Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Last Federation

Screenshots of The Last Federation will inevitably draw comparisons to the classic Master of Orion: same low-resolution stylized 2D skybox filled with ideograms instead of ship models. However, in an attempt to be more than just another half-assed attempt to recapture the magic of 1993 (we had Beanie Babies!) The Last Federation has you filling the tangential role of an interstellar diplomat.

And really, is there any among us who did not grow up dreaming of the glamorous profession of a reasonable mediator? I think not.

In any case, it turns out all the NPCs are playing a 4X game and it's your task to talk them out of it, ensure the unification of your solar system by something marginally less than complete omnicide. As the last member of a formerly megalomaniacal race, you flit from planet to planet doing favors for each alien species, facilitating development and trade by keeping the pirate population to a minimum and trying to bribe, flatter, blackmail or force whomever you can into your eponymous Federation... and exterminating all who don't. Like if Captain Picard was a mafia don. Capisci my phasers?

Aesthetically, the game's not much to speak of. Visuals, sound, writing, all range from sparse to dull to nonsensical, though at least they never get annoying enough to interfere with actual gameplay. Combat rapidly grows repetitive through a lack of variation in enemy ship types (especially pirates, which are also the most common encounter.) But the interaction between the various races is where this game really shines. Where in most games the choice of race is either purely cosmetic or defined by a minor bonus here and there, The Last Federation's eight choices were each designed to function differently on a basic level. Some can be bribed and some cannot, some trade and some don't, and the range of pacifism and warmongering ranges from flower power to Waaaaaagh! Take a look at this late-game situation:

Tutorial messages include the phrase "the Thoraxians are terrors" in reference to the planetary invasion capabilities of your resident gigantic insectoids from beyond the moon. In this game I'd managed to federate or obliterate all of the other seven races, and the Thoraxians' pre-existing wars with some of my Federation members led me to simply write them off and wipe them out. It took longer than the entire rest of my campaign. In fact I took this screenshot when I realized that despite being under a state of constant invasion by three to five other species, the Thoraxians still outnumbered the rest of the system put together... and were still growing! That's them on the bottom of the list. Amazingly enough, this does not make them overpowered. Their spacefleets are mercifully mediocre, so they can be contained, and they're difficult enough to get on your side that you're usually better off investing in some more reasonable allies.

The Last Federation is slightly underdeveloped and overpriced, but easily worth picking up just for daring to bank on a novel playstyle with meaningful player choices in an otherwise stagnant industry.

Monday, February 25, 2019

So, you know how every imbecilic p.c. thug demands to be called a "they" now for supposedly having transcended the binary sexes of the rest of us mere mortals? And you know how most of these also graduated from ersatz "universities" and thus each will call herself "an alumni" of said halls of fake-ademia?

Does two wrongs makes a rights?

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Travelogues and Constellation Gaming


Loreena McKennitt - Marco Polo

Robert Heinlein's 1952 Space Family Stone (or "The Rolling Stones" by its more popular name) stands out as likely his most cheerful book. Twin teenage boys plan a commercial spacefaring escapade and instead of disabusing them of the notion, their father, mother, grandmother and younger sister and brother all board for a few years' worth of bumming around the solar system. Though all Heinlein's stuff tends to bank to some extent on the characters' snappy repartee, this story maintains a constant plateau of friendly banter throughout. The grandmother and the twins spend half their time firing off verbal barbs from seemingly bottomless quivers, with the rest of the family registering a potshot now and then.

To some modern nerds, the book's action will probably read like a "let's play" of Kerbal Space Program for all its hard science descriptions of rocket flight. Jetting off from their home in a lunar colony* the Stones loop around Earth, stop off on Phobos, sell bicycles and buy tribbles on Mars then dodge around the asteroid belt on the equivalent of space jet bikes, then finally set off for the rings of Saturn. Every step of their journey is replete with chatter about reaction mass, orbital maneuvering, minutely managed momentum and other tech-talk. As always, Heinlein snuck in plenty of social commentary on the topic of personal freedom, and much of the story's humor comes from mocking the family's continued form of income: selling TV scripts for a decidedly soft science fantasy series parodying the cheesy Buck Rogers and Flash Gordons of early 20th century space operas. In fact The Rolling Stones is so thick with jeering asides that it would easily have become annoying if not for Heinlein's talent for keeping things... rolling. As it is, it easily draws the reader into the little space yacht's explorations with each new orbit and landing, a delightfully humorous travelogue.

Come to think of it, that's one thing we've been missing lately: travelogues. They used to be a staple of romantic-era exploration stories, many of which were framed as shipboard journals, and which initially transitioned more or less  seamlessly into science fiction. These days, Google Maps has us thinking we know everything about the world, space exploration's decried as a tax-sapping cold war anachronism and a fictional character exhibiting a sense of wonder and adventure will likely get derided as a starry-eyed loser. Star Trek used to be about trekking, about strange new worlds. Now its about disruptor battles. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books banked heavily on descriptions of the Martian landscape... but even that was over two decades ago. In computer games, plumbing the exotic depths of this and that was a de facto core feature of many adventure titles which progressed through a more or less linear sequence of 2D backdrops. As late as Y2K, some of the most memorable ones like Myst or Syberia deliberately maintained the aesthetics of romantic voyages into darkest [insert exotic location here]

I was reminded of this recurring obsession of mine with bringing back the eight...een hundreds by the previously mentioned webcomic Tangled River. Through Tanya's sheltered adolescent ignorance we glimpse that crucial yet all too easily ignored virtual world virtue of perspective.

"I wish I had words to describe it, like a whole other world so big and beautiful. And looking back down the way we came, suddenly the map came alive for me."

A simple sentiment, yet fruitful for any adventure story and too easily ignored. It's how The Hobbit and the rest of Middle-Earth enthralled so many of us, tracing the fellowship's quest across each grain of hand-drawn map. They didn't just visit locations, but entered and exited Moria and Dale through distinct cartographic vectors. Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul were not just places but geographic attitudes, squaring off against each other across the mighty Anduin. Robert Heinlein in turn made the solar system come alive by tracing his protagonists' journeys mile by millions of miles. Robinson made us taste the rusty grit of days-long rover journeys across the Martian landscape.

