Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Shifting Demographic - Level Up Yours

- and I'll level down mine, and I'll get to boredom afore ye.

"No classes, no levels" went the campaign promise of a whole slew of MMOs last decade, inevitably proven false as soon as one began grinding through the game in question. It was a promise appeasing older, experienced gamers' dissatisfaction with the endless treadmill of leveling through a leveled world. Removed from its twenty-deep tabletop DnD setting with its finite campaigns, this mechanic has proven at best extraneous and more appropriately counterproductive to persistent virtual worlds by separating and isolating players. Yet the levels persist, whether officially or in the form of upgradeable gear or hours of training time or any other shallow smokescreen.

In part this is mere inertia in an industry only marginally more creative than Hollywood, the remake capital of the world. Game designers grew up with level-based games and their copycatting, profiteering excuses for minds will not grow beyond levels.

In part this is mere pandering to base human instincts. Humans are primitive apes and human  happiness is "the feeling that power is growing and resistance is being overcome" as Nietzsche put it. While overcoming resistance is a logical part of any goal-driven game, players get much more readily addicted to mere shallow declarations of increasing power, to the soaring music and flashing effects of a LEVEL UP message.

However, it largely serves to control player behavior. Experience points and character advancement being the biggest motivator in DnD as well, online game developers have latched on to this carrot to stick the player firmly on their rails, to prevent the players from choosing their own paths. Some might say that such games (WoW-clones, mostly) only truly begin at maximum level (when the gear farming grind begins) but then we're still left with the obvious question of purpose. In this light, leveling up one's character to maximum would seem a mere extended tutorial. After all, MMOs (as the logical convergence of several previous genres) were originally some of the most vast and complex games around. Their learning curve, especially for the likes of EVE-Online or A Tale in the Desert, was notoriously steep, with intricate technology trees contextualizing all player action within a coherent microcosm.

Interestingly enough, it was not the more complex games which held fast to the leveling treadmill. In fact, the more dumbed down, linear and repetitive the game, the more likely it is to feature big flashy LEVEL UP effects. So levels as tutorial are less a consequence of an MMO's difficulty as of the expected stupidity of its target audience. Inevitably, as computer games shifted from their old nerdy audience of the late '90s to the mass market, simplistic hand-holding and pats on the back became more and more important. A "no classes, no levels" MMO would by necessity be an aggressively niche-oriented product.

The main question would be how to get the message out to the right niche. Maybe target fans of hard science fiction? Red Mars MMO, anyone?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

It's A Man's World

What'll you do for me love oh what'll you do
If I should condescend to stick it in you?
Do me a solid for my solid and do me a favor
Twenty carats per finger and keys to my Viper

Want the honor of mine in you?
Then head out to make my dreams true.
Tie a noose around your neck
Button up until you choke
Keep my picture on your desk
Earn for me until you're broke.

Let's agree you're a moron
I'll bear with you dramatically
Sighing my martyrdom
To your friends and your family.
Let's agree that you're primitive
And no woman can learn
But by the civilizing scorn
Of men by whom she's spurned.
Let's agree you're a criminal
Archon matrilineal
Your looks kill, mine only reveal
My right to your collateral

Forward! I'll cry from the rear
Your sacrifice cheer
Darling girl, save the world
While I sneer.

Want a chance at the snake?
Kneel - make it believable
One knee, one ring, one divorce, one check
To my glory payable

Long chase to the bone begs a pet most docile
Every step yours alone 'cause I'm oh so fragile.
I can't say the first word -
If you do it's harassment.
You retreat?
Then you're nothing, a girl-child, grow up
Keep aggressing until you're in tatters
Thrown in jail on my word for all your rights matter.
If I wake with regrets then it's rape; that's consent
By my lights, anyway
By my word and eye-waters.
Once more into the fray
Let's be friends, and just friends
Until *I* want a lay
Let's delay; keep you guessing
Auto da fe;
Got it wrong
Keep rehearsing.

Every Homo knows sex is not about sex
It's all in the wrist and the diamond bracelet
Want to feel?
Fifty dollars - per ball
And the higher that wall, the more you must praise
This obstacle course couched almighty "romance"
So step up your game
Swallow all my disdain
Weave it into my train
Swim the sky, span the sea
For a chance to touch - Me!

You want more?
You're a pig
You're a dog
You're a snake in the grass
You perverted brute lass.
If I call you, show up
When you do, you're a stalker
It's fun and it's safe this denial always plausible
This sperm-baited trap
This ownership marker
Works for me so let's make it your crucible

I'll set the hoops
But you'll do the jumping
Guess my mind or it's moot
Learn my praises to sing
Woo me and shoe me, your stallion demure.
If your wallet's not roomy enough to ensure
First class seats and a rush reservation
If your name earns no bows for me in the neighbourhood
If your free time's not slotted toward my elevation
Then you'd best pack for spinsterhood.
You build the house and I'll decorate it
Don't you dare raise your voice when you hear me berate
Your woman cave basement.
What'll you do for me love, oh what'll you do
If I should condescend to stick it in you?

edit 2018/03/20
Rearranged slightly because I think it flows better this way.

