Sunday, September 16, 2018

Heroes of the Storm

I loathe Blizzard Entertainment.

Wait, that's not how this story starts. That comes later.
This story starts with Starcraft 1 back in the late '90s and the Aeon of Strife map. I never played it. I dimly remember taking a passing glance and deciding it bastardized the basic Real-Time Strategy routine too badly, plus I saw no point in playing one of the greatest PvP games of its time as PvE.

Half a decade later when "Aeon of Strife" became an entire category of player-modded PvP maps in Warcraft 3, the lack of "S" in RTS was already getting old and I'd grown more willing to branch out. A myriad lane-pushing maps filled the custom game list with experiments on hero advancement, ability cobbling, minion farming, item advancement, control points, etc. Good times were had. Horizons were expanded.

(Somewhere in between here, Demigod managed to both provide the most promising incarnation of the AoS concept and self-immolate by dragging its feet in the balance and infrastructure departments.)

When League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth finally became the first viable commercial models of AoS design, they did so by narrowing their focus down to one of the least creative WC3 AoS maps, Defense of the Ancients. Later games like Smite, Prime World, Paragon, Sins of a Dark Age, etc. slavishly copycatted most of DotA's "features" from item recipes to the exactly five (5) players per team and its one (1) map with its three (3) lanes and jungle camps. Never mind that everything in DotA from the four skill buttons to the item upgrading to the five player limit to jungle camps were all artifacts of Warcraft 3's game mechanics and had nothing to do with the lane-pushing concept.

Each of them failed in various glaring ways but usually added something. Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's own re-iteration of DotA, does what Blizzard has done best for three decades running. It adds absolutely nothing, removes most of its competitors' more interesting features and steals as many of the more marketable ideas as it can while putting its own glossy spin on it. Just as they copycatted Warhammer and dumbed it down to rebrand it as Warcraft, as they dumbed down cRPGs into "Action"RPGs for Diablo, as they dumbed down Elric of Melnibone into Arthas, dumbed down TF2 into Overwatch, as they dumbed down MMOs into World of Warcraft's endless "kill ten rats" grindfest, they've dumbed down the potential of WC3's old AoS gamut, pared off anything which might require customers to think and regurgitated something that sells.

I would much rather be playing Demigod or Gigantic. Both went bankrupt, in keeping with the rather striking attrition rate for so-called "MOBA"s. Luckily, Blizzard incorporated quite a bit of other titles' point control, timed objectives, frontline health/mana regen, alternate "ultimates" and so forth, cannibalizing its victims. It even took the unprecedented measure of eliminating individual player level-grinding, the most important step toward making such games truly team-oriented - a necessary plunge which not even Demigod dared take. Also, given their obscene wealth, they've afforded themselves quite a bit of development time for creating variations on the 2-3 lane pushing theme.

They've also refrained from pushing microtransactions as aggressively as some others. Like Valve's DotA2, Heroes is more of a cross-promotion platform than a product in its own right, an easily accessible form of interactive advertisement targeted to the penniless young dregs of various societies. Mousing over each playable character lets you know in which other Blizzard game that character originated, just in case you might want to... y'know... take a look? Take a hint? Hint-hint?

Sure, there's no base building, no manipulating minion waves, no character customization beyond transient skill choices each match, no terrain manipulation, nothing whatsoever which might require planning and scare off Blizzard's bulk clientele of retarded teen scum. But what is there works. It has smoother matchmaking, slightly fewer griefers and trolls, better balance, more maps and less grinding than other MOBAs.

As much as I hate Blizzard for their constant destruction of creativity in the ideas they copycat, their neverending race for the lowest common denominator, I hate them even more for making it work. The world would be a much better place if parasitic hacks like them wound up starving to death in the gutter.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

It's totally meta!

If you live in Australia or like to keep up with biology news, you've probably heard of Tasmanian devils being driven to near-extinction - and for once it's not humans' fault! It's a thrilling tale of bad behavior, gruesome disfigurement and survival of the luckiest.

If you've gone to vet school you might also have heard of a certain canine "social" disease which defies normal epidemiology, lacking any non-canine infectious agent. What do the two have in common?

There's a certain class of disease almost certain to develop in any individual who lives long enough, by a simple accumulation of DNA errors as our cells divide. Being so similar to its host it proves devilishly hard to treat, it tends to grow systemic if untreated and if it reaches that stage it's most often fatal despite the best efforts of modern medicine. The best thing that can be said about cancer is that it's not contagious.

While it may be old news to the experts, here's a dose of nightmare fuel for the rest of us: there is such a thing as infectious cancer. Even if the phenomenon hasn't appeared in humans just yet, Tasmanian devils seem to be the third documented mammalian case, so given the universe runs on Murphy's Law, let's take bets:
Will we develop our own human-derived transmissible tumors or will our species manage to somehow pick up some other mammal's cancer as a zoonosis? Wouldn't you like to be able to claim honestly to have a little devil inside you?

Either way, look at that face.
Sweet dreams.

Monday, September 10, 2018

"Let Us Leave Philosophy to the Physicists"

"If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damn full of 'facts' they feel stuffed but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy."

Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

More than even other Science Fiction classics, Fahrenheit 451 has proven shamefully prophetic in its portrayal of future (read: current) American society, and down through gradients of decreasing similarity, worldwide modern culture as a whole. While literally (pun intended) burning books never caught on (a few fundies aside) before megabauds killed the cellulose star, Bradbury's vision of the West's gradual cultural suicide and our ever-constricting -
- hey, look at the kitty! -
- attention spans has only grown truer with every decade. If you scoff at Mrs. Montag playing Mad Libs with her imaginary "family" in the wall and refusing to even listen to anything other than ever more digested reader's digest digest digests, then what do you think you're doing on Facebook and Twitter?

But the quote above seems to miss its mark. Perhaps after nearly seventy years even Bradbury's prescience is beginning to wear thin and incongruities begin to appear in the Seldon Plan. It certainly held true up to the nineties and slightly after Y2K. Politicians (and all public figures) struggled to out-bland each other and the public could not be less interested in the res publica. Generation Snowflake, on the other hand, could not be more politically involved. In their nu-Victorian safe space wonderland, even uncrossing your legs on the subway or turning down the air conditioning is a political action. They all plan to rule the world with their special interest sociology degrees.

Bradbury seems to have failed to predict the degradation of the humanities and social sciences by postmodernism's winning recipe of pseudo-intellectual autocracy based on baseless, impenetrable gibberish. Whenever and wherever academia becomes a tool for fabricating moral clout by argumentation instead of a structure for analyzing the real world, when its mercenary applications overshadow its intellectual honesty, it also begins to enjoy a much wider popularity. The public suddenly finds itself deeply invested in those socio-economico-politico-academic disciplines promising unending self-justification for upholding the superiority of those born the correct sex or the correct skin color or proclaiming the correct sexual orientation.

And lucky for them, facts of that sort don't change. You can never go wrong declaring that the Emerald City is really green and everyone but yourself has lost their glasses. When you begin with such conveniently undisprovable assertions as "epistemic privilege" your chauvinistic diatribes become as simple as winning a trivia contest. All you have to do is remember the words to your favorite song:
Women are oppressed
Because women say they're oppressed
And being oppressed, they'd know best
Ipso ipso

Now we're back to Ray Bradbury being one clearsighted son of a witch. His basic statements still hold, because modern pop-philosophy and pop-sociology are noncombustible data; they're the conversation-ending arguments against which no-one dares argue. And the media love it. They feed the public a constant stream of plucky underdogs standing up to some trivial social slight or another.

On the other hand, if you've the cojones to tangle with the slippery stuff which brings on melancholy, you'd be looking at naturalistic explanations. Examine the evolutionary roots of human behavior, or the interplay of individual self-interest from a game theory perspective, the harsh realities in whose light no-one ends up looking very angelic for long. The public demands to be distracted from such unpleasant realizations. They'd rather have discussions about which personal pronouns each of them prefer, the most simplistic all-consuming narcissism available. They'd rather have the words they hate, the books they hate, the people they hate, declared hate speech and hate mongers and burned.

It is science which offers the tools of social growth, the boards and nails, the worrisome hard decisions. Snowflake social activism is the obfuscating trivia providing a sense of motion without moving.

As for the title, I first saw it here, but it's apparently from here.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Do you ever feel that only your weakness, your incompetence, your worthlessness, your stupidity have allowed yet another day to slip by you?

If I were better, I could keep my grip on existence.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

ST: TNG - Lwaxana Troi

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate: 2.19

The episode describing the fishlike Antedean race and a gripping, convoluted cloak and dagger plot to assassinate an entire interstellar diplomatic conference.
Actually, that describes about three minutes' worth of the show, and the very cheap, stiff rubber masks worn by those alien extras in the picture ensure that even those three minutes fail to register as memorable. Not exactly breaking the costume / makeup budget. The rest is filler, courtesy of Gene Roddenberry's wife in the purple dress there.

