Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cloud Atlas

Talkin' 'bout the movie. Never read the book.
And I hate, hate, hate to admit being wrong. Hate it. It's almost as bad as admitting I've been taken in by advertising.

In yonder days of, ummm, oh, about the end of March, I voiced my apprehension about Cloud Atlas. I feared it would be another hollow display of slavish morality dressed up in Hollywood special effects, as per the current trend of the past dozen years. I was immediately admonished by this blog's one steady reader not to review things I hadn't actually seen (though I'm not sure this failing would set me apart from most professional film critics) because Cloud Atlas was apparently a humanist interplay of purposeful action and interweaving causality.

And it is, damnit. I was almost as wrong about this one as I was right about that putrid revival-tent morality play Prometheus. Cloud Atlas is what The Fountain might have been with triple the budget... and a more action-oriented director. Though fate does play a role, it is molded by conscious choice, and nowhere does the revolting supplication before divine figures overshadow self-rule.

I'm amused by the inclusion of a reference to Nietzschean eternal recurrence toward the beginning of the story. The personal, existential touch would have been more appropriate to a subjective, personal story like The Fountain, while the sweeping, world-changing events of Cloud Atlas would warrant more grandiose references. It's not as though human culture hasn't accumulated endless ways of saying "history repeats itself" and I should think one could easily work in some lines about Ragnarok or the supposedly cyclical view of time in the Vedas. Still, for those still wishing to call themselves agnostic, religious references might mistakenly be taken as religious and not literary, therefore confusing the main message of the story in the ways I myself feared before seeing it. Probably best they stuck with old Nietzsche.

Unsurprisingly, critique both professional and popular centers on the complex structure of the storytelling. Not much to say about that. Complexity is not harmful - nonsense is. Cloud Atlas, though much of the causality is amusingly tenuous, makes sense. The causality is there. Moreover, mixed chronology is hardly a new gimmick in literature, as Broadbent's publisher incarnation states apologetically from the start.

There are many minor criticisms I'd bring against the film: gratuitous nudity and sex scenes, gratuitous high-tech chase scenes, an all-too-predictable rescue for the valleyman, a relatively sappy ending, and casting choices made just for star-power appeal like Hugh Grant or Halle Berry. These are not great actors. Passable, professional, even good, but lacking the personality of Broadbent, Weaving, Sarandon or, admit it, Forrest Gump. Though they managed not to embarrass themselves, they add nothing to the film, and there were likely endless better choices especially for Berry's starring role.

Overall though, the movie holds together, which begs the question of what made me so anxious about it. The answer is advertising. The TV spots I'd seen centered on Sonmi saying "our lives are not our own" and were carefully cut to suggest the movie is exactly what it's not, an ode to reliance on things greater than oneself. Granted the new-age version of eternal recurrence falls on both sides of that line and I can see why advertisers would deliberately misrepresent the product to draw in crowds who prefer a religious slant on hippie culture...

But at which point does edging out your target audience hurt you more than you benefit from drawing in an ambivalent crowd? Given that I would've waited to see the movie on video anyway (though perhaps a few months sooner) I'm afraid the advertisers made the right choice in ignoring me.
Don't hate the players, hate the game.
Better yet, let's change the game. No more buying blindly. View, then donate. And kickstart where you can. Art should not be business.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lest We Forget our Mitts

Before I get to my main point, I'd just like to point out that someone pulled a "Godwin's Law" on the U.S. Senate floor. Forget the rest of the idiotic context of that masterful, Demosthenes-like moment for Cruz, leader of men. I only passively, eagerly await the next logical misstep, an all-out "yo momma so fat" contest.

However, some glorified lobbyist calling Obama Hitler for trying to kiss the underclass' boo-boos better, hilariously "WTF!?" as it may be, is not originally why I fired up my Blogger account today.

Back during the last U.S. presidential campaign I said some harsh words concerning the honorable Republican candidate. And I gladly stand by those words and would further apply them to many other candidates and elects - as are they all, honorable men. And yet today, in a conversation with my dear old mother I couldn't remember the name of "you know, that guy, from the last election, Mormon guy, big business, from Massachusetts..." To which she replied "yeah, I know, whatwashisname... McCain? no, wait... damnit..."

This is a problem.

It may seem hypocritical of me to rail against the "Godwin's Law" angle when I myself dramatized ole' Mitt into a Bond villain. Yet the point against the "Hitler" comparison is not just artistic license but the sheer nonsense of the association. There are many historical figures commonly viewed as negative, counterproductive, inefficient, destructive or just outright villainous. In fact, corporations have constantly and successfully pushed against anything even remotely resembling socialism in the U.S. on the basis of a comparison with Soviet communism. They've been doing it for so long that you'd think their Senile spokespuppets would have endless Stalin jokes on tap for these kinds of speeches. But no. The villains get rolled into one. Why would you ever need any boogeymen but Hitler?

