Saturday, December 28, 2013

Three first impressions of Baldur's Gate

I've long been curious about Baldur's Gate since it seems to have set off our current popular interpretation of roleplaying games. Just as the current (and erroneous) concept of the "MMO" hinges on World of Warcraft's formulaic slot-machine, no-repercussions gameplay, just as FPS games rarely exceed the limitations set forth by Doom and Half-Life, computer RPGs as a whole are largely defined by Bioware's isometric D&D wonderlands. When you boot up a CRPG, you sort of expect to watch your level whateverteen Barbarian/Bard strutting around a vaguely medieval town. You expect to hear terms like "armor class" or "critical hit" and feel like you've been cheated if the dire badger you just killed didn't drop a magic sword of some kind.

Most comparisons between the Infinity Engine games, the Neverwinter titles and Dragon Age stem from the D&D license or lack thereof, and I won't get into them here. It's more interesting to note a striking similarity in Bioware's releases which persisted through and past the days of Black Isle. I've often remarked that both NWN releases followed a set order: the original campaign serves as a very generic, introductory "hero saves the day" routine, the first major expansion presents a more interesting story and the second focuses on combat mechanics and various gameplay improvements. Amusingly, this pattern itself was set by Black Isle.
Baldur's Gate seems at first glance to be a very expansive but relatively shallow, quaint, generic mix of classes and adventures.
The year after, the next Infinity Engine game Planescape:Torment, gave players a dialogue-centered adventure.
One year later, the somewhat grindy Icewind Dale gave them a dialogue-free, decision-free stream of tactical challenges to test their dungeoning&dragoning mettle.

I have no idea if this order was kept at all through the later Infinity Engine sequels, but in Neverwinter Nights terms, Undrentide and Betrayer were what Torment was to Baldur's Gate, while the Underdark and Zehir expansions mimicked Icewind Dale's combat focus.
The pattern seems to have finally been abandoned for Dragon Age with both good and bad results, but that's a topic in itself.

The second observation has to do with RPGs' target audience. In 1998 Baldur's Gate was still a game for nerds. It was blatantly intended for existing D&D fans and a certain familiarity with the various tropes and trademarks of the Forgotten Realms was expected. You're expected to know whereabouts Amn might lie or the type of personality expected of a Fighter or a Druid. By 2002 however, Bioware having apparently shaken off the collaboration with Interplay and Black Isle was setting out to capture the mass-market. If BG seems less wordy at first glance than Neverwinter Nights, it's largely because it was still a niche product and could throw its target audience straight into the escapist fantasy they already loved. Much of the first content you see and hear is therefore less of an introduction and more of a stream of tongue-in-cheek jokes about medieval roleplaying.
"Yeeees, oh Omnipresent Authority Figure?"

Third, a pleasant side-effect of BG's niche-market appeal is the lack of instant gratification. This holds true for the later two Infinity Engine games as well. They were still selling a product to an informed audience and expected that audience would want to stop and smell the roses. There was little instant gratification to be had but plenty of quaintness and delight in the activity itself. Case-in-point: starting level.
It's become a given that the first few levels of an RPG are freebies. They are meant to introduce the concept of leveling. The NWN games' introductions both put the player at level 2-3 automatically. In Baldur's Gate however, I've gone through two towns and two wilderness areas and am still a level 1 diviner. It was the same with Torment with its endless running about the Mausoleum and Icewind Dale... well, look out for that first band of goblins on your way out of the starting village and be ready to re-load a few times.

And that part, at least, I'm loving. It's good to feel weak at the start of these adventures. It was delightful to spend the first couple of zones of Half-Life whacking things over the head with the crowbar, before worrying about rocket launchers or the gluon gun. It is important in a strategy game to start out with a warrior and settler. Perspective matters.
One of the common detriments of wider commercial appeal, one of the most reliable destructive means which the average consumer brings against a genre is the loss of balance and contrast. The average moron doesn't really "get into" a game, a book or a film or anything else for its own sake. Lacking the intelligence to consider anything objectively, they only seek art as an extension of their social worth. They seek only what will give them a constant high - constant car chases, constant sex scenes, constant reinforcement of masculinity and femininity and social hierarchy.
For computer games, this has meant constant reinforcement: constant loot, constant levels, constant patting on the back. You saved the world, hurrayyyy! Never mind what world. There are no small or medium shoulderpads or monsters in World of Warcraft. Everything comes in large, jumbo or mega-gulp.

It's worth going back to old games like Baldur's Gate just to see something done at least partly for its own sake and not entirely to hand out facile endorphin boosts to all the brainless apes who don't care what they're buying as long as it makes them feel big.

I'm looking forward to working my way back to Ultima someday.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

No, Virginia, there is no Brian

Ah, it's that lovely time of year again, the time of gifts and giving (unless you're rich - then it's the time for raking in the cash from all the suckers paying into your malls) and the time for such bounty and blessing that even farm animals begin to expect a bit of extra protein in their mangers.
What, too soon?

"His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering and pain
Demands devotion, atrocities done in his name." - NIN, Heresy

But, ok, maybe I should just stick to bashing Santa Claus - that's the low-hanging fruit, right? "Commercialization" the carolers decry, with a gift-card in one hand and a maxed-out credit-card in the other, flapping to escape their own hypocrisy while lip-synching to the latest pop-idol's re-branding of Jingle-Bells. Except I never know what to say about dodgy old Saint Nicked-Your-Cash beyond the simple fact that you're worshiping an eighty-year-old Coca Cola ad. Truth is stranger than religious fiction and let's face it, nothing popularized by word of mouth two thousand or two hundred years ago can compete with Coca Cola's marketing department.
Not that it's so different from how traditions spring up in general, including the religious ones. Let us now say grace (good bread, good meat, good God let's eat) burn an unboiled gluten-free noodle in offering to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and bow our heads in worship before the holy Gourd of Brian, for the hour of gullibility is upon us.

But mostly let's focus on the controversy around Monty Python's most carefully orchestrated and coherent work, Life of Brian. The facile religious accusation against the "blasphemous" film seems to have hinged on Brian himself being a parody of Jesus and while there's nothing wrong with satirizing religious and social reformers like that long-dead desert preacher, it would be giving the Pythons too little credit. Their great achievement, the nameless terror from which the religious mind reeled back into a fabrication of sectarian squabbles, was shining a spotlight on the irrationality of faith itself. Much like Anatole France's penguins, Brian and his various foils and antagonists ridicule not just individual idols but the faults in human behavior which allowed those idols to arise in the first place. The film's pivotal scene shows a crowd bleating "yes, we're all different" in a chorus. The main problem with faith shows from the start: if you had Jesus and Brian side by side in two mangers, you probably wouldn't know the difference. But you'd pray to whichever one you ran across first anyway.
It was in the interest of any religious leader, of every anti-intellectual charlatan hailing not just from Christianity but "the faithful of all faiths" as Nietzsche put it, to reduce the scope of the argument back to an attack against Jesus. It is the nature of every power structure that the few at the top, regardless of their in-fighting and fratricide, never hold such enmity for each other as they do for the lower classes. It was fruitful for them to brand Life of Brian as anti-Jesus because it was the anti-faith argument they feared. Just as for an entrenched aristocracy it's never the argument against count or duke such-and-such, the deposing of any of them but the argument against aristocracy that's the true threat, just as Coke and Pepsi's greatest enemy isn't each other but water and health regulations, the greatest threat to pulpit-pounding scheisters is not an attack against the belief in Jesus but an attack against belief itself.

As long as you believe in something you're still playing their game. As long as you pick one of them, Jesus, Brian, Amitabha or Mohammed, Coke or Pepsi, Microsoft or Apple, the U.S.A. or the U.S.S.R., Democrat or Republican, wife or mistress, mom or dad, as long as you declare your faith and undying devotion, you're still in the game and it remains their game. As long as you play by their rules, they own you, and they can just trade you among themselves in the zero-sum game of primate hierarchy power struggles. Only intellectual progress remains their true and common enemy, the advance of reason over gullibility.

"you can stop the truth from leaking if you never stop believing" - The Dresden Dolls, Mrs. O

So we come back to Santa Claus because that is the beginning of faith: childhood. The greatest unspoken crime we perpetrate against each younger generation is to use our innate dependency on parental authority to promote in the maturing brain, in the growing individual, the flaw and mental deficiency of faith. It is not kind to lie to children for no other reason than perpetuating the crimes inflicted on ourselves. I remember when I stopped believing in Santa Claus, from four to five years of age. I was proud of having seen through the lie, and yet it took me a year to bring up the subject with my parents because I was also confused and hurt at having been lied to. My parents, the object of my faith, infallible and all-knowing law-givers... had deceived me.
It of course does not cross our minds at the time of that first betrayal that we are only being initiated into a much greater betrayal. The damage inflicted by that morbidly obese home-invader is not the belief in Santa Claus himself, but the pattern of belief. It is the extension of our state of slavery as children mentally into a perpetual search for masters, in all the apish rituals of matrimony, political parties, temples, sports and all other methods of bleating "yes, we're all different" and no, Sirs and Madams who were some decades ago initiated yourselves into this cycle of sadomasochism, I refuse to acknowledge your perceived right to inflict some poisonous pedagogy in your own turn.