Lwaxana Troi, Deanna's mother, jumps on board for some reason (she's an ambassador whom we never see doing any ambassadoring) and as a menopausal Betazoid has apparently turned into a raging horndog. (Hornbitch?*) She sets her perverted* eyes on Picard, who flees the dire threat* of her forwardness under a cloud of ridicule* from his crew. Lwaxana lectures Deanna that men are a commodity* and she needs to mature* and learn to treat them as such - "and the men in your life are going to bless you for it."* We sacrifice about a third of the episode's screen time to yet another holodeck adventure into the 1940s (presumably to repurpose some gangster movie sets and costumes the studio had lying around and save yet more effects cash) and Lwaxana ends up hitting on a hologram**. Then just as this nonsensical string of digressions is wrapping up, the writers suddenly remember it's supposed to be a SciFi show and have Lwaxana effortlessly prevent a major interstellar incident just by being in the same room as the aliens. All she had to do was show up.

Pretty much the only intriguing scene has Deanna sensing her mother's arrival and exclaiming "my God" - do Betazoids indulge in gods? You'd think if anyone can actually manage get a prayer answered, it'd be the planet full of telepaths.


Seriesdate: 3.24
Menage A Troi

Yeah... yeah, I know. I fancy myself a punny guy, but even I cling to standards higher than that title. It's the episode where Deanna and her mother get teleported naked

and Lwaxana masturbates a Ferengi's ears.

Sure, other stuff happens, but as with Tasha Yar's bellybutton, I'm guessing most youngsters who watched the show back then mainly remembered two women displaying their totally nude lumbar areas.

Look, we simply maintained lower expectations before the days of internet porn, alright?

Anyway. We start out with some gratuitous mother-daughter banter about grandchildren (during which Deanna somehow neglects to mention her easy-bake star child from the start of season 2.) Then they get surprise-teleported by Lwaxana's not-so-secret admirer. Watching the kidnapped Lwaxana romance the Ferengi captain and pull disgusted faces* at having to touch an unattractive male eats up a fair amount of screen time. Which is a pity because by the close of season 3, TNG had gotten good enough to supply much more Starring and Trekking than Manhunt did a year prior. Riker and the younger Troi pull off a daring jailbreak at chesspoint while Wesley solves the kidnapping mystery via reason and observation instead of nose-twitching. We get some jargon about starship engines, 3D chess, alien flora and alien erogenous zones, the works.

In fact, if you were to remove Lwaxana's sexual plot elements, I'd count this a pretty decent episode.
At least it gave us the memorable scene of Patrick Stewart belting out a sonnet medley at roughly one quarter his theatrical ability. It takes a good actor to purposely play a bad one.


Seriesdate: 4.22
Half a Life

(No, this has nothing to do with hazard suits, headcrabs or crowbars.)

Season 1 of TNG was infamously terrible. Season 2 started out much the same but gradually began turning around. First the special effects, props and costumes improved, then the writers began putting in more effort to outgrow their pulpy self-limitations, mostly plot-wise. Season 3 saw marked improvements in character writing and acting, with most of the cast at last growing into their roles. By season 4 all these elements had coalesced into the respectable high point of trekking which we all know and love. (We all know and love.) (All!)

Darling, let's you and me kill me.
Timicin the Kaelonite (a.k.a. Charles Emerson Winchester III) visits the Enterprise to blow up a star while looking for a way to re-sunnify his own solar system's aging gas bag. And speaking of aging gas bags, most of the episode's dedicated to his species' customary suicide at age sixty to make room for younger gas bags. Lwaxana, who's fallen for the big lug, is dead set against him setting himself dead. Cue many emotional dialogues.

And damnit, it's good. As before, Majel Barrett's appearance eats up most of the screen time, with the Enterprise's crew barely being accorded token walk-ons in their own show. Unlike before, the plot's course takes her from a comedic beginning as her old season 1-2-3 completely flat over-the-top narcissist to an individual with both personal desires and some understanding of the objective reality around herself.

Though slightly disappointed at solar kablooie being sidelined in favor of interpersonal claptrap, I must concede this episode retains its SF credibility through its inhumanly honest discussion of old age and suicide. Timicin's treatment of the matter approaches both the serenity and multifaceted contextualization of Heinlein's Martian discorporation. The discussion moves quickly enough to hit on most any salient point from the personal to the interpersonal to the societal and utilitarian, with Stiers skillfully acting his way through various stages of grief and Barrett having grown skillful enough in her portrayal of Lwaxana to keep up with him.


Really, the character of Lwaxana's just more first-season detritus. Though being played by someone with such a long-standing presence in Star Trek almost inevitably ensured her persistence, her personality and powers had to be downgraded, much like Wesley and Q, as the show matured. SF provides precious little justification for flamboyant grandes dames.

Her season 1 appearance in Haven mostly revolves around her overbearing, invasive use of her Betazoid telepathy.
By Manhunt, the writers must have come to the inevitable realization of what a game-breaker telepathy would prove for any sane sentient interactions and menopausally hobbled it.
Menage a Troi revolves around Ferengi being immune to Betazoiding and thus allows for her to display a modicum of rational problem-solving.
Half a Life casually expands this Betazoid telepathic incompatibility to some unspecified wide range of species then makes no further mention of it throughout her emotional displays versus Timicin or the ship's crew. Just as with the Lascar's helm in Torment: Tides of Numenera, the more thorough intimacy this accomplishes only underscores telepathy's unscientific unsuitability for Science Fiction. Her rational choice to share Timicin's ritual suicide with him and his family would have seemed completely out of character for the voyeuristic diva first appearing in season 1-2.

Sometimes, growth is best achieved by subtraction.

* - while gender relations are not a main point here, it pays to imagine the roles reversed. How would these situations and attitudes have been presented or received by the audience had Lwaxana been male and her targets female?
** - quite a few lines of dialogue are dedicated to Picard and the rest of the crew accommodating both Lwaxana's need for a bit of flirtation and the need to prevent her embarrassment at not realizing she's flirting with a hologram, plus her righteous indignation at the discovery. Compare to the snide, condescending attitudes written into Geordi (m) or Barclay (m) and their holographic interactions, a whole season after Lwaxana's allotted her high horse.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Wasteland 2

"I just don't need none of that Mad Max bullshit.
Well the suit got tight and it split at the seams
But I kept it out of habit and I kept it real clean.

We are hummingbirds who lost the plot and we will not move"

Modest Mouse - Bury Me With It

So here's me doing some shopping in Wasteland 2.

Judging by the NPC merchant's nonsensical chatter, how far into the RPG would you say I've gotten? Is this a lighthearted tutorial where breaking immersion doesn't really matter? Is it the early game played for laughs to offset the more serious story later on? Is it some mid-campaign comic relief? I'm almost done with the game, in fact. I have been almost done with the game for some weeks, making less and less progress every time I fire it up only to think "ugh, not another badger fight" and shut it down again.

A month ago when I finished my replay of Fallout I noted the jarring tendency for old-school computer game designers to lean on pop culture references instead of developing a coherent game world. As a throwback to 80s/90s gaming, Wasteland disappoints by failing to disappoint in that department. Not only does it begin with a gratuitous old-timey FMV cinematic but carries on with one cheap sound bite after another. Leve L'Upe Mine? Honey badger don't care? Screaming goats? The James King Bible? Don't get me wrong, I laughed my ass off at some of these as well as some of the other humorous elements like the perpetually blind stinking drunk Scotchmo or Ralphy singing 99 bottles of beer on the wall - he sounds so earnest!

But, ever so gradually, you get to scraping little to nothing underneath those pop culture crutches, that overtly charming facade. No truly engaging or memorable characters. The world, far from capturing the monomythic feeling of escalation in Fallout fashion, jars you out of your desert reverie with an early mission against plant zombies then continually sabotages itself by shoehorning humor into otherwise dramatic situations, managing neither to pass it off as dark humor nor to isolate it into comic relief moments. Worse still, this tendency only deepens as you leave the first half, Arizona (largely dedicated to nostalgic developer masturbation over the first Wasteland game from 1988) for California, where the developers seem to have lost any and all interest in their own story. One of the final zones, Hollywood, obviously meant as very memorable for its quirky pimps, hoes, teenage runaways, junkies, pushers and religious extremists, somehow manages to fail at being either sexy, outrageous, moralistic or in any other way engaging.

This would all be less noticeable if Wasteland 2 hadn't also been an overambitious project which simply lacks the content to fill its dozen different quest hubs. Everything gets reused ad nauseam, from character portraits and generic banter to random encounter maps to enemies. Most groups of humanoids contain the same mix of ranged / melee combatants and the animals are even worse. Three of the four major species re-appear from the beginning of Arizona to the end of California with no rhyme or reason. The few well-orchestrated fights get lost in the redundancy.

In terms of more practical gameplay options, it's again a pot luck of good but poorly integrated features like ammunition stockpiling and management, status effects which can be cured with consumable items, very powerful but single-use AoE missiles. The skill system trips into the recruitable NPC system. You create 4/7 of your party at the start and pick three more out of the tramps and thugs you encounter along the way. Since skills don't stack, this inevitably yields very high redundancy. Many skills were also poorly thought out and end up next to worthless (Animal Whispering) while others like Lockpicking are blatantly over-emphasized.

