Thursday, May 23, 2019

Why do we no longer laugh at comedians born in the 1950s? We have no sense of boomer.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Games Are Not For Children; Children Are For Games

"Remember: children are strong. They're resilient. They're designed to survive. When you drop them, they tend to bounce."

Terry Gilliam - prologue to Tideland
(Well thanks for the reminder Patsy, but did you really have to drop her quite so often and so far?)

The sadly underappreciated A Monster Calls is a skillful enough movie to make me forget my usual disdain for "coming of age" tripe. In most such stories the youth is condemned as only clay to be molded by the wisdom of elders. Here, as I worded it in the case of Whisper of the Heart, the protagonist remains the principal agent of his own becoming. Moreover, his internal struggle, the perceived moral failing he faces is one which would cost most adults no small amount of sleep. Yet at no point does it ring false; a thirteen-year-old boy may have lacked the foreknowledge of such morbid quandaries, but we have no trouble empathizing with his assimilating them, grokking them into his personal growth.

I've repeatedly railed here against various computer games either stagnating or being deliberately dumbed down. The catch-all excuse you're most likely to encounter is "accessibility" for those naive of such products' potential. Now, to me declaring your entire customer base handicapped seems a non-starter in itself. We make the various functions of society more accessible by empowering the disabled to perform at a competent level, not by forcing the entire population to walk around blindfolded and read everything in braille. In games in particular "for the children" (or at the most for teenagers) provides an even easier cop-out for uncreative hacks who are themselves incapable of moving past the tropes of twenty years ago. Reminds me of my uncle who, upon watching Princess Mononoke, commented that it was no good for the "kiddies" for incorporating too many factual references, mythical/philosophical symbolism and moral ambiguity. I guess those millions upon millions of DVDs it sold must've all gone to university-trained historians and semanticians.

To use such an excuse for childproofing gameplay mechanics ignores the simple fact that "Nintendo hard" titles were aimed at children to begin with.
Using it as an excuse for Disneyfying plot and setting ignores our own memories of reading Ender's Game, Dune, Red Mars, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Silmarillon and fucking Hamlet in our mid-teens.

For one thing, the last thing I wanted when I was twelve was to be treated like a child, and I'm hardly the only one. Play, as a mammalian learning tool, aids development by approximating adult behavior... or at least what we in our youth imagine to be adult behavior. Elevating the expectations of adolescents is very much a matter of "fake it 'til you make it" as we are so achingly sensitive to societal expectations at that age that simply creating an awareness of a better option can shift an overwhelming demand. Starcraft and Half-Life may not have been Asimov-quality SF plots, yet still made it vastly more difficult for companies to market plot-less RTS or FPS in their wake.

For another, you don't make a good game by designing it for children. Chess did not become a classic by limiting itself to the presumed cognitive abilities of ten-year-olds. Yet I did play it with some zest when I was ten, as did many others. A billion children don't kick a ball around after school because football was designed specifically for them but specifically because it wasn't, because they are emulating the World Cup (right down to bribing the referee with a stick of gum.) This is especially poignant in online games, where companies refuse to enforce the logical rules of sportsmanship for fear of alienating the braindead little shits who continually grief their own teams. Yet learning good sportsmanship was integral to the endless after-school pick-up matches which online games have replaced. Arbitration is not artificial. The lack of repercussions for griefing, online game developers' insistence on protecting bullies from retribution, that is the artificial element in these social interactions.

Neither should we expect that such punishment would drive away more customers than the inequity of watching bullies get away with their bullying match after match after match. When some retarded little shit scored an own goal on the playground because he thought it would be funny, he used to get shoved off the field. He didn't stop playing. He sulked for a few days, then came back asking to play again. Instead, online game developers refuse to analyze the griefer's actions while banning anyone who curses him out in team chat as "toxic" players. Decades of punishing the crime of fair-mindedness have contributed as much as anything to the narcissism of snowflake culture. While playing games, youths are supposed to assimilate the objective rules of fairness, practical harm and instrumental self-worth in interacting with others. This is not an unrealistic expectation to demand of adolescents, and the rules of fair-play should not be mangled to suit some false image we've concocted of the mental fragility of youth.

Don't design a bad game for bad players. Design a good game and let them learn to play it.

Friday, May 17, 2019


"It was considered a natural thing that having children and raising them during the first years of their life should require high qualifications and extensive preparation, in other words, a special course of study; in order to obtain permission to have offspring, a married couple had to pass a kind of examination; at first this seemed incredible to me, but on thinking it over I had to admit that we, of the past, and not they, should be charged with having paradoxical customs: in the old society one was not allowed to build a house or a bridge, treat an illness, perform the simplest administrative function, without specialized education, whereas the matter of utmost responsibility, bearing children, shaping their minds, was left to blind chance and momentary desires, and the community intervened only when mistakes had been made and it was too late to correct them."

Stanislaw Lem - Return from the Stars

I don't bother with the news much, so normally I wouldn't have taken notice of the United Nations' report on how we dun fuck'd up tha planet. Yeah, we know that already you assholes. We're careening from record-setting winter lows to a summer that'll probably boil our faces off. A polar bear just paddled past my window on a catamaran made of 2L Pepsi bottles. So many ice shelves are collapsing that Antarctica is now Ntrctk. Mammoths are looking at us and thinking "glad I didn't live to see that shit" and the Permian's petitioning to have us labelled mass murderers. We know!

What we needed from you nebbishes was a strongly-worded, clear-cut, fire and brimstone ultimatum on the naked ape's self-immolation, not a bunch of vague hand-wringing about low-impact equitable trajectories of integrated transformation diversity mobilization decision making best practices doodlefuddlewaddle please-don't-shoot-the-messenger. We need you spineless, anal-retentive academics and analysts to word it clearly enough that even the drooling rednecks in Alabama can understand: humanity has fucked itself into civilizational collapse. Figuratively and literally.

That of course ties into one of the other big pieces of news here in the U.S., the continuing attack by brain-dead superstitious filth on abortion. Alabama has now all but outlawed it. For those outside the U.S., you can safely equate Alabama with whichever province of your own country ranks as the most backward, primitive, virulently anti-intellectual stretch of culture-less ballast. It routinely ranks dead last in education out of all American states (and among the last in every other measure of personal well-being) so it's hardly surprising that it also routinely tops the charts in religious brainwashing. Thus, based on some or other imbecilic mass delusions about "souls" they've decided to force each other to continue breeding more and more ignorant hillbillies.

And that's a problem. I don't mean just for their own sakes. Screw 'em. If idiot rednecks want to spend their lives changing diapers, that's their business. Or it would be, except that all those redundant, unwanted diaper stuffers will grow up into yet more redundant, unwanted wastes of oxygen, each demanding its own living space, its own greasy triple helpings of food, its own i-phone and minivan. There you have the death of sentience: degenerate cretins spouting caveman superstitions as they drown the world in their filth. Take any of the myriad issues described by the U.N.'s convoluted beating around the now-extinct bush, and not a single one could not be alleviated by a reduction in the sheer bulk of ape flesh on the planet. Crops, cities, plastic waste accumulation, toxic runoff, overfishing, fuel churn, carbon emissions, every problem we've inflicted on the world is multiplied by the number of those inflicting it. Do they still learn multiplication in Alabama or just practice it?

Yet I'll be damned if a word search for "population control" through the IPBES' document returns more than 0 (ZERO) hits. Oh, sure, they allude and hint at it a few times by mentioning demographic shifts and increasing baseline resource demands, but will not dare outright state that Africa's abusing the aid it gets from the developed world in order to breed an even more bloated AIDS-infested swarm which it cannot feed, house, protect, treat or (dare we hope) educate. Or that India has done absolutely nothing to curb the swell of its sickening termite hive of simian superfluity. Or that China, the multi-millennial world leader in both ecological damage and human misery, continues to grow despite decades' worth of hollow assurances to the contrary. And what moral clout could the U.S. leverage against any of them while its own Christian fundamentalist backwaters still demand to force their lower classes to breed beyond their means?

