Friday, December 28, 2012

Abortion, Bibles and Communism

There's something quite ironic about American anti-abortionists, but before I get to it, let's settle this "life is sacred" issue.

Life is not sacred. Nothing is sacred. "Sacred" is a designation intrinsically tied into religious doctrine and therefore unfit for any rational discourse. Privately, I might consider intellectual advancement sacred but I cannot justify using the word to attempt a moral coup against my opponents in any argument simply by subverting their mental processes using the childhood religious indoctrination to which most humans have unfortunately been subjected.

Life just is. We end life on a continuous split-second basis and I've brought this up in a previous ramblant (that'd be a rambling rant, let's hope it catches on) because we are capable of discerning the value of various flavors of "sacred" life. The idea that humans are somehow a "thing" apart from the rest of the natural world, Yahweh's own children made in his image, is also as obsolete as stoning people to death for working on a Saturday. There are some humans who should be killed because their very nature is detrimental to the rest of us. Most serial killers (and I don't mean the famous ones, but your run-of-the-mill gangbangers with half a dozen deaths on their conscience) are irredeemable. They will never be anything but a burden or danger to the rest of us and it is in self-defense that we should execute them. I'm not even going to worry about health concerns to the mother, rape, incest, and all other supposed justifications for abortion because first-trimester abortion, that killing of a lump of cells which cannot form even the simplest thought like 'hungry' or 'scared' before it becomes an unwanted child, needs no justification. If the mother is unwilling or unable to commit to caring for it, kill the damn thing. It's not an ugly word. Kill that foetus.

The basic, logical principles of coexistence dictate that we should refrain from murder. We cannot cooperate if we live in constant fear of each other. This is not, however, an absolute. Not all life is equal. Even the strictest of vegans cannot afford to hold the lives of algae and wheatgrass sacred. Not all humans are equal either. A baby eats, shits and emotionally manipulates its parents into giving it whatever it wants, usually food and clean diapers. It exists on a mental level below that of monkeys and far below that of apes. It's not until two years of age that we can overtake chimps intellectually, and many adult humans can barely be said to do that much. A first-trimester mindless parasite is much, much less than even that. It does not think. It is a lump of cells. The self, the personality, the individual which is the incredibly complex pattern of neural impulses in a fully-developed brain, cannot exist at that stage. It's no more human, in the existential sense, than the shrimp you had for lunch.
That potential baby's mother, however, is a whole different story. She can perform physical labor, at the very least. She can derive enjoyment from complex situations, from mental stimulation, however rudimentary. She can converse, cooperate, maybe even create (artistically or scientifically, not biologically) and generally has a lot more potential to enrich the lives of others. That is, unless she's saddled with the care of a screaming, reeking, selfish little monster that'll suck the life out of her for the next eighteen years. Killing that vicious, life-sapping parasite before it can become a thinking being, before it can realize that it's an unwanted, neglected child is a much loftier goal than adding another miserable, unfulfilled, aimless and hopeless life to this already crowded planet, and ruining at least one other life in the process.

Let's do away once and for all with the pretense of rational argument against abortion. Stop letting anti-abortionists re-brand themselves "pro-life" and stop pretending that they should be heard on equal footing with rational decisions to end life before it becomes sentient, before we are obligated to treat it as an equal. Unwanted pregnancies destroy lives. They create, by and large, miserable new lives. It is no accident that this clamor against abortion can almost always be heard from dedicated irrationalists, from bible-thumpers, koran-thumpers or veda-thumpers.

It is no accident that reproductive rights become codified into pretty much any and every religion. It is a quick and ruthless process which seems to take place as soon as a religion is founded. Religion is a tool of social control. Humans will do almost anything for reproductive rights. Controlling this most powerful instinct and its attendant behaviors, tendencies and rituals is intrinsic to controlling not only the currently copulating generation, but also its offspring. Of course they're going to push for all-out abstinence even in the 21st century when we have so many safe and convenient ways to limit reproduction. Sexual frustration is good from the viewpoint of a religious leader. It'll make you do anything and everything to secure marriage rights. Large, starving families are much easier to control than small, self-sufficient ones. The key to maintaining control over the lower tiers of a power structure is to keep them disparate and desperate, as I said in an earlier post. Starving people have no principles. A family which has to split a loaf of bread nine ways instead of three ways will do anything, murder, lie, cheat, steal, whatever you and your soldiers order them to do. Cheap labor, cheap canon fodder, and the more desperate they are the more they'll cram into churches for you to feed them false promises.

Here's  the chuckle-inducing bit though. It's sometimes pointed out just how ironic it is that the "pro-life" (sorry, threw up a little in my mouth at having to call them that) crowd is also the pro-execution crowd. It also tends to be the pro-war crowd, for god and country! For about half a century, it would also have been the anti-communist crowd, god's chosen fighting the godless red menace. Oddly enough, while the red menace was certainly anti-religious, methodically wiping out that competing power structure in its territory, its stance was decidedly pro-cheap-labor, generally not crazy about elective surgery, and frequently discouraged abortion. In the mid 1930s, with five-year plans already in full swing, Stalin decided a fresh generation of proletarians was necessary to escalate the development process and outlawed abortion, reversing Lenin's earlier populist legalization of it. The same scene was replayed two decades after WWII in the satellite state of Romania, for the same reasons. *

By whatever delusion the religious right is trying to sell anti-abortion legislation to its brainwashed kneelers and chanters, their leaders' motivation is the same cold-blooded attempt to maintain the pyramid scheme of human hierarchies. The base needs to be wide enough to support disproportionate wealth and power at the top.

* I skipped a step there because I didn't want to get all "Godwin's Law" up in here, but it does bear mentioning that the Nazi regime also outlawed abortion for pedigreed German women, even as it thinned "impure" populations elsewhere.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Planetside 2

SOE is a very rich company. While this is good in theory because it ensures the initial server support which a virtual world badly needs, extensive in-house testing and the ad-campaign to draw players in, it also ensures a paralyzing fear of innovation and experimentation. The more established a creator is, as a general rule in human affairs, the less creative it is, be it individual or committee. PS2 was obviously created by some very, very established people. Even if it were a good game, it would become worthless eventually because of its legitimized cheating, each new weapon and vehicle meant to be purchased with real-world money, but it won't even get to that stage because it has nothing to offer.

The first Planetside is memorable as the MMOFPS game and one of the few reasonably persistent worlds ever created. PS2's creators seem to have forgotten however that in itself, this made Planetside innovative. It was the first, it was the largest. It blended various elements of existing FPS games and made liberal use of others, like multi-occupant vehicles, which even smaller games were afraid to implement. It did all this in gigantic battle lines shifting slowly across the face of continents, allowing players to help their faction grow or defend its shrinking territory through offensives which could last whole days.

While PS1 had many, many problems, most of them stemming from the outsourced expansion pack and PS2 addressed many of them, it overcompensates and oversimplifies the gameplay. Everything from the cluttered scenery and large damage-to-health ratios which reward twitch-reflexes over planning to the lack of focus on faction advancement reek of catering to the idiotic instant gratification culture.

Take base captures, for instance, which have been one of the worst issues with both iterations of the game. In PS1, players had to wait at a base for up to 15 minutes in order to get credit for capturing it. This amounted to a great deal of boredom. Bases were also linked together in a 'lattice' so that players followed a fairly predictable route from one base to the next, usually having two or three choices as to how to proceed, with smaller objectives along the way. Another criticism was that base design included many long corridors which created long stand-offs, and this supposedly didn't sit well with the instant-gratification culture. Not when they're also too cowardly (in a virtual environment, really?) to suicide-charge a reinforced position.
PS2 removed all AI-controlled base defenses, removed auto-targeting player turrets and uses base designs with easily scalable walls and many small buildings with large numbers of entrances. Even a ten-foot by ten-foot cube will always have two, and bases are littered with cubes. This makes defense much more difficult, which wouldn't be a horrible idea in itself. It is a big issue when combined with the fact that bases can be made vulnerable by having adjancency to any enemy territory, and the map layout ensures that every base links to several others. It is an even bigger issue when combined with the much shorter capture timers, usually only a couple of minutes long.
The entire base layout and capture system creates a strong incentive for players to simply attack undefended bases and not even bother defending what they have. There is always something to attack, it's easy, it's fast, and it's guaranteed experience. There is no cooldown timer after a base has been captured so you're free to just keep re-capturing instead of moving forward. The main bulk of players on all three factions, instead of fighting, simply circle each other constantly re-capturing the same bases. The glorious, crawling sweep across the face of the world has been replaced with a toilet-bowl swirl of players getting rewarded for taking the easy way out.

