Monday, December 17, 2018

TANSTAAFM

"Fe vældur frænda rogi"

Wardruna - Fehu

______________________________

"Caveat emptor is the motto we stand behind! I'd have to charge more if we followed health and environmental regulations."

Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes (1993/04/04)
______________________________


I'm a science fiction fan. Once you get past the monster flicks and primitive pulp ScieFie swashbuckling heroes IN SPAAAACE! (i.e. Star Wars) the genre has attracted a disproportionate number of gifted minds capable of looking past the human condition to true creativity. I especially like Robert Heinlein. I love the cowboy swagger his protagonists so frequently adopt, juxtaposed with their punctiliously civilized ethics and actions. Heinlein more than any other of SF's greats explored the role of the individual in the face of change and the unknown, of individual rights and responsibilities when reality shifts under one's feet.

He proclaimed himself such an individualist as to make Ayn Rand look like a communist in comparison, and much like Rand I've frequently seen Heinlein's books co-opted by those who worship profiteering and taking advantage of others' misfortunes. Except that, in direct contrast to Rand who seems to have mostly believed her own bullshit, Heinlein was a thinker first and an idealogue far down the list. Independence did not give his heroes license to abuse their fellows. Moreover, his stories carry an incisive self-awareness, an implicit admission that he is suspending disbelief.

He introduced us all to the acronym TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) yet the work in which he did so, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, hangs its entire plot on a free lunch. The lunar colony could never have achieved its independence without the aid of Mike the sentient supercomputer, a service the loonies had not purchased and whose value they could not begin to repay. The lunar revolution may as well have been subsidized.

The health industry has been in the news again in the United States. Whatever the current pretext for trying to undo the Obama's administration's minor improvements to America's shameful predation on physical illness, the real reasons are much less complicated. Most of those who hate the idea of government-managed healthcare know nothing about it. Their opposition is an ideological one, a fanatical one unburdened by perspective. They're true believers. They believe in free market capitalism. They believe in the right of the rich to abuse the poor. They are easily taken in by the propaganda of corporate governments claiming to be oppressed by the national government.

This is hardly a debate limited to health care. Three years ago I commented on the upcoming presidential election by likening it to the then-recent release of The Force Awakens, the most expensive movie in history with an advertisement budget larger than the production itself. No unique occurrence. Big businesses routinely invest more in destroying their competition than in producing good products. Any human hierarchy is a government which will freely wage war against other nearby governments when given a chance to do so and it is always the goal of every for-profit enterprise to eliminate individual choice, the ensure that each and every consumer can only choose their own product, at prices as inflated as possible. It doesn't matter how free your choices are when there's only one choice on the shelf, when the service you need is turned into a noose or a set of manacles. A "free" market is a market enslaved by its wealthiest robber barons. When the system finally collapses, the fatcats cut and run seeking another group of willing victims whose labor they can exploit. Our only defense against their depredations is regulation by an elected government answerable to its constituents. Our defense against spontaneously-occuring human thuggery and despotism is to entrust the public good to a public thing, a res publica, an overarching system of arbitration to keep our myriad tribes from exploiting each other. To keep every individual in society from unfairly exploiting every other individual in society.

So at times like these I can't help but think how tenuous a hold American-brand "libertarianism" (read: parasitic profiteering) keeps on Henlein's name. In Stranger In a Strange Land, Heinlein explicitly noted that Mike's nest brothers could pursue their personal growth only as their personal needs were assured by his nigh-infinite wealth. In Tunnel in the Sky the youths survive their hostile environment only by cobbling together a system of governance to impose fairness. In I Will Fear No Evil the brilliant painter is supported by an influx of cash which might uncharitably be called charity. In Job: A Comedy of Justice the hero demonstrates his self-reliance but is ultimately supported in his quest by the "hospitality" of a cosmic force. In Double Star politics is described as a dirty game but the only game. The cacophonous, boisterous town hall meetings of Red Planet, re-iterated less obviously throughout his works, display a presumption of government not as a matter of history or national identity, but as a universal human tendency and need, to be entered into consciously and purposefully and not left to chance.

Individualism, as worthy a goal as it is, paradoxically cannot stand on its own. For all his heroes' pioneering bluster, Heinlein seems to have known all too well that the good guys don't win without help. If only his fans would catch on.

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Market

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

To Make Life Mine

"Someone hold me
(Tell me I'm pretty)
Someone hold me
(Tell me you need me)
Someone talk to me
(I hate feeling lonely)
Someone, anyone,
Rescue me, set me free

It's all bullshit anyway,
I cannot be what you say"

My Black Heart Machine - It Beats Like This



I've done a lot of bitching about Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire over the past year, pissed off at seeing what should have become the new reference point for cRPG series get turned over to a writing team of self-righteous incompetents. It resulted in a betrayal of the first game's setting, a self-indulgent fanfic filled with repetitive bigotry.

It also brought back what should be an obsolete tradition in cRPGs, NPC romances. Starting with Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate 2, the Black Isle / Bioware / Obsidian genealogy of party-based tabletop-inspired cRPGs have usually allowed you to cozy up for some corollary campaign canoodling and hump your hired help. The newer revival of such story-based campaigns (InXile's Torment: Tides of Numenera, Obsidian's own excellent work Tyranny and the original PoE) have thankfully tended to do away with such nonsense. Its return in PoE 2 was both badly written and noticeably intrusive.

It didn't help that two of the adventurers-with-benefits options, Tekehu and Xoti, were the only main healers in the default companion roster (chanters notwithstanding) which almost ensures you'll drag at least one of them along on a first playthrough. Both were designed as romantic from the ground up and their role as such is pushed on you, quite incongruously, right from the start. Tekehu's the lowest sort of romance novel detritus, a mystical prince with a-may-zing hair, meeesteeerious origins and great expectations, who nonetheless needs emotional manipulation to achieve his full potential. Everything he does is in the name of his divine mother (seriously, his battle cry is "be- HOLD ME, MOTHER!") except the madcap partying, for which he's constantly ridiculed and condemned, needing to be tamed by the love of a good woman. In his very first dialogue, my character was falling into the tall handsome prince's dark shining eyes for no particular reason.

Xoti was, if anything, even worse. I can only assume it's what the writing team assumes (or wishes) would appeal to strong-minded men, a simpleminded, ignorant fanatic hillbilly given to swooning. I deliberately avoided the romantic dialogue options like hugging her close to you in a tender embrace when she's had a bad dream. Don't ask me where the hell that even came from in the absence of any previous sign of emotion. Nevertheless, the dialogues progressed on the assumption that you'd picked the option her writer wanted you to pick. Not to mention her slashfic-grade descriptions:
"The tip of her tongue, a peek of dusky rose, dabs at the corner of her mouth, leaving a glimmer of wetness."

Even avoiding most of her inane repartee and picking only the darker, less touchy-feely routes leads to this gem:

***
Me: "You're being called to a higher purpose, Xoti. Embrace the harvest - the darkness of the fall."
Her: "Suppose I am. Must be a reason Gaun's showing me these things." Absently, she thumbs the flat of her sickle. "Sometimes I hear them like a whisper in the back of my mind."
Nod "Me too."
She offers you a wry, knowing smile. "We'll figure this out together."
Carefully, she slips her hand into yours. Your fingers easily entwine, palms pressing together so tight you can feel your heartbeats between you.
Shoulders squared, she looks off into the distance.
***

No, seriously now, WHERE THE HELL DID THAT JUST COME FROM???
"Hey, boss?"
"Yes, underling to whom I've barely spoken three lines this whole time?"
"Ah bin fantasizin' on rippin' the souls outten ever-one in tha world."
*cue violins and rain of cherry blossoms*
!
...
... one cannot help but feel we skipped a few crucial turns in the conversation there.

Better yet, your only two available responses are:
"Is there anything we can do to alleviate your nightmares?"
and
[Say nothing] - which by the way leads to the same subsequent quest step of her unburdening her soul at a temple.
No, I'm sorry, that bombshell of turning into a mass-murdering soul collectrix needs a third reply option:
"Bitch, you cray-cray!"

Ah, but that's in keeping with the usual cheese and crackers invited by romantic interludes. To date the only such character self-possessed and complex enough that I would consider her worthy of attention is Morrigan from DA:O.
At least Annah's one passionate kiss from Planescape: Torment was a very brief interlude.
When bandits held a crossbow to Jaheira's head in BG2 I just attacked and let them shoot her. I'm a cloth-clad mage and she's my team's tank, it's her damn job. Turns out making the tactically sound choice as party leader was the wrong answer. Oops.
I sure as hell wasn't about to start anything with that grand ham from NWN, Aribeth.
Elanee from NWN2 seemed intriguing for a few lines, but she got very needy and whiny very fast.
And so on. Safiya from Mask of the Betrayer was more promising but still fell short.