It's commonly touted that if the whole Earth were to live the life of plenty of a Western consumer, we would need several more planets' worth of resources. The solution proposed is always to reduce consumption. A fair point, but how drastic a reduction would ensure sustainability for seven and a half billion naked apes? For nine? For twelve? To live a decent life, fewer of us must live. There is no way around it, and if we do not achieve that goal by peaceful legislation it will inevitably, detestably, be achieved by mass murder and mass starvation, as our species has always done in the past. A positive population growth curve is a declaration of war, against all those whom such replicate swarms must displace in order to secure their lebensraum. Birth is murder. The life you create must kill to exist. We are already a mass extinction. We're long past affording to coddle and bow to the primitive, mindless lower primates capable of no more than conjoining their gonads while expressing bronze-age superstitions in stone-age grunts. Reproduction can no longer be left up to chance and appetite, and the vermin who breed as such must themselves suffer for the undue harm they cause, not be allowed to inflict it upon their more continent fellows.

Reproduction must be taxed, and penalized, and curbed. In large part, this is but one facet of combating those primitive memetic infections endemic to all our societies. Hinduism, Christianity, pretty much any religion in its role as tool of social control invests some degree of effort into managing its populace's reproduction, maximizing work forces and cannon fodder. They can no longer be permitted this interference in what should be a rational, socially conscious set of public policies. The greater issue, the greater hurdle, however, is instinct, overcoming the greatest innate drive of every self-replicating pattern: self-replication. The only recourse is to treat it as any of the countless aggressive, gluttonous, filthy simian habits we defer or abstain from as members of an ersatz civilized society. Don't fling poop; don't fling fetuses.

Birth is murder, an ugly sometimes necessity, and should be legislated as such.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Chosen One

"And the babe, all in slumber dreams
Of a place filled with quiet streams
And the lake where her cradle was pulled from the water.
And we'll all come praise the infanta..."

The Decemberists - The Infanta

Possible minor spoilers follow for various cRPGs, regarding whether the player is intrinsically "special" or not.

Among the (by now) tired old tropes which computer role-playing games need to ditch, we can include casting the player as a prophesied hero. The Elder Scrolls series has been terrible about it. At least Morrowind allotted you a decent-length introduction as a penniless exile before unveiling you as the next avatar of Vishnu, but Oblivion's very tutorial had the Emperor himself declare your manifest destiny and Skyrim's had you eating dragons for breakfast. The Black Isle / Obsidian / Bioware genealogy has been slightly more dignified, but whether you're a demigod in Baldur's Gate or born with a mystical artifact in your chest in Neverwinter Nights 2, they still managed to slather on plenty of cheese. Even the Grey Warden in the Dragon Age: Origins campaign, though not strictly speaking a fated savior, was simply handed too much inherent, unearned political clout.

Pillars of Eternity's nosedive in quality of writing between its two installments renders it an interesting object lesson. The dumbed-down sequel elevated you to a goddess' champion from the start, whereas being a "watcher" in the first game was merely a confluence of historical threads which could likely have spun around any of countless souls impacted by Thaos' actions over the centuries. You incidentally served as the gods' tool in their faction war while really addressing your own past deeds. The same was true in Planescape: Torment, which certainly gave you a very special background but mostly resolved to you fighting yourself or the consequences of your past actions while the planes kept spinning indifferently around your little drama. This was unfortunately reversed in Torment: Tides of Numenera, which cast you as a pure soul, the last and greatest prophet capable of overthrowing the works of a god. A better example would be Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines, which as "an adventure in mookdom" as I've previously called it here, hinted at you being abnormally gifted to explain your abnormally fast rise in power among your be-fanged brethren but left it at that. Contrast to the more cheesily operatic vendetta plot of V:tM- Redemption with its star-crossed lovers.

Tyranny deserves special mention as within its more thoughtful interpretation of RPG moralizing it also addressed the autopoietic nature of mythopoiesis. When the infamous Voices of Nerat condemns you with his dying breath as "you Archon of misguided decisions" he is warning you of the danger of building yourself up into a figure larger than your own life, of losing yourself in the patchwork destiny you're threading together by each of your actions. And that's really the issue at stake here: your actions.

We're accustomed enough to stories about "The One" from movies and other passive forms of entertainment which strive to make the audience want to identify with the hero on screen/stage. In a computer game, however, the audience already IS the hero on screen, actively advancing through layers of incremental badassery. There should be no need to explain why I'm important. Instead allow me to prove my importance by the actions I as a player undertake, to write the verses to my own legend, to scribe my own Archon's Sigil as I go, not to dance to the tune of some prophecy, unless it's one I myself have been reciting.

An RPG protagonist should be a nobody who becomes somebody, rags to riches, the tale of the act of becoming, character advancement. Even in a completely scripted, linear plot, the role-player should be defined by actively playing a role, not by pre-masticated backstory. If Muad'dib can trap himself in his own web of self-fulfilling prophecy, that still makes a better plot than popping into existence as an insta-bake Kwisatz Haderach at a time and place appointed by others. Let me railroad myself. Don't tell me I'm special. Show me acting special. Let me gradually become a creature of flames, voices and secrets via conquest by agonizing conquest, click by click of the mouse.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Why did the prostitute never chuckle at the right time? She had no sense of hummer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

ST:TNG - The Best of Both Worlds

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

Seriesdate: 3.26 & 4.01
The Best of Both Worlds

a.k.a. that one episode everyone remembers.

Hey, no point in posting yet another screen-cap of a Borg-ified Patrick Stewart shining his red targeting laser at the camera. The internet's full of 'em. As a rarely well-executed season ending cliffhanger, this two-parter not only cemented the Borg's primacy among pop culture SF tropes but TNG's success for the next seasons. Thirty years later, if anyone remembers anything from the show it's likely Stewart monotoning "I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile." Given that it falls almost precisely in the middle of the series, many automatically think of it as the high point between fumbling aimlessly in seasons 1-2 and losing the thread in seasons 6-7.

But here's the thing: I don't think this was actually such a great episode. Oh, I enjoyed it then and still do now, sure, and it does quite a few things right. As an unusually dramatic high point it nonetheless ensured a sense of balance by keeping the strategic discussions with Starfleet calm and low-key. It could easily have overplayed the dramatic angle of the attack on Earth as well (scenes of terrified populace preparing to be assimilated, etc.) yet chose not to. It did, laudably, continue to play up the Borg's alien mindset in the scene above, their unnatural indifference to individual intruders aboard their ship. Their aesthetic was designed to drive home the point that this isn't just another spaceship, that it works by different rules, from its shape to its social life.

But the blonde in that image is also one of the episode's problems. She eats up screen time like she's meant to become a major cast member (which thankfully did not happen) but like Tasha Yar she's too much of a feminist icon to make an interesting, contextualized character. In Yar's case it was a matter of overblown physicality. Here it's a different "strong woman" archetype, a cut-throat bitch whom we're expected to find sympathetic for being born the correct, entitled (and adorable) sex. If she'd been male her bluster would have drawn Branniganesque levels of scorn. It didn't help that her sub-plot was tied to what had already become a tired recurring theme: Riker being offered command of his own ship yet nobly refusing. I do have some minor quibbles as well, like hearing a command to load forward torpedo bays as the Enterprise is running away from the enemy. The enemy that's behind it. The main issue, however, was rushing the development of the Borg as antagonists.

It's hard to think, watching the series now in order, that this was only their second appearance. They were unwisely written into the over-arching plot as introduced by act of Q and thus never had a chance at a gradual reveal, at building an air of mystery and menacing the fringes of known space. Now, for an encore, they're already getting intimate with the main cast and diving headlong toward Earth. TNG, overall, had a terrible habit of trying to dazzle the audience with exceptions to the norm before it had even defined its norms. The Borg, by themselves, would have made an excellent season capper. Locutus could have waited another couple of appearances. An attack on Earth even more so.

But their aesthetic was a stroke of genius. At their core, nothing new. Puppet Masters had drifted in and out of popularity for several decades, and TNG's initial, failed attempt at fabricating an assimilating alien menace was in fact so Heinlein-inspired as to beg royalties. But this was 1990. The counterculture music scene was drifting more and more away from punk rage and paranoia to industrial despair and nihilism. Neuromancer was several years old and the cyberpunk genre had already established itself. The Crow was still a few years away, but The Sandman was just kicking off. All in all, the Borg in their bleached make-up and black neoprene glory stuck a perfect landing into the rise of the '90s "goth" subculture, even if they're not generally cited as one of its centerpieces. Even their catchphrase "resistance is futile" could've rolled off the tongue of Trent Reznor himself.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Dawn of Man

"Endure. In enduring grow strong."

Yabba 2tha dabba-doo, biznatches!
No, wait, Varok, what the hell do you think you're doing? A flint axe against a fully bully wooly? Are you insane? Varok, no, wait for the rest of your hunting party. No! Nooo!