Friday, March 16, 2018


Your community: a bleached reef, bog or troglobity? I drift in and doubt inane doubt inaned out and need rift between me and you "ew"-in me while you drown beneath your sea of faces. Lose my traces of you, trace my losses to you, only you, all the you every you only one yous, schooling vortices in your sea while I drift in and out of your nibbling inanity. I bite, abate your piranha synchronicity, I gnash a more sonorous monody than all your monotonous choral carnivory. I drift through your cloud, seven billion proud, minnows sharking the shallows while depths boom with echoes of my lunar pedigree. See me stride tides to stand grand upon land barren of minds too oceanic who panic at solid footing while looting the tide pools of spools of lycanthrope fur calling it wool. Drool your saprophyte hopes while your drifting waste chokes stone in effluvial folklore, fucklore your fish-song and folkload your pre-frontal notochorduncity. While you school in "communities" fishies, we are not the same species.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tangled River

Hey, the 1940s called, they want their drawing style back.

...Y'know, for an overused joke, I so rarely get to use that joke.

Anyway, Tangled River. Is a webcomic. Is clear. Is clean. Is sci. Is fi.
Is somewhat declarative.

Then again, that suits its general aesthetic. Like Freefall, Escape From Terra or A Miracle of Science, Tangled River owes a lot to the golden age of science fiction, when SF was just regaining a hard science edge. Though, really... can anything with humanoid "aliens" ever qualify as hard Scie Fie?

Tanya is the oldest "beta" or second-generation human on an alien planet inexplicably inhabited by an entire earthlike ecosphere complete with tribal stone-age "aliens" with pointy ears and face spots. Having the entire story narrated from her necessarily limited adolescent perspective imbues it with a forced but engaging sense of mystery aside from the usual "coming of age" schlock. Her world consists of chores and teenage dating drama and caring for her chronically depressed mother until she's called to adventure by a flaming portend in the sky, to plumb the mysteries of human technology's sudden failure and their expedition's fragmentation.

The target audience for this one's a bit hard to pin down, if it even has one. Drawing style: clean, well-proportioned, but on the other hand theatrical. A teenage heroine might indicate a teenage market, but the story moves much too leisurely, nonviolently and non-romantically for that. A "coming of age" story might indicate a condescending adult audience looking down their noses at youth, but Tanya's a surprisingly level-headed and respectable girl, all-in-all. General tone and pacing might indicate sedate hard science fiction, but its pointy-eared "alien" setting undercuts that and fails to deliver the constant technoporn one might expect.

The best I can situate it is teetering awkwardly between Robinson's Red Mars and Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars, though really even that's an unfair comparison. (Also: distinct lack of Mars.) Despite all it might be said to lack, despite its seeming initial simplicity, Tangled River holds together well enough on the merit of its own mix of interpersonal and interplanetary intrigue. It can't lack what it doesn't need. If you like old-school space pioneer stories, this one's for you.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Gigantic knives win gun fights

I spoke about the recent AoS derivative game Gigantic some time ago, so I won't go into much detail now. As it's being scuttled by its parent company by this July*, I might as well get a couple of posts about its more salient features in under the wire.

Those, my poor quality-deprived friends, are choices!

So-called MOBAs, being dumbed down from the original Starcraft / Warcraft custom RTStrategy maps to suit the fast-fingered, slow-brained tastes of whiny mass-market millennial trash, tend to lack tactically-relevant customization options. I don't care if it's DotA2, LoL or Smite. Even buying gear is almost always a straight climb up a blatantly obvious upgrade ladder. Some of the less known or newer titles like Prime World or Paragon offer much more pre-game customization through collectible card decks, but even they're pretty weak on letting players adapt after match start.

Gigantic, on the other hand, appended miniature two-deep skill trees to heroes' combat abilities, plus a choice of specializing in one of three abilities at level five. Some of these are mere damage or resistance upgrades while others can radically alter how an ability functions, adding force fields, teleportation, etc. More interestingly, they resisted the urge to make every choice valid for every match, thus qualifying as one of the few development teams to realize that "situational" is not a dirty word. The character above is a high-damage melee assassin / bruiser type, so for most matches the bonus damage option with the added stun is the obvious choice, hands down. Occasionally, you'll be fighting a tank-heavy team and the armor break will be more important. Rarely, very rarely, you'll be fighting a firing squad team.

Quite satisfying to stand in front of three idiot parasitic snipers -not killing them- cracking your whip above your head, tanking enough damage to kill you five times over while your teammates whittle them down. Suck my iconoclasm, bitches.

* I'm well aware this may just be a publicity stunt by the company, as developers rarely give such long warning. Still, the game was intriguing enough to warrant publicity.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

To all my fellow Proctors

"Bolt of lighting out of the blue
Without forewarning the heat is on you"

MDFMK - Witch Hunt

The accusation of "overacting" is most often justified. Our contemporary socially just and politically correct society has after all been, for the past three decades, an overemotional and over-emoting milieu which breeds just such actors. This begs at least some mention, though, of situations in which "over"-acting is merely an accurate representation of a ludicrous situation.

Over and under are relative terms. Supervillains (and sometimes heroes) would likely make for appropriate grandiloquence. However, you also occasionally see the likes of the 1996 adaptation of The Crucible criticized, specifically Daniel Day-Lewis and his monumental rendition of Proctor's "because it is my naaaaame" speech. Over the top, you say?

