Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Cafe

"I tried to fall in it again
My friends took bets and disappeared
They mime their sighing violins
I think I'll wait another year."

Amanda Palmer - Another Year

I wonder if PBS bought this show more because they appreciated its poignant jabs at modern pop-culture, interpersonal relationships and economy or because the Brits were tossing it aside cheaply at some yard sale. At least for once the cancellation of a good series isn't preceded by the FOX logo.

Where to begin? Of Britain's stunning clutter of sixty million inhabitants, almost a quarter live in the London area. Maybe this can help explain the slight discrepancy in televised setting. American television feeds its provincial "middle America" a constant stream of assurance that everything happens in New York, except on the rare occasions when it happens in Los Angeles. For all its talk of urbanization, the U.S. consists to a surprising extent of an undifferentiated rash of tiny suburban factory towns which can only be described as "urban" by dint of a relative lack of cowpies. This homogenous, culture-less wasteland demands constant means by which to identify itself with more relevant, urbane, socially aware, purposeful personalities. In contrast, London's millennial, overbearing cultural fiat seems to make the English public slightly more open to fantasies concerning quaint provincialism, to harmlessly bucolic, domestically exotic settings.

Thus we arrive at Weston-super-Mare. You've never heard of it. Here, a twenty-something unpublished writer retires with her mother and grandmother to stew in her failings and recuperate from her failures. Hilarity ensues - well, maybe not hilarity but a certain melancholic, homey, sympathetic social comedy. Following a protagonist whose life is on hold in a setting without much to hold on to yields a bittersweet and self-critical sort of comedy. That second part is probably what killed it. None of us want to be made aware of how ridiculous we are. As The Cafe's humor largely revolved around its minor characters' bungling attempts at cleverness and small-towners' general awkwardness in grasping at cultural trends, the show was never going to last much longer after it ran out of such gimmickry. However, if I had to bet I would've given it five good seasons, not the meager thirteen episodes it amounted to. Something rubbed its audience the wrong way.

The Cafe poked fun at provincial attempts at trendiness, at the woefully circumscribed, slavish thought patterns which develop in the looming shadow of much greater cultural centers. Yet this sort of Stockholm syndrome describes not only the behavior of inhabitants of sleepy seaside resorts but of the majority of the population. The writing in The Cafe did such a good job of ridiculing the awkwardness of aping social trends that it brought the concept home to its audience. Instead of simply holding up those characters as ineptly copying the done thing (don't say "oh my gee") the lines of dialogue snap together with such zest that they leave no room for the audience to comfortably distance their own adoption of such idiotic fads and slang from the well-deserved ridicule on screen. What's worse, the characters, though thoroughly ridiculous, are yet allowed their due measure of individual dignity, divorced from their social competence.

Wonderful if you're like me and despise human social behavior per totum. Not so wonderful if you're the average schlub defining himself by his capacity for imbibing zeitgeist. In its overwrought, modernly folksy self-awareness, The Cafe was simply too damn real. It left room for neither hero worship nor a comfortable feeling of superiority.

"Yes, love."
"Can you have it all?"
"Darling girl, that is the least you are entitled to... but maybe not all at once."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Strange Days

"I'd be inclined to be yours for the taking
And part of this terrible mess that you're making."

Anna Nalick - Catalyst

Wanna see what Kathryn Bigelow was doing before she was contracted by the establishment to glorify its hired muscle? Let's watch some scifi. Old '90s scifi. Old, gritty, apocalyptic, trash-can-fire '90s cyberpunk. Huh. You know, there have actually been relatively few of those flicks, and even fewer which have made the big time. After Blade Runner, the genre got its most recent popularity boost with The Matrix, but though that satisfied devout fans enough not to throw rocks at the screen, it was still somewhat too "glam" to qualify as an acceptable movie reference encapsulating its literary roots. The Matrix is not what Interview with the Vampire was to dark fantasy or Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptation was to high fantasy.

Neither is Strange Days. When discussing cyberpunk, comparisons to Neuromancer become nearly unavoidable. No other representative work has hit as hard and fast, nothing else has spun its audience so quickly out of their comfort zone. Yet Neuromancer did so partly by attacking gender roles and human relationships. Despite its trademark low-rung antiheroes, much of cyberpunk deals with transcendence and "me Tarzan, you Jane" is among the first tropes it must shatter in order to successfully do so. Molly Millions so fascinates not only for playing the bad-ass bad-girl street samurai but because she's not perfect at it. Such characters are normally mere feminist wet dreams who can do no wrong in beating down manly straw-men but Molly manages to be a true individual. Case in turn was not relegated to the status of straw-man or foil for some plucky little girl who saves that filthy pig from himself on her way to single-handedly shattering "the patriarchy" and stylin' the latest fashions while she's at it.

