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

Divergence

"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.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fight'ercraftcoffhers

Flying saucer grounded, eroded, foiled, heated to a boil as decreed by a cup of coffee cop a feels is reels flickering snickering at leet effetes dickering over leery fecundity identified invitation infectious fille-lately latte leisure reseals slave-vector hectored into one sector heaving hims at hims to hymns to indemnity inherent in beans steamed stamped pampered impervious heels to shills ills leavened nine loonies tuned to shack up shackled by haploid billiards rolling hemming hellions' dalliances at dance chances stand glancing rant lancing frat ensconcing scoundrel trouncing singled out lout scouted depreciated cup by cup punctured and tapped sap adapted to tables availed of philanthropical fables of stability led to the stables by the nose ring-a-ding-ding-a-ling ailing in the new saddle whacked beginning of scheming eyes intervening in your thoughts liquid fixed in err cup in half a seat by the park sniff a whiff of recalcitrant re-grated down to a peg snarking marketed disingenuous darkness at saucy dorks flitting digressed of a coffer's caress.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Wolf Among Us

"The word is out, you're doing wrong
Gonna lock you up before too long
Your lying eyes gonna tell you right
So listen up, don't make a fight
"

Michael Jackson - Bad



Well now... The Wolf Among Us proved adequately bearable...
And I do mean proved, as in it had something to prove. To me at least.

See, despite my fascination with the psychological symbolism of fictional wolves and lycanthropy, I'm sorely disappointed by how modern media treat the lupine-leaning. Usually, werewolves get relegated to second or third-act disposable mooks, bloated over-muscled props for the hero's rising action. The few times they're given more plot-centric attention, it's likely to center entirely on the physical or on lycanthropy as a disease instead of exploring the intrinsic misanthropy, seclusion and instability which lead a wer to be condemned as a wolfe.

I'm also leery of adaptations, not least because Hollywood has conditioned all of us over the past century to expect the worst whenever a movie studio lays claim to a book title. Fundamentally, trying to mangle, deface and torture a concept from one medium into another inevitably raises my hackles as an act of vandalism. So I'm not inclined to weep for the demise of Telltale Games, a company dedicated to knock-offs, spin-offs, rip-offs and jack-offs. When I learned the story here was adapted as prequel to a comic book already adapting old fables, to me it just sounded doubly knocked off.

In the interest of fairness, I'll magnanimously admit I may not have been entirely right in entirely dismissing the entirety of the conceptual background for The Wolf Among Us. Mostly. Its biggest flaw is attempting to drag adventure games, a genre defined by careful sleuthing and dreamy exploration, into the fast-paced twitch-friendly "action" direction of anything being watered down for a larger (read: dumber) audience. Most of the idiotic quick-time button mashing events I badmouthed in my previous post are bad enough, but did one of them really need to be a high-speed car chase? Did chasing cars as a giant dog-man really enrich the urban fantasy gameplay experience there? Does it even fit the game's overall precept of upholding the masquerade? Was that the best use of development time and funding? Am I asking rhetorical questions?

Moreover, the variable leeway in queuing the user's commands combined with obsessively interspersing mini-cutscenes with actual playable content result in some unnecessary confusion as to when you do or do not have control of your character. Along with some poorly timed dialogues, this had me missing quite a few of my cues. Even more, too many scenes end automatically by triggering a specific environment or NPC interaction instead of allowing the player to choose when to exit. I have no idea whether I missed any actual clues this way or just flavor text, but either way I felt cheated every time I accidentally triggered a cutscene before I'd had a full look about me.