Anyone who says so seems to be ignoring the play's social context, and I don't just mean the McCarthy anticommunist paranoia which it parodied. Even if tempted to reference the infamous Puritan self-restraint, let's not forget the characters in this play are embroiled in an honest-to-goodness WITCH HUNT!!! Their entire society was over-acting. Hard to go over the top with a source of inspiration which lacks a top, which by definition has thrown all moderation to the wind and is busily fratriciding itself into oblivion. Sometimes a cigar is a nuke you just have to ride to its destination.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Rhetorical Morbidity

Consider the exact nature of the back alley in which you'll die. Speculate on its dimensions, openness, cohabitants, textures and chemical additives. When you're lying there, shivved or collapsing from unhospitalized organ failure, how will it smell? When you're too weak from starvation to keep from shitting your pants from the filthy water you've been drinking, will it really worsen your surroundings?

Picture its slimy, abraded brickwork. Is the slime of human biological origin? Or is it mold or chemical runoff or bird feces or the simple accumulation of degeneration? Does the spot in which your decaying body has crumpled lie within line of sight of the street? Can you see each passer-by pointedly ignoring you? Can you see their step quicken at your pathetic whimpers? Are there others in the alleyway with you, off the beaten path? Are they beating you? To death or just for kicks? Maybe a broken pallet is providing the tools of their trade. Are you beyond caring about splinters as the plank rakes down from the top of your skull, opening your cheek? Can you taste the fresh air? Did that loose nail dig enough into your back to puncture your kidney? Is the pain worse than the ceaseless grinding and swelling of your already moribund viscera?

What are they shouting at you, as they laugh?
Or just Loser?
Is each condemnation punctuated by a kick? Does one of them grab the few hairs you have left, dragging them from your scalp smeared red to lift your head and spit in your face?

Are there windows in the walls lining the alley? Do you glimpse impassive spectators shadowing the cheap, filmy glass?

At which point do you actually die? What impression does your death rattle accompany? Do you drown in a puddle, inhaling streaks of kerosene? Or are you maybe face up, having lost the strength to roll over for protection? Do you gasp for breath or choke on your own spit?

Do you cry, or have you already lost any excuse to do so, long, long ago?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

ST:TNG - Tin Allegiance

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: 3.18

Why did Star Trek need so many throwaway "alien" species?
Less romantic than it looks
Better science fiction tends to devote enough pages to alien races / cultures to flesh them out beyond just "wrinkly forehead guys type 43-57" but it seems like every new script on Star Trek custom-fitted brand new lives and civilizations to its individual plot, never to be heard from again. Thus this episode gives us an all-toadie species and an all-vandal species (try to guess which is which) while conveniently skipping over the interesting question of how either of their worlds would've dragged itself out of the mud in the first place.

These two happen to be Picard's cell-mates, because, you see, he's been... kidnapped! Dun-duun-dduuuUUNNN! And in his place a doppelganger instated! Dun-dun-dunner!
Hey now, this show only had the one respectable boney-fidey Royal Shakespearean. Whenever possible they made the most of Stewart, sometimes by cloning him. So while a fake Picard tests the Enterprise crew's loyalty by making them sing sea shanties, the real deal deals with a Huis Clos in which he must convince aliens of three other species to cooperate in attempting to escape. The catch? One of those assembled here.. is a murderer impostor!

As usual, the plot barely hangs together in a ragged mess of half-knotted threads.
There's no reason for Picard's captors to impersonate one of their own prisoners (especially as she's completely passive and irrelevant to the others' decisions) aside from providing for a dramatic reveal.
With their insanely overpowered technology, they also would not have been trapped in the Enterprise's force field on the bridge... which field you'd think would come up more often, given how accessible the Enterprise's bridge always is to teleporting invaders.
Never mind that a species capable of copying a body to the last synapse (to where it can fool a detailed physical by Beverly Crusher) wouldn't need to kidnap anyone at all, but could've pulled a Phillip K. Dick routine and made copies so perfect they themselves would not know it, and put those in a rat maze.
Or that such an insanely advanced species would make a powerful enough Federation ally that Picard should've swallowed his damn pride and groveled for them to open trade relations immediately.
Or that this technology's not so amazing on second thought, as perfect clones already spell the function of any run-of-the-mill teleporter on Star Trek.

Yet still... I remembered this episode fondly from when I was ten and seeing it now, I still find it tolerable. What it lacks in logical consistency it makes up for in other consistencies. The four captives' cell looks appropriately futuristic in its chiaroscuro angularity. Gratuitous the aliens may be but they look and act better than most anything in previous episodes, even recurring species like the Ferengi. The murder impersonation mystery's surprisingly subtle by television standards, hinging entirely on one pointed question and a couple of long stares by Stewart.

Seriesdate: 3.20
Tin Man

Mental patient ecstatically intromitted into flying space pine cone and Data learns the true meaning of belonging or some schlock.

The Enterprise rushes off to first-contact a giant sentient glowing turd with the aid of Tam Elbrun, a super-telepathic betazoid who can't turn off his over-sensitive antenna, and is thus constantly hounded by the entire ship's thoughts. Racing against both Romulans and an imminent supernova, the Enterprise manages to... well, in the spirit of TV series, it manages to break even by the end of the episode and reinstate the status quo. Meanie Romulans get blowed up real good. The super-telepath bonds with the untelepathable Data and by the end flies off into the sunset inside Tin Man (becoming it's heart... oooh, that's deep (not really)) which turns out to be a sentient organic spaceship.

