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.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Game series, like books, movies and anything else forcibly serialized, suffer from oversimplification as they are re-iterated according to the good old core business principle of pandering to whatever's assumed to represent the target consumers' tastes.

Say a startup developer makes a good game. They are then approached by the usual walking money piles with no idea of the products in which they're investing. Having no idea, these turn to ever-skewed statistics, customer feedback and the most destructive force in mass-consumer entertainment, the focus group. This excludes any consideration of the countless game elements whose effects players barely notice while in-game. It's observed, for example, that players spend inordinate amounts of time farming gear in MMOs. You then create so-called MMOs revolving around gear-farming. 'Extraneous' features are implemented as separate minigames if at all.

The pattern is of course, older than WoW, and most easily seen within a single series. The sequel's never as good as the original, is it?

Dune 2
The game which defined RTS. The original Dune game was a mix of adventure gaming and very slow real-time strategy. To this day i can't think of anything that managed the same combination. Dune 2 got pruned down to only the combat, sped up to the ridiculous button-mashing speeds we've come to expect from micromanagement games pretending to be strategic.

M.A.X. 2
The original was a turn-based strategy game forcing much foresight and planning, with weapon range and unit positioning often being much more important than damage, and supply chains playing a critical role. The sequel removed the individual unit ammunition and much of the need for interdependence, the careful logistics-heavy trench warfare which made M.A.X. unique and moved it closer to, again, the button-mashing RTS typique.

Uprising 2
In contrast to the first two examples, Uprising was one of the most hellishly demanding multitasking games ever made. I say multitasking and not micromanagement because the challenge was not cycling through units to give each the same command but keeping track of all the developments on the battlefield. At the same time, the player, piloting a tank in first person while keeping track of resources as in any RTS game, might need to strafe down an approaching tank squad with maximum power to weapons systems, then switch to defensive mode and order some tanks in to hold the line, order an orbital strike against a reinforced enemy position, pause to look at the map then switch to full engine power and zoom across the field to order an interceptor squad to take care of approaching bombers then rebuild whatever got destroyed while holding off whatever ground forces the AI teleported in while... well, it was hectic, let's leave it at that. Uprising 2 needlessly simplified the Wraith, the player's unique tank and created linear goals to follow, pretty much removing the whole scatterwhelming charm of the experience.

Heroes of Might and Magic 5
The charm of the HoMM series was its RPG feel. Because of the TBS mechanics, this didn't mean storyline for the most part but atmosphere delivered through countless little one-liner popups. Removing them and simply floating up the "+5 ore" messages was a step in the wrong direction. So was the limiting of player choice in terms of creature dwellings and hero abilities, when compared to the much more diverse HoMM 4. They tried to make it more of a pure strategy game, but only managed to lose the point of the original TBS/RPG mix. Nobody played any iteration of HoMM because it was balanced and challenging. You played it to build up your personalized hero at a hovel you turned into a monster metropolis and give him an army of enough vampires to bat out the sky, then bleed the world dry! The personal touch was crucial, and largely abandoned.

Diablo 2
Diablo 2 was focused entirely on gear-farming. That's what made it addictive, a proof-of-concept of the marketability of slot-machine gameplay.
In itself though, the game lacked much of the charm of the original, because it lacked contrast. When everything's magical, nothing is.
Getting Arkaine's Valor or a magic ring in Diablo was a big deal. It was memorable in a way that not one of the endless thousands of items in D2 ever matched. D2 trivialized every action through endless redundancy. Mana regeneration, lifestealing weapons, skill trees with obvious 'best' choices, each item more magic than the last, it was the absence of all of this, the fact that you spent the whole game conserving mana and got through half of it with non-magical gear which made Diablo so captivating. The slow start which got thrown out when making the sequel was necessary to put the endgame rush of power in perspective.