And on and on. There's a solid line between telling a joke and being a joke, and InXile sinply did not treat this project as professionally as they should have. There's only so many times the player can be gratified by thinking "I've heard of that!" when encountering references to old 1980s video game consoles and other non-sequitur trivia. Almost aggressively badly written at times, its balance wrecked by "toaster repair" easter eggs and other exploits, over-stretched far past what its actual content could illustrate, Wasteland 2 just wears thin much too quickly. Which would be fine if they weren't taking customers' money for an actual game and not a self-congratulatory trip down memory lane.

For the same post-apocalyptic Fallout-ish turn-based roleplaying, Dead State did more with less production values.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

I've always been perplexed at brassiere commercials seductively marketed toward men. Men don't care about bras. It's women who are obsessed with the damn things. Men, on the other hand, are less shallow. To us, it's what's inside that counts.
edit 2018/08/30
re-written for more funnierer

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Ready Player One Better

"Just think of all the people that you knew in the past
That passed on, they in heaven, found peace at last
Picture a place that they exist, together

There has to be a place better than this, in heaven"

2Pac - Thugz Mansion

Is Ready Player One good?
I asked this question with regard to the movie Interstellar three years ago. "Good" in that case referred to Interstellar's representation of space exploration SF to the wider public. In the case of Ready Player One I'm referring to its representation of computer games.

While leafing through Wikipedia links for my "Cutscene Tagmatization" rant three posts ago, I discovered that my distaste for video game cutscenes is shared, among others, by Steven Spielberg (which prompts me to wonder what he'd think of my game / movie / music analogy at the end.) In any case, this rendered me more amenable to watching Ready Player One for a family movie night when visiting relatives a week later. It's more or less what you'd expect: a children's movie with stock villains and monomythic heroes, effects cranked up to 11, twists telegraphed, plot tangled unnecessarily around primate courtship rituals. And damnit, senor Spielbergo's still got it. I can't hate the damn thing. It was fun to watch. But it did raise some questions about timing and references.

A movie about playing a video game would've seemed fresh and edgy from the era of Tron to around Y2K, but this waning decade finds us already several years past the tipping point where the game industry began to outstrip the movie industry's looting. If anything, a video game about making movies would seem a lot more daring nowadays. Weirder still to see it aimed at a young audience for whom MMOs and FPS clans have always been a part of pop culture. But if you were going to do it, might as well have utilized better poop culture references than Godzilla, King Kong, Doom, Gundam, The Shining and a nameless appearance by a Starcraft space marine. What made this utterly mundane clutter of wolfmen, Draculas and mummies worthy of a Spielberg adaptation?

In place of Interstellar I recommended the more interesting Europa Report. In place of Ready Player One you're better off partying like it's 1999 with eXistenZ, lacking pop culture references but much more insightful when it comes to gaming, gamers' mindset and the wider repercussions thereof. Decidedly not aimed at children, being as it was directed by David Cronenberg.

But if you're going to cobble together a big budget cross-media two hour tirade of references, at least pick better ones. Give me a series of murder mysteries in a town where everyone lives in Morrowind cantons and crabshell houses, inhabited by Haibane sipping tea at the Triplets of Belleville's house, Gordon Freeman draining septic tanks in his hazard suit, Jubal Harshaw and Smiling Jack playing chess, Molly Millions running a boxing gym, Crista Galli running a telecom, the Bebop in place of a mail truck, The Nameless One and Susan Ashworth co-owning a funeral parlor, Tyler Freeborn as an investigative journalist, Strelok running a tanning salon and Jan Jansen running a bar which serves nothing but turnip juice, Haviland Tuf as a pet store owner, the Grieving Mother babysitting Kills-in-Shadow's brood, Karan S'jet as a mysterious agoraphobe who only speaks through electronic means, Rahan as the town's all-purpose scientist, Chairman Yang as the stodgy old heartless industrialist/landlord, Wesley Crusher as the first murder victim and Cadfael as an inquisitive young pre-pharmacy major turned detective.

Come on Spielberg.
Get cracking.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Cutting Through the Treacle - TwitFaceTwitchTube

"Feeling your sting down inside me
I'm not dying for it"

Godsmack - I Stand Alone

Back when I used to get more involved in online games and the player guilds thereof, I would occasionally grow annoyed at the repetitiveness and inanity which flooded my guild chat window. Most of that chatter consisted of greetings, which seem quite pointless given that your grand entrances and exits are already automatically announced to any guild member who cares to keep the "log-in notifications" UI option flagged. So I'd liven things up by magnanimously providing smart-ass rejoinders to any hello or good-bye which rubbed me the wrong way. Among my favorites, I'd taunt anyone who said "hello, people" or "good night, people" with:
"We're not people. We're just random collections of pixels on your screen."
- and as far as you get to demand of a fellow player, that's all I am. Wintermute. Basta. We shoot lazorz at goblins together. We're not automatically friends. Friendship should never be required for basic goblin-laser interactions.

To my great shame, after over a decade of pointedly avoiding any of their products, I've recently started playing Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm MOBA to fill my quota of blowing tween brats' idiot heads off with rockets. Though I've grown accustomed to all sorts of false advertising, cash grabs, market manipulation, datamining, microtransactions and other charlatanry and robbery by the game industry, I'll admit old Bliz upped the ante with this loading screen "hint":
"Playing with friends grants you a 50% bonus to experience granted after playing a match."

OK, sure, there might be some practical reason for this. Maybe it shortens the team-making algorithm's search a bit. As likely as not, it's also touted as promoting "community spirit" or some other codependent tripe. Really, the rip-off artists at Blizzard are just well aware how many customers remain in their uncreative multiplayer extravaganzas merely to maintain their existing online connections. And they're not shy about exploiting your emotional weaknesses.
Pushing it to the extent of punishing me for queuing solo undermines such games' strongest selling point. Automated matchmaking exists precisely so as to save me the anguish of associating with any of you shiteating degenerate subsentient vermin for more than one match at a time. You are pixels on my screen, no more. Moreover, players should never be rewarded for trying to stack the deck in their own favor by stacking teams in random matchups. An alliance of convenience is already convenient. That deal doesn't need to be sweetened.

But it's a sign of our hypersocial times.
I also recently grabbed War for the Overworld, a by-the-numbers copycat of Dungeon Keeper of dungeon keeping fame. I decided to hold off on playing it after my first attempt, when it ground to a halt on the very first tutorial mission.
Now, either that's a memory leak the size of Niagara Falls* or these assholes really think their piddlin' little 20x20 tile 2D playground for a dozen units is supposed to take up over three Skyrims' worth of RAM. Looks like someone didn't bother paying for bug testing. On the other hand they did bother wasting development time on integrating every possible form of interwebz hot air.
I didn't pay you $15 for a link to TwitFaceTwitchTube. Nor do I want to sign up for your spamletter. As for spotlighting your niece's custom map for me to download and uninstall in disgust five minutes later, I'll pass. "Chat with the devs" - ? To accomplish what? Have your representative at the Indian call center tell me your buggy p.o.s. of a product's "working as intended?" Or try to sell me three dozen DLC packs?

Players can and will socialize in games, and providing the basic tools for them to do so aids even single-player games via discussion forums. However, as the decades drag on, more and more developers have been using social media tie-ins as a crutch, as a distraction to keep customers busy chatting to each other instead of rationally evaluating the product's performance. In contrast, here's the main screen for FrostPunk, a beautiful piece of game designerin':
Look, ma, no twits!
A good cook doesn't need to mask the food's flavor with too much salt, grease or capsaicin. A good architect doesn't need to over-decorate a building's facade to distract from its structure. A good game gives you the game, to stand on its own, not to be engaged in as some form of simian social posturing, as the popular thing all your "friends" are into - but as a solid work capable of withstanding cold-blooded, independent scrutiny. Even in a multiplayer game, I'm here for the game. Other participants are merely a necessary evil.

* That this program's acronym very nearly spells out WTF OMG was merely a hilarious bonus.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Let Him Talk

Here's a quaint story from an equally quaint American Midwestwern suburb. A decade ago, back in my mid 20s I had to live with my parents. Not the best of circumstances, but it did come in handy one night when my father was out of town and my mother got an acute stomach infection. I was awakened in the witching hour by a loud thud and the family dog whining pitifully in confusion. I discovered my mother unconscious on the floor, having collapsed trying to get out of bed.