While the previous episode failed in maintaining even a vague standard for what is or is not technologically possible in the 24th century, this script is peppered with maximum ship speeds, subspace communication interception, cloaking and what might interfere with it, the downside of telepathy and other futuristic nuts and bolts. Unfortunately it also completely telegraphs its trite, sappy ending and spends so much time building up the various threats (Tin Man, the supernova, the Romulans) that it over-sells them, failing to deliver a truly climactic pay-off. Even Elbrum's dramatic speeches on getting flooded with others' thoughts (despite being well acted) are reiterated once too many times.

It's a pity, because despite being marred by poorly-paced scriptwriting, Tin Man ranked one of the more memorable TNG episodes. The show aired four decades after the golden age of science fiction, yet even then (and even now) film and especially TV adaptations rarely touch the more mind-bending themes of the best SF stories. Tin Man hints at being at least inspired by better works. Organic spaceships, unbridgeable language barriers and skirting the possibility of Data being a Chinese box are interesting enough. More importantly, Tam Elbrun's talk of getting lost in the ship's mind at least tantalizes the audience with the logical culmination of telepathy found in classic stories like Clarke's Childhood's End or Martin's A Song for Lya. Once again, telepathy is a dead end for SF.


Though the writing had plateaued a bit as season 3 went on, TNG kept improving in other areas. It became more daring in its special effects, and both of these episodes feature make-up, sets and CGI of a much higher quality than TV audiences at the time were accustomed to. The last stragglers of the core cast finally grew into their roles, allowing the drama to move past relying on Stewart's theatrical talent and Spiner's uncanny affinity for his android alter ego. Riker leading his mutiny in Allegiance, Troi playing the headshrinker in Tin Man (instead of the damsel in distress she was pigeonholed as during the first two seasons) both come across as more restrained and natural, and the one-shot characters are, if anything, even better acted. The vicious tusked thug in Allegiance adopts an air of restrained, growling menace instead of constantly yelling and Tam fidgets the part of the nail-biting head case.

Unfortunately, TNG was still bound by expectations of acceptable television themes, and the morals delivered at the end of both episodes (imprisonment is wrong / everybody wants to belong) are so painfully simplistic they would've better fitted Sesame Street than the transgressive genre of outré futurology.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Billy Graham, Bible Blaster

"Jill said suddenly, „Jubal? How do they get away with it?“
„Get away with what?“
„Everything. That’s not a church-it’s a madhouse.“
It was Jubal’s turn to ponder before answering. „No, Jill, you’re mistaken. It is a church - . . and the logical eclecticism of our times.“
„The New Revelation and all doctrines and practices under it are all old stuff, very old. All you can say about it is that neither Foster nor Digby ever had an original thought in his life. But they knew what would sell, in this day and age. So they pieced together a hundred timeworn tricks, gave them a new paint job, and they were in business. A booming business, too. The only thing that scares me is that I might live to see it sell too well- until it was compulsory for everybody.“
„Oh, no!“
„Oh, yes. Hitler started with less and all he had to peddle was hate. Hate always sells well, but for repeat trade and the long pull happiness is sounder merchandise.

Robert Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

A charlatan died last week. That the world weeps for him more than it did for Kurt Vonnegut, Christopher Hitchens and Carl Sagan put together proves just how utterly doomed our idiotic species is. I was planning to calmly skip over Billy Graham's death, knowing few details of his life (and as every time I add a post tagged "faithosis" or "FEMale chauvINISM" this blog loses half its meager handful of readers) but the monotone nature of the press surrounding this welcome development begs comment.

I was expecting the drooling troglodytic bible-thumpers on what's called the "right wing" to slip into one of their frequent bouts of mass hysteria over Graham croaking. From the American Democratic Party's mass-media mouthpieces, I was expecting their usual noncommittal, muted, spineless genuflecting before hoi polloi mores. I was not expecting the likes of MSNBC and NPR to also outdo themselves lavishing attention and praise on what should be the first implicit enemy of any self-proclaimed "progressive" social movement. Their motivation is readily apparent in the nature of that praise, as every article, news segment and slavish eulogy makes sure to note, repeatedly and at length, the breadth and perpetuity of Graham's control over American politics.

Those of you who have not lived in the U.S. might find it hard to believe, as American mass-media go to some lengths to mask the stench of their country's superstitious undertow, but evangelists like Graham play a huge role in determining social acceptability. He was a king-maker, a store-brand Richelieu and an irresistible ally to any Man Who Would Be King, and every White House occupier including the Clintons and Obama pandered routinely to the festering, ignorant redneck swarms which Graham represented.

But, though his popularity and political power are undeniable, it's much harder to find mention of anything for which Graham stood aside from building up his power base. Indeed, every amateur biographer seems to gush over the man's self-serving ecumenical bending before public opinion. Nose consistently to the wind, his career seems to have tracked major social movements as they came. When he could best widen his influence as part of the southern evangelical circus with its fire-and-brimstone threats of hell, he did that. Once he came to the wider public's attention and saw profit and publicity in playing a "nice" evangelist, he did that too. When playing the anti-semite and pandering to Nixon's paranoia served him, he did so, and when the civil rights movement became an inevitability he paid lip service to desegregation as well. He sold whatever brand of snake-oil would sell to his target audience of primitive, superstitious cretins.

