Sunday, September 16, 2018

Heroes of the Storm

I loathe Blizzard Entertainment.

Wait, that's not how this story starts. That comes later.
This story starts with Starcraft 1 back in the late '90s and the Aeon of Strife map. I never played it. I dimly remember taking a passing glance and deciding it bastardized the basic Real-Time Strategy routine too badly, plus I saw no point in playing one of the greatest PvP games of its time as PvE.

Half a decade later when "Aeon of Strife" became an entire category of player-modded PvP maps in Warcraft 3, the lack of "S" in RTS was already getting old and I'd grown more willing to branch out. A myriad lane-pushing maps filled the custom game list with experiments on hero advancement, ability cobbling, minion farming, item advancement, control points, etc. Good times were had. Horizons were expanded.

(Somewhere in between here, Demigod managed to both provide the most promising incarnation of the AoS concept and self-immolate by dragging its feet in the balance and infrastructure departments.)

When League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth finally became the first viable commercial models of AoS design, they did so by narrowing their focus down to one of the least creative WC3 AoS maps, Defense of the Ancients. Later games like Smite, Prime World, Paragon, Sins of a Dark Age, etc. slavishly copycatted most of DotA's "features" from item recipes to the exactly five (5) players per team and its one (1) map with its three (3) lanes and jungle camps. Never mind that everything in DotA from the four skill buttons to the item upgrading to the five player limit to jungle camps were all artifacts of Warcraft 3's game mechanics and had nothing to do with the lane-pushing concept.

Each of them failed in various glaring ways but usually added something. Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's own re-iteration of DotA, does what Blizzard has done best for three decades running. It adds absolutely nothing, removes most of its competitors' more interesting features and steals as many of the more marketable ideas as it can while putting its own glossy spin on it. Just as they copycatted Warhammer and dumbed it down to rebrand it as Warcraft, as they dumbed down cRPGs into "Action"RPGs for Diablo, as they dumbed down Elric of Melnibone into Arthas, dumbed down TF2 into Overwatch, as they dumbed down MMOs into World of Warcraft's endless "kill ten rats" grindfest, they've dumbed down the potential of WC3's old AoS gamut, pared off anything which might require customers to think and regurgitated something that sells.

I would much rather be playing Demigod or Gigantic. Both went bankrupt, in keeping with the rather striking attrition rate for so-called "MOBA"s. Luckily, Blizzard incorporated quite a bit of other titles' point control, timed objectives, frontline health/mana regen, alternate "ultimates" and so forth, cannibalizing its victims. It even took the unprecedented measure of eliminating individual player level-grinding, the most important step toward making such games truly team-oriented - a necessary plunge which not even Demigod dared take. Also, given their obscene wealth, they've afforded themselves quite a bit of development time for creating variations on the 2-3 lane pushing theme.

They've also refrained from pushing microtransactions as aggressively as some others. Like Valve's DotA2, Heroes is more of a cross-promotion platform than a product in its own right, an easily accessible form of interactive advertisement targeted to the penniless young dregs of various societies. Mousing over each playable character lets you know in which other Blizzard game that character originated, just in case you might want to... y'know... take a look? Take a hint? Hint-hint?

Sure, there's no base building, no manipulating minion waves, no character customization beyond transient skill choices each match, no terrain manipulation, nothing whatsoever which might require planning and scare off Blizzard's bulk clientele of retarded teen scum. But what is there works. It has smoother matchmaking, slightly fewer griefers and trolls, better balance, more maps and less grinding than other MOBAs.

As much as I hate Blizzard for their constant destruction of creativity in the ideas they copycat, their neverending race for the lowest common denominator, I hate them even more for making it work. The world would be a much better place if parasitic hacks like them wound up starving to death in the gutter.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

It's totally meta!

If you live in Australia or like to keep up with biology news, you've probably heard of Tasmanian devils being driven to near-extinction - and for once it's not humans' fault! It's a thrilling tale of bad behavior, gruesome disfigurement and survival of the luckiest.

