Monday, December 17, 2018

TANSTAAFM

"Fe vældur frænda rogi"

Wardruna - Fehu

______________________________

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Market

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

To Make Life Mine

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

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

My Black Heart Machine - It Beats Like This



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Europa Universalis 3

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

Boney M. - Rasputin



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

ST:TNG - Brothers, Data's Schizoid

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

Seriesdate: 2.06
The Schizoid Man

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


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

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

Surprisingly good toward the end for a season 2 episode.

________________________________________

Seriesdate: 4.11
Data's Day

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






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

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

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

___________________________________________

Seriesdate: 4.03
Brothers


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


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

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

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



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

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

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

_________________________________________

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

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Divinity: Original Sin

For the love of critical fails, tell me how anyone thinks they can build an immersive interactive experience around crap like this:
Yes, that's a chibified skeleton with a bomb strapped to its back. The first time I encountered one in Divinity: Original Sin, it put me off the game for days... but not before screenshotting it for bitchery purposes. Priorities, people!

As I complained vis-a-vis Wasteland 2, there's a crucial line between telling a joke and being a joke. No reason RPGs can't include humor, but it must be in-universe humor, based on actions undertaken by characters within that universe. And sure, it's entirely possible for games to fall into needless self-indulgent drama, but the extent to which absurdity and farce can work in an interactive medium depends on the genre. One of the improvements brought by the second Baldur's Gate game over its first installment, one of the reasons it became such a classic, was ditching BG1's random goofiness. Almost to the same extent as old-fashioned adventure games, the success of RPGs depends on maintaining immersion. Hard to play my role when all the NPCs keep breaking character.

At one point some NPCs in D:OS say they're "shaking like chihuahuas" which might mean something if Rivellon actually included a place named Chihuahua from which the dog breed could take its name. It makes no more sense then a French poodle or an English bulldog in the absence of a France or England. Tip of the iceberg. Larian tried to build a whimsical fairytale world and fill it with personal drama but instead wound up with a bunch of personae lacking personality and fairies with no tales. Don't get me started on the way, waaay too many talking animals with completely mundane human personalities. Or the fact that being The Chosen One got old a long time ago. Add to that the aforementioned nuisance of unjustified medieval stasis (no matter how far back in time a prequel goes, it will always hearken back to an even more distant, even more glorious past... which looks exactly like the present and even more exactly like the future) and the terrible decision to base the entire game on 2-player online co-op, constantly interfering with any single-player playthrough. I have to say it looks like a fault in project leadership. The visual artists, voice actors and music score were otherwise top-notch.

In addition, much of its interface functionality rendered combat a chore, like pointlessly locking almost your entire interface while a spellcasting animation executes, compounded by such animations' undue length. Or a crafting system which is half crucial to your success and half pointless flavor-text chore, with no way for a starting player to discern valuable items. Or the "dynamic" combat camera constantly rubberbanding around in fights, potentially twice in a single combat action. At least that nuisance can be disabled, which can't be said for the exaggerated idle animations constantly making me miss-target attacks as my targets wobble about randomly. Or characters gaining no experience if knocked out during a fight, a universal no-no for any party-oriented game whether single or multiplayer.

So you have to wonder what's made D:OS even borderline playable. As with Dead State I must note an undue amount of amateurishness despite its creators having been at this game-design game for quite a while. And, just as with Dead State, it's salvaged in part by a nerdy dedication to creating interesting tactical options.


That's me about to rain icy death on some poor unsuspecting zombies. The bushes lining that cliff overlooking their campsite block simple ballistic projectiles like arrows or grenades, but not the scroll of Hail Attack my thief had in her pocketses. Line of sight can be blocked both by terrain and clouds of smoke or dust kicked up during a fight, and in a fair show of cutting the Gordian Knot, smoke clouds also block LoS out of combat, which can make thieving possible in otherwise counterintuitive situations. Positioning matters, as do attacks of opportunity, status effects and specific counters for same. Spells interact in logical ways. A wet character is more susceptible to electric shock or freezing and a frozen character can be thawed out by fire. Monsters possess resistances up to and including being healed by their native element (don't shoot fire at a fire elemental, dumbass) and such immunity can even apply to your own characters.

D:OS' greatest claim to fame however has to be its "surfaces" or ground effects left behind by magic. Using a poison spell leaves behind a poison cloud... a combustible one. Oil patches can both slow you and be ignited into a stable AoE firestorm. Fighting in a puddle can turn an otherwise minor shock effect into an AoE stun. You can slip and fall trying to cross ice patches. All in all, Larian took an excellent stab at elevating wizardry above stupid old magic missiles, at enabling magic to alter the game environment, to change the physical laws of the universe.

It's also interesting to see a modern RPG with a heavy (very heavy in fact) puzzle-solving element, even to the main quest itself. Placing objects, activating sequences of symbols, good stuff. But here I must once again bemoan some awkward implementation. Too many of the puzzles either relied on pixel-hunting (and that idiocy belongs back in the 1980s) or were blatantly meant to be brute-forced by simply trying various options, usually over several reloads. The entrance to the Source Temple was especially heinous.

