Sunday, October 28, 2018

V:tM - Bloodlines ! with Happy End?

"I tried so hard and got so far
But in the end it doesn't even matter"

Linkin Park - In the End

As this series of posts runs through the entire length of the classic computer role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, assume spoilers.

Bloodlines earned its "classic" status via its pacing, atmosphere, characters, XP/leveling scheme and viscerally immersive roleplaying choices. You'll almost never hear anyone praise its buggy and simplistic combat system. Its ending falls somewhere in between, cited, if ever, far behind earlier quests on most fans' lists of high points. Partly, the requisite climactic battles were hampered by that buggy and simplistic combat system.

When I set out on this little vampiric jaunt down memory lane two years ago I declared I'd try to do it the stupid way by banking on firearms, and I stuck to my guns. Literally.

However, by the end-game with 9/10 ranged combat points (auspex bonus included) even the best shotgun and assault rifle could barely drop human mooks with an entire clip. My fire-and-forget "vision of death" Malkavimagic spell interspersed with the occasional feeding proved much more effective. For boss fights, guns were moderately effective, mostly because it's possible to glitch out both bosses' AI or get them stuck in repetitive loops navigating around columns and staircases.
As impressive as The Sheriff looks with his big fucking sword, it's a dull first half of the fight once you realize he never took the "stair climbing" discipline and thus only teleports predictably between levels, allowing himself to be potshotted from harmless distance. At least he provided a use for the flamethrower, a weapon with an otherwise impractically small ammunition capacity. Since his Chiropteran Behemoth form can get knocked out of the air by damage, the DoT effect from even one pulse of the flamethrower causes him to rubber-band back down the instant he attempts to take off, never attacking you. Nice gimmick but still, that's entirely too gimmicky a victory for a final boss fight.

As for Ming Xiao, it's a close-quarters fight with knockbacks, which makes it both unsatisfyingly restrained and annoy-...
oh, shit!

She's got nipples! Why in the name of everloving fuck does a giant tentacled worm have glowing nipples? And how did I never notice that before?
... disturbing...

Aside from disappointing boss fights, I'd guess most players hated being denied both a final fight against LaCroix himself and their macguffin to boot. You adventure in mookdom ends with you still a mook, ping-ponged around in the conflict between the city's factions. And you know what? I'm fine with that.

Here I have to defend Troika's decision. For all the frustration of discovering there had never been a macguffin to begin with, the ending scene of Smiling Jack laughing it up on the beach watching the fireworks is as memorable as any in computer games. It also better fits White Wolf's V:tM setting as I understand it from my outside vantage point. It should, after all, be a game less about brute force or the accumulation of magical artifacts than about outliving the machinations of one's fellow bloodsuckers. "-the politics, kid. That's what'll kill ya." It's also one of the few RPGs explicitly letting you ride off into the sunset by yourself instead of becoming a lord or king or demigod or otherwise saddled with the world's cares.

Anyway, it's not all bad. The not-quite-reveal of the mysterious cab driver is greatly sweetened by playing a Malkavian and watching my character completely lose his shit and descend into incoherent panic at intuiting the dark stranger's nature. As you ascend Ventrue Tower you pass a window with a view of the street you've walked so many times over the course of your campaign. In a stroke of brilliance, just to tie everything up in a neat little bow, just to drive home the pure circuitous circularity of power games, there's the suicide bomber LaCroix throws at you.

When killed, he drops his explosive satchel. It's the Astrolite. It might be any batch of Astrolite, but we all know it's not. It's the macguffin from your own first mission, the very Astrolite you yourself delivered to LaCroix to prove your worth, never mentioned again. Until now. Was it worth it?

The encapsulation of Bloodlines' brilliance: making you kick yourself every step of your moonlit way.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Art of Femismancy, Part The Last: What Have We Learned?

"And it's ironic too
'Cause what we tend to do
Is act on what they say
And then it is that way"

Jem - They

A few chapters ago, the webcomic Wilde Life featured a siren who unwittingly mesmerizes the male lead, invading his dreams and tormenting him with nightmarish visions. The writer repeatedly drives home the point that this is not her fault, that she regrets it and sets out to right her wrong by skipping town to cut the magic link.
The latest chapter of Wilde Life features a story about a girl who fell in love with a (male) supernatural raven. They merge into one entity. In the present day, another teenage male character is accosted by the raven-man, who sinisterly gets grabby with him, invading his dreams and tormenting him with nightmarish visions. Then suddenly the raven breaks character, shies away mumbling "no no no no no no no I don't want to hurt you" - and is revealed to be currently embodying the female half of their pair. Because of course. Man bad, woman good.