I can't speak as to the game's adherence to the comics on which it's based, but I will say that in amplifying the classic tropes of folklore to modern sensibilities, it falls into our all too familiar misandrist presumptions. Except for one token villainess (positioned as hypercompetent second-in-command and not the ultimate evil, natch) the female characters are all angels, saints, radiant beauties or martyrs just trying to get by. The men are all fat, ugly, slovenly, lying and cruel deadbeats, literal toads and pigs, crooks, drunks, mafiosi, thugs - or craven perverts or lurking stalkers or looming control freaks just waiting to ensnare and murderize those poor innocent women to slake their evil, unnatural masculine lusts. (Muahahahahaaah! *twirls moustache*) Though the ending hints this primitive-minded dichotomy might not have been as absolute as it seemed, that does little to change the overall pattern. All of your suspects are male.


On the other hand, that image brings us to some of the game's good points: "didn't say anything" is a valid dialogue choice, and pet theories are split fairly evenly. This fits both thematically into the story's film noir aesthetic and practically into patiently gathering clues and reserving judgment. While having to fit into the comics' canon obviously limited end results, your build-up of dialogue choices does yield a personalized playthrough to a greater extent than even most RPGs, much less the more linear adventure genre. As a whodunit, the plot is more complex and ambiguous than one would ever expect from a computer game. Prepare to be out-sleuthed.

Its success is carried more through execution than concept. I can bitch all I want about the mechanics post-facto but once you fire it up The Wolf Among Us is accessible, engaging and immersive. Most characters digress from their main aesthetic at some point so as not to seem too flat. Its visuals are both detailed and fluid, its aural accompaniment is evocative enough for its purposes, and the voice actors really outdid themselves. Especially Bigby. The cynical, hard-boiled film noir detective is one of the few modern roles which mesh well with the old-timey misanthropic hermit on the edge of town, rumored to be not entirely human. Bigby's lines sound appropriately put upon, fed up, run down and edgy not only in their subject matter but their tone, constantly on the edge of lashing out. Both writing and voice nailed the attitude. Though far from ideal, stomping around as Bigby yielded a much more satisfactory portrayal of wolfing out than playing a shapeshifting druid in a DnD adaptation or Skyrim's degradation of lycanthropy to pack-mule status.

Call me biased, but at least for the sake of gettin' hairy, in the end I can't dislike this game.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Quick-Time Skinner Box

"They mailed me my part this morning. I sent in some boxtops. They write the script with one part missing. It's a new idea. The home-maker, that's me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines: Here, for instance, the man says, `What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?' And he looks at me sitting here centre stage, see? And I say, I say --" She paused and ran her finger under a line in the script. " `I think that's fine!' And then they go on with the play until he says, `Do you agree to that, Helen!' and I say, `I sure do!' Isn't that fun, Guy?"

Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451

______________________________________


I recently played the adventure game The Wolf Among Us. While the game itself will be worth its own separate post, it also served as my first practical experience of so-called 'quick-time events' or action sequences which prompt the player to mash a certain button within a short time-frame.


Long story short: I hate 'em.

Not that their growing popularity surprises me much. Adventure games, whether text-based or the 2D point-and-click interactive, exploratory detective stories we all err, no, most of us some of us still know and love are a forty-year-old genre, possibly the oldest in computer gaming. Even if they don't go the full 'action' route, the few surviving examples struggle to stay fresh by incorporating some kind of extra gimmick like controlling multiple characters, a gratuitous gunfight here and there, etc.

Last year I referenced a statement by Aristotle as to the importance of decision-making to illustrate a fundamental distinction between good and bad game design... or rather between the design of games and non-games. It is not enough for the player to re-act voluntarily to on-screen stimuli. A good game induces the player to act, to choose between different courses of action - best exemplified by the various strategy genres. Even more linear styles like adventure games at least rely on the player formulating a logical* sequence of events in order to advance the plot.

Quick-time events carry none of that weight. They're pure, brainless twitch, to a greater extent even than what normally passes for twitch-gaming. In a first-person shooter, as dumbed down as they are, the player would at least need the spatial and situational awareness to time a jump over that oncoming van. QTEs instead present you with the most shamefully simplistic psychological conditioning. There is a button. The button makes good things happen. Bad things happen if you do not press the button.