Long story short, I find myself twenty minutes later stepping through the sliding doors of the nearest hospital's main entrance with a middle-aged woman shuffling beside me leaning on my arm, sweaty, weakened, woozy from dehydration and fever to the point she barely knew what planet she was on. Top it off with a bruise below her eye where she'd knocked her head against the bed frame in her fall. The nurse(?) behind the admissions desk asks my mother what the problem is. I start "Hi, she's-"
"Let her talk!" the nurse snaps, glaring at me, loudly enough to make the few people in the waiting room glance over in surprise.
Sensing me tense up my mother squeezed my arm, took a couple of deep breaths and gathered her strength to slowly, painstakingly convince the pinhead of a nurse that no, I wasn't an abusive husband and she wasn't a battered wife because
Well, ok, she didn't word it that way, and in fact made no mention of the nurse's presumption but only presented her illness. My mater certa's a hopelessly polite person. Old World manners, dontchaknow.

The assumption was obvious. It was obvious to the nurse accusing me of beating a woman until she couldn't stand (and then taking her in to get treated???) and it was obvious to me, obvious to everyone else in the room, obvious even to the dehydrated little matriarch so weak she could barely speak, being delayed from her treatment to appease some knuckle-dragging pissant's self-gratifying paranoid fantasies about pervasive male violence against women. Nothing was said outright and it didn't need to be said. We all knew it already. We all know men are evil. We are born and raised to know this. Every stranger in that room already knew I was a criminal, as soon as a woman raised her voice at me.

This is just one tiny, low key, utterly mundane example of the injustice we take for granted. I wasn't even fired or arrested for unwittingly wandering across a woman's line of fire. A lot of men aren't that lucky. This is no newfangled conceit, either. It's the endlessly verified (pre-)historic truism which gave rise to #MeToo, medieval chivalry, the Violence Against Women Act and Popeye the Sailor cartoons. We are by default ready to believe that any man might harm any woman at any time... and to have him physically punished for the sake of our self-righteous blind belief.

By now, everyone in the anglophone world has heard of the Men's Rights Movement, possibly in deeply dishonest TV reports painting them as vicious extremists wanting to chain women to the stove or some nonsense. I actually have my own quibbles about men's rights activists, and even more complaints about what's been idiotically termed "the manosphere" on teh internets. For the moment, let's address the central issue: most media figures (even when they refrain from calling it a "hate movement") vilify the MRM as unnecessary at best, because what possible rights might men need?

How about the basic human right not to be presumed a violent criminal for the heinous act of driving my mother to the hospital?

Pretty sure that one was in the Magna Carta somewheres...

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Cutscene Tagmatization

Yes, that's a word.
Look it up.

If you've played Wasteland 2 you probably remember this little cutscene because the ensuing fight against that mecha-scorpion is the bitchiest bitch that ever bitched a bitch. To introduce this moderately satisfying boss encounter, the game cuts to it smashing through a house to get at you and rearing up menacingly in a cloud of cement dust and rubble.
Of course, you'll probably die to its machine gun stinger, so you'll need to reload your save, and watch it burst through the house and rear up menacingly in a cloud of cement dust and rubble all over again.
Rawr! Rawr I say!
Then you'll probably die to the baby scorpion adds it enthusiastically shoots out of cannons on its back, so you'll get to reload and watch it once again burst through the house and rear up menacingly in a cloud of cement dust and rubble. Again.
Then you might get fried by its flamethrower AoE so when you reload you'll get to watch it again yet again once again and again burst through the house and rear up menacingly in a cloud of cement dust and rubble. Again.
And again.
Rrr- yawn?

Released in 2014, Wasteland 2 banks largely on nostalgia, which may explain its failure to address this decades old nuisance of repetitive clicking through cutscenes or dialogues. (Old RPGs were quite prone to this; the Final Fantasy series is infamous for unskippable cutscenes.) Compare as one example to Dragon Age: Origins, which five years earlier already knew enough to either autosave or allow the player to save the game after most lengthy expository dialogues instead of segueing your ass right into a boss fight, thereby sacrificing neither exposition nor the customer's time.
Why is that so hard?

I also recently tried Meridian: New World, a fairly unimaginative and self-indulgent bush league RTS also released in 2014 and also prone to dragging the player willy-nilly through cutscenes. Trying to play through the campaign, you constantly find your controls locked as the screen starts shifting around to SHOW YOU new objectives frame by agonizing frame. Its creators seemed more concerned with dramatically fading to/from black and panning the camera and interposing redundant voiceovers than with actually designing interesting units or a functional interface.

Meridian being a SciFi RTS, it inevitably recalls the original Starcraft and its cinematics. Quite a lot of effort went into those old clips of hydralisks and space marines duking it out or of Tassadar furrowing his lack-of-eyebrows. In the era of two-dimensional pixelation, cinematics served as the high-definition eye candy rewarding advancement through missions. As game engines improved, more and more cutscenes started being played through a game's regular graphics, merely at a closer zoom level with additional voice acting. The ease of this method has led quite a few companies to over-indulge over the years, to the point where you start feeling like a spectator to the designers playing their own product. The worst offender which jumps to my mind would have to be Dreamfall, from 2006, which may as well have been titled "Machinima: The Game" for all its perfunctory, linear ambling from one piece of exposition to another. Yet developers keep making this error. The Pillars of Eternity sequel, an otherwise valid product marred by incompetent storytelling, made players trudge through a minutes-long recap of the first game before they could even reach character creation. It took several post-launch patches to add a "skip intro" checkbox, presumably in response to endless exasperated customers' demand.

However, handled properly, cinematic interludes can indeed add to an interactive product. Old-school adventure games with their very limited gamut of player choice tend to bank heavily on proper timing creating the illusion of action and consequences in an otherwise completely linear piece of interactive fiction. The Secret World, which tried (and failed) to straddle adventure games and MMOs provides both positive and negative illustration:
"Stop" indeed. Cinematics and cutscenes are just that. A stop from the action. For the most part TSW used cutscenes as old '90s games used to: introductions to or rewards after a mission. The part of the game where you're not playing the game comes before or after playing the game. Duh. However, the last fight in The Darkness War instance consists of two phases of beating on a boss, sandwiching a mid-fight intermission of listening to a long-winded old fart wheezing out the tale of pure light burning enemies blah-blah-blah. In fact in most of my DW runs you can see players doing exactly what this tank does occasionally starting from ~ min 3:20 to ~4:10 - jumping around in boredom through the old narrator's "fire:good!" blather, waiting for the real action to start up again.

Listening to grandpa telling tall tales is no substitute for actual gameplay.

The last mission of the Tyler Freeborn arc (from which the above screenshot is taken) toyed with this passivity as did other of TSW's most memorable high points, tying you to a table or running you through a cubicle farm with no interactable elements. That last Freeborn mission is a fan favorite and rightly so, yet I wonder how many have stopped to think that you don't actually do much of anything during the whole ordeal except walk forward. Yet it's never dull. Largely it's a matter of well-executed aesthetics, but also of the tone-setting "stop... no, don't stop" at the start. You're never truly left with nothing to do; the narration advances as you walk and you're constantly looking around for your next foothold.

It's in actuality a victory lap referencing the entirety of the first third of the original game, and instead of capping gameplay off with a completely passive cinematic, it renders that requisite cinematic interactive. TSW has done this on numerous occasions, making you arrow-key your way through a story, adventure-game fashion, and it strikes me as the correct take on implementing cutscenes into games which haven't technically needed them for over a decade.

Lesson 1: DO NOT interrupt gameplay for this very special announcement. If theatricality is to be its own functional tagma, then don't let it metastasize into other, more vital morphological units.
Lesson 2: If you're going to do it, allow the player to pace the damn thing, to at least slow or fast-forward the incoming passive stimuli by fiddling with the environment. Don't completely wrest control of the interface from the player.

Games are not movies just as movies are not symphonies. Game cutscenes should be used as sparingly as film scenes where a completely black screen emphasizes the soundtrack. Very, very sparingly.

(and minor Dragon Age: Origins spoiler)
The Tyler Freeborn example is by no means unique. Returning to the example of DA:O, your approach to the Broodmother battle is played in much the same way, as a semi-interactive cinematic foreshadowing the upcoming boss encounter. You trudge through caves filled with the gory remnants of your enemies' carnage and their primitive totems while listening to the droning, haunting, echoing chant of a lone friendly survivor.
The first time you hear Hespith's voice you probably stopped as I did and looked around for its source. The muddled narration advances as you do, at the pace of your pacing through the cavern, until you finally reach her to get the whole grisly story of the Darkspawn's manufacture process for axlotl tanks.

Quite a few games have hit upon this gimmick but it has yet to replace, as it should along with scripted NPC vs. NPC encounters, the bulk of old-school cinematics.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

World Legendarily Secret; Skies Manned Up

I've been talking about the not-really-multiplayer game The Secret World on this blog since before it came out. For all its aesthetic charm, it also serves as a prime object lesson for misdirected design priorities. By 2015-16, three or four years after its launch, it was pretty much dead. Around this time in 2017, Funcom surprised me by not scrapping the project but instead relaunching it as "Secret World Legends" with even more dumbed-down gameplay, half its group content excised, wall-to-wall bugs and its original emphasis on immersive puzzle solving ignored.