The adults who latch onto the discarded sandal of Brian as a sign of the Messiah were initiated into that blind faith by their parents years prior and it doesn't matter whether those stories were about Santa Claus or the boogeyman who'll get you if you don't eat your peas. The real crime has nothing to do with Santa Claus or Jesus or any other one idol.
The crucial moment is that point where your children grow suspicious, and instead of doing your duty as parents and encouraging them to pull on Santa's beard so they grow into critical, rational adults you slap their hands away and punish their intellectual growth, crippling them into a perpetual childish search for faith. So yes, when Brian the Messiah wanders along, it's a safe bet your children will be among those worshiping his sandal and imagining he made juniper berries appear, because you've taught them to latch on to irrationality.

"We all know
There's no Hell and no Hiroshima
Chernobyl was a cover-up
The world is really all in love
And oh, Mrs. O
Will you leave us hanging now that we are grown up and old?"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Free to pass

As a follow-up to my post about LotRO's recent "pay to pay" marketing breakthrough, I must note the obvious success their brilliant machinations are having. When not even a full month after releasing the expansion you're already forced to slash it to half-price, well, whose fault is that?

Maybe it's Tolkien's fault for not creating even more enthralling fantasy tropes.
Maybe it's your graphic artists who just didn't make players' armor and weapons oversized and glowy enough to draw in the hordes of kiddies.
Maybe the game just isn't easy enough and it's time to finally institute that all-purpose "click here to win" button.
Maybe it's da gummint brainwashing customers away from you with fluoridated water... whitey's keepin' you down, Warner!

Or maybe, just maybe players decided that if they're just going to have to keep running an endless treadmill they'd rather do it in that newfangled Tamriel they've heard about than in Middle-Earth or Azeroth. When you reduce your product to the lowest-common-denominator, it turns out other companies find it quite easy to offer the same thing and you're in no position to strongarm customers into staying by double-billing them for the same level-grind they can find in shiny new copycats.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Fan" Means Fanatic

Funny how our experiences sometimes converge. A few days ago, Wikipedia's front page asked me whether I knew that disproving someone's beliefs can often, paradoxically, strengthen them. One might picture Bart Simpson's fevered repetition of "Krusty is coming" at summer camp (minute 9:20 here) through every day after day that Krusty the Klown fails to arrive. Or any religion. Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming. Though Bart at least, to his credit, eventually snapped out of it.
I was indeed exposed to this notion in the "intro to psych" course through which every college student snoozes regardless of major. However, even without academic guidance or real-world observation, I might draw endless examples of this puzzling behavior pattern from my electronic escapist fantasies.

I was informed last night while whittling away a few quests in The Secret World that "this game is awesome." I have grown weary enough of the constant fight against stupidity that I neglected to follow up on that wonderfully nuanced and well-reasoned qualifier of "awesomeness" but I did retort that TSW deserves its bankruptcy. I was immediately questioned on this point by another supposed 35-yr-old with the sputtering, punctuation-free, cliche-ridden speech patterns of a teenage mall-rat.
I often find myself in this position in online games and lemme tell ya, trying to convince everyone the emperor has no clothes is much harder than simply stating the fact. Even those few players who might be intelligent enough to spot their pastime's flaws manage to convince themselves that those flaws don't really (not really-really, not entirely really, not if you squint the right way) exist.

TSW's fanbase denies it's a level-based or class-based game even as they advertise themselves as "level 10.4 healer LFG" - and that's just one facet of their denial. Don't even try to convince them that a game that's over 90% single-player has no business online.
Turning to LotRO, I found out this morning that one recent change removed the hunter class' "focus" loss while moving, which previously limited their running around in combat. Yet most any LotRO player I've met year after year whenever I've dropped in on middle-earth has been adamant in the belief that gameplay is not, no sir, never gonna happen, no way getting simplified. This was the belief, as Loremasters lost their dependence on synergy with their pets, as mana became for all purposes infinite, as weapon attack speeds vanished, as spell reagents disappeared and teleportation replaced travel, etc. And LotRO fanboys just like the entrenched base of any activity with a social element will continue to pat each other on the back as they uphold this belief even as all gameplay gets replaced with a "click here to win" button.

Why? How feeble-minded must one be for this desperate need to place all self-worth in the activity in which one engages. Because that's what we're really discussing. This is just another facet of faith. Most players are incapable of putting pressure on game companies to deliver better products because they have to convince themselves at every turn, every time they switch from one game to another, that they've found the holy grail, that this time this thing, this thing right here we're playing now, this is "awesome" and we wont hear otherwise. They must have faith in the social validity of their activity.

Why not just admit that the best crap on the market is still crap?
Can we not overcome faith, this pathetic slavish dependence on validation by authority, at least through our virtual selves?
Krusty is not coming. Find a new summer-camp.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pay to pay

OK, MMO marketing schemes have officially passed the point of laughter into headache-inducing irrationality.

Back before the latest LotRO expansion launched, I expressed both annoyance and resignation at the fact that the game would continue to add ten levels every year, forcibly extending the completely nonsensical static levelling treadmill. Among other problems, the gulf created thus between new and existing customers grows with each iteration. It prevents new players from getting into the game and is actively counterproductive and counter to the all-mighty profit motive.

I needn't have worried. Time Warner's underlings were way ahead of me and this week I received an e-mail advertising a double cure for both my levelgrinding blues and my wallet's unhealthy obesity. For the low-low cost of just under $50 (more expensive in fact than the Helm's Deep expansion itself) the friendly corporate overlords of Middle-Earth are now prepared to offer any and all us valiant heroes the (trumpets, if you will)

"Gift of the Valar!
Instantly become level 50! Includes many extra boosts and buffs."

Yes, lucky customer, you now have the privilege of paying Warner Brothers for the honor of paying them again to prevent you from using their product.
I love it. My hat's off to you, guys, this is the sort of ruthless, bald-faced highway robbery marketing gimmick which hearkens back to the time the sugar lobby in the U.S. tried to define ketchup as the "vegetable" in children's school lunches.

From the looks of it, the news has already drawn plenty of attention across teh internets, but I'm afraid to even tally the reactions: how many are rightfully outraged at the sheer gall of this fleecing push, and how many game reviewers and other toadies are hailing this as the next godsend for the industry?

Also, I'm pretty sure half a million Chinese brats can offer better powerlevelling rates than a dollar a level. Come on, Warner, you need to stay competitive if you want to corner the RMT market.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Smartphones - cutting the tumor from dekstop gaming?

The living death of MMOs, though the particulars vary, has featured as a core constant the downward slide into what I and many other angry nerds have for years called slot-machine gameplay. With Lineage, Diablo 2, Everquest and especially WoW, companies marketed the most simplistic endorphin boost through operant conditioning: loot drops. Simplistic, mindless actions, repeated endlessly, become addictive through the random pay-off of an apparent increase in wealth or social status. The shiny sword acquired by hitting goblin #462 over the head with a magic sword is addictive for the same reasons as the clink of coins in a Las Vegas slot machine after 462 pulls of the lever.

Recently, it was suggested to me that games made for mobile devices, in their accessibility and mind-numbingly addictive simplicity, their sheer limbic pay-off per joule of cerebral investment, represent the death of games. I offer a dissenting scenario. Computer games have, for one thing, always coexisted with their prettier but more simplistic console counterparts, the bimbos of electronic gaming. Most of us grew up with plenty of opportunities to jump through hoops as Sonic the hedgehog, yet at some point some of us decided we'd rather, say, amass a few tank battalions in Command and Conquer. Even from the depths of our own beloved desktop computers beckon the likes of Solitaire or Minesweeper and yet we still sought more. Computer games have as a rule simply addressed a marginally more ambitious demographic.

The internet changed all that. Most online games have been best played on desktop computers, as a rule. The internet has been, until only the most recent couple of years, a predominantly "desktop" feature - despite growing numbers of WiFi hotspots. A side-effect relevant to this discussion was the conflation of online games with purely social online activity. The draw of the internet itself brought the mass market in, and the mass market demanded that gameplay be simplified to their hoop-jumping, slot-jockey tastes. Single-player games were in turn tainted by association, through "competitive" multiplayer gimmick runoff like achievements or static levelling. The crux of the matter, however, is still the multiplayer market. As long as the mass-market infection continues, it will easily drown out the feeble cries of us few nerds who pine for the days when we'd lock ourselves in dark rooms to slay goblins for the joy of goblin-slaying and not to fill a goblin-slaying quota for a Steam achievement.

It may be the tumor is deadly seeing it has, as I mentioned, already metastasized from MMOs to other genres. However, there's another possibility. The mass market did not invade computer games for the love of playing games on computers. They always wanted only the simplistic slot-machine gameplay they could get anywhere else, but in a medium which allowed them to form social hierarchies around it. They wanted to pull at that one-armed bandit not by themselves with a handheld game, but with an opportunity to have their skill at lever-pulling witnessed by the entire world.

And the accessibility of tablets and smartphones can fit this role much better. They offer dick-measuring in a more accessible form. The average morons never wanted an MMO. They wanted Pong with character levels in a global stadium, and now that mobile, networked devices are so prevalent, they can get it without sitting at a desk. Fruit Ninja might seem like a problem, but it can provide precisely the sort of breathing room much better computer games need. As simplistic mobile games acquire fancier graphics and more reliable internet support, they might draw in those players who just want simplistic gameplay with bragging rights attached - and draw them away from say, strategy or roleplaying games.

