Thursday, November 29, 2018

Divinity: Original Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

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

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Serenity, peace and an excuse for living, Loretta

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

U2 - Acrobat


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

Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

"It's every man's right to have babies if he wants them."
"But... you can't have babies!"
"Don't you oppress me!"

Monty Python - The Life of Brian (1979)

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

Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes (strips from 1992/02/11, 1993/06/06 and 1993/01/21 respectively)

"Americans are losing the ability to see any issue as anything but a clash of two extremes. Subtle grays don't register."

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

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

Alan Harrington - The Immortalist (1977) page 4

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Request a Hand

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

Smashing Pumpkins - Disarm

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

What else? - Oh, never mind...

"And die young"

Kill Hannah - Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2018

That Voodoo That You Rarely Do

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

DMX - Who We Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Heros Ex Machina

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


Major spoiler alert for Pillars of Eternity 1's ending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You want to write better superheroes? Game the system.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Squid hats are very "in" this season

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Four's Company, Two's a Crowd

"The death of one is a tragedy
The death of one is a tragedy
The death of one is a tragedy
The death of millions's just a statistic!"

Marilyn Manson - Fight Song

So, Christopher Baldwin's been running a new installment of Spacetrawler. Can't blame him for falling back on a cash cow I suppose, after his more interesting attempt at hard SF comics, One Way, got unfairly panned by most readers for its theatrically restricted setting and rather grim twists. The new Spacetrawler's so-so. Obviously less thought went into it than into the original. While it maintains some high points he's leaning quite hard on the crutches of simple running gags like "Nogg's a loser" and walk-ons by the old characters. It doesn't help that the new cast's personalities are less defined.

I've also been playing Divinity: Original Sin. Not quite enamored. For one, its core gimmick of being designed around duo play online pisses me off. You create two characters right off the bat and can recruit two more NPC henchmen (one for each "you") along the way. Now, a party size of four works quite well for a class-based party cRPG. Tyranny and Torment: Tides of Numenera both made an excellent show of it. In D:OS though, having two main characters ends up splitting the team down the middle somehow. The second playable character simply comes across as intrusive, and the NPC party members as extraneous in any roleplaying sense.

This does beg the question of what exactly constitutes a good party size. Multiplayer games impose their own necessities, but in single-player the main reference point for cRPGs, the old Infinity Engine games, ran on a party of six. This being one more than the stereotropical five-man band, it admittedly yielded some unsatisfying redundancy. Not a terrible thing allowing me to double up on spellcasters, as is my wont. Still, I must admit lowering the party size to just one less than a five-man band makes for more meaningful strategic choices. Do you make do without a Big Guy or a lead guitarist? Do you not recruit Beast, Iceman or Angel?

Naturally, the right number varies according to a particular game's possible roles. Hard to expand upon the prototypical fighter/mage/burahobbit without cluttering the place with three extra hobbits and a token martyr. The five-man band, however, seems to hit a deeper archetypal precept of a functional group. Even in multiplayer, the tank/nuker/healer holy trinity was supplemented (before WoW dumbed everything down again) by crowd controllers and buffers to bring the number of playstyles back up to five. For single-player, in addition to clerics and mages, fighters quickly got split between sword-and-board tanks and zweihander barbarian offense, and a little thieving makes five.

And, as the endless examples on TVTropes demonstrate, it's even more difficult to move away from the five-man band in other media and still have yourself a workable action team. Spacetrawler's original human cast was basically a five-man band plus comic relief in the form of Dusty. Martina as leader, Emily as lancer, Pierrot as the heart, and Dimitri/Yuri swapping places as big/smart guy after certain torturous plot tangles. For the comic's continuation, the new four official members of the human team are joined by Martina's brother and a half-human hybrid for an Infinity Engine total of six interstellar adventurers. The new team lacks a true leader and as its lancer / ranger advances he begins to blend in with the role of the smashy-smashy barbarian (to the point where the barbarian calls him out on it.) The role of team wizard / cleric are blurred among multiple characters. While it's always good to move away from simple tropes, the comic's original cast at least knew themselves. The new crew lack any sense of personal identity. Where the original cast split off into solo side-quests, the new bunch tend to pair off into duos to bounce introspection off each other, yielding more stagnation. Given the pervasiveness of the effect, I'm willing to assume Baldwin's going somewhere with this greater emphasis on co-dependent self-discovery and he's certainly given readers ample reason to trust his artistic panache over the decades, but so far it's a bit of a wash.