Press.
The.
Button!

Even laboratory pigeons would scoff at the lack of intellectual involvement there.


_______________________

* For at times a very loose definition of 'logical'  - yes, I'm aware of how nonsensical adventure game puzzles can get.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Hobo Grapes

Hold it. Before I start, a word of stylistic caution to the creator of this video. For a man whose visage already would not seem out of place in Game of Thrones, it may be a bit much to lock eyes with the camera and deliver edicts in an "evil squire" tone alongside a blood-red cartouche reading
Murder Hobos (!)

Somewhere, a panicked grandmother is dialing the police.

Anyhoo...
Aside from my amusement at world-of-the-game webcomics like The Order of the Stick and my appreciation of D&D cRPG adaptations, I've had no truck with tabletop role-playing games. However, as someone to whom gaming implies a darkened room, Mountain Dew, eye strain and not speaking through an entire weekend, I've nonetheless nursed a guilty fascination with the rites and rituals of communal roleplaying. Just how do the two experiences diverge?

After giving in to my murder-hobo nature earlier this year by playing through Arcanum as a "fugly rageaholic" half-ogre bombardier, I got curious about how tabletop gamers view the issue of randomly wandering the land stabbing things. Sure enough, that video on the How to be a Great Game Master channel offers a list of ten ways to nip such behavior in the pew-pew. Two of them caught my attention.

His last rule advises letting players buy or build a home and populate it with NPC servants, and I could not agree more. First off, it gives players at least one corner of the world they probably won't want to destroy. (Completely.) Second, the act of constructing and populating such a place makes one actively consider the impact of various gaming styles. What kind of imprint would my chaotic neutral transhumanism leave upon the landscape? Third, even if setting up a murder-lair doesn't eliminate murder-hoboing, the possible link between the two can improve it. Being constantly on the lookout for troll skulls, bloody rags, torture tools, witches' heads and jars of butterflies to decorate my forge-lit basement can make me consider each act of murder or plunder more carefully. It expands upon the aesthetic (and not just profiteering) aspect of draconian butchery.

However, he also advises GMs not to fear sending overpowered NPCs against players to punish bad behavior, and here the realms of table and desk-top could not be farther apart. By 2004 even Blizzard Entertainment, some of the most skillful sleazebags when it comes to lowering their customers' expectations, admitted what a terrible idea it is for any designer to give raid bosses infinite hit points, to deny players a fair chance at winning a task set before them. Fairness or parity being an ethical principle so universal that most higher mammals can grasp it intuitively, promoting an unfair situation can only ever serve to highlight a better option. A flesh and blood GM can be negotiated with - in fact the whole point of setting your players up for a fall would be to make them seek other options, to gradually compromise toward some sort of better alternative than an obviously nonsensical fight. But what if there's no-one to throw the offensive cucumber back at? No-one to schmooze for grapes? In a video game, the lack of such personal recourse leaves the player to contend with the disembodied will of the (game) universe. When the entire universe is against you, it either prompts cheating (if even one NPC gets god mode then I deserve it too) or capitulation which is to say uninstalling, seeking a better option in a better game.

Now, this means that:
1) GMing a tabletop game apparently gives you license to be even more of an asshole toward your players than people are on the internet.
2) The real universe is a video game which everyone's constantly trying to turn into a pen and paper game. What is religion but an attempt to fabricate a game-master in the sky with whom to negotiate a better plot thread than the certain doom we all face? Of course, what we really should be doing is seeking cheat codes.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Porquoi t'es pas un avorton?

"Dis, maman
Porquoi je suis pas un garçon?"