It will mean a shrinking of the market for desktop games, yes, and that's good. We should be praying that the marching morons abandon computer games, and leave them to the same crowd who got drawn in because the complexity of gameplay afforded by a mouse and keyboard trumped the simple animalistic joy of Mortal Kombat. Let's hope they'll soon be able to get their Achievement fix on phones and wander off. Then maybe the voice of we few who have little interest in ninja-ing fruit and who outgrew Mario and Sonic's antics can once again be heard in what used to be our niche market.

Let's hope the new wave of networked slot-machines, twitch-swiping and button-mashing will remove the incentive for strategy and RPGs to cater to those tastes, and relegate those genres once again to their proper role as the "artsy" nerdy fringe of electronic gaming. And from there, we can grow once again into the proper concept of an MMO.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Ever had some family member try to make a minor nice gesture toward you which completely backfired? Over the week surrounding Thanksgiving, I did the done thing and visited relatives. Said relative attempted to pander to my tastes in entertainment by renting a SciFi movie. It had the words "Asimov" and "best scifi ever!!!" on the cover, so you can't go wrong, right? Wrong.

The flick in question is the 2000 adaptation of Asimov's Nightfall, and it's one of the many adaptations which seem to deliberately attempt to deface and defame their supposed source material. I have never read the much later novel-length version so I don't know how guilty Asimov himself might've been of watering down his own idea, but I was familiar enough with the original 1941 short story that after ten minutes of the irredeemably despicable movie which bears its title had gone by, I stormed out of the room in disgust. Go watch ten minutes of Xena or one of the worse episodes of the original Star Trek and you'll get the gist of it.

Unfortunately, it cannot be ignored, because though the movie itself is better left unwatched, the ways in which it denigrated its inspiration are entirely too relevant to contemporary culture. Had I seen the box cover I might've warned against the idea of a loving couple as the central image. Asimov's story contains about as much sexual tension as Green Eggs and Ham and indeed features no female characters whatsoever. Neither did it portray any swashbuckling scenes or fireball-spewing sorcerers.

There was indeed a lovely little scifi short story bearing the title Nightfall, written by Asimov. So far as that goes, the movie studio can't be accused of false advertising. Also, as wikipedia informs us, the story was declared the best pre-1965 short story by the Science Fiction Writers of America... back in 1968. Somehow the year-2000 movie's box cover left that tidbit out. However, the honor bestowed is in itself interesting. The Science Fiction Writers of America of 1968 must have been aware of how ludicrous any declaration of "best" is, especially when discussing largely subjective matters such as fiction. Such awards are more often than not a means of popularizing a particular work for secondary reasons. It's not just the Oscars that are political. And, kudos to those '68 Fiers of Sci, they picked a doozy.
There is indeed a contemporary relevance to Nightfall, just as there was in '68, with the religious revival backlash against the human rights movement building. The story is largely a polite, drawing-room deliberation between men of reason, of truth, of science, as to a possibly cataclysmic event and the hope of averting it. It's even set inside an astronomical observatory. Their communal antagonist is the "Cult" which seeks to speed the Apocalypse for dogmatic reasons. Sound familiar? It's a delightfully concise, heavy-handed depiction of the progressive attempts of science sabotaged by the demented mass of the people deliberately whipped into a destructive frenzy by religious manipulators. All the more relevant today, as religious extremists backed by corporate interests all too eager to divide and conquer have seized control over so many of the more backward states in the U.S. and are actively destroying the progressive social programs of the past few decades, to say nothing of similar religious revivals abroad.

All the more relevant the guilt of that video-store owner who would seek to defame Asimov by shelving a so-called adaptation which turns his rational flight of fancy about the limitations of human thought and the need for the structure of science to stretch our awareness into the vastness of the cosmos into a pathetic farce in which a priest with magic powers is the hero and he does it all not in search for the truth, not for progress, but for the love of a good woman. So they become a new Adam and Eve.
Spinning much down there, Isaac?

If you want Nightfall, read the story.
If not, the Escape Pod audio version is, if not entirely palatable, digestible and blissfully un-adapted.

With the original story being short, set almost entirely in a single room and composed of simple roles which though all male are fairly unisex and should be easy enough to act out, it would make for an excellent one-act play. Can we get this thing played by high-school and college drama clubs?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Get a job you hippie!

Does nobody ever consider anymore just how sick, how perverse our attitude toward the worth of the individual is? Consider the sadomasochistic fixation on putting each other to work? Or at the very least the slavishness of our institutionalized dependence on corporate sponsorship?

A "job" is not a humanist ideal. Defining yourself by your worth toward the profit margin of some multibillionaire is the sickest sort of feudal backsliding. Slaving away for those who dictate your wages and at the same time your cost of living, unable to compete because they also dictate the terms of competition - yes, this is a sick society, and you're only salting its wounds every time you scramble for a shred of self-esteem by proudly declaring just how good a little wage-slave you are, how obedient, how in tune with your culture.

Your culture is a yoke.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Five Minutes of Divine Divinity

I don't bother with so-called "action" RPGs much (if you've played Diablo you've played 'em all) so I'm not sure what possessed me to pick up Divine Divinity. However, I did spend a bit of time nukin' nasties in Torchlight and as a result of some bundled sale on GoG, Divine Divinity made its way into my collection and is therefore beckoning me to justify the $2-3 I must've spent by at least running the stupid thing once or twice. After five or ten minutes and fireballing down a dozen or so skeletons I realized I'd forgotten to enter a character name so that's about it for now.
I feel that I've given the game a fair shake. Call me jaded but I can pretty much see where it's going and I've been there a few times already. It's not that golden of an oldie - not a bad game in any technical sense, but then the ARPG formula is so simplistic by definition that it's hard to get wrong. Or at least wrong-er than any of the other endless Diablo copycats out there. My glorious abortion of divinity has however prompted a couple of thoughts.

Thought the first:
Can we at some point please stop humping Tolkien's corpse? Two or three dialogues into things, I'm told by an NPC to go fetch something from a snooty elf but it might take some convincing because he's an elf and you know how elves are. Yes.
Yes, unfortunately I know entirely too well how elves are. I have praised in the past both the whimsical, graceful good-nature of the Sindar and the pride and dignity of the Noldor. However, unless you're working under the umbrella of a licensed fictional universe, you need not outright copy these motifs even if you're copying gameplay. Diablo became memorable because it broke away from the largely Tokien-inspired Forgotten Realms and cobbled its own dusty, hopeless setting out of medieval Christian iconography. Most other game worlds at least tried to put their own spin on things and even in 2002 you'd have been better off avoiding elves and goblins altogether. For instance, if you're selling a product dubbed doubly divine featuring a decidedly non-androgynous angel performing a strip-tease on the box cover, you may want to speak of heavens and hells, Faustian bargains and fallen angels to grab my attention... or at least don't outright tell me that I already know what your elves are like.

Secondary cogitations:
One nice aspect of Divine Divinity at first glance is its relative blurring of the RPG/ARPG line. With more of an InfinityEngine-ish than Diablo-ish interface and dialogues, it throws an uncomfortable light on its contemporary NWN's own simplicity, not to mention on predecessors like Icewind Dale. What exactly do game designers and reviewers mean when they spout a designation like "ARPG" - more monsters to fight? NWN itself featured hordes of goblins and endlessly-spawning imps. Less dialogue? Without meaningful consequences, less is more. So many dialogues in RPGs are nothing but pre-fight rituals and even where choice seems possible there's always one "right" choice. You don't gain much by clicking through an endless branching dialogue only to find out you have to hit that goblin over the head anyway or you don't get paid. Is "action" supposed to be a condemnation of a streamlined combat system? Not in my book. If your game limits me to shooting fireballs or swinging a sword anyway, then I'd much rather have the more fluid Diablo-ish click-casting than an unjustifiable target-lock mechanic. Fewer classes? Everything D&D-inspired is still based on either a nuker/tank/healer group dynamic or a purely cosmetic hitter/shooter/fireballer single-character split so you may as well be honest about it.

Lack of backstory or immersion seems a more constant delineation of "action" than anything else, and here's where ARPGs limit themselves unnecessarily. Much information can be conveyed without sifting through NPC dialogues, through voice-overs, snippets of overheard conversations, or simple observation. There's no real need to stop the player in his tracks and put him through the ritual of watching your oh-so-clever cinematic. Games like Half-Life or Stalker showed how even the most basic concept of gunning down zombies can be spiced up with world events which play out as you advance through gameplay. It should be role-playing, not role-saying, as I'm so fond of repeating, and it's more the lack of variation and consequences which makes ARPGs so uninteresting than a lack of explanation. This flaw, however, is shared by supposed high-brow RPGs as well.

Friday, November 29, 2013


Feels kinda odd discussing Resonance in relation to other adventure games. The whole point-and-click adventure setup, antiquated as it is, has been relegated to small productions and independent developers, often new to the business. This invites a certain tolerance for low-quality graphics, creative writing of uneven quality, and various nonsensical gimmicks meant to spice up the decades-old routine of visually scanning an image for clues. It invites a certain tolerance from players for... well, amateurishness.