Two years ago, the remake of Ghostbusters came out with an all-female cast, pushed by an ad campaign costing more than the movie itself, and anyone who complained was shouted down as anti-female. Its fanatical adherents failed to grasp the problem that a movie entirely predicated on anti-male bigotry, on a sweeping replacement of men by women, was not likely to have anything else going for it. By all accounts, the result was a slog of a script peppered with a few half-assed, awkward action scenes. If the flick's remembered at all now, it's as a flop, and the critical reviews praising it make endless transparent excuses for its failings, obligated to applaud a feminist propaganda piece.

That same year, Siege of Dragonspear came out, which again earned a reputation as a social justice warrior mangling of a classic cRPG. More level-headed players also noted that aside from proselytizing, it lacked any of the positive qualities of the games whose name it took in vain.

Earlier this year, I played a badly written sequel to a good game. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is not terrible, all told. Its gameplay mechanics, while not outstanding, brought minor improvements or at least managed not to wreck the first installment's take on old-school isometric RPGs. Its sound and visuals were well enough executed, though the figures and landscapes they portray fall short of the original. Unfortunately, Obsidian Entertainment's leadership decided to hand over the writing job to a cabal of propagandists whose storytelling ability and incapacity for nuanced thought would best fit children's books, self-insert fan fics or cheesy inspirational posters. Characters, places, monsters, political factions, roleplaying choices, all fall flat. Even the background reincarnation-themed cosmology seems to be getting replaced (for no particular reason) by a standard "Hel" complete with standard red-skinned imps. That they actually thought "oh my Gaun" would stay funny through more than one repetition makes one wonder what qualifications, if any, Deadfire's writing team boasted to land their jobs.

It was also hard to miss Deadfire's dedication to feminism. The gravelly-voiced male narrator (a direct throwback to the old Infinity Engine games) is replaced by a female one, and the newly breathy, over-emotive narration expanded to nuisance levels. Male deities are degraded to boogeymen and thrown a line or two while female ones take up endless interludes with their (supposedly grandiose) bickering. So on my second playthrough I took the time to tally up its rather extensive supporting cast and see how many men or women were portrayed in a positive or negative light. I had originally planned to do so for this last post as well, rounding it out with end-game encounters, but honestly I lost my remaining interest in the game and the few remaining examples just reiterated more of the same:

Nemnok the Devourer (m) - a jumped-up imp masquerading as a stereotypical volcano god for an island's worth of primitive dwarves. Like all imps, which seem to be all male, he's disgusting, obnoxious, cruel, despicable in every way.
Lucia Rivan (f) - "she is the epitome of Grand Vailia. Of magnificence, honor, and duty. Living or undead, she strives still to serve her charge."
She's an honorable zombie too, and well-mannered to boot!
"What the goddess of death has marked, I will leave untouched." She nods solemnly, once, then with a tilt of her skull, steers the ship away.
Menzzago (m) - Lucia Rivan's former second, now leading an island full of flesh-eating undead abominations, hypnotized into submission. Evil, evil, evil down to his villainous lair's black and red color scheme.

And so on and on. What Deadfire's script lacks in quality it makes up for in droning repetition. This is, in fact, what has rendered it such a good case study for this sort of chauvinism. "Boys stink, girls rule!" makes a shaky foundation for a rather expansive game like Deadfire, but our stalwart auteurs stuck to their guns, yielding a noticeable, endlessly repeating pattern of juxtaposing negative male characters with positive female ones in order to emphasize female superiority. It only jumped out at me after having written my first post on the topic, at the start of my second playthrough. Once I had all the characters written down, the contrast of Governor Clario's moral failings against the virtuous women with whom he interacts (Benessa and Ikawha) became impossible to ignore. Not that it was subtle to begin with, given their overt badmouthing of him.

Three such patterns emerged.

1) Bad man, good woman.
For example, faction leadership for all four major factions is composed of a leader and second in command, one male and the other female. Regardless of who's actually in charge, the negative aspects of that faction are voiced and embodied by the male. Especially glaring in the case of the pirates, where the entirety of the pro-slavery faction is cast as male and the entirety of the anti-slavery faction is female.
It can also be much simpler, like the female shipwreck survivor on the beach in the tutorial jeering at her male counterpart and asking if he'd cried when he almost died.
Repeated at least 15 times by my estimate.

2) Bad man, good women.
Two or more women want to cooperate for some noble purpose, but wouldn't you know it, there just happens to be an obstacle in the way of their cooperation and that obstacle just happens to be male. Or, several idealized women are somehow all linked by their connection with a single bumbling, stupid, evil male.
Examples: Clario, Oswald, Hati, the nameless "a man" who created Modwyr, etc.

