Saturday, December 29, 2018

Wake Disgust

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

KMFDM - Disgust

__________________________________________

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

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

__________________________________________

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

Aristotle - Nicomachean Ethics


__________________________________________

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

Friedrich Nietzsche - Thus Spoke Zarathustra

___________________________________________

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

Terence Irwin, translator's notes to Nicomachean ethics

___________________________________________

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

Robert A. Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

___________________________________________

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

Ambrose Bierce - The Moon in Letters

___________________________________________

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Hopscotch, The cRPG

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

Amanda Palmer - Runs in the Family




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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Capisco, Patron!

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

South Park



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Midnight In the Game of Good, Then Evil

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

Emeli Sande - Heaven


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

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

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

So:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2018

TANSTAAFM

"Fe vældur frænda rogi"

Wardruna - Fehu

______________________________

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Market

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

To Make Life Mine

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

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

My Black Heart Machine - It Beats Like This



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Europa Universalis 3

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

Boney M. - Rasputin



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

ST:TNG - Brothers, Data's Schizoid

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.
_____________________________________

Seriesdate: 2.06
The Schizoid Man

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


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

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

Surprisingly good toward the end for a season 2 episode.

________________________________________

Seriesdate: 4.11
Data's Day

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






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

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

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

___________________________________________

Seriesdate: 4.03
Brothers


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


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

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

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



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

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

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

_________________________________________

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

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

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