Perhaps this is why we can't get a big-budget Hollywood adaptation of Neuromancer. It refused to play to feminist tropes. In turn we get plenty of tacky romantic subplots crucial to the main plot, in which the male protagonist does everything for his love interest. Neo being brought back to life with a kiss? Are you fucking kidding me? Saving animal sentience from extinction apparently isn't incentive enough. He had to get rez-erected by his simian pair-bonded mate. Strange Days' two protagonists more closely resembled Case and Molly but its sexual archetypes even more insidiously pandered to feminist propaganda. The movie's villain is male sexuality. In order to secure the audience's sympathy (in which she and Cameron apparently failed monumentally) Bigelow cast males and females in their now-traditional roles as oppressors and victims. It's not enough to bring a murderer to justice and expose a corrupt system. The real crime is killing attractive young females and of course the perpetrators are little more than walking penises with no further motivation than being male.

Strange Days remains somewhat valuable for the scarcity of cyberpunk portrayals and in many ways it's worth watching... cum grano salis. It lacks Gibson's beautifully balanced, much more egalitarian nuance of a decade prior which has made Molly outshine not just Case but the plethora of feminist superwomen as a protagonist. Molly was fallible and ethically real and capable of feeling shame and guilt. But, hell, I'm guessing Angela Bassett would have refused to play anything like Molly's meat-puppet scene. We all know that women are never violent even when they're violent, right?

"And you'd be inclined to be mine for the taking
And part of this terrible mess that I'm making."

Friday, January 23, 2015

The great black bullion rush of '15

The Secret World's servers are very laggy this weekend, which is odd since the sad mishmash of adventure gaming and MMO reputation grinding is not exactly breaking subscriber records. Nevertheless, it's a full house tonight. Many players like myself have been drawn in by the promise of double "black bullion" gains for the weekend. Said bullion is TSW's version of the endless end-game timesink common to WoW-clones, the faction grind. It's what's meant to keep the leet-kiddies busy and engaged and paying subscription costs. It's where the time investment per arbitrary unit of gameplay achievement skyrockets.

It's where most of us stop playing. You can expect Funcom to spin this as a rousing success. Servers were packed this weekend, bringing more players together than... hell, who can even remember? The black bullion farming initiative was a marvelous triumph!

Riiight. Whenever anything goes on sale for half price, you have to remember the price was likely more than tripled to begin with. That temporarily halving the grindfest has packed servers more successfully than even the release of new content says little to nothing about the event itself but speaks volumes as to what is keeping players out of TSW to begin with. That idiotic mindless repetition normally entitled "end-game content" is keeping a handful of desperate obsessive-compulsives busy, it's true. However, the notion of repeating the same three five-man instances several hundred times before you can move on to the endier-than-endgame content is also what has kept many more of your customers away. It is not a way of engaging players, but an impediment to doing so.

A gold rush only proves that gold is hoarded too jealously to begin with. See all those customers who logged in this weekend, Funcom? Those are all the customers you don't actually have, because you insist on treating them like mindless gold-farmers. We'll be gone again by the end of the month. See you next patch.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stop Real-Timing Your Tabletops

Apparently Games Workshop has licensed yet another Warhammer game. Whatever, you know? Ever since I realized what an utter Warhammer rip-off Blizzard's Warcraft series was to begin with, I've been of the opinion that Games Workshop deserves a much bigger slice of online game revenue. Seriously, Bliz, pay your damn royalties. However, the new "orcs in space" thingamajig will apparently be another Real-Time Strategy game like Dawn of War, and I keep wondering just how much overlap there is between Warhammer's scheming, coldly megalomaniacal tabletop player-base and Dawn of War's click-spamming adrenaline addicts. I mean, based on what I've seen from Focus in Cities XL we can expect this litttle project to have the personality and creativity of mold, so I'm not exactly fishing for my wallet, but the bigger question for me is the choice of genre.