3) Bad men, good woman
A competent, well-intentioned female is somehow surrounded or being actively held back by the machinations or bumbling of two or more stupid, evil men.
Many more examples: Savia, Syri, Nairi, Wehata, Fassina, Bekarna, Elette, etc. - the archipelago's just stuffed with over-competent, saintly women beset on all sides by male evil and stupidity. Just the same old heroine indeed.

The scant positive male characters in Deadfire are a couple of female fan servicers lifted straight out of romance novels or a couple of conveniently wrinkled old daddy-figures with a disturbingly high chance to have been physically maimed somehow. The only negative female characters... well, shit, try to find one. Whenever any woman does something wrong, it's somehow toward a greater good, usually in service to her tribal unit or justified by the greater evil of the nearest male next to her. They managed only one true villainness, Malnaj, and even she was permitted more dignity than most of the male cast. Then you've got the monster races, which acquire gender-specific attributes in the sequel like the Spindle "Man" or "Mother" Sharp-Rock, with predictable demonization and sanctification.

So, class, what have we learned?

1) Fanaticism is, among other things, a refuge for the incompetent. Social justice tracts, much like the religious morality plays they so naively emulate, tend to weigh down the low end of the intellectual and artistic bell curve. Stepping back from social issues, there emerges a pattern of unskilled hacks shielding themselves from criticism behind the unbending bulwark of constantly repeated politically correct mantras. My crap promotes people of the correct skin color or sex, so if you call my crap crap then you're a sexist, racist, child-molesting nazi pig.

2) Propaganda is not art. It's psychological conditioning. I may bitch about the endless repetition in Deadfire, but repetition is the whole point. Man bad, woman good. Repeat the mantra. Man bad, woman good. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repeat it on the news and in movies and especially repeat it in university literature departments, so that it carries forth into every publication, so that everyone can recite the feminist gospel truth. Deadfire, more blatant than most, is merely a reiteration of the conditioning we've endured all our lives. We have all grown up with this presumption of male debt and duty, of male "patriarchal" original sin to be expiated only by constant service toward women and children.

And it's an easy sell. It meshes perfectly with our instinctive view of men as competent, unfeeling instruments, the active, utilitarian branch of the family/tribal unit. It fits with men's instinctive eagerness to beat each other down as sexual competitors and with women's instinctive need for psychological leverage over men. Good or bad, it's hard to find any creator not kow-towing to female purity and moral superiority, from folklore to modern media. I'd count Wilde Life a great deal more clever and captivating a work in its own right than the others I've mentioned here. But still, of course the mentally invasive siren in Wilde Life must be presumed well-intentioned while the mentally invasive raven must be presumed creepy and evil... until he turns female. We know it, we expect it, we demand it, we hunger for it with the same pre-sentient, fanatical, impulsive, salivating reflex as Pavlov's dog knew the sound of the bell.
Man? Bad!
Woman? Good!
Repeat the mantra.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

A Trophy

My stubble bubbles solid but docile, no style, through a flaking crust parched of mens sans corporeal insanity seeking simulated amenity. A vessel of intemperate capacity sits while its vaporous genius flits from locale to look, all I'm doing is no things - and you? All you're doing is all thing no think, all swing and no meaning, all screaming at a corpse to rehearse its perverse degenerative demeaning keratypical preening. My razor sings keener for a virtuous dreamer, parsimoniously saner sans corporedeeming. Five oaks lock my shadow to this stump but in the time you spent barking me them my leaf left to hearken a taiga from occident to orient to bathe in the firmament with its filaments fuming discorporate intent. Dust off my stardust for each morrow, the sorrow of deepening furrows hobbling my verse, whiskers ever lusting for the ravenous hearse. I retch at their stretch, they sketch a line segment, I efface their segue for as long as lotophagy holds sway over mens saner every day away from the insanity of the corpores publica sweeping its raptor wings right and left as I pray and delay, everextend my satirical transfigural literacy until you finally litter away this follicular tapestry and the apathetic apatitic carcera with its daimon d'invenzione long fled a stray from your pack with your rack of thumbs screwed up and down, sounding the length of my beard while my weirdness escapes your deciduous inquiry in der net full of holes in your walls that you cobble so dearly, incapable of mingling your superb novas clearly, incapable of peering beyond your horizons eventually dimming having never gone swimming in the synaptic buff sans this fluff you so gleefully scoff at adorning my bark while my cambium sings with Precambrian strings and Pleistoscents fragrant as vagrants' ameth scribed methodically unto the meeting of thinking and thing. One I'll keep 'til the other you wring from my purpose to repose upon your bare lingual walls, with a note neatly scrawled:
"here lies beast by distemperate moonlight unwisely digressed its hirsute condemnation to snarl homo-lupinely at our anexetaston."