If you've gone to vet school you might also have heard of a certain canine "social" disease which defies normal epidemiology, lacking any non-canine infectious agent. What do the two have in common?

There's a certain class of disease almost certain to develop in any individual who lives long enough, by a simple accumulation of DNA errors as our cells divide. Being so similar to its host it proves devilishly hard to treat, it tends to grow systemic if untreated and if it reaches that stage it's most often fatal despite the best efforts of modern medicine. The best thing that can be said about cancer is that it's not contagious.

While it may be old news to the experts, here's a dose of nightmare fuel for the rest of us: there is such a thing as infectious cancer. Even if the phenomenon hasn't appeared in humans just yet, Tasmanian devils seem to be the third documented mammalian case, so given the universe runs on Murphy's Law, let's take bets:
Will we develop our own human-derived transmissible tumors or will our species manage to somehow pick up some other mammal's cancer as a zoonosis? Wouldn't you like to be able to claim honestly to have a little devil inside you?

Either way, look at that face.
Sweet dreams.

Monday, September 10, 2018

"Let Us Leave Philosophy to the Physicists"

"If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damn full of 'facts' they feel stuffed but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy."

Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

More than even other Science Fiction classics, Fahrenheit 451 has proven shamefully prophetic in its portrayal of future (read: current) American society, and down through gradients of decreasing similarity, worldwide modern culture as a whole. While literally (pun intended) burning books never caught on (a few fundies aside) before megabauds killed the cellulose star, Bradbury's vision of the West's gradual cultural suicide and our ever-constricting -
- hey, look at the kitty! -
- attention spans has only grown truer with every decade. If you scoff at Mrs. Montag playing Mad Libs with her imaginary "family" in the wall and refusing to even listen to anything other than ever more digested reader's digest digest digests, then what do you think you're doing on Facebook and Twitter?

But the quote above seems to miss its mark. Perhaps after nearly seventy years even Bradbury's prescience is beginning to wear thin and incongruities begin to appear in the Seldon Plan. It certainly held true up to the nineties and slightly after Y2K. Politicians (and all public figures) struggled to out-bland each other and the public could not be less interested in the res publica. Generation Snowflake, on the other hand, could not be more politically involved. In their nu-Victorian safe space wonderland, even uncrossing your legs on the subway or turning down the air conditioning is a political action. They all plan to rule the world with their special interest sociology degrees.

Bradbury seems to have failed to predict the degradation of the humanities and social sciences by postmodernism's winning recipe of pseudo-intellectual autocracy based on baseless, impenetrable gibberish. Whenever and wherever academia becomes a tool for fabricating moral clout by argumentation instead of a structure for analyzing the real world, when its mercenary applications overshadow its intellectual honesty, it also begins to enjoy a much wider popularity. The public suddenly finds itself deeply invested in those socio-economico-politico-academic disciplines promising unending self-justification for upholding the superiority of those born the correct sex or the correct skin color or proclaiming the correct sexual orientation.

And lucky for them, facts of that sort don't change. You can never go wrong declaring that the Emerald City is really green and everyone but yourself has lost their glasses. When you begin with such conveniently undisprovable assertions as "epistemic privilege" your chauvinistic diatribes become as simple as winning a trivia contest. All you have to do is remember the words to your favorite song:
Women are oppressed
Because women say they're oppressed
And being oppressed, they'd know best
Ipso ipso

Now we're back to Ray Bradbury being one clearsighted son of a witch. His basic statements still hold, because modern pop-philosophy and pop-sociology are noncombustible data; they're the conversation-ending arguments against which no-one dares argue. And the media love it. They feed the public a constant stream of plucky underdogs standing up to some trivial social slight or another.