In computer games, quite a few have helped their immersion by situating your playable zones on a larger map, RPGs in particular. Sandbox games go further in lending these map distances actual relevance. While most will be more familiar with the Elder Scrolls series (which barely qualify as sandboxy, if at all) a better example of melding a large-scale persistent environment with first-person agency would likely be Mount and Blade, where armies, bandits, caravans and basically the entire map keeps evolving as you swash and buckle your way around, and your world location (proximity of mountains, trees, rivers) determines your terrain for each battle.** MMOs should by all rights have been the ultimate encapsulation of this duality, but betrayed that hope as they copied WoW in devolving into "kill ten rats" grindfests. This old hope still fuels players' excitement for projects like Dual Universe or Camelot Unchained but it remains to be seen whether large-scale persistent multiplayer worlds will ever make good.

As a last thought, that travelogue feel can be achieved not only in a single game, but across multiple ones. Back in 1996 the now-defunct (in all but name) Maxis launched Sim Copter, letting players pilot a rescue chopper in a bustling metropolis. Playable maps could be imported from the company's trendsetting city simulator SimCity2000 and though the process was far from perfect, it did give you a unique feel for trying to actually live in the overcrowded hellholes you designed as a SimMayor. They repeated the feat (albeit in a supposedly shallow fashion) some years later with SimCity4 allowing players to import their Sims. How hard can it be to design a series of games importing such data from each other? Fabricate your own big and beautiful other world, then make it come alive for yourself by diving into it first-hand. Create a play-by-mail grand strategy title which can incorporate conquerable cities with stats based on a city simulator, "random" events imported from RPG campaigns and generate survival maps based on the aftermath of strategy campagins.

So, Al likes strategy, Bob likes city sims, Chuck likes roguelikes and Dana likes survival horror. They don't all have to buy the same game. Each can just shill out for SimMegalomaniac, SimFatcat, SimErrolFlynn or SimShitYourPants. Bob can design a thriving elf utopia for Al to conquer and militarize, which Chuck and Dana can import to generate their latest first-person adventures. If they survive, Chuck and Dana's characters can then become ministers or generals in Al and Bob's continually developing worlds. (Until Al gets mad at Bob and razes his city, but that's another story.) Given that we've seen some attempts at importing user-generated content (Spore jumps to mind) and No Man's Sky, even if it achieved nothing else, demonstrated the vastness of procedurally generated environments, why don't we have this yet?

I would guess one significant hurdle for such clustered games has been advancing technology. Graphics and interfaces have improved tremendously over the past couple of decades, and by the time one game was finished, its parent company would be champing at the bit to move on to the newest tech. It wouldn't have been reasonable to expect players to mire themselves in the clunky, 2D pixelated chore of mid-90s gameplay for the sake of cross-compatibility. But now?

Some of the more popular game engines like Unreal and Unity have been around for some years. They've demonstrated themselves both malleable and reasonably scalable, and even their less ambitious embodiments are aesthetically apt for both ease of use and immersion. We've reached the point of "good enough" where we can sacrifice further prettiness, as the popularity of Good Old Games and the "neo retro" fad can attest. Shouldn't the countless programmers already familiar with current technology be able to create interconnected, cross-genre gameplay to last through decades' worth of titles? I want to "Fallout" my way through the cities I nuked last year in Civilization. I want to populate a city with all my RPG companions. I want to be a stone rolling through a solar system I myself terraformed.

* That's the very same lunar colony in which Heinlein would eventually set The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; grandma Stone is the same Hazel Meade Stone seen as a teenager in that later prequel
** Dwarf Fortress might qualify, but having not yet tried its "adventure" mode, I'll refrain from passing judgment.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Worth a thousand worlds

Once upon a 2003 there was a multiplayer game called Planetside. Being as it launched before World of Warcraft dumbed down the MMO concept to an unrecognizable farce worthy of the lowest common denominator, Planetside still aspired to MMOs' rightful convergence of genres, mixing hundred-player strategy with first-person pugnacity in a single reasonably persistent virtual world. (With admittedly mixed success.) This largely meant embracing what I'd later call the #1 rule in my Massively Multiplayer Manifesto: The world is the game.

It played up its nominally futuristic setting by making a big deal out of dropping out of the stratosphere onto each new continent or manually flying your vehicle through gigantic glowing warp gates. Teleportation was limited to your nearest spawn point or a single point you yourself bookmarked, making organizing transport with other players a crucial skill for all involved. Bases had to be supplied to remain functional. Thanks to the stringent practical limits on how many objects could be rendered in an online game at the time, they were also massive, monolithic structures with relatively few rooms and defensible choke points. The emphasis was on locations, not players.

Planetside 2 chose to reverse that. Bases no longer have any passive defenses. Calculated, premeditated long-range carpet-bombings and artillery shelling was replaced with overpowered invisible snipers, insta-kill dogfights, an overpowered "harasser" light vehicle capable of ignoring battle lines and worst of all, massive amounts of terrain clutter. Almost every room and courtyard has at least three entrances and is utterly stuffed with boxes piled upon boxes blocking line of sight, with the overall result randomizing player movements to make it impossible to predict one's enemy. Base capture times were trivialized and base-flipping made a constant occurrence and teleportation was made so ubiquitous that there are now fewer passenger vehicles without built-teleporters than with them. The result is a clusterfuck. Planetside 2 was re-tooled from the first installment's emphasis on epic battles for terrain to a Call of Duty clone, team deathmatch heavily favoring opportunism over planning. Players no longer have to specialize every day for a particular role, vehicles are paper-fragile (especially the aircraft) and it's impossible to advance in any battlefield without getting flanked, because with such permeable battle-lines, there simply are no flanks. Only a roiling melee of fast-fingered, slow-brained twitch gamers taking potshots at each other. Sheer population numbers count for more than they ever did.

Planetside 2 traded in the persistence of its virtual world for mindless twitch and kill-counting, traded in the concepts of territory control and conquering a world for petty sadism and narcissism.