Mylène Farmer - Sans Contrefaçon


While it's certainly possible to be called "an abortion" or "you abortion" in English, the phrase is slightly too imprecise for use as an insult. The French, in their inimitable flamboyance, have suffixed it into the pithier "avorton" with a specific focus on physical imperfection or insufficiency. An avorton is a runt - wimpy, shrimpy, dinky, spineless, gutless, etc. with ugliness an implied bonus. The term is masculine. The concept itself is masculine or rather anti-masculine, the threat of existential negation by personal insufficiency.

On a completely unrelated topic, a few days ago I was listening to an interview between famous skeptics Carol Tavris and Michael Shermer about Shermer's book on immortality in all its superstitious, psychological and Utopian interpretations. Twenty-two minutes into it, Tavris remarks with some consternation:
"all of these techno-people busily figuring out how we can live forever, either by body or by our brains, I am struck by one extraordinary thing: they are, all, men! They are, all... men! [...] It's almost enough to think of the Simone de Beauvoir observation that women don't worry about the identity of being women - they are women, but men are always insecure about masculinity. [...] it may be that the men, male scientists who are busy trying to become immortal... maybe there just aren't enough women in their professions yet to get there, and they will one day be just the same as the men"

On another completely unrelated topic, I was recently reminded of the late medieval author Christine de Pizan and her politically convenient work the City of Ladies in which she counters misogynistic comments by providing lists of 150-odd virtuous women - enough to populate a city. Half of her examples seem either mythical or mythologized, but that was just par for the course for anything written in 1400.

Today is the 8th of March, International Women's Day, and four of Wikipedia's five front page pictures promote women. It's become a ritual as reliable as church sacraments over the past few decades to flip through history books or pop culture and randomly canonize some woman or another as a trailblazing martyr for double-x damsels everywhere. We're constantly browbeaten with two prima facie dictates:
1) Women are forbidden access to Activity X by their evil patriarchal overlords
2) Here's a heroic woman who did Activity X against all odds! ... And another one! ... And another one! ... And another one...

Now, either both of those statements are true (as we've been taught all our lives) in which case the cognitive dissonance might make a few heads explode, or our culture has vastly over-stated both cases. And, given her expertise in cognitive dissonance, it's a bit sad to see Tavris fail to reconcile her own hypotheses. If women really aren't tilting at the immortality windmill, could it be due at least in part to their assurance that the insecure men-folk are on the case? After all, if a cure for mortality is discovered at some point, it's hard to imagine it could only be administered via testicular massage. Until then, it's a high-risk, low-payoff proposition. Why strain yourself?

Wanna have some more fun with cognitive dissonance? All our lives we've been indoctrinated into the moral panic over a lack of female education, a crime for which all of us patriarchal pigs surely must suffer. However, Americans aged forty or younger have also lived all their lives in a society of female-dominated universities. More recently this includes the sciences, where you can sit through class after class of female professors standing in front of majority female classes, browbeating their male students over the implicit crime against the women who outnumber them. And yes, that ratio flips when you get to graduate school, because all those female students nod along through four years of female-only scholarships, grab their diplomas then move on to lucrative, hard-working but low-pressure careers as nurses, dieticians, physical therapists and pharmacists. Meanwhile, it's the "always insecure" men who stick through six more years of low-yield doctoral work, pinning all their self-worth, all their hopes for wealth and glory, on being the next Jonas Salk. And while we bemoan all the young women who opt out of continuing their preferentially-subsidized studies, what's our response to the much higher number of men who were denied that chance four years earlier by adverse admissions, funding and disciplinary policies? Mockery? Scorn? At best.