A general consensus arises out of comparing tabletop games with their computerized spin-offs. Battletech, Warhammer, Dungeons and Dragons, you name it, if they're turn-based in tabletop, they get real-timed for the computer. Why?
The simple answer: speed is the advantage computers lend to... most human enterprise. When adapting anything, it's tempting to try to take full advantage of the new medium.
The more likely answer: companies are trying to capture different audiences. Customers who are already playing the tabletop version against real human beings are unlikely to pick up a carbon-copy silicoid experience. Commercially available AI is always more A than I and can hardly compare, so a faithful adaptation would actually be a bit of a downgrade.
The most likely, cynical, stodgy old industry crony answer: you're all a bunch of juvenile imbeciles! Video gamers are nothing but the prepubescent detritus of the game industry as a whole, hopelessly addicted to adrenaline rushes and incapable of appreciating true strategy, so you'll never ever buy a TBS, so developers have to make everything real-time to suit your fast-fingers, slow-brain lack of mentality. So there.

Really, though, Civillization if nothing else proves the existence of a thriving TBS market. Hell, computer chess proved that thirty years ago. We're here, take our money. We're the ones who don't have access to a tabletop game group. Maybe we're friendless shut-ins, maybe respectable traditional manly men and womanly women who have to keep their hobbies a secret, maybe stuck in some mundane hellhole where the best hope for entertainment is bouncing variously-shaped rubber balls around, maybe we're just out in the middle of fucking nowhere in a meteorological research outpost with only a laptop as company.

Maybe we actually like strategy instead of button-mashing. In any case there's plenty of money in the "one more turn" crowd. We're 2KGames' and Ubisoft's customer base. Steal us away! Computer TBS may seem like they fall into a strange no-man's land between the interaction of tabletop and the fast pace of desktop, but they fill their niche quite nicely. You'd think companies with existing turn-based name recognition would be tripping over each other to corner the market. Where is Chaos Gate 2? Why can't I find a D&D adaptation where the initiative stat actually means something? Where's my turn-based battalion of battlemechs?

Can these people all actually think it's so much easier to compete with the likes of Blizzard and Valve than with TBS developers?

Ah well. Guess I'll just look into this Slithering Armageddon thing instead.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

- of the ass-end of nowhere.

I currently reside in a little midwestern U.S. one-horse town. Its most prominent feature is a cow-college. Take a few steps in any direction and you'll hit corn. Deer graze on the university lawns at dusk. Amish homemakers occasionally hitch rides to the local supermarket to buy gigantic bags of flour. Cars sit on cinder-blocks in the "bad" part of town. The most prominent cultural activity is counting sports scores.

None of which stops this suppository of Americana from producing a rich crop of overfed overentitled overlords. Podunk has its very own gen-u-ine country club! Yessiree, the rich fucks of Anytown, USA can kick back and lament the impertinence of the lower breeds of mankind just like the big boys'n'girls in the big city. They're the upper crust -

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Shifting Demographic: Magellan vs. GPS

Many of the symptoms of MMOs' degradation from true persistent worlds to slot-machine grindfests came about gradually through the insidious "slippery slope" of focus groups, pandering to the audience's lowest common denominator and the almighty cost-cut. Instances remove many headaches so you get more and more of them until the game world becomes only a transit hub. PvP is too stressful so it gets increasingly sidelined until segregated into small-scale dick-measuring "arenas". Large group projects require coordination and planning so to pander to the mindless glut of shortsighted leet-kiddies, raids get reduced in size and city-building is replaced with instanced housing. Etceteree, etceterah.

However, one dramatic nosedive in quality was instantly evident: quest markers. I would like you to take a trip through your best memories of brave new digitized worlds. You don't have to go as far back as the first cRPGs. Just as far back as 2002, while Ultima Online was still establishing the MMO genre and RPGs in general were an ambitious, artsy, nerdy pursuit. Remember this?
Is this your house? Did you dig it into that sea-shore just yesterday? Can you tell me how to get to it?
This is an RPG. This is a world. It's Morrowind, the title which established the Elder Scrolls series as a major reference point in computer games and turned Bethesda Softworks from peddlers of dime-a-dozen sports games into an authority on RPGs. Now, though MMOs have lain dead and buried since 2004-5, one can find a fair representation of what persistent online worlds were to have become by taking a look at relatively freeform open-world single-player games like the Elder Scrolls, Mount and Blade, STALKER and so forth. Play a campaign of M&B and imagine that every soldier, every bandit and every mercenary is another player, all going about their lives, choosing their own adventures which affect the same world in which you're trying to adventure. Imagine you and another player are both fighting over the corpse of a mutant or daedra, not because you were told to kill it by an NPC but because you're attentively watching the markets and you both had the same idea to sell its heart back in town. A true multiplayer incarnation of these games (ESO does not count, as it is a pathetically by-the-numbers WoW-clone) would be the necessary starting point for true MMOs.