Aesthetically, the game pushed its dumbed-down reinterpretation by downplaying SF elements in favor of military jargon, tanks and assault rifles. Even the constant teleportation takes place without any bells and whistles, by players simply appearing in their respective vehicles. The somewhat airy, exploration themed music from the first game became more martial. Most interestingly though, four years ago the game acquired new loading screens. If memory serves, this came about as the result of a fan-art contest. Each and every one of them featured a group of soldiers of one faction killing one single specimen of one of the others. Running him over with a tank, executing him at point-blank range, etc. There's an obvious link between the mentality and the product. The hyperactive degenerates with no attention span who love PS2's focus on unfocused opportunism, zerging and constant reversals are also primitive enough to swallow the idiotic message of those loading screens, to want to see themselves as only ever beating down an outnumbered opponent.

Yet a virtual world has little to offer if it doesn't focus on the world itself. If you're just into machine-gunning down random schmucks, then Call of Duty just does Call of Duty better. Though PS2 had a decent run, it rapidly lost the interest of the right customers and as a result also the wrong ones (the ones you draw in with splash screens of unopposed victories; bullies) who depend on better minds for leadership. Somewhat unsurprisingly, PS2 is now being re-tooled as... even more of a standard "khakis and Kalashnikovs" team deathmatch game. With a touch of Fortnite clone via a battle royale mode. Because copycatting a competitor who's already kicking your ass in popularity can't fail, right?

I find amusement in one discrepancy.
They apparently held another fan art contest in the past year, and the new loading screens do indeed try to showcase Auraxis as an alien planet, new worlds and new civilizations, the romantic feel of exploration. They show lone players or groups with their weapons holstered trudging among luxuriant otherworldly vegetation, misty craters and unspoilt wilderness stretching to vast horizons. Wow. Very nice, but it's too little too late. It took you six years to realize you've been catering to the wrong audience?


Players have collected most of the loading screens in question at this link. It should be easy enough to discern the first and second wave.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Welcome to Leith

Every society in the world is composed largely of reactionaries mentally stunted to the level of dark age loyalism to some kind of big lie, who long for a world simple enough for their feeble minds to grasp. Given a chance, the masses will gladly degrade us all back to our natural state as apes scrabbling through the underbrush for a brief, miserable existence of starvation and maulings. These multitudes cannot be reasoned with, but only gradually bribed into acceptance of progress through the material comforts supplied by scientific advancement.

Religion embodies such mentality best, but some choose different facets of tribalism and anti-intellectualism, yielding such odd beasts as royalists or anarcho-primitivists. Racial purity makes a particularly nonsensical such shibboleth due to its pretense of "scientific" misappropriation of eugenics. Never mind that if you were trying to select for Homo superior, your last concern would be for nose or eye shape or skin tones. Even the briefest glance at history shows the various geographic regions have at various times easily demonstrated their capacity for inter-tribal one-upmanship. Still, though every extended family must at least suffer that one crazy aunt glancing cross-eyed at your new girlfriend and muttering how you should find yourself "one of our own" nonetheless true racial separatists find little traction in most modern societies. To call them "fringe" might unduly minimize fringes.

Once in a while they'll make the news, usually for beating some unlucky sap to death for daring to eyeball a "sister" of the wrong skin color. Or for conquering some neighbourhood, such as the attempted white nationalist takeover of Leith, North Dakota in the early 2010s, documented quite adeptly in the film Welcome to Leith. Don't worry if you've never heard of the little hamlet, given its twenty-strong population. That the white nationalists even set their sights so high speaks volumes as to their fearsome political clout in today's America. Their plan was to buy up land, move into the town en-masse, take over the local government, then presumably set up their utopian society of tanning salons and freckle research. It was arguably dampened by their fearless leader's arrest for threatening the locals with firearms. One can't blame said locals for getting a bit tetchy about such intimidation tactics, and the documentary does quite a masterful job of chronicling the growing tension between the two factions of this minute North American backwater. More masterful, perhaps, than most audiences would prefer.

The moralistic angle of the story would seem to write itself: evil racists invade tiny community of plucky underdogs, and the good guys finally win. However, uncharacteristically for social historians, the film-makers maintained their observational neutrality, so their result was much more realistically confused. Despite their leader's fervour, only a handful of white nationalists bought land in Leith, and only one family proved dedicated enough to bleaching the world to actually relocate to a one-horse town in North-fucking-Dakota. However many other voices chanted along with their insanity on the internet... stayed on the internet. They were, in effect, fair weather racists. (Or in prison.) (Or both.) They're desperate incompetents seeking an excuse for living, some intrinsic, unassailable faith they can boast in the absence of any personal qualities.

Yet despite the ultimately hollow nature of the threat, the townsfolk of Leith did their part in escalating the tension which made this documentary so watchable. Just don't expect most film critics to acknowledge that angle. They'd rather ignore the many scenes of true-blue, red-blooded, salt-of-the-earth non-racists psyching themselves into paranoia over the imminent invasion. Focusing entirely on the invaders' moral failings (and ignoring how toothless their boasts have become) half the reviewers out there somehow fail to notice the half of the movie displaying Leith's stalwart protectors beginning to go around armed to the teeth, strutting about itching for confrontation against unambiguous villainy. Because, in the cause celebre which happened to land in their laps, they have themselves found an atavistic tribal conflict to allow them to play the victims and/or heroes. They have found something simple enough for them to understand.

Ideological purity makes a particularly nonsensical such shibboleth due to its pretense of...

Friday, February 15, 2019

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

"Gun-smoking righteous with one token sidekick"

Gorillaz - Clint Eastwood

Review. Spoilers implied.

They spelled magic with a "k" so you know it must be good. The K stands for Kuality. Here's a perfect example of the Betty Boop stage of creativity spurred by new technical options which I described in my post before last. In 2001, large-scale isometric RPGs with full GUI were still relatively new on the market. Much of Troika's effort, much of what now seems clunky, time-consuming and repetitive assumed the innocent expectation that customers would enjoy clicking that mouse-driven GUI for the sheer love of clicking.