Feminists' own obsession with dredging up every female name in history should stand as evidence against their central claim of male domination. Or at the very least that claim should never be spoken in the same breath as actual forms of oppression, most of which are defined by inter-tribal competition. However sparse the number of female painters and merchants throughout history, it still vastly outweighs the proportion of Nazi Jews or Catholic Tsars. And yet still, every single time we hear feminists produce yet another symbol of triumphant femininity in the form of an actress or poet or chicken polisher, as though from a magician's hat complete with multimedia flourishes, we feel obligated to ooohh and aaahh as though illuminated by the discovery of such beasts as the elusive ovaried aquarellist. Most of the time when shown yet another Sappho, Agrippina or Gentilleschi, we must concede that, sure, they're decent... but "decent" doesn't usually get your name in the history books - luck most often does, being in the right place at the right time, and more rarely true game-changing greatness. Still, these women did well enough for themselves. Christine de Pizan wrote not only in defense of women's honor but on matters of manners, ritual and politics. Their works and reputations were even appreciated enough to be preserved through the centuries and passed down to us. How many of their male contemporaries of equal artistic, diplomatic or intellectual level could say the same, lost in the shuffle of apprentices and collaborators?

Or here's a blasphemous thought: maybe women are less likely to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of the superlative not because they're prevented from doing so but because they don't have to. They have the option, when faced with most any problem, of simply throwing the nearest available male at it, and most are quite comfortable in that role. How many professional women's lives have read something like the good lady de Pizan's? "Husband died of the plague" and "father had died the year before" so "was left to support her mother and her children." Leaf through a few biographies of ancient men, from kings to poets and ship's navigators, and see how many of them were set on their careers because 'his mother and wife both died so he had to fend for himself' - how many men could take up footbinding to advertise their uselessness as a virtue? Based on what rational arguments do we assume that just by throwing enough money at them, we can turn a population of soap-opera fans into Mary Shelley? Why do we assume that female complacency is imposed upon them by some patriarchal authority and is not simply a continuing vision of our simian ancestors dozing on a tree branch in the afternoon sun, every bit as intrinsic as the murderous rages of male baboons?

Just as the minority of intelligent men must constantly contend with the reality that most representatives of our gender amount to grunting, obnoxious blowhards like Al Bundy, the minority of intelligent women must at some point admit their fellows are nothing more than whining, obnoxious, primped-up lumps on a couch like Peg Bundy. If three generations' worth of institutionalized favoritism have not turned hundreds of millions of women into Marie Curie, maybe we should just admit it won't happen. Men struggle to prove themselves to secure resources and women are only too happy to push their mates out the door... for their own benefit. Return with your shield or on your shield. Return either with the cure for mortality or with an alimony check.

Not enough women in leadership positions? Not enough women in high-profile jobs? Well how are they penalized if they're not? The carrot they can get second-hand from any man dumb enough to sign a marriage certificate, and there is no stick. An unimpressive man gets derided and ostracized as a runt, a loser, a deadbeat, a "scrub" an "avorton" unworthy even of life, a waste of womb-space. What similar penalties would modern society institute against any women who fail to measure up to the standards of an alpha female? What's more, feminists have been all too eager to feed this male fear of female disapproval, of being declared an insufficient non-person, at every opportunity. There is indeed at least one modern social movement which has adopted "abortion" as a direct interpersonal insult in the English language:

"The male is a biological accident: the y(male) gene is an incomplete x(female) gene, that is, has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion.... To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples."
Valerie Solanas - The S.C.U.M. Manifesto

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Gentacle Is Life

"Hunter of the shadows is rising
Immortal
In madness you dwell"

Metallica - The Thing That Should Not Be


Among its multitudinous benefits, a sturdy stock of biological trivia can let you guess exactly what critter's photos a visual artist was using as reference when designing this or that monster. Take the kraken's tentacles from D:OS2 for instance:

If that's not based on Schistosoma, I'll be a roundworm's uncle. But of course schistosomes aren't actually split; those two bodies really are two bodies... copulating. Which can only mean one thing for Original Carnal Sin's kraken: those aren't tentacles. They're gentacles!

It sets me a-thinkerin' as to why we don't see any Yivo-like invasions in computer games. Think of it as the logical extreme of Shadow of the Colossus: an entire game fought against a single contiguous entity. No separate kaiju, no heralds of its coming, no autonomous parasites or babies sloughing off it like in Cloverfield, no armies of mooks. Just a single physical being capable of eventually consuming the planet (in a literal sense) or mating with its tectonic plates, unless you, brave and handsome customer, can push back its incursion.