On the other hand, if you've the cojones to tangle with the slippery stuff which brings on melancholy, you'd be looking at naturalistic explanations. Examine the evolutionary roots of human behavior, or the interplay of individual self-interest from a game theory perspective, the harsh realities in whose light no-one ends up looking very angelic for long. The public demands to be distracted from such unpleasant realizations. They'd rather have discussions about which personal pronouns each of them prefer, the most simplistic all-consuming narcissism available. They'd rather have the words they hate, the books they hate, the people they hate, declared hate speech and hate mongers and burned.

It is science which offers the tools of social growth, the boards and nails, the worrisome hard decisions. Snowflake social activism is the obfuscating trivia providing a sense of motion without moving.

As for the title, I first saw it here, but it's apparently from here.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Do you ever feel that only your weakness, your incompetence, your worthlessness, your stupidity have allowed yet another day to slip by you?

If I were better, I could keep my grip on existence.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

ST: TNG - Lwaxana Troi

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

Seriesdate: 2.19

The episode describing the fishlike Antedean race and a gripping, convoluted cloak and dagger plot to assassinate an entire interstellar diplomatic conference.
Actually, that describes about three minutes' worth of the show, and the very cheap, stiff rubber masks worn by those alien extras in the picture ensure that even those three minutes fail to register as memorable. Not exactly breaking the costume / makeup budget. The rest is filler, courtesy of Gene Roddenberry's wife in the purple dress there.

Lwaxana Troi, Deanna's mother, jumps on board for some reason (she's an ambassador whom we never see doing any ambassadoring) and as a menopausal Betazoid has apparently turned into a raging horndog. (Hornbitch?*) She sets her perverted* eyes on Picard, who flees the dire threat* of her forwardness under a cloud of ridicule* from his crew. Lwaxana lectures Deanna that men are a commodity* and she needs to mature* and learn to treat them as such - "and the men in your life are going to bless you for it."* We sacrifice about a third of the episode's screen time to yet another holodeck adventure into the 1940s (presumably to repurpose some gangster movie sets and costumes the studio had lying around and save yet more effects cash) and Lwaxana ends up hitting on a hologram**. Then just as this nonsensical string of digressions is wrapping up, the writers suddenly remember it's supposed to be a SciFi show and have Lwaxana effortlessly prevent a major interstellar incident just by being in the same room as the aliens. All she had to do was show up.

Pretty much the only intriguing scene has Deanna sensing her mother's arrival and exclaiming "my God" - do Betazoids indulge in gods? You'd think if anyone can actually manage get a prayer answered, it'd be the planet full of telepaths.


Seriesdate: 3.24
Menage A Troi

Yeah... yeah, I know. I fancy myself a punny guy, but even I cling to standards higher than that title. It's the episode where Deanna and her mother get teleported naked

and Lwaxana masturbates a Ferengi's ears.

Sure, other stuff happens, but as with Tasha Yar's bellybutton, I'm guessing most youngsters who watched the show back then mainly remembered two women displaying their totally nude lumbar areas.

Look, we simply maintained lower expectations before the days of internet porn, alright?

Anyway. We start out with some gratuitous mother-daughter banter about grandchildren (during which Deanna somehow neglects to mention her easy-bake star child from the start of season 2.) Then they get surprise-teleported by Lwaxana's not-so-secret admirer. Watching the kidnapped Lwaxana romance the Ferengi captain and pull disgusted faces* at having to touch an unattractive male eats up a fair amount of screen time. Which is a pity because by the close of season 3, TNG had gotten good enough to supply much more Starring and Trekking than Manhunt did a year prior. Riker and the younger Troi pull off a daring jailbreak at chesspoint while Wesley solves the kidnapping mystery via reason and observation instead of nose-twitching. We get some jargon about starship engines, 3D chess, alien flora and alien erogenous zones, the works.

In fact, if you were to remove Lwaxana's sexual plot elements, I'd count this a pretty decent episode.
At least it gave us the memorable scene of Patrick Stewart belting out a sonnet medley at roughly one quarter his theatrical ability. It takes a good actor to purposely play a bad one.