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Tale of Two Krakens

"Fry: Incredible. This place is just like the Ancient Egypt of my day.
Osiran Slavemaster: That is no coincidence, for our people visited your Egypt thousands of years ago.
Fry: I knew it! Insane theories, one; regular theories, a billion."

Futurama: A Pharaoh to Remember

At about ten to twelve years old, I outgrew religion. There was no single traumatic event involved, no easily identifiable dark night of the soul. I wasn't felt up by a priest nor contracted some incurable disease to make me decry "there is no God!" I just gradually discerned the proposition of the universe being run by some omniscient Daddy Warbucks up in the clouds is utter bullshit, and the scriptures no holier than Aesop's fables. Somehow, a few of the fairy tales I'd been told as a child had been mistakenly presented to me as Super Serious Grownup Stuff instead of the kid stories they really were. They'd been misfiled, one might say. Oops.

As many others have observed, such a break with the religion of our childhoods rarely transitions directly into skepticism. At first it prompts a search for a replacement faith of some kind, any kind, for some intangible influence or unfalsifiable Truth Out There somewhere. Something on which to blame all one's troubles, something we can feel is watching our back in this big bad scary world, or at the very least some knowledge we can claim to possess, inaccessible to others, a secret to share to make us feel speshul. In my case I skimmed over a few Oriental myths about reincarnation and flying monks which led me into E.S.P. (which mostly led to eye strain from squinting after auras) then I hit upon the notion of alternate realities, which kept me busy for a bit examining the assumption that anything might be possible in the multiverse. That kind of jumped the shark when I found myself wondering whether there must necessarily exist a Mickey Mouse universe. Then I bought a couple of books on UFO sightings, alien abductions and ancient astronauts (they, like, totally built the pyramids, didjaknowthat? 'strue!) This segued conveniently enough into cryptozoology.

Those books were a-may-zing! They laid out all the big superstar cryptids, a veritable "who's who" of who's not. There was Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and the Jersey Devil and the Chupacabra and thunderbirds and jackalopes and mothmen and half-chimp human hybrids and half-chimp human hybrids from space and Hans the wonder-horse and sirens and subterranean lizard-people and...
Well, this is embarrassing.
They also featured, rather prominently, the Kraken. Turns out that one's real. Oops.

Twenty years later, a Japanese submersible crew actually filmed it. Does that vindicate the entire roster of batshit conspiracy theories that is cryptozoology? Does the existence of the giant squid make Ariel the Mermaid any more real? Does it imply there really is a lone immortal 65m.y.o. plesiosaur paddling around the Scottish Highlands, visible only to the pure of heart? Bullshit. Minotaurshit, even. It only means the giant squid had been misfiled as a cryptid in the books I'd bought back in 1994. Based on the amount of extant physical evidence from the 19th century onwards, it really should never have been included in the same category as Bigfoot.

Not everything is as advertised. Not everything we've been sold as Super Serious Grownup Stuff truly qualifies. Not all cryptids are equally cryptic, and it's much more true in politics than in science. Social clubs and social movements will predictably try to legitimize themselves by claiming membership in some broader, more respectable category. They'll try to attack their favorite targets of abuse by pigeonholing them as some broader, more despicable category. Everyone I hate must automatically be a Nazi child molester, by the power of 'cuz I said so. So there. Quite often you find the strangest political bedfellows. For instance, the broader category we call the Left Wing of politics has its own Krakens.

On one hand you've got environmentalism. The first natural preserves, the first areas walled off from human development, were anything but socialist or left wing or populist. They were the hunting grounds of fat cats. Almost literally. Long before national parks or World Heritage Sites there were game preserves, where the lords of various realms hunted their deer and boars and pheasants and stalked the wily caviar to the best of their inbred aristocratic abilities. You could afford to leave some land unspoilt by civilization when your family owned half a county. The left wing on the other hand is by its basic definition about representing the interests of the (human) working class. Improving the material comforts of 75-95% of society necessarily requires acquiring more of those comfortable materials, by hook or by crook. Historical examples from the industrial era onwards are enough to make Mother Nature shit herself. In fact the various self-declared socialist states of the Second World have carried out their forced, accelerated industrialization in the 20th century with an almost ecstatic dismissal of natural disasters. A quick Google search of Soviet depredations yields story after story after story after story after story after story after story filled with such heart-warming phrases as "life expectancy of 42 years" or "accidental release of weaponized smallpox" to prove that Chernobyl's barely the tip of the iceberg. And if you think the Soviets were bad, best not even mention the "People's Republic" of China.