I mistakenly assumed that if they relaunched it they must intend to actually do something with it... which proceeded to not happen. Instead they re-hashed their old seasonal content and lengthened the loot grinding treadmill. In April 2018 they at last rolled out their first new content in three years (since MFB) an unambitious new South Africa zone with a couple of decent single-player boss fights but half its supposed content marked "coming soon."

"Soon" is apparently four months later and amounts to even more faction reputation grinding plus a grand total of one new actual mission. Knowing TSW's storied past of pervasive bugginess I gave it a few days since the new patch launched on Aug 01, to let them hotfix whatever would inevitably turn out unplayable about it. Today I tried that new mission.
And it bugged out.
I'd love to claim prescience but even a bat with earplugs could've seen that one coming. But hey, hey, in all fairness, relogging did fix the bugged item, triggering the next cutscene...
... can you tell what's coming?
Why, yes, yes it did, the mission did bug out yet again, immediately, and this time irreparably.
Three fucking years.

And yeah, I'm pissed because back in 2011 I preordered myself a lifetime subscription to a slow-motion train wreck. In contrast, I later also preordered No Man's Sky which turned out to be a very fast-motion train wreck. Even two years later, NMS' overhyped, disastrous launch has remained the stuff of legend. Ignoring that few of its buyers could get their purchase running in the first place, its gameplay was limited to highly repetitive, aimless resource acquisition and arcade-style whack-a-mole FPS combat with no tactical or strategic elements whatsoever.

People were rightly angry. Hell, I was one of them. Nevertheless, I warned against completely dismissing NMS. Its core planet-generating algorithms, environment interaction and resource management mechanics provide a very solid basis for further development. I said all that while not really expecting that further development. After a fiasco of such caliber, it's traditional for a game development studio to simply pocket the remainder of their customers' money and skulk off into the sunset having gained some work experience for their resumes. Or string their subscribers along with timesinks, as MMO developers like Funcom are wont to.

Hello Games chose not to.
They patched most video card issues, and though the game loads slowly it now runs reliably enough.
Amusingly, the compass I demanded in my first post got implemented soon thereafter and comes in handy enough on occasional long foraging trips. It's not much but it's something, and something is more than I expected.
Over the past year and a half they've continually added base-building features, fleshed out the campaign storyline, added more resource storage functionality, toned down the constant pirate attacks and made it easier to avoid them, added more terrain sculpting, and their latest patch overhauled the resource system, presumably in preparation for further developing the crafting tree. They've even been toying with a multiplayer function.

I can't in all honesty give NMS a very hearty recommendation, even as it stands now. It's still quite flat and repetitive for its purported galactic scope. When I said it needed an overarching framework I didn't mean putting the player on the rails of some strict, linear plot, but giving the player the means to build one's own trading / piracy empire, to make one's own sandy-boxy plot. Some satisfying home-making aside, I doubt it's going in the right direction... but then it's still a pleasant surprise to see it going in any direction at all.

Hello Games took their lumps, ate their well-deserved heap of humble pie, then buckled down and have steadily been improving their product at no extra cost since release. Whatever you've heard about NMS, it's now at the very least worth a second look, and after that FUBAR launch it's been treating its customers a lot better than we've learned to expect from the customarily predatory game industry.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Angels? None.

"Want me to save the world
I'm just a little girl"

Marilyn Manson - Get Your Gunn


Star Trek: The Next Generation
Seriesdate: 1.14
Angel One

By my understanding widely viewed as one of the worst TNG episodes and I really have to agree, despite its much higher production values (more extras, lavish sets and costumes, abundant props, etc.) than other first / second season fare. For one thing it's plagued by a bland, scatterbrained B-plot about a shipboard sniffles epidemic involving Wesley taking skiing lessons, Geordi taking control of the bridge, Picard pouting and some oft-mentioned, never seen Romulan threat lurking somewhere behind the scenery.

For the other thing, its A-plot made even less sense. The Enterprise visits a matriarchal planet. This inexplicably causes Troi and Yar to mentally regress to giggling schoolgirls at the sight / thought of Riker in a frilly V-neck shirt seducing the planet's leader... on which account he flips a 180 after five minutes of PG13-rated smooching to declare he's not that kind of boy. Then they go ahead anyway. Then they argue about it some more.

Well, anyway, back to that confused mess in a minute. Let's talk about El Goonish Shive, a webcomic about high school students with magical powers fighting supernatural threats. Because that's never been done before. The dialogue in EGS frequently tangles in an unending mess of snowflake posturing about homosexuality and gender roles, which combined with teenage relationship drama should make it utterly unreadable if not for its creator's comedic flair. Prepare for idealized angelic females, villainous males (unless they're endorsed by women) and all the usual spiel.

Like most webcomics, EGS is burdened by a constantly ballooning cast of redundant characters, one of whom, Tom, was introduced for the express function of trying to seduce the group's resident ice queen, Susan. This act is so vile in the eyes of her friends as to warrant an "I might have to hurt this guy." Why, you ask? As described here, because he was cozying up to her and trying to get her to ask him out as though it were her idea and not his. We're of course already perfectly comfortable condemning any male who fails to throw himself at women's feet. Tom's villainy goes a step further by trying "to make her take the initiative" -*le gasp!*
Bbuuuurnn hiiiiimmm!

I addressed this when discussing pickup artists. What is Tom doing that billions of women have not done since the dawn of time? Hovering around a man, gaining his trust, worming under his skin, teasing and taunting, soft non-committal words, casual non-committal intrusions into personal space, never saying anything outright but baiting him into taking all the risk of action while personally maintaining deniability. The hallmarks of feminine behavior, from lipstick to "on your knees!" marriage proposals. Tom is being condemned for trying to take advantage of women in the same way that women have always taken advantage of men, for infringing on women's copyright on entrapment. Only men can get condemned for feminine crimes.

The women of Angel One are certainly not manipulative. "Here, the female is the hunter, the soldier, larger and stronger than the male." They're imperious, lectured in the big moralistic speech at the end for standing in the way of social progress by not letting their adorably shrimpy male counterparts vote. The episode gets panned as sexist, presumably on the basic universal assumption that women are wonderful and should never be portrayed as in the wrong, but note how they're in the wrong. By adopting masculine demeanor. Not a word is said about what the men of Angel One are actually doing all that time. If this truly is a gender-flipped society, then we should reasonably expect males to adopt feminine tools of sexual, emotional and social manipulation, with cute, sexy, pouting little Lord Macbeths guilting and shaming their Ladies into risk to further their own ambitions. Would it be wrong for men to do so?

Angel One teaches us that women can only sin by adopting a traditional overt, declarative masculine mindset. EGS teaches us that covert feminine manipulation is only wrong when adopted by men. Neither is saying anything we haven't otherwise had megaphoned into our brains from the cradle onwards. Men are evil, but the only thing worse than masculinity is a man who refuses to play his masculine role when women demand it. Femininity itself can suffer no criticism.

To what end?
For that, flip to another old comic strip, 9 Chickweed Lane to learn: "Give her the upper hand and she'll always hold it out to you." Awww, how sweet. A willful ignorance of female self-interest. An expectation of self-denigrating male servility. A lifetime of throwing oneself on the barricades to ensure that women always have the upper hand.
Human instinct. How... sweet.

"Selective judgments, good guy badges don't mean a fuck to me"

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

So this guy with a turban walks into a tauren bard who challenges him to a duel:
"It's time to face the moo, Sikh!"

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Endemic Plague

"they must simply have refused to take [Thibaut de Castries] seriously, you see - either his revolution or his new black magic. Jack London was a Marxist socialist from way back and had written his way through a violent class war in his science fiction novel The Iron Heel. He could and would have poked holes in both the theory and the practice of Thibaut's Reign of Terror. And he'd have known that the first city to elect a Union Labor Party government was hardly the place to start a counterrevolution. He also was a Darwinian materialist and knew his science. He'd have been able to show up Thibaut's 'new black science' as a pseudoscientific travesty and just another name for magic, with all the unexplained action at a distance."

Fritz Leiber - Our Lady of Darkness
(writing in 1977 about fictional events with real-world references around 1900)


"Hey mom, what's this I hear about the greenhouse effect?"

Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes
(published 1987/07/23)


"The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

Donald Trump, 2012/11/06


"mike pence quotes bible"

Google's only autocomplete option when I type "Mike Pence quotes" into the search box, 2018/07/30


"Religious behaviour is one of the hallmarks of behavioral modernity, generally assumed to have emerged around 50,000 years ago"

from the Wikipedia page on Paleolithic religion

"That's not modern!"
- me, ten seconds ago

We keep telling ourselves we've made progress, that science, in its five hundred or so laps around the sun, has transformed the world. Well, yes, it has... except for the one most important aspect.
Apes are still apes.