Seriesdate: 4.22
Half a Life

(No, this has nothing to do with hazard suits, headcrabs or crowbars.)

Season 1 of TNG was infamously terrible. Season 2 started out much the same but gradually began turning around. First the special effects, props and costumes improved, then the writers began putting in more effort to outgrow their pulpy self-limitations, mostly plot-wise. Season 3 saw marked improvements in character writing and acting, with most of the cast at last growing into their roles. By season 4 all these elements had coalesced into the respectable high point of trekking which we all know and love. (We all know and love.) (All!)

Darling, let's you and me kill me.
Timicin the Kaelonite (a.k.a. Charles Emerson Winchester III) visits the Enterprise to blow up a star while looking for a way to re-sunnify his own solar system's aging gas bag. And speaking of aging gas bags, most of the episode's dedicated to his species' customary suicide at age sixty to make room for younger gas bags. Lwaxana, who's fallen for the big lug, is dead set against him setting himself dead. Cue many emotional dialogues.

And damnit, it's good. As before, Majel Barrett's appearance eats up most of the screen time, with the Enterprise's crew barely being accorded token walk-ons in their own show. Unlike before, the plot's course takes her from a comedic beginning as her old season 1-2-3 completely flat over-the-top narcissist to an individual with both personal desires and some understanding of the objective reality around herself.

Though slightly disappointed at solar kablooie being sidelined in favor of interpersonal claptrap, I must concede this episode retains its SF credibility through its inhumanly honest discussion of old age and suicide. Timicin's treatment of the matter approaches both the serenity and multifaceted contextualization of Heinlein's Martian discorporation. The discussion moves quickly enough to hit on most any salient point from the personal to the interpersonal to the societal and utilitarian, with Stiers skillfully acting his way through various stages of grief and Barrett having grown skillful enough in her portrayal of Lwaxana to keep up with him.


Really, the character of Lwaxana's just more first-season detritus. Though being played by someone with such a long-standing presence in Star Trek almost inevitably ensured her persistence, her personality and powers had to be downgraded, much like Wesley and Q, as the show matured. SF provides precious little justification for flamboyant grandes dames.

Her season 1 appearance in Haven mostly revolves around her overbearing, invasive use of her Betazoid telepathy.
By Manhunt, the writers must have come to the inevitable realization of what a game-breaker telepathy would prove for any sane sentient interactions and menopausally hobbled it.
Menage a Troi revolves around Ferengi being immune to Betazoiding and thus allows for her to display a modicum of rational problem-solving.
Half a Life casually expands this Betazoid telepathic incompatibility to some unspecified wide range of species then makes no further mention of it throughout her emotional displays versus Timicin or the ship's crew. Just as with the Lascar's helm in Torment: Tides of Numenera, the more thorough intimacy this accomplishes only underscores telepathy's unscientific unsuitability for Science Fiction. Her rational choice to share Timicin's ritual suicide with him and his family would have seemed completely out of character for the voyeuristic diva first appearing in season 1-2.

Sometimes, growth is best achieved by subtraction.

* - while gender relations are not a main point here, it pays to imagine the roles reversed. How would these situations and attitudes have been presented or received by the audience had Lwaxana been male and her targets female?
** - quite a few lines of dialogue are dedicated to Picard and the rest of the crew accommodating both Lwaxana's need for a bit of flirtation and the need to prevent her embarrassment at not realizing she's flirting with a hologram, plus her righteous indignation at the discovery. Compare to the snide, condescending attitudes written into Geordi (m) or Barclay (m) and their holographic interactions, a whole season after Lwaxana's allotted her high horse.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Wasteland 2

"I just don't need none of that Mad Max bullshit.
Well the suit got tight and it split at the seams
But I kept it out of habit and I kept it real clean.