Vermin like Graham, principal vectors of the mental disease faithosis, have killed more humans than any plague throughout history, by diminishing the powers of reason by which thinking beings can improve their environment. They are the velvet glove to any iron fist, a living consensus of inaction and stultification, cheap populism and power brokering, crippling our intellectual progress and our ability to deal with true crises. Robert Heinlein's future histories sometimes predict a coming dark age by the rise of a 21st century theocracy growing out of 20th century southern evangelism (with Graham-in-all-but-name making frequent cameos) noting the inexorable spread of Graham-brand feel-good born-again willful ignorance. Do you think he was wrong? Oh, in the details, sure, but then again Jules Verne's giant cannon never came to be either. Human footsteps still mark the dust on the moon. Look at Graham's Wikipedia article, so stunningly objective that it repeatedly quotes fanboyish bons mots about him as a Bridge Builder, a Pastor to Presidents, Greatest Living American (will they now call him the greatest dead one too?) and a hundred other uncritical mentions of faith and salvation with all the seriousness of the day's weather.

"Graham preached the gospel to more people in person than anyone in the history of Christianity" we are told by our online consensus of reality, not that he lied to more people in person about imbecilic fairy-tale promises of eternal life and protective daddies up in the sky.

On one point I can agree with Graham and other filthy lying scum like him: the end is nigh. Human civilization is nearing its destruction. Only it won't come from any supernatural sources but from the spread of anti-intellectualism, of which Graham was one of the greatest champions. Scum like him should be memorialized, yes... much like Germany remembers its own barbaric tribal backsliding in the thirties and forties. And if you count yourself an intellectual, progressive, free thinker or any other kind of non-retard, you have no excuse whatsoever not to openly condemn one of the greatest reactionary forces to ever walk the North American soil.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Saint Paul of Splendid and Tybir of the Red Cheek

Mich interessiert kein Gleichgewicht

Rammstein - Mann Gegen Mann

Spoilers: Torment: Tides of Numenera (Tybir) ... and I guess a minor one for Dead State if that even counts.

Back when the webcomic Something Positive still had some personality, its "heroes" set out to write a very special theater play, the very antithesis of modern sappy, politically correct tripe. You know, those fictional portrayals of, among other things, "gays as flawless superhumans who resemble a new incarnation of the noble savage more than real people."

I held off playing the zombie survival / base building / RPG / thingamajig Dead State on its release because of the bad press it received (standard release bugs mostly) and while I'll get into the game as a whole at some later date, I will say the patched-up and expanded Reanimated release (while still suffering from some minor bugs and strange design decisions) is quite stable, enjoyable and an interesting take on the old freedom / story trade-off in gaming. It resembles the first Baldur's Gate game in one respect, providing a wide array of possible companions without expanding much on their dialogue trees. Most of these companions play up the "ragged band of misfits" routine: a computer nerd with no social skills, a veterinary student trying to patch up humans as best she can, a couple of semi-competent cops, a trucker, a petty crook, etc. The females naturally tend to be portrayed as more sympathetic than the males.

And then there's Paul Rainier.
Paul is a former Army ranger turned engineer. His combat skills are among the best in the game, possibly the best all-around. He never panics. His jack-of-all-trades noncombat skills lend themselves to supporting any base improvement project. He's clean-cut, clean-shaven, clean-spoken, clean-conscienced. He never takes a day off. He's so stunningly smart and competent that he's always on both the logical and moral side of arguments. He's also, inexplicably, a sub-commander in place of the more fitting Bud. In fact the fucker's so gosh-dog-gonned angelic as to routinely reassure you that even when you contradict him he will gladly support your decisions.

He's also the only openly gay character and as per modern precepts, Paul is a gay martyr. A homo-martyr. A Homartyr. His heroic and benevolent military career was cut short by homophobia. Hell, for extra pathos, your first meeting with him occurs as he's piously burying his dead lover. Jesus fuck. Jesus fuck every apostle. Could you not just have slapped a rainbow-colored halo on this schmuck? Paul's actually so endlessly useful and so painfully personable that even I like him despite my distaste for military murderers and PC babble both. Dead State's basic concept follows the standard post-apocalyptic setting where other survivors are a bigger threat than the zombies themselves. Your would-be companions are usually useless or unlikeable or both... unless they're a nominal minority, and Paul is the... second most ludicrous of the bunch.

Dead State's developer, Double Bear Productions, was founded by Brian Mitsoda, who earned his fame by writing one of the true classic cRPGs, Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines. Though Dead State shows some of that depth, its shameful pandering to political correctness makes me wonder if Bloodlines wasn't a one-off. It also makes me curious about his exact work on Torment: Tides of Numenera, a project sharing a smaller amount of the same weakness for facetious niceness. I haven't played the patch including Mitsoda's personal creation, Oom, but TToN featured its own token ding-a-lingulator, Tybir, and Tybir is... rather less angelic.