Moving on. Let's talk guns. Let's talk vehicles. Let's talk about what you can actually do as a player. How many ways can you shoot and move? PS2 is painfully uncreative. Of all the main weapons a player can have as any of the infantry classes, dozens of them, there is exactly one that isn't just a shotgun or rifle. The differences between them are so minute as to make them almost indistinguishable. Even the fancy-shootin' staples of FPS games are conspicuously missing. There are rocket launchers, but that's about it. No flamethrowers, no lasers, no grenade launchers, no rail guns, no actively-guided projectiles, no disabling (meaning, no flashbangs or EMP) and almost no speed modifiers. Many of these are actually steps down in complexity from PS1.
It's the same story with the vehicles. Each and every vehicle is basically just a tank or a plane. There's no more Router, one of the best base-assault gimmicks (it could teleport infantry past the enemy lines) PS1 created, no more Lodestar ferrying crucial vehicles through the air, no more giant mechs with jump jets. Even if there were more than one hovertank now, there would be little point to them since all three continents of PS2 so far have no water whatsoever. Nothing bigger than a kiddie wading pool. There isn't even any real artillery or carpet-bombing, no interdiction or siege-breaking.

The whole feel of the game seems to have been re-focused on emulating today's military. It's great for all the NRA nuts who want to shout the army chatter they've heard in the movies while shooting rifles and riding around in tanks, for the macho cretins who think it's all supposed to be one glorious victory after another, capturing uncontested bases. It's not so great if you've got the three IQ points necessary to realize it's all been done before.

Planetside 2 is simply dull. It doesn't matter what weapon you choose. It doesn't matter where you go. It doesn't matter if you capture something, since it'll be recaptured five minutes later. It's all just a petty scramble for personal gain. You roll into a base along with fifty other players and scramble to get an 'assist' on one of the half-dozen defenders then sit there for two minutes all so you can get some points to buy yourself a new gun which turns out to be the same one you have but with a slightly better rate of fire. Even a match of Team Fortress 2 has more depth.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

My MMManifesto - Character Advancement

"What is happiness? It is the feeling that power is increasing and resistance is being overcome."

Games sell by making players happy. This deceptively simplistic goal varies with those players' mental level. The moronic masses are easily pleased. They will play for the endless repetition of 'kill ten rats' quests, because they're being told they've 'won' something, ignoring the banality of the action. They're like babies playing peek-a-boo, cheering themselves on every time they make the world re-appear. This is basic emotional happiness, barely the tiniest step above the physical demand for feed an' fuckin'. It appeals to our instinctive social-ape demand for power over others, for social influence, political clout or peer approval. It appeals to our pathetic need for validation.

To some extent any game will try to provide this. The instinctive, limbic, animalistic payoff for attempting a task, even a virtual one, is the feeling of accomplishment in the case of success. The sick development of the past decade in games however has been the trivialization and near-elimination of the task and the focus on only giving players a feeling of accomplishment. It's the idea of simply giving players something at every step of the way, of guaranteed success. Combined with the same operant conditioning principle which results in gambling addiction, irregular positive reinforcement, this has resulted in a business model which despite providing less and less quality has resulted in larger and larger numbers of customers. The player started to be rewarded in games like Everquest or Diablo 2 for sheer repetition. Kill that boss-monster x number of times and the law of averages all but guarantees you a shiny item to show off to others. It's social status based on the pretense of ability (you vanquished the dragon, noble hero, huzzah!) which turns out upon even the most straightforward analysis to be nothing but the repetition of a mindlessly simple task - given that both you and the dragon are level sixty-seven, it's no more difficult a task than killing a rat at level ten, and given that you're killed that dragon once already, killing it sixty-seven times proves nothing. Concomitantly, developers also started to remove any possible sources of frustration, since they were becoming dependent on customers who were so emotionally frail as to be thought to leave the game at the slightest frustration, at the slightest threat of being denied the automatic 'win' they began to see as their due. Players could never be threatened with losing anything, so everything from small instances to world events to raids and especially PvP had to be stripped of any challenge. Ironically since games began to offer less and less actual quality, players really did start to leave as soon as anything frustrated them. The problem isn't just that they might not get their next little endorphin fix, it's that there really is nothing else to hold one's interest in WoW-clones.

This is entirely incompatible with the actual concept of an MMO. A living, breathing virtual world cannot exist solely to constantly pat players on the back and tell them how great they are. It includes the possibility, even likelihood, of loss and frustration. It will appeal to a smaller audience, those who play for more than just the constant endorphin boost of making themselves feel big, who want to play a game, a contest, a challenge, not just go through the motions in something predictable for a free win. We must fall back to a focus on the game world itself, not individual self-aggrandizement. Much of this revolves around the feeling of progress, of advancement, and the difficulty is in shifting the focus from the illusion of individual growth in power to world events. 

Character advancement in most games (the bad ones) means letting players 'level up' and making them farm for more powerful items, or making them farm thousands of mobs so they can get an in-game title.
In contrast, a persistent world's advancement is not a continual illusion of increasing power. You have to abandon the treadmill and take the focus off individual loot-mongering. The feeling of progress must be made dependent on the creation of contrast during the player's in-game experience and on making all participants feel a part of larger happenings. Instead of continually levelling characters, players should get to compare their proficiency in various skill builds, adapting to the needs of the moment. Don't make players farm the same instance over and over again for a single item they can show off, but putting a new batch of mithril-edged axes to use is all the more gratifying when most loot is plain iron and any item can be lost in PvP at any time. A guild's home town should run the risk of  getting destroyed at any time, by other players or a world event, but this makes the achievement of having kept that town for any amount of time all the more memorable.

The key to keeping players' interest in the absence of levelling or named loot drops or legitimized cheating is keeping them engaged in the affairs of the world at large. I have stated time and again that a bad MMO tries to make its customers feel big, while a good MMO makes them feel small. The unspoken basic assumption in that statement is that feeling small is still better than feeling nothing, which is the sad state of affairs in current MMOs where players' action simply have no effect whatsoever on the game as a whole. In a true persistent world, even if your house is the smallest in the valley, even if it gets burned down by a marauding horde of leet-kiddies after a week or a month, it is more satisfying and memorable because it was actually there. For a week or month, your little cottage changed the face of the game world. The same dragon flew over your head and destroyed your neighbour's house and the same ravaging horde passed by your neighbour but burned your house. You share in the events of the world around you. When you kill another player you should be able to think of that action as part of a greater conflict, an attempt maybe to secure territory for your clan or to defend your resource gatherers as they in turn assure that your clan's crafters will have materials with which to build you more weapons with which to slay your foes. I am repeating here various things i have already said in previous posts about the importance of interconnecting player actions in regards to PvP or PvE mainly to reinforce my point that this idea that meaningful gameplay is fundamentally unmarketable is simply false. Players, even relatively stupid ones, are capable of creating meaning without being explicitly told they're winners in gigantic flaming letters through "Quest Completed !" popups.

If this idea of shared experience providing meaning, of involvement in the affairs of the larger community seems familiar, it's because, it, just like slot-machine gameplay and individual greed, has a quite verifiable psychological basis in the real world. Much of the effort in the many poverty-stricken communities of the U.S. against gangs and random violence and vandalism for instance focuses on exactly that tagline: "getting people involved in the community." I am not proposing to completely remove the instinctive appeal of playing a game, but merely to balance instinctive sadism and self-gratification with instinctive altruism. Players don't just feel big about themselves when they get loot, but also when they can play the stalwart hero and die defending their clan. It is insane that the same force which has built nations and religions all throughout history, the struggle for one's in-group against the out-group, is now completely ignored by game designers as a driving force.

Make sure that when players go to the auction house, they don't just see whether their auction has sold or not, but also how that particular item has been selling lately. Make their action meaningful as part of that marketplace. Make killing a mob meaningful by letting players see how that mobs' body parts shift in price at the market according to supply and demand. Make fighting another player meaningful by tying fights into a larger player conflict which decides the look of the land around for days or weeks to come. Tie every player action into the world at large and you can harness the same force which makes secret service agents take a bullet for the president. Pit that self-sacrifice against basic instinctive sadism. Pit greed against the social reward of providing one's clan with necessary resources. Player advancement in a virtual world must include some measure of individual success like accumulating items in a bank or a slight increase in the size of the fireball you shoot, but also the involvement of the player in larger events. You have to make room for old-timer stories. Players must be able to say "oh man, i was there when we lost the old fort up on the hill, where they built that stone keep now, that was some fight, but we're getting some mithril now from the mines to infuse our catapult ammunition, we'll knock it down next month" etc., etc.

It's the balance between those driving forces of primate behavior, between personal ambition and altruism, between immediate gratification and grandiose dedication to a cause which leaves room for actual quality, for creativity, complexity and nuance. MMOs cannot rise to their potential as virtual worlds until they stop marketing nothing but instant gratification.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Subtle, Wikipedia, real subtle

I honestly think this whole second amendment obsession will be for future generations a "what were they smoking?" joke on par with "let them eat cake" or Hitler's invasion of Russia.

I mentioned before that i have a bad habit of looking at Wikipedia's "in the news" section - it angries up the blood - and today i ran across a delightful jab (or shot?) at the American gun fetish. These are two bullet points as they were presented, one right below the other on Wikipedia's main page.

  • Twenty-eight people, including the gunman, are dead following a shooting at an elementary school in the U.S. state of Connecticut.
  • Twenty-three people are injured in a knife attack at a primary school in the Chinese province of Henan.