Resonance is not amateurish, but neither does it convey the sort of endearing personality which can elevate these 2D, pixellated 90s throwbacks over glitzier, big-budget genres.
It's written at the level of a good British murder mystery, with believable characters and a plausible, coherent story. Suspense and foreshadowing feature in adequate doses to get their point across. The voice acting is... passable, though it suffers from a "teleprompter" feel. The premise is just sufficiently "Sci" to make for good "Fi" and the ending doesn't disappoint. Unfortunately the whole thing feels somewhat perfunctory. It's far from dull, and paradoxically it may be the careful, professional balance between story elements which turns Resonance's plot into a zero-sum game but unlike other good adventure titles, no artistic element truly grabbed me - nothing, from setting and premise to plot to characters, to sprites and sounds, made much of an impression. These are forgettable people doing forgettable things in a forgettable place.

Resonance excels, however, as a puzzle-solving game. Through visual, text, memory and even social (as you control up to four characters at once, each with a subtly different agenda) Resonance runs almost the complete gamut of puzzle-solving while remaining pleasantly self-contained, unlike, say TSW and its constant wikipedia-crawling for obscure trivia. While this could've easily made Resonance feel like "Wechsler interactive" the reward per time investment for each puzzle was carefully managed to avoid boredom or frustration. Crutches are implemented for those of us too lame to feel our way through a wooden box (yes, the puzzle solving includes an actual puzzle-box) and other characters will gladly drop you a hint now and then. Logic wins the day here. Players accustomed to simply scanning the screen for interactable elements will be disappointed at a very large number of red herrings. In a refreshing departure from most of its competitors, Resonance's gameplay hinges on building logical causality, not what might be called the spirit of observation but is more frequently sheer dumb luck.

A good example of just how Resonance rises above its genre would be the ending. I had no trouble figuring out how to "MacGyver" my way to the big finish... but it turned out to be the bad ending. Not just bad, but the ending I myself find deeply offensive. So I kept trying, unsuccessfully, to end on a good note, and finally had to give up and learn online that getting the good ending was not only a matter of making different choices, but of using a social rather than mechanistic, instrumental approach. I'm still gonna gripe that it was a dirty trick to play on us shuttered hermits who are most likely to buy such a product, but it's certainly food for thought on building meaningful puzzle-based gameplay.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How many 3.5" floppies is that?

You know how Bill Maher does that "New Rules" segment on Real Time?
Well, here's a game-related new rule: If your new game requires me to free up 20+ gigs of storage just for the basic, version 1.0 install, you have to buy me a new hard drive for my porn.
Get it? "Hard" drive? Oh, I kill me.

Yes, it's a tired old complaint and hard drive space is nowhere near the issue it was a decade or two ago but the real problem is that these games have become as massively overbuilt as some of their non-game inspirations like Word or Internet Explorer, all-purpose websites like MSN or advertising platforms like Steam. They are clunky, intrusive, ad-riddled, datamining-obssessed messes. How much of this crap I'm downloading is actually necessary and now much is just the existential justification of some graphic artist? No, thanks, I don't really need fifteen versions of this triple-layered texture for my sword pommel, nor do I need my preference as to sword-pommel texture constantly uploaded to your marketing department in real time. I will gladly tell you everything that's wrong with your flashy piece of crap of a product myself, and the truth is no amount of pinky-finger articulation for my character is going to fix the fact that your entire multimillion-dollar enterprise still limits me to "kill ten rats."

Redundancy is not quality.

*edit: I was wrong, it's 40+ gigs.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thresholds in Virtual Air

As an effect of studying a little biology you get more sensitive to the concept of threshold values. You learn not to view things as absolutes but as ranges, in terms of variation around a norm or minimum. You learn how important every mountain gorilla becomes when there's 400 of the damn things left but the generally accepted threshold for sufficient genetic variation for a species' long-term survival is at least 500. Or take for instance the famous depictions of atmospheric greenhouse gasses (remember Al "gimme-an-Oscar" Gore pointing to his spiky chart?) and the issue of truncating graphs for effect. It is legitimate. In fact that graph's Y-axis should be truncated at just 250 to 300 because that is the world we know, the world in which we have always existed. Drive home the point that we are now literally off the freakin' charts! Our human reality doesn't go from 0 to 400 ppm. Our world, the only one we know how to live in, was that historic norm of around 280. That's where everyone from Julius Caesar to Queen Victoria lived. An increase of a hundred ppm isn't 0.0001 or 25% or 33%, it's 1000%, it's a ten-fold amplification of the worst variation human civilization had known previously.

But you know what, all that's too depressing to think about. So let's escape into online games, where the skies are always blue and the elf-lasses busty. And then listen to some corporate fatcat trying to convince you that making you buy various stat-boosting items with real money is harmless really because the advantages they give will be minor. I complained long ago about legitimized cheating, and quite a few times since then. It's been around for many years now, completely wrecking the viability of most online games as games, degrading them to no more than social arenas.
At the time I complained about the now largely defunct game Savage 2's stat-boosting items giving anywhere from 10-30% bonus to effectiveness depending on how you looked at it. For the sake of simplicity, stick with the idea of a 15% health increase. A cheater who bribes the game company for that advantage has 15% more HP than a player who doesn't. Now, 30 more health might not sound like much on a 200-HP player character, but the truth is you don't live and die by that 200 HP. Your success is measured by the statistical difference between your performance and another player's and that oftentimes ends up being precisely that 30 points. It's one more attack, one more defense, one more bullet, one more health potion. Look in any PvP game and see how often you survive a fight with 15% or less HP and how often a player who beats you survived with 15% or less. If a football player had a chance to improve his odds of scoring a goal or even successfully placing a pass by 15%, would he call that trivial? Would he just shrug it off?

The effect really is vastly magnified considering most of these online games, multiplayer games, concern teams of players. Does 2% sound like very little? Here's a nice anecdote.
Back when I was playing WoW, way-when in the mists of time it first launched, I had the opportunity to raid a bit. These were the big old 40-man raids with 39 players praying that the team's tank doesn't die or they'd all wipe. I was a druid, largely derided and discounted because as a hybrid class druids lacked any one specialized value (damage/healing) to throw around as simpleminded proof of their usefulness. So back when my guild was in the Molten Core instance, I was immediately and vociferously criticized for using the "Insect Swarm" spell on raid bosses. All the idiots who lived and died by the damage/healing meter criticized me for using a low-damage debuff when I was what they called a "healer" class. Insect swarm, however, also gave its victim (in this case the giant menacing raid boss) a 2% miss chance on attacks. I replied somewhat thusly:
"if you found an item or a potion or a buff that gave your main tank an extra 2% dodge chance, would you want to use it?"
And from that day on, my guild had not just me but the other druids constantly using Insect Swarm on raid bosses as a general policy.

2% is huge. It snowballs. If in a 40-man PvE raid that was mostly a way of keeping the tank alive, in PvP scenarios any and every advantage counts. Yes, if one of your twenty or thirty players in a PvP game lives through a fight once, just once, by a 2% margin, he can go on to completely shift the power balance.
"For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost" the centuries-old saying goes and it holds true despite cheaters throughout history trying to laugh off and trivialize their sin. They're the same ones who want to keep polluting because hey, 0.0001 is oh-so-little. Cheating matters, and nobody knows this better than cheaters themselves. Once one jock starts using steroids, all the rest have to as well just to keep up. Cheating forces more cheating. That's the beauty of it from the viewpoint of game companies. Once they offer that possibility it becomes a necessity. As soon as they've made that first microtransaction of half a dollar for a 2% stat boost, they are assured thousands more.

The reality of it from the players' view is that corporations are never sated. Greed, unlike your character stats, is not a threshold value. Once a company starts offering legitimized ways to cheat, it will keep offering more and more. The game will inevitably revolve around them. Why? Because once a thousand players have bought the first 2% and the spending threshold for success has been raised, that threshold will be raised again and again. 2% here and 2% there, the biggest spenders accumulate more and more advantages until your virtual world is as polluted as the real one.

You have to keep the damn nail in the horseshoe in the first place. Demand that companies never institute even the slightest bought advantages. NO legitimized cheating, regardless of numeric values.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Their true calling

Can we get Bill Clinton and Rob Ford on a transcontinental tour teaching sex-ed to middle-school children?
Party people in the schoolhouse, yo!
They've both got famous sound bites covering at least two popular sexual acts... add some Bob Dole Viagra clips and you've got yourself the most memorable health class any youngsters are ever likely to get.

- and the scariest

Friday, November 15, 2013

TED vs. Kickstarter

I've been watching/listening to some TED Talks lately (word of advice - don't, they're habit-forming) and in the process engaging in wanton speculation and criticism as is my wont.
First off, Jane Goodall has gotten scary in her old age. I don't mean my kind of scary, angry nerd when-will-he-snap insane asylum scary, but the other kind. The softspoken social prime-mover sort. Listening to her dismissing complaints about her speech running overtime with "Are you going to come and drag me off?" you have to realize this is the sort of persona which can power social movements, and there are precious few of those among scientists. Granny Goodall can shame you into recycling where even if I had any credentials, the likes of me couldn't badger you into it.
Second, if you're relatively young, male and especially a gamer, Philip Zimbardo is kicking your pasty, antisocial ass. Implicitly, metaphorically, but you're gonna feel it nonetheless. And if you don't think a guy whose landmark experiment adorns every Psych100 textbook across the U.S. has enough pull within the unofficial trade-guild of headshrinkers to influence how society sees you, you really have spent too much time in Neverland. I won't say "let's try to prove him wrong" but rather let's prove him right and prove that we're in the right. In the mass-media culture we could all use a good dose of antisocial egomania.