Arcanum made a bit of a splash when it came out, for its scope, for the relative freedom it offered, for its convoluted plot, for mixing drow, dirigibles, divination and dynamite and riding the upswing of steampunk's post-Y2K popularity. Unfortunately it also gained a reputation as hopelessly buggy, unbalanced and insufficiently tested in general. Though the GoG version has been patched in the intervening decades to satisfactory playability, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the bugs from the poor design decisions. For instance, at first I thought it a bug when my replacement late-game companion, Raven, a dark-haired, smooth-voiced elven archer, just randomly decided to strip down to her skivvies during one fight and toss all her gear on the floor. A wonderful, wonderful bug. Then I realized she just automatically ditches all her gear when shapeshifting. If your inventory's full, this leads to a very tedious couple of minutes' worth of loot juggling after every. single. fight!

I had recruited Raven after the starter companion, Virgil, suddenly absconded with all the loot I'd stored on him to go run his side-quest. Fine. Except when I went to pick him up he wasn't there, either as a companion or as a corpse or as an "I.O.U fifty grenades" letter.* Was the quest just more complex than it seemed? Nope. Bugged. And if it were the only such quest I'd count myself lucky. Bugs also prevented my character from mastering the Dodge skill, as well as quite a few less impactful issues. At least you can usually reload an earlier save to try to get an NPC or item to interact properly, but still, it only compounds the frustration of trying to find one's way around in the first place. A combination of limited character models, generic decor, huge uneditable maps, small screen size and frequent pixel-hunting will set you abusing online guides quite a bit in order to get anything done.

A year ago I said "Arcanum makes an incredibly shitty first impression" and I stick by that statement. While most RPGs make the mistake of skimping on the rags in the "rags to riches" adventuring plot, of making the player too powerful from the start, Arcanum's a rare example of overcompensating too far in the opposite direction. Not only can you completely fail but you can harm yourself by attempting to attack with weapons in which you're not skilled. Even after buying into apprentice melee combat, my character could still end up punching himself to death. And, after such a frustrating beginning, the late game can actually be too easy, as you can rapidly outlevel your available challenges. Somehow Troika set up a combat system both frustrating and boring. Character stats lack any semblance of balance, with maxed dexterity almost a must. All the less fortunate your enemies' limited and repetitive combat styles, mostly interchangeable melee mooks with no complications.

In terms of immersion, it fares much better. They captured that old-timey wrought-iron industrial aesthetic well, and the music's apt to the the story's general mood. The writing tends to be uneven, with engaging exposition (especially for the main quest) but weak dialogue trees with few and tangled options. The main plot's interesting enough, though its various twists are presented too abruptly, lacking necessary hints and padding. Finding Nasrudin alive should have been the only entirely abrupt shock in the chain of discoveries. Quite a few of the more involved side-quests also manage to be entertaining, despite limited presentation, simply for their scope within the game world. Subvert one monarch and assassinate another, track down entire secret cities of elves and mages, unveil the entire cyclical nature of your world, oscillating endlessly between magic and technology.

They can also reflect rather poignantly on your chosen character background. I started out as a hideous but intelligent half-ogre and decided my character would have quite a chip on his shoulder about his heritage. I flew into quite a few murderous rages along the way, especially if an NPC insulted not only my parentage but my intelligence. Imagine my shock when I discovered most of my kind were being bred as chattel:

If there's ever a sequel to this game, I'll be playing a serial gnome-murderer.

Its central thematic central choice of magic(k) or tech was itself handled surprisingly well. I had started out determined to balance the two but while that may be possible, the game does an excellent job of enticing you further down each path while not forcing an artificial choice. In the end, my swordsman / grenadier still relied on a small repertoire of buff spells while mass-producing healing salves instead of potions. Yes, it's a terrible combat system, but at least it can be terrible according to your own personal tastes. Beyond your own abilities, different map locations can be more accessible by magicians or technologists (the train vs. the Tulla teleporters being the most obvious example.)

And that's really the one thing which actually works in Arcanum: personal choice. My leveling sped up dramatically once I acquired a lightning-fast Sword of the Derian-Ka... by going off-script and killing Cedric Appleby when he insulted my noble half-ogre heritage, instead of listening to his quest proposal. As I said in my first post, it's a rare RPG where you can fly off the handle and murder questgiver NPCs left and right while still progressing normally. Dialogues even support this playstyle by letting you verbally taunt most characters into attacking you. Not only that but you can combine support, ranged and melee abilities without completely pigeonholing yourself as a tank/healer/nuker. Be a charismatic leader of a large adventuring party or a fugly rageaholic with one token sidekick. Though as a relatively primitive and quasi-modoed attempt it can be incredibly frustrating, Arcanum qualifies as one of the more memorable computer role-playing games for its dedication to empowering you, the player, to play the role you want.

* Come to think of it, the type of loot I'd stored on him might explain Virgil's death. Someone lit a match near him and... well, it would also explain why he didn't leave a corpse.

edit 2019/08/14
Fixed a couple of tie-poes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ophrydium vs. Conochilius: Fight!

"And when the seasons change again then I will too
But I just wanna be closer to you"

Brandi Carlile - Closer to You

Happy Darwin Day! How have you advanced the values of inquisitiveness and intellectual integrity today?

Let's see... what would make a good evolutionary topic? Aha!

Compare Exhibit A to Exhibit B, ignoring color for the moment. Do they seem like the same organism to you? Both are actually groups and not a single critter. Both are funnel-shaped and elongated with a narrow point of attachment at their base. Both grow in roughly spherical colonies, orienting themselves with a flattened "mouth" part outward to slurp in their prey. Both might be perfectly at home in your nearest stream or lake, depending on where you live. Both are even roughly the same size, from one-tenth to just under half a millimeter in length.

Yet A is a rotifer, an animal composed of a thousand or more cells. B is a single-celled eukaryote, a ciliated protist, called Ophrydium. Its green color comes from hundreds of smaller intracellular symbiotic Chlorella algae. The two organisms are separated by several hundred million years of evolution. They haven't shared a common grandma since before most instructional videos even bother measuring continental drift. In fact, according to modern classifications, ciliates along with the other alveolates are more closely related to the grass in your back yard than to you, me, rotifers, all other animals or even the mold under your toenails. Aside from bacteria, there are few things in the world less related than those two hungry-hungry specks of life.