One inevitable thought is that even with such a light touch, wikipedia is costing itself some contributions from conservatives. Then again, i doubt American conservatives have much love for Wikipedia anyway.
I'm reminded of some attempt to set up a fundamentalist version of it years ago (a fundie-pedia* if you will) because the real one has a 'liberal bias'. Ahem. No, no, no kiddies, Wikipedia does not have a liberal bias. It is a global endeavor dedicated to the free distribution of information. The very concept of Wikipedia is liberal in the true social (not economic) sense of the word.
*I thought i was being clever, but the name's already taken!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It was all so sudden

A decade of methodical abuse. Loser. Loser. Lewwww-zerrr.
Last on the team, loser bitch.
How's the toilet water, loser fag?
Quit hittin yourself, loser geek.

Ohmygawd you dweeb like you could ever get a date!
See you after school, bitch.
Come on you pansy-ass loser, let's see if you still fit in yer locker.
You better get me an A on this project, loser nerd, or i'm feedin you your own teeth.
Ha! Hahahahahahahahaha -

And there are your teachers telling you to fit in and and your parents telling you to stop causing trouble, just get along with the other kids, the ones who have already ostracized you, there's the school headshrinker telling you you're to blame for not meeting the world halfway, outside yourself inside themselves, and there's the standardized test you only realize won't count for jack shit until you're there taking it because Biff the football star will get a free ride no matter his scores and he'll be there, wherever you go, ten more Biffs all on the same team, and there's the television screaming at you that you're a Lewww-zerrr for being sexually unsuccessful and your intelligence is a shameful burden to hide and the only righteousness is in obedience, surrender, submission to the ones who will keep - Lewww-zerrrr - not because there's any value judgment they can make on you but simply because they enjoy it and there's your teacher grinning and pretending not to notice and calling you out for hurting Biff's fist with your skinny nerd face because those who can't do, teach, and you might do someday if you're not slapped down hard enough and he hates you for it, and there's the principal calling you in because you're a dangerous loner wearing black and you might shoot up the school someday and never mind Biff, kid, just straighten up and worry about yourself, we're not gonna tolerate your cries for attention and there's your face in the wall while Biff cheers his cronies on from his convertible he drives to school because chicks dig cars not cogent theses you Lewwww-zerrrr!

Day in, day out, year in, year out.

This did not happen in a moment. Neither did every other 'isolated' case before it.
Where was your outrage all the decade before that? There are lives being taken every minute in your town, and you cheer it on like the mob at a witch-burning. Where was your self-righteous indignation every minute of every day, every week, month and year after year while your little brats tortured the too-smart awkward kid at school?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Enemy's Enemy

There is a crucial parallel to be drawn between worker unions and the corporations whose interests they oppose. It has to do with the basic pattern of a solidifying hierarchical power structure.

Our reproduction-driven competitive instinct leads us quite reliably to attempt to control each other. The measure of worth of a social ape is the number of other social apes kissing its ass. Our instinctive measure of worth is the power we hold over others. We are forced to enlist others, to compromise with a few in order to gain power over many. This leads to the ubiquitous pyramid scheme found in anything from the traditional patri- or matri-archal family unit to military ranks and national governments.

There is a great difference however between the amount of compromise a power structure is willing to tolerate as it grows compared to an already-powerful oligarchy. No pyramid scheme will compromise where it can enslave. Where power structures meet, it is the underdog which will almost inevitably adopt a more populist stance.

This is a very old pattern. Religions, national governments, military autocracies and merchant princes have all had their periods of populism and tyranny. National governments were largely a defense against imperialism before they began to imitate the absolutist monarchies whose empires they'd risen against. With the rise of the middle-class, it was often business, the merchant caste, which led the opposition.

The merchant caste, however, has long ago ceased to be the underdog and as it secured its place at the top of the power structure its populist message of increased standard of living through the production of goods started to ring hollow. We have lived, for the past sixty years or so, in an increasingly corporatist society, where government bows to the demands of the ultra-wealthy, castrated by its own need for funding. In this climate, trade unions are one of the few forces counterbalancing the corporate-controlled, gutted national governments of capitalist countries. This is the significance of yesterday's big news.

I despise unions, largely because i despise "that immortal ass, the common man" as Ambrose Bierce so heartwarmingly put it. Unions are by no means the good guys. It is largely the thoughtless glut of muscular apes embodied by worker union mentality as a whole which is dragging humanity down. The excesses of communist regimes illustrate quite clearly how quickly and forcefully proletarian uprisings turn on their own principles. Unfortunately it is true that at this point in western history, unions are an underdog power structure which stands against the excesses of corporate power, a way to solidify popular opinion instead of allowing it to be completely swallowed up in mass-media control. As distasteful as i find those blue-collar slobs, i would rather have them brainwashed by unions than by corporations.

It's not much of a choice. Either support the underdogs or be enslaved along with them.
And expect them to bite you for it once they gain the power to do so.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

I had been meaning to say something about The Longest Journey for a long time but was finally prompted to do so a few days ago because I had recently seen Snow White and the Huntsman and was impressed again by that sort of personal development within the larger-than-life fairytale hero persona. It would be an understatement to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the movie. It elicited from me the same reaction as Beowulf and Grendel, regardless of their very different treatment of their subject matter. It is exceedingly rare to find a film which successfully captures not only the essence of a cultural staple like the epics or fairytales but also the nature of our fascination with such storytelling. Like Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire  or Tolkien's Middle-Earth books, these movies have the ability to get under the skin of mythical or fantastic characters and elevate them to the status of actual personalities.

What rankles is the public's response to the movie, and I know, I know, by now it's no news that the public is absolutely moronic, but... to just utterly lack any appreciation of style and subtext as a society is inescapably harmful to the intellectual development of the few in that society who might have a chance to appreciate what the movie does. In reading a smattering of reviews from both random IMDB Joe-sixpacks and paid journalists, magazine reviewers, you tend to run into the same two complaints, both utterly nonsensical.

One: Stilted.
This is basically the "it's not Disney" argument. The characters are not ecstatically prancing around and breaking into song with bluebirds perched on their fingertips all through the movie. Mostly it's the actors who are attacked, especially the lead.
Two: Weird.
Where do they get off making it all dark and gloomy, Snow White is supposed to be a cheerful romp with cute cuddly dwarves not murderous, bitter, outcast mercenary dwarves. What's the deal with the stag and the weird magic stuff the queen does, etc.etc. and oh, wait, this is just the "it's not Disney" argument again.

I suppose the main point I should make before anything is that Disney did not invent fairy tales you worthless corporate-brainwashed backbirths! Every criticism I hear about the movie seems to stem from this expectation that it would be a remake of Disney's old cartoon, which was in itself a bastardization of the actual fairy tale. I'm battering my head against the wall here trying to figure out how to remind the American public and the worldwide victims of corporate revisionism that these fairy tales existed for centuries before cinema, and their flavor as stories told around the hearth by one's grandmother in a 19th-century wattle-and-daub cottage in Bavaria was very different from the "sunshine and puppy-dogs" mass-market feel-good product of the 20th century. As collected by the Grimm brothers, Andersen, Tolstoy or the comtesse de Segur, the old stories are not cheerful. Even though the hero usually succeeds, he is subject to pain and loss, and the ending is only vaguely optimistic. They are gory and violent, thrilling and macabre. They are filled more with boogeymen than with helpful fairy godmothers. For a child listening to your grandmother's raspy voice reiterating those old fairytales, the world is a dark and dangerous place outside your father's little thatched hut and the comforting warmth of your hearth and these stories are meant in part to give you the courage to fight those odds, not blow sunshine up your ass. Fairies are not nice people, no more than people are nice people.

It is from this starting point that the creators of Snow White and the Huntsman built their story, not Disney's charming little take on the original. They refused to re-adapt the old adaptation and instead honored the spirit of old storytelling while developing the stock characters into figures with at least two facets and actual motivations. Mon dieu, what gall!

No, the acting is not stilted, it is restrained, it doesn't spell everything out for you in scenery-chewing dramatism because you're assumed to have knowledge of the original material. When you go into an opera, you're assumed to have read the libretto. The Grimm brothers? That's your libretto for Snow White. You're also assumed to have seen the old Disney version and be acquainted with various other famous works of fantasy. The movie includes many references and blatant inspirations from the Disney movie, Princess Mononoke and The Hobbit at the very least. Can you spot the resemblance of Snow White to Jeanne d'Arc? I could, and I'm not much of a history buff. How pathetic is it that people are insulted by the assumption that they would have even the tiniest bit of cultural background. We're not even talking about references to Kant and Nietzsche here, but the better side of basic mass-consumed entertainment and at least the flimsiest notion of history. The Grimm brothers are not hard to read, and it would probably take you less time than watching the old Disney movie.

Taken as a whole, the criticism of the movie, stemming as it does from the "it's not Disney" mindset is blatantly hypocritical. It's criticized for being "Twilightized" by the same audience that's been cramming into theaters to make that idiotic Twilight farce a string of blockbusters, even though it's Twilight that's a dumbing-down and Disneying of vampire and werewolf stories. It's criticized as being too "gothy" or dark (in other words not safe for preschoolers) and at the same time criticized for not having passionate love scenes. It's criticized for being too "emo" and in the same breath for lacking the over-the-top hammy overacting American audiences love so much. Can the idiots bitching about Snow White not jumping into Prince Charming's arms and swallowing his tongue while humping his leg step back a bit and realize that she's been locked in a tower for the past decade? She's lucky she didn't turn into Gollum. How overfed on scenery-chewing has the public gotten that everyone misses the obvious tension of the prince-princess-huntsman love triangle and the repeated commentary on the sacrifice she makes as a states(wo)man through the choice she is implied to make at the end of the movie?