In the U.S., hippies managed to claim a love of nature as their own. After all, "flower children" sounds flaky but still a lot more respectable than "draft-dodging stoners." Since then, the right wing has learned to hate environmentalism as part and parcel of everything they hate about left-wing politics, like education, open-mindedness, freedom and listening to Jesus instead of just having faith in him. With so much of science actually backing up the hippies' points, we've reached the odd stage of widespread knee-jerk conservative antiscientific rhetoric: a denial of vaccination, denial of global warming, denial of evolution even. Understanding and conserving nature has become conflated, in American conservatives' view, with the evils of socialism. Khrushchev and Brezhnev would probably laugh their asses off about it.

But if that's largely projection by the right wing, the left wing imposes its own Krakens on its self-classification, not least of them feminism. I was prompted to write this post by hearing, for the ten-thousandth time in my life, yet another feminist declare that abortion rights are by definition women's rights and proceed to wail and moan about the reactionary fight against abortion as a gendered issue, some implicit crime of men against women. Well, you know who might disagree with her? All the women who routinely declare themselves "pro-life" in polls, and who join anti-abortion organizations and who make up over half of the anti-abortion movement. At which point we can all pretty much face-palm at remembering the basic biological truism that women love babies! If they didn't we wouldn't be here.

Personal freedom is a more masculine than a feminine value. Personal safety and stability are more feminine than masculine values. These tendencies are by no means absolute but have been verified trends throughout recorded history. Liberalism, libertinism, libertarianism and most things with "liber" in them tend to be more male than female. Comfortable self-delusions are more feminine than masculine, which may both bring into question and explain the desire of feminists to paint religion as some anti-female boys' club despite women at large being more religious than men. As convenient as it is to scapegoat the nearest male for all your troubles, Mrs. Grundy remains doggedly female.* These 55-45% or 60-40% splits in gender politics may not sound very decisive, but let's remember most presidential elections are won with less than a 10% spread. (Some are won with a -2.09% spread.)

Aside from being pro-abortion and anti-theocratic, the left wing is supposed to be, let's remember, at its root about social class inequality. Hell, the term itself started with the French Revolution. This cuts to the core reason why feminism never belonged in the bestiary of left-wing politics to begin with. Women are not a socioeconomic class. While gender roles have certainly limited women's sphere of activity, it has not limited their access to the fruits of that activity. Rich women lived rich lives and poor women lived poor lives, and lived and died within their homestead's tax bracket just like the men getting taxed did. They had their babies and said their prayers, and it was safe and stable and feminine and though life was hard you could always blame your husband for failing to bring home more bacon. Women have always been as oppressed as the majority of women have wanted to be. When, after several millennia of aristocracy, men finally gained the right to vote, women demanded it as well and got it in a couple of generations. When working outside the home became safe and personally rewarding instead of just climbing the same hill all your life to till the soil (instead of tilling your home garden) women demanded to work outside the home, and they got that too. When formal education became a point of pride instead of an oubliette for younger sons in lieu of a monastery or foreign legion, women demanded it and got it as they get anything they demand from men.

There is one thing women might lose in exchange for everything they've gotten, the safety and stability of a male provider, the most conservative value of all, and that is what modern feminism promises. It's not liberal. It's not left wing. It's a continuation of the promise of male service toward women. Feminism sells the idea of male guilt, of some unfathomable, inestimable male debt toward women, constantly fabricating infractions against femininity to justify treating men as criminals, to make men work toward redeeming themselves and allow women to believe themselves entitled to male labor. It's a Kraken of an ideology, an all too real outgrowth of conservatism's otherwise imaginary monster manual, coiling around and around, dragging us down, down, down into a suffocating obfuscation of real social issues.

*That means she's a bitch. That was the joke.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Least Original Sin

I've been giving Divinity: Original Sin a chance, just to see what all the hype's been a-hypin'. Not all too crazy about it so far. Interesting combat mechanics get held back by a goofy atmosphere, almost actively hostile towards roleplaying immersion. For now, one thing's bugging me.

The first Divinity games were mindless hack'n'slash ARPG Diablo clones set amongst generically Tolkienish fairy-tale medievalism. The Original Sin games seem to distance themselves from that, attempting some actual roleplaying mechanics beyond just racking up an orcish head count. This first of the new batch is supposedly set a thousand years before the old Divinity titles... yet it's still set in the same generically Tolkienish fairy-tale medievalism.