So yeah, Varok is now very, very KO-ed. As are the two other morons who ran up to the same mammoth one by one.
Rest in peace.

Dawn of Man: the game for people who thought Banished needed more cave bears.

Welcome to Nyctimus ca. half-past Lascaux

A rising trend in the recent crop of city simulators has been to take the Settlers route, go smaller, survival-themed and more people-centered ("village" simulators mixed with base-building) instead of focusing on sprawling megalopolitan zones as per the more classic SimCity feel. This approach can lend a greater air of immediacy and relevance to on-screen events but it also risks running into both the creepiness and frustration of the Sims games, leaning into the psyches of a handful of unfortunate playthings, micromanaging their daily lives like you're the Allied Mastercomputer while constantly wanting to wring their algorithms for not performing logically.
So. Much. Haaaaaaate.

In truth, this is not a complicated game. Your cave-men, cave-women and cave-urchins inhabit a map full of basic resources like flint, sticks and various tasty furry things to be poked with said flint and sticks. Guide your hapless mooks through keeping themselves warm, fed, sheltered and external to the stomachs of cave lions. As you gradually accumulate communal life experience you'll advance through the various stone and metal ages and replace your shallow two-tier tech tree with slightly improved, still shallow three-tier tech trees. Technically, your neolithic neophytes are supposed to have the wherewithal to pick their own tasks of among your decrees, allowing you to automate the tedium of daily life.
Technically... doesn't that word just make you cringe?

Technically, villagers are supposed to organize themselves into hunting parties for larger, more dangerous game.
In practice, unless you manually move them next to each other before launching the attack they'll merrily get themselves mastodo-mashed, rhino-plastered or bison-buggered one by one.
Technically, they're supposed to manage their own food/water needs.
In practice, maps are larger than their pathfinding can sort, and any villagers sent on a long expedition have decent odds of dying just a few steps away from water or food.
Technically, they have a stamina bar for sprinting.
In practice, they only use that stamina bar when trying to catch up to a combat target. They'll never sprint to get something they truly need (even if they're freezing, starving or dehydrated) and they never run from a fight when low on health.
Technically, they and their transports have multiple inventory slots.
In practice, they'll drag a six-slot sledge halfway across the map to pick up a single item than even a child could've fit in its pocketses, ignoring other necessary resources along the way.
Technically, they're supposed to work in groups of four to drag megaliths to construction sites.
In practice, they again get confused by long distances. The first worker starts dragging (and will likely starve to death for his trouble) while one or two others will stand about aimlessly back at the village. Also, if you have multiple construction sites they'll occasionally drag a megalith back and forth as new workers take the lead and try to move it to their own randomly selected destination.

Long story short, the AI is about as capable as the workers in a late-'90s RTS. While it is possible to give direct orders, many tasks will not allow it and the sheer volume of the remainder makes it impractical except for the odd mammoth-hunt. You'll be relying on a surplus of labor to pick up the slack. And this is hardly the only bit of missing functionality. As long hauls and long hunts are cross-map adventures, it's easy to lose track of shifting targets. One would assume RTS-style group designations (e.g. "ctrl+#) would be a basic feature. Build menu hotkeys are just as conspicuously absent. On the outright bizarre end of things, the options menu is inaccessible from in-game... even volume settings!

Corners were cut.
Buildings of each particular era all use exactly the same model. The ambient fauna is somewhat under-represented, except for a surprising breadth of (easily-reskinned) horny ungulates. Even character names lack variety so as to pepper your standard population of 50-100 with several Varoks at once.

Most of us are nevertheless willing to excuse these undeniable lacks because Dawn of Man is simply so... charming. It captures the same dreamy, cozy, immersive frontier aesthetic as Banished, with the added bonus of a more focused, better-defined setting. Moreover, though so far it seems a very simplistic, easy, idiot-friendly game, its nominal survival theme carries through in every aspect. In terms of resources, what you see is very much what you get, each unit of meat or wood having a presence on the game map and in your storehouses, so that it's easy to get caught up in watching stone by stone being stacked. Transparency is a beautiful thing.

You can't help but feel a little bit proud of your plucky little wattle-and-daub wonderland with every new message of "you've survived the winter" and though megalithic structures are certainly important, they're not the point of the game. Instead you advance mainly by standing the test of time. Another harvest, another couple of huts, another winter's worth of straw laid by the mangers. This is a game you leave running in the background for hours and days on end just so you can alt-tab every few minutes and soak in the sight of your villagers braving the vicissitudes of the bronze age. The minimalist music, the gently waving vegetation and ambient whooshing of the weather, the animals lazing about, the grisly skull totems with their ribbons billowing in the wind, the individual units of flour and flint waiting to be collected, it's all surprisingly tangible, and this visceral quality has made Dawn of Man more successful than anyone would've predicted.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Flight from fight soot-bright abide light a bight cur abay coarse air kite might a mite mighty mite my teem plight pate debate for a change of mange aged strange dilvulge gerivulse expulse juve-alls ex-pulse you've all leavened exposition devolution devolition devaluation re-velution knee-invidious involution pro geni torsio sorties versus servilinear de-clusion.

Nihil lexicon nocive invidious? Refuse diffusion.


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

These days, university professors are afraid to even talk to students for being accused of "grooming them" for sexual shenanigans. (Because it obviously can't be the 20-year-olds who are the oversexed, transgressive ones.) I suppose they don't have that problem with me because I'm too old to be groomed. Old enough to groom myself.

Wow, how's that for the most passively microaggressive insult ever?
Go groom yourself!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Pathflounder: Munchkinmaker

"These Drizzt ripoffs are getting out of hand. I'm starting to wonder if there might be more renegade drow than there are regular drow."

Goblins (2005/07/11)

Tolkien's Middle-Earth makes so apt a comparison to various types of entertainment for having straddled so many categories, dragging folklore into modernity, melding symbolism and memorable characters while fleshing out so internally coherent a cosmology that it has remained our greatest reference point for deliberate fictional world-building. Between penning The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, however, that world had to be partly un-built. Casually whimsical digressions like talking coin-purses were either abandoned or heavily downplayed in order to accommodate the more logical causes and effects of a superior narrative.

On the other hand, this?
This is not a superior narrative.

Despite its reliance on Tolkien's orcs and elves, Dungeons and Dragons never seems to have been good at separating bad ideas from good. Aside from the baser sword and sorcery tripe, the many-muscled, mealy-mouthed Conans which infect its basic concept, it also appears prone to latching on to various pulp fads in vain attempts to stay trendy. When 4th edition finally jumped the shark, Pathfinder branched off as what should have been a more respectable alternative. Or at least so I thought as an outsider to tabletop games, and nursed vain hopes that Pathfinder: Kingmaker would trim away some of the talking purses and sow's ears to build a deep and coherent cRPG world. Instead it reeks of the Neverwinter Nights "baby's first RPG" idiot-friendly routine of simplistic characters, force-fed morality and wouldn't-it-be-cool-if insertions.

Mimics are the sort of notion which sounds cool on a bar napkin - and should stay there. There's suspension of disbelief and then there are monster ideas that would've even made Bavarian children in 1800 roll their eyes at the sheer absurdity. They derail the feel of the entire world around them. Might as well put in sock puppets as witches' familiars while you're at it. Oh, what's that? They did that too by allowing casters to substitute items instead of pets as familiars? Par for the course I suppose, in a game with a pair of pretty young demi-humans (bad boy and good girl, natch) with a tragic slavery backstory as sexed-up fan service props.

But I could stomach most of the gratuitously min-maxed, simplistic NPCs until I hit the "season pass" content and realized just what utter garbage I'd paid extra for. Both installments' central NPCs so far are touted as romance options, which in itself would be reason enough to cringe. But the playable one, Kalikke/Kanerah (yes, she's a "they" ... ugh) is just utterly disgusting all around. For one thing, she's yet another charmingly dashing non-evil tsundere tiefling with a heart of gold.
"- and so, in leaving behind my fiendish heritage, I became hated by the drow and instantly gained an ultra-cool enemy which vicariously gives my character importance" - Goblins 
Though, in the spirit of counting one's curses, at least this latest version of Annah/Haer'Dalis/Neeshka isn't also a rogue. She's a "kineticist" which is worse. Much, much worse.