Which brings me back to Original Sin. The role of the player in a single-player cRPG is almost unavoidably that of lead vocalist. Occasionally, some of the best written games (Planescape: Torment, V:tM-Bloodlines) can move the player off center stage without losing themselves in triviality, but it's a short-lived occurrence even then. Whether as a lone hero or leader of an army, you're still driving the action forward. Somewhere between there, between soloist and band leader, computer games and especially RPGs fall into an uncanny valley where the relationship of the player to his tagalongs becomes unrecognizable.
One character? Great!
Four or more? Great!
Two or three? Help, police, I'm being followed by a creepy stalker!

The first Neverwinter Nights game dove into this pitfall and Original Sin, by splitting the group of four into two types of two or giving me only two controllable NPCs, duplicates its failing. Who's leading this bunch, me or my Shadow? Who embodies the party's decision-making ego? It interferes with playing my role in this roleplaying game. It waters down my identity more than even Icewind Dale's setup of creating an entire party, as the five-fold weight placed upon the second player character bites much deeper into the central me's personality.

A similar uncanny valley manifests beyond the 5-6 character limit. Mount&Blade is a sandbox FPSlasher/RPG in which you command armies of dozens to over a hundred soldiers. Some of these are recruitable, customizable NPCs with better stats, minimal dialogue and some quest involvement but they're allowed to blend into the greater army in most situations. It works beautifully. Truly beautifully. Yet between M&B's scores-strong warbands and Baldur's Gate's adventuring parties we wouldn't know what to do with only ten or fifteen NPCs. Am I supposed to give a shit about them or throw them into the meatgrinder? "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic" as a certain mass-murderer famously put it. And in between? Not much of anything. The intriguing if flawed zombie apocalypse RPG Dead State skillfully split the difference, giving you both a dozens-strong tribe to manage at your shelter and letting you pick your small foraging group from among these.

Between those experiences there's nothing. Between personal identity and five-man band hunting pack dynamics, between the pack and large-scale tribal leadership, there is no functionality. Only familiar familial inertia, the stagnant gemeinschaft of (in)decision by committee. Yet a game should be a purposeful enterprise whether that purpose is self-determined or story-based. Any game trying to make me trudge those boggy valleys in between purposeful levels of organization is asking me to care less about the action on screen. And if there's nothing to fight for I won't be a slave to a world that doesn't make me give a shit.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Cue Queen Medley

After mentioning the Loch Ness monster a few posts ago, supposedly a lone immortal creature, I realized something:
Nessie is the Highlander. There can be only one! Plus, with those loooooong plesiosaur necks, who could resist a head-chopping contest?

Apparently "the prize" is the ability to camouflage oneself as a floating log for 65m.y. Handy.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Tyrannosaur Hunting

"All right," Travis continued, "say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right?"
"And all the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice"
"So they're dead," said Eckels. "So what?"
"So what?" Travis snorted quietly. "Well, what about the foxes that'll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes, a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a cave man, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-tooth tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the cave man starves. And the cave man, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life.

Ray Bradbury - A Sound of Thunder

A Sound of Thunder became particularly apt to American politics two years ago, prompting some to wonder what idiot went back in time to step on the wrong butterfly and hand a Twitter addict the nuclear launch codes. Ray Bradbury would have been perhaps more aware than most of his tenuous existential link to historical causality. In 1692, a 77-year-old woman named Mary Bradbury was sentenced to death as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Thanks to holding a respectable social rank and to a plethora of character witnesses her hanging was deferred until the hullabaloo died down and pardons handed out. Having raised 11 children to adulthood it might be said she'd already passed natural selection's test. Maybe her hanging would not have impacted her progeny's success anyway. Then again, if it had happened fifty years earlier... It does make one wonder at the idiotic dice rolls our ancestors must have won, down to our methanogenic or sulfur-reducing unicellular primogenitor almost four billion years ago.

On the other hand we owe our existence as much to the dead as we do to the living. What of the dead witches at Salem? Which of their grandchildren might have out-bid Mary's grandkids on a plot of land, might have mugged them in back alleys, might have wooed their mates away or planted a musket-ball or bayonet between their eyes in the Revolutionary or Civil wars? For want of a dead fox, the wrong mice survive and empty a granary, and there goes Fahrenheit 451, there go The Martian Chronicles, there goes The October Country right out the window and into the empty walks at night, lost in the rain. Aren't we glad the right witches hanged?