Besides other details, you'll notice their minimalist, unobtrusive interface which excludes most types of on-screen overlays. No floating names, no giant arrows pointing to your objective, no giant blobs on your map telling you exactly where the bunnies you need to skin are hiding. Quest instructions in such a game might run something like "cross the bridge to fort Moonmoth then hang a right and follow the Foyada Mamaea south until you pass the ruins, then look for the bandit cave on your right."
The problem is that at some point players started wailing that actually reading directions and finding the map objects fitting those names and descriptions is just too durn haaaaard. Of course, for once we cannot lay the blame entirely at the game industry's feet. Ever since the advent of on-board GPS for cars and especially that condescending bitch, Siri, humans in general are becoming less and less spatially aware. If people have become utterly dependent on being told where they want to eat and when and how many steps to take to get there and TURN! RIGHT! NOW! then can we really ask them to be more aware and adventurous in their virtual selves?

Why, yes, yes we can. The real world is the one you're forced to live in. A game is where you choose to be. Your virtual self can be what your real self cannot. So be, among others things, Magellan. Be Marco Polo. Be Erik the Red.
Which of those ships is yours? Will it be there tomorrow? What if you could choose where to sail?

Ah, but you can't, can you? If you were to choose to turn off the gigantic map-overlay quest markers in a modern MMO, you'd find you have no other means by which to find your objective. Mission descriptions have become so abstract as to amount merely to some free-verse poetry loosely based on your current activity, since no-one reads them anyway since no-one-needs them since, you guessed it, we have quest markers! How delightfully circular. Which is also how our path ends up looking if you ever try working things out on your own. Modern online games are not meant for those with the brainpower to read a map. They are not made for those who can count the number of houses down a street. Developers assume their customers function only on the basest animalistic visual cues, following the gigantic floating instructions right in front of them without any ability to plan ahead. Is that you?

Well, yes, that is most of you. You really are that stupid. I've heard others remark (and must agree) that even vanilla WoW, the promising traitor of 2004, would be considered horridly difficult and complicated by today's gamers' standards. Yet that is not entirely true. When I first encountered a quest overlay for a game map in Warhammer Online, many of us chafed at being so narrowly, domineeringly herded from objective to objective. Map markers are a set of blinders reducing your scope from the game world as a whole to only the particular timesink the developers have set before you - which is all well and good when you're the developer, reducing costs by not developing a world and only cranking out sequential timesinks. Not so much when you're the customer being treated like cattle. WAR, like WoW before it and Rift after it, started hemorrhaging old subscribers at an astounding pace, as they got replaced by the new guard, players who really were stupid enough to enjoy the simplified lack-of-content which disgusted us, the mass market.

So where did the old guard go? My guess would be single-player games. Elder Scrolls or Fallout games still sell, as does Mount and Blade. Paradoxically, though the chief advantage of multiplayer games is the less predictable behavior patterns of players as compared to AI, MMO gameplay became so restrictively predictable that we were forced to backpedal in order to find games which offer that thrill of discovery.

It is true that many aspects of single-player exploration and discovery cannot transfer into a multiplayer medium. For one thing, nothing stays secret for long in a multiplayer game. Monkeys talk. Fairness is also a much greater consideration so many interesting "jackpot!" types of discoveries cannot be implemented in an MMO. However, none of this implies the current paradigm of level-grinding, instance farming and blinders for all. Crucially, MMOs must move away from the quest-chain, narrative model of gameplay toward truly open worlds. Not only should there be no quest markers but by and large there should be no quests. In a world where players' interaction is the main point, handing out specific instructions as to what to do next is directly counterproductive. Sorry, can't join you to go hunt dire tapirs at the moment, I want this NPC to tell me what a good boy I am for killing ten dire wallabies by myself. This is not multiplayer...