Magic is usually presented as the fantasy-land equivalent to real-world science. Thus it is rightly a realm of the mind, of sagacity, careful study and preparation. Though it may accompany crass physicality, it should never be confused with it. Sorcerers were a bad enough digression from the arts of the mind, and warlocks were inexcusable, but the kineticist seems entirely ripped off from that imbecilic Airbender farce. Super-saiyan kamehamonks? Elrond and Mithrandir would turn over in their graves. No thanks. Spellcasting should never be demeaned by such filth. Despite everything you're told in liberal arts college departments, you're not obligated to pander to every last degenerate little backbirth's demands to copy/paste the latest half-hour toy commercial into your product.

I told Kalikke to take a hike. At this point, in order to buy anything else from Owlcat Games I'd have to see either some stunningly glowing reviews or a pretty lengthy list of all the employees they've fired and replaced with someone more intellectually competent. Yes, I get that they wanted to secure themselves an audience while it's young, but marketing to children should not mean marketing only to stupid children. I don't need you to include my childhood into your product either, no matter how hilarious it would be to see you try to shoehorn Captain Planet into Faerun.

And guess what? Those worthless little twerps you think you're attracting by spoonfeeding them munchkin-friendly props are not interested in single-player cRPGs anyway. They're in World of Warcraft, modeling their latest spaulders and holding pissing contests about their DPS. The smarter teens, the ones you should be marketing to, are the ones who appreciate the shift in tone between Tolkien's main incarnations of Middle-Earth, the greater depth and structure of LOTR and The Silmarillon.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Apocalyptic Procedurals

"In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim"

U2 - Until the End of the World

Spoiler alert: main plot element of Arrival.

A relative's visit prompted a family movie night, which got me to finally watch Arrival. As first contact stories go, it's no Glos Pana, but still a decently executed bit of speculation. As long as you ignore the Hollywood convention that emotion trumps intellect and that acting like a reckless, impulsive, codependent, grade epsilon sub-moron always yields scientific progress. Instead of, y'know, rational inquiry, conceptualization, analysis and experimentation.

I'm more insulted by the even more anti-intellectually fatalistic conclusion, and 'fatalistic' doesn't begin to describe it. The movie's wikipedia page wisely links to the concept of amor fati which, while valuable inasmuch as it expresses unblinking realism, can easily be taken to counterproductive conclusions. The sort of automatic, unbidden prescience Arrival's protagonist experiences, propped up no less by an interpersonal device like language and not individual cogitation, reminds me of Philip K. Dick's The Golden Man.* It is less likely to yield a new age of advancement, peace and prosperity than a devolution to purely reactive, sub-sentient interfacing with one's environment. It would mean the end of thought, an apocalypse more thorough than any pandemic or nuclear holocaust.

But this train of thought did drive me to ask why we see so little attention paid these days to the "how" of the world's end. Post-apocalyptic fiction has made a comeback after 2008, but unlike the old Cold War variety, new stories tend to elide the apocalypse itself or as often reference it as simply a mysterious "event" somewhere in the background. The Road likely serves as the Ur-example to our current trend, and hey, no complaints as to that itself. Beautiful piece of work. Movies have picked up on the idea of systems collapse and tend to run with an everyman road warrior's poignant, relatable point of view of the end.

The Rover banks on anomie squared and seems a deliberate slap in the face to Mad Max's cut-and-dried antiheroics and Hollywood gritty-prettiness.
How I Live Now falls on the positive, adaptive side of amor fati. Thanks in no small part to Saoirse Ronan's restrained intensity it manages to partly elevate adolescent angst to its apocalyptic scenario instead of degrading the second to the baseline of the first.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World takes a marginally more black-humorous bent, but at least it defined its apocalypse.
Melancholia went a step further and masterfully wed looming celestial menace to psychological catastrophism, fatalism and personal fables.

Still, my personal tastes lead me to think we're leaving too much sci out of our apoca-fi these days, too much how out of the what, and here zombie movies can prove surprisingly encouraging. After all, much of their fascination lies in the process of infection and mortification itself. The under-appreciated Maggie successfully recalled these basic elements at the individual level. At the other end of the spectrum you have World War Z's globetrotting militarism and for once I think that martial 'can do' attitude may be warranted. Unfortunately it doesn't help that attempts at characterizing some naturalistic means of mass destruction like The Happening have been so scientifically illiterate as to make their 1950s monster movie inspirations look erudite by comparison.

While the image of a plucky survivor treading the chaotic tides of a history much greater than oneself is a valuable and touching mode of storytelling, movies have fallen too far into that mindset. We should remember the influence of deliberate (if not always conscious) action in shaping the world. Apocalyptic stories should rightly deal not only with the divergent impact of a great event on different parts of the world but on the myriad ways in which humans (fail to) adapt to a new idea, technology or event. Place more emphasis on  the naked apes' incompetence and sadomasochism, machinations or critical failure to machinate; provide step by step guides to combating or engendering the end of all things. How does your great event halt the intellectual upswing of civilization? By what means do the worthy few seek to combat it? What resources and organization do they adopt to solve the problem - or as a corollary, by what mechanistic suite of events do they bring about their world's demise? Don't just tell me civilization has crumbled. Depict the crumbling and the crumblers.

Love the bomb.


*No, NOT that idiotic farce of a movie adaptation with Nick Cage. Go read PKD's actual story The Golden Man.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Why did the Argonian refuse to stab elves? He had no sense of hew-mer.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Smells Gamey

Since starting this blog, more and more of the games I've been talking about have broken the mold of moldy old computer game genres, or at least vary the formulae noticeably. Sure I may just be noticing my own shifting bias, but they also seem to be getting more traction with the market at large.

As the post-Y2K WoW and Counterstrike-fueled craze died down last decade, consoles have once again been overtaking the braindead l33t-d00d multiplayer scene, leaving more PC game developers to resign themselves to being the artsy, low-budget, low-fidelity, niche market fringe of the industry. RPGs have been making a comeback along with (unfortunately) gratuitously pixelated "neo-retro" junk. But the back to basics trend has also thankfully included some effort to re-emphasize gameplay, to offer players new things to do and not just new scenery to do them in. Into the Breach or The Last Federation may not be topping the charts, but they are at least being created and receiving positive press, which is more than could be said about new ideas in the first fifteen years of the new millennium. Good Old Games has certainly helped bring attention to otherwise ignored options, as has Paradox's willingness to take chances.

... But dare I hope this also represents a change in the preferences of up-and-coming gamers? Might the current crop of tweens just developing their tastes be marginally more interested in embracing novel experiences instead of just demanding to be patted on the back for repeating formulaic actions? Might Doom and Warcraft have finally become uncool by dint of representing my own generation's preferences? Do they reek of dad funk? Yes, please let that be the case. Hate us. We suck. FPS, RTS, that crap's for old fogeys. Get off my lawn you crazy kids! In fact, get your own damn lawn so I can play on it, because we seriously need some fresh lawns around here. Ours are all wilted and gone to seed. Old lawns are for squares, daddy-o.

Huh, what was I talking about again? Oh yeah: Tetris!
Wait, no...

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Within the Event Horizon, All Cats Are Grey

"So go ahead and point your finger
Tell me who to love: is it him or her?"

In This Moment - Natural Born Sinner

Normally I try to space out my posts tagged "humanity" or "faithosis" or "FEMale chauvINISM" because
1) my hilariously sparse, single-digit readership doesn't want to hear me yammer about that crap constantly. They prefer video games and SciFi.
2) and more importantly, I don't want to yammer about that crap constantly. I'd rather be talking about cool stuff... like video games and SciFi.

But some undeniably cool beans were spilled last week in the real world of non-fictional science, and one of them had a video component, so I started surfing yesterday to cobble together some fanciful riff combining the new hominid (sub?)species and the first successful imaging of a black hole. It was going to include the predictable Muse song lyric quote and everything. Which is when I ran into this crap: 
"Male Scientist Claps Back at Trolls Who Tried to Discredit Female Colleague's Role in Black Hole Photo"
So after losing half of you by denouncing male bashing in my last post I'm going to lose the other half now by denouncing female bashing. I decided to sleep on it until today to calm down so that this entire post would not resolve to a page full of yelling YOU FUCKING RETARDS.

And hey, the good guy in that article's an Ursula K. Le Guin fan. Implicit high-five! It seems appropriate enough to the topic at hand, since Le Guin's most interesting work The Dispossessed deals largely with the betrayal of idealism by base human nature. As the black hole image was being announced, one of the (many, many) researchers involved in processing the data posted a facebook picture of herself excited at the unveiling. And the internet apparently went ape over it. Given that I only engage in anti-social media, I could not have given two shits about her booked face picture even if you doped me with laxatives. I do, however, care about intellectual integrity, which is why this latest chapter in the decline of civilization ticks me off.