He's still very sympathetic. He's a charmer, and even as his dark past is revealed, the player is encouraged to accept and nurture Tybir's mere contrition as character growth and appropriate penance. As I complained in my main commentary on the game, none of TToN's companions approach the edginess of Ignus or Vhailor from the original Torment, or even Dak'kon or Morte. Yet, Tybir's dishonest, self-serving and everything else we expect from a rogue and don't expect to see portrayed as part of the personality of a protected species, a champion of victimology poker. Compare the two gay love interests in Dragon Age: Origins, Leliana and Zevran (both of them rogues to boot) and you'll find nothing is ever their fault and their tales of personal tragedy are outright Dickensian.

Tybir, in contrast, owns his faults (at least eventually) and his entire life history seems as much a matter of his poor personal choices as the winds of fate. Overall a much more believable character than Saint Paul Rainier or most any other nominally homosexual character in modern media. And they still managed to ruin it by the finale.
Auvigne, Tybir's former boyfriend... hit him!
Le *gasp* !!!
Domestic violence! Oh noes! Oh the horror! Oh the humanity!
Oh, brother.
That's right, when he caught Tybir possibly ruining the reputation of the mercenary company they'd painstakingly built up by burning an entire village to the ground, betraying their employers, Auvigne popped him one. These are trained murderers we're talking about, mind you, backstabbing cut-throats. Yet this is the climax of Tybir's story, a smack, every bit as amateurish and whiny and anticlimactic as the same politically correct pandering idiocy I've been railing against in webcomics. That's the quality of writing we Kickstarted with a five million dollar boot.

Do yourselves a favor. If you're all excited about turning your product's plot or characters into an emblem of the latest hot-button issue... don't. If you know what attitude to take before you've even considered the problem, you're probably not capable of making it interesting. You may as well play the provocateur and write a deliberate parody of such cliches instead.
Make him kick a lot of puppies.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Red Planet

Robert Heinlein's stories peaked in the 1960s with Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. In the two prior decades much of his writing was dominated by his publisher's demand for "juvenile" fiction, SF still being mired in its early 20th century pulp planetary romance phase. While keeping things PG-rated understandably dulled the edge off his futuristic libertarianism and libertinism, his irrepressible style shone through. The "Heinlein juveniles" are more serious and thought provoking than most anything pop culture directs at ersatz mature audiences.

Take Red Planet. A young pioneer saves his pet Martian parrot-ball from a fate worse than death. The ensuing adventure manages to combine ice-skating, war-painted oxygen masks, righteous rebellion against authoritarian middle-school educators, bullet train rides and fending off aliengators all before even reaching the main event. Along the way its characters exemplify a gamut of personal freedom and responsibility from the childish to the posthuman, by both pedantic and implicit means. Despite all that heartpounding action-adventure, for fans of Stranger in a Strange Land it will inevitably read much like a marginally non-canon sequel expanding upon Martian biology and culture and Heinlein's idealized individual capable of both careful, patient consideration and decisive, merciless action.

It's a quaint reminder that Stranger was cooking for a dozen years before being published in abridged form no less. Both books were in fact begun around the same time. This likely amounted to a stroke of marketing genius, as youth who grew up loving Heinlein's mysterious Martians in Red Planet would've been perfectly primed when they hit their mid-twenties to have their world rocked by Stranger's iconoclasm, free love and benevolent cannibalism. No wonder students just finishing college started setting up their own Martian nests.

In keeping with its youth-oriented marketing, Red Planet's remarkably dynamic. By itself, the image of the two boys skating at low-gravity speeds along frozen Martian canals, masks painted in garish individually expressive patterns, would make a stunning central visual thread for a movie. That is, if any studio were willing to adapt the book honestly, keeping both Heinlein's outdated science vis-a-vis said red planet and his gun-toting cowboy political rhetoric. Setting aside, its monomythic plot would instantly grab audiences. The hero with his two sidekicks discovers a dire threat to his community, travels strange landscapes, gains a wizard's (read Martian's, but let's not split hairs) aid and guidance, rallies the good people against the bad and at last reinstates the status quo.

The devil's in the details, and classic Heinlein prods toward freewheeling but socially conscious rugged individualism pepper every other page. Damn, the bastard could spin a yarn.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Heart-shaped chocolate assault rifles, anyone?

"99 Düsenjäger
Jeder war ein großer krieger
Hielten sich für Captain Kirk"

Nena - 99 Luftballons

"In particular the whole of American life was organized around the cult of the powerful individual, that phantom ideal which Europe herself had only begun to outgrow in her last phase. Those Americans who wholly failed to realize this ideal, who remained at the bottom of the social ladder, either consoled themselves with hopes for the future, or stole symbolical satisfaction by identifying themselves with some popular star, or gloated upon their American citizenship, and applauded the arrogant foreign policy of their government."

Olaf Stapledon - Last and First Men

"We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very - pissed off."

Fight Club

Another school shooting. Is it that time of year already? Another day, another mass murder, another dollar. Another school shooting, another bumper crop of concern for mass media to mediate into an extra percent earnings this quarter. Another opportunity for America's good cop / bad cop political circus to massage their fanbase. Another school shooting, another beat of the metronome timing that city on a hill. It's the greatest country on earth.

