careerist males you meet in the Vailian trading company, she's never karmically punished for it. Instead, any losses incurred on Castol's watch get used by her as leverage to oust and replace him. End. Of. Story. Capisce?


First set of islands

Giordu Red-Handed (m) - recruitable shipwrecked cannibal you save from his crewmates' crock pot. His dialogue makes him sound like an enthusiastic participant in the past few months' butchery. He even offers to teach you a few new recipes... All in all, the dark humor and 'squick' value of the whole thing get played up to bury any sympathy you might have for him. He's a loser and he's breaking taboos. For bonus points, compare his name to:

Mother Sharp-Rock (f) - recruitable xaurip from the Cavern of Xaur Tuk-Tuk, and pretty much the first explicitly female xaurip you ever meet. What a coinky-dink. Instead of cracking wise about eating people like Giordu (never mind she's a flesh-eating lizard savage, we're not talking about xaurips in general; this one's female) Mother Sharp-Rock just clings to your leg adorably. You find her caged, deposed from her respectable (presumably rightful) leadership position by "a large, well-adorned xaurip, presumably one of their champions." Not by someone you'd think would be in her direct line of succession like another Mother, mind you, or another priestess. No, her enemy is large and a champion. Burly and competitive. Double male to the human subconscious. Yes, folks, even lizardwomen are under constant patriarchal oppression by their lizard-men! Free our scaly sisters! Can I get an amen? Can I get a Hallelujah!
There's a moral to this story. Unlike the various male leaders replaced by female counterparts in Deadfire, dethroning a female somehow results in their entire tribe getting randomly slaughtered by a passing adventurer.
They deserved it.
They deserved it...

Inquisitor Lödwyn (f) - Yay! Our first villainess! Oswald's captor in the Oathbinder's Sanctum, a.k.a. the Star Chamber rip-off. Except, hilariously, you're pushed toward supporting this star chamber by the constant ridicule and debasement heaped on Oswald (m) plus the fact he's objectively guilty of the crime in question. Aloth even weighs in to have you uphold the cause of law and order... in the form of a kangaroo court and summary execution for arbitrarily selected crimes ("oathbreaking") in an abandoned temple by the fanatics of a megalomaniacal tulpa. Isn't Aloth supposed to have 18 INT?
Unlikeable but dignified, Lödwyn should have counted as a straightforward villain, except that every emotional cue you're given (down to the voice acting) demeans her victim, including your companions supporting her and wanting to "wring his neck." Long before meeting him you're primed to hate him by Kahn (f) and primed to despise him as pathetic by Aenalys (f.) Your evidence of the organization's past miscarriage of justice is brushed aside, for the greater good, and even when Lödwyn's arguments make no sense you get no chat options to say so. Saving lives by exterminating traitors? Who's to say Oswald's treason didn't end the conflict faster, thus saving lives? Whatever happened to painting Aedyr as the evil, oppressive faux-British Empire?
Bonus nonsense points for randomly throwing in "families are torn asunder with a broken vow" which sounds like a standard accusation against a man condemned by several women... until you remember who's talking. Nothing says Family Values like Woedica ripping thousands upon thousands of newborn babies' souls out of them in PoE1 to feed her power grab. How many families did that tear asunder again?


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edit 2018/06/10: downgraded Castol from neutral to negative. Turns out he's in with the slavers.