I despise feminism as a chauvinistic, dogmatic, dishonest, reactionary scourge upon society. I will also gladly denounce feminism's much more pervasive instinctive basis, gynocentrism, the presumption of females' greater right to health, safety and happiness, the presumption of women's entitlement to extract labor from men, the presumption that society must be built around feminine nesting instincts, as one of the basic intellectual hurdles our primitive species must overcome if it wants to consider itself sentient, along with religion or tribalism. Certainly, there is some truth to observing the incongruity in a 4/5ths male research project being represented in our public consciousness by a female. I don't doubt the various internet personalities and media outlets who popularized her picture could have found plenty of images of the project's males geeking out in turn over their success. But they weren't as cute. We instinctively respond more favorably to a female presence, whether we're male or female. Yes, this creates an unconscious pervasive bias, as can be demonstrated rather flamboyantly by every male band with a female vocalist and media figurehead.

So it would've been perfectly reasonable for people to complain to everyone linking and reposting the latest meme "yeah, ok, now how about popularizing some other images of the various research teams involved instead of just that one adorable girlish squee" ... but that's not what the Twit mobs did, is it YOU FUCKING RETARDS! You decided to attack the woman in question. And of the thousands involved in the whole overblown burst of interwebz hot air, if there was one singular person who was not at fault, that was Bouman herself. She saw the result of years of work, proof of her participation in the advancement of scientific knowledge, materializing before her. She was excited about it. Damn straight. She had every right to be excited and still does. I may not be as fluent in the vernacular as I should be, but I do believe the phrase "you go girl" applies.

Social advancement is not about male vs. female or left wing vs. right wing but about intellect vs. stupidity, reason and creativity vs. the lowest common denominator. Always has been. Inasmuch as feminism appeals to base instinct and sentimentality over free thinking and prevents individual growth, I despise it... and when meninists do the same, they evoke the same scorn. Only four and a half years ago we were arguing over the debasement of Matt Taylor by morons trying to erase his professional achievement, astroturfing a battle of the sexes over (it never sounds any less ridiculous) the shirt off his back. Now his self-appointed public defenders want to debase another scientist... over what? Some pissing contest over lines-of-code counts? Even if you were right (and you're apparently off by more than an order of magnitude) you would still be wrong. Quantity is not quality and you're objectively not in a position to judge that from across a Twit feed. If your answer to everything that happens around you is limited to a knee-jerk "another victim of the fem-o-centric fem-ocracy!" you're not an edgy social critic. You're feminism's poorer cousin.

If you have a complaint about CNN's choices of material, go bitch about it to CNN. Better yet, apply for a job with them and try to be more balanced, sedate and objective. If, however, you are demeaning an intellectual achievement by reducing it to the physical attributes of its collaborators, you are part of the anti-intellectual problem. You are as bad as the feminists claiming the spotlight by right of ovaries YOU FUCKING RETARDS!!!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Eliminate the Ninnies and the Twits

"See I'm just like you in a way [...]
I can relate to what you're saying in your songs
So when I have a shitty day I drift away and put 'em on
'Cause I don't really got shit else so that shit helps when I'm depressed"

Eminem - Stan

If you haven't read the short and never-to-be-completed webcomic Nowhere Girl, go ahead and get in touch with your despondent adolescent social outcast. It's a lovely piece of work.
If you haven't read (not watched) The Island of Doctor Moreau... then what have you even been doing with your life?

Fun fact: you don't have to be a soot-smeared 1830s London street urchin to enjoy Oliver Twist. Nor must you be an 1890s animal rights activist to have your mind uplifted by The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Not so fun fact: back in 1970, the United States government, in the persons of its Ohio National Guard, decided to murder some university students as punishment for protesting its ongoing mass murders in the Vietnam War. In the words of Jerry Casale:
"Until then I was a hippie. I thought that the world is essentially good. If people were evil, there was justice and that the law mattered. All of those silly naïve things. I saw the depths of the horrors and lies and the evil. In the paper that evening, the Akron Beacon Journal, said that students were running around armed and that officers had been hurt. So deputy sheriffs went out and deputized citizens. They drove around with shotguns and there was martial law for ten days. 7 PM curfew. It was open season the students. We lived in fear. Helicopters surrounding the city with hourly rotating runs out to the West Side and back downtown. All first amendment rights are suspended at the instance when the governor gives the order. All of the class action suits by the parents of the slain students were all dismissed out of court because once the governor announced martial law, they had no right to assemble."
He and another Kent state student co-founded a musical group and went on to regale audiences with subversive, astringent clowning as part of the late '70s-80s band Devo. Yes, the yellow jumpsuit, red conehead, whip-cracking crew. Whatever you think of Devo's mostly fumbling musical attempts, they remained one of the few relevant political acts in the post-hippie era of MTV glam.

On a completely unrelated topic, though I'd chuckled at an occasional PvP or Penny Arcade strip I didn't take webcomics seriously as a creative medium until in 2001 I ran across Christopher Baldwin's Bruno and Justine Shaw's Nowhere Girl. That shift in mindset is now being reversed by other such comics' descent into fatuous snowflake moral posturing. Which might sound weird because Nowhere Girl itself was after all about a gay chick and her gay imaginary boyfriend (it makes more sense in context) so why would I mind comics being totes gayballs nowadays? Because it didn't matter. Nowhere Girl was a story about solitude, false hopes, miscommunication and despair. That her race or sexual orientation may have catalyzed Jaime's ostracism by her supposed peers made it no more relevant than any other catalyst. Whatever the author's intent, that abortive first chapter successfully leveraged "prick us, do we not bleed" into a believable character inhabiting a (sadly) coherent world which does not stand or break upon the heroine's personal preferences.

But that's yesterday's news. To the social activist cartoonists of decades later, it's no longer enough for their heroines to find a few like minds. They must fabricate their own separate interpretation of reality. So, the three (all female, of course) protagonists of Title Unrelated travel to a parallel Utopian dimension: nonviolent, eco-friendly, mystical, vaguely non-Europeans who enforce gender-neutral language, dress and behavior. Never mind the improbability of such a world, given that human tribes across time and space have enforced gender roles through every single period of their growth and development. The most androgynous society in history is in fact our oh-so-decadent post-industrial hellscape. Likewise, never mind the question of how exactly an authoritarian enforcement of androgyny would be less oppressive than calmly acknowledging biological fact. I guess steamrolling the entire planet to suit San Francisco makes you an enlightened egalitarian. Of course, their perfect world is threatened by a (presumably straight) white male villain. No need to question it. We knew it was coming.

Then there are the other examples I've mentioned here: Mare Internum with its reinforcement of social justice warrior pecking order (despite its own characters' contradictory ethical comportment); No End with its inexplicably homosexualizing zombie apocalypse; Eth's Skin with its hilariously hamfisted interjection of lectures on personal pronouns, etc. Not to mention formerly more creative comics like Questionable Content or Something Positive or El Goonish Shive scrambling to re-cast decades' worth of characters as homosexuals or transvestites to keep up with current fads. The less said about Sinfest the better.

Each new case serves only to reiterate its own irrelevance. The characters in question tend to lack context, conflict or any other cause for the audience to become invested in them. They are simply molded onto the page as de novo emblems of self-righteousness: lo, here be a non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, sainthood presumed. Worship shklim. All are presumed to have been wronged by the world in some indeterminate fashion (even when said world consists entirely of others like themselves.) All are presumed to possess wisdom and moral authority far beyond the ken of mere mortals "breeders" - and luckily they're here to tell us just how evil we are for being born the wrong skin color / sex / sexuality. Pray the straight white male away, one panel at a time. Why? Just because. Beyond that, such characters lack any particular role to play in the story. They certainly cannot enter into any conflict with each other since this would mar the beatitude of at least one of them. Those added later on will predictably have no internal drives or goals or interests, no opinions on politics or religion or the course of civilized life (or at least none open to discussion, but only delivered as sermons) no plans to execute or chances for failure. All the narrative depth of Ayn Rand characters without the redeeming autonomy.