Exploration in a multiplayer game takes a different meaning than in single-player. It cannot simply be a matter of finding a mountain. As long as it is static, that information will be displayed in online guides for anyone to read as soon as you implement it. The key is to keep patterns shifting. Yes, the sea-shore in my Morrowind screenshot might always be there... but the cave might not. What if someone just crafted that mine? What if someone just planted that tree? What if it collapses? The landscape must change. The easiest way to accomplish this is by constantly altering monster populations and crafting resource deposits. Player activity and construction will follow such opportunities, altering that same landscape even further. More dramatically, game terrain could be designed with mutability in mind. What if Mount Doom were to erupt? It's been known to happen.

There is no reason why you cannot have these things, gamers, except the industry's self-enforced limitation, its complacency. Most human beings being troglodytic apes who want to be given the simplest route and simply be told they're amazing, this is the mentality to which developers have marketed. The big money is in catering to those too stupid to read a map... yet the big money is already partitioned by the big players. There are no slices left in that pie. However, you'll find quite a few of us, those who wanted open-world games and who have now retreated offline, those who hyped Morrowind for its freedom and sense of wonder but were disgusted at ESO's "fetch dis'n'dat" routine, those you can find pretending to be Erik the Red offline, who would gladly pay for the alternative. Won't someone please make a little money off us?

Friday, January 9, 2015

On the Subject of Boob-Plates

I do not want to hear one more word out of feminists about the night elf dance or the latest boobplate or the "objectification" of women in games. Seriously. Shut it, girlies. The man is about to speak. You ready for this?

Nobody but me gives a crap. Yeah... not exactly earthshaking. However, after twenty years of playing computer games, this is my conclusion. The only people who bitch and moan about the ridiculously sexualized characters in games are me, the feminists looking to score some "social justice" points by wailing about being oppressed because their avatars look better than they do, and possibly Dana Carvey. As far as the actual clientele of games goes, you know, the people to whom designers have to appeal, they're all for chainmail bikinis and tits you can't even see past.

First off, don't just jump at that statement as a chance to paint all gamers as pimplefaced hormonal stew-pots or forty-year-old virgins. Yes, Lara Croft and her ilk are an adolescent male's wet dream... and because of that, adolescent females want to play characters that look like Lara Croft. Amazing as it may sound, there are plenty of female gamers. Honest to dog. I didn't believe it myself until I heard them over voice chat a decade ago. And guess what: by and large they don't want to look like bag-ladies any more than male gamers want to look like weaklings in rags. I have, on occasion, created female characters in games. When I do, I tend to go for the least revealing outfits around - and when I do, I always find I'm the only one wearing a burqa to the party. The female players around me are running around dressed like pretty princesses in flowing evening-gowns slit up the side.

Yes, there is some difference between how male players with female characters dress as opposed to the real deal. If you see a female character running around in her underwear, that's a twelve-year-old boy. This is because men are not so quick as women to "get" that sex-appeal includes identifiers of social standing. No, female gamers do not dress in bikinis as a rule... but you'll pry their shimmering lacy gowns out of their cold dead fingers. Point one, ladies: you do not exculpate yourselves by simply being one iota classier than a teenage boy. You have to be willing not only to abandon blatant sexuality, but attractiveness as a whole. If the boob-plate has to go, so does wearing a tiara and fingerless satin elbow gloves into battle. We are not imposing this on you. Admit that you want to look pretty.

Second, you can't have it both ways. Either playing up your sexuality is "empowerment" or it's oppressive. There's a gendered term, by the way. When's the last time you heard of a male flouting his sexuality being described as "empowered?" Not a horn-dog or any other kind of animal, but a socially-sanctioned, glorified term making him sound as though he's ending the world's ills by shaking his groove-thing. However, empowerment is apt in describing the power dynamic here. Being sexy gives you power, some for men, much more so for women. Teenage girls play shimmying elves in World of Warcraft and dance on top of the mailbox in Ironforge (or wherever it is nowadays) because it gets them the attention they crave. They're not oppressing themselves (at least not to their limited understanding) but incorporating their sexuality into their virtual lives just as they incorporate cut-off jean shorts and belly shirts into their lives at the mall, and they do it for the same reason. It makes guys do stuff for you. It lets you act like a spoiled princess. It's been a common enough answer over the years from male gamers with female characters as well: other guys let you have more loot if your elf character has tits. Try it.
 Make sure to use voice chat too, slather those insecure brats' ear canals with the dulcid tones of your whining. Can't blame you for wiping the raid. You're just a little girl. Time and again, while I've heard men online rail against each other as "noobs" and "fags" and "omg troll" and "omg u suk uninstall pls!!!" for their mistakes, female gamers simply get a few quiet tells explaining to them what they did wrong. There is power in looking fuckable. Game avatars represent idealized selves and as it turns out, the idealized self of the vast majority of women is attractive enough to make men subconsciously identify her as a potential mate and do things for her.
Riddle me this: if sexualized female characters are a patriarchal oppression of women, why is your forum picture a top-down selfie consisting mostly of your cleavage? Point two: this is your problem, dames. It's your duty to address, your own necessary bit of housecleaning over in that half of the species. When you all get together and decide you no longer want to use your femininity as a tool and weapon in competition with each other and to control men, then we'll talk.