There are also exceptions to the oversimplification rule of course. I'll just give one example.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
This is an offshoot of the Civilization series and it seems like something the creators were permitted to do by their purse-string masters sort of on-the-side, a shamefully (to the business mindset) creative project before cranking out Civilization 3.
Though the civilization games really shine as pure strategy, SMAC dove into storytelling, just shy of outright roleplaying. The futuristic setting of terraforming a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri is used to play out scenarios familiar to many scifi fans and cited in the game manual as inspiration: a mix of Herbert and Ransom's Pandora series and Kin Stanley Robinson's Mars books. The seven playable faction leaders had personalities and individual backgrounds worthy of any RPG campaign and the discovery of the planet itself and the ultimate fate of humanity gave finishing a match an unequaled thrill among the rather sedate TBS genre.
Game mechanics followed suit, giving the player the ability to terraform to his heart's content while customizing units using modular designs, and balance be damned. You could build an aquatic empire and sink the landlubbers to the deeps, build a mag-tube network across entire continents and instantly shuttle your tanks wherever you want them, tame native wildlife and eat your enemies alive, raise an entire mountain range to put your rival in a rain shadow and starve him out, take to the skies in antigrav flying fortresses, support your whole economy from orbiting farms and solar power accumulators or if you really wanted to throw a tantrum, you had big enough bombs to literally blow a hole in the world.
It was global conquest done your way.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The missing Dragon Age origin

How embarrassing. In the course of thinking out this post i wound up disconsidering my own idea. Well, let's take it from the top.

Point 1: Of the six Dragon Age: Origins character origins, none covers the most basic obviously expected background of a human commoner.
Point 2: None of the background stories are set directly in the path of the Blight.

My question was why the obvious solution seems to have been deliberately omitted. Why not give the players a chance to start out as a human farmer whose village or isolated homestead in the south of Ferelden gets overrun by darkspawn? It would be dramatic and it would give players a view of the life of the commonfolk, creating a clearer idea of the game's setting. That's not what they were going for, though.

I hadn't considered it before, but each of the backgrounds was in some ways alien to Fereldan culture at large. The closest to mainstream selections, the human noble and city elf origins, are still alienated (pun intended) even within Denerim by their social status. Ferelden and Thedas as a whole are not given as a standard medieval setting where the 'rags to riches' fantasy hero cliche would play out normally, but slowly developed during gameplay in order to allow for more complexity and keep everything from revolving around the main character. If the introduction were to serve as the player's definition of Thedas, it would be limited to the stereotyped medieval setting for lack of time to develop each facet of the culture. Keeping players disoriented prevents them from resorting to the trite old yardsticks of fantasy. It lets them take DAO's own spins on various fantasy tropes as given instead of building up the usual expectations.

Also, though the darkspawn are presented from the start in most background stories, it's Ostagar that's supposed to serve as the true dramatic introduction to Dragon Age's central conflict. No one character background should have them as a central motivation because they're meant to be a world-sweeping disaster. Again, it keeps the game from falling into the 'unlikely hero' fantasy routine.

The background stories work because none of them are the expected beginning of the Warden's life story. They are on equal footing. A human farmer with a personal grudge against the darkspawn would be too cheesy a setup.

So, as always, my ideas are utter trash as worthless as their creator.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Burn the witch !

This blog has been decidedly non-topical simply because i don't keep up with the news. The human world disgusts me and i've largely given up on ever finding any worth in it. That's why i spend my time in imaginary worlds. I do however glance at wikipedia's "in the news" section now and then, just for the sake of masochism.

"Six scientists and a former government official, accused by prosecutors of "falsely reassuring" the public of the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake's unlikelihood, are convicted of multiple manslaughter."

Sweet merciful mother of crap, just when you think they couldn't get dumber! I don't even know where to start.
Earthquake prediction is one of the most notoriously inexact offshoots of scientific research in the first place.
The predictions made by scientists are always a matter of likelihood, not certainty, because they're based on real-world events and not the fairy-tale reassurances of priests and politicians.
Unlikely events do happen!

I don't even care about the specifics, the scientists in question could for all i know have been deliberately trying to deceive the public or not. They were working in an atmosphere of political pressure to keep quiet for fear of alarming the public, if one is to judge the reference to another scientist who was censored in the press and harrassed by the police for causing panic by predicting the quake. It doesn't matter whether they were guilty or not because this should never have been a legal case, because the precedent set by such a farce will do long-term damage to science as a whole. It's bad enough that scientists in both industry and academia are terrified of making a single move for fear of PETA and fundamentalists, now you can be attacked for being too cautious as well.

It's so wonderful that the public that's too dumb to even understand the research being done thinks itself capable of judging those few individuals actually moving human thought forward.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

I am not Sheldon Cooper

I'm a bit of a nerd... sort of like a human in general is a bit of an ape. I also hold that nerds are superior beings. They are not to be put up as objects of inept ridicule by the mundanes. I have acquired this philosophy during a lifetime of dodging taunts, slaps and pranks in the jails commonly termed the school system, then a solid dose of rarefied alienation in the workplace. This is why I refused to watch The Big Bang Theory for years. I was certain it would be no more than constant scapegoating of mad scientists, dark wizards, witches and brainiacs in general, the luddite outcry against misunderstood science, painting intellectuals at once as pathetically weak and fiendishly dangerous alien beings just waiting to enslave humanity.