Why not ditch the Medieval Stasis? A game series spanning several titles could set each installment in a different stage of its imaginary world's development. Once you've established your "everybody knows what elves are like" fantasy baseline with its kings and mage guilds, expand upon it.

Set the next game before the elves and humans had met, so that nobody knows what elves are like. Take me to the time before kingdoms had coalesced and let me adventure as part of mammoth-chasing nomadic tribes just discovering the rudiments of magic. Fast-forward to when the kingdoms collapse and let me play Mad Max with magic wands. If one game's set among warring kingdoms worshipping various pantheons, then set the next one in a monolithic monotheistic theocracy. Real history has its Akhenatens and Alarics after all. Why not fake histories?

Allow magic to change. Let some schools die out, let some antediluvians get diablerized, let the light of the rings fade. You're probably going to make gameplay changes to those combat mechanics anyway, so why not incorporate them into your cosmology? Hell, give me a fantasy game set in the stone-age, with primitive humans scraping by in the shadow of elvish or draconic civilizations. Let me play as the first adan. Let me build the monuments which become ancient ruins in another game. Make a plot point out of minotaurs becoming extinct in between your games, or of vampirism being discovered. Show me the fire and water spells I tossed around in one game become entire academic disciplines five hundreds years later in the sequel, the basis of a steampunk revolution. Let me be an ancient astronaut invading the Earth in one game, and in the next an archaeologist trying to unravel the mysterious technology brought down during the invasion.

Just stop recycling the same quaint rustic medieval villages and the same swashbuckling at the orders of the same kings and the same robed clowns tossing the same fireballs around at the same kaleidoscopic dragons in thirty-one flavors.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

False Halloween

"Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated
I see the way you're acting like you're somebody else
Gets me frustrated"

Avril Lavigne - Complicated

The Last Halloween
False Positive

I don't hold much with the horror genre. For one thing I'm on the analytical side, so at most points where the audience gleefully engages its subcortical fight-or-flight-or-popcorn response, I'd be wrinkling my nose thinking: "Waaait a minute... that doesn't look like the correct tensile strength for a small intestine at all..." On the other hand, while I can boast a relatively strong stomach for anatomy, violence and the intersection thereof, I can still be jump-scared or disgusted by toilet humor. Or toilet drama. Is there such a thing as toilet drama? Aside from toddlers. Either way, not enjoyable. I can see the point of a survival horror video game, sure, that's just an adventure game or FPS with the tension cranked to max. Good times. Just not in passive media. Sitting there for two hours waiting for some hack of a writer / director to try to get me to piss myself and/or vomit? Not good times. Pea soup indeed. Alien at least had me dissecting the xenomorph with my eyes.

So hey, maybe my expectations of horror comics are a bit odd. Off. Ogg. Ohh baby that's what I like. Except what I like seems self-contradictory in the case of two webcomics.
The Last Halloween starts out as a goofy pastiche of horror movies peppered with some very gruesome character deaths. A little girl tries to survive the apocalypse by joining a monster adventuring party for a semi-coherent chain of quests.
False Positive starts out as a string of completely unrelated monster stories plus body horror. Shockingly well drawn for an internet thingamajig and also shockingly unpredictable at times through some unlikely yet still logical plot twists.

The Last Halloween eventually brought its background exposition to the forefront, tied everything together and pushed its scope past apocalyptic survival horror. And I love it.
False Positive eventually brought its background exposition to the forefront, tied everything together and pushed its scope past body monsters to apocalyptic melee. And I hate it.
More than just liking / hating where they went, it's about their respective initial potential.

The Last Halloween started out largely as the sort of facile, incoherent, ironically detached meta-humor deplored here last month with regard to The Order of the Stick's recent divine interventionism. It needed to go somewhere before that routine's rather limited lifespan ran out, just as OOTS needed to move past its initial aimless* dungeon crawl and DnD in-jokes to an actual plot and character development. Mona's grim nigh-apotheosis provided a truly inspired turning point toward the real story of the monsters' revolution / apocalypse: "what now?" It gained coherence by expanding its plot.

False Positive by comparison started quite strong. Each story was just shocking enough visually to induce morbid fascination, delivered its plot twist and appropriate gut-punch ending leaving the reader with a fondly repugnant memory. Much like SciFi, the Horror genre has thrived on short, concise formats, on anecdotal, internally coherent evolution of a system with mysterious starting conditions. When it finally monster-mashed its cast together, False Positive's resulting Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny ended up losing that play on expectations, devolving to a high fantasy battle of characters grunting and squinting at each other measuring the length and girth of their kamehamehas. Mr. Rogers in a blood-stained sweater would've made just as much sense as anything. It lost coherence by expanding its plot.