I won't go into any others. Love or hate TED, the content provided is endlessly fascinating. However, I am constantly reminded of one of the first posts I made when I started this sad little joke of a blog. Where's the decentralization?
As delighted as I am by the varied material provided, lurking in my semiconscious assessment of the website, the tone of the presentations, the suppliant fundraising slant on every issue discussed, is the realization that in order to speak at TED you must very likely be or make yourself a corporate whore. When every talk is followed by an ad from GE, IBM, various car companies or Goldman-Fuckin'-Sachs, the social damage of promoting the most destructive agents of modern society arguably outweighs the positive effects of popularizing scientific breakthroughs or artistic achievements. Is anyone seeing the irony of having talks on global-warming endorsed by peddlers of gas-guzzling SUVs? The implication that human advancement cannot exist without the stranglehold such thoughtless, fungal, megalomaniacal, expansionist giants place on human advancement is viciously, deviously counterproductive. There can be no true progress until we are no longer slaves to the stock market, until we can advance scientifically and artistically without feeding the lion's share of our due benefits to the animalistically, instinctively competitive powermongers at the top of these pyramid schemes which block all social progress.
As much as TED is lauded as a positive movement, taking what used to be a multibillionnaire exclusive and opening it somewhat to the public, the program's roots still taint it. It is a game by the rich for the rich. Don't kid yourself. You're not co-opting them, they're co-opting you.

And then there's Kickstarter. At first glance, Kickstarter is an economic dead-end. The rich have no interest in it. It is by definition a for-product enterprise, and powermongers are by definition for-profit. So while in the short term Kickstarter results in many creative, ambitious projects coming to light which would otherwise never exist and creates a highly progressive climate of product-oriented design, it would arguably peter out in the long term. Redistributing, shuffling the funds of the few middle-class progressives among each other does not in itself fight corporate power. However, while funding an artistic project through direct contribution does not directly grow the economic share of the middle-class, it does keep more of that investment from being funneled up to the ultra-wealthy to be used counter-productively for say, face-saving, misleading, crowd-controlling advertisements on the TED website.
Let's remember that the rich produce nothing in themselves. Power is parasitic. Everything they have they acquire by raping and pillaging, by stealing it from true producers. You don't have to fight them actively if you can just keep yourself from feeding those parasites. They can be starved out.
Combined with promoting a product-oriented instead of profit-oriented mindset, this lateral redistribution has tremendous potential. Economists, social scientists, prove me wrong.

I for one am looking forward to the day when I find a large, crowd-funded, user-friendly service I can use instead of Google to post my rants.* I am always painfully aware of the irony of my dependence on this site. The other corporate dependencies of the Internet are bad enough.

*And no, I'm not going to deal with 4chan.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Not My People's Kind of Music

Well, luckily for all of us, Shirley Manson didn't entirely quit her day-job when she ran off to play terminatrix, so there's been a relatively new Garbage album out there and I finally got around to giving it a listen.

Unfortunately, it's weak stuff, and worse still even its good points are downgrades from older Garbage songs. The band was in a constant if slow decline after the first, self-titled album. The edge they'd lent to pop music has gradually dulled away leaving something unappealingly generic in overall tone, instrumentation, lyrics, whathaveyou. This was slightly true of the previous album Bleed Like Me, with Sex is not the Enemy being a pale imitation of Androginy and Right Between the Eyes having the same relation to Cherry Lips. However, the song Bleed Like Me was itself powerful enough to counteract the others, and the ratio of quality to banality in the remaining songs was still heavily in favor of giving everything a listen.

That ratio has unfortunately been reversed with Not Your Kind Of People. The title song is a weaker, generic version of Shut Your Mouth. Only two, maybe three songs of the fifteen stand out as nearing Garbage quality.

Blood For Poppies - again begs a Shut Your Mouth comparison, but it has its own syncopated charm.

Beloved Freak - good, but So Like A Rose, Bleed Like Me or Nobody Can Win did this better without pulling any punches. If you're gonna go emo, you're usually better off with an all-out slit-your-wrists approach. The weak finish hurts it more than anything.

Automatic Systematic Habit - catchy, but also somewhat like a J-Pop remix of Sleep Together. Very strong opening, but goes nowhere after that. Doesn't come close to Garbage's old masterpiece As Heaven Is Wide.

Aside from these, there's not much there. Pity. I went into this wanting to like it. I was hoping one of my favorite old bands would make a comeback and reverse its downward trend. It is, I'm sorry to say, the first bad album Garbage has put out.
Then again, how many bands actually make a comeback? And still, two good songs is two more than I'll ever create.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Cat God - a thousand monkeys in a thousand random places

For some years now, "achievements" have been a big buzz-word in electronic games. With cloud sharing, even single-player games attempt to create a false sense of competition between players by giving them endless lists of obscure and/or repetitive tasks to perform. Go here. Kill a thousand of these. Give us this many dollars. And post it all to your online profile so all your little buddies can see just how obsessive you are!
These ideas have a way of circling around within the industry in a barely distinguishable spiral of incompetence. I've talked before about how the concept of static leveling, after its supposed success in MMOs, came back to potentially wreck some single-player games like Oblivion. This time it's The Secret World that's ticked me off and the problem seems to once again be one degrading concept corrupting another.

I interrupted my recent stint in Calradia because I remembered that I missed out on Issue 3 of TSW's post-launch releases while busy with my old LotRO guild last year. So as Halloween is come around again and the Cat God come out to play, I decided to once more take up arms for the Templar cause. Which apparently involves chasing pussy. Okay, fine, whatever.

Though I haven't finished the quest arc yet as the last step is a group mission, Issue 3 seems to have the same problem as Issue 5 but with the order reversed. Instead of a grind with a big finish, The Cat God starts with an interesting gimmick and presentation then gets bogged down. Though the puzzle-solving is initially a good mix of logic and footwork, the references quickly become painfully obscure. I'm reasonably well-versed in history and mythology by most standards but even I have to roll my eyes at being casually asked what the half-legendary queen Boadicea supposedly poisoned herself with (spoiler alert: hemlock sure was popular in the ancient world.) Worse still are the in-game references. When you're asked to figure out in-game locations from off-hand mentions of "garden" or "stone" it's obvious that this has little or nothing to do with detective skills. Though this is a single-player mission, its writers treated it as though they were conversing not with one player but with the entire player base.

This is insulting. You are telling me that you assume me to be a cheater and therefore give me puzzles intended to be solved through cheating. You are insulting me by giving me a single-player mission which assumes I'll be asking others for answers. The clues in the second mission of The Cat God are too painfully obscure to be worth the time investment as a single player. I can comb one map for locations mentioning "garden" or "stone" and I can be amused at one or two red herrings. But several red herrings every step and gardens and stones which might be anywhere on half a dozen maps? This is obviously intended to be solved not through perspicacity but sheer brute strength of numbers. A thousand players all checking random leads will inevitably run across the answer and then copy it off each other. I am being given a brain-teaser but being treated as a herd. We are not amused.

However aggravating that's been in itself, it's more interesting to think of how exactly the developers came upon this attitude toward the tasks they throw at players. The overall trend, we must keep in mind, is toward nominally multiplayer content that's really single-player, not the other way around. Except for at least one area of gameplay.
One of the oldest types of "achievements" were exploration markers. Deeds in LotRO, badges in CoH, lore in TSW, by whatever name these are one of the most nonsensical demands placed on players. The so-called "exploration" variant commonly has nothing to do with exploration. Instead of rewarding players for seeking interesting locations or logical destinations like say mountain peaks or the deepest reaches of a cave, exploration markers are almost always some random spot in an open field or some random crack among thousands in a wall. The point is not to give players something interesting to do, but to simply reward monomaniacal, mindless combing through lists and vistas. It's not worth the time investment for an individual but easily handled by a brainless swarm.

One monkey out of a thousand winds up writing Hamlet and reads it to the others. One player out of a thousand winds up stepping on a fennel plant and tells others where to find it, and 999 monkeys each individually have to go where the first one made the discovery just to checkmark that mission step. This is a disgusting way to set up a supposed puzzle. It's bad enough to have let the concept of exploration degenerate into this without letting it infect puzzle-solving. If I wanted to be part of a faceless community that just cycles buzzwords within itself I'd sign up for facebook. The saddest part is that this is below even TSW's own standards. Just like Tyler Freeborn, The Cat God shows worrying cracks in its coherence, various post-launch decreases in the quality of TSW's most prominent features.

My guess? Their launch tanked, they lost funding and the remaining skeleton crew can't polish anything near enough to make it interesting. Issue 6 I'll talk about some other time and I'm curious if Issues 7 and 8 have continued this pattern.

addendum: Having played through the 2013 version of the Halloween event, I was at first alarmed at the seeming expansion of this pattern. However, out of the ten locations involved, only two were utterly nonsensical and random (Ellis and Tyler) while the rest were characters one might more or less expect to have a ghost story to tell. One in five... not great, but at least things haven't gotten worse in a year?
Also, the story of the gypsy girl's diary? Beautiful.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Qara vs. Ignus

First of all let's get this out of the way: Ignus would liek, toe-tuh-lee kick Qara's ass.

But anyway. Pyromania has become a bit of a spellcaster trope. It's an easy, flashy display of fantasy special effects. Even the dumbest gamers can grasp the idea of shooting fireballs as "magic power" so it's hardly surprising in retrospect that Neverwinter Nights 2 included something like Qara in its panoply of DnD archetypes. For those who have also played the NWN predecessor Planescape:Torment a comparison with that other firebug companion, Ignus, seems natural and at first glance Ignus appears by far the better-written character.