How blinded can everyone be by that quaint little saccharine pastel pastiche from the 30s that they managed to miss every single good point of Snow White and the Huntsman?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Longest Journey

The most remarkable thing about The Longest Journey is simply that it was remarkable. Adventure games are a relic of the 80s, when two-dimensional, cartoonish side-scrolling with interaction limited only to clicking a certain unchangeable marker on the screen was the very cutting edge of computer game technology. By the time TLJ came out in 1999, adventure games as a genre were already almost a decade outdated, outpaced, outgrown and out-flashed by FPS, RTS and RPGs. Myst and its offshoots were the only well-known remnant. A completely linear point-and-click adventure game with an almost nonexistent challenge level, ostensibly centered on a teenage girl getting magic powers, should have blended quietly into the background, remembered only by die-hard fans of the genre.

Two things saved it: writing and voice acting.
The Longest Journey is the hero's journey made immersive and personal. The whole point seems to be to make us identify with April Ryan as she grows into her role as heroine through the on-screen interaction, to maintain her personality even as she acquires the status of legend. The distilled essence of the entire game is in a dialogue just over halfway through, when April is asked "who are you?" - at ~2:20-3:40 in this video.
She tries to explain and identify herself, using her growing, monarchic list of bombastic fairytale titles with the lack of conviction of a gradeschooler sounding out long words, then much more confidently, decisively adds "... and i'm April Ryan." Throughout the game, we are presented both with her growing importance as a fairytale hero and the persistence of her own individuality. We are given the illusion of tipping those scales ourselves with every dialogue option we trigger.

Among the stereotyped RPG rags-to-riches stories, April's multifaceted personality stands out like a green tree against the stark steel-and-glass of a skyscraper. She is a teenaged college art student, a farm girl migrated to the big city. She is snarky and vain, kind-hearted but demanding, basks in attention and tries to balance her love of clothes and glamour with a developing sense of morality. She is intelligent enough to stand out from the crowd but shares the common man's abhorrence of ivory towers. She constantly plays off the importance of her quest in girlish asides. Her dialogue is not an attempt to establish social standing, either high or low. She is built up as neither a likely nor an unlikely heroine.

Writing and voice. Her dialogue contains the right mixture of youthful brashness and uncertainty in the face of the unknown to make her endearing. Much of it is also carried through voice inflections, timing and a "feisty little bitch" tonality without which the dialogue would have remained good but unremarkable. She sounds natural.

Aside from that, there's not much to say about the game. The world is just alien enough to keep it interesting, familiar enough to give the protagonist her human foundation. The other characters are all minor, even her sidekick, merely plot devices or color. The gameplay is decently advanced in that the environments managed to feel three-dimensional. The puzzles are sometimes nonsensical in their attempt at originality, a common flaw of adventure games. Visuals and sounds are only good enough to maintain immersion. The overall plot, aside from a decent twist right before the end, sticks to RPG tropes. Though none of it is particularly badly made, it would also not have stood out without the main character.
All in all, April Ryan is TLJ.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cirrhosis, Lung Cancer and...?

At 0:35 in this clip.
Alcohol, tobacco and... ?

I'm just tickled pink at all the vices which get passed off as virtues in a consumer society. If we meet someone who collects poisonous snakes or stockpiles canisters of nerve gas we'd say he's a dangerous extremist. Some hillbilly with half a dozen rifles? Patriot!
Plastic surgery to turn your garden snake into a raging python? Ridiculous vanity. Sports car? Supporting the economy!
Torturing people for protection money in the service of your local mob boss? Crime. Wearing khakis while doing it overseas? Self-defense.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Stop Breeding!

Apparently, some judge finally got tired of getting mugged by hobo coke-hounds on the way to work and decided the solution, shockingly enough, is to stop breeding crackhead hobos. Bravo.

Let's take it from the top, people. Population control is one of the strongest and most widespread political taboos. Every discussion of dwindling resources, crime rates, wars, exploitation and in general apes stepping on each others' toes tends to somersault right over the fact that there are just too damn many toes to step on. Breeding per se need not be criminalized outright, but there are a variety of economic pressures which could be used to limit spawning. In general, any form of financial aid should be limited to one or at most two children per parent. Eligibility for government employment should be limited to parents of no more than two children and no company which employs large-litter breeders should be eligible for subsidies.
Also, as harsh as it sounds, end government care of unwanted infants. If the parents cannot care for them, they will die horrible deaths. Offer unwanted or unwarranted babies up for adoption at first, but if no individual is interested in adopting the infant within a certain time-frame, say a couple of months, its care should revert to the parents, in every legally-binding sense. No more government-supported foster homes full of Oliver Twists waiting for their ship to come in. Every penalty for neglect, abuse, child endangerment, etc. that you can pile on the idiots who bred when they can't care for children should still be enforced, and quickly. The only ways out of caring for your own children should be suicide or infanticide and execution.
Even for the first two children, government aid should be refused for any child born to parents which were under twenty-five or thirty years of age. An extra five years on our generation time would do wonders to forestall that Malthusian storm cloud on the horizon.
Cease trade with any nation which does not implement population control measures.

Don't get me wrong, i'm well aware that nothing will be done. This particular judge's decision will be overturned. No greater such measures will be permitted. This is because human misery is the greatest asset of the media-mastered corporate state's power structure. Slave labor and cannon fodder in abundance both form and grease the cogs of our society. You always need a surplus of desperate souls to break strikes, to enlist for military brainwashing, to turn to crime so that you can terrorize them with the threat of torture and execution in prisons. There must be enough poor children that their proper education can be presented as financially impossible, so that there can be enough brainwashed adults to keep voting for wars, churches or youth sports leagues and against education. Most importantly, the glut of ape-meat littering the streets must be thick enough to force it to cannibalize itself. "Divide and conquer" is still the greatest tool of social control. Keep the rich out of sight, out of reach of the poor, and the poor will simply turn on each other as the only available targets. This season's first-tier games shall pit against one another: the Irish vs. Italians, the Blacks vs. the Latinos, the Chinese vs. the Russians, the hicks against the queers. As more refined entertainment, we'll throw in a "Jews vs. neo-Nazis" tennis match.
Somehow we never get to the championship match of rich vs. poor anymore.

Don't even get me started on religious indoctrination's role in maintaining the unwanted pregnancy rate. Politics and religion make all-too-familiar bedfellows.

Yes, i am being heartless. I am in many ways an idealist, and idealists are prone to draconian measures. I would let generations of unwanted babies die of neglect, i would see the crime rate skyrocket and executions increase during my time, i would accept the risk of getting murdered for the twenty dollars in my pocket by some desperate result of my removal of support for large families, all so that we don't reach the predictable ten-fold increase in such an outcome another couple of generations from now. My ideal is intellectual development.

It strikes me as utterly thoughtless that it's libertarians and human rights groups which are protesting that judge's decision. I can only assume they are puppets of some conservative think-tank or they simply have no grasp of the concept of freedom. Liberty must be restricted when it begins to restrict others' liberties. We live within the limits of thermodynamics. Everything we create, all our effort, is by hook or crook divided among us. If i ever have children, my first and second children should not have to compete with your fifth through twelfth. We should not have to split resources seven billion ways when one billion would do. Before you start trumpeting the right to breed, the mindless instinctive urge to hump, worry about the right to live in safety, to learn to grow as an individual and to possibly even create new works of art or science. Where does the right to think fit into an overpopulated society?

You know what, forget the quality of life of the children for a moment and worry about the quality of life of the parents. What chance for a meaningful life does an individual with half a dozen children have. Parenthood itself, all that mucking about with dirty diapers, property damage, food, shelter and toys, is the most debilitating condition short of outright maiming that we inflict on ourselves. How free are you when your boss can afford to be a slavedriver because your screaming brats serve as constant leverage against you? How free is a twenty-two year old parent of a newborn to continue advancing intellectually, to reach that level of personal identity at which the urge to procreate no longer controls him?
We should all have a right to live free, dignified lives. We should not have the right to spawn litters of screaming, hungry animals which will by their simple existence restrict others' lives.

You'll be beaten down soon enough, Judge O'Connor, as i'm certain you knew when you made your verdict. Until then, as one quixotic head-case to another, thank you.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The difference between 'artsy' and 'fartsy' - four computer game examples

The four games i'm going to list are all fringe projects: small, relatively easy to play and available for a couple o' bucks in various online distribution systems. They share an attempt to distinguish themselves through artistic creativity as opposed to only copycatting big titles within the framework of a particular genre. The difference is in how well the elements mesh.