In addition, horror stories hinge on the characters' relative physical helplessness in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. Hence why you're not cast as a dragon-demigod packing a tesla-rocket-laser launcher in survival horror games, but as an average schlub with (at best) the ability to toss rocks to distract your enemies. After the titular Last Halloween, Mona's world retains its menace. The monsters remain as powerful as ever but humans, having lost their social cohesion and lines of communication, have lost the ability to mount any sort of organized defensive. Even she herself as a legendary hero appears to be fighting a semi-effective skulking guerilla war.

False Positive's characters, being revealed as or having ascended to the status of cosmic forces, deprive their milieu of its necessary tension.

*I suppose it wasn't entirely aimless. They were going down a level to go up a level.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Distant Worlds: Universe

Why is it so hard to get a 4X game right? After all, it's an old genre, and one beloved by die-hard computer game nerds. Master of Orion came out 1993, the same year as Doom and Betrayal at Krondor. But where FPS or RPGs have grown into their necessary vaster scale over the decades, 4X games (having started by maximizing scale and complexity) have never acquired the lower order mechanics and aesthetics to make them truly palatable.

Partly, we should admit that given their basic premise of a single over-riding X->X->X->X advancement path, they admit an intrinsic flaw into their claim as "strategy" games. "Gimme more!" is hardly a leadership choice. Civilization, their most famous former representative, moved away from 4X after its second release when it began dampening endless land-grab expansionism. Later installments increasingly cut down on the other x-es like the redundant military swarm. And that's fine. One can't say the series didn't benefit from it.

But there must be some place for our beloved infinite build-up in computer games, even if it isn't very strategic. Distant Worlds grasps at that place via customizable automation to cut down on the tedium of managing a sprawling empire. Unfortunately, it still yields a lot of this:
Yes, thank you, advisors! I get it! One of my planets is under attack and you want me to offer a mercenary defense mission. I get it already.
(And if you think that's bad, the same infinite "advisor" notification spam is prompted whenever one of your ships is out of fuel and lacks a refueling order.)
(One of your many, many ships.)

One might call this a simple, minor oversight requiring only a tweak to the pop-up notification spam frequency. Given that it's triggered by multiple types of events and seems to have gone unaddressed up to patch, I'm much less inclined to forgive it. It's also symptomatic of the game's schizophrenia. Anything you automate is completely automatic; you may as well not be playing it. Anything you choose to handle yourself is a painfully obtuse chore. Context-sensitive actions are almost entirely ignored in favor of pull-down menus and nested menus.

Every so often I get a pop-up message that one of my planets started producing a new resource... which will increase my empire's tax income. OK? I guess? I mean, I didn't explore for it, I didn't purposely expand to it, I didn't choose whether or how much to exploit it and I wouldn't know whom to exterminate in order to get at it. But it happened and it's a good thing so I must be a good leader, right? There are scads of the damn things, supposedly unique resources, yet if they all boil down to gross income or can all be supplied by the same smuggling order, what is the freaking difference? Ship captains and other heroes randomly pop up at my colonies. Did I ask for them? Did I take any purposeful steps toward acquiring them? The private sector handles freight handling. All well and good, but do I at least incentivize them in some way? Though taxes at least? I can't even tell. Congratulations, you've managed to alleviate the repetitiveness and redundancy of a 4X by removing the Xs.

Where is the gameplay in this game I'm playing?

Ship combat, though slightly more controllable, is equally unsatisfying. Ships warp around instantly, winking in and out of existence at random locations, milling around indecisively and supposedly shooting at each other. At least I assume they are since they occasionally blow up. It manages to look less engaging than a simple numeric combat report. Diplomacy is rendered painfully shallow by the aforementioned irrelevance of resources. Research and ship design are only mildly more interesting.

As with UnderRail or Wasteland 2 or other old-timey throwbacks promising to recapture the magic, I went into this wanting to like it. To be fair, I didn't entirely hate them and I don't entirely hate this one either. True, the flexibility and extent of its automation options are impressive, but that doesn't mean much in the absence of meaningful game actions to automate or micromanage. Apparently Distant Worlds boasts a thriving modding community, but it hasn't particularly inspired me to pick up any mods. I get the distinct feeling that no matter how much you tack onto it, DW:U might just be more interesting to mod than it is to actually play.