Or at least it's the greatest show. In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes, except there's one born every minute. Tweet softly and carry a boomstick. Don't say the Nero word. Down with the one-percenters, ridin' dirty in the Bentley, all about the Benjamins, frankly Stronger Together shaking their money-maker like they were shakin' it for some paper trail. Down with the liberal elite giving them ball for debutante ball from behind each fence and farmyard wall. Don't tread on the land of the free samples, freedom-kissing their freedom fries straight off the gun rack of lamb of god we trust bust or boom, boom, boom. Everything's a big production. Hence the crisis of over-production. Free to kill, free to steal, free to waste, free to live in debt or die hard, free to enslave each other in stylish white collars. No time for losers. Don't overthink it.

What do you expect?
An entire culture devoted to fetishizing social power, to "getting ahead" and "upward mobility" and "second place is another word for loser" and "you can't argue with success" and the Forbes 500 list and black power, girl power, queer power, power for the sake of power, has no right to act surprised that it's constantly spawning mass murderers. Indoctrinate children from the cradle that they're nobody unless they're receiving special treatment, and what do you expect? School shootings find a corollary within the snowflake pathology evident in Generation Facebook, each and every youth hopelessly paranoid that if they're not oppressing others they must be, somehow, oppressed. Get rich or die tryin'. Where do you think your sadomasochistic fetishes logically lead?

Hi, kids, do you like violence? Do you like watching pro wrestling in your safe spaces? Offer youth only two self-images: thug or limp rag, sadist or masochist. Why act surprised at the results? Every other word out of our yuge president Trump's mouth is either "Winner" or "Loser" and he is merely a symptom, merely the encapsulation of your pathology, the will of the people. Capitalism has made it this way, old-fashioned fascism will take it away. Happiness is a warm pursuit of property. Suckled on Reaganomics, postmodernized intersectional handicapable oversocial justicars newspeak [redacted] under the ingsoc rug, ensuring everyone gets their two minutes of hate. The goose-steppers see their supposed opposition biting their act and join in the dance.

And the metronome ticks on.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Monday, February 12, 2018

Awful Hospital

"Monster movie
Daddy Warbucks up against Bobby Fuller

I fought the war but the war won't stop for the love of god"

Metric - Monster Hospital

I've been deriving inordinate enjoyment from Awful Hospital lately, which is slightly odd given its readily apparent flaws. It starts off as a webcomic rendition of a very low-budget adventure game filled with body horror and gross-out humor, then tacks on RPGish adventuring party members and combat turns, making the audience sit through round after round of "Bob uses rusty knife on zombie" - dull enough when you're actually playing a game, much less reading about it.
(No, really, scroll down to Feb 04 below this if you want to see how boring it is. I may be a hypocrite, but I'm a self-conscious one.)

Its general plot, exposition and dialogues might either be called Wonderland nonsense prose or postmodern absolutist relativism, the all-purpose "everything's possible" always so popular with creators too lazy to maintain internal coherence. Or just call it random crap. Some readers might be put off by the gratuitous bathroom humor comprising much of the early action, or by the pointlessly long digressions into which every other chapter seems to spiral. Still, if you're easily captivated by both world-building and biology as I am, Awful Hospital's dash of both might pique your grokker.

Of course, the odd colon-centric character here and there still ranks much less disgusting than the comic's other major gimmick: audience participation. The internet has placed creators directly in contact with their audience, allowing a route to self-publication free of editorial gatekeeping, a truly transformative advance yet not without its drawbacks. Pandering has only grown in importance and with the audience constantly commenting on every installment of a serialized work, a lot of small-timers spend a lot of time micromanaging their appeal. Awful Hospital sometimes incorporates suggestions from its "comments" section into the protagonist's next course of action, as the many competing voices inside her head. Great way to make the audience feel included and keep the Patreon subscriptions rolling (it pays to rub their bellies while you milk 'em) until you discover most humans are barely sentient vermin unfit to continue wasting oxygen - which is how your heroine ends up romancing a hamburger.

I may be biased. The very notion of interactive theater makes my skin crawl. All the weirder that I'm till following the story (such as it is) through its progression from a jumble of throwaway gags about sapient body parts through tedious play-by-play combat scenes to something resembling causality. Likely this is because whatever its faults, one thing Awful Hospital isn't is yet another webcomic about the sex life of highschoolers or twenty-somethings. When not complete gibberish it's creative enough, despite sullying that creativity with us rabble's inane mutterings. I do have to wonder if such setups don't presage things to come. Incorporating the comments section into a work so very closely approximates Bradbury's TV "family" from Fahrenheit 451, the terminally deconstructed faux-art existing solely to make its troglodytic audience feel included.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Where does your self-serving dogmatic feigned humility go while you sleep?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Stone Nuisance Value

A while ago I finished my playthrough of Icewind Dale, which included the expansion Heart of Winter and the expansion nested within that, Trials of the Luremaster. Note I am not linking a store page, because Beamdog deserves no money. Obtain the classic game by itself if you can find it.

Icewind Dale often gets reviewed through nostalgia-tinted glasses. It's a good but fairly generic combat-centered D&D dungeon crawl routine with great party customization, a half-decent story and admittedly some interesting combat mechanics. It also suffered from a complete lack of RP choices, obvious exploits (cloudkill wands) mysteriously overpowering insta-kill or disabling abilities (imprisonment, jackalwere gaze) or others raised to cthulhu-level maddening chores by the game engine's limitations (wing buffet, level drain) so take fanboy praise with a grain of salt. It was somewhat retroactively raised to cult status due to the relative dearth of engaging (or even playable) RPGs in the aughts, and the general dumbing down of computer games following online games' breach into the mass market (Starcraft, Counterstrike, WoW, etc.) Hell, that's why I played it anyway.