But hey, at that size and in that environment and with those nutritional capabilities, that shape and organization just... works! And that's what life does: whatever works. I guess we can chalk up yet another of the endless examples of convergent evolution along with fins and wings and the various filamentous photosynthesizers we so naively lump together as "algae" at first glance.

Now, call me petty but for me it's not a Darwin Day without a jab at brain-dead creationists, so ask yourself the usual question: why the mind screw? Why the ever-loving fuck would any "intelligent designer" go to the trouble of separating these two organisms 600,000,000 laps around the sun ago only to re-mold them to almost exactly the same size, shape and function just to confuse biology students straining their eyes through a microscope in 2019?


P.S. Though I can barely guess my way around a few words of Portuguese, I must say the Brazilian website Planeta Invertebrados boasts a very impressive collection of photographs on the topic of... well, invertebrados.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Change may affect the spinal column

"We need change and we need it fast
Before rock's just part of the past

'Cause lately it all sounds the same to me"

The Ramones - Do You Remember Rock 'N Roll Radio

"And if you should become too solemn
It may affect the spinal column"


Betty Boop M.D., 1932


do-doo-do-do - do-do-doooo-do!

"The question is: what is a mah-na-mah-na?"
"The question is: who cares?"

The Muppet Show, 1976

B 3 |-| 0 |_ |) !
T 3 h   f (_) + (_) r 3   0 |=   3 n + 3 r + 4 | n m 3 n + !!!

Complete with painfully pianofortified 8-bit tootling.

So is the green thing supposed to be a... tree? pedestal? demon? A demon-tree pedestal perhaps? And is it standing on a spring? Is it a bobblehead demon-tree pedestal? With a manicure? Maybe it's what Torg and Riff tried to summon back in 1997 when they punctuated the very first Sluggy Freelance strip with the optimistic line "Yes! Spam Satan!" Early webcomics had little to no plot, flitting madly from one fancy to another, a mish-mash of vampire alien cyborg ninja ghost cowboys... who all happened to find themselves inexplicably enrolled in universities, living next door to hawt chix. In the Matrix. Sure, they were pixelated, crudely drawn at best and updated whenever, and more often than not degenerated into overly-intimate public confessionals for their authors' drunken 2 a.m. use, but we readers didn't care! These were comics, you see, and they were on the web. Pictures with words, on teh internets. This ain't your daddy's Peanuts. This is cybernutz.

Watch that Betty Boop cartoon. Sure, it came two decades after Gertie the Dinosaur, but most people had barely begun to realize the potential of animation and animators gloried in the malleability of their newly-minted medium, in purposefully <-moving-> their pictures. Or watch that ridiculous Muppets sketch. Television as a concept had been around for a while, sure, but black and white TVs had only proliferated since ~1950. Starting in the '60s these began slowly being replaced by color sets but only in the '70s did these become abundant enough in the U.S. for the NBC peacock to spread its plumage reliably. Nobody knew what a "mah-na mah-na" was and nobody cared because it gave you an excuse to watch flexible, expressive figures flailing madly about in all their garish technicolor.

In 2009 The Secret of Kells earned its spot in animation's "top" lists not only for its ornate detail, integration of music and playing with perspective, but for its infectious enthusiasm for the dark ages of illuminated manuscripts, when putting colored ink to paper and encoding thoughts in letters seemed in itself an act worthy of divinity. When striving for creative immortality lent some order to a mortally chaotic world.

When a medium, genre or technology is still new, you can watch creators marvel at discovering their own ability to wield such Promethean gifts. They stretch their wings. They blaze new paths. Most of those are dead ends or at best only by-ways toward a more reliable road, but one can't fault the early wave of creators on their creativity. Their sheer exuberance remains charming long after their amateurish attempts are replaced with more accomplished works. However half-baked, this sort of early persona or production can remain inspirational in defiance of its flaws. As I mentioned some years ago, whatever you think of that crackpot "Saint" Francis of Assisi, his perceived enthusiasm and dedication, his mystical performance art have encouraged a surprising number of more creative minds over the centuries.

I think this more than anything has endeared both computer games and webcomics to me. I had a few superhero comic books growing up, and also a Sega Genesis. I tried newspaper comics and hand-held games. But these more reliable media also proved forgettable. Once I discovered PC games in all their expansive, nerdy, moddable, ambitious insanity, I never looked back. Webcomics didn't just fall unwittingly into random babbling, they delighted in being diametrically opposed to the endless repetition and stagnation of sitcoms, movie sequels and newspaper unfunnies. Here at last were people willing to try something. Computers had been around for some years before they became accessible enough in the '80s for random schmoes to start programming cheesy castles with flashing paintjobs and waving banners, and lo, 'twas glorious! The internet had been around for decades before it became accessible enough in the '90s for millions of random jokers to start trolling each other on message boards, and however ludicrous that turn-of-the-millennium l33t subculture may have been, it was also a creative explosion to rival any other in human history.

Video games have suffered more than one slump during their history. The latest was arguably caused by the same broadband internet usage which made them more profitable. Accessibility quickly gives way to mass-market dilution, market manipulation through advertising and centralization and all the other evils of capitalism. However, as I said back in 2013 larger publishers' increased focus on the more exploitable and controllable consoles and mobile games may be a blessing in disguise, leaving PC games as the artsy fringe of the industry. True enough, the recent accomplishments of RPGs and simulation games hint at a revival.

Webcomics have entered their own dark age. Though the first crop was often of low quality, it could never be accused of being as dull as the more modern, toothless snowflake outpouring of politically correct "heroes" - forcibly pan-ethnic, vegan, puppy-cuddling, heterophobic, androphobic, Europhobic, neurophobic stuffed shirts. Webcomics have become (potentially) profitable, genres and marketing strategies defined, authors more focused on staking out a Patreon market share than coming up with anything interesting. So, what next?

Each novel mode of expression must outgrow its Betty Boop stage. Pretty as they are, illuminated manuscripts make for inconvenient reading and the public eventually craves more nuance than pastel muppets can provide. But to come out of the inevitable slump after a creative explosion, creators have to remember that initial excitement of flowery embossments and oscillating pixels, of expressing with one's hands, of simply being and doing in the matrix. Integrate it into the excitement of previous eras. Color television did eventually improve... after the color stopped being mandatory and became only a useful tool.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Discipline, Community, Action, Pride

(Working title: Third Wave Whateverism.)