We are hummingbirds who lost the plot and we will not move"

Modest Mouse - Bury Me With It

So here's me doing some shopping in Wasteland 2.

Judging by the NPC merchant's nonsensical chatter, how far into the RPG would you say I've gotten? Is this a lighthearted tutorial where breaking immersion doesn't really matter? Is it the early game played for laughs to offset the more serious story later on? Is it some mid-campaign comic relief? I'm almost done with the game, in fact. I have been almost done with the game for some weeks, making less and less progress every time I fire it up only to think "ugh, not another badger fight" and shut it down again.

A month ago when I finished my replay of Fallout I noted the jarring tendency for old-school computer game designers to lean on pop culture references instead of developing a coherent game world. As a throwback to 80s/90s gaming, Wasteland disappoints by failing to disappoint in that department. Not only does it begin with a gratuitous old-timey FMV cinematic but carries on with one cheap sound bite after another. Leve L'Upe Mine? Honey badger don't care? Screaming goats? The James King Bible? Don't get me wrong, I laughed my ass off at some of these as well as some of the other humorous elements like the perpetually blind stinking drunk Scotchmo or Ralphy singing 99 bottles of beer on the wall - he sounds so earnest!

But, ever so gradually, you get to scraping little to nothing underneath those pop culture crutches, that overtly charming facade. No truly engaging or memorable characters. The world, far from capturing the monomythic feeling of escalation in Fallout fashion, jars you out of your desert reverie with an early mission against plant zombies then continually sabotages itself by shoehorning humor into otherwise dramatic situations, managing neither to pass it off as dark humor nor to isolate it into comic relief moments. Worse still, this tendency only deepens as you leave the first half, Arizona (largely dedicated to nostalgic developer masturbation over the first Wasteland game from 1988) for California, where the developers seem to have lost any and all interest in their own story. One of the final zones, Hollywood, obviously meant as very memorable for its quirky pimps, hoes, teenage runaways, junkies, pushers and religious extremists, somehow manages to fail at being either sexy, outrageous, moralistic or in any other way engaging.

This would all be less noticeable if Wasteland 2 hadn't also been an overambitious project which simply lacks the content to fill its dozen different quest hubs. Everything gets reused ad nauseam, from character portraits and generic banter to random encounter maps to enemies. Most groups of humanoids contain the same mix of ranged / melee combatants and the animals are even worse. Three of the four major species re-appear from the beginning of Arizona to the end of California with no rhyme or reason. The few well-orchestrated fights get lost in the redundancy.

In terms of more practical gameplay options, it's again a pot luck of good but poorly integrated features like ammunition stockpiling and management, status effects which can be cured with consumable items, very powerful but single-use AoE missiles. The skill system trips into the recruitable NPC system. You create 4/7 of your party at the start and pick three more out of the tramps and thugs you encounter along the way. Since skills don't stack, this inevitably yields very high redundancy. Many skills were also poorly thought out and end up next to worthless (Animal Whispering) while others like Lockpicking are blatantly over-emphasized.

And on and on. There's a solid line between telling a joke and being a joke, and InXile sinply did not treat this project as professionally as they should have. There's only so many times the player can be gratified by thinking "I've heard of that!" when encountering references to old 1980s video game consoles and other non-sequitur trivia. Almost aggressively badly written at times, its balance wrecked by "toaster repair" easter eggs and other exploits, over-stretched far past what its actual content could illustrate, Wasteland 2 just wears thin much too quickly. Which would be fine if they weren't taking customers' money for an actual game and not a self-congratulatory trip down memory lane.

For the same post-apocalyptic Fallout-ish turn-based roleplaying, Dead State did more with less production values.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

I've always been perplexed at brassiere commercials seductively marketed toward men. Men don't care about bras. It's women who are obsessed with the damn things. Men, on the other hand, are less shallow. To us, it's what's inside that counts.
edit 2018/08/30
re-written for more funnierer