There's a hefty dose of the tyranny of the majority on the show, enough chatter about geeks never gettin' any to allow it to appear on television. Still, it has managed to hit on so many of the various stereotypically nerdy fixations and its humor is 'snappy' enough that its entertainment value trumps its insultingly misplaced condescension. More troubling is the Sheldon Cooper character as the idiot savant straw man, maintaining the popular fable that 'too much smarts ain't good fer ya', constantly reassuring the audience that their unanalized life ruled by social convention and sheer dumb instinct represents the only way to live.
Every other character on the show plays the part of the crypto-geek, bowing to social pressure, aspiring to the normalcy which is so far beneath them. The only other character who refused to conform was Amy, who later was focus-grouped to death. The cast apparently only had room for one Spock to ridicule.

I am not Sheldon Cooper. He does however embody an uncomfortably large amalgam of my tendencies. Aside from the Aspergerish need to reconstruct social protocol through conscious observation rather than simply absorb it animalistically, a great many of the scenes featuring the character have been awkwardly 'on the nose' for me, right down to Sheldon criticizing the blatant stupidity of astrology and horoscopes and being slammed down with the nonsensical retort "blah blah blah, typical taurus" - you guessed it, yours truly was born in late spring. Crusading for logic over sentiment and instinct, living inside my own head much of the time, a knack for blurting out non-sequitur trivia, an apparently annoying tendency to never let anything go and bring up age-old arguments, faults and debts, what can I say, I'm a few quirks away from drawing up a roommate agreement.

But come on, I'm not disjointed from reality and neither are the many other nerds who demand an objective analysis of everything others take for granted. No matter how entertaining the show is, Sheldon is still socially damaging for encouraging the view that anyone who questions the thoughtlessly accepted standards of society must be a morally incapable, weak but sinisterly underhanded villain who popped out of the womb bent on destroying the world a la Stewie Griffin. Worse, the other nerds' desperation to achieve normalcy leaves Sheldon, the constant object of ridicule, as the most sympathetic character on the show for anyone willing to aspire to transcend the human condition. It's a sick sort of pigeonholing.

So what if I am exactly the type to say things like "they were having fun wrong" - damnit, I am not Sheldon Cooper!

edit 2015/06/23 : capItalIzed my I's because I've been crIngIng every tIme thIs post gets a hIt.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Merry Christmas, Hobbiton!

I loathe seasonal content.

I don't want to hear Galadriel singing Christmas carols. I don't want Santa to visit me in my spaceship. No, the easter bunny should not be paying a visit to Azeroth. Neither should goblins and ghosts start plaguing the inhabitants of any scifi game on all-hallows' eve.

The main point of a virtual world is escapism. Yes, i know that's not the point of it for the average joe who just logs in so he can mindlessly farm some loot because he wants to make himself feel big, but then again the average player these days doesn't even know what he's playing. He has no sense for the game itself or its setting and treats it as only an extension of his instinct-driven scramble for social standing. Hey, while we're at it, let's just fill middle-earth with anything and everything that might draw a new customer for a day or two, no matter that it disgusts others into quitting permanently. Let's all paint our bellies with our favorite hobbit football teams' colors and dance the macarena while singing 'who let the dogs out'. Idiots!

There are ways to mark the passage of time while still maintaining the internal logic of an imaginary world and its separation from our pile of trash of a human society. These hinge on divesting virtual worlds of any lingering ties to real-world events. For one thing, a persistent world should hold its own circadian rhythm. Whether a day in the game lasts five minutes of real world time or five hours, this could easily be translated to an imaginary calendar. The passing of seasons could hold different meanings in different parts of the game world. The frozen north could bathe its vikings in perpetual daylight while monsoons flood the panther-peoples' jungle cities.