"Enlisting held another attraction: it would give pattern to his life. He was beginning to feel the basic, gnawing tragedy of the wartime displaced person, the loss of roots. Man needs freedom, but  few men are so strong as to be happy with complete freedom. A man needs to be part of a group, with accepted and respected relationships. Some men join foreign legions for adventure; still more swear on a bit of paper in order to acquire a framework of duties and obligations, customs and taboos, a time to work and a time to loaf, a comrade to dispute with and a sergeant to hate - in short, to belong."

Robert A. Heinlein - Between Planets (1951)

"Freedom is slavery"
George Orwell - 1984


Not content with reporting from behind the Iron Curtain before its fall, Christopher Hitchens also visited Iraq, North Korea and Iran to round out his understanding of totalitarianism. Or maybe just to garner some hefty hazard pay. His 2001 article Visit to a Small Planet after visiting North Korea makes a damn fine read in its own right. His later speeches on the Axis of Evil regimes can easily glue you to your seat. From the 2009 speech:

"The North Korean state was founded in 1950-51, that's the year 1984 was published for the first time*. You think, could it be that someone handed a Korean translation of this to Kim Il-Sung and said 'Do you think we could make this fly?' and he paged through it, said 'I don't know. But we could sure give it the old college try.' Because that's what it looks as if they did."

On a completely unrelated topic, a Californian high school teacher was trying to explain to his sophomore history class in 1967 how the German masses could have gone along with the Nazi programs back in the 1930s, how so much wilful ignorance and collusion could have been generated. Having some semester time to burn, he decided to take a few days to demonstrate it instead. Before the week was out, he'd cobbled together his own incipient pubescent Third Reich out of sitting at attention, a special salute, slogan-chanting, rampant snitching and a newspaper ad for lumber (it makes more sense in context.) The Third Wave (as he decided to label it) instilled the same astonishing fervor in its subjects as the Milgram or Zimbardo experiments cited in every introductory Psychology course. Whether students had or had not initially realized the purpose of the exercise simply ceased to matter as they immersed themselves in the pageantry and statutory competence of mass obedience. Ron Jones rapidly found himself re-cast as a Tyler Durden heading his very own cabal of space monkeys.** And he was just as rapidly running out of bananas. The students themselves began eagerly spreading the Third Wave philosophy, recruiting and policing others.

Before nipping that disaster in the bud, Jones had dedicated each day of class to a new facet of totalitarianism. Monday was Discipline, and fostering a sense of accomplishment in students for following orders. Tuesday came Community through group recitation. Wednesday the students brought Action against each other, creating their own propaganda banners and ratting each other out for complaining or failing to obey orders. Thursday they Prided themselves in their waviness, subsuming individual personae in service to an invisible Leader. Friday burn Faulkner... wait, no, different story.

But, as Hitchens noted about North Korea, there are always people willing to take a cautionary tale as an instruction manual. Where I see in the Third Wave a fearsome warning against zombification, activists see a recipe for recruiting useful idiots while they're young, albeit with the order somewhat altered. After all, Jones started out in a position of authority as a teacher, but most movements must first offer a carrot before the stick of discipline.
First comes Pride, whether in the form of a gay old parade or simply a vague notion of specialness, an excuse for living divorced from any personal quality.
Second, Community complete with a slogan-chanting subreddit or other echo chamber.
Third, Action against all those "shitlords" and "neckbeards" out there who dare question the one true faith.
Finally, Discipline, adherence to ever more absolute dogma and inevitable purges as different leaders within the movement attempt to solidify their power-base, demanding ever more fanatical proselytism from the lower ranks to sate the Whateverist Inquisition. Jones himself cleverly staged his own Operation Hummingbird by exiling three students who had voiced reticence.

Though deliberately cribbed from the Nazi Party for didactic purposes, the Third Wave's tactics were no new invention and by no means fundamentally right-wing or left-wing. The organizations which adopt it come and go, but the memetic virus of group belonging continues to rampage unimpeded, as it has since the dawn of our social ape species. Why should social justice activism be any different? Why should hashtag mobs act any differently from illiterate Luddite peasants with pitchforks and torches? Every organization which seeks to enroll the masses (from major religions to commercial pyramid schemes to high school sports teams) tends to supply its underlings with gratuitous self-righteousness, a sense of belonging and agency and nominal targets for a two minutes hate. In other words they furnish the "duties and obligations, customs and taboos" for which youths like Heinlein's protagonist in Between Planets have joined foreign legions throughout history.

How demeaning this basic human slavishness strikes you will depend on the you. Heinlein himself was rather thoroughly a military man whose protagonists displayed a great deal of loyalty once they'd chosen a cause. Yet they also maintained a harsh awareness of their own motivations, and this seems critical. As disastrous as it can be to indulge our baser animal nature, keeping ourselves willfully ignorant of it only leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. Then, having succumbed, it becomes that much harder to admit such weakness, likelier to repeat history for failing to remember it.
Saturday. Strength through Ignorance.
Ignorance is strength.

"If our enactment of the Fascist mentality is complete not one of you will ever admit to being at this final Third Wave rally."

I have to wonder how many of today's snowflakes will admit to attending all their rallies twenty years from now, to rioting and yelling insults in the faces of visiting professors. Or how fervently today's neon-haired "non-binary" space monkeys will be chanting along to the latest right-wing charlatan in twenty years, desperate to protect their alimony checks, property values, two point five cars and two-kid garages against those decadent liberal foreigners. Isn't it amazing how many fish from the '70s bought bicycles in the '80s?

"And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp." - 1984

*Hitchens was off by a year or two on both counts, apparently, though that's easy for me to say sitting here with Wikipedia tabs open.