And the problem is that the real villains really do blur together. Maybe it's just one more effect of our mass-media-appeal-murder-production society, but there are certain "types" who make it up the hierarchy in representative government, and we have come to expect their presence as natural law.

My rant against the Romney campaign revolved around an attack on the Romney persona itself, on the cheapness and poor fabrication of the figurehead product being pushed on the public.
"a humorless scheister they [voters] wouldn't buy snake-oil from under normal circumstances. It's not so much that he doesn't laugh; the man cannot even fake a laugh, he actually says 'heh heh heh' like some cackling cartoon supervillain."

I am not a great fan of Hunter S. Thompson, so it was only in recent months that I ran across one of his quotes about his old target, Tricky Dick Nixon.
"a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn't imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn't quite reach the lever on the voting machine."

Albeit more artfully penned than my own diatribe, this appears a description of the same power-hungry, power-mad alpha type. Decades and perspectives don't seem to matter. We are viewing the same man, the same persona, the same product. A decade ago it would've been Dick Cheney, the guy who shot a man in the head then made him publicly apologize for getting shot. Across the sea, it's Putin the former headsman. When villainy is so prevalent even at the highest levels of government that it no longer draws attention, when names become irrelevant because the same sadist succeeds himself across the generations, then no, it doesn't really matter in any practical sense that we only have one name for them.

Yet I would prefer another name for such manifestations to the inappropriate, haunted, rather spastic Adolf. An older description for an even older name. Perhaps it is only my bookworm conceit speaking, but it seems not only decades but centuries do not matter. The type never changes.

"He loves no plays [...] He hears no music. Seldom he smiles and smiles in such a sort as if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit that could be moved to smile at anything."

It won't do to become so jaded that we ignore the nature behind such a figure, even if we forget its current name. Our own names are indeed liable to fear.

Friday, September 13, 2013

College Roomies From Hell !!!

Yes, the three exclamation marks are in the title. They are in fact utterly crucial.
I don't mean that entirely as a joke either. That triple-exclamation topper is a perfect example of the appeal of CRFH at its best, and of what it has lost in recent years.

Way-back-when, attempting to qualify myself as some sort of webcomic literatus, I laid out various categories of such works in all their fly-by-nite glory. They are most often started with no clear notion of where they're headed, and authors alternately lose interest or burn out or start looking for sharks to jump. Among these, CRFH was my example of college comics.
Unfair as such pigeonholing tends to be, it's a nice starting point in thinking about the strip. It started out as a string of college jokes. The characters try to get laid, eat cheap food and try their durndest not to flunk out.
Of course this wears thin pretty fast, so the author starts throwing random supernatural nonsense in, like giving the characters superpowers. And then the drama becomes more alluring. The devil gets involved, with hints of Armageddon. Hearts are broken, and mended, and broken again. Technology meets magic, everybody gets amnesia and key figures come back from the dead.
And if you're real quick on your feet as an author, you can manage to build something out of that mess, you can manage to even build on it. For a long time, Campos was eerily gifted in this. The humor, though it became so dark at times as to put Loki to shame, remained a major part of the daily writing. The overarching storyline grew and grew until anything seemed possible. The personal drama grew in love triangles and petty rivalries turned vendettas, and heroism invalidated by human flaws. And it was all fascinating.

No matter how ridiculous the content, it was always given meaning, or the story simply shifted so hard so fast that you had no time to look for plot holes. Even cross-overs, which most authors know enough to write off as alternate-reality happenings, were half-integrated into the story. This lovely trainwreck in the making continued for years, high drama mingling with farce and character growth, seemingly through Campos' determination to never look back. Whatever potential mistakes she made, she embraced and slammed right back into the story in defiance of logic, and to great effect.

It was always an unstable system. It begged for a climactic ending, and it was heading for one... and then it fell apart. The author seemingly lost her drive. She began to second-guess herself. She started holding back, trying to mend the seams in the world she'd created. She rebooted. She toned it down. She even changed her art style instead of continuing to build on her own development. The whole thing has largely fizzled.