As part of this new calendar, there would be plenty of opportunities to come up with celebrations. Major player events could even be commemorated, say by marking the day when such-and-such player managed to summon Sobek to smite his enemies and conquer their cities. Equinoxes and harvest celebrations, herd migrations and elven star-worship could all supply endless fabricated variations in atmosphere through seasonal content marked on an in-game calendar without resorting to pandering to real-world religious institutions or consumer-culture fads.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

+5 resist all

This is getting to be a pet peeve. A game will have several different kinds of damage but inevitably players will be given abilities and armour which defends against all equally. It's sloppy design. Defending against a particular damage source is meant to reward player foresight and planning. Restricting all the damage sources after a game's launch is an obvious effect of catering to the simple-minded.
What's truly annoying is that most of these games really do start out with simply too many types of damage. There is some merit to the later restrictions. World of Warcraft had i believe five magic types plus physical damage, plus poisons and curses and i forget what else. With so many damage sources, of course they will be trivialized and the "+resist all" gear will be the most valuable. It is irrational to expect players to predict each others' preferences when there is that much freedom of choice.
The magic number seems to be around three to at most five types of damage. EVE's four-corner system provided a very nice mix of variety and predictability. Knowing your enemy's ship preference also gave some hints as to weapon preference, enough to reward focusing on a couple of resistances out of the four but not completely remove the element of surprise.
For non-MMO multiplayer games, even two separate damage types tends to be enough, as players have less time during a single match to predict each other and respond to shifts in tactics.

The same principle applies to any area of a game where the player must make predictions of his enemy. Take crowd control for instance. Three or four types of crowd control should suffice, each with its own specific counter and no 'protection from all' defenses. This would cover, say, stuns, roots, silence and disarming.
The same applies to specific classes of effects players can use. Poisons, curses, bleeding, etc. all sound nice but they end up as largely redundant in terms of the player response. It takes too many combat actions to deal with specific effects so it's more efficient to simply heal through everything. It would be better to associate these effects with specific damage types. Curses, for instance, would be the only effect associated with 'dark' or' shadow' damage so that they can be dealt with either through resistances or a 'remove curse' ability. Bleeding might work best as regular physical damage and be automatically removed by a healing potion.

Complexity is always preferable, but it is self-defeating when the many options blend into one pattern. The reward for being able to predict or respond to one particular damage type has to outweigh the bullheaded approach of tanking and healing.

My MMManifesto: Monster AI

It's been a while since i've added another page to my little manifesto. In some distant future i swear to dog i will summarize it into something succinct and coherent, but for now i'm still tallying up salient points.

Here's what prompted this little ramble:
"Foraging Brown Bear threatens to attack."
Ain't that great? There are monsters in LOTRO and other games which will only attack if you stay in close proximity for a few seconds, as opposed to the usual routine of every monster instantly charging at the first player it sees, or the normal alternative of absolute bovine complacency. They tend to be the ones that would logically not be hunting adventurers but still hold some aggression such as wild bulls or sapient fungi. Yes, i'm speculating about the sapient fungi. It's a minimal departure from the hum-drum norms of PvE interaction, the tip of the iceberg, especially when considering the further ramifications of PvE in a PvP environment.

Attempts at improving the old monster-hunt, whether significant or facetious, abound as a selling point in single-player games. For MMOs unfortunately, the question of spicing up PvE falls into the general category of challenging gameplay, which is avoided like the plague for fear of frustrating customers into quitting. Some attempts have been made or at least planned. It's usually all talk, and abandoned as soon as a game starts getting enough customers that it can afford to drive away the few smarter ones who demand quality. The sadly defunct Dawntide, for instance, promised among other things, some degree of randomization in monster aggressiveness. Wolves and Bears would only attack players "if they're hungry." One of Dawntide's accidental spiritual predecessors, Darkfall, boasted a wide array of PvE improvements like migrations, patrols, alarm calls or fleeing which were almost entirely abandoned when the game was restructured as a dumbed-down PvP dick-measuring contest.

Without further ado, my brilliant ideas. These all assume a persistent fantasy-themed virtual world with interconnected PvP and PvE.

Movement. The most obvious, most common and most reasonable complaint about online game PvE is that monsters simply stand around wherever they spawn or pace around for only a couple of steps, waiting for players to kill them. This falls back to the basic principle of designing a virtual world, which is that the world itself should be the focus, a living, awe-inspiring setting to make players feel dwarfed and insignificant (dwarves will be allowed to just feel insignificant). Mobs should have their own motivations. Look alive! Not only should monsters patrol much larger areas than the usual few steps, but their movement speeds and the time or range to which they'll chase once aggroed should vary.

Landscape interaction. Various landscape objects can be designated as attractors or repulsors with each monster type having different reactions. Giant spiders should seek out vegetation or player housing on which to anchor their webs, birds should seek high spots on which to roost, most animals should once in a while seek out a water source and travel to it even if it's farther than their normal range. Mobs can be set to avoid each other to avoid clustering or seek each others' company to spontaneously create herds and the weight placed on these factors would yield practically endless variation in their behavior.
This may seem similar to simply giving monsters spawn sites in logical spots and leaving them there as per the usual static mob spawns, but combined with freely moving, wide-ranging mobs, it should create true shifting populations. Dire beavers would spread from stream to stream and ghouls would follow each other from cemetery to cemetery.