** His name is Robert Paulson. His name is Robert Paulson.
"Robert was big for his age and displayed very few academic skills. [...] Well, the Third Wave gave Robert a place in school. At least he was equal to everyone. He could do something. Take part. Be meaningful. That's just what Robert did. Late Wednesday afternoon I found Robert following me and asked what in the world was he doing. He smiled (I don't think I had ever seen him smile) and announced, "Mr. Jones I'm your bodyguard. I'm afraid something will happen to you. Can I do it Mr. Jones, please?""
And no, I can't find any reference confirming Palahniuk had read Jones' article. If accidental it's a funny coincidence. Unless, possibly, you happen to be Robert.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Between Planets

"I could be cannon food, destroyed a thousand times
 Reborn as fortune's child to judge another's crimes"

Sting - A Thousand Years

Book commentary. Spoilers implied.

I never did read the so-called "Heinlein juveniles" while part of their official target demographic. Coming at them in recent years as a somewhat jaded old nerd with two decades' worth of Fi mostly Sci under my belt constantly makes me wonder what sins an author must commit to be committed to the "young adult" purgatory. Between Planets was set as a fairly standard multi-globe-trotting planetary romance, sure, but then so were Dante Alighieri's paraversal acid trips and I'm not seeing many people rushing to label him a children's author. Aside from that issue?

The book seems aptly named. It comes across as an action-oriented interlude between the author's more thoughtful works. Venus rebels against tyrannical Terran hegemony. Cue the space marines and sentient space-dinosaurs. Yet even here Heinlein's subversive individualism inserted more social commentary than you'd find in any of the murder mysteries and spy thrillers maturely enjoyed by a mature public throughout the world. Some elements have, in the 70-80 intervening years, become action movie tropes - or were folklore staples long before that. A visit to a burlesque restaurant, a lovable curmudgeon getting his head shot off to motivate the hero against the villains, a respect for nature being rewarded, etc.

Other scenes would surprise anyone, like the hero's chilling realization after being informed of the death of his adult protector of "heart failure" under secret police interrogation, that any manner of death might ultimately be described thus. There's a bit of critical thinking to make any youth look twice at police reports and wartime propaganda. Or the open discussion of cyanide capsules versus torture. Or the boy's dogged resistance to the supposed good guys' insistence that he surrender the macguffin, demanding sufficient information to make up his own mind... rationally, rather than by divine heroic inspiration. Or the final conclusion that the best political system is not necessarily the Venusians or Terrans, but whichever lends individuals the greatest personal freedom.

Still other scenes amounted to typical Heinlein obsession with militarism, but even that was tempered by an incisive summation of tribalism and psychological dependence on authority... which I'll quote on Thursday.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Your Mom's a Genre

"Being an artist means dressing like an artist"

 Bug Martini

"Genre breathed its corpse-breath in her face, and she was lost. She was defiled. She might as well be dead."

Ursula K. Le Guin - On Serious Literature

Once upon a time, Werwolfe (a.k.a. the me) had to fill up a semester of university with one more elective. I considered digging into paleontology but I'd already filled years' worth of curriculum with sciencey-type stuff. I decided instead to elect my other interest, scribbling disjointed ramblings which no-none will ever  writing.

The Creative Writing class was packed with almost thirty students, eight to nine tenths of them female. If the validity of a liberal arts education (sans some sciences) would even for a moment match the sheer volume of tuition America spends trying to teach cheerleaders how to, like, expostusploit wordsy-type stuff, the entire continent would be awash with Dickinsons.* Then the instructor walked in.

Though that doesn't do her justice. I should say the middle-aged professor aristocratically strutted into the room along an invisible red carpet, straight-backed and patting down her lustrous regalia, giving her adoring public ample time to admire her... poncho. Yes, a poncho. She proceeded to run through the course introduction, warmly reassuring her students of finding themselves in an open space where they could freely express themselves and explore their interests and emotions in both long and short forms. Oh, but also that she would not under any circumstances be accepting genre fiction.

The rest of the hour descended into of some convoluted Alcoholics Annonymous string of introductions while sitting in a big circle. I can't remember much except for constantly biting my tongue while glancing sideways at Professor Poncho, trying not to scream:
"Genre fiction? No, YOU're a genre fiction!"

What doesn't constitute "genre" to one of her ilk? Chastely romantic tales of a handsome, rich young male bettering himself to suit his lady love? Coming of age stories? Tearjerkers about impoverished housewives or single mothers trying to make ends meet? War stories about plucky small-town lads reading their "Dear John" letters in the trenches? Feminist rape fantasies? Purple epics about overwrought starving lesbian abstract painters living in lofts above insouciant Bohemian coffee shops? Those aren't genres?

And look, I'll not besmirch the noble poncho on its own merits. I'm sure it's a fine garment for a variety of occasions. If a math or chemistry professor might wear one to lectures it would simply come off as quirky or more likely, unremarkable. Unfortunately we all know who wears ponchos north of Rio Grande, and it's not Clint Eastwood. We've known it ever since beatniks gave way to flower power. But biologists and chemists know better than to wear their trademark white coats everywhere they go, so you'd think the more socially conscious artsy liberals would stay away from flimsy turtlenecks, berets and tweed patches on leather blazers. Doing so betrays an undue concern for fabricating brand identity instead of substance. A woman greeting her new flock of impressionable young minds while wearing what amounted to ceremonial vestments saw fit to implicitly insult speculative fiction as somehow limited or artificial or superficial or who knows what. Never mind the personal fable of a refined artistic spirit delving the human condition while being misunderstood by the callow masses may itself be the most over-represented boilerplate in history.

So anyway, long story short: the geology building sat right next door, first-week registration changes are a thing and Paleontology turned out to be quite the fascinating... genre.

Unfortunately such a subspecies would rapidly out-reach its ecosystem. Biological science has determined that each specimen of D. emily requires an exclusive range of at least 5.7 hectares amply stocked with snakes, incipiently mossy tombstones and of course only the happiest of air. Their unedited waste manuscripts would inundate the surrounding countryside with such a wealth of bleak whimsy as would glut the saprophytic capacity of a mega-Gaimans' worth of goths.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Divinity: Original Sin 2

Spoilers follow for Divinity: Original Sin 2.

Five years ago I tried Divine Divinity and I have yet to finish its first act. Despite passable visuals, good music and slightly more freeform character advancement, it was still at its core an unimaginative, endlessly repetitive Diablo clone and nothing more.