So. Having meant to read more by Fritz Leiber for some time now, I've been leafing through Our Lady of Darkness. It's not terrible, but so far I'm largely unimpressed by the over-reliance on Frisco in-jokes, and if you want an urban fantasy tale touching on polisomancy you'd be better served by Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

The passage above, however, brought to mind once again the increasingly poignant similarities between the beginning of the third millennium anno dumbini and the previous turn of the century. Patent medicines or homeopathy, theosophy or scientology, blurry photos of fairies or of UFOs, prissy Victorian sexophobia or prissy feminist sexophobia, anomie or antifa, 1920s fundamentalism or 2020s fundamentalism, what is the freaking difference?

Advancement never seems to truly stick. You hit a nice stride in 1987; human impact on the environment has become a popular enough topic that it starts showing up in newspaper comic strips. Then you wake up in 2018. Half the U.S. still refuses to accept the notion and the other half wants to plaster the whole planet in solar panels while doing nothing to address the overpopulation demanding all that extra electricity. You look around in the '60s and you think we'll finally overcome our idiotic repression and abuse of social ape sexuality as a tool of social control. Blink and you're in the 2010s watching homosexuals demand to be permitted to chain themselves in legally enforced monogamy, aping the reactionary rednecks' proudest institutions. Hear Nietzsche proclaim God's death in 1882 then realize: not only have we not managed to blast the head off that zombie by now, but everyone around us is infected by a thousand new strains of superstition. Forty years after Leiber cited Jack London's argumentative tendencies as ancient history, we find ourselves still rambling through the same tired old arguments about class wars and pseudoscientific travesties, trying in *fain to cram some sense into the subsentient naked apes around us.

It never sticks. Science has improved our lives immeasurably compared to even our grandparents' generation but no matter how well you treat the monkeys, they remain monkeys. If you want to heal the world you must address its most virulent disease: human stupidity.

We must break the taboo.

We need to start talking honestly about the desperate need for eugenics.

* Yes, that's a typo, but I'm leaving it in. It works.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

I used to wish for the end of the world. Now I realize that with my luck it'd probably turn out to be one of those cyclical Kalpa / Ragnarok type deals where the world just starts over with the same old crap.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Into the Breach

"Some do it fast and some do it better in smaller amounts"

Marilyn Manson - Count to 6 and Die

Back when I reservedly praised a Roguelike throwback called FTL for its captivating frustration factor I would've expected its developers to use its somewhat unexpected popularity to launch into some self-indulgent, Hollywood-envious glitzy cash sink of a project. As with the first, I'm not entirely enthused by their second release, Into the Breach, but its quality is once again undeniable. Again they indulged in the same nonsensical "neo retro" visual aesthetic (or lack of same) so there's little to note in that department except for some masterfully addictive anticipation-building delays in reward window pop-ups and menu scrolling. You don't have to like it, but note it.


Giant bugs are destroying the planet! Oh noes! Luckily your crack squad of mecha pilots can jump in from the future to go mano a mano with the evil insectoids. Go-go power something. As both your crew and your mechs change less during a play-through than your FTL ship, the adventure here manages to be even less engaging. In true old-timey fashion, the storytelling's limited to "go kill the big nasties" all the better to fast-forward to iron-fisted pugilism.

But then again, you have to hand it to them, in that respect it shines. Into the Breach boils down RPG mechanics to the point of returning to tabletop strategy, but manages to do so while leaving nothing behind. In fact it's harder to come up with turn-based game mechanics which weren't included.

Damage comes as melee, range, indirect, DoT, targeted AoE, PBAoE, ground AoE, cone AoE, line AoE, and can be altered by self-healing, group healing, HoT, health buffs, armor buffs, damage amps, immunity...
Not enough for you? Try terrain effects like fire damage, moving tiles, smoke blocking your attacks, water sinking non-mech ground units, insta-gib lightning, ice block immunity or hell why not, even the terrain dropping out from under ground units altogether.
And that's still just scratching the surface because the most important feature, the "puzzle-solving" element for which ITB gets applauded is movement and orientation. Friendly fire is very, very real for both your units and the bugs, and smashing things into each other causes damage. So most of the game actually revolves around pushing, pulling, jumping, teleporting, swapping and turning your enemies around to get them to frag each other, billiard them into mountains, into each other or your own units or at least get their sights off your buildings.

It's hectic, hair-raising stuff and quite rewarding. Half the time you get better results with non-damaging options, as your main objective is not to kill but to drag the fight out for four or five rounds without letting your buildings get damaged. And here's where my biggest quibble comes in: ITB is even more luck-based than FTL.

Others have said this, sure, but they tend to focus on the types of enemies spawning each round. I'd say rather the main problem rests with the "power grid" which acts as a stand-in for your "lives" from old games. Lose all those 7 points in the top left and the game is over, and in the late game it's not uncommon for the bugs to do 3-4 points of grid damage in a single attack. Not in one fight or even one round but a single bug's attack in one round.

Low sample pools increase sampling error. This is, in a roundabout way, why cheetahs and condors and so many other endangered species are pretty much doomed. It's much easier to align a perfect totality of disaster with fewer pieces. Your ITB grid has a small chance of resisting attacks, and I doubt I've had even one victory so far which did not involve some lucky roll of the "grid defense" dice. Compared to a thirty hit point spaceship, a seven-point grid is much more likely to get wiped out in the course of a single unlucky battle. Even if it is your fault (as has shamefully often been the case with inattentive old me) it still feels like you're being cheated somehow when you lose everything due to a single misstep after a dozen hard-won battles. Yeah, critical fumbles are a classic tabletop issue as well, but at least there you've got a GM to fudge the rules a bit and let you limp away with one hit point and keep the campaign rolling.

I love small numbers in games, and find such games more interesting than the pinball-sized readout of gold pieces or hit points in, say, WoW-clone MMOs. Small numbers and probability, though, do not mix well, at least not when affecting your adventure's most crucial metric.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Fallout and the Monomyth

"You know I just don't get it
Last year I was nobody
This year I'm selling records
You might see me walkin'
You might see me walkin' a dead rottweiler dog with its head chopped off in the park with a  spiked collar, hollerin' at him 'cause the sonova bitch won't quit barkin'"

Eminem - Marshall Mathers

I replayed the original Fallout earlier this year in preparation for trying the later games, having previously stopped a few missions into Fallout 2. It was enough to remind me that computer games' tendency toward derivative asides and gratuitous pop culture references was even more pronounced in the old days.
So much of '90s culture centered on the thrill of maladapting mundane activities to a computer. Game designers didn't seem to think their works capable of standing on their own feet, and like Gil Bates vs. Appleby in Arcanum, such references have become even more jarring as their sources sink out of memory. Do any bastards even bother to kill Kenny any more?

That situation above came about due to my unwarranted frugality. By the end of the game I had stockpiled explosives and ammunition for weapons I hadn't even used yet, so I decided to burn some of it to murder The Hub why not. Pretty sure that's how WWI came about too. Results of getting triple-drugged out of one's skull while sitting on a pile of military hardware?

I see pew.
I see pew.
I see lots of pew-pew.
I was impressed, however, that butchering the largest extant settlement innocent by innocent did not manage to entirely erase the good reputation I'd built up. It makes sense in retrospect but we simply don't expect games to make sense. RPGs have trained us to expect the panopticon to turn every city guard hostile against us at the first transgression, yet your game should not be forcing me to play a single-note, flat do-gooder or do-badder. Did I not just single-handedly save entire cities from fiery draconic doom? Or the multiverse from being gobbled by several and sundry eldritch horrors? That hard-won karmic bank should not be emptied simply because I decide to gut a few hobos in my spare time. Get off my marginally heroic back.

So while I'm sitting pretty in the pew-pews I came to a strange realization. Fallout was not a very good game. Which is confusing because it's still a great game, one of the greatest... just not very good. Could my nostalgia be so wrong?

I mean, look at its combat system, both underdeveloped and burdened with utterly extraneous or impractically cosmetic skills, perks, etc. Look at its half implemented stealth system or its gigantic amounts of pointless map space, or its uneven leveling and loot distribution with huge gimmies like the Glow or the Deathclaw warehouses. Look at how tiny it is in number of towns / NPCs / quests / monsters compared to... say its close contemporary Baldur's Gate. So why, while I declared BG1 "good, not great" can I stand by retroactively labeling Fallout "great, not good" - ?

Aesthetic design plays a huge role. BG was kitchen sinked together from DnD tropes without much regard for coherence, but Fallout managed to cobble its own take on Cold War Apocalyptic fiction and keep it fresh. Visually and aurally it out-shone its competition in conveying its dusty, farcically grim setting. There's a reason why everyone still remembers "war... war never changes."

Just as importantly, it mastered the all-important art of escalation. As I commented in one of my Bloodlines posts, RPGs bank on the "rags to riches" narrative trope, and too many skimp on the rags. Fallout provided every step up the ladder, made you feel each incremental improvement from tossing rocks at rats to blasting genetically engineered monstrosities with laser chainguns and plasma rifles. The rocks are important, something easily forgotten in favor of the later industry standard of boosting the player to level three or five in the very tutorial. The crowbar became so emblematic of Half-Life because you actually used it!