I don't think Qara was particularly popular a decade ago when NWN2 came out. At least in the online game guild I was a part of at the time, I found myself her only advocate. Others complained of her abrasive personality or skill build as grating flaws. She was accused of being precisely the sort of "munchkin" who plays a sorceror - a charisma-based character with the diplomatic skills of a poop-flinging baboon who only wants to deal damage but for whom weapon feats were just too complex.
For this reason Qara really is a good character. She embodies that archetype. She may be a bad person... but a decent character nonetheless. Personally I liked having her around because it's nice having some NPC in these games that's a bit of a loose cannon. She provided some nice accompaniment for the explosive side of my own temperament much as Gannayev or Morrigan echoed my egomania and callousness in later Bioware releases.
One must also keep in mind that "charisma" is not synonymous with "niceness" and abrasive but magnetic personalities abound. Consider comedians, for instance.
Her somewhat repetitive dialogue also fits. Pyromania aside, the monomania of obsessively pursuing anything - power especially, magical or otherwise - can easily become the focus of one's entire personality. Qara is gradually becoming her conflict, constantly manifesting her fight to break free of the restraints placed upon her. 

However, there is an added dimension to Qara for those players who have gone through both Torment and NWN2. Ignus is by far the more captivating character, granted. His interactions with the player, his viciousness and abandon make Qara look like the G-rated imitation she truly was. However, when looking back at Qara one must realize that what we were presented, in part, was another Ignus in the making. Qara is Ignus the child, Ignus the hedge-wizard who burns with the art... until the art will inevitably burn her. There's even an easy comparison to be drawn between Qara setting a fire as a diversion in a backalley of Neverwinter's docks and Ignus torching the Alley of Dangerous Angles.

Qara was an interesting character because she was a transitional one, and in a much subtler way than Khelgar. She was in that state of potentiality awaiting some apotheosis like, say... being turned into a conduit for the Plane of Fire. Unfortunately, fully exploring that path would have been too deep for NWN2's simplistic, archetypal companion roster. Ignus she could've been, munchkin she remained.

Greetings From Calradia!

Something happened last week on Halloween (no, I didn't bite anyone, calm down) and it threw me for a little loop. Enough to stop me in my tracks as I was writing here, mid-paragraph. So I've been spending my days since then wrapped in the safety blanket of imaginary worlds. I've lost a couple dozen matches of Civ 4, sliced and diced a few hundred people in TF2, played through the first half of Resonance (more on that later) revisited NWN2 a bit (more on Qara and redundant prestige classes later), read through the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, expanded my Elemental empire, watched a few old Dr. Who episodes, held back the alien menace in Defense Grid... and as though that weren't enough reality-dodging, I started a new campaign of Mount and Blade.

So, hail, traveler. Welcome to my comfort zone!

And really, as escapist fantasies go, M&B sort of takes the cake. Not because of any particular, unique elements but because it does the basics so well as to let you immerse yourself in your own imagination. Choose your own medieval adventure. Do you loot, capture, steal or enslave? Do you sneak or trample? Do you bolt or lance? Who are you, what are you, and where are you going? You decide, without any guidance, with nothing but your internal compass and risk/reward estimates. You want to see what a sandbox MMO should look like? Play through a few years of Calradian time and imagine that every peasant and merchant, every lord and bandit were replaced with players.

"What a scene, man, whoeee! And then they just plop you out here like a naked baby in the woods." - Smiling Jack from VtM: Bloodlines

My next "shifting demographic" post will likely center on the thrill of discovery. I like getting parachuted into a hostile environment to learn everything the hard way. This is adventure, this is a test of personal ability and a brave new world, in which such surprises can exist. Don't game, play. Learn to lose and learn by doing. You discover everything in M&B through interaction. Slave traders tell you how to capture slaves. Troubadours tell you about the land's courtship customs. Merchants and guild masters clue you in as to the best trade routes.
Everything else is subject to the whims of fate. "O, fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis!" A single crossbow bolt to the face during a crucial battle can cost you weeks' worth of progress and kingdoms rise and fall within a few months. I began this campaign, for instance, with the intent to cozy up to the Kingdom of Vaegirs and then rebel. I was quite happy to see it expanding, thinking what a glorious endgame it would make to shatter this vast abusive monarchy through just revolt. And then three other kingdoms declared war. And then a fourth. Within two months my liege and future victim King Yaroglek's domain fell from five towns to one and from a dozen castles to two.
How dare they take him down before I got a chance to!
And none of this is spoon-fed to you through storylines, through easily discernible good guys and bad guys or giant map markers holding your hand through a linear sequence of events. You choose your targets and your justification. You choose whose tale of right-to-rule to believe, and there's no right answer. Any town might prosper, any kingdom might rule the others.

So here's hoping. Mount&Blade 2 is now in development. Here's hoping they choose to build on this their great strength, the sandbox appeal, minimalist and expansive, direct and complex all at once. Hope they choose to expand the core concept without diluting it. No fireballs, no dwarves with guns, no dragons, no easy answers, no pats on the back, no hand-holding. Just you and an entire brutal medieval world at your fingertips.

The vision of a warrior bold just sets me dancing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The soy rotted in the trains

Logical answers to a couple of side effect non-issues of climate change denial.

First: why's this climate change thing so bad? I mean, I might like wearing shorts in November and I hear monsoons are fun! The most famous modern-day example of this I'd say is Vladimir Putin's attitude that a thawed Siberia would make him the de facto agribusiness world leader.
But forget any specific details here for one moment and let's establish one thing. Humans don't deal well with change. Fifteen hundreds years ago, the central-Asian steppe went through a little climactic hiccup. Did the Mongols get their population under control? Did they just institute new farming/ranching policies? No, they ransacked half of Eurasia. Eighty years ago, American farmers' reaction to their self-imposed overproduction crisis and the resulting ecological disaster was to amplify production. Humans do not deal well with unfamiliar situations. The little progress that's been made throughout history has been made by a few superhuman intellects dragging the unwitting masses kicking and screaming to a better lifestyle and there are severe limits to the social impact of progressive visionaries. Apes will be apes.
If we can't make the little change that would be necessary now to deal with a crisis before it spirals out of control, what would make anyone think this species could handle the necessary changes fifty, two hundred or a thousand years from now to ride the mounting wave of its own recklessness? The appropriate metaphor is not "sink or swim" but "stop splashing or you'll drown yourself."
It doesn't do to be blindly optimistic. The specific changes which will come about are terrifying precisely because they are unpredictable. How will Canada deal with Texan tornadoes? How would Japan handle a fishing industry collapse? How would the British Isles cope with a Gulf Stream shift of a few degrees of longitude, if they lost their hot-water-bottle and suddenly had to deal with the fact that they're on the same latitude as Newfoundland?

Second is the confusion about why anyone would knowingly deny something so catastrophic. I mean, if everything goes to shit, don't we all suffer?
Well... no. The rich would not. For one thing, the richer you are, the more mobility you possess. If you can buy yourself hilltop estates anywhere you want, you're less inclined to give a shit about rising sea levels. If you're rich enough to own entire countries, as many oil/banking/military "machers" are, then what's a few million or half a billion dead of starvation and social unrest? They're just disposable recruits. Capital.
Also, "rich" is an intrinsically comparative term, and the comparison only improves with spreading poverty. Human misery is the greatest resource of the rich, not only because it provides them with willing masses primed for subjugation but because it implicitly feeds the instinctive desperation to compare one's social standing favorably to others'. Shrinking the pond is, instinctively, a valid means of ensuring one's social rank as opposed to growing into a big fish. The worse off the people under you are, the less able they are to stand up to you, the better. You don't need a roaring economy if a plummeting one will ensure families are desperate enough to sell you their children. Social power is not expressed in absolute values but as power over others, and the misery of the poor is the tried-and-true route to that blissful inequality, not the well-being of the rich.
Here's a quote that tends to get ignored in the usual willful misinterpretation of Atlas Shrugged: "that so long as men struggle to stay alive, they’ll never produce so little but that the man with the club won’t be able to seize it and leave them still less, provided millions of them are willing to submit - that the feudal baron did not need electronic factories in order to drink his brains away out of jeweled goblets and neither did the rajahs of the People's State of India".
The rich of today, the barons of industry, the Fortune 500, the petty tyrants of corporate states like the U.S. are those barons and rajahs of Rand's description and not her pipe-dream of enlightened progressive social engineers, and though they fear change they also drool at the dream of change which would impoverish all others around them to the point of empowering them and their private armies to depraved excesses and sadistic pleasures even Caligula and the Marquis de Sade could never have imagined.
The rapist's dream of ineffective opposition drives humans to accept apocalyptic scenarios, so long as in that broken world they can maintain or improve their relative standing. And the difference between rich and poor is that the rich can afford to convince the poor to bring about such scenarios.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fox, Terminating

See, I don't bother with most SciFi TV series because I assume they'll be utter trash as they so often are. One of the series I passed up without a glance was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles so I've only now learned about the show being cancelled after its second season.
Now, I already knew they'd gotten Summer Glau in as a terminatrix, but I also just learned they'd apparently gotten Shirley Manson in as well. How... how do you not make that work?!