One of the most interesting aspects of webcomics is seeing a creator grow and develop a project's identity as it goes, and CRFH is one of the best examples, from start to jokes to incipient drama through the wonderful escalation of its ballooning soap-opera plot. It was so over-the-top that it's a wonder it stayed interesting for so long, really.
Here's my favorite moment of the series, these two pages. High drama. Except high drama doesn't really happen with normal human beings. It's the artists, the idealists, the dreamers who are prone to it, and their ideas are grander than the reality of human relationships. Many I'm sure saw that moment as a low point in the series and those heartrending, overwrought declarations as out of character for the heroes but it was both as awkward and as necessary as the three exclamation marks. It was the "anything goes" comic-book spirit. CRFH was among other things also an example of Cerebus Syndrome ... but that contains no implication of a judgment on quality. The comic had always been heading down that path, from the moment it escalated from college jokes to pacts with Satan. Its best-case-scenario was a bitterly farcical Apocalypse, a tragic end for all involved. It wasn't the buildup which ruined CRFH but the compromise, the fear of an ending, the slow, hesitant dissolution in place of a decisive finale.

The center could not hold. Anarchy was always its fate.

But there could have been beauty in the breakdown.

I hold with those who favor fire.

CRFH shuddered and stopped over the abyss.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunting companion hunts companions

Pets are quite common in RPGs, from the simplistic NWN extra set of fangs on your team, to the attempted skill synergy of Loremaster pet flanking in LotRO, to good old City of Villains' Mastermind class which was dependent on its swarm of summonable creatures. However, there's usually something lacking. Pets are less of a constant faithful companion and more of an extraneous "attack" button to mash each fight.
This is epitomized by all the jokes about D&D wizards keeping their familiars in a bag of holding until they feel like taking them out to make them sit in a corner for a passive skill bonus.

The better interpretation is found in Dragon Age, where summonable creatures (and the Mabari hound companion) were given one of the most powerful crowd control abilities, supplementing the overall lack of crowd control of the more powerful human(oid) companions.

However I've recently been playing a bit of Legendary Heroes (and still cursing Stardock for making me go through Steam to get it) and I'm amused to find more depth to tamed pets than in most RPGs. I play a character with the "beastlord" trait, allowing me to tame one wild animal every ten combat rounds. These animals are relatively quite weak compared to, say, a squad of soldiers. Yet, as in Dragon Age, beasts are stacked with abilities which are difficult to get otherwise and which complement the bulk of an army quite nicely. They can immobilize enemies or tear away at them constantly as long as they're backed up by friendly troops, or confuse them into swinging at random targets or poison them from afar, or maybe they just have heavier armor than your leather-clad early-game troops etc. Mostly, beasts are just insanely fast.

I mean, you wouldn't want a whole army of physically weak wild animals but they're nice to have along for the ride, and hey, you don't need to pay them which is a big bonus. Except that sometimes you really do want to fill an army with beasts. Say for instance while you're hunting other beasts.

As I mentioned, the "tame" ability has a ten-round cooldown. Most spiders can web enemies, immobilizing them for three rounds. Though normally you'd tame one creature per fight and kill the rest, with enough spiders on your side you can keep netting animals at a safe distance and passing rounds to let "tame" cool down.
Which yields scenarios like the one below.
That'd be me on my warg mount with an army composed almost entirely of spiders, taming one cave bear after another. This is an army of wild animals specifically designed to do one thing only: hunt other wild animals. I love it. Good job on this, Stardock.

While I'm on the subject here's another hilarious scenario regarding bears. They come in three varieties: the big cave bears above, medium-sized regular brown bears and bear cubs, which are too weak to really be worth the mana cost to tame, except at the very start of a game. Bear cubs tend to spawn (naturally) with an adult bear.

So what you end up doing is attacking a peaceful ursine family to tame the big one for your army. And then since the little tykes are useless militarily, the fist order of business to mop up the fight is to have the momma-bear eat her own cubs!
Dass col', brutha, riel col' ...

Apropos of nothing, there's a chapter in Jack London's classic White Fang entitled The Enemy of His Kind.

P.P.S. Yes, cave bears in Elemental have horns for some reason. Probably for the same reason anything "dire" in NWN2 had giant spikes growing out of its back: visual artists think visually, not logically.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Massively Multiplayer, a proposed tragedy in five acts

Cast Suggestions :

King WoW - the heir apparent of both the realms of strategy and roleplaying and later petty tyrant ruler, a bumbling buffoon nonetheless beloved by the masses

The Lord Ultima, of that same estate - a noble scion of the golden age of the ancient pixel empire

The Lords Asheron and Shadowbane - faithful vassals of Lord Ultima

Lady Everquest - seductive little gold-digger and stepmother to King WoW

Sir Diablo II - true father to King WoW, a minor noble mistakenly left out of the reckoning of these games of power by most historians