I've never looked up my own genealogy. Good luck tracing a bunch of dirt-farming peasants through century after century of invasions, riots and illiteracy. It's as likely as not to include ancient Celts and slightly less ancient Tartars, Semites and anti-Semites, Goths in 31 flavors, gypsies and crusaders, a smidge of Romans and a dash of Scythians, various Turkic denominations including Ottoman... and hell, let's admit it, probably an indecorous quantity of Neanderthal. They left behind runes and mosaics, walls and bracelets, monasteries and swords, all the usual marvelous effluvium of airy nothing given a local habitation and a name. Half of them killed the other half while still pregnant with their children. Their cultural practices included at various times human sacrifices, torture, cannibalism, torture, slavery and did I mention the torture? To be honest, I'm pretty glad most of those butterflies got stomped. Good riddens to bad lepidoptera, no matter how pretty their wings look in certain lights.

It is now past midnight. Somewhere outside my window here in the sarcastically lovely town of [redacted] you've all just finished celebrating Halloween, called by the pedantic Samhain (pronounced so-vain) and if your ancestors saw you at it they'd probably skin you alive for your innumerable transgressions against this-and-that custom, deity or seating arrangement. At thirty-five I've already lived to see old customs die out. Some were centuries old, others not so much. Not shedding many tears over the demise of such rituals as rickrolling or Chuck Norris jokes. I think I'd miss Halloween, though. Harvest festivals permeate every culture that's invented agriculture, but we've already moved on to plastic pumpkins and LEDs. How much longer before the agronomic link is cut altogether? I think most of us already miss Halloween and those still celebrating are merely involved in an overly-raucous Irish wake for a relative whose face they don't even remember.

Petroleum killed the honeybee star. I realized earlier today that I miss the smell of candles. Candles and pumpkin guts, but mostly the candles. Nostalgia takes odd forms. I've lived to see unleavened pastries baked in a clay oven and clothes dried on lines strung like flapping wings piled ten stories tall over an entire cityscape. The electricity used to go out a lot, so we still kept wax candles around the house, unscented cheap brittle things, as backup. The electricity never goes out more than a tablet battery's worth of time these days. With an in-unit washer/dryer combo and an electric stove, I'm denied the sound of flapping laundry and my childhood memory of the blue flicker of a gas range as well. On the other hand I also remember being hit on the palm with a ruler (despite being a teacher's pet) just to make double sure I knew my place. So, fuck it. What witch do I have to hang to get an electric car to go with my electric writing, washing and cooking?

I will leave no posterity. Werewolves, unnatural creatures like witches, often fail the test of natural selection. I may still step on butterflies, though. Seems to be a popular pastime, as much now as in 1692. Witch-hunters professional and amateur alike are busily tossing blood libels left-wing and right-wing. Youtube is awash with paroxysmal displays of emotional fits brought on by (we are told) the transgression of some taboo by those who most assuredly deserve, if not a hanging, at the very least a blacklisting. And everyone, absolutely everyone, is sure they're the ones who are coming under attack by some new nebulous threat. It's a war on Christmas, a war on women, a war on gun rights, a war on frappuccinos, a war on marriage, a war on gay marriage. At least relatively few people are dying in these wars. Maybe, 300 years ago, somebody hanged the right witches, stomped the right butterflies.

We travel through time constantly. We can't help it. We're on rails, moving forward whether we like it or not. We keep running over some butterflies, collecting others. You, with the rental store gorilla suits and the sexy pirate wench costumes, what are you clinging to? Samhain was the fevre dream of minds stunted by famine, fear and superstition, who honestly believed that ghosts would gobble them right up if they didn't make scary faces. How many other holidays existed, among the myriad ancestors whose genetic material you've inherited? All your Maasai and Berber ancestors and your Viking ones, your Persian silk traders and your catamaran-sailing Pacific islanders and your Andean herders and yurt-dwelling Siberian nomads, of which you've never even heard and for which you hold no nostalgia. Consider what you've gotten by surrendering your emotional ties to them, by allowing them to take their rightful place in history as history. If we surrender Halloween, what fragile thing with feathers might be nourished in its place and take root, and grow into an entire new history of life?

And of all antiquated customs, why is the ritual of the witch hunt the one you still cling to, even into the internet age? Why do you still nourish that plague of locusts?