Holy crap, you had two female supporting roles, one of which still has a cult following from a decade-old-series, and the other the singer whose voice is the symbol of sex-appeal plastered from ear canal to limbic system of every depressed teenager of the late 90s. I don't care if the show was utter shit in every other way, Fox, you could sell that!
Seriously, I'm afraid to watch it in reruns because I might not stop drooling. Hell, while you're at it, maybe you should've waited until you got Angelina Jolie or Kate Beckinsale in the cast too, then cancelled the series.

This "Fox cancellation" routine has gotten old. They have to decide at some point whether their reactionary ideology or their greed is more important. I know nothing about the quality of the show but just from those two supporting actresses alone, it was probably a marketable one.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fevre Dream

So, here's Halloween again. I'd like to take this occasion to offer a counterpoint to one of the great scourges of Samhain, the cute/sexy vampire. First off, let's establish that glitter is not an appropriate costume accessory for a ghoulish bloodsucker, no matter what that idiotic farce, Twilight, has taught you. Second, I am in no way maintaining that we can never diverge from the oldest representations of storybook monsters or their first accepted literary interpretations. Bram Stoker's Dracula was by no means a great novel and we need not limit ourselves to it as inspiration. However, it falls on the correct side of the dividing line between staying true to its fairytale inspiration in spirit and simply exploiting a word like "vampire" in a nonsensical but crowd-pleasing fashion.
There have been many reinterpretations of vampirism in the past century or so, based first on Dracula and later on Anne Rice's rapidly-deteriorating book series. Twilight is guilty of picking up where Rice's fame-flustered derangement left off, with its supercharged, sexy vamps and pup-men prancing around like they own the place. Not everything has followed that linear decline however, and in the spirit of Gustave Le Rouge's semi-coherent yet oddly captivating vampires on Mars (sure, why not) I'd like to encourage everyone to read George R. R. Martin's little head-trip about vampires on steamboats. I mean, sure, why not?

Come on. I know "steampunk" is a popular albeit ill-defined trend these past few years and as a long-time George Martin fan I'm constantly annoyed at his newfound fanbase which only knows the sexed-up seven kingdoms and not his older, more thoughtful works. If you can't dredge up much interest in a nearly emotionless albino ecoengineering-warship captain, a dying planet adrift through transience or short stories about people getting swallowed by blobs and shooting a rat, only a rat, then at least give his take on de-mystified vampires a look.

Fevre Dream is an attempt to create a rational, non-magical vampire race, based loosely on the biological explanation of porphyria as the root of the vampire myth itself. And yes, just as the main theme is the meeting point between myth and reason, the setting is the short-lived, transitional world of steam-power and institutionalized slavery along an 1850s Mississippi. It is, amusingly enough, not fantasy but science fiction set in the past, and much like other good but relatively short works of science fiction it suggests a lot more than it states explicitly. One of the trends running through Martin's work over the decades has been a fascination with the mentality and ethics of power or leadership and Fevre Dream does an excellent job of exploring the biological roots of power-mongering, juxtaposing  the racial slavery of the American south with the willing slavishness of pack-hierarchies.

Mostly though, it's about vampires. How they eat, how they think, how they burn, how they bleed. If you want a case-study in recreating an old myth through the lens of science and reason, in rationalizing superstition and the cultural capital it's created, Fevre Dream is as good as any. And the Halloweenish beauty of the whole thing is that it does not abandon vampires' proper role as shadow-dwelling boogeymen. In fact, Martin's vamps are all the more terrifying for being merely dangerous beasts, eliciting a visceral fear of the predator in our monkey brains akin to the timeless image of Dracula, limbs splayed lizard-like, crawling face-down along a sheer stone wall. This primal terror of the hungry beast is so deeply rooted in our primate brains that's it's a pity to dilute it in the more detached, magic-ridden interpretations of the myth.

Give the glitter a rest and read something about real vampires. Let Mr. "Game of Thrones" teach you how to rethink fairytales.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A "retried" page never loads

Ignoring all the other Obamacare shenanigans, something's been bothering me.
You keep seeing reporters and commentators describing just how difficult it is to get through the online services and actually sign up. "System unavailable" and that sort of thing. Overload. Too much interest, too little silicon. Or something.
Okay, so I'm no tech guru, but one thing I've learned through years of online games makes me think all these media leeches constantly reloading web pages to prove they're down are part of the problem. When a system gets overloaded, slows down, etc., one of the things it needs is a little breathing room. The end users need to, as the kids say, "chill out", relax, take their finger off the "reload" button
Stop Humping The Server!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Natural Selection 2

A sequel should be more than just a port of an outdated game to a new platform or even less, a new game engine. When various Half-Life 2 mods did this, they had the decency not to pretend they were true sequels. They labelled themselves Day of Defeat: Source or Counterstrike: Source because really, the Source engine was all that was new about them.

Backtrack a bit. It's 2002. Yours truly, a craven man-wolf caged in a backwater "university" dormitory, has a few popular online games as his principal occupation. One of these is a little FPS game called Counterstrike. Oh sure, I used to play DoD or TFC as well, and I'd started to hear about this new HL mod which had space marines fighting aliens. And one day, the admin of my favorite CS stomping ground dropped the fateful words on us like a bomb: "goodbye CS server, hello NS server." The server switched and I along with it, and even though Natural Selection ran so poorly on my old computer that I was forced to play in 400x300 resolution, I loved it.

NS is an FPS/RTS hybrid game. What I remembered I loved was the visceral thrill of FPS combined with the added relevance of true teamwork and strategy: taking resource nodes, defending bases, climbing a tech tree. There had been good offline games like this in the past, like Battlezone or Uprising, but not truly multiplayer-oriented ones. Internet gaming was just coming into its own with the likes of Half-Life and Starcraft.

NS did not have a very long period of popularity, for various reasons. It did not receive needed updates fast enough, which made many of its balance issues grate. It was using what was at that point a slightly aging game engine (Half-Life was a 1998 game) and the improvements made to it were too much for older video cards like mine while not allowing players with brand-new machines to show off their capabilities. Worst of all, the creative team decided at one point to fragment its customer base for no reason, creating an "action" version of the mod which removed the RTS portion. It became nearly impossible to get players to play the more complex, original concept.

So now we have NS2, and I did not bother playing it until now because, well, Planetside 2 was coming out and there are only so many hours in the day. Since 2002 there have been other attempts at RTS/FPS hybrids. I previously mentioned the Insects Infestation mod for Half-Life 2, and HL2 also spawned the equally short-lived Empires mod. The most interesting attempts however were the two Savage games. Actually when Savage first went into beta there was a hilarious display of hysterics from a NS fan who accused Savage of stealing the concepts of NS and that "be assured the NS community will hear of this!" Savage's dev team basically just chuckled and said "ok kid, thanks for the free publicity."
Given Battlezone and Uprising and the like, it's hard to condemn Savage of "stealing" NS. The whole hybrid thing is just a logical progression of either more team-oriented FPS or a first-person RTS. Even Dungeon Keeper allowed you to take control of a single minion and run around your own strategy-game map. It is true that Savage basically copied the marine team from NS but what can I say? "You're just a copy of an imitation." Savage was an improved version of NS and Savage 2, while a downgrade from Savage in terms of complexity, brought many needed improvements especially to the FPS side of things, creating a set of intuitive combat mechanics which should be given a thorough look by anyone wanting to develop a mixed melee/ranged FPS system. In short, S2Games, while they are overall a shameless bunch of copycats and bandwagonners, moved forward in their own way.

Natural Selection did not. NS2 is basically NS:Source. Oh, sure there are some new weapons, but this is 2002 all over again. Everyone still bunny-hops and there's still too little feedback on landing melee attacks, etc. The few "improvements" were actually steps back, like giving the alien team a commander instead of keeping the old dichotomy or the more cluttered maps of undifferentiated rooms which, like the clutter of Planetside 2, serves only to reward twitch-gaming instead of planning and teamwork. Not to mention that just as the first NS did, NS2 pushes the capabilities of its graphics engine unnecessarily, straining older cards without really competing for showing off newer ones. No matter how much you dress up the Source engine, Planetside 2 still has nicer explosions.

It's sad to see this happening. After Savage 2 committed hara-kiri and with the other HL2 mods dying young, not to mention MMOs like Rift refusing to see they could be the ones to fill this first-person RTS niche, I'm not sure there's much out there. A true sequel to NS would have gone a long way toward keeping one of the best genres alive. Unfortunately, just like DotA 2, NS2 is just a nostalgic throwback, fixing little or nothing of what was wrong with the original, sitting back while the rest of the industry either moves on or gives up on the idea.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I feel like imagining some stuff

I want to create a world.
Because it's not there... yet.

Ok, ok, so my reasons are a bit more extensive than that. I've always been intrigued by imaginary worlds which grow around literary creations, such as middle-earth, but they are most often tied to the needs of a particular narrative. Judging by the sequels to Neuromancer, Dune or The Foundation just to give some examples, the authors found it very difficult to expand the universe past the original gimmick or raison d'etre of the core characters. Middle-earth itself is unique because Tolkien was so keen a student of mythology and understood the need for cultural background so well that he created an entire coherent world as a matter of course, largely unrelated to hobbit necessities. He fit the story into the mythology, not the other way around.