Variable aggression. Carnivores should only attack if they're hungry, simulated by a simple timer since the last time they killed a herbivore. Herbivores should avoid players, keeping various distances, running when threatened and fighting back sporadically. Social creatures should run if caught alone, calling for help and fighting in packs. Standing with various NPC factions should determine their aggression against a player, from actually helping to simple neutrality to 'warning shots' to all-out manhunts. Stereotypic 'bad guys' like goblins or vampires should occasionally set out on short hunts against player settlements detected near their territories.
'Aggro' should also be context-dependent. Mobs should switch targets to interrupt players' spellcasting and gain increased aggression on players attacking their healers. It's long past time to do away with the nuker/tank/healer triad which depends entirely on using tank skills with 'bonus' aggro. Players should be forced or at least encouraged to create balanced characters, not just pre-set min-maxed archetypes. In PvE this means abandoning the idea that building 'aggro' should allow players to control mobs' behavior.

Coordination. Monsters should be 'aware' of each other and act accordingly. The same goblin's AI should adjust from running in fear if alone, to ganging up in melee if it has another goblin helping him, to sitting back using its bow if it's part of a small group. If it has a spellcaster nearby, it should be working to defend it, run back into range for healing and bumrush players using AoE abilities to force friendly-fire.

Preferred targets. Not all mobs should target all players equally. 'Mage-hunter' monsters should have a wider aggro range and increased aggro for players wearing robes or waving a glow-stick around. Spellcaster mobs should toss their fireballs at players in heavy armor. Spiders should net whichever player evaded the most attacks during the fight to keep them flat-footed.
Entire NPC factions could be set up to preferentially target players who use a certain skill set. For instance if you've been dabbling in necromancy you should expect NPC paladins to come after you from a mile away, hunters should be hated by werewolves and rogues should be actively hunted down by town guards.

Invasions. Intelligent species like goblins or demons should be working toward world domination. Their populations should be more centralized and as their villages and cabals grow they should begin to stage large-scale invasions against resource nodes or other objectives in ever-larger radii.
Monsters should be an active threat in the game world, not simply a convenient target to beat on.

The most important point is how much all this could ad to a PvP-centered game. Much of the problem of combining PvP and PvE stems from the current banality of AI. Companies are scared of scaring customers away with any novelty so the only way to make PvE seem challenging is in highly scripted encounters which reward simple repetition, practice, or the old level-based fall-back position of infinite escalation of stats.
This needlessly widens the divide between how combat 'works' when fighting players or mobs and creates a host of aggro-management, movespeed, invisibility and crowd control abilities which are useless or impossible to balance in either PvP or PvE.
However, in a good game, a true persistent world where players are always fighting each other for territory, every variation in mobs' behavior throws another kink in their plans. They should be removed as a main focus of the game, i.e. the idiotic farming of instances for loot and used instead to vary the players experience in the main game world as they go about their goals of resource-acquisition and world domination. To this end, PvE has to be much more variable, less predictable. There is a risk of losing players to frustration, sure, but it keeps things interesting without the monstrous development timesink of having to constantly design new scripted encounters, new instances and boss fights.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Will the real ship captain please stand up

OK, my nerd street-cred (or rather library cred) will never rise above 'dabbler' rank until i take a hardline stance on this gravest of issues.

Picard is better than Kirk.
I'm sorry, but despite the classic appeal of having a dashing man's man as the captain of an exploration vessel, Picard was always the more sympathetic and believable character. Better written, better acted, better hair even. Kirk's entire personality was just everyone's drunken college room-mate who ends up pissing in the wastepaper basket one night and brags about it for years afterwards. Yeah he gets the girls but that's more of a negative comment on the female taste in mates than a point in his favor.