No matter the game, playing at romantic favor-currying brings the inevitable realization that this has nothing to do with anything. (Another reason Morrigan stood out: her agenda was actually contextualized.) It adds nothing to the game universe's immersiveness and as far as character development yields outright cognitive dissonance. No, I don't think my character, the diamond mind standing as the multiverse's only bulwark against the all consuming shadow (there's always an all-consuming shadow) should spend half his time genuflecting before and applauding some codependent belle's one-woman play about her oh-so-gooey fee-fees.

Even on the rare occasion when they're handled with passable skill, cRPG romances sap development time and funding. Minigames in general tend to do so (gambling minigames are a classic example) but at least most can be integrated into gameplay (Elder Scrolls lockpicking for instance) and this is simply not the case  with romances. While it's safe to assume the greater world around your adventure incorporates plenty of emotional manipulation, codependency and mammalian pair-bonding (baby adventurers have to come from somewhere after all) this background assumption need not be spelled out.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Europa Universalis 3

"Ra-ra-Rasputin
Russia's greatest love mahcine
It was a shame how he carried on"

Boney M. - Rasputin



Why am I such utter shit at this game?
And I do mean this game, Europa Universalis, in particular.


After two decades of glaring at a computer screen, I've scrounged myself enough meta-gaming savoir-faire to hold my own in most genres and purposely make things harder for myself. I play RPGs in squishy tank-less teams and city sims on harsh, rocky landscapes. I've never had the reaction speed to do great in online FPS games, but I can usually play a shock trooper or out-predict and flank the enemy to get a few cheap shots in.

Strategy games feed my nerdy conceit best. I was nuts for Starcraft, Homeworld and other RTS until it became obvious they always degenerate into mindless "actions per minute" click-spamming. Grandiose, sprawling turn-based strategy has retained its appeal, but for two issues:
1) Their very scope makes them unwieldy at best online. Most online games run for 15-60 minutes. A good hearty TBS campaign will run for 15-60 hours at the least.
2) Most developers mistakenly assume a slow pace must be for the slow-witted, and put no effort into designing challenging AI. The Heroes of Might and Magic titles, for all their immersive charm, were always noted for their dearth and not depth of abstract reasoning.

If the first point is pretty much unavoidable, it's nice to see the second being addressed. I bought EU3 several years ago, and until those control freaks at Paradox make #4 available DRM-free on GoG, it will remain my only exposure to the series. In all this time I have never yet made it to the end.

Oh, I've been rather successful on occasion. I've taken tiny two-territory principalities and quintupled their size, built sprawling colonial empires across three continents, monopolized every trade center I could reach, you name it. Yet I've always either bitten of more than I could chew militarily or succumbed to entropic decay. The inflation rate rises, the rebellions mount, my reputation plummets. History ends. Or rather, disgusted with my own incompetence, I flee in shame.

With its gigantic size and long-term empire building, Europa Universalis appears a 4X game at first glance. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and even comparisons with Civilization end at the overall similarity to Risk. EU3 imposes severe restrictions on exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination. Everything you do comes with costs and repercussions. Even diplomatic messages must be carried by diplomats and small countries get as many of these as large ones, making it more difficult to maintain good neighbour relations as a ballooning hyperaggressive imperialist. Given the same is true of trading, EU3 made a good show as not just strategy but a sandbox game placing full world domination beyond your reach but allowing you to choose your own objectives. Be a transoceanic colonial power, a defender of the faith, a small, reclusive trade-savvy nation bribing your way to survival, expand east or west or not at all. Fight land wars in Asia.

The ways you can fail are endless. Troops suffer attrition in territory that can't (or won't) support them, missionaries cause unrest and take time and money to work their magic, good military leaders require a consistent decades-long investment in "tradition" and trade centers present a constant weighing of their potential value to the cost of investment. Enemy powers opportunistically take advantage of you being weakened by one war to open up another. Alliances are unreliable. Provinces will gleefully revolt due to half a dozen different motivations and if you let the unrest build long enough will easily drown your military in a numeric tide of unwashed masses.

A few real-world historical events like the Protestant Reformation happen on cue and countries have their distinct historical agenda (i.e. Castille in 1399 does NOT like them musul-men in Granada) but every single game takes a different course.


For my current game I decided to play as Novgorod (look it up) and conquer Sweden and Norway to compete in Atlantic colonialism. That plan fell through when Denmark allied with Scotland and the Teutons to slow me enough that I couldn't reach the shore in time.

So I switched gears into full Red Army land swarm mode. After a couple of desperate defenses against the Golden Horde putting myself into decades' worth of debt hiring mercenary armies I decided to just conquer them why not. Slow going, that land war in Asia. Each victory requires you to pause and put down the resulting unrest and revolts, and Siberian travel times only compound the misery. Each conquered province takes decades to quiet down and endless efforts to smooth over the global reputation loss incurred by annexation. Even my former stalwart ally Lithuania eventually turned on me and had to be put down.

Two centuries later my territory now stretches from one end of Eurasia to the other, so with the Eastern front at last safe I turned my attention back to conquering Europe or at least taking revenge on dose durn Danes. Only to find myself cockblocked by Hungary. Since my navy amounts to jack squat in the face of Danish shipbuilding, I'd planned to fight through the remnants of the Baltic states and hit the Danish core provinces by land, then sweep southwards into Europe one Germanic outlier at a time. Hungary, in the meantime, has snapped up the remnants of Lithuania (which I'd conveniently weakened for them) plus split Poland with Bohemia, eliminated the last of the Teutons (also weakened by me while fighting my way to Riga) and nabbed the Romanian and Bulgarian provinces from the Ottomans.

Meaning Hungary now presents an uninterrupted cordon from the Baltic to the Black Sea and Adriatic, completely blocking off my access to Europe. While I was warring over Asian land they used the easy conquests I'd handed them to also invade Austria, Switzerland and half the German principalities, becoming a military superpower in their own right. I could take 'em... if not for their military alliances with France, Britain and Castille, three of the four major colonial empires, any one of which could turn the tide against me. Alliances which, in a game where such alliances tend to shift from decade to decade, it has faithfully maintained for well over a century while I gnash my blunted fangs in St. Petersburg, try not to piss off Ming China in our bid for the last Khanates and race the Persians to conquer the declining Ottoman Empire.

All the while Hungary dutifully patrols its border with me, from sea to sea, defending the entire rest of Europe, snubbing my Asiatic empire with a hemisphere's worth of seemingly unbreakable alliances at its back. I try to remind myself this is just an algorithm and it hasn't achieved sentience.

Europa Universalis is a difficult game to get into. It doesn't quite work like other strategy sub-genres, right down to faking real-time by a rapid succession of simultaneous turns. However, it's well worth the time investment. Historical and geographic trivia alone provides quite a bit of entertainment and as a strategy game it outshines more popular titles in both grandeur and minutiae. More than other games, its endlessly, spontaneously reconfiguring 1281 provinces make for a living breathing sandbox with unique challenges. Above all you'll have to learn to be patient. I've ended more than one attempt by defeating my enemies yet incurring so much war exhaustion that my own peasantry rises up and steamrolls me. Or, more frequently, amassing such an infamous reputation as to bring the wrath of the entire world on my head. Us lycanthropes ain't cut out for diplomacy.

Can't wait for an EU4 package deal on GoG, whenever Paradox gets tired of milking individual expansions. Damn Swedes. Knew I should've annexed them faster.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

ST:TNG - Brothers, Data's Schizoid

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: 2.06
The Schizoid Man

Some guy named Graves is dying.
Oh, I get it! Hahaha.


Also, the Enterprise acquires a female Vulcan doctor assisting Pulaski, never to be mentioned again. Pity, too, since that Vulcan businesslike demeanor would've been in keeping with the welcome shift away from Crusher's motherly incongruity aboard an exploration vessel and toward Pulaski's professional dedication. But anyway, Graves is dying, but he's a cyberneticist who's learned how to upload himself to a computer and he conveniently asks how to shut off Data. Then Data starts acting unusual. Hmmm. I wonder what happened. The rest of the episode trudges through the obvious conclusion at snail's pace, relying on Brent Spiner's moderate success in aping the older character's mannerisms for plot progression.

Despite a couple of arguments as to Data's inherent right to his own life as a sentient being he receives little or no development, the episode being instead a case study of the mad scientist's moral moral dilemma. Interestingly, it concludes in true Star Trek fashion not with a defeat of the ambiguous villain but with a voluntary capitulation. Seeing his experiment in immortality is causing unwarranted harm, Graves willingly takes the ethical choice of suicide, erasing himself from Data's brain. Bonus points for displaying Graves' disdain for Data's life but his growing concern over his harm to humans, portraying ethics as the arbitrary balancing act it is and not an absolute.

Surprisingly good toward the end for a season 2 episode.

________________________________________

Seriesdate: 4.11
Data's Day

See, this is why I'm not a fan of Dr. Beverly Crusher and by extension Gates McFadden's influence on TNG.