Interestingly, these grimly comical extrudates of identity politics work very hard at alienating their audience, by defining characters not by what they do or experience, but by what they *are* in some exclusive, intrinsic sense, like class/race combos in role-playing games. With no campaign to follow. They compensate by churning out endless reiterations of the same two-dimensional stock figures. Today's character's a level 12 Feminist Paladin Pakistani. Check back Thursday to see the half-Cherokee Bard! And don't forget to cast your votes for next week's spotlight: could it be a semi-bisexual Ukrainian Rogue or maybe a quarter-bipolar Korean Cleric? Only public opinion can tell! (Because we sure as hell can't grow an internal compass these days.) You too, dear reader, can be a flavor of the month. And if you're not one of those things, don't worry, you'll be given plenty of chances to roll the dice and mentally pigeonhole yourself as a speshul snowflake with every new gratuitous flavor of sooty downtrodden urchin. Please, sir... we want some more tribalism.

The denouement of The Island of Doctor Moreau had the scientifically uplifted beasts revert back to their innate sub-sentient, bloodthirsty forms. Its narrator escapes with a lingering post-traumatic impression: "I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also other Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert --"
And now? We've banished the ghost of Jack Chick only to summon up the spectre of Tatsuya Ishida. We've replaced churches with feminist rallies, the sermon on the mount with vaginal monologues, and still nowhere is the voice of the individual to be heard. The wolfe becomes the wer becomes the wolfe. Bestial nature re-asserts itself over each new ersatz social advancement, turning it into more of the same.

In 2001 the eponymous Nowhere Girl still retained the intellectual integrity to ask herself whether wanting to be around other people who are "like her" was shallow. In 1970 the students at Kent State University were murdered for protesting mass murder. What do the campus activists of today believe entitles them to attack their fellows? "Manspreading" or erotic cakes or heavy breathing? The mere existence of genitals? Of genitals of the wrong shape? Devo didn't make twenty years' worth of songs in retribution against the Ohio National Guard. They touched on the generalized underlying human desire to follow the leader, to bash the outsider, to regress into warring ape tribes at every opportunity. And, half a century later, it's so amusing to see the term "Jocko Homo" has taken on a whole new meaning.

"I see faces, keen and bright; others dull and dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere, -- none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them"
- H. G. Wells

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Why did 18th-century teleologists never see the punchline coming? They had no sense of Hume(r)

Friday, April 5, 2019

Anomaly: Warzone Earth

I'm always perplexed by game developers who don't seem to realize what they're developing, who miss the best points of their own products. Why, pray tell, did Majesty 2 build up such a charming "fantasy kingdom simulator" only to sink all its content development efforts into a linear, scripted campaign and restrictive scenarios instead of more freeform maps - instead of letting players simulate their own fantasy kingdoms? Why did No Man's Sky go to the trouble of laying the groundwork for dreamy, self-directed space exploration only to then build gameplay around idiotic arcade-style mole-whacking devoid of planning? Why did Spellforce 3's campaign mode undermine both its RPG side by forcing the player to break up his carefully-orchestrated 4-man band, and its RTS side by excluding the player's army from the grand finale? Why can't any of these jokers ever stay on message?

Anomaly: Warzone Earth must have come before 11bit really hit its stride. Its over-done voiceovers set my teeth on edge with their 1980s action flick writing and "acting." At least its interface is clean and direct and nearly completely mouse-driven. It over-invested in graphics and under-invested in content then tries to bleed customers even more for DLC packs amounting to what should have been the original release, an unfortunately common trend this past decade. It did, however, receive some well-deserved praise for providing a fresh playstyle.

Real-time "strategy" games negate their potential for strategy by forcing micromanagement, rewarding players for shuffling individual units back and forth to keep them from getting focus-fired, or cycling through two dozen identical spellcasters to get them all casting the same spell in ten seconds. "Tower Defense" game modes grew partly out of that frustration, letting the player strategize resource investment into defensive towers which automatically shoot down incrementally harder waves of enemies. Anomaly reversed the central gimmick by giving you a convoy to guide through a limited choice of routes among enemy towers. Not that anyone who's played FPS / RTS / MMOs is a stranger to convoy escorts, but hey, credit where it's due, 11bit managed to distill the basic concept to its most enjoyable. Your own character runs around on foot collecting and distributing buffs to your row of advancing tanks. You can upgrade those tanks as you blow up sedentary baddies for bounties. Good, clean fun.

And then one campaign mission hits you with a tower type which resurrects other enemies, charging up this ability by leeching power from you whenever you're in line of sight, and from the aforementioned buffs you need to drop to keep your units alive. Oh, it's not unbeatable, sure. You might dodge around cover, hide or delay your buffs to deny it its leeching, drop some air strikes on it, front-load your armor column to nuke your target down quickly (as it does no damage in itself) whatever. The problem's that it saps my willingness to beat the game. Because in fact while your column's in range of one of those towers, you are no longer playing. You can do almost nothing. Given your view tracks and snaps back automatically to your commander, you can barely even see what's happening while you hide.

Compounding this faux pas, there were plenty of better ways to spice up gameplay. Status effects are absent to that point (even basic DoT) and tank upgrades are completely linear, lacking choice. Maps offered few routing alternatives. Options and variations diverse and sundry should have been addressed before implementing a feature which runs so directly counter to the basic formula of (tanks+commander)/towers.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Comic Book of Revelations

"Time and space never ending
Disturbing thoughts, questions pending
Limitation of human understanding"

Metallica - Through the Never

Been digging around for new webcomics recently, still holding out hope for the medium despite its gradual creative decline over the last two decades. Thus I hit upon the Russian comic Gifts of Wandering Ice, ostensibly set in a post-apocalyptic glacial world where dinosaurs jump out of thawing icebergs. Hints of psychic powers and prophetic dreams abound. Interesting enough crackpot notion on its surface. Unfortunately, it quickly resolves to a transparent vehicle for FEMale chauvINIST posturing. Its female characters are all hyper-competent embodiments of wisdom and courage; the spineless males spend all of their time either apologizing to women for doing everything wrong or being lectured by women on just how they're doing everything wrong. Two hundred pages' worth of exposition later, I've yet to see the unusual setting being put to any more use than one scene after another of boys and men soulfully declaring obeisance to their female social betters. Though, amazingly enough its matriarchal protagonists seem to be heterosexual - a rare affliction among any fictional figures other than villains, these days. As laughable a mess as it is, it did remind me that its setting trails a strange recent trend of post-apocalyptic fantasy comics, usually of a better stripe.

Derelict follows a nautical theme in a world haunted by mind-eating mists spewing light-allergic lizardfolk. Short on chatter and explanations, it nonetheless does a great job of showing its protagonist's scrabble for basic necessities, drifting through an inimical environment. All while building up plenty of mystery around the alien creatures and their Lovecraftian cult. If it ever comes out of "hiatus" it'll make a fine read.

Soul to Call is instead set in a cityscape infested with (again) a mind-devouring mist and littered with demons hungry for human flesh. Or souls. Or soul-flesh, it's not quite clear. Blood rituals, suicidal cults, paramilitary demon-hunter enclaves, magical amulets and assault rifles. Good stuff.

Stand Still, Stay Silent (probably the best of these) follows a group of Scandinavian adventurers in a reality depopulated by a demonic/fungoid infection mutating all mammals into deformed pus-sack monstrosities. The pre-Christian gods have (for no particular reason) returned, and lend their magic from behind the scenes to humanity's last-ditch survival efforts. Beautifully drawn, quite the tearjerker when it wants to be yet balancing this with suspense and humor, SSSS is just everything an adventure story needs in scope, detail, pacing and character interactions.

As I've noted before, post-apocalyptic settings have made quite a comeback after their post- Cold War slump, over the last decade since the 2008 economic crisis. On one hand, I'm amused at this notion that if we just manage to wipe out 99.99% of humanity, the rest of us will spontaneously develop Auspex and Evocation magics. On the other hand, while I'd love to see all three of these examples continue (and even Wandering Ice, were it to miraculously ditch its primitive gynocentric conceit) I have to wonder at whatever happened to good old-fashioned science fiction post-apocalypses. The Road, along with its excellent film adaptation and similar movies centered on a small group of survivors in realistic scenarios, like The Rover or How I live Now or Z for Zachariah make for satisfying watching, but they're very limited in their focus on paranoia, isolation by social desolation and small group dynamics. On the more fanciful side of things we did at least get a rehashed Mad Max wonder of cinematography, but aside from that? Zombie outbreaks still dominate the field from big-budget movies to single-artist webcomics, though the subject tends to careen between science fiction, science fantasy and straight-up fantasy.