The original series was pretty damn bad, even for television. It had to be, if it was going to make a name for itself. Science fiction was classified, a priori, as not-literature (as it still largely is, unfortunately.) It could not have been taken seriously. Farce and prurient appeal were taken as its only selling points, hence green slave girls, terrestrial aliens with quaint accents and slapstick humor. However, given the lowest-common-denominator demands placed upon it, the show did a great deal to promote scifi themes to the public.
This does not mean, however, that TNG wasn't a leap upwards in almost every sense. Thanks (i hate to admit it) to feminist pressure, the show's miniskirt-wearing minor characterettes were reduced to the ever-squeezable counselor Troi. Data is a poor replacement for Spock as a basic concept, but he still had a great number of memorable scenes. Swapping the second in command and captain's roles as playboy and serious military man was a hell of a lot more believable than Spock taking orders from Kirk.
Even overall, the show just offered a much greater variety of storylines as opposed to the original series' cookie-cutter routine
- they get a weird signal (Uhura and Sulu's scene)
-something threatens the ship (Scotty's scene)
-they beam down to the planet (Spock and McCoy wave some tricorders around the dead body of a redshirt ensign)
-Kirk saves the day after seducing some random leggy 'alien' gal with colorful skin features

For the most part, i stopped watching after TNG. I have seen a few episodes of Deep Space Nine and i agree with the standard complaint: if they ain't trekkin' it ain't Star Trek. It admittedly seems to have been the best written of all the series and i do intend to see it all at some point but losing the main gimmick of the shows means it no longer qualifies for comparison.

As for everything else that came afterwards, puh-leeze. Voyager and Enterprise were just horribly written, as if a twelve-year-old were taking every routine on TVTropes and expecting us to nail it to the refrigerator as primo-quality work. They even lacked the amusing single-minded gimmickry of the original series as post-ironically 'bad' appeal.

Now as for what truly prompted this post. I made the mistake of watching a bit of the remake. The less said about it the better. There are few things in the history of bad art that could make Shatner's hammy narcissism in the old series look good by comparison.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Elemental: War of Magic

It has a stupid name. It's not a stupid game.

Elemental is turn-based strategy. Comparisons with Civilization or Heroes of Might and Magic are, however, limited to the overarching similarity to chess. Elemental, instead of copying other computer TBS games, is a throwback to tabletop gaming. Its outermost zoom levels are even displayed in a 'cloth map' decor complete with units displayed as plastic miniatures on their own little platforms.
That's quaint in itself but it wouldn't mean much as a purely cosmetic divergence.

Elemental also falls back on tabletop gameplay in avoiding the usual computerized smokescreen of ridiculously large numeric values and by purposely refusing to trivialize randomization by increasing action counts until only the law of averages matters. An extra point of damage or health really means something, and most units will kill each other in three or four moves. First strike, which depends on positioning, is crucial. Sheer dumb luck is not just a predictable oscillation in a series of 55-65damage attacks, but a matter of a dangerous monster deciding to pass you by instead of jumping you, or a deadly attack missing altogether. It means a useful adventurer may or may not pass through your territory so you can recruit him early on, or that a single coin flip can mean the survival of a unit because of a missed blow.

Sadly, it must be said that this makes Elemental relatively weak as a pure strategy game. The flaw is compounded by the disappointingly weak AI which, aside from a good degree of randomization at the single-action level, offers no greater variety during gameplay. Happily, strategy is only one element of the post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure RPG strategy megalomania bundle. Despite featuring only a few scripted dialogues such as those found in Civilization, Elemental offers a great deal of choice, both practical and cosmetic. This covers the faction details, using a benefit vs. detriment trait system much like that of older games like Master of Orion, but also extends to the player's own avatar in-game, the central 'hero' unit, the sovereign. City layouts, the names of one's eventual progeny (Elemental features a rudimentary lineage system and arranged marriages between factions) and unit designs all provide further customization, along with the usual TBS choices like technology research.
More ambitious players can even design their own buildings and special effects.

Let's talk atmosphere. The setting is nothing amazing but fairly original for one reason: it is a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. Though this doesn't mean much in terms of gameplay, it manages to give the game its own unique flavor. The decor follows suit, steering clear of the usual elves and vampires and making extensive use of human variants and generic boogeymen like trolls and demons. The terrain is a bleak, badlands-style landscape with only occasional greenery, and terraforming is available through one of the spellcasting trees. The map is not entirely a fixed background against which the player confronts NPCs, but simply another plaything. Much of the vagueness and do-it-yourself attitude works to give free reign to the player's own imagination.

There is a campaign mode, but to be honest, i've spent my many playing hours without ever feeling tempted to give it a go. The game shines as a personalized 'me against the world' strategic adventure and i don't see more restrictive scenarios as building on its strengths. The expansion which recently came out seems unfortunately focused on expanding campaign gameplay.