Remeber him? The pile of pixels formerly known as the prince of computer games? Them wuz da days, weren't them... when a man could rappel down a brick wall and swashbuckle his way to saving the damsel in distress using only three buttons and two dimensions. That pixellated nostalgia is still funding lots of dime-a-dozen sidescroller copycats to this day. Most of them are largely worthless (we'll get to one of them next) because they have nothing to offer. If all they can give you is a rehashed Prince of Persia with a new loading screen, then i'd rather fire up a DOS emulator and play the original, so i can feel like i'm sitting at my dad's old office computer.
The difference is in the integration. Trine is smooth. It is slick. From the first loading screen to the victory cinematic, it presents no rough edges, no jolts, no sharp disorienting twists. The gameplay is every bit as intuitive as the most simplistic side-scroller while still giving the player a bare minimum of RPG choices to make and plenty of destructible, stackable, graple-able, buildable environment. The player moves in two dimensions in a 3D world. The 3D is not just tacked on as a selling point. It is exploited as a selling point, to create environments one can only describe as "lush" and in which the player is always encouraged to find usable elements. What's more, the environment reacts logically due to an advanced physics engine that would put even some popular first-person shooters of the time to shame. Touch a teeter-totter and it teeters. Tap it and it totters. This apparently simple fact results in a variety of solutions to each level, depending on the player's preferences.
Maximum features, none extraneous. It's the magic formula to meaningful complexity.

Braid, by comparison, is a pretentious and vacuous industry in-joke. It's another side-scroller, ostentatiously low-budget right down to the hipster duds the main character's sporting. Its artistic aspirations would supposedly come from sound and especially storytelling while its innovations are various metagame abilities like teleporting or rewinding. The problem is that neither the innovations nor the artistic side have anything to do with the game itself. While Trine's various elements naturally grow out of the basic 'Prince of Persia' concept, Braid is just a random assemblage of generic gimmicks.
The core gameplay itself is just aggravatingly simplistic. It's never a matter of finding solutions, but only retrying the obvious setup until you manage the correct timing. While both games contain story interludes with dramatic voice-vers, Trine's actually has something to do with the game itself while Braid feels like you're suffering through that nonsensical mish-mash of platforms and traps so you can get rewarded with an entirely unrelated story about a princess. While this may seem like wry commentary on the nonsensical premise of most games, it's simply no incentive to trudge through a Sisyphean repetition of rows of rotund boogeymen on platforms.
Trine also contained much commentary on the nuker/tank/healer RPG triad and various computer game tropes, but these were integrated into the gameplay, into the personalities and playstyles of the three characters. Take, for instance, the knight's introduction:
"At the other end of the Astral Academy, a knight had been practicing his own skills, 
to battle the undead and prove himself worthy of joining the King's army. 
Between me and you, he did not quite understand what “undead” meant - 
but this was his chance to be the bravest knight of all."
Braid's time-warping and other mechanics would be interesting as part of a larger, coherent project, but it seems Braid itself was cobbled as a forced attempt to prove that they could be made to work. Portal was a creative use of unusual game mechanics. Braid is only a disjointed clutter of half-baked ideas sold as a side-scroller.

Dinner Date
On the face of it, Dinner Date should prompt even more scathing derision than Braid. Dinner Date is not a game. It is a one-man absurdist theater sketch, and you're the stagehand whispering lines (which turn out to be largely inconsequential) while the actor makes a shambles of the script. Thankfully, being absurdist, the sketch turns out all the better for it.
This is the fundamental delineation between the pretentious, facetious sale of a bad game as 'art' and art simply using an interactive medium as a platform. Dinner Date was built using the Source engine, Valve's much-publicized FPS game engine used for Half-Life 2. Based on this, there may be certain expectations, but, while Braid makes you hop over various waves of identical enemies to (supposedly) make some point about the lack of creativity in computer games, Dinner Date never puts a rocket launcher in the character's hand to make him shoot paint cans off a fence before you can have your next glass of wine and get back to the point. Neither does it force some unrelated art-house foppery on players like Braid's dreary "princess needs rescue" interludes. As frustratingly powerless as it can make players feel, none of Dinner Date's elements are extraneous. It is focused and succinct in its exploration of the protagonist's personality, from the way he breaks bread to his musings on work colleagues, and players' few actions flow naturally from the frustration they share with their inconsistent modern-man avatar.
I found Dinner Date very frustrating the first time i turned it on. I thought i'd been ripped off and wanted my two bits back. This was, however, because i was expecting a game. What it is, is interactive theater.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent
As the title quite bombastically announces, this is a very "goth" game. It's a solid contender for the title of 'creepiest' game ever made. Its creators had a very solid grasp of the power of half-glimpsed terrors. In fact, if you ever do get a look at an enemy, you'll find it somewhat ridiculous, because they are made to be only glimpsed around corners through the haze of an adrenaline rush or while running headlong down a narrow hallway. The implication here is actually the main gimmick of the game: it's a first-person shooter with no shooting, a survival-horror game in which the player is entirely powerless. If an enemy ever catches you, you will die. This results in some oddball memorable moments like "that thing i couldn't see in the water" or "i hid in the dresser" which would be very aggravating if the game had been at all repetitive. It does an excellent job however of keeping the player on his toes, mixing a Lovecraftian "sanity" mechanic in with puzzle-solving, minimal environment interaction, running in panic and a hefty dose of storytelling.
The point of the game is both ridiculously hackneyed (a ploy from the tritest depths of soap-opera "plots") and oddly fitting. You, an amnesiac, awaken in a dark, isolated German castle sometime during the 19th century and must discover the horrific deeds performed within. The storytelling never feels like it disrupts the game. The atmosphere, threat cues, and the audio and video limitations make it so easy to identify with the protagonist that i found myself backing my character away from an object in disgust when i realized its use. It is immersive and no elements ever feel tacked-on. Though completely linear and in the grand scheme predictable, it was a thorough pleasure to play through because everything from puzzles to environment to monster encounters and cinematics thoughtfully converged to contribute to the overall experience of the player.
It manages to be both creative and coherent.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Any mention of Mirrormask seems accompanied by a condescending head-shake toward its plot. This would make sense if we were talking about an Agatha Christie "whodunit" or a morally charged SciFi warning of the future, but not when the subject at hand is an oneiric fantasy created to showcase imaginative landscapes.

Yes, it's true, it would have benefitted from a more complex storyline. As it stands, it's a fairly standard hero's journey. The heroine enters a magic world, acquires a sidekick, receives aid from various helpers, has a falling out with the sidekick, then they reconcile, grab the macguffin and reinstate the status quo. You're even told what the macguffin is from the get-go. It wasn't meant as a mystery of any sort.

Believe me, i am not spoiling the movie by saying that the mirrormask is the goal of the heroine's quest or that her sidekick will need to apologize at some point. Unless you're six years old, you will see all the major plot 'twists' coming from a mile away. What you won't foresee are the myriad visual details and the fantastic settings. Every scene warrants new descriptors like 'sphinx pride' or 'monkeybirds' or 'clockwork nannies' and the overall visual effect is as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting come to life.

The whole movie is a prime example of the power of even simple, relatively unsophisticated CGI, and the positive spin good writing and atmosphere can put on a simplistic premise.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Give the people what they want - TSW edition with a LOTRO mention

"Sign up for the secret war via the PvP menu (P). Battlefields and warzones are tons of fun, and PvP is a great way to advance your character."
- TSW loading screen hint

I'll have to make a much longer post at a future date about the many good and bad (more good than bad) aspects of The Secret World. This is specifically about one poor decision. I warned them! I want credit for this.
Years before the game came out, during early development, i posted the following comment on their forums.

"Either build the game with PvP in mind or do not implement PvP. [...] Some game concepts work better as purely cooperative playstyles. TSW, with its supposed slant towards puzzles, secrets, and meta-plot, definitely strikes me as one of them."

PvP is not normally something you have to push on players in any online game. It's usually more of a chore to get the vicious little monkeys to stop trying to kill each other. If you have to push it on them, force them to PvP in order to advance their characters, then you obviously missed some detail about your target audience. Say, maybe you geared your entire game from the ground up as a casual puzzle-solving adventure game with PvE RPG mechanics and dedicated all your initial ad campaign towards drawing in players who like unraveling mysteries and conspiracy theories.

As soon as the game started it was obvious that the battlefields were simply extraneous to the rest of TSW. The few players who spent time in them were the ones who had no interest in the game as a whole. The rest of us knew better than to PvP in a puzzle-solving game. TSW's basic concept was simply not geared toward dick-measurers.

This reminds me of LoTRO's 'hobby' system. At some point, some idiot at Turbine decided the game absolutely needed to start copying World of Warcraft's secondary crafting skill system and gave players the opportunity to fish. Since it had nothing whatsoever to do with middle-earth (the only fishing in LoTR is Gollum trying to grab some with his bare hands out of the water) it was a decisive flop. It's not why players paid for LoTRO and it had nothing to do with the rest of the game. Water is only a surface in LoTRO anyway, and there are no other water-related activities whatsoever. They don't even force you to swim. It's just scenery. Fishing was a blatant timesink.
The most recent expansion however includes several quests that force the player to pick up a fishing pole in order to complete the questing deed in a certain region.
This year's bad decision is obviously justifiable for being an effort to justify last year's bad decision.