It need not be tentacular either. Tentacle monsters have been done to death. Amorphous blobs more so. I'm thinking something with a sea urchin aesthetic, skewering the landscape with its perfectly radiating rectilinearity, each spine upon contacting a surface setting off an entire new radial burst of spines which consume any matter at the point of impact to grow. Don't make it a standard evil black and red either, too cliche. Give it a soothing soft-toned aesthetic. You can even pad its spines with soft, fuzzy, felt-like surface textures.

As for what kind of game this would be, probably not an FPS or RTS given the absence of enemies to shoot. I'm thinking city simulator or base-building game. Let the player try to adapt to having the entire environment subsumed into the alien's body, struggling to dodge or divert new spines. Or maybe harvest the matter in front of the growing spines before they can contact and consume it? In fact, make it very slow-motion. Have entire generations of humans growing in the shadow of ever-encroaching alien metabolic takeover, until humanity itself ends up living atop a new planet consisting of a single alien space-urchin. In fact, make that the over-arching plot: technological advancement should eventually switch from harvesting ever-dwindling traditional resources like lumber, stone, petroleum, crops, etc. - to learning how to live off of the alien's metabolic waste or squamous sheddings.

That sounds like a fun interactive experience. Secure the survival of post-human, post-Terran intelligence by transforming humanity into a race of epithelium-farming lice.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Spellforce 3

"I can't stop, y'all
Tock-tick y'all
And if you think that you're slick

You'll catch a brick y'all
[...]
Well, on and on and on and on
I can't stop, y'all, 'till' the early morn'"

Beastie Boys - Pass the Mic



If it weren't for my completionism, I'd never have finished this campaign. Nordic Games has made a name for itself by buying a name for itself, snatching up any brand name that happens to land in the bargain bin, most notably gobbling up the detritus of detritus-prone THQ. Still, in between dumpster-diving for intellectual properties they've apparently managed to promote a few successful products like Darksiders or ELEX, though it's hard to find anything by them not labelled an idiot-friendly "action" degradation of some worthier concept. Thus, so far I haven't really taken an interest. The last thing the PC game market needs is another knockoff-factory like Blizzard Entertainment. Still, I decided to snatch up the first Darksiders thingamajig and the Real-Time Strategy / Role-Playing Game hybrid Spellforce 3 during G.O.G.'s winter sale.

Mixing RTS with role-playing, much like mixing it with first-person combat, has never entirely taken off as a concept, though in this case the failure's rather more warranted. The fiddly bits of RTS and RPG simply interfere with each other. FPS mandates no fiddly bits. Warcraft 3 made quite a splash, as does anything fed by Blizzard's hype machine, but that's as far as it went. Even back then, I and others were quick to point out that the concept of upgradeable heroes in a strategy game was nothing new. "Heroes of" Might and Magic had already been doing that for a decade... in a turn-based system where it probably belongs. There's simply no time to role-play through dialogue trees, slot items and mind your alignment while micromanaging a battlefield. Even the Baldur's Icewind Torment lineage of RPGs depends on stop-motion to let you manage your party.

So as an RPG campaign, Spellforce 3 is shallow but somewhat engaging.


You get to choose three possible skill trees out of six (leadership is standard for your main character) and specialize in one of them late in the game, even if it actually boils down to selecting just three skills for your hotkeys. You're obviously intended to bank on 2-hit combos (like my black magic exploding targets I've arrowed with a bleeding DoT effect.) No thieving or dialogue skills, but at least there's also no convenient all-purpose dump stat like charisma.