What about a wider scope? Among computer games, Frostpunk stands out for retaining thematic coherence unlike say the Fallout games which have tended toward kitchen sink assemblies of cults, mutants, high and low tech. I would have expected some similar endeavors from webcomics. After all, societal collapse by itself can make for lavish visuals, especially with some single pervasive, game-changing science fictional element thrown in. It would be a bit annoying if instead comics like Derelict, Soul to Call or Stand Still, Stay Silent prove avant-garde heralds of a new fad and in another five years we'll be inundated with movies and TV shows about demon hunting after the fall. We should remember that post-apocalyptic fiction, especially in the Cold War interpretation which lent it its greatest appeal, concerned humanity's propensity for self-destruction with no outside help, demonic or otherwise, by greedily degrading the gifts of science.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Why don't podiatrists make good comedians? They've got no sense of humerus.

Friday, March 29, 2019

"In the name of the Prophet: figs!"

"And I don't know what the fuck that you rhyme for
You're pointless as Rapunzel with fuckin' cornrows
You write normal? Fuck being normal!
I make elevating music; You make elevator music"

Eminem - Rap God

I've been gradually trudging through Pathfinder: Kingmaker. Of its varied disappointments I find myself particularly annoyed by the lapses in quest prompts, immersion and writing, given that I was drawn to the project (like, I would assume, many others) by Chris Avellone whoring his name out to Owlcat as he did to Larian. In both cases he seems to have worked largely in an advisory capacity, as little in the finished products bears his personal style. Despite Kingmaker's interesting basic plot, his main job may have just been running remedial English courses for ex-Nival "writers" - the same incompetents responsible for making Heroes of Might and Magic 5's scripts so unbearably farcical as to push me into abandoning its campaign at the first cry of "Griffin eternal!"

Three years ago I praised the first Pillars of Eternity game (the good one) for, among other things its apt use of flavor text tooltips - things like working the word "rancid" into the description of a house in a zombie-infested district. Though simple and low-tech, these can easily enhance immersion. That is, unless your "writers" get lazy or completely miss the point of describing scenery, as happens too often in Kingmaker.

Okay, first off, bonus incompetence points for placing that clickable object behind terrain so I can't even see what I'm seeing.
Second, peevish as this may sound, my character's a Mystic Theurge with a +36 unbuffed bonus to Knowledge: Arcana. There exists not a single beastie, concoction, miasma, radiation, thingamajig or doodad in the multiverse which my elvish self would so ignorantly assess as "weird, magical thing."

Third, and most relevant to this post, even if you don't work the flavor text into the skill system, describing something should probably entail description. Sure, exceptions exist, like April Ryan the art student charmingly (and somewhat sardonically) describing an abstract sculpture in her Longest Journey neighbourhood as a 'spiky thingie' - but these are contextualized, self-conscious counterpoints to known rules. "Show, don't tell" being one of the most fundamental.

I don't mean to rag on Owlcat and Kingmaker alone. People like Avellone, Mitsoda and Tornquist made a name for themselves fifteen or twenty years ago precisely because their wordsmithing competence and creativity stood out among computer games' usually hackneyed, clumsy, perfunctory or nonexistent storytelling. Bad writing is a game industry standard. And, though computer game design has been gradually improving over the past few years, even the small-time, more innovative part of the industry has tended to treat the literary side of its products with disdain. A short trawl through my own kvetching here: The Last Federation's creative enough conceptually but unnecessarily restricts all its descriptions to out-of-character mode. UnderRail tried to copycat Fallout while completely missing the point of its narrative progression. Surviving Mars actually cooked up some captivating mini-plots for its over-arching in-game events but obviously didn't bother hiring a writer who could express these from an immersive viewpoint. Divinity: Original Sin made a name for itself via combat mechanics but gratuitously mangled its fairytale world with random attempts at humor or whimsy. Wasteland 2's designers banked entirely too much on geek in-jokes and gave the distinct impression they just weren't feelin' it by the second half, phoning in what should have been dramatic or touching encounters. Obsidian Entertainment (who you'd think would know better) defamed themselves by exchanging the expert world-building and character development in Pillars of Eternity for dumbed-down fanfic-grade politically correct droning repetition in Deadfire.

Why does anyone skimp on writing?

Some studios might want to fall back on the excuse of not hailing from the anglophone part of the world, but that doesn't hold up because:
1) It doesn't stop companies like 11bit from striking the perfect dramatic tone in Frostpunk. There's this thing called teh internets, you see, chock-full-a Brits, Yanks, Canucks and Aussies just waiting for their chance to slap their name on a writing credit. I don't care where you live, if you've got a computer you must be able to find at least one or three pedantic linguaphiles among your personal or professional acquaintances autochthonous to the lingua franca.
2) Most cases don't fall to translation errors. Instead, no effort is even made to adopt a thematically-appropriate point of view for in-game scripts and exposition. Even if you're a one-man studio, can't you at least resort to some schoolteacher friend who can draw you a plot diagram?

Neither is this a matter of more or less word content per game unit. I'm not saying that The Last Federation needs an Avellone-sized, dialogue jungle, doorstopper novel of a script filled with tragically flawed characters. The problem is that nobody's seeking higher quality at the same quantity.

It is of course true that bad writing, stupid writing, oversimplified, predictable, minimized writing, sells better to the public at large, just as it does in popular fiction and movies... but few of the games I play can claim a mass-market audience. I can understand why Skyrim might bank on dumbing down its themes, riding the coat-tails of at least two successful, genre-changing series... but the rest of you ain't Bethesda. When addressing a niche audience, quality might actually matter.

That in itself brings on another paradox: small companies marketing niche products should logically be looking for cheap ways to enhance their products - in lieu of adopting the latest motherboard-breaking technical requirements, with all the over-paid code-monkeys that entails. While good composers can't be drawing very heavy salaries outside an 18th-century Austrian court, and talented graphic designers have become shockingly abundant, it's still easiest to underpay scriveners. Yet this still seems the most likely position to be overlooked at any studio.

Finally, it's easiest to underpay writers due to the abundance of people who think they can write. All the bloggers, amateurs, dilettantes and fry-cooks with liberal arts degrees... and game studio executives. Speech acquisition being more pervasive in our recent evolutionary history than abstract reasoning, musical harmony or even visual style, it's likely more susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect. (At this point it might behoove me to admit that yes, I have gradually realized that my own shit stinks.) We might not all be able to compose a painting or paint a symphony, but we are all capable of exchanging a few words - as a rule more eloquently in our own heads than on paper. It's much easier for would-be game designers to assume they can "do it yourself" when it comes to narratives, settings and characters.

And you can't.
Yes, you, jack-ass with a programming certificate and a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign. Hire yourself an actual storyteller to tell your story. And no, it can't just be your drinking buddy or kid sister butchering My Little Pony fanfics.

Otherwise, you wind up with "weird magical things" - and that's a bit curt, don't you think? One could have said, in short, by varying the tone, let's see:
Amicable: the vaporous flask beckons your nostrils.
Revulsive: oily fumes boiling in the alembic drizzle unwillingly into the nearly-clotted ichor coating its receptacle.
By simile: the mace-head has the look of basalt, obsidian, blackened lead... a meteorite only gently hammered into killing shape.
Naive: an abnormally vigorous specimen of wolfsbane, if only it could tell of the gardens of its birth.
Curious: what use this writing-desk in the shape of a raven?
Gallant: a translated book on manners and fencing etiquette, gold-embossed with an illusory shifting frontispiece.
Erudite: a bound sheaf of dated and annotated manuscripts on cyclopean dig-sites.
Mysterious: the wand sits heavy upon its rune-embroidered placemat, as though in the clutch of some other world's gravity.
Sympathetic: the frog paws wetly at its cage's confines, awaiting an unknown fate.
Dramatic: this ransom letter still bears the stag-lord's seal.
Aggressive: the kukri's curvature bends toward you, candle-light flickering at you from its pommel off its point.
Macabre: phalanges grip the light in an orderly, bleached pyramid.
Truculent: thus, sir, might you have said unto me, were you possessed of letters and of spirit. A pity that to you the gift of language remains an alien symbol, triune and inchoate: "weird" "magic" "thing"

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Though less famous for it than for his medical theories, Galen was in fact frequently called upon to regale his peers with various witticisms at parties. He had a great sense of humors.