Data wants to dance at his friend Miles "Oy'm Oirish" O'Brien's wedding to Keiko O'Nipponame so he asks Crusher to teach him. Hilarity ensues but not before cluttering five minutes of a 45-minute show with tappa-tappa-tappa and slow dancing. It's pure filler and an unwarranted concession to McFadden's SF-unfriendly artistic skills. In her defense, she seemed rather good at it. Guessing the many cuts to the feet of doubles performing the tap routines were entirely for Spiner's benefit and not hers. But the whole ordeal still had nothing whatsoever to do with either stars or trekking or strange worlds or new civilizations or Data's quest for humanity. Of all the science fiction plots I've always wanted to see written, interstellar tapdancing ain't one.

Worse yet, this wasted screen time would have been much better dedicated to the A-plot involving a Vulcan ambassador who turns out to be a Romulan spy in one of the few truly intriguing plot twists in Star Trek history. Plot aside, the entire episode is framed as Data's correspondence with a certain Mr. Maddox, detailing his progress interacting with humans in the social sphere. He boasts of his new algorithm capable of predicting human emotional responses. Of course the smart guy's plan fails hilariously, and repeatedly, as per comedic trope requirements. By the end, Data re-affirms his fervent wish to degrade his superhuman self by attempting to degenerate into a human.

What really clinches the atmosphere here is looking up the name of the character with whom Data's been e-mailing back and forth. Bruce Maddox is the same Starfleet cyberneticist who had demanded the android be torn apart in the name of science back in season 2. In another show of classic Star Trek utopianism Data, instead of holding a grudge, encouraged his antagonist to continue his research at the end of that episode. The writing team stuck to their guns and now two seasons later we find Data casually supporting his former would-be executioner in the pursuit of knowledge. It was this sort of positive thinking which made Star trek stand out. Not mere feel-good sap (though it offered plenty of that too, unfortunately) but cold-blooded cooperation for an objective greater good, juxtaposing Federation social progress with Romulan conceit and deceit.

___________________________________________

Seriesdate: 4.03
Brothers


(alternate title: Three Spiners in a Week)
That episode with Data's badass powerwalk through the corridors, activating forcefields at every step to block his pursuers.


Turns out our heroic androic was built with a hardware backdoor, and daddy's calling him home! So he turns into a total robot and mechanically executes a brilliant plan to hijack the Enterprise and meet his maker. Yes, literally.

This episode could easily have bombed. The shipboard standoff eats up a solid fifteen minutes, yet it never gets boring as we empathize with the crew's dawning realization that Data's suddenly betrayed them. It includes a B-plot about kids fighting which could easily have come across as cloying homeyness yet is instead played lightly and straightforwardly enough to merely provide its intended contrast without seeming intrusive.

Once Data (played by Brent Spiner) teleports down to his destination he finds his creator, Noonien Soong, played by Brent Spiner and a couple kilograms' worth of chin putty.



They're soon joined by Data's evil twin brother-droid (broid?) Lore... also played by Brent Spiner. The writers had some fun with this little trinity too, constantly interjecting lines like:

"I always loved that face."
or
"Tell me. Do I look somewhat... uhhh... familiar to you?"
or
"Do you believe that we are in some way alike, sir?"

- all of which went right over my head when I was ten years old. Yet it's still one of the most memorable episodes in TNG's seven-year run. One-man plays are risky business, and watching Spiner shadow-box for half an hour could easily have dragged the audience yawning to the complaints department. The producers gambled on the actor's nuanced grasp of his character by season 4... and won. He beautifully set apart both Data and Lore's dichotomy from Soong's crotchety, paternal, half-senile rambling.

_________________________________________

Data was, along with Worf, a scarce element from TNG's first-season fumbling to truly exceed expectations. While Brent Spiner seems to have fallen short of world-class acting ability in general, tending toward clowning, he absolutely nailed the Data role from the start, including any and all deviations from its baseline such as Lore. The series, with its very, very shaky start, was lucky to have him. It took several years for most of the core cast to grow into their roles, to learn the restraint necessary to portray good SF (and longer for the directors to allow them to exercise said restraint) so for the first couple of years they were leaning quite hard on Patrick Stewart's Royal Shakespearean talents, to the point of repeatedly cloning him. Spiner rapidly received much the same treatment.

He was inspirational, and Data-heavy scripts tended toward forward-thinking. But for all they leaned on him, there's something odd about Data's early character growth: the lack of it. His Pinocchio quest for humanity gets stated and re-stated ad nauseam, yet only around season 4 with Data's Day do we begin to see his steps toward the human condition: his pet cat, his participation in human rituals, his incipient emotions like nervousness, the trust his reliability has earned among the crew, etc. It seems the show's writers were either unsure as to how to portray inhumanly unemotional thought patterns or afraid such a portrayal would alienate viewers. His plots as often as not have him possessed by ascended alien intelligences or accidentally sapient nanotech or a downloaded cyberneticist or a backdoor over-ride from his creator or the ghost of christmas-past, or really pretty much whoever or whatever wandered along had even odds of taking up temporary habitation in Data's brain. While this did allow them to stretch Data's inhuman behavior patterns more theatrically, it left the character himself slow to develop. Even when not being possessed by space ghosts, he was being squared off against other AIs instead of being juxtaposed with the overemotional meatsacks around him.

Episodes like The Most Toys or Data's Day, where we see Data taking purposeful, independent action, are few and far between. Ironically enough, TNG's token mechano-man ended up treated more as a prop or plot device than as a character.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Divinity: Original Sin

For the love of critical fails, tell me how anyone thinks they can build an immersive interactive experience around crap like this:
Yes, that's a chibified skeleton with a bomb strapped to its back. The first time I encountered one in Divinity: Original Sin, it put me off the game for days... but not before screenshotting it for bitchery purposes. Priorities, people!

As I complained vis-a-vis Wasteland 2, there's a crucial line between telling a joke and being a joke. No reason RPGs can't include humor, but it must be in-universe humor, based on actions undertaken by characters within that universe. And sure, it's entirely possible for games to fall into needless self-indulgent drama, but the extent to which absurdity and farce can work in an interactive medium depends on the genre. One of the improvements brought by the second Baldur's Gate game over its first installment, one of the reasons it became such a classic, was ditching BG1's random goofiness. Almost to the same extent as old-fashioned adventure games, the success of RPGs depends on maintaining immersion. Hard to play my role when all the NPCs keep breaking character.

At one point some NPCs in D:OS say they're "shaking like chihuahuas" which might mean something if Rivellon actually included a place named Chihuahua from which the dog breed could take its name. It makes no more sense then a French poodle or an English bulldog in the absence of a France or England. Tip of the iceberg. Larian tried to build a whimsical fairytale world and fill it with personal drama but instead wound up with a bunch of personae lacking personality and fairies with no tales. Don't get me started on the way, waaay too many talking animals with completely mundane human personalities. Or the fact that being The Chosen One got old a long time ago. Add to that the aforementioned nuisance of unjustified medieval stasis (no matter how far back in time a prequel goes, it will always hearken back to an even more distant, even more glorious past... which looks exactly like the present and even more exactly like the future) and the terrible decision to base the entire game on 2-player online co-op, constantly interfering with any single-player playthrough. I have to say it looks like a fault in project leadership. The visual artists, voice actors and music score were otherwise top-notch.

In addition, much of its interface functionality rendered combat a chore, like pointlessly locking almost your entire interface while a spellcasting animation executes, compounded by such animations' undue length. Or a crafting system which is half crucial to your success and half pointless flavor-text chore, with no way for a starting player to discern valuable items. Or the "dynamic" combat camera constantly rubberbanding around in fights, potentially twice in a single combat action. At least that nuisance can be disabled, which can't be said for the exaggerated idle animations constantly making me miss-target attacks as my targets wobble about randomly. Or characters gaining no experience if knocked out during a fight, a universal no-no for any party-oriented game whether single or multiplayer.

So you have to wonder what's made D:OS even borderline playable. As with Dead State I must note an undue amount of amateurishness despite its creators having been at this game-design game for quite a while. And, just as with Dead State, it's salvaged in part by a nerdy dedication to creating interesting tactical options.


That's me about to rain icy death on some poor unsuspecting zombies. The bushes lining that cliff overlooking their campsite block simple ballistic projectiles like arrows or grenades, but not the scroll of Hail Attack my thief had in her pocketses. Line of sight can be blocked both by terrain and clouds of smoke or dust kicked up during a fight, and in a fair show of cutting the Gordian Knot, smoke clouds also block LoS out of combat, which can make thieving possible in otherwise counterintuitive situations. Positioning matters, as do attacks of opportunity, status effects and specific counters for same. Spells interact in logical ways. A wet character is more susceptible to electric shock or freezing and a frozen character can be thawed out by fire. Monsters possess resistances up to and including being healed by their native element (don't shoot fire at a fire elemental, dumbass) and such immunity can even apply to your own characters.