Aesthetically, this is a standard linear "sword and sorcery" tale complete with standard Tolkien fantasy races, standard inescapable medieval stasis, standard ancient ruins of godlike Atlantean civilizations and lots of standard fireball-flinging. That said, it's well enough executed in the tradition of Moorcock or Howard. The characters and setting are more believable and consistent than most RPG tropes, and moral choices (though few and far between) are rather well balanced instead of simplistic benevolence or malevolence - to the point that I willingly drove away an otherwise highly sympathetic and useful companion for breaking my own personal taboo against mind control. The graphics mostly stick to reasonably-proportioned figures and spaces; the soundtrack is at times pleasingly minimalist, but mostly banal, generic heroic music fitting the setting's whole Conan-ish vibe.

While the game's writing is perfectly competent and even occasionally poetic, it also features some outright bizarre wording. For instance, what the fiddlesticks is with everyone refusing to say "hell" despite swearing with appropriate gusto in other ways? In a setting full of casual mass torture, head-exploding iron hoods, eyes being gouged out, gang-rapes, genocides and lurid descriptions of a plague rather aptly termed the Bloodburn, why are all the characters constantly breaking out into campy 1970s cartoon cussin'? I'm getting whiplash hearing the words "Help me for Heck's sake!" from Uram the Demonologist. And, while the voice acting is shockingly nuanced and professional for such a relatively small company (Gor, Yria, etc. and even lessers like Whateley) the script's constant abuse of British slang (everything's "sod" this and "bleeding" that) might have sounded less jarring if it hadn't extended to the more yankee-doodly voices.

But if it's shallow as an RPG, Spellforce 3 can be outright infuriating as an RTS.


The blue territory on the right's mine, with each cluster of resources representing a base. The enemy starts out in the top left. Can you guess which of my bases will be getting attacked? The answer is all of them, all at once. In fact that red ping in the bottom right corner represents a single enemy scout killing my workers.

Back when I was playing The Lord of the Rings Online, my guild had come up with a term for the common group activity of having to alternate defending three different entrances to a base: windshield wiper instances. Spellforce 3 is not a strategy game. It is a windshield-wiping game. The AI constantly sends attacks to your every forward base, occasionally also slipping past your lines to attack undefended resource buildings or workers. Maps are almost devoid of defensible positions. The entire challenge of the game consists of running from one base to another in time to thin out the number of attackers. In itself, multitasking is a valid virtue, but not when it's the only virtue. Spam is not strategy.

As with other recent games like Galactic Civilizations 3, static defenses are either absent or laughably weak, which means you cannot take your eyes off any forward position for even a second, and unit automation seems to have been deliberately crippled to deny you even the possibility of stationing guards.


"Dude, stop chasing!" - is a constant refrain in multiplayer team games, especially MOBAs like League of Legends. Don't be so eager to chase down a potential kill that you get baited into traps. Your units in Spellforce 3 are programmed to do exactly that. They're given a ludicrous aggro radius and often won't leash back to wherever you sent them until they've been baited to over a screen away. The AI will constantly regroup its forces, take a few potshots, back off, regroup, back off, in order to split off your units as it's doing to mine in the screenshot above. Which, just like testing your defenses and hitting weak points, would be wonderful example of algorithmic adaptation if the player wasn't deliberately hobbled to magnify its effectiveness.

Failing simply because I'm getting set up to fail doesn't make for a very satisfying playthrough. And unfortunately, abusing such gimmicks is the only thing the AI can do well. It doesn't yield strategically deep gameplay. In fact you can even use its obsession with constantly tagging every single one of your bases against it: keep reclaiming one particular forward base (for free) and leave it defenseless, thereby letting the AI waste its time rushing over to destroy it every single time. This is a pure button-mashing game, and it's not aided by the fact that all four of your heroes have two or three short-cooldown commands each to constantly mash. Hitting four two-skill combos every five seconds while also spamming move orders to keep your horde of Leeroys from rushing to their deaths gets old by the end of the first "strategy" mission. Even more infuriatingly, scripted events keep adding and subtracting heroes from your group for storytelling purposes, thereby altering the keys you need to spam.