A couple of years ago, news of Chris Avellone's marginal involvement in D:OS2 got me interested in the Divinity series' relaunch as party-based, story-based linear RPGs in the Baldur's Gate vein. My completionist side gave me no choice but to play the first D:OS beforehand. It boasted some refreshing game mechanics but was hampered by an utterly failed attempt at setting a dramatic roleplaying campaign in a childish, whimsical fairytale world. As for the sequel, it tries and largely fails to shore up its narrative side of things while saddling itself with a slew of half-implemented features.

Like Pillars of Eternity 2, D:OS2 decided to record full narration for all its descriptive text. Though at least the narrator they hired is less prone to breathy over-emoting than the "Ms. Piggy" impersonator whose endless chatter poisoned every god meeting interlude in PoE2, this pervasive intrusion still comes across as more immersion-breaking than immersive. On the more abstract game-playing angle, D:OS1 made a name for itself not least because it re-implemented puzzles and riddle-solving into a genre which sadly has largely lost its nerdy roots. Divining the correct sequences of pressure plates and colored symbols to open a series of doors, that sort of thing. Unfortunately it also came with a lot of moronic 1980s-style pixel-hunting. Predictably, that was the only puzzle-solving element which made it into the sequel, albeit with an added "glow" to newly-discovered items.

The writing did improve slightly... but only slightly. The blandly generic medieval setting is jazzed up considerably by the addition of elegant elvish... cannibalism... and snooty imperialist lizardfolk. D:OS2's basic plot is also quite intriguing if you stand back and take it all in, more so than even the overall better-written Pillars of Eternity. Conceptually, this could've been the best RPG to hit the virtual shelves, possibly ever. Unfortunately, all secrets are out by mid-game and individual scenes vary wildly in quality from engagingly fresh to droning monotone or perfunctory "here's a troll, kill it." Too much immersion was sacrificed for the misguided aim of shoehorning half-assed multiplayer into a single-player sub-genre. In terms of game mechanics, the interplay of ground AoEs was actually rendered less interesting by the addition of "cursed" surfaces which cannot be removed by normal means, and are less satisfyingly implemented than in the first game. Any remaining potential for tactical depth is ruined by nonsensically giving teleportation abilities to each and every single enemy you encounter, with the effect of homogenizing the class system rather than letting the player's personality determine a playstyle.

And that previous sentence encapsulates D:OS2's biggest problem.

No, I didn't shoot all those deputies. I'm only here to shoot the sheriff. Yet there they are, all conveniently laid out for me to loot. Sure, all similar games have random loot containers. Treasure chests are intrinsic to the D&D derivative experience. D:OS2 however introduces a "luck" passive ability which triggers upon opening crates and barrels, and places endless numbers of these all over the map. Meaning the way to get rich is not to deliberately undertake challenging endeavors, but to obsessively loot every single thing you find.

Not that money will do you much good. Vendor items are auto-leveled, meaning that aside from buying a couple pieces of vastly overpowered loot at the very beginning of each act (MMO fans should be familiar with all their loot becoming instantly obsolete with every new expansion) you'll find nothing worth investing in or saving for. I reached the last act with over a hundred thousand gold, found four or five items worth buying... and was still left with over a hundred thousand gold.

Like the first D:OS, you'll have access to an extensively coded and varied crafting system, but where you used to at least be able to craft a few decent items (or at least use crafting to improve your loot drops) it's now utterly useless. Aside from potions and a few rare skill books whose recipes are so counterintuitive you'll have to look them up online, the only items you can craft are vendorable trash loot. Also, since using potions or scrolls take up one or two of your exactly four action points per round, even consumables are not worth investing in. Either your enemies will one-shot you or your party's hydrosophist will juice you back up to full in a single round. Combine this with a level system so stringent that enemies even one level above you can easily teleport to and one-shot your back row casters, and an encounter two levels above you will usually wipe your whole party in the first round of combat. Meaning that at any particular time, you'll likely face only one or two tasks which you can realistically accomplish.

Top this off with a sad over-reliance on having enemies simply pop out of the ground at you, and D:OS2 resolves to an incredibly annoying first playthrough. You have no real chance to plan out your course of action beforehand. Just wander around the map looting hundreds of containers and trigger every encounter to see which are actually doable, then reload endlessly until you find the weak links in the leveling chain. While this overall pattern does result in a pleasingly elevated reliance on exploration compared to most single-player games, it kills every other game element.

Your crafting is irrelevant.
Your buying low and selling high is irrelevant.
Your tactical positioning is irrelevant, since all your enemies teleport every round or two.
Your choice of story progression is irrelevant.
Your scouting is irrelevant, since you can never tell beforehand how many adds will jump out of the ground.
About the only strategic or roleplaying choice the game offers you is ensuring you can cover all the different types of magic to clear certain ground or status effects. Aside from that, it plays all too much like an MMO-inspired gear grind.

I can certainly see why both the Original Sin games made such a stir. They're something fresh, and cRPG fans have long suffered seeing the promise of the genre betrayed, until the recent revival of Torment: Tides of Numenera and the like. But in all honesty I can't see Larian's efforts have entirely outgrown their initial 2002 offering of perfunctory "Action"RPG drudgery. It is not unreasonable to expect games to be gameable systems, driven by player choice and decision-making. OS2 pushes you into making a party of four high-constitution, teleporting, self-buffing battlemages (and, as usual in such games, summoning spells are stupidly overpowered) and it relies entirely too much on trial and error on a first run instead of prediction and careful resource management.

That being said, while your playing style is certainly cramped, you do get a pretty constant stream of roleplaying choices to make as you quest, choosing which NPCs to execute, recruit or ally with. Some characters like Meistr Siva come across as amusingly trenchant, and the basic story of the gods' true nature as "shepherds" is long overdue to replace traditional fantasy divinities. The lizards, dwarves and elves all receive interesting canonical revamping. Even the basic gameplay retains the opportunity to play around with status effect combos, something none of the product's competitors have offered so far but which we're likely to start seeing more of after these two proofs of concept. The implementation of different race relations in NPC reactions is impressively detailed and extensive. The physical / magic armor system lets you build some synergy among your party members. Overall, D:OS2 is a good, if slightly overhyped game. At the very least there's room to grow for a third installment.