However, my attempt is rather meant to imitate, not the background of a novel or series of novels, but the endless fantasy worlds created as backgrounds for games such as D&D or Shadowrun, the interactive bastard children of LotR or Neuromancer, or of online games like MMOs. Which is not to say that it shouldn't be equally suited to simple works of fiction, as other such frameworks have proven.
This is also meant to get me out of a little slump I'm going through. At the moment, even the little casual, derivative short stories I'd meant to write and post on this blog, like Ephemeron or For an Echo, are refusing to write themselves. If I can't create anything specific then maybe some aimless rambling, some clutter of grandiose flights of fancy, will jog my muse out of slumber. Perhaps if I start with nothing and simply indulge in creative process without purpose, I will become better able to give shape to my more purposeful projects.
Yes, that made more sense in my head and used less alliteration as well.

Anyhoo, given that this will be a work in progress, it'll be housed in its own tab.

And yes, it always feels weird putting so much work into things nobody will ever give two shits about. Bite me, Internet, you uncaring beast.
I gotta be me.

Monday, October 21, 2013


Quick, can you tell me what this symbol represents?
Now just as quick, can you tell me what this symbol represents?
Or maybe this one? Does it have anything to do with ents, to you?
Oh, LotRO, is there no end of screw-ups to cite about you?

Back right before Planetside 2's launch, I criticized a few of their visual design elements. Overall, the game just looks unnecessarily "busy." There's a difference between "decor" and "random junkpile"and it only compounded the usual graphics card issues of first-person-shooters. However, my greatest complaint was about the needless ambiguity of HUD symbols. I believe I said something to the effect of "I should never hear words like fuchsia or magenta and I shouldn't have to decipher something that looks like the bastard child of Sanskrit and Hebrew - stick with primary colors and universal symbols."

And really, that's my main message here: don't get fancy with symbols!

Back over a decade ago with graphics cards getting more powerful, resolutions rising and 3D becoming standard fare, graphic designers also started to embellish the means of conveying information. I don't know if this was a means of maintaining job security by inventing more things to design or just childish glee at the newfound flexibility of colorful 32x32-pixel images but it led to a trend of utterly unintelligible skill/weapon/vehicle/ability/effect/map icons.

LotRO is a perfect example. The two skills I linked at the start of this post are only a taste, and that needless confusion stands as a sad counterpoint to the game LotRO copied for its gameplay mechanics. While I rail against WoW for various reasons, Blizzard's expertise as game designers showed in many ways, one of the more minor of which was an intuitive array of skill icons.
For instance, look at the druid travel form image. For clarification, druids' travel form was a cheetah. And yet, the icon shows a hoof. Why? Because you're hoofing it! You don't need a 16-color representation of a cheetah face and in fact it would only get in the way. When you're making an escape, you need to quickly scan your skill bar for the idea of fast travel, not marvel at the artistic triumph that is the travel form icon.

Now, I don't mean we have to limit ourselves to black-and-white math symbols and arrows. Universal symbols are all that would be needed in PS2 because it has relatively little information to relay and it uses a modern, vaguely sci-fi setting. In fact Planetside 1 used many universal symbols for stairwells and the like. Third-person RPGs with target-lock mechanics, which as a rule use a much wider variety of abilities, would logically need a more flexible system to distinguish those abilities in a taskbar. But a button icon does not need to tell a story. It should be intuitive. A hoof is good enough, thank you.

We could probably think of endless ways to re-use one icon for different purposes. If a hoof conveys the basic idea of travel, use it on a blue background for an escape ability, red background for a charge ability. Use a hoof in a stylized house icon as a horse-stable map icon.

And if you're designing the icon for a skill called "march of the ents" which does damage, put a little green ent in an angry red background. No further detail is necessary.

There are plenty of areas in which graphic designers should get creative. Character models, flora, terrain, spaceship designs... but not symbolism. Symbols serve a different purpose than entertainment. They must convey information quickly and clearly.

If the symbol you just came up with is nothing but a confused mass of colors or a random image that you think looks more artistic, you are not worth your salt as a designer.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Dr. Who is Good, Clean Fun

Aluminum pie pan on a string? That's "flying saucer" to you.

I'd always heard of Dr. Who as a nerd and geek staple, along with Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Star Wars/Trek. I generally dismissed any praise of the show as the predictably rosy (read: star-struck) sort of review which always comes from a vociferous fanatical following. If moderately successful for a decade or more, such a series' customer base becomes so entrenched as to remove any possibility of objective judgment.

So I always shrugged off any mention of Dr. Who until I caught an episode of the new series by accident while channel-surfing this past spring. Which episode? Oh, some nonsense about lizardmen swimming around in the earth's mantle, doesn't matter really. I was delighted, not so much by anything which might be called high quality as by the fact that anyone would still make something in this particular style: relatively low-budget, recklessly speculative and a wee bit preachy.

Lacking any current science fiction series to hold my interest, I immediately resolved to watch Dr. Who... from the beginning. Sorry, did I cause a spit-take? Yes, I had in fact assumed that this had been some old series from the 60s or 70s, a few seasons long, which got revived during the late 90s or more recent years. I thought that, hey, I can sit through a couple dozen old episodes, it's not as though there's anything good on TV I'll miss anyway.

Over three freakin' decades' worth of Whos, I was not expecting.

But, hey, I'm just uptight enough to feel like I have to see it from the beginning anyway so off I go! From cavemen to "aliens" in rubber scuba suits to upturned trashcans talking like a speak'n'spell. Much of the show's charm from what I can see so far comes from how shamelessly ludicrous its plot gimmicks are. In one early episode, the TARDIS shrinks along with its crew because its doors opened by accident and some - space - escaped. Groaning and laughing at the same time hurts.
I mean, this sort of thing would be inexcusable under most circumstances, and I have yet to figure out why it just "works" in Dr. Who. There's a sort of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy pastiche appeal to it, despite the more serious tone. It's so bad it's good. Let's keep in mind that a single-seater open-air time machine or getting shot out of a cannon to the moon are ludicrous gimmicks in their own right.

Of course it's not just the writing. Watching the early years, even ignoring the bargain-basement props and costumes and special effects, it seems they were also short on production time. It looks half-improvised, unrehearsed, with the actors constantly prompting each other and filling time with "hmmm?" and "isn't that right, so-and-so?" and many times outright stumbling and stuttering without the scene being re-shot. It's not entirely amateurish but it looks more like a rehearsal than anything you'd buy a theater ticket for.

At some point I think I might want to read up on the show's history. It seems like there'd be a lot of interesting tidbits about shooting on a shoestring budget. So far though, I'm enjoying it. Oh, it's not exactly great cinema, but it's ... classic. Yes, that's the word. It's reminiscent of the great classic science fiction stories, of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It doesn't specifically attempt to create an entire coherent universe but only fantastic adventures, and it maintains a twinge of that progressive spirit one associates with forward-looking social commentary. There are no very advanced or complex concepts but it seems pretty much any basic notion in science fiction, hard or soft, could fit into the show. It would have made an excellent introduction to science fiction especially for viewers in their early teens... which probably explains a few things about the show's relative popularity.

Yes, I think an episode of Dr. Who now and then will really hit the spot.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sins of a Dark Age - anticipation

... and what I'm anticipating is that the next two posts referencing this game will be tagged " - letdown" and "- disgust".

Anyhoo, here's wikipedia's list of AoS games. I am still refusing to call them any acronym which includes "arena" since the focus on idiotic dick-measuring over 1v1 fights and kill/death ratios is what ruined the concept. It should be a warzone, not an arena.
Looking at that list, there's really no hope in sight. Half of the existing attempts are even deader than Demigod. Of the three major ones (DotA2, HoN and LoL) only League of Legends made at least the minor improvements to gameplay over DotA to make it somewhat worthwhile. Aside from that, there are some upcoming games but I have no faith in the likes of Turbine or S2 to churn out anything but leet-kiddie-friendly DotA copycat drivel.
I love the basic game concept, but there's just no worthwhile representation of it on the market.

Except maybe Ironclad's upcoming attempt...
Sins of a Dark Age looks good... not great, not Demigod great, but good. It's a sad compromise, mere baby steps beyond League of Legends as LoL was only baby steps beyond DotA. Instead of throwing out the despicable pitfalls I enumerated here it only dampens them somewhat, for example by giving some (presumably almost none) of the gold from minion lasthits to surrounding teammates.
This is sort of Ironclad's style, if I can judge them from Sins of a Solar Empire, a 4x RTS. They're not willing to take chances, but they do take some steps toward the most blatantly obvious fixes to how the most popular games on the market do things. There are a lot of companies like this, and it's not to be discounted. After all, this middle of the road approach (patching without innovation) is what in other genres has brought us Civ 4 or Dragon Age.

The biggest problem with Sins of a Dark Age is the lack of teamwide resource investment. No way of improving or affecting your team's AI units, no talk of resource nodes to control, etc. They're sticking with DotA's three-lane (and presumably five-player) duel-oriented setup.

The best info comes from this quite extensive Gamespot video. It looks like a more sedate, more mature... DotA clone, sadly. Of course developers like to hint at future game modes, etc. but let's face it, once you give players something familiar you're going to wind up just feeding that familiarity. It reminds me that LoL's additional game modes, instead of adding to the complexity of the game, were even more simplistic more-instant-than-instant gratification.

So yeah. I'll be playing this, and I expect to be disappointed. Being the best AoS game on the market will still only amount to being the best of the worst.

There's still no Demigod 2.