I wonder how long it'll be before TSW forces players into battlefields in order to complete the quests for some new region.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiv - never mind, string up the lights

The worst of the holiday season (defined as 'whenever the sales start') is no longer the corporate push to extend Christmas spending. Forget that the image of Santa Claus is a century-old Coca-Cola ad. Ignore all the stores already pushing 'must-have' gifts on you. I guarantee you by the way that your child will not die without the latest Tickle-Me-Beanie-Furbie that all the other kids have.

No, the true sign that the holiday traditionalist Waterloo has come and gone is that on November 17th, the house down the street acquired a full set of Christmas decorations, complete with fiberglass does with plastic reindeer antlers glued on their lovable little heads. I'm half-expecting an army of turkeys to march down the street and have it out with their holiday's invaders a la West Side Story. No, i don't know how they'd manage the finger-snapping.

My point is that it's Joe Schmoe who's now skipping right over one holiday to get to the one a month from now. A month? A month is huge. At the time these celebrations originated, you could've died to cold, starvation and bloodthirsty invaders five times over in a month. The stores' interest in extending the gift-buying holiday at any expense is well documented and has a certain internal logic. We're talking about corporations; their behavior always follows the amoebic slide toward food, or in this case, profit.

No, the sick effect is the brainwashed average duh-merican stringing up Christmas lights with a turkey leg still in his mouth. Thanksgiving was your holiday you geniuses. All the others were Germanic or Jewish or perversions of druidic seasonal rites. Taking the harvest celebration which is fairly generic in most cultures and making it a day of remembrance for the struggles of the early colonists and the one moment of cooperation with the natives before they butche -

Ooooohhh, now i get it. Thankgiving's not safe for children. Better show them a nice, cuddly baby Jesus instead.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

holy Lands

I really need to stop reading those news items.
Ok, ok, i get it. We're supposed to be on the Jews' side in this hemisphere, because once America succeeds in making the entirety of the middle east into a screaming Jihad worthy of blue eyes and spice addiction, we're gonna need the puppet  'nation' of Israel as a springboard for continued strikes against oil-rich countries. I get it. It's a convenient location, like it's always been. Hell, Damascus lived off of freakin' nothing for centuries just by legitimized silk highway robbery. Replace silk with black gold and anyone can see what profitable real estate that gods-forsaken patch of tired rock can be. Even the goats wouldn't want it otherwise. I get that it's convenient. Machiavelli and Sun Tzu would be proud.

What i'm sick of seeing is this tacit acceptance of moral cause. Israel's fabricated claim is something out of the dark ages. In what other situation do we justify beating the current inhabitants of any region out of their lebensraum because some guy with a funny head-dress says the big magic beardy-man up in the sky said it was his instead? It's not like there aren't any other historic injustices littering the place. The cornerstone of Jericho was hardly laid by Jewish hands even by Biblical admission. This entire planet is a clusterfuck of ape tribes killing and displacing each other. If we were to dredge up every invasion of the past two thousand years, WWIII would come and go so quickly the dolphins would own the planet in a year. There are in fact two continents full of descendents of various peoples who were butchered and driven off their land much more recently than the Jews - but i don't see the American and Canadian governments abdicating to put the Iroquois back in charge.

No, there is no debate, no mutually acceptable compromise. If this were a moral decision, the only course would be a cessation of all trade and support for Israel. It is a purely cold-blooded profit-driven decision. We are willing to promote continued military conflict in the region for profit. And if you can't handle that thought, if all that blood on your hands for lower gas prices turns your stomach a little, then stop trying to pretend fair-mindedness. There is one right side to this issue, and it doesn't involve the Holocaust. As far as i know, the Nazi party included precious few Palestinians.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The earliest SciFi?

I've always said that Frankenstein is the first true example of science fiction.* The premise is based on rational advancement or discovery and even features the heavy slant toward social commentary characteristic of good scifi. Its focus on objects and especially ideas as opposed to characters or subjective states is nowadays so intrinsic to the genre as to make the lignified Keanu Reeves an ideal science fiction protagonist.

Turning to the relevant wikipedia page we find of course many more outlandish notions than my own. I doubt many can hear of Gilgamesh as a potential Keanu Reeves role without doing a double-take. Still, some of the more reasonable inclusions in science fiction (pre)history merit consideration. I find myself forced to abandon one of my other proposed scifi precursors, Faust, because the action is entirely supernatural regardless of his status as a scholar. Faust is more of a morality play than a "what if" story.

I'm also unimpressed by the idea of Gulliver's Travels as science fiction. Its various world-shaking notions are not discoveries. They are given "as-is" to support social commentary on a particular theme. It's good stuff, but given that the protagonist, his acquaintances and really all other characters lack any sort of agency and are more or less observers in their own adventures, given that they almost entirely lack meaningful decisions to make, it all feels more like an extended fable or faery tale. The Gulliver stories are no more sciencey than Rip Van Winkle.

Most of the other examples, given that i've never heard of them, i can't comment on. One, however, did throw me for a loop. I've never read Utopia (i know, i know, someone give this man a library card) but i do know the basic precept and it may just have been the earliest true scifi story. The main concern of science fiction (and i mean the good stuff, not just "spaceships and laserguns" fare) is the variety of social and personal implications of new discoveries. 
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea** is greatly concerned with the power a captain of an electric vessel might possess in the steam era. Much of the book discusses Nemo's restraint or lack thereof in carving out his niche with an arc-welder.
H.G. Wells was fairly heavy-handed by comparisson. I wonder if any of today's multibillionaires sleeping on piles of hookers are tormented by nightmares in which these turn into morlocks.
Even The Lost World was half big lizards and half Doyle's poking fun at scientists and their foibles, the blustering or slithering men of learning which clutter academia to this day. It's the human and inhuman attitudes in that novel setting which make it interesting.
In fact, it seems more difficult to find any memorable works of science fiction which have not concerned themselves heavily with social commentary. Even Star Trek had its primitive, simplistic talk of freedom and the pursuit of knowledge in between phaser duels. Journey to the Center of the Earth would be a good example of apolitical scifi, just a nerd's "wouldn't it be cool if" ramblings. Stapledon's Last and First Men, after the first men die off, would also be simply a flight of fancy (it's as if he wanted to get the politics out of the way in the first few chapters.)

Utopia concerns itself with an advanced society. Presumably the various advances were made scientifically, through the effort and ingenuity of thinking beings, and not handed down by supernatural benefactors. From a scifi point of view, the story may be considered rudimentary if it skips much of the details and simply gives a cure for cancer, abundant crops or readily available birth control as part of its premise. These days, authors are expected to put a little more work into gadgets, gimmicks and geekery. Still, new discoveries cue shifts in morality. Science prompted social Darwinism and science debunked it. If Utopia concerns itself with that sort of prompting and debunking, then i'd have to consider it scifi.

I'm reminded of Robert Heinlein's recently released early attempt at writing, For Us, The Living and its blatant use of the scifi setting as a mere soapbox. Aside from a convoluted and shaky economics lesson, the book focuses entirely on finding the best way to live, the individual's coping with new avenues of thought and the difficulty of overcoming atavism when it has become socially damaging rather than an evolutionary tool. The characters do not simply act according to human nature as we'd expect from Gulliver's chance acquaintances. They are instead actively shaping their world and themselves. It's agency in a rational universe that sets them apart, and makes Utopia a valid candidate as the grand-daddy of all laser-gun duels.

*I realized i was lying, for some time i considered 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea the earliest.
**This is where i realized it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Far to the north of the town of Bree lies an area known to the Bree-folk as the north downs. It is a land which has largely fallen out of my kindred's reckoning, at least in my own time, resting as it did within the edges of Arnor while the line of kings held and thereafter left under the care of its scattered farmers and the watchful eyes of the Dunedain.

East of the dwarven settlement of Othrikar, far east of the Greenway in the metal-rich hills which line the border to the darker north, i found a cottage, a dwelling of men such as a single family might occupy, crude stonework and a thatched roof like so many others which litter the plains of Eriador in this age. I found it abandoned, its occupants likely having heeded the call to evacuate when the orcs flooded out of Angmar, but their retreat seems to have been unnecessary. No trace of orc-filth mars their calm little hollow. Deer and the occasional bear or lynx wander through the sparse trees and brush as though the world had never known either the cruelty of the wicked or the ambition of the great.

I stand here and wonder at their lives, these sons and daughters of the Atani. I wonder what they know of the struggles in the faraway southlands and at how little i myself know yet. At such a time as this i would forego my scholar's lore. There is game in these hills, and good hearty roots. The hearth my predecessors used for warmth i would welcome as companionship, a friendly play of flames on cloudy nights. Up the hill to the west stands a war beacon, unlit. And why should it be otherwise? There are no marching hordes in sight here, no siege engines, no cries of fear and pain.

There is a patch of bare earth off the southeast wall, large enough for a few herbs to greet the morning light, if i had a mind for it. I walked to Othrikar yesterday. The dwarves knew of the house. Hunter-folk, they say, and had little else to do with them other than the usual trade in furs, tools and sausages. None even knew the men had left, and less of when they would return. Autumn drags on. There is enough time to plant some bulbs before winter.