More than that, Fallout successfully married its practical gameplay escalation to its thematic shift from the mundane to the Scie Fie. The monomythic hero's journey entails traveling to wondrous new realms, but those realms are wondrous only in contrast to hum-drum human normalcy. The mundane must occupy at least some screen time if you're to successfully offset your more alluring locales. Lothlorien and Mordor shine only in contrast to the Shire. Shady Sands is every bit as necessary as the Brotherhood of Steel. Lvl 1 is every bit as important as Lvl 20.

"Whatever happened to catching the good old-fashioned passionate ass-whooping and getting your shoes, coat and your hat tooken?"

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Mod 'er hate

"Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world - to say, for instance, that both the Bible and the Koran contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish - is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of of such political correctness. We must finally acknowledge the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance."

Sam Harris - The End of Faith

I've probably watched a larger proportion of Thunderf00t's videos than of any other single poster on YouTube. Yeah, sure, he tends to ramble and knot himself in overly-verbose phraseology but hell, so do I. Being as I know very little of physics, I find his various pyromaniac videos entertaining enough. Being as I'm too lazy to do it myself, I also appreciate him running through basic estimates of energy transfer when debunking this-and-that. More impressively, he's managed to stay on the sane side of pretty much every topic from creationism to WWII military tech to Brexit to conspiracy theories to feminism and various SJW lunacy to crackpot inventions and scams.

Though really, for all his knack for pissing people off, his ballsiest moment had to have been speaking the words "group selection" in his conversation with none other than Richard Dawkins... without even immediately ducking!

In a couple of videos from earlier this year, he acknowledged that he no longer finds much reason to make videos about feminism, as some of the most ludicrous feminists from a few years ago have vastly decreased in popularity. The "crazy blue-haired feminists" pose nowhere near as immediate or severe a threat to reason as religious fundamentalists. In this Thunderf00t is, as usual, technically correct. The best kind of correct. Religious fundamentalism appears more widespread than feminist fundamentalism. But that unfortunately ignores the pervasiveness of "moderate" feminism and the very different localization of its fundamentalism.

Feminism is in many ways a placeholder religion for the post-modern age, one of the representations of the Shadow of God of which Nietzsche warned. It establishes an absolute good and an absolute evil (female vs. male) and condemns one and all for having been born into the original sin of The Patriarchy, which must be expiated by adopting and proselytizing the new faith. Like other faiths, it's fundamentally a business. It sells irrational hope (salvation through the feminist Utopia of perfect bovine peace and safety) and perhaps even more importantly it sells entitlement, the self-righteousness of the saved screeching at the infidels and launching into occasional pogroms. To some extent it has always coexisted with other faiths. If you want to start a tribal conflict, your most useful propaganda tool beyond even differences in traditional religion has always been the eternal battle cry of "save the women!"

Higher education gradually broke from religious indoctrination over the centuries. The Inquisition could not be reconciled with academic inquisitiveness. Religious fundamentalists' power base now mostly sticks to the sticks, to cultural backwaters, and the less educated the better. Feminist fundamentalism, on the other hand, is based in polite latte-sipping urbane discussion circles and especially in universities. It is in "women's studies" departments, two doors down the hall from Chemistry and Physics, that feminist scriptures are codified and feminist saints beatified. So it should've come as little surprise that Thunderf00t's main clash with feminists years ago took place within the (largely academic) atheist movement subverting itself through a new irrational faith even as it attacked the old ones.

If the intelligentsia are to stand up to religious fundamentalism, they must address the rot at the core of left-wing politics. The fundies may be the greater direct threat, but it's postmodernist objectivity-denying social justice activism and especially feminism with its overwhelming media circus which saps the only significant resistance to that threat. We've had a generation's worth of "skeptics" protesting blind faith while demanding we "always believe" all women. The center cannot hold.

And even if we ignore the uncomfortable academic and legal system seating arrangements for Fem Fundies, we're left with the much wider prevalence of moderate faith in feminist gospel. Even if most women would not describe themselves as feminist they still love the moral authority lent to them by the constant stream of abuse hurled at men by feminists. They love feminism for keeping the men in their lives on the defensive, easier to manipulate, easier to shame and guilt into servility. Male adherents love playing the "one good man" to their ever-observant mistresses, and if you're looking for any notion more widely accepted a priori than the purposeful influence of supernatural forces, look no further than "sugar and spice and everything nice." Extremists draw their legitimacy from moderates, and if a few fluorescent-haired loons have lost their star power over the past years, rest assured there are plenty more on the way.

"The benignity of most religious moderates does not suggest that religious faith is anything more sublime than a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance, nor does it guarantee that there is not a terrible price to be paid for limiting the scope of reason in our dealings with other human beings."

The basic propositions of feminism, its commandments, cardinal virtues and deadly sins, are less noticeable as such for their widespread public acceptance. Female moral purity and paranoia over female safety are so entrenched within our pre-sentient animal instincts as to make us accept even the most ludicrous statements like "rape culture" without a single critical thought. If anything, the feminists from five years ago have waned in individual popularity because their caterwauling has gone mainstream and they're splitting that pie many more ways. Are they less noticeable because they're less influential... or because we are no longer opposing their subversion of reason?

Sure, sure, you moderate women, you'd never make a false rape accusation. You'd never have a man fired and rendered unhireable for some bad joke he told years ago or because he had his fly open that one time or for touching you in a way that if you touched him would be considered flattery. You're tolerant like that. You're not on the warpath. You're not a Jihadist. You're a feminist moderate. You're a nice girl. You'd never ruin a man's life just on a whim.
But it's nice to know you could if you wanted to, isn't it? Gives you a little rush, holding that power over men's heads, doesn't it?

Men are being ostracized and driven to suicide or thrown in prison to be tortured to death by other inmates as rapists as soon as a woman points her finger at them. Our media over the past three decades have grown replete with depictions of women as perfect martyrs and men as stupid evil pigs deserving of death or worse, and no-one bats an eyelash anymore. Blue hair is the new normal and I have to wonder if Thunderf00t really can't notice that or if he, like Bill Maher in the past and many others, simply doesn't want to be targeted in the latest pogrom.

For my own part, looking at the world around me, I see no excuse to slack off the FEMale chauvINISM posts.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Art of Femismancy, Part 7: Periki's Overlook, Serpent's Crown and the Wahaki

I'm taking time during my second playthrough of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire to tally up the supporting cast, (m)ale and (f)emale, and see how many are portrayed in a positive or negative light. Whether it's a heroic, benevolent woman surrounded by stupid, malicious males or a single mean, dumb man getting in the way of angelic women, how many times did Obsidian Entertainment need to re-iterate their chauvinistic tropes in a single game?

Periki's Overlook

Worthless Idiot (m) - recruitable imp. As with the guy with "dumb" in his very name, I really shouldn't have to explain why this one counts as negative. Imps are new in PoE2, and they're all male, and they're all loud, smelly, obnoxious, disgusting little vermin. And if you haven't played the game, that name's just the tip of the iceberg. As with Vektor (m) and Pietro (m) fecal matter is involved. Compare to the newly gendered portrayal of representatives from other monster races.

Hurwyna (f) & Seinu (f) -  expectant mother relying on Ancient ChineseHuana Secrets taught by her midwife.

Marihi (f) - highly skilled blacksmith who can repair your PoE1 weapons. No-nonsense "traditional" smith (whatever the hell that means in an island culture with no mining industry) only prettifying her utilitarian work for the tastes of the nobles. Insults Tekehu (m) and is praised by him.

Amreo (m) - old man who uncrosses his legs at the bath-house so you can have him punished by the authorities, because when men act like liberated women you have to beat them down.
Udyne (f) - centuries old war veteran soaking her battle scars at the bath-house. Helpful to Serafen and Remaro. Lays on the pre-Norman dialect even more thickly than Iselmyr or Yseyr... and yet manages to pull it off much better than them. Some of it is due to her dialogue's better flowing narration, more than just isolated caveman speak. Most of the credit must however go to the voice actress who just outright sold it, start to finish. Excellent work.

Quarno (m) - Rauataian at the bath house, trading illicitly with the Principi. Plus he's a total meaniehead who tells you to go away. Easily flattered into divulging his crime.
Tola (f) - Quarno's Principi contact. Startlingly, she's at least as susceptible as Quarno in your quest to get information for the Vailians (babbles when she's drunk) and a rare female character not portrayed in terms of her superiority (moral and/or practical) to her male counterpart. Someone dropped the ball on this one.

Shop Imp (m) - truth in advertisement and Ifren (m) - failed (and rude) thief trapped in a wooden puppet by Arkemyr. Both of them basically exist due to Arkemyr (making him look worse for creating and employing such abominations) and to provide counterpoints to Fassina's positive qualities.
Fassina (f) - recruitable clerk at The Dark Cupboard. Clever, sexually liberated, directly contrasted to her boyfriend in being gainfully employed. Like every other woman in this game, she's surrounded by stupid, evil, oppressive men, from a stinky imp to a shoplifting boyfriend, a whip-cracking, stingy boss and an obnoxious wooden (male) puppet. Oh that poor angelic woman having to deal with all those worthless bestial males! Though by this point in the game it's very much a case of "just a rerun heroine, just a retread heroine, just the same old heroine"
Bertenno (m) - "that flaccid bazzo!" in Fassina's words. Her boyfriend. Cowardly, dishonest, incompetent, deadbeat, whatever it takes to make his girlfriend look good by comparison.
Hamuto Stoneheel (m) - lawful neutral captain collecting Bertenno's debt at the Brass Citadel.