Overall I can't say I'll be re-installing this frustrating little gem anytime soon, but D:OS definitely earned its fame and it's easily worth at least one playthrough. If you want creativity, look to Europe.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Did you hear about the physics student who rebelled against quantum theory?
They made him walk the Planck.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Serenity, peace and an excuse for living, Loretta

"I can't wait until
You can stash and you can seize
In dreams begin responsibilities
"

U2 - Acrobat

______________________________

"Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.
[...]
There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.
[...]
Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.
[...]
Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag."


Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
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"It's every man's right to have babies if he wants them."
"But... you can't have babies!"
"Don't you oppress me!"

Monty Python - The Life of Brian (1979)
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"So the secret to good self-esteem is to lower your expectations to the point where they're already met?"
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"Next, you convince them that the problem is not their fault and that they're victims of larger forces"
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"I need holistic healing and wellness before I'll accept any responsibility for my actions."


Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes (strips from 1992/02/11, 1993/06/06 and 1993/01/21 respectively)
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"Americans are losing the ability to see any issue as anything but a clash of two extremes. Subtle grays don't register."

David Craig Simpson - Ozy and Millie (2000/07/23)
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"One of the advantages in having a cause is that it saves you from worrying about what life means. (Indeed, this is what attracts many people to communal action.) Just as during World War II "anti-fascism" seemed a sufficient excuse for living, so the fight against one injustice or another has tended to deliver present-day activists from such maladies of privilege as intellectual doubt, cosmic weariness and boredom. While the revolution assaults any given establishment, the fact that an abyss waits at the end of life does not for the time being bother the rebel. Hatred of the system and concern with advancement of the war gives a man enough to think about. Only when the battle has ended does the freed soul turn and face the cosmic menace."

Alan Harrington - The Immortalist (1977) page 4
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Much virtual ink has virtually spilled over the past few years in attempting to describe, explain and excuse the "snowflake" social phenomenon among today's youths. Seeing a generation full of spineless, whiny, overentitled drama queens prompts a justifiable question of who pissed in the gene pool. But of course the self-gratifying, shallow social activism we've learned to associate with millennials is hardly a system of their own creation. Snowflakes did not invent narcissism. They merely excel at it.
Don't you, now? Who's the bestest narcissist? You are! Oh yes you are, yes you are, who's a good little girl? Here's a medal, here's a Steam achievement, here's a thumbs up and a "like" and a safe space all your own just for you being you.

Explanations of this trend tend to over-emphasize (in true contemporary post-modernist spirit) nurture over nature. This superego plague has been inflicted upon us, we are sometimes told, by over-parenting and by psychotherapeutic institutionalization, by the wonders of the modern age. Valid criticism in both cases. But why then does modernity so closely resemble the shallow activism of fifty years ago? Why does it ape so perfectly the world of the previous turn of the century, the prissiness of Victorian mores? When patterns keep repeating within the human species, can we not admit that humanity is the pattern?

Nurture plays its role, sure. The information-age world has grown, for all its lacks, more productive on the societal level and more supportive on the individual level than any before it. We are safer and more free from drudgery than any minds before us. Liberated of demands on our physical (biological) support system, we find ourselves empowered to instead devote more time to living as ourselves, as individuals, as minds who happen to inhabit ape bodies, as intellect. Unfortunately, even the best of us cannot function on that level for most of the time, and most humans never look past their instincts. They are apes and can never be more, creatures of tribal conflict and reproductive competition. Giving them time to think merely fills them with a vague dread of expectations of self-improvement which they cannot possibly hope to meet.

Activists usually draw few material benefits, excepting a few head charlatans.
Socially, on the other hand, the attention and praise they receive meets the demands of our instinctive drive for social status. Picking a cause already dubbed noble allows you to spew mountains of unscrutinized chauvinist rhetoric upholding the CORRECT skin color or sex, etc. and to receive endless adulation not for what one does but for doing in the name of [...]
That their demands are often impractical with trivial (if any) benefits if acceded to (or outright nonsensical or unjust) should not surprise anyone. The act of making demands in itself is the sort of posturing activists crave. Psychologically, even on an individual level, activism allows for the fabrication of a noble martyr's self-image. Without ever having to prove the claim, just declare yourself to be the harbinger of a glorious future, morally and intellectually superior to all others, and at the same time entitled to retribution against your preferred targets of abuse. If not on the basis of your default skin color or sex, don't despair! Whether L, G, B, T, Q, Z, @, :) or any other flavor of irrelevant demarcation, you can cloister yourself with like minds and find existential justification in your basest attributes: what you stick and where you stick it.
All you have to do to prove your worth (even to yourself) (especially to yourself) is "self-identify as" being part of a speshul class of plucky rebels.

The pretexts may be new but the true root cause is the same basic human stupidity which has given rise to all the moral guardians of the past, the self-appointed thought police of religion, patriotism and mannerly comportment. Mrs. Grundy's just wearing a new hat.