Sunday, March 24, 2019


"This isn't music and we're not a band
We're five middle fingers on a motherfuckin' hand!"

Marilyn Manson - Vodevil

Recently I played Spellforce 3, curious how attempts at melding role-playing and real-time strategy games have shaped up. Not great... but it did remind me of my Convergence post last year on the other logical genre meld of RTS with first-person shooters.

The concept of RTS / FPS logically grows outward from FPS into squad tactics and beyond, or inward from a desire for greater RTS immersion. In multiplayer the two viewpoints are complementary, with a player commander taking over all the fiddly bits of resource management and base building while relying on other players as autonomous peons and knights. Even in single-player, it mostly just entails a change of perspective. You still give all the same orders as you would in a top-down RTS, only from a mobile command center instead of the usual eye in the sky. Then once in a while, lead a mighty charge. You strategize while not engaging in direct combat, while not first-person shooting.

RPGs, on the other hand, come with their own suite of noncombat activities: level up, pick feats, memorize spells, chat with NPCs, violate your alignment. Good stuff, but it does sort of get in the way of placing gold mines and upgrading Tesla towers. The fiddly bits of RPGs and RTS clash. (Indeed Spellforce 3 mostly alternates instead of mixing them.) This is not just a matter of time investment or button mashing. Any RPG worth its salt encourages choices based on factors other than Machiavellian power-lust, whether it's supporting a noble cause or just building a party around a specific theme. Make a note of this, as it will come up in just a minute: the goal of playing a role is at odds with the goal of winning the game.

Perhaps most importantly, the customization which allows both RTS and RPGs to meld so well with FPS' otherwise linear routine of 'point and shoot' is redundant when instead paired with each other. As a strategy game commander, you don't need magic spells for healing or AoE fire damage. Instead you order your combat medics to heal your flamethrower infantry. If you want to do piercing damage from range you either upgrade your character with archery feats or you order a squad of archers to do it. Doing both is redundant. Units and tech tree upgrades are spells and feats. The wealthy in the real world learned this millennia ago: specialists are stand-ins for personal ability. Be a brilliant poet to word-smith yourself a stellar autobiography... or hire a ghostwriter. Knock down the enemy fortress' gates with a single mighty kick, or get twenty disposable random dudes from the nearest village to run at it with a battering ram, and just take the credit. But trying to do both at the same time is redundant and ridiculous. (And will probably earn you a ram up your ass.)

So while RTS and RPG elements can coexist, they cannot do so at the same time. They have to time-share the player's attention, not vie for it. Some titles have indeed managed to combine all three.

This is Mount and Blade: Warband, one of the best games ever made. My army's composition is a matter of strategy. Knowing I'd be fighting in a mountainous area, they're mostly archers and skirmishers. In a few moments I'm about to charge and lance a few of those oncoming bandits in full FPS physics-enabled glory. I also positioned my archers up this conveniently elevated hill, ordered them to stay put and will order the cavalry charge when appropriate. In other words, individual battles mix FPS and squad tactics. What's missing is the role-playing angle, which takes place entirely outside of combat: what kinds of weapons I specialize in, what kingdom I choose to serve, who exactly I'm fighting, what trade goods my wife wants me to bring back so she can host a party, etc. No stopping to shoot the breeze with a rival baron mid-melee.

In multiplayer, a similar split was achieved by the (self-destructed) FPS / RTS Savage 2, which also allowed players to customize their playstyle by upgrading gear in simplified RPG fashion. The team's commander needed no gear. His personal development was embodied by the team's tech tree. But that of course is a very limited form of "action" RPG reset with every 30-minute match. What about truly incorporating roleplaying into long-term strategy / shooter success? What happens to personal preference in MMOs?

I shortly re-visited EVE-Online during a 3-for-1 monthly subscription deal back in 2015-16 and while I'd been expecting disappointment, I found myself surprised at just how far it had fallen. Where at launch it had touted as one of its biggest selling points the ability to customize modular ships and equipment, a decade later it was filled with prestige class ships purpose-built to a single role and slotted with overspecialized equipment. If you wanted to take part in group content, you had even less choice. Alliances would only let you join the fight if they get to dictate not only your ship class but every single piece of gear you slot. The idiots call these cookie-cutter builds "doctrines" without the slightest twinge of self-analysis.

While EVE makes an interesting case study for its sheer scale of wasted potential, personal choice has been a problem in every MMO. For instance, City of Heroes had more than enough variety within its archetypes to allow players to break the usual tank / healer / nuker holy trinity. But good luck playing a Force Field Defender or a Dark/Fiery Armor Tanker. They were compatible with each other, but most players stuck with traditional roles of high mitigation tank and restorative healer, fabricating demand for each other to the point of excluding any other styles. In fact, go to any such game's message boards and you'll likely find them swamped with complaints about balance because such-or-other class can't get seats in dungeon runs.

In most cases this is sheer gamer stupidity. The less popular choices are demonstrably valid yet denigrated by the majority just for the sake of aligning themselves with the "winning" choice. And there's the rub. Winning. Multiplayer games are about winning. Your personal stylistic choice to play defensive artillery support instead of an all-purpose nuker, or a defender of the forest or a mace-crafter mean absolutely nothing when the latest dungeon has you charging forward constantly to burn down a forest and loot a better mace than you could ever craft. Your personal goal of role-playing means nothing in the face of fifty other players' goal of winning the latest challenge. So nobody likes multifaceted bards, and individual players become mere specialized appendages of their guild's strategic needs: nukers, healers and tanks. Heroes become units, embodying arrows or shields. Fingers on the communal hand.

If you want to institute role-playing in online games (beyond mere aesthetic decor) then remember it cannot occupy the same space and time as communal strategy... unless it becomes communal strategy. There must be some in-game benefit to not just playing a druid or paladin but to forming a druids' guild or a paladins' guild. There must be some communal benefit to making some moral choice like declaring cows sacred and having all members of the community abstain from killing cows. There must be some synergistic effect beyond damage numbers to render individual players' choices relevant in a larger context: multiple-school ritual magic, phalanx formations and cavalry charges, modular tiered crafting, pet breeding associations, sustainable farming rotations, anything so long as it incorporates individual player choices into some kind of communal victory. Otherwise, when individual and group interests diverge, when the fiddly bits clash, the individual always gets hanged as a witch.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Sauron's third cousin, pi removed

While glancing at the achievements list for Pathfinder: Kingmaker (the better to bitch about it) I noticed one entry titled:
"Yet Another Ancient Evil"

This reinforces my general impression that Kingmaker seems invested with little designer enthusiasm. It was likely selected as the company's first title for overwhelmingly pragmatic reasons, to meet Owlcat's necessity for making a name for itself with a generic, relatively wide-appeal product.

But more to the point, after a couple of decades of such games I find ancient evils are getting old. I'm getting sick of cracking open tombs to release/de-feet some perfectly fermented Sealed Evil in a Can. Seems like just to maintain the system's momentum I should spend half my time digging holes and dumping genie bottles and magic rings into them to be discovered by adventurers in another thousand years. Maybe I need to play more SF-themed games, which are paradoxically more likely to bank on Luddism and xenophobia with their alien invasions and mad science gone all too predictably wrong.

Central to the F / SF divide, fantasy looks back to grandiose pasts while scifi looks forward to grandiose futures. Grandiose threats in each case follow that central theme. But it gets a bit annoying when you start being able to finger every villain as either the wizard with the longest beard or the nerd with the newest-fangled gizmos. Even Tolkien knew enough to mix and match (the ancient Enemy vs. Curunir) and in general the better representatives of speculative fiction are less prone to pigeonholing themselves. Games inspired by such works on the other hand seem to go out of their way to establish a formulaic worldview.

Just once, can't we get a SciFi game where the reactionary masses (and their Luddite rabblerousers) are the bad guys, as they are in real life? And the technocrats the good guys trying to keep an overloaded world's stitches from popping? Conversely, can't we get some fantasy games in which reckless rabblerousing upstarts making false promises of easy progress threaten to destroy the world by upsetting its wise, ancient balance? And they have to be countered by an ancient good in a can, a last march of the ents?

Even better, can't we admit than in either case, the real enemy would be the average Joes and Janes, the idiotic majority alternating between bloodthirsty greed and stultifying stagnation? Stupidity kills. The villain in any story from high fantasy to high tech should not be any superior individual, no matter how malicious, but his followers' willful ignorance, the primitive instincts of the degenerate mass-market vermin.