D:OS' greatest claim to fame however has to be its "surfaces" or ground effects left behind by magic. Using a poison spell leaves behind a poison cloud... a combustible one. Oil patches can both slow you and be ignited into a stable AoE firestorm. Fighting in a puddle can turn an otherwise minor shock effect into an AoE stun. You can slip and fall trying to cross ice patches. All in all, Larian took an excellent stab at elevating wizardry above stupid old magic missiles, at enabling magic to alter the game environment, to change the physical laws of the universe.

It's also interesting to see a modern RPG with a heavy (very heavy in fact) puzzle-solving element, even to the main quest itself. Placing objects, activating sequences of symbols, good stuff. But here I must once again bemoan some awkward implementation. Too many of the puzzles either relied on pixel-hunting (and that idiocy belongs back in the 1980s) or were blatantly meant to be brute-forced by simply trying various options, usually over several reloads. The entrance to the Source Temple was especially heinous.

Overall I can't say I'll be re-installing this frustrating little gem anytime soon, but D:OS definitely earned its fame and it's easily worth at least one playthrough. If you want creativity, look to Europe.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Did you hear about the physics student who rebelled against quantum theory?
They made him walk the Planck.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Serenity, peace and an excuse for living, Loretta

"I can't wait until
You can stash and you can seize
In dreams begin responsibilities
"

U2 - Acrobat

______________________________

"Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.
[...]
There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.
[...]
Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.
[...]
Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag."


Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
___________________________________________


"It's every man's right to have babies if he wants them."
"But... you can't have babies!"
"Don't you oppress me!"

Monty Python - The Life of Brian (1979)
___________________________________________

"So the secret to good self-esteem is to lower your expectations to the point where they're already met?"
----------
"Next, you convince them that the problem is not their fault and that they're victims of larger forces"
----------
"I need holistic healing and wellness before I'll accept any responsibility for my actions."


Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes (strips from 1992/02/11, 1993/06/06 and 1993/01/21 respectively)
___________________________________________

"Americans are losing the ability to see any issue as anything but a clash of two extremes. Subtle grays don't register."

David Craig Simpson - Ozy and Millie (2000/07/23)
___________________________________________

"One of the advantages in having a cause is that it saves you from worrying about what life means. (Indeed, this is what attracts many people to communal action.) Just as during World War II "anti-fascism" seemed a sufficient excuse for living, so the fight against one injustice or another has tended to deliver present-day activists from such maladies of privilege as intellectual doubt, cosmic weariness and boredom. While the revolution assaults any given establishment, the fact that an abyss waits at the end of life does not for the time being bother the rebel. Hatred of the system and concern with advancement of the war gives a man enough to think about. Only when the battle has ended does the freed soul turn and face the cosmic menace."

Alan Harrington - The Immortalist (1977) page 4
___________________________________________



Much virtual ink has virtually spilled over the past few years in attempting to describe, explain and excuse the "snowflake" social phenomenon among today's youths. Seeing a generation full of spineless, whiny, overentitled drama queens prompts a justifiable question of who pissed in the gene pool. But of course the self-gratifying, shallow social activism we've learned to associate with millennials is hardly a system of their own creation. Snowflakes did not invent narcissism. They merely excel at it.
Don't you, now? Who's the bestest narcissist? You are! Oh yes you are, yes you are, who's a good little girl? Here's a medal, here's a Steam achievement, here's a thumbs up and a "like" and a safe space all your own just for you being you.

Explanations of this trend tend to over-emphasize (in true contemporary post-modernist spirit) nurture over nature. This superego plague has been inflicted upon us, we are sometimes told, by over-parenting and by psychotherapeutic institutionalization, by the wonders of the modern age. Valid criticism in both cases. But why then does modernity so closely resemble the shallow activism of fifty years ago? Why does it ape so perfectly the world of the previous turn of the century, the prissiness of Victorian mores? When patterns keep repeating within the human species, can we not admit that humanity is the pattern?

Nurture plays its role, sure. The information-age world has grown, for all its lacks, more productive on the societal level and more supportive on the individual level than any before it. We are safer and more free from drudgery than any minds before us. Liberated of demands on our physical (biological) support system, we find ourselves empowered to instead devote more time to living as ourselves, as individuals, as minds who happen to inhabit ape bodies, as intellect. Unfortunately, even the best of us cannot function on that level for most of the time, and most humans never look past their instincts. They are apes and can never be more, creatures of tribal conflict and reproductive competition. Giving them time to think merely fills them with a vague dread of expectations of self-improvement which they cannot possibly hope to meet.

Activists usually draw few material benefits, excepting a few head charlatans.
Socially, on the other hand, the attention and praise they receive meets the demands of our instinctive drive for social status. Picking a cause already dubbed noble allows you to spew mountains of unscrutinized chauvinist rhetoric upholding the CORRECT skin color or sex, etc. and to receive endless adulation not for what one does but for doing in the name of [...]
That their demands are often impractical with trivial (if any) benefits if acceded to (or outright nonsensical or unjust) should not surprise anyone. The act of making demands in itself is the sort of posturing activists crave. Psychologically, even on an individual level, activism allows for the fabrication of a noble martyr's self-image. Without ever having to prove the claim, just declare yourself to be the harbinger of a glorious future, morally and intellectually superior to all others, and at the same time entitled to retribution against your preferred targets of abuse. If not on the basis of your default skin color or sex, don't despair! Whether L, G, B, T, Q, Z, @, :) or any other flavor of irrelevant demarcation, you can cloister yourself with like minds and find existential justification in your basest attributes: what you stick and where you stick it.
All you have to do to prove your worth (even to yourself) (especially to yourself) is "self-identify as" being part of a speshul class of plucky rebels.

The pretexts may be new but the true root cause is the same basic human stupidity which has given rise to all the moral guardians of the past, the self-appointed thought police of religion, patriotism and mannerly comportment. Mrs. Grundy's just wearing a new hat.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Request a Hand

"Disarm you with a smile
Cut you like you want me to"

Smashing Pumpkins - Disarm


The most destructive human behavior of all is smiling. Not the inevitable enslavement, betrayals and annihilation of the self that's to follow, but that very first smile, the demand to forge a social bond, a chain, the clink of teeth rattling like Gleipnir. The demand that you let down your guard, that you subject yourself to emotional manipulation, should be viewed as a threat, if we were truly sentient beings and not flesh automata, extensions of our genetic imperative.
Meet every smile with a snarl. Bite the hand. The chain is sure to follow.

Monday, November 19, 2018

What else? - Oh, never mind...

"And die young"

Kill Hannah - Kennedy


Around 2011 I started watching Christopher Hitchens videos online, in my usual meandering, aimless fashion. By 2012 I'd grown to admire him enough that I eagerly looked up what he'd been doing lately. As should happen, what he'd been doing lately was dying, at 62 years old.

In the early 2000s I first read Cat's Cradle then Slaughterhouse Five. About a year after reading A Man Without a Country, just as I my mind was wandering back to the topic of Kurt Vonnegut, the morning news decided to ruin my breakfast by announcing his death. At least he made it past the average lifespan for a male in the developed world, at 84.

One of my favorite movies has remained Whisper of the Heart. Immediately after seeing it fifteen years ago I looked up the director to see what other movies he'd headed. None. Yoshifumi Kondo died after directing the one flick. He was 47.

And speaking of anime, after seeing Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika and Paranoia Agent I was eager to see what Satoshi Kon was doing next. Dying at 46, of course.

I just finished the game Divinity: Original Sin and I've been gathering notes for a post about it. As one of its positive aspects I was planning to praise the Divinity series' composer, whose superior work had stood out to me even while playing the otherwise dull aRPG grind Divine Divinity. So I finally beat the final boss, ran my victory lap and the credits rolled.
"In loving memory of Kirill Pokrovsky."
Man oh man, by this point in my life I had a pretty good inkling who that must be. 53 years old.
(Incidentally, for the love of Apollo and Marsyas both, someone check Paul Romero's pulse! He's exactly 53 now.)

If I'm about to look up a name who's impressed me, I'd give even odds he just recently kicked the bucket in middle age. Hell, I was a teenager in the '90s, and arguably the defining moment of our shift in youth counterculture from punk and grunge to goth was Kurt Cobain's suicide at 27. Edgar Allan Poe made it to 40 before winding up dead in a ditch. Literally. And as prissy as the bastard was, that would NOT have been the way he wanted to go.