Tumara (f) - Rauataian who wants to get her hands on Arkemyr's epic stones. Greedy, insults illiterate islanders. However, unlike most Rauataians or especially Vailians' comments about the Archipelago (amounting to "squeeze, Rabban, squeeze") she actually makes a valid point about natives' willingness to sell off their own lands for quick profit.
Netehe (f) - Huana who wants to get her hands on Arkemyr's epic stones. For her people! Plays the cultural heritage card to its fullest. Obviously the politically correct choice here.
Arkemyr (m) - "the bringer of Foul Wind" according to Fassina. Complete stock character: the mean, stiff-necked, pompous old English boarding school master from any number of children's movies. Despite being the victim of your burglary (and really being one of the good guys, apocalypse-wise) his every description and verbal inflection is designed to make you hate him. Oh, and of course he failed to acknowledge the greatness of a woman.
Bekarna (f) - whose greatness a man failed to acknowledge. Despite being "dame not appearing in this entertainment product" her notes and others' commentary on her eat up more screen time than most faction leaders. Oh, look, it's yet another retread heroine positioned between two meanie men.
Concelhaut (m) - who's out to pilfer a woman's hard work for his own ignominious male ends. Downgraded from his somewhat dignified antagonist role in PoE1 to a cartoonish recurring bumbling weekly villain role.

Ekenu (m) - watershaper mook holding the door during the naga attack.

Guildmaster Mairu (f) - righteously indignant watershaper superior (in every way, and don't you forget it) to Tekehu, the first of many women to scold him for all the wrong reasons. Later, heroically holds off a horde of naga, unto death: "Too many, even for me." Y'know, at least Boromir had the decency not to be so smug about it. Not a word is said against her apropos her keeping a gigantic scaly slave in her basement.
Tekehu (m) - Mama's boy. Mr. 'don't hate me 'cause I'm beautiful.' Obviously intended as service to female fans, but that'll come up whenever I get around to complaining about romance minigames in RPGs. He's a tomcat waiting to be tamed, the chosen one of his people, a rising star, desired by other females and therefore desirable, in short the cheapest sort of romance novel detritus.
Amusingly, his main interactions seem to be getting badmouthed by every single person you meet. I'm sure this was intended to make him even more sympathetic in a "shut up Wesley" sort of way but it vastly overshoots its mark via repetition. Ondra: "he thinks himself frail but MY heart beats in his chest. He is stronger than either of you could know." Ok, so he's a whiny, unreliable prettyboy but I'm supposed to coddle and praise him because he embodies a female's purpose? Wooptie-freakin'-doo.
Notably, he gets shoved in your face as a romance option from the very first dialogue. You meet a tall handsome prince and immediately find yourself getting lost in his dark eyes.
Who the hell gave these idiots Lit. degrees?

Periki (f) - appears only in statue and soul form. Filthy liar. Caught a dragon by the tail, thus kicking off a generations-long and civilization-spanning government cover-up as to the source of Huana magicians' powers. Yet others' comments about her are nothing but admiration while her direct descriptions are shamelessly sympathetic. No, really. You hold her statue's hand, at which it literally cries a single tear which you have the honor of wiping off its cheek.
Quite the Dickensian treatment for a slave mistress. How come Master Kua (m) back in Crookspur doesn't get this kind of sympathy?
Bonus feminist points: her soul's memories begin with her brushing off a man's touch.
"One of [your shipmates] claps your back with approval.
You step back and aim a reproachful look at your mate, however friendly his intent."
Bad touch! Bad touch!
Scyorielaphas (m) - (and damn you for making me spellcheck that) Ok, pause for the inspired? accidental? humor of opening your dialogue with a gigantic, blatantly obvious dragon by shouting "Dragon!" But anyway, to further shift guilt away from the women who enslaved him, his first line is:
"Have you come to deliver me from this prison of my own making?"
When dumb, stinky boys get enslaved by the very people they tried to help, it's their own damn fault. So there.
Tekehu further brushes off any question of Mairu's treachery by instead focusing on "the gifts and encouragement" her guild lavished upon him, in true spineless millennial snowflake praise-junkie fashion.
Onekaza, when informed of the slave she's been keeping through her willful ignorance, pulls the usual "for my people" routine.
Skeereeoh-whatver's deliberately made less likeable by constantly insulting Obsidian's cheap gift to their female fanbase, Tekehu, by calling him "half-breed" - *gasp* racist dragon!
His parting shot, should you choose to continue enslaving him?
"Make no mistake. You are the only monster here."
Holy mother of hacks! That's your big dramatic finish? That line was already so overdone and antiquated that it got ridiculed on The Simpsons' Hungry Are the Damned Halloween special back in 1990 for being 1960s Twilight Zone cheese. "There were monsters on that ship and truly we were them."

Serpent's Crown

Takano (m) - useless old blowhard dick-measuring his estate's size, easily swindled out of his priceless macguffin because he's desperate because he's broke, which being he's also male gets played off as well-deserved and funny.

Nungata (f) - bounty contractor, stately old matron, eloquent, long heroic history of victories. The second woman to look down on you for working with Abocco (m) the bottomfeeder from Queen's Berth, and she only deals in high-end contracts. "A lady needs standards, after all."

Maia (f) - aside from her tough chick demeanor, her very introduction has her ridiculing both Eder (m) and Kana (m) and quizzing you on how to stop a mutiny, thus establishing her as a moral paragon

Barati (m) - bounty contractor, a.k.a. Big Chief Killumall. Seemingly exists to drop Tangaloa's name into every sentence and otherwise lay the Nativese dialect on as thick as possible. Not much of a personality otherwise.

Prince Aruihi (m) - Onekaza's foil. His first line "I say our guest forgets himself" a relatively soft rebuke of an unjust accusation of mass murder, immediately earns him a slam by his sister the queen "You are the one who mistakes this for a sparring arena." Yes, because implications of violence are beneath royalty and only a dumb male would ever resort to them. That's why Onekaza keeps TWO HUGE TIGERS by her side.
Same dull repetitive setup as the other factions. The Huana are ruled by a leader and second, one male one female, with any negative connotations embodied by the male. To motivate Aruihi to feed his city's starving underclass, playing on his sense of compassion or justice doesn't work. Only his competitiveness.
Onekaza (f) -intended as a supremely impressive and glamorous native queen... except she never actually does anything. The writers characterized themselves into a corner. They wanted Onekaza as grandiose and angelic as possible. Problem: grandeur's rarely angelic. So aside from her inexplicable telepathy and bragging about her pet tigers, she just sits back and delegates to her brother, to the guildmaster, to the Wahaki, never getting her hands dirty. Even the captive dragon under the city makes sure to note the Queen didn't know about him, just in case you were wondering whether a female faction leader might have some negative traits.
They don't.
All female leaders are always perfect.
So there.
Shut up.

Motare o Kozi

Baltia (f) - Vailian expedition's sole survivor, trapped in vines. Sent to their deaths by Director Castol (m) and specifically Castol, not his (f) assistant. They were tracking another (Huana) expedition sent to their deaths by Aruihi (m) and specifically Aruihi, not Onekaza (f)
The Green Lady (f) - menpwgra in the swamp, introduced as "The Rotted Lady" and she's "a very powerful woman" in the words of your quest journal. Sure she's a murderously parasitic blight upon all that breathes, but being female that's of course everyone else's fault but hers, and she can effortlessly be redeemed through dialogue back to her status as an ancient, wise guardian of the land.

Ori o Koiki

Kipeha (f) - plucky archer guarding the main entrance

Auata (f) - xenophobic islander. Likes Tekehu.
Aparo (m) - xenophilic islander. Likes Ruasare.

Tangara (m) - tribe's enforcer, repairing a purchased construct. Whatever happened to the Wahaki being isolationists?
Burapo (m) - tribe's mystic, stinking up the place with his burnt offerings.
Ruasare (f) - yet another idealized female native leader, because you can never paint with too many colors of the wind. By dint of savage nobility, the Wahaki tribe are all pretty glamorized. Sure they murder and pillage random passing ships, but they're totes not pirates, bro. Everything they do is entirely For My People and therefore justifiable, ekera.
Their leadership follows the usual structure from other factions. Burapo and Tangara are slightly ridiculous, inept, unimpressive old farts while Ruasare herself is described as mighty in battle and mighty in bed, blue-blooded going back millennia, last bulwark against foreign aggression, honorable, reliable, etc., etc. The most severe character flaw they could come up with for her? She likes fruit.