Baron Lineage II - a wealthy foreigner and mentor to the king

Thane Entropia - a grasping, avaricious merchant prince of doubtful noble lineage whose economic dogma plagues the bitrate empire to this day

The opposing Lords of the succession war - EVE, Planetside, Ryzom, and Tail-in-the-Desert among them, defeated or subjugated by the king

Barons LoTRO, WAR, CoH, Rift and many others like them, the sycophantic retinue of the King

Sir Darkfall and Sir SecretWorld - former rebels, defeated through their own concessions to the crown

The Unchained Lord of Camelot and the gun-toting barbarians of The Repopulation - upstarts with high ambitions, whose coming war against the crown is yet to bear fruit.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Gemini Rue

After the Blackwell Bundle made such a (relatively) good impression on me (and to keep from getting burned out on D&D adaptations) I've started going through the rest of Wadjet Eye's stock. Primordia and Resonance are bought, downloaded, and slated to get a play-through sometime between now and the heat death of the universe, but first up on the schedule was Gemini Rue.

Why Gemini Rue first? 'Cuz "noir", that's why. Ask a stupid question...

Anyway. In terms of mechanics, much of this game felt less like a game than a proof-of-concept. There are quite a few gimmicks thrown in to spice up what I'm guessing is the somewhat dreary clue-gathering routine for adventure-game fans. For one thing, you get a pistol, with supposedly limited ammo... but the shooting matches are so narrowly scripted that they felt more like a chore than a thrill. There's no depth to the system and by the time you practice enough to get to think you're the fastest gun in the west, the game's over.

Nominally, there are two characters to control, but as they are controlled always in sequence without (for instance) the ghost/medium interplay of abilities from the Blackwell series, this adds nothing to the core puzzle-solving gameplay.

It is possible to die, which seems a marked departure from the few adventure games I've played which tend to guarantee success, mandating no "safety-saves" and letting the player retry everything as much as necessary.  Oddly though, the start of the game was much more difficult than the end, perhaps to allow for more focus on the story once the plot thickens, perhaps merely by accident.

It was nice to see environment interaction also knocked up a notch. Instead of just clicking on anything to activate it in any way, you get four possible interactions to choose from. A nice idea in principle, but it was unfortunately not carried through. Each object generally has just one correct interaction pertaining to it, usually blatantly obvious. No, kicking the brick wall with handholds does nothing, and neither does trying to talk to it. I would've liked to see some variable results from these interactions, multiple paths to success in solving environment puzzles. Still, this is at worst a harmless feature, and adds at least a bit of thought to some spots in the story.

More relevant to core gameplay is the size of the environment itself. Instead of sending you to where you need to be after every cutscene, instead of putting you in front of the "whatever" you need to click on to continue the story, the major segments of the game tend to dump you in a grungy city street full of identical-looking apartment buildings filled with identical-looking doors. You have to use this thing called a "map" and some weird sort of input called "addresses" and "directions" instead of walking up to the one obvious location and scanning the screen for interactable objects. You might have to pay attention. You know, just the tiniest bit.
Here, the problem is not implementation, but simply lack of content. Like Blackwell, Gemini Rue is a bargain-basement product and it skimps a bit on frills like the filler which would have put the main storyline into better perspective. It would have been nice to dot all that unused cityscape with a few more random interactions with the populace. There is, as I remember, only one such instance. However, some of that space was used for a very quaint series of easter-eggs: cameos by the core cast of Cowboy Bebop! Writer knew his audience, is alls I gots ta say.

However, overall, adventure games are stories. Interactive stories. Given that, it's Gemini Rue's plot that weighs the most heavily into its overall effect, and the plot is pretty damn good. There are enough hints that you get the overall slant of the story, that any reasonably intelligent person can predict some of the dramatic twists while leaving enough surprises to keep things interesting. The dialogue and voice acting are not stellar, but still better than anything you'd find in, oh, let's say MMOs. A few more takes and more careful editing would have been in order to keep the sound flowing better.
The story's nicely paced, it's quite complex for its brevity, it's consistent and it plays its "noir" card smartly: enough to appeal to fans of such a motif while not completely alienating other audiences. Better yet, it doesn't pull its punches... until the end.

That's my one real complaint. Gemini Rue is one of those stories which get partly spoiled by a weak ending, by an unnecessarily hopeful slant on the conclusion. There should have been one more death at the end. There should have been a stand on principle. There should have been a sacrifice. To escape a life of rue is not laudable if it causes you to allow another's echo* to die out.