The good die young damnit. Good news for me. I'm a worthless piece of shit and I'll never create a single thing worth mentioning. I'll outlive the lot of ya! Haaahahahahahaha!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

That Voodoo That You Rarely Do

"The roaches, the rats, the strays, the cats
The guns, knives and bats
Every time we scrap"

DMX - Who We Be


So there's this anime called Darker than Black about murderous secret agents with superpowers. It's less guilty of pushing its big cool gimmick than most other shows of its type. Nonetheless, said superpowers get predictably overused, especially since they sound cool on paper but in most situations don't accomplish anything that a pistol slug, taser or closed-circuit camera wouldn't do just as easily.
Seriously, in the time it took you to slash your own forearm and fling your disintegrating blood at your opponent, you could've unloaded five rounds of buckshot in his direction, with greater spread, range and accuracy and without sending yourself into hypovolemic shock.
Dumbass.

Three posts ago I was talking about party sizes in computer role-playing games and the importance of small hunting pack dynamics, a.k.a. the five-man band. I ended up mentioning the X-Men. Superhero teams make an interesting counterpoint to regular superheroics. A loner hero tends to need a bit of everything: strength, resilience, mobility, problem-solving ability. Try to think of a single superpower that Superman doesn't have or can't duplicate somehow. The X-Men were allowed more individual personality.

Angel flies. He doesn't tear tanks apart with his bare hands or summon hurricanes. He has wings and he flies and he flies using his wings. It's his thing that he does. Cyclops shoots eye-beams and Marvel Girl levitates things. Those are their things that they do. Oh, sure, over time the comic acquired more multi-purpose characters, but the original concept allowed for such counter-intuitive greatness as a wheelchair-bound superhero. Of course, you still have to ask yourself why Angel's not dropping tear gas canisters onto his antagonists' heads in that panel (dumbass) or why not a one of the many X-men ever carries a first aid kit. I don't know if you guys noticed, but you tend to draw attention in the form of bullets and energy blasts. Boo-boos happen!

In terms of roleplaying games, super and/or magic powers almost have to be expanded to all-purpose sets or schools. After all, so as not to sound hypocritical, let me admit I'd be the first to complain about a lack of complexity or versatility. However, it does get a bit annoying when everything you do revolves around your core gimmick. You fast-travel using your ice skill and shield yourself using your ice skill and crowd-control enemies using your ice skill and heal yourself using your ice skill and fry hamburgers somehow by using your ice skill. Secondly, it's also annoying to see a pyromancer doing 54 damage at 30 meters with a fire bolt and cryomancer doing 54 damage at 30 meters using an ice bolt. Quit milking it. If it's the same magic missile across the board stop trying to re-brand it. Thirdly, flapping his wings should not be the only thing Angel does. Would it kill you to toss a few grenades? Maybe carry a pair of binoculars? A net? Could you not at least shit on people while you're up there, you overgrown pigeon?

How much could one get done with ordinary implements of war and peace by adding one simple superpower? Just one. Could you build an online game around this? Maybe not a skill or class-based RPG, as it would kill such genres' core attraction of character development. It might, however, be the perfect way to spice up FPS games. Build an online MMOFPS with a decent physics engine and all the usual pistols or swords, horses or tanks, what have you. Then allow each individual player one, just one (1) singular superpower. Flight or x-ray vision or super strength or juggernuttery or teleportation or regeneration or whatever you want. Darker than Black's agents usually made rather more liberal use of mundane gear than the X-men did. Why not build a game around such agents instead of all-purpose Kryptonians?

If everyone needs to shoot each other, if that's a core ability, then it doesn't need to be re-iterated a dozen times over for every single playable class with different colored effects. Just let everyone pick their medieval or modern or futuristic weapons of choice from a common pool, bought and sold and crafted and looted like gear in any other game. Let every individual's superpower be a game-changer instead. In fact, we already have one endlessly recurring example in multiplayer: invisibility. Rogues / assassins / infiltraitors / spies have been retardedly overpowered in World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2 or any other PvP game due largely to their stealth ability, and such classes have been predictably popular and over-played due to being overpowered since before Y2K. Flight, though more rarely featured, is similarly popular for much the same reason. Paired with even relatively weak weapons, these gimmicks routinely make players unbeatable.

Giving every player a choice of one game-breaking gimmick should be a way to both avoid the stereotypical five-man band or nuker / tank / healer archetypes and to prevent magic from becoming trivialized and homogenized. Guns, knives and bats (and band-aids) are all-purpose. Superpowers should be situational. Shoot your way through your enemies. When you reach a reinforced bunker wall, then you can spray your magic disintegration blood all over it, to achieve what guns alone cannot. Let superpowers take the place of five-minute-cooldown "ultimate" abilities. With a clever enough system of bonuses and weaknesses, it should even be possible to allow players to each design their own individual superpower at character creation. A Hulk-like jump followed by decreased movement speed, a self-damaging speed power or a flight ability paired with hampered aiming, regeneration paired with lethargy, etc.

Just stick to the core rule: you only get one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Heros Ex Machina

"Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer."

Voltaire


_________________________
Major spoiler alert for Pillars of Eternity 1's ending.
_________________________

One of your first adventures in Pillars of Eternity (#1) has you infiltrating Raedric's Hold to speak with and/or murderize Lord (coincidentally enough) Raedric. You can either fight your way through or sneak to him with minimal combat by helping one of his two advisors kill the other. And you thought workplace competition was cut-throat in capitalist societies. One of your choices of ally, Nedmar, is a priest and loyal old follower of the Raedrics. He speaks softly, inhabits a cozy study on the castle's top floor and though it breaks his heart, asks you to do what's best for the suffering people of his land even if it means siding with the plucky rebel resistance and killing the now tyrannical Raedric. The other choice, Osrya, is a disfigured, monomaniacal loner mad scientist haunting the castle's dungeon alongside her army of zombies and other fleshly abominations. She wants you to preserve Raedric no matter what atrocities he's committed (and will continue to commit) since he's paying her bills.

Kind of seems like an open and shut case of classic good/evil roleplaying choices, except for the unexpected twist of the woman being on the selfish "evil" side. Their interpretations of their nation's calamity remain in character. Nedmar the priest says you have to appease the gods while Osrya the scientist says it's the fault of mortal villains acting via technological means. It turns out Osrya was absolutely 110% correct and Nedmar was talking out of his ass. In fact even Nedmar's entire pantheon were secretly manufactured by an ancient civilization in order to bring the whole world together under one faith.

Religion is psychologically safe. It's a cozy upstairs study. Lets you feel taken care of. Saves you the trouble of thinking for yourself. "God did it" makes a convenient explanation - for whatever. Unfortunately it's also a very, very lazy non-explanation leaving you with the inevitable question of who or what, in turn, did that God thing in the first place, or at least "why did God do it?" It fails to answer anything satisfactorily, not only from a scientific perspective but from a storytelling one.

We've had fantasy storytelling forever. Folklore is replete with epic poems, fairytales and fables in which things happen "just because" some inscrutable supernatural will wills it so. About the second half of the 19th century, western society became increasingly aware of the value of rationalism, of knowing just how things work, and its literature branched out to reflect this growing consciousness through science and detective fiction. By the time superhero comics became a thing of their own in the 1940s such fiction had undergone decades' worth of pulping. The public was all too willing to revert back to its golden oldie superstitions. Nevertheless, Batman grew out of detective thrillers like The Shadow and Superman was among other things a logical reversal of pulp SF's planetary romances. Through the Silver Age, most of the most memorable superheroes like Spider-Man, Flash, The X-Men, Iron Man stood out against previous centuries' background of mystical superheroes like Siegfried and Herakles for embracing 20th century science, albeit superficially. Superheroes are demi-dei ex machina, emphasis on the machina.

This may seem like splitting hairs. Siegfried bathes in dragon blood, Spidey gets injected with spider spit, po-tay-toe / po-tah-toe, who cares, it's really all about punching stuff. The justifications for superheroes' powers withstand little more scrutiny than mystical babbling anyway... but that little counts for a lot. When you dream up kryptonite you're creating a substance with physical properties, and its role in the story is constrained by those properties. Fans begin to ask questions. Good questions. Like, what's its density? Valence shell? How exactly did so much of the stuff make it to Earth given the inverse-square law? Or where in the original planet's crust did it come from? What's its LD50 if Supes eats some on toast? In a hamburger with ketchup? In a homeopathic distillation? The same kind of inquisitiveness is not prompted by the unanswered questions of why, for example, Nessus' blood was poisonous in the first place and how many species could it affect (could it penetrate the skin of Achilles / Siegfried?) how long is its half-life sitting in Deianeira's amphora or krater or whatever, what exactly are its pharmacokinetics and renal clearance, etc.
Meh. Who cares. Centaurs are just weird like that, dude. Whatever, brah. God(s) did it.