Third and most importantly, you can't have it just one way. You can't just cherry-pick the insults that affect you out of the mountain of insults game designers heap on their customers. It's not just female characters which conform to sexual archetypes, but males as well. You think male gamers aren't creating their characters to conform to societal norms of sex-appeal? How many male characters do you see in online games with a pot-belly or spindly arms? Are all these boys being oppressed by "the patriarchy" as well? Male sex appeal centers on social rank, on the ability to function as a provider. Male characters look powerful not as some sort of Machiavellian plan to make women feel weak and ornamental, but because that image of self-imposed slavery, of functioning for one's mate, of being a muscular bad-ass dressed in half a ton of gold plate, is how men want to see themselves as part of being fit "other-halves" for women. There is no difference. Giant glowing spaulders are our version of the boob-plate. Gotta look ready for the yoke. Chicks gots da milk-jugs, dudes gots that bovine strength, and you can bitch about your side of it 'til the cows come home, but that shit-stick's short on both ends.
Wanna talk body image? Let's talk body image. You think perfectly globular triple-F-cups are unfairly unrealistic, a painfully unattainable fabricated goal for female gamers? I'll go you one better. Let's talk about men creating seven-foot characters with six-pack abs and more muscles than bodybuilders, with bodies that, hell, admit it, no male gamer is ever going to have. Then look what they do next. They cover them up. Even that's not good enough. Even the best, most insanely idealized protector/provider male body is not good enough and must be covered in layers of precious metal and rich costumes, with gigantic weapons as props, laden with status symbols. That's the image with which all those scrawny, insecure, overcompensating teenage boys are bombarded. Even if you achieve the impossible, it will never be good enough, your body will always be shameful and ugly and must be covered from head to toe. You are your function. You are a human doing.
Point three. Objectification? A blunt instrument is more of an object than an alluring physique ever will be.

Ah, but remember what I said? Nobody gives a crap, at least not on the inside of this increasingly popular pastime. These archetypes exist because the mindless mass of customers, male and female, are stupid enough to want to see themselves in these ways. Oh, sure, the church-ladies who've never played a game get up in arms over it, and a few feminist charlatans have found they can make a lucrative business out of feeding the entitlement of female gamers as victims (who still dress their characters up in plunging necklines) but just as with romance novels and gold watches and expensive cars and every movie including at least one sex scene and Valentine's Day and everything else, sex sells. In everything they associate with themselves, humans demand sex appeal. There is nothing special about games. Boob-plates are no worse than rom-coms in which some sap dedicates his whole life to trying to impress the latest Hollywood starlet. Both are halves of the same despicable instinctive interpretation of reproductive fitness.

When I create a female character in a game, she's me, and me be honest. That female version of myself does not curry favor through subconscious cues of attractiveness or availability. I am not that underhanded. I am male, I play computer games and I'm always more outraged by boob-plates than the female gamers with whom I play, and I've given this more actual thought than you ever will with your self-serving damsel routine. So shut the hell up with your pretense of victimization. Let's both dress our characters in rags. I dare you. Let's make ourselves as ugly and deformed as can be. You'll say "uncle" long before I do, ladies.

edit: and yes, I went this entire rant without mentioning the utter idiocy of wearing something which channels and concentrates your enemy's blows  directly into your sternum. That, I will grant you, is nearly as impractical as superheroes' capes.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Nexus: The Jupiter Insipid

I'm tempted to call Nexus: The Jupiter Incident a Homeworld clone as that is what I was hoping for when I grabbed it on sale last year, but that wouldn't be fair. While Homeworld used the standard RTS resource acquisition routine, Nexus is a tactical squad-management game. Aside from capturing the same 3D cinematic ballet of ships through the inky void, the two games have no more in common with each other than with, say, EVE-Online.