I could not stay here forever. From the peaks around the cottage, one might make out abandoned farms to the south, overtaken by orcish outrunners. Far to the northeast on a clear day loom the barren cliffsides of the blighted northern mountains. War may ravage these hills as likely as not. The rangers cannot hold for long and this is no Imladris, no holdfast against the darkness; mere chance has spared it thus far. Crebain cross overhead now and again. And what would i do, scion of the elder race, plant cabbages and chop firewood in a thatched hut? Though born in this land, my blood calls to the west.

Yet still. They should not return to a crumbled home and rotted land. The stones may be uncut but they were laid with care. Cabbage and venison is no shameful fare. I can hunt. These Naugrim will not leave yet, stone-sedentary as their hearts hold them, dark times or no.
They had only one task for me, my new neighbours: that if the southern road should darken or the valleys to the east fill with danger, i would climb the hill between us and light the beacon. And why should not a Noldo bring deer-hides to market in Othrikar in place of a man, for a little while?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wapsi Square

The main problem with Wapsi Square is the writer's uncertainty in delineating the nature and limits of the universe, the characters' personalities and the internal logic of the work as a whole. It's a fairly common problem in webcomics, given their habitually haphazard beginnings. Very few are thought out beforehand as finite works. Many presumably simply run out of ideas because they outlast their estimated popularity.
This issue is compounded by the desperation for outlandish situations. I commented in an earlier post that the internet is littered with webcomics about high school and college students travelling to alternate dimensions and fighting vampires and dragons for no apparent reason. Let's not even get into the "elves with swords" routine. The Wapsi girls have a tendency to acquire overblown, dramatic powers and histories which serve no real purpose in the long run.

Very few comics which fall into the pattern of endless cast expansion, soap-opera-like twists and reiteration of the background of their imaginary worlds ever manage to pull together into something coherent and unfortunately Wapsi Square seems to be continually sliding downwards.

I suppose i should start with the goods before i get into the bads. It's nice to see the artist fine-tuning his particular style, making what could be nothing more than blocky caricatures into expressive, forceful personalities. The story, such as it is, also held some interest for a while because it deals with some of the less familiar conspiracy theories, concerning Atlantis, cyclical human history or Mayan calendars (OK, that last one has become all too familiar the past few years but he's not to blame.) Novelty carries with it the caveat of obscurity however, and many times the dialogue seems to jump, to make nonsensical leaps based (i would guess) on assumptions about how demonic possession 'works' according to a particular culture or the nature of a cyclical timeframe. Another central issue is the almost entirely female cast. Male characters make only cursory appearances, almost as extensions of a female's internal monologue. Whether it's pandering to the audience by drawing nothing but curvaceous characters or outright slavishness to women's control of males' instinct, this tendency is in itself distastefully sexist.

The bigger issues though are still the ballooning cast of (yes, all female) characters and the seemingly random redefining of each one on a whim. The comic started with jokes about bra sizes, drinking in bars and sexual relationships, a fairly predictable melange of twenty-somethings' concerns. At an early point, the main character freed the Aztec god of alcohol from a statue, but he's male so he was largely abandoned after he introduced a trio of bimbos which turned out to be an all-powerful trinity that just want to live normal human lives, then sphinxes got involved and one of the characters discovers she was an eighty-thousand-year old sphinx all along and a couple of them discovered they're haunted by demons with their own personalities but that's ok because we can redefine the central story to revolve around demons even if it was about the sun stone to begin with and if by this point you think this is sounding like "Days of Our Lives" with more magic you ain't seen nothin' yet.

The author, though admittedly creative,  seems to suffer from "wouldn't it be cool if" syndrome and a sad tendency to try to make each episode, each new character quirk as world-shaking as possible. He seems to realize this to some extent and was clear-headed enough to downplay the end of the first big adventure (in which the heroines save the world and possibly a good portion of the Milky Way as well) to prevent himself from needing to create more sharks to jump... but then he started shark-fishing anyway.

Still, in another year maybe i'll take another look at the comic, for the sake of the good old stories of the creepy girl at the office (who turns out to be just creepy, not supernatural - currently being retconned into something supernatural i'm afraid) or pages like this one of the main character being attacked by the demonic personification of her self-doubt. Wapsi Square's problems tend to look like a condensed version of those of print comic books. How many times has Batman's personality been re-iterated and how many origins does Spider-Man have nowadays?

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Latest Greatest Hopes of MMOs

It's been well over a decade since companies started selling products they call MMOs. It's been about a decade since most of them stopped even trying to put out anything resembling a persistent world. In that time there have many empty promises and failed attempts.
Without going into the failed attempts and sell-outs of the past, here are the current and future failed attempts or empty promises that i've run across.

Pretty much dead at this point, Dawntide vaporized when it lost its funding last year. If it were resurrected by some kind soul of a cutthroat profiteering billionaire it would still be the strongest contender for a true persistent world simply because its creators had the best grasp of the necessary interconnection of player activity. The game revolved around crafting and the necessity of gathering crafting components, controlling profitable areas and getting goods to wherever they're going (no teleporting), with player conflict growing naturally out of that. Combined with its heavier slant on naval combat, the entire game world being set in an archipelago while still not pigeonholing anyone as pirates, it still holds some promise.
If another six months or a year go by without anyone reviving it however, the game can safely be considered dated and buried along with Ultima Online even if it does get dredged up a decade from now.

The main detriment to this one is how difficult it is to get into. It lacks production values (even Dawntide was showing more promising artwork and sound before it went under) and it is very punishing on beginners, even those who, like me, have played any number of sandbox games whose learning curve is a solid cliff wall like EVE.
It is however an expansive persistent world (and they're putting the world first with player activity really changing the landscape) and offers a great array of player options. It seems to be the most fanatically "sandbox" of my examples here, and the trade-offs may well be worth it for those who truly like their freedom.

The Repopulation
Of this whole bunch it has the widest appeal while still staying true to persistent world core principles. They are heavily pushing faction warfare which may end up to be a debacle like Darkfall (which boiled down to a few zerg guilds parceling out an all-too-small map with fixed city locations) but the landscape looks pretty in screenshots and they are promising to make non-combat playstyles valid choices instead of pigeonholing everyone as PvPers with some crafting skill stapled on in the back of their skillsets.
They are taking a vast risk by offering both FPS and RPG combat all in one. What's more, instead of making a PvP-centered game with some PvE, they are saying they'll be on equal footing. My impulse is to say that it will be impossible to balance and they will mire themselves in development hell for years trying to get the game engine and skill system to accomodate all that. Time will tell, but i must admit this is the one i'm currently most curious about and would love to see a beta.
It's as or more ambitious than Xsyon while looking better and having more gimmicks to draw players in.

Life Is Feudal
The problem with LIF is that it's primarily going for roleplayer appeal. There is a great amount of sandbox appeal, including again, alterable terrain, but the game seems heavily dependent on the viability of its player faction system, the feudal lifestyle. I have a weak spot for LIF because it might be a  true multiplayer version of Mount & Blade but their die-hard dedication to the medieval setting (no magic or other fantasy elements) might make it hard for the game to achieve the critical mass of players which a persistent world needs to keep it interesting. It will live or die according to how many creative anachronists play online games.

Planetside 2
The original Planetside is, along with EVE and ATITD one of the tragically few examples of true persistent world gameplay. It is a niche product, a pure PvP game selling mainly on the idea of a world-sweeping conflict between three fixed factions and is in this respect much of what World of Warcraft failed miserably to live up to. Hundreds of players at a time using infantry, tanks and planes against each other along gigantic, continent-spanning battle-lines, that's all there is to the game, but there is enough to that concept to make PS2 (along with the fact that it's funded by Sony and has, compared to the likes of the games i've presented so far, practically infinite funding) the most likely to succeed short-term. It's not a sandbox, but it is persistent and massive, and if all others fail it will make a good fall-back point.
It's not its lack of features that will kill PS2, but its marketing scheme. Even before release, they are offering players a chance to buy amusement-park money to spend in game on more powerful guns and upgrades. This is a much bigger weakness than Sony's bean-counters seem to realize.
Nothing matters more for a PvP game than fair-play. What they are offering players is a "pay-to-win" option and it will kill the game's competitiveness in the long run. It will be thoroughly enjoyable for the first couple of months but most players will soon after begin to realize that they can never compete with those willing to spend hundreds of dollars every year to keep buying the more and more overpowered weapons, armors and so forth that Sony is selling.
Don't get me wrong, PS2 will never drop out of the market altogether, but it will rapidly devolve to the status of Project Entropia or EVE, profitable because it can keep a few addicts shilling out year after year but inconsequential for the rest of us looking for a an actual game to play and not just legitimized cheating.

The best thing FireFall has going for it is the investor-bait of an apparent "pay-to-win" system combined with a promise to only let players buy cosmetic features, never practical advantages. Aside from that, it's a compromise between The Repopulation and Planetside 2. Fewer features but more polish, better ad-campaign (they're hiring geek spokesmen like Wil Wheaton as advertisers, good angle) and a solid focus on PvP while still including PvE, fitting my own mantra on the issue of balance in a persistent world, it looks to be the most likely to succeed and actually deliver a true MMO since EVE started selling multiple subscriptions.