From what I've seen so far, there's nothing here which Space Empires 5 did not do better (albeit turn-based) and a full eight years earlier.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Reverse the Polarity!

From Sam Harris' podcast #126 "In Defense of Honor" earlier this year with Tamler Sommers, discussing (among other things) whether men who have been ostracized based on women's accusations of naughtiness should be grudgingly permitted to plead guilty of witchcraft to crawl their way back into the public's good graces:

"it's also a question of what they have to offer the world [...] part of the equation whether this is fair or not is: well, what's the benefit that can come from, y'know, artistically, or, in terms if what kinds of norms you can broadcast or the ways in which it would be healthy for everybody involved to see you take responsibility and be re-integrated into the community and with someone like Charlie Rose who's already on the back side of his career, it's just... it's a little harder to, tooo, uh, imagine [...] And again, I don't exactly know what Charlie Rose... diiid, I know he was creepy... and I know he was prop- sex-... he was accused of sexual har- ... b-but he wasn't accused of sexual assault, was he?"

"Uuuhh, not that I-I'm... aware of... nooo, but it was just kind of, it was the professional impediment this posed to so many people working under him"

Whenever you hear any feminist bullshit about women being victimized by men, remember that feminists claim they stand for equality. So imagine the same statements being made by men. Among the many insane accusations being used by the lynch mobs of the #MeToo public hysteria you'll find the deadly sin of obscene phone calls. For fuck's sake, yes it's wrong, but it's a mere nuisance. There are degrees to wrongness and thus degrees to the appropriate punishment. How would such professional impediments sound in reverse?

"I'm a thirty-five-year-old man. I was traumatized for life because three years ago my coworker Daisy called me up and sounded as though she were polishing her bean while bending my ear. And she didn't even charge me $2.99 per minute! In fact, that was the most traumatic part of all!"

The heavy breathing came up, if I'm not mistaken, in the list of fainting couch lamentations against Charlie Rose. Seems fitting that his sexual indiscretions would turn out to be as milquetoast as his show. Much like Sommers (and the vast majority of my fellow hoi polloi) I don't exactly know what Charlie Rose did, or even what various self-interested women say he did or how they claim it affected them. I can't be bothered to actually look up such inane trivia. Unlike the rest of you however, I don't consider my ignorance sufficient grounds to have random men thrown out of their jobs and rendered unhireable, possibly thrown in prison, demonized for the rest of their lives and have their memory smeared as violent thugs.

And that is what we're talking about. We're not debating whether making sexual advances is wrong (a highly debatable "fact" but let's shelve that for another day.) We're assured it's so unforgivable that such monsters must be utterly obliterated from our public sphere and made the objects of our two minutes hate. We're so sure of this that we don't even need to distinguish any sort of gradations to their offense, or even wonder whether actual harm was done. Women have accused men. Of something. Whatever. The mere accusation is witch enough. Burn them!

Again, reverse the polarity. Imagine I didn't just get an imaginary nuisance phone call. Instead:
"I want my coworker Daisy to be fired and blacklisted, to pay me 'mental anguish' damages to about the cost of my new car and have her name smeared in every media outlet I can reach. You have to do this because on April 14 of 2009 at 2:37 p.m. she did (dilfully and with malice of foreskinthought) fondle my frondle without my express notarized consent!"

Imagine we do all that. Nothing short of ostracism will suffice. We vilify Daisy's name in every public forum until she can't even leave her house without a disguise and all her penis enlargement e-mails get replaced with death threats. Daisy's out of a job, all her friends have turned on her and she has to take out a loan to pay me my court-imposed compensation. Daisy, for whatever reason, wants to grovel for some kind of re-integration into the community. She admits all guilt, spends months apologizing tearfully for her crimes against me and by extension against all man-kind, accepts that she will henceforth live branded with a scarlet F for fondler but she just wants her job back damnit! At this point, if we're to keep the polarity consistently reversed, we would deny her even her chance at redemption. You see, it's "a question of what she has to offer the world." Fairness depends on likability. Only the cool kids get to kiss and make up. Her pariah status is contingent on proving her use to us. Having been accused and presumed guilty of transgressing some puritanical taboo, she must justify her continued existence. Most likely, we'll all decide post-facto "well, I never liked her anyway" because she's more convenient as a target for our communal abuse.

Except women aren't required to justify their existence like men are. We're so intrinsically, instinctively eager to play women's saviors and attack men. We don't need the facts. We don't need context. We don't need perspective. We, the public, just need, neeeeeeed to hate them. How comfortable would you be, instead, wrecking a woman's entire life and hounding her remorselessly for the capital offense of "was creepy"?