Science is messy. It gets its hands dirty. "Scientific" explanations in fiction quite often reek of the sewer and cause no end of efforts at cleaning up some writer's spewing buzz-words like "gamma rays" or "ruby quartz" or whatever the hell Flash is snorting. Comes with the territory. Unfortunately, superhero comics were littered from the start with truly supernatural supes like witches, gods, amazons and Atlanteans, but they used to take a back seat. Used to. I take it as a sign of our times that the biggest names in superhero movies since last decade have become Thor vs. Loki and Wonder Woman vs. Ares, and that Spider Man was apparently retconned to have been bitten by a magic spider-pixie or some bullshit instead of a radioactive spider. As each generation since WWII degenerates farther and farther into anti-intellectualism, it becomes more and more susceptible to facile, shallow mysticism instead of facile, shallow technobabble. And yes, there are degrees to facile and shallow, even among punch-drunk comic book characters. "Abracadabra" is still lazier than even half-assed technobabble.

Games and gamers have the potential to turn this nocive flood around. To actively play a game instead of passively absorbing a story is to deal with game mechanics. Even with god-moding enemies, you're more likely to ask yourself how expansive exactly is Almalexia's mana pool, or how many total 9th-level spells per day Talona can hand out to all her most toxic players. You start thinking of the dice rolls behind the squinting and grunting of magical conflicts. Your fictional setting might need gods, sure; it might need the influence of vastly superhuman wilful forces. But it is important to root these forces in mechanistic vulnerabilities, even if the mechanics are not fully explained. If you must have gods then manufacture them, in universe, by means accessible to others within the same universe. Start assembling superpowers from nuts and bolts instead of starting with a "flying brick"effect and then trying to justify it. As unpleasant as Osrya seems, remember she is ultimately right, and her methodology infinitely more likely to yield coherent answers than kindly old Nedmar's kow-towing before his own tulpas.

You want to write better superheroes? Game the system.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Squid hats are very "in" this season

While wearing a funny hat in an online game I spotted someone else wearing the same hat and kicked myself at the impulse to message him "nice hat" as a half-joking acknowledgement. In the past I've repeatedly criticized others for praising me on having acquired and displaying such and such in-game item. It's not like I designed the damned things. I deserve no credit for the hat's putative niceness.

Our monkey brains, though, perceive no difference. We measure our worth in status symbols, not personal quality. Whether we made the loot or looted it, whether we hooked it or crooked it, our social primate instincts assert a need to flaunt one's booty. Assess status. Acquire status. Display status. Acknowledge status. Demand the acknowledgement of status. Form social alliances of convenience with others displaying status. Reaffirm social bonds by banding together against those displaying the wrong status. Subsume their status.

Then, just to make assurance double sure, seek more status...

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Four's Company, Two's a Crowd

"The death of one is a tragedy
The death of one is a tragedy
The death of one is a tragedy
The death of millions's just a statistic!"

Marilyn Manson - Fight Song


So, Christopher Baldwin's been running a new installment of Spacetrawler. Can't blame him for falling back on a cash cow I suppose, after his more interesting attempt at hard SF comics, One Way, got unfairly panned by most readers for its theatrically restricted setting and rather grim twists. The new Spacetrawler's so-so. Obviously less thought went into it than into the original. While it maintains some high points he's leaning quite hard on the crutches of simple running gags like "Nogg's a loser" and walk-ons by the old characters. It doesn't help that the new cast's personalities are less defined.

I've also been playing Divinity: Original Sin. Not quite enamored. For one, its core gimmick of being designed around duo play online pisses me off. You create two characters right off the bat and can recruit two more NPC henchmen (one for each "you") along the way. Now, a party size of four works quite well for a class-based party cRPG. Tyranny and Torment: Tides of Numenera both made an excellent show of it. In D:OS though, having two main characters ends up splitting the team down the middle somehow. The second playable character simply comes across as intrusive, and the NPC party members as extraneous in any roleplaying sense.

This does beg the question of what exactly constitutes a good party size. Multiplayer games impose their own necessities, but in single-player the main reference point for cRPGs, the old Infinity Engine games, ran on a party of six. This being one more than the stereotropical five-man band, it admittedly yielded some unsatisfying redundancy. Not a terrible thing allowing me to double up on spellcasters, as is my wont. Still, I must admit lowering the party size to just one less than a five-man band makes for more meaningful strategic choices. Do you make do without a Big Guy or a lead guitarist? Do you not recruit Beast, Iceman or Angel?

Naturally, the right number varies according to a particular game's possible roles. Hard to expand upon the prototypical fighter/mage/burahobbit without cluttering the place with three extra hobbits and a token martyr. The five-man band, however, seems to hit a deeper archetypal precept of a functional group. Even in multiplayer, the tank/nuker/healer holy trinity was supplemented (before WoW dumbed everything down again) by crowd controllers and buffers to bring the number of playstyles back up to five. For single-player, in addition to clerics and mages, fighters quickly got split between sword-and-board tanks and zweihander barbarian offense, and a little thieving makes five.

And, as the endless examples on TVTropes demonstrate, it's even more difficult to move away from the five-man band in other media and still have yourself a workable action team. Spacetrawler's original human cast was basically a five-man band plus comic relief in the form of Dusty. Martina as leader, Emily as lancer, Pierrot as the heart, and Dimitri/Yuri swapping places as big/smart guy after certain torturous plot tangles. For the comic's continuation, the new four official members of the human team are joined by Martina's brother and a half-human hybrid for an Infinity Engine total of six interstellar adventurers. The new team lacks a true leader and as its lancer / ranger advances he begins to blend in with the role of the smashy-smashy barbarian (to the point where the barbarian calls him out on it.) The role of team wizard / cleric are blurred among multiple characters. While it's always good to move away from simple tropes, the comic's original cast at least knew themselves. The new crew lack any sense of personal identity. Where the original cast split off into solo side-quests, the new bunch tend to pair off into duos to bounce introspection off each other, yielding more stagnation. Given the pervasiveness of the effect, I'm willing to assume Baldwin's going somewhere with this greater emphasis on co-dependent self-discovery and he's certainly given readers ample reason to trust his artistic panache over the decades, but so far it's a bit of a wash.

Which brings me back to Original Sin. The role of the player in a single-player cRPG is almost unavoidably that of lead vocalist. Occasionally, some of the best written games (Planescape: Torment, V:tM-Bloodlines) can move the player off center stage without losing themselves in triviality, but it's a short-lived occurrence even then. Whether as a lone hero or leader of an army, you're still driving the action forward. Somewhere between there, between soloist and band leader, computer games and especially RPGs fall into an uncanny valley where the relationship of the player to his tagalongs becomes unrecognizable.
One character? Great!
Four or more? Great!
Two or three? Help, police, I'm being followed by a creepy stalker!

The first Neverwinter Nights game dove into this pitfall and Original Sin, by splitting the group of four into two types of two or giving me only two controllable NPCs, duplicates its failing. Who's leading this bunch, me or my Shadow? Who embodies the party's decision-making ego? It interferes with playing my role in this roleplaying game. It waters down my identity more than even Icewind Dale's setup of creating an entire party, as the five-fold weight placed upon the second player character bites much deeper into the central me's personality.

A similar uncanny valley manifests beyond the 5-6 character limit. Mount&Blade is a sandbox FPSlasher/RPG in which you command armies of dozens to over a hundred soldiers. Some of these are recruitable, customizable NPCs with better stats, minimal dialogue and some quest involvement but they're allowed to blend into the greater army in most situations. It works beautifully. Truly beautifully. Yet between M&B's scores-strong warbands and Baldur's Gate's adventuring parties we wouldn't know what to do with only ten or fifteen NPCs. Am I supposed to give a shit about them or throw them into the meatgrinder? "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic" as a certain mass-murderer famously put it. And in between? Not much of anything. The intriguing if flawed zombie apocalypse RPG Dead State skillfully split the difference, giving you both a dozens-strong tribe to manage at your shelter and letting you pick your small foraging group from among these.

Between those experiences there's nothing. Between personal identity and five-man band hunting pack dynamics, between the pack and large-scale tribal leadership, there is no functionality. Only familiar familial inertia, the stagnant gemeinschaft of (in)decision by committee. Yet a game should be a purposeful enterprise whether that purpose is self-determined or story-based. Any game trying to make me trudge those boggy valleys in between purposeful levels of organization is asking me to care less about the action on screen. And if there's nothing to fight for I won't be a slave to a world that doesn't make me give a shit.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Cue Queen Medley

After mentioning the Loch Ness monster a few posts ago, supposedly a lone immortal creature, I realized something:
Nessie is the Highlander. There can be only one! Plus, with those loooooong plesiosaur necks, who could resist a head-chopping contest?