Even weirder, the campaign shoots itself in the foot when it comes to player choice. I wanted to play the elves and bought every single elvish upgrade I could afford, only to discover most of the last few missions railroad you into playing whatever's on the map. Also, after painstakingly building up my four-character dream-team of Uram, Undergast and Gor, I found those same missions force me to replace one of them with a designated plot-centric NPC I couldn't give a rat's ass about. Also, for a game with such large-scale battles, a lot more attention should have been paid to pathing, collision and line of sight issues. I've lost track of how many times my heroes have ground-targeted rooftops that aren't even considered playable terrain, or run into the enemy force trying to point-blank range a sniper skill.

"We're being attacked!" Spellforce 3 does a lot right. "We're being attacked!" For instance, units are given very decisive 50% damage resistances "We're being attacked!" hero combos can be devastatingly powerful is used right "We're being attacked!" but can't completely win out against rank-and-file troops "We're being attacked!" each race has its distinctive pace of development "We're being attacked!" attrition can be managed in more than one way "We're being attacked!" some missions offer strategic solutions beyond merely exterminating enemies "We're being attacked!" etc. "We're being attacked!" Unfortunately "We're being attacked!" this otherwise interesting game's good points "We're being attacked!" tend to be overshadowed "We're being attacked!" by the constant spam of "We're being attacked!"

It's a worthy attempt at trying to reconcile single-player with multiplayer and RTS with RPG, but I'll have to go into the difficulties of reconciling these notions some other time.




_______________________________________
P.S.: Some other time.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Got 'er right in the Gucci

The university at which I currently reside (like most universities) has made a big point of constantly trumpeting its adherence to the feminist dogma of original male sin. A few years ago they started spamming the entire campus with e-mails announcing every time a sexual assault was reported. Now, me, I'd rather be notified every time some drunken jock slaps a nerd around or a car leaving a sorority party knocks over a traffic sign, but the amount of spam that would generate might short out the IT department.

At first the e-mails tried to give little lurid tidbits to shock and awe their audience at the heinousness of male sexuality. Gradually, as they grew less frequent they also grew more vague, which had the odd effect of being notified that something indeterminate happened to an indeterminate female in some indeterminate location at some indeterminate time and therefore YOU SHOULD ALL BE ASHAMED YOU FILTHY PATRIARCHAL PIGS!!!

Now the rape-spam seems to have petered off altogether. Maybe events have simply ceased to occur and the campus has gone from heathen rape-ferno to castration paradise in just a couple of years. Maybe, on the other hand, even feminists eventually summoned up the minimal brainpower to see the type of reports the program was generating simply lacked the "oomph" of their preferred rape fantasies. As the confidence artists they are, they realized they were inadvertently tipping their hand. One example that I can remember:

A young woman gets accosted by several men who grab her purse and shout catcalls at her. She pepper-sprays one of them, at which point the action really ramps up. You ready for it? Are you cringing in anticipation? They give her purse back and run away.

...
The end. No, really.

Now, ladies, let me start by noting that no matter how stylish, your purse is not an erogenous zone!
But more importantly, if I as a middle-aged straight white male (a.k.a. The Devil) were to mace one of a group of petty thugs who'd just mugged me and were calling me a pussy bitch, do you think I'd get my wallet back? For a man, fighting back against a mugging puts you on a shortcut past the operating room to the morgue. They would've beaten my face in until my bones were liquefied. This isn't the story of an assault, much less a sexual one. It's the story of how much less susceptible to violence women already are and always have been.

And this is just one of the many ways in which feminists have padded and outright fabricated all of their paranoid "statistics" over the past half a century, in order to glorify women and demonize men. We don't believe them because of the value of their evidence. We believe them because we're both naturally inclined and have been conditioned all our lives, for generations now, to hate men and favor women.