Friday, November 9, 2012


One of the greatest examples of how badly games have been dumbed down is weapon damage. When a game pretends to have a variety of weapons, some slower or faster, smaller or larger, pointier or blunter and then simply reduces all considerations to a simplistic comparison of average damage per second, it's no mere accident.

It is a commentary on the decline in gamer intelligence.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Mitt Romney

It's november 5th, and tomorrow the reactionary public of the good old yew ess of ayyyy will as likely as not pick another ultraconservative moneygrubber as their figurehead. My concern right now isn't the issues. Romney has no platform other than "nobody likes Obama, trust me, you don't like Obama, i am telling you, i know you better than you do you don't" but hell, it's not like Obama ran on an actual platform either, just kept shouting "change change change changetty change change (hope)" like some forum spammer in an online game.

What i'm worried about now is that Romney is actually appealing as a figurehead to so many americans. I am socially inept. I'm not the most perceptive when it comes to reading facial expressions, voice inflection and so forth. So what i find most puzzling at the moment is how nobody is pointing out just what a cheesy pastiche of the outwardly restrained closet megalomaniacal sadist Romney is.

What i have seen in every one of his speeches is an even more wooden mask than most politicians, a tense, wrought-iron, clenched-teeth facade barely containing the desperate desire to take up a cat'o'nine-tails. Unlike most of the half-entertainer figureheads the U.S. tends to elect, this guy is not even a good actor. How is everyone missing the sardonic note in his voice when he says "i care very deeply" or "i support" whatever his target audience supports? It is no accident that that KGB hatchet-man Putin can't wait to 'work with' Romney if he's elected, because they're like two peas in an irradiated pod. They are both willing to make a blind power-grab within their lifetimes and damn what comes after. They want another cold war. How delusional do Americans have to be to buy Romney's comment that Russia is the #1 geopolitical threat when the entire U.S. economy has "made in China" stamped on it thanks to the profit-first (and profit only) neoconservative deregulators like Romney they've been electing to office for the past three decades. Can nobody see who this schmuck actually represents, the cut-throat Wallstreet profiteers willing to throw the west into another cold war in some pissing contest with Putin as a smokescreen while they feed bite after bite of the infrastructure to the far east under the table?

And yet americans, primed as they are by this sick, overcompetitive 'wild-west' macho mentality their leaders have carefully cultured over the past century and more, buy into Romney's image as a stalwart, dependable 'strong leader' as if he's not going to grab a learjet to a private island compound in a non-extradition country as soon as things turn sour. Look at the fuckin used-car salesman grin; this schmuck is not Alexander the Great at the head of his armies trying to conquer the world. He's not even a madhouse Napoleon. He's a Bond villain! I wouldn't be surprised if his line as he bails out of the country with his corporate masters after partitioning off the infrastructure to the highest bidders is "no mr John Q. Public, i expect you to die!"

And he is not even charismatic, this guy. The same people who refused to elect Gore because he looked like a plastic robot from the planet Spineless are now nodding their heads in tune with a humorless scheister they wouldn't buy snake-oil from under normal circumstances. It's not so much that he doesn't laugh; the man cannot even fake a laugh, he actually says 'heh heh heh' like some cackling cartoon supervillain. Clinton was entertaining and Obama was smooth and even that finishing school dropout, the child king Bush II, could at least halfway play the man of the people angle. Romney is a charisma tar pit.
That's the truly perplexing thing, Romney's lack of figurehead qualities, or would be if it weren't perfectly explainable in terms of media control, because the uneducated hoi-polloi of the richest country in the world can reasonably be expected to vote for whoever shouts loudest. Forget rational analysis, they have lost the ability to even vote based on gut feeling.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

My imaginary friend told me i don't have to think

It's taken me forever to understand one particular aspect of the religious mindset. Having largely dropped superstition from my thinking since i was around ten to twelve years of age, it's been difficult lately to remember just how polarized the religious view is, how absolute the delineation between one's indoctrination and the evils outside the sect. It stems, of course, from religion's primary use as a tool of social control. The 'us versus them' mentality, the channeling of instinctive kin recognition into this particular use of ritualistic behavior to cement social bonds against unbelievers is as central to religion as the promise of life after death.

Intellectually, i've held that understanding of sectarian polarization in some remote corner of my brain alongside the knowledge that religion, for anyone but a caveman making up an explanation for thunder and the phases of the moon, is basically a refusal to think, a shrinking away from the unpleasant effort of logically working through the problems of the univesrse - cogitation constipation, if you will. I did not grasp the implication, just how completely religion precludes the concept of logic itself.

Recently, i've decided to skim through some snippets of Bill Maher's HBO show, Real Time, both through the segments HBO provides online and various youtube clips. This led to other Bill Maher comedy and commentary clips. I ran across the following paragraph in the screaming of some fundamentalist at the beginning of this clip (min. 0:40); i am transcribing it myself so pardon any inaccuracy.

"You liberals are hypocrites. You say 'don't yell at me, don't get upset at me, you know, just have free thinking, open your mind, don't be so narrow-minded' and as soon as somebody disagrees with you you start cussin' you start getting upset. [you're?] outside of Jesus Christ, you hate God, yew haytcher country!"

The way in which he says 'you hate god' was what made me sit up and replay the segment. It seems a key to understanding the religious incapacity to grasp the basis of individual thought, and the inevitable rejection of religion through independent thought. The revelation (biblical pun intended) is that there is no rationalism from a fundamentalist viewpoint. We're just another heathen sect. They are incapable of discerning between rational atheism and the disciples of Baal, Amun-Ra or the dark lord of the morning star. They see it as just another religious war because they cannot imagine anything outside religious indoctrination.

And it isn't. The common atheist frustration is not spurred by disagreement. That would imply a weighing of factors, an informed opinion, a search for truth by both sides. Religion is a refusal to think, a wholesale, gullible entrenchment in the safety blanket of childhood indoctrination. By the same token, the fundamentalist cannot imagine a life not ruled by irrational adherence to socially-imposed dogma. He believes atheists are only usurpers from another faith. There is no disagreement between reason and religion because they're not even speaking the same language.

I don't hate gods. I can't. It is impossible to hate something that doesn't exist. I like stories about gods. They entertain me. I'm a big fan of mythology.
I hate religion itself, the particular deca-millenial subjugation of will and intellect by social pressure toward irrationality.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The October Country

"that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coalbins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain"

What's truly remarkable about Bradbury's approach to horror is his grasp of the power of contrast. The events he describes are hair-raising largely because of the utterly mundane backgrounds he creates, the homey, dusty, sleepy patches of small-town-america vulnerable to a single zombie or vampire. Horror is not a rock concert (though Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie always made a good show of it) and it's the background of deathly stillness that makes a single barely-audible groan in the darkness so scary.

The main problem with the consumer culture's take on horror is the emphasis on violence. It's not just violence itself that makes a good story, but fear. It's fear that makes your heart pound when walls shake from a monster's roar or a door creaks open, and it has other causes than the primordial flinch from a pain stimulus. Fear of social ridicule, ostracism, breaking taboos or especially reproductive insuccess are just as hardwired in our monkey brains but they are so rarely tapped.

It's these fears that drive the most memorable stories in the collection; The Dwarf, The Next in Line, The Emissary, The Small Assassin or my favorite, The Cistern all play on social expectations. The cruelty and desperation which the characters display stem from our instinctive demands as social apes and the mores created by the group at large.
It is debatable, i would say, whether The Emissary ends on a note of fear or hope or both, or whether the ending of The Cistern is not a welcome release because a major theme in Bradbury's stories is a defeat and surpassing of the mundane, of "normal" wants and needs. In most mass-market products, especially the dime-a-dozen action, thriller and horror movies pouring out of Hollywood, the sign of success, the denouement, is always the return of normalcy, the re-affirmation of the status quo as morally and pragmatically unquestionable. Bradbury's gift is contrasting the mundane and macabre on equal terms. The most unsettling part is being given a choice as a reader to side with the monster, or at least see the monstrous nature of human normalcy.

I am ignoring Uncle Einar and The Homecoming  because they don't really fit in with the rest of the stories. Spinning them off as their own collection was right. From the Dust Returned is more in tune with some of The Martian Chronicles, Death is a Lonely Business or Something Wicked This Way Comes, stories of longing, slow creeping doom and alienation, even further removed from the horror or thriller stereotype than The October Country.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Han doesn't shoot at all now

Yup, for all you Star Wars fans that complained (justifiably) about Lucas' moronic later additions to what i've heard quite astutely described as his 'accidental masterpiece' -

your worst nightmare has come true

Ewoks and Gungans for everyone! No hero will now actually shoot anyone. They will simply watch as the villain dramatically falls off a cliff into conveniently placed reactors. Princess Leia is now a minority stereotype painting with all the colors of the solar wind. Chewbacca gets a makeover halfway through episode 8 to look like Justin Bieber.

Bwahahahaha! And do you know what's even funnier? Star Wars fandom is idiotic enough not to simply ignore all the new crap and think of the galaxy far far away as it was first described, take the good, leave the bad. They will feel compelled to consider every idiotic disneyed episode from now on 'canon' and try to maintain the original feel even as Luke Skywalker gets ret-conned into a hard-bitten Ewok mercenary and Vader turns out to be an inside agent, good all along.