Apparently "the prize" is the ability to camouflage oneself as a floating log for 65m.y. Handy.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Tyrannosaur Hunting

"All right," Travis continued, "say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right?"
"Right."
"And all the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice"
"So they're dead," said Eckels. "So what?"
"So what?" Travis snorted quietly. "Well, what about the foxes that'll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes, a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a cave man, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-tooth tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the cave man starves. And the cave man, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life.
"

Ray Bradbury - A Sound of Thunder


A Sound of Thunder became particularly apt to American politics two years ago, prompting some to wonder what idiot went back in time to step on the wrong butterfly and hand a Twitter addict the nuclear launch codes. Ray Bradbury would have been perhaps more aware than most of his tenuous existential link to historical causality. In 1692, a 77-year-old woman named Mary Bradbury was sentenced to death as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Thanks to holding a respectable social rank and to a plethora of character witnesses her hanging was deferred until the hullabaloo died down and pardons handed out. Having raised 11 children to adulthood it might be said she'd already passed natural selection's test. Maybe her hanging would not have impacted her progeny's success anyway. Then again, if it had happened fifty years earlier... It does make one wonder at the idiotic dice rolls our ancestors must have won, down to our methanogenic or sulfur-reducing unicellular primogenitor almost four billion years ago.

On the other hand we owe our existence as much to the dead as we do to the living. What of the dead witches at Salem? Which of their grandchildren might have out-bid Mary's grandkids on a plot of land, might have mugged them in back alleys, might have wooed their mates away or planted a musket-ball or bayonet between their eyes in the Revolutionary or Civil wars? For want of a dead fox, the wrong mice survive and empty a granary, and there goes Fahrenheit 451, there go The Martian Chronicles, there goes The October Country right out the window and into the empty walks at night, lost in the rain. Aren't we glad the right witches hanged?

Sss-snap!

I've never looked up my own genealogy. Good luck tracing a bunch of dirt-farming peasants through century after century of invasions, riots and illiteracy. It's as likely as not to include ancient Celts and slightly less ancient Tartars, Semites and anti-Semites, Goths in 31 flavors, gypsies and crusaders, a smidge of Romans and a dash of Scythians, various Turkic denominations including Ottoman... and hell, let's admit it, probably an indecorous quantity of Neanderthal. They left behind runes and mosaics, walls and bracelets, monasteries and swords, all the usual marvelous effluvium of airy nothing given a local habitation and a name. Half of them killed the other half while still pregnant with their children. Their cultural practices included at various times human sacrifices, torture, cannibalism, torture, slavery and did I mention the torture? To be honest, I'm pretty glad most of those butterflies got stomped. Good riddens to bad lepidoptera, no matter how pretty their wings look in certain lights.

It is now past midnight. Somewhere outside my window here in the sarcastically lovely town of [redacted] you've all just finished celebrating Halloween, called by the pedantic Samhain (pronounced so-vain) and if your ancestors saw you at it they'd probably skin you alive for your innumerable transgressions against this-and-that custom, deity or seating arrangement. At thirty-five I've already lived to see old customs die out. Some were centuries old, others not so much. Not shedding many tears over the demise of such rituals as rickrolling or Chuck Norris jokes. I think I'd miss Halloween, though. Harvest festivals permeate every culture that's invented agriculture, but we've already moved on to plastic pumpkins and LEDs. How much longer before the agronomic link is cut altogether? I think most of us already miss Halloween and those still celebrating are merely involved in an overly-raucous Irish wake for a relative whose face they don't even remember.

Petroleum killed the honeybee star. I realized earlier today that I miss the smell of candles. Candles and pumpkin guts, but mostly the candles. Nostalgia takes odd forms. I've lived to see unleavened pastries baked in a clay oven and clothes dried on lines strung like flapping wings piled ten stories tall over an entire cityscape. The electricity used to go out a lot, so we still kept wax candles around the house, unscented cheap brittle things, as backup. The electricity never goes out more than a tablet battery's worth of time these days. With an in-unit washer/dryer combo and an electric stove, I'm denied the sound of flapping laundry and my childhood memory of the blue flicker of a gas range as well. On the other hand I also remember being hit on the palm with a ruler (despite being a teacher's pet) just to make double sure I knew my place. So, fuck it. What witch do I have to hang to get an electric car to go with my electric writing, washing and cooking?

I will leave no posterity. Werewolves, unnatural creatures like witches, often fail the test of natural selection. I may still step on butterflies, though. Seems to be a popular pastime, as much now as in 1692. Witch-hunters professional and amateur alike are busily tossing blood libels left-wing and right-wing. Youtube is awash with paroxysmal displays of emotional fits brought on by (we are told) the transgression of some taboo by those who most assuredly deserve, if not a hanging, at the very least a blacklisting. And everyone, absolutely everyone, is sure they're the ones who are coming under attack by some new nebulous threat. It's a war on Christmas, a war on women, a war on gun rights, a war on frappuccinos, a war on marriage, a war on gay marriage. At least relatively few people are dying in these wars. Maybe, 300 years ago, somebody hanged the right witches, stomped the right butterflies.

We travel through time constantly. We can't help it. We're on rails, moving forward whether we like it or not. We keep running over some butterflies, collecting others. You, with the rental store gorilla suits and the sexy pirate wench costumes, what are you clinging to? Samhain was the fevre dream of minds stunted by famine, fear and superstition, who honestly believed that ghosts would gobble them right up if they didn't make scary faces. How many other holidays existed, among the myriad ancestors whose genetic material you've inherited? All your Maasai and Berber ancestors and your Viking ones, your Persian silk traders and your catamaran-sailing Pacific islanders and your Andean herders and yurt-dwelling Siberian nomads, of which you've never even heard and for which you hold no nostalgia. Consider what you've gotten by surrendering your emotional ties to them, by allowing them to take their rightful place in history as history. If we surrender Halloween, what fragile thing with feathers might be nourished in its place and take root, and grow into an entire new history of life?

And of all antiquated customs, why is the ritual of the witch hunt the one you still cling to, even into the internet age? Why do you still nourish that plague of locusts?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

V:tM - Bloodlines ! with Happy End?

"I tried so hard and got so far
But in the end it doesn't even matter"

Linkin Park - In the End


_______________________________________________________
As this series of posts runs through the entire length of the classic computer role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, assume spoilers.
_______________________________________________________


Bloodlines earned its "classic" status via its pacing, atmosphere, characters, XP/leveling scheme and viscerally immersive roleplaying choices. You'll almost never hear anyone praise its buggy and simplistic combat system. Its ending falls somewhere in between, cited, if ever, far behind earlier quests on most fans' lists of high points. Partly, the requisite climactic battles were hampered by that buggy and simplistic combat system.

When I set out on this little vampiric jaunt down memory lane two years ago I declared I'd try to do it the stupid way by banking on firearms, and I stuck to my guns. Literally.


However, by the end-game with 9/10 ranged combat points (auspex bonus included) even the best shotgun and assault rifle could barely drop human mooks with an entire clip. My fire-and-forget "vision of death" Malkavimagic spell interspersed with the occasional feeding proved much more effective. For boss fights, guns were moderately effective, mostly because it's possible to glitch out both bosses' AI or get them stuck in repetitive loops navigating around columns and staircases.
As impressive as The Sheriff looks with his big fucking sword, it's a dull first half of the fight once you realize he never took the "stair climbing" discipline and thus only teleports predictably between levels, allowing himself to be potshotted from harmless distance. At least he provided a use for the flamethrower, a weapon with an otherwise impractically small ammunition capacity. Since his Chiropteran Behemoth form can get knocked out of the air by damage, the DoT effect from even one pulse of the flamethrower causes him to rubber-band back down the instant he attempts to take off, never attacking you. Nice gimmick but still, that's entirely too gimmicky a victory for a final boss fight.

As for Ming Xiao, it's a close-quarters fight with knockbacks, which makes it both unsatisfyingly restrained and annoy-...
and...
oh, shit!

She's got nipples! Why in the name of everloving fuck does a giant tentacled worm have glowing nipples? And how did I never notice that before?
... disturbing...

Aside from disappointing boss fights, I'd guess most players hated being denied both a final fight against LaCroix himself and their macguffin to boot. You adventure in mookdom ends with you still a mook, ping-ponged around in the conflict between the city's factions. And you know what? I'm fine with that.


Here I have to defend Troika's decision. For all the frustration of discovering there had never been a macguffin to begin with, the ending scene of Smiling Jack laughing it up on the beach watching the fireworks is as memorable as any in computer games. It also better fits White Wolf's V:tM setting as I understand it from my outside vantage point. It should, after all, be a game less about brute force or the accumulation of magical artifacts than about outliving the machinations of one's fellow bloodsuckers. "-the politics, kid. That's what'll kill ya." It's also one of the few RPGs explicitly letting you ride off into the sunset by yourself instead of becoming a lord or king or demigod or otherwise saddled with the world's cares.

Anyway, it's not all bad. The not-quite-reveal of the mysterious cab driver is greatly sweetened by playing a Malkavian and watching my character completely lose his shit and descend into incoherent panic at intuiting the dark stranger's nature. As you ascend Ventrue Tower you pass a window with a view of the street you've walked so many times over the course of your campaign. In a stroke of brilliance, just to tie everything up in a neat little bow, just to drive home the pure circuitous circularity of power games, there's the suicide bomber LaCroix throws at you.