*hint of things to come - hopefully

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Virtual Eugenics

One of my disappointments about the continued normalization of Stardock's Elemental was the removal of the royal marriage and lineage system. Granted, in the original incarnation of Elemental the system was only rudimentary, but that was to be expected. Not only was it one small part of a larger, ambitiously multifaceted project, but it's a feature that's so conspicuously absent from RPGs (not to mention TBS) that it was largely a wild card. It could not be copycatted from a popular competitor. Its potential effects on gameplay were far-reaching and difficult to predict.

And that's good. That's what creativity looks like from the outside. Shit like you've never seen! Yes, it might turn out to be frustrating, but guess what: so are dice, and they have been for forty years and before that for... umm, how many centuries old is backgammon again?

As far as having in-game characters breed, my main concern is not with the role-playing side of things (pornographic or not) but with the strategic options this would open up.  I'm sure many tabletop RPG systems have incorporated something like this, but as I have no experience with the top of tables, keep in mind I am talking about games situated at top-of-desk.

Lineages should work very well in single-player strategy games with a roleplaying component if the player is not asked to transfer himself into a new body, if the player is immortal, the founder of a clan into which outsiders marry and the offspring of which inherit various traits. It's another way of customizing one's army.
Before you scoff at the ridiculousness of this, allow me to cite precedent. If Elrond can have his great-to-the-grand nephew Aragorn fighting his battles for him, why can't I? (Numenor's kings and their descendants in Arnor and Gondor were descended from Elrond's brother, Elros.)
That seems what Elemental was trying to set up initially, and it has great potential. Breed a clan of frost-magicians one game, or chase mates around the jungle next time to sire a line of voodoo priests.

In multiplayer, things get more complicated. Sheer roleplaying takes a back seat to balance and the challenges of implementation in a system of player interaction.

Let's start with the basic idea of claims to the throne. This can only really work in single-player (see Europa Universalis 3) because multiplayer games devolve to pure favor-currying anyway. There is no plausible mechanic to force players to adhere to the strength of a blood claim. There's no way you're going to get players to support you, the son of the defunct king, over your thrice-removed cousin who happens to be their real-life buddy.

There's a bit more potential in a hard-coded division of material resources.
Say you marry your pal Bob (a.k.a. Roberta Frostpoke the elven archer with gigantic knockers and a +5 battle corset) and you at some point kick the enchanted bucket and not even an affectionate, hammy "why, gods, why" grieving scene from Roberta can revive you. You reincarnate yourself into one of your five children. Does the new you at that point instantly get all the old you's possessions? Or does something automatically go to your four siblings who are presumably living comfortable lives as NPC shepherds and one of whom Roberta will likely want to "Morella" herself into at some later date?
How do you limit players' breeding? Make a bit of all the money they get go to support their NPC offspring automatically? Make "vasectomize" a cleric spell? Go all-out and train a bunch of rogues with "greater weapon focus: pruning shears"? Do you code in legally-binding wills in which players state who gets their unicorn mount on death, or give up and assume they'd cheat their way out of it anyway?
Should fantasy weapons, which are generally immortal, become bound to a particular bloodline? Is Anduril only a threat to Sauron if wielded by a descendent of Isildur?
In scifi games, does the galactic bank hold precise records of inheritance, replacing part of players' ability to trade goods? Can Arrakis only be managed and mined by an Atreides / Harkonnen unless you kill them off?

Much of this has to do with the most interesting facet of the issue, genetics. How likely should the above-mentioned couple's offspring be to inherit Roberta's deadly, deadly corset-magic abilities, and how much will you be allowed to determine just as you would when creating a new character normally? You can see this as a more narrowly-focused version of racial characteristics.
Should you be able to offer other players "incarnation rights" to your ever-so-gifted offspring (for a reasonable sum) or will reincarnation be limited to direct descent?
Should characters inherit genetic weaknesses as well, to counteract the benefit of inbreeding to select for perfect corset control?

What about controlling the breeding of NPC populations, humanoid or not? True persistent world games tend to feature a good deal of automation to compensate for players' offline time. This can be handled by NPCs and in a game with a lineage system, you and Roberta can have your mithril mine and fig farm staffed entirely by your NPC offspring. It might ensure they won't cook the books and sell you out to the goblin mafia, but you lose out a bit because they keep taking the magic carpet out for joy-rides.
Or how about breeding the perfect war-horse? Maybe you want one with pegasus-blood, or a half-unicorn.
Maybe you sire a few illegitimate offspring with your NPC mine workers and a few generations later other players are paying your clan for the privilege of hiring workers off your lands because they're resistant to corset hypnosis.

The possibilities, as with divine spellcasting, seem endless. I won't even get into the issue of inheriting cross-racial abilities a la DnD dragon disciples.