Overall, Elemental has much more of an adventure feel than the usual desperate attempt to prove oneself mentally superior to the AI which largely defines the TBS genre. It's an interesting design choice, never likely to yield a fanatical following of leetkiddies facing off in tournaments, but providing a different flavor of escapism than RPGs.
Neither was it a high-budget game. It has its bugs and missing features. Entire areas of the game like sieges and naval warfare seem to have been abruptly cut off during late development. The whole thing seems to be more of a result of a few designers' combined nostalgia for the glory days of D&D, M:tG and Settlers of Catan. Though i doubt it would make a good introductory gift for those unfamiliar with strategy and role-playing, it's got plenty of gamer-geek appeal.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

November 2012

I have the economically convenient yet morally dubious privilege of living in what might be called the U.S. middle-class. I would contest the existence of a 'middle' class at this point in the history of representative government, but i suppose that's a topic for a much longer post than the couple o' paragrabs i intend to write now.

For almost the past decade, i have taken no interest whatsoever in politics. The 2000 election and the subsequent bald-faced, military backed corporate expansionism did a great deal to sour me on the human race. Recently, through my family's obsessive, disproportionate personal investment in the moral dilemma of electing a chief for this extended, 400-million-ape-strong tribe, i've had the displeasure of being subjected to a few fragments of speeches by the clean-cut, familiarly family-anchored, dependable men-of-the-people whose shadowy corporate backers we're being convinced to vote into office.

If i were to bother schleppin' out to the polls, i'd probably be a Green Party voter all the way, and wouldn't bother with the coin-flip of the presidency vote. I suppose that coming from a former child insect-collector and fish-breeder, an affiliation with the most outwardly environmentalist of the contemporary tribal factions is even superficially inevitable. More seriously, i used to like their stance on leashing corporations and long-term infrastructure investment and so forth, and regardless of whether they've remained true to form, making that message heard is more important than which of the two 'big dog' parties wins the bone.

As for the big dogs themselves, i'm reminded of what Gore Vidal said about the U.S.: it has only one political system, with two right wings.
What can i say, i'm a socialist and elitist when i'm not an anarchist. In polite company, this is amalgamated into 'liberal' - which polite company still throws out as a curse upon the head of any witch who dares say that true advancement, and not only imperialistic expansion, is socially desirable. It's becoming mind-numbingly obvious that nothing has changed over the past decade.

Democrats are still the conservative wing of the single American party. While publicly painting itself as a happy-go-lucky band of ineffective do-gooders, the Democrat as a neocorporate gestalt is the sated fly on a bleeding wound in the ancient story. It is preferable only in comparison to its older, meaner, hungrier brother the elephant fly, an outright reactionary foetid, muck-dwelling hydra pining for the bad old days when the aristocratic fiat of old money was not forced to hide behind media control.

The way in which the big dogs agreed to partition voting blocks i'm sure has formed the basis of much better informed diatribes than my own but the basics don't appear so complicated.

The Republicans' relatively modern affiliation with religious conservatism threatens Democratic mass-appeal (as a rule, the hoi-polloi really buy into religion while the pillars of the community merely find it a solid foundation - a unification of the two would have been a coup) but the necessary licking of pater familias' boots alienated the increasingly important feminist vote and the holy pigeon's wishbone thankfully broke even in the end.

Corporate support seems amusingly fickle, the private sector's congenital inability to plan farther than the fiscal year being assuredly frustrating to the slow-grinding elephant herd attempting to gather it as momentum, as well as to the dullwitted ass which never delivers the kind of immediate clear-cutting, strip-mining profiteering for which the corporate beast truly hungers.
Republicans, being the more macho of the two, will attract the support of the enforcer wings of the military-industrial crime cartel as well, regardless of a tendency to cut the financial branch out from under their hired muscle's feet in favor of fully mercenary corporate armies. In the public eye, this faulty gun-toting elephant ideal likely has much to do with the long-standing NRA-Republican link. Shifting the emphasis from guns to syringes has worked out in the Democrats' favor in this respect.
The minority vote should be firmly held by the ever-chameleonic Obama, if for no other reason than the stereotypically waspish Republican 'massa' image.
Amusingly enough the senior citizen voting block, which i hear tends to be pyramid-base solid, will likely shift the overall balance by election time depending on how much faith our over-medicated grandsires still place in healthcare reform. It's odd that neither branch of the party is putting more effort into smoothing wrinkles this time around.