When killed, he drops his explosive satchel. It's the Astrolite. It might be any batch of Astrolite, but we all know it's not. It's the macguffin from your own first mission, the very Astrolite you yourself delivered to LaCroix to prove your worth, never mentioned again. Until now. Was it worth it?

The encapsulation of Bloodlines' brilliance: making you kick yourself every step of your moonlit way.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Art of Femismancy, Part The Last: What Have We Learned?

"And it's ironic too
'Cause what we tend to do
Is act on what they say
 
And then it is that way"

Jem - They


A few chapters ago, the webcomic Wilde Life featured a siren who unwittingly mesmerizes the male lead, invading his dreams and tormenting him with nightmarish visions. The writer repeatedly drives home the point that this is not her fault, that she regrets it and sets out to right her wrong by skipping town to cut the magic link.
The latest chapter of Wilde Life features a story about a girl who fell in love with a (male) supernatural raven. They merge into one entity. In the present day, another teenage male character is accosted by the raven-man, who sinisterly gets grabby with him, invading his dreams and tormenting him with nightmarish visions. Then suddenly the raven breaks character, shies away mumbling "no no no no no no no I don't want to hurt you" - and is revealed to be currently embodying the female half of their pair. Because of course. Man bad, woman good.

Two years ago, the remake of Ghostbusters came out with an all-female cast, pushed by an ad campaign costing more than the movie itself, and anyone who complained was shouted down as anti-female. Its fanatical adherents failed to grasp the problem that a movie entirely predicated on anti-male bigotry, on a sweeping replacement of men by women, was not likely to have anything else going for it. By all accounts, the result was a slog of a script peppered with a few half-assed, awkward action scenes. If the flick's remembered at all now, it's as a flop, and the critical reviews praising it make endless transparent excuses for its failings, obligated to applaud a feminist propaganda piece.

That same year, Siege of Dragonspear came out, which again earned a reputation as a social justice warrior mangling of a classic cRPG. More level-headed players also noted that aside from proselytizing, it lacked any of the positive qualities of the games whose name it took in vain.

Earlier this year, I played a badly written sequel to a good game. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is not terrible, all told. Its gameplay mechanics, while not outstanding, brought minor improvements or at least managed not to wreck the first installment's take on old-school isometric RPGs. Its sound and visuals were well enough executed, though the figures and landscapes they portray fall short of the original. Unfortunately, Obsidian Entertainment's leadership decided to hand over the writing job to a cabal of propagandists whose storytelling ability and incapacity for nuanced thought would best fit children's books, self-insert fan fics or cheesy inspirational posters. Characters, places, monsters, political factions, roleplaying choices, all fall flat. Even the background reincarnation-themed cosmology seems to be getting replaced (for no particular reason) by a standard "Hel" complete with standard red-skinned imps. That they actually thought "oh my Gaun" would stay funny through more than one repetition makes one wonder what qualifications, if any, Deadfire's writing team boasted to land their jobs.

It was also hard to miss Deadfire's dedication to feminism. The gravelly-voiced male narrator (a direct throwback to the old Infinity Engine games) is replaced by a female one, and the newly breathy, over-emotive narration expanded to nuisance levels. Male deities are degraded to boogeymen and thrown a line or two while female ones take up endless interludes with their (supposedly grandiose) bickering. So on my second playthrough I took the time to tally up its rather extensive supporting cast and see how many men or women were portrayed in a positive or negative light. I had originally planned to do so for this last post as well, rounding it out with end-game encounters, but honestly I lost my remaining interest in the game and the few remaining examples just reiterated more of the same:


Nemnok the Devourer (m) - a jumped-up imp masquerading as a stereotypical volcano god for an island's worth of primitive dwarves. Like all imps, which seem to be all male, he's disgusting, obnoxious, cruel, despicable in every way.
or 
Lucia Rivan (f) - "she is the epitome of Grand Vailia. Of magnificence, honor, and duty. Living or undead, she strives still to serve her charge."
She's an honorable zombie too, and well-mannered to boot!
"What the goddess of death has marked, I will leave untouched." She nods solemnly, once, then with a tilt of her skull, steers the ship away.
or
Menzzago (m) - Lucia Rivan's former second, now leading an island full of flesh-eating undead abominations, hypnotized into submission. Evil, evil, evil down to his villainous lair's black and red color scheme.

And so on and on. What Deadfire's script lacks in quality it makes up for in droning repetition. This is, in fact, what has rendered it such a good case study for this sort of chauvinism. "Boys stink, girls rule!" makes a shaky foundation for a rather expansive game like Deadfire, but our stalwart auteurs stuck to their guns, yielding a noticeable, endlessly repeating pattern of juxtaposing negative male characters with positive female ones in order to emphasize female superiority. It only jumped out at me after having written my first post on the topic, at the start of my second playthrough. Once I had all the characters written down, the contrast of Governor Clario's moral failings against the virtuous women with whom he interacts (Benessa and Ikawha) became impossible to ignore. Not that it was subtle to begin with, given their overt badmouthing of him.

Three such patterns emerged.

1) Bad man, good woman.
For example, faction leadership for all four major factions is composed of a leader and second in command, one male and the other female. Regardless of who's actually in charge, the negative aspects of that faction are voiced and embodied by the male. Especially glaring in the case of the pirates, where the entirety of the pro-slavery faction is cast as male and the entirety of the anti-slavery faction is female.
It can also be much simpler, like the female shipwreck survivor on the beach in the tutorial jeering at her male counterpart and asking if he'd cried when he almost died.
Repeated at least 15 times by my estimate.

2) Bad man, good women.
Two or more women want to cooperate for some noble purpose, but wouldn't you know it, there just happens to be an obstacle in the way of their cooperation and that obstacle just happens to be male. Or, several idealized women are somehow all linked by their connection with a single bumbling, stupid, evil male.
Examples: Clario, Oswald, Hati, the nameless "a man" who created Modwyr, etc.

3) Bad men, good woman
A competent, well-intentioned female is somehow surrounded or being actively held back by the machinations or bumbling of two or more stupid, evil men.
Many more examples: Savia, Syri, Nairi, Wehata, Fassina, Bekarna, Elette, etc. - the archipelago's just stuffed with over-competent, saintly women beset on all sides by male evil and stupidity. Just the same old heroine indeed.

The scant positive male characters in Deadfire are a couple of female fan servicers lifted straight out of romance novels or a couple of conveniently wrinkled old daddy-figures with a disturbingly high chance to have been physically maimed somehow. The only negative female characters... well, shit, try to find one. Whenever any woman does something wrong, it's somehow toward a greater good, usually in service to her tribal unit or justified by the greater evil of the nearest male next to her. They managed only one true villainness, Malnaj, and even she was permitted more dignity than most of the male cast. Then you've got the monster races, which acquire gender-specific attributes in the sequel like the Spindle "Man" or "Mother" Sharp-Rock, with predictable demonization and sanctification.

So, class, what have we learned?

1) Fanaticism is, among other things, a refuge for the incompetent. Social justice tracts, much like the religious morality plays they so naively emulate, tend to weigh down the low end of the intellectual and artistic bell curve. Stepping back from social issues, there emerges a pattern of unskilled hacks shielding themselves from criticism behind the unbending bulwark of constantly repeated politically correct mantras. My crap promotes people of the correct skin color or sex, so if you call my crap crap then you're a sexist, racist, child-molesting nazi pig.

2) Propaganda is not art. It's psychological conditioning. I may bitch about the endless repetition in Deadfire, but repetition is the whole point. Man bad, woman good. Repeat the mantra. Man bad, woman good. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repeat it on the news and in movies and especially repeat it in university literature departments, so that it carries forth into every publication, so that everyone can recite the feminist gospel truth. Deadfire, more blatant than most, is merely a reiteration of the conditioning we've endured all our lives. We have all grown up with this presumption of male debt and duty, of male "patriarchal" original sin to be expiated only by constant service toward women and children.

And it's an easy sell. It meshes perfectly with our instinctive view of men as competent, unfeeling instruments, the active, utilitarian branch of the family/tribal unit. It fits with men's instinctive eagerness to beat each other down as sexual competitors and with women's instinctive need for psychological leverage over men. Good or bad, it's hard to find any creator not kow-towing to female purity and moral superiority, from folklore to modern media. I'd count Wilde Life a great deal more clever and captivating a work in its own right than the others I've mentioned here. But still, of course the mentally invasive siren in Wilde Life must be presumed well-intentioned while the mentally invasive raven must be presumed creepy and evil... until he turns female. We know it, we expect it, we demand it, we hunger for it with the same pre-sentient, fanatical, impulsive, salivating reflex as Pavlov's dog knew the sound of the bell.
Man? Bad!
Woman? Good!
Repeat the mantra.