In fact, much of Nexus feels very EVE-ish, from the obsessive focus on ship subsystems to the fragility of strike craft to the importance of preset jump points in the storyline. Perhaps this ambiguity can also best summarize Nexus' unfortunate failure: yet another product which didn't know what it wanted to be when it grew up. This game contained a few good elements but they're torn between RTS and RPG, between the vastness of space and the personal touch of squad combat, between story and gameplay.

Oh, it starts out well enough. You learn the ship movement patterns and commands, glide through the void as master of your own interstellar microcosm, everything's smooth and slick and appropriately "techy" and you can really get to like your little ship. And then you're thrown into another one. Just like that. Screeching lane-change. But it's OK though because there's little difference between ships anyway. Then the story catapults you into an alien solar system to meet two new races... through a cinematic. No player involvement in that major event. Just like that you're fighting aliens instead of earth-men... except the aliens're just little green men who talk like cartoon pirates. Meh. By this point you're supposed to be really getting into building up your fleet and commander. Meh again. Assign a stat point here and there. Ship gear? Cannons with different stats.

And so it goes. For once, the usual schizophrenia of interesting, unpopular games is reversed. The technical team did its job. Even the visual artists can't be criticized. Where Nexus failed was in overall direction. A lot of the little people put in excellent effort, but this project's leadership was not up to the task of assembling those disparate elements into something memorable. The pacing of the whole thing is off and ship/weapon types tend to either blend into each other or be too obviously the "right" choice. Jarring lapses or disconnects plague every aspect of an otherwise solid foundation.
The storyline skips madly along its track, failing to sustain its momentum, despite the great potential shown by individual chapters.
Bargain-basement voice acting and stock characters ruin the otherwise quite effective visual immersion.
Ship combat is a lengthy, languorous ballet - until your strike craft start exploding second by second.
The story is supposed to be partly a character-driven hero's journey - but the hero has the personality of a pet rock. Without the googly eyes.

Worst though is the disparity between the game's grandiose setting and its gameplay. Squad tactical games depend a great deal on fabricating a role-playing adventuring party feel to character development. My own positive experiences with the genre, Mech Commander and Chaos Gate, not only gave the player enough options in customizing characters to allow for some sort of personal investment in their lives but went to great pains to emphasize different gear and equipment, to make player choice at least appear meaningful. Having one of your pilots iced by a missile barrage in the previous mission makes that missile launcher you salvaged afterwards that much more delicious.
There is after all a crucial difference in how players see the objects on screen in an RTS versus an RPG. In the first, on-screen objects are just objects, pawns, throwaway tools toward victory. In the second, they are the subject and we are meant to empathize with them. Good squad tactics games borrow a bit of that RPG immersion to make up for their less grandiose battles. They make us care about the game pieces we place on the board, every pawn and rook.

Nexus, on the other hand, simply dumps vaguely similar gear and ships in your lap.
Don't just tell me this is a frigate and that's a destroyer. Have me capture a destroyer. Have a voice actor exclaim "my god, that destroyer's coming right at us" beforehand.
Don't just add anti-missile lasers to my inventory between missions. Have me salvage a cargo-ship full of lasers during a mission.
Don't just tell me my fleet commander's a hero. Have me-as-him do something heroic to prove it.
Don't make me set up my ships blindly beforehand then just throw random challenges at me during gameplay. That's not a challenge. It's gambling.

Nexus lacks the AI or mapping elements for freeform gameplay, and whatever short lifespan its multiplayer had certainly didn't make any headlines. However, even a decade later its graphics and basic combat mechanics hold up well enough that its campaign might have made for an enjoyable week of late night fleet commanding. If only you ever really felt involved. If ever it pulled you in. No wonder its sequel's crowdfunding failed so miserably.
It is, ultimately, an utterly forgettable game.
For the love of ham, game designers everywhere, you have to give us something to care about: a Muad'dib, an Ender, a Case, a coterie of intrepid soldiers of fortune to mold in our own image, a sandbox for our ambitions... something other than a by-the-numbers exercise in moving ships we don't care about filled with people we don't care about toward some random goal you're going to cheat us out of in a cinematic voiced by interns.