The main fodder for both of the overstuffed political grazers is the 'working stiff', increasingly angered at the lack of career opportunities or even day-to-day drudgery opportunities. Both sides of the American Conservative Party are promising jobs. Jobs, jobs jobs. I would doubt, however, that either of their plans would result in SteveJobs style jobs. The last thing any empire wants is the growth of an educated, self-sufficient, creative middle class. Restructure universities as trade schools and 'create' service-industry jobs, construction jobs, auto part swapping jobs, street-sweeper, telemarketer and accountant jobs. Keep them working 9-5 and putting in overtime. Idle minds do the liberals' work.

Because of course we can't have a candidate admitting that the outsourcing of tech support to Indian call centers is harmless compared to the lowering of expectations in terms of civic planning, scientific and ethical advancement and the re-creation of a stable economic base in the face of our inevitable loss of the black-gold standard. That would just make them sound like elitist hippies, and who wants another Jefferson on our hands?

So, just a couple o' paragrabs. You'll notice i make no prediction as to the outcome of the election. Between the two choices to which the public mindlessness limits itself, one is decidedly preferable, but only in the way that death by starvation is preferable to being stuffed in a mound of fire ants. The only difference between the ass and the Pinocchio-nosed ass is how much of a show of resistance they want to put on for China before rolling out the red carpet.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

In Tolerance

I normally name my characters some variation of 'Werewolf' in any game i play. I have been doing so for the past decade and a half at least. In games which feature multiple characters or an extension of the main character like the spaceship names in EVE or the Mabari hound in Dragon Age, i resort to the names of various mythological mutts and of course, the lycanthrope myths. Lycaon, Cain, Fenris and Cerberus would be my most common stand-ins.

Given that LoTRO is set in middle-earth and i did not want to pollute this most excellent alternate reality with my too-nicknamish name of 'Werwolfe', i used my normal stand-ins as character names. Then, when choosing the name for each character's henchman used in certain instances (skirmish soldiers, to the initiated) i decided to adopt the ironic twist of naming each character's faithful soldier after the deity which screws over his namesake in the original mythology.
Lycaion, for instance, is followed by a soldier named Zeus
Garmri by Tyr
Fennric by Thor
Cerberin by Orpheus (i thought Herakles would be too obvious)
- and so forth.

It was all well and good until tonight, while playing my captain, Cayin. I had already named his class pet 'Abel' and attempted to rename the skirmish pet 'Yahweh'.
I won't bore anyone with the obvious conclusion. Suffice it to say that i tried 'Vishnu' as well, just to verify the pattern. One cannot take such lordly names in vain in middle-earth, at least not when that imaginary real-estate is being parceled out by Warner Bros.

Of course, i could settle for renaming Cain and Abel's companion Seth, but it's the principle of the thing. Seth was not the guilty party, the overbearing celestial father figure pitting his sons against each other in displays of filial piety, waiting for one of them to crack and play the villain. Cain's sword of Damocles is none other than Yahweh.

There are two aspects to the problem that i can see at the moment.

Reductio ad absurdum - let's pull out all the stops and keep every delusion of every peyote-addled clown in human history holy. Every charlatan who ever used the illusion of the supernatural to wring obedience out of his fellow man shall henceforth be given veto rights over our power of speech. Let none take the holy names of Pan the goat-footed god, Ma'at, Quetzalcoatl or Dionysus in vain. If the billions of humans who currently have no fear of the wrath of da gud lawd Jehovah (or Vishnu) have no say, then the naysayers of every other faith can be just as wrong. Let's kow-tow to every drunken buffoon who insists his 0.30 blood alcohol delusions are real and deny each other the use of every mythology ever dreamt.

There's no Yahweh in middle earth! I have never, ever, and i mean even for a second seriously considered naming any of my LoTRO characters, their pets, items or recursively imaginary friends 'Iluvatar'. In middle-earth, Iluvatar is holy. When i enter the escapist fantasy of middle-earth as an elf, i agree to honor the lord Eru Iluvatar, the Valar and Maiar and would refuse to trivialize their names by principle. That's middle-earth.
In A Tale in the Desert, i would never have considered naming myself Anubis, even though it is a name i have used in other games (take for instance my dwarf champion Anubin in LoTRO) because my character lives that mythology.
If ever i happen to play a bible-based multiplayer game, i would extend the same courtesy to Jehovah, Jeebus, his coterie of thirteen sycophants and any relevant saints, angels, archangels, demi-angels and para-angels.

But i should hope that i can name my donkey Eru in that biblical mythology, and the name of Yahweh should carry no weight outside the imaginary world inhabited by his followers.