Among other quirks, the Infinity Engine games made occasional use of immune enemies, though it came across as aggravating often as not. Trials of the Luremaster both acknowledged this and pretty much flipped players the invulnerable bird by implementing the Stone Nuisance.
Truth in advertisement.
Stuck in a cavern, you must visit five altars to find your way out. Guarding each altar (in addition to other baddies) are a pair of walking statues lobbing magic missiles at a nearby character every round. Infinitely. They also respawn if you leave the cavern, which tends to come up less than you might think because most players can't manage to kill the damn things in the first place, being immune to magic and seemingly immune to weapons. Swords, daggers, fireballZ, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune all bounce right off them. The best you can hope is abusing the game's primitive pathing and zoning rules to run a character to and from the altar quickly and get your quest done without destroying the mobs, but the sheer indignity of running from a fight will get most adventurers' teeth grinding.

I did happen to fall upon the solution by accident, as my own character was a front-line Cleric whose trusty blunt traumatizer of a mace was the only thing showing damage numbers. Stick a spare ugly stick in my warrior's hand and polymorph my druid to an earth elemental and the nuisances went down eventually, but that was pure luck. I can only imagine the frustration of a player running a ranged firing squad group with all piercing/slashing/magic damage. The lack of such specific counters in story-based RPGs is somewhat unavoidable, unless the campaign truly provides diverse and unpredictable mob genera. (Has any ranger played the NWN games, ever, without picking undead as a favored enemy?) To avoid blocking players from chugging along their story's railroad track, developers will often facetiously implement such counter-encounters but undermine them by all-purpose crutches or placing a big barrel with the appropriate counter right by the player (see "magic golem" in BG2.) Otherwise you risk preventing your customers from fully using your product and I'm no marketing guru but that might get you some bad press.

It's much less of an issue in open-world games or Rogue-like tactical RPGs with randomized encounters. Nobody bats an eyelash at completely drone-proof or missile-proof enemy vessels in FTL, or at robotic ships lacking minds to mind control or lungs to fill with vacuum. If your army's too big/slow to infiltrate cities or chase bandits in Mount&Blade, there are plenty of other ways to get ahead.

Multiplayer games have the potential to completely reverse that story-based cRPG 100% completion pitfall. You don't need to do everything. You shouldn't be able to do everything. There are others yous for that. Hard counters should be considered a plus. Ideally, any online RPG should be a persistent, procedurally-generated world in which many of those procedures are in fact players' thought processes. As with single-player open worlds you have the ability to choose your fights but moreover, in an MMO the solution to any insurmountable challenge can be obtained in the form of another player. Are your stones nuisances? Recruit some blunt instruments. Find yourself impotent in pokeying men? Team up with a summoner. Need some crushed women lamented before you? Leash yourself a barbarian. Are your enemies vulnerable to sanctimonious clowns? Paladins' guild's right around the corner.

Before "massively multiplayer" games devolved to solo grinding, DPS meters and interchangeable classes, it was in fact assumed that players would purposefully prepare for novel challenges. For example, LotRO's open (i.e. non-instanced, as Iluvatar intended) dungeon Sarnur was full of stone nuisances.

Ze gouges do nothing!
Damage types were only one of the many interesting player choices nerfed into irrelevance as LotRO tried and failed to capture the idiot market away from WoW. Loremasters could originally cure wounds or diseases but not poisons or fear, burglar riddles only dazed creatures smart enough to speak (humanoids) captains cured fear, minstrels could daze undead. Most classes were in fact hybrids of some sort, able to take at least two roles in groups.

MMO developers obviously thought this too complex for their retarded new millennial audience because you won't find those dreaded "situational" strategies in online games these days. However, dumbing things down seems, at best, beside the point as far as playability goes. Take the most basic player choice, that of class. The Secret World boils this down to the holy trinity of nuker/healer/tank. The most simplistic role, hittin' stuff, is of course the perennial favorite of all gamers in all class-based games, with damage dealers vastly outnumbering other roles. TSW has consistently dumbed down tanking and healing to counterbalance this. It hasn't worked.

In TSW's latest incarnation, Legends, anyone can tank at any time by shifting their stat slider around. They've removed all possible complexity from the role: no resistances, no stance dancing, no deciding when to switch targets, fights completely scripted with no variation (aside from an abundance of bugs, natch) and aggro management as easy as spamming a single AoE ability. All it takes is one mid-quality tank weapon and a couple of abilities (aggro generation and defensive) within that tank set, a time investment one-twentieth of what most players sink into maximizing their DPS. Tanks are still about as popular as groin kicks. This yields the usual secondary benefit to playing a tank, the ease of getting into groups and STILL, tanks are nowhere to be found.

Even I hate playing a tank in TSW, and it has nothing to do with the role's difficulty or complexity, but with interface issues. The always-unpopular forced close-up camera angles (watching a giant monster's crotch the entire fight) combined with a graphics system that obfuscates rather than displays combat events (see TSW is not a PvP game) and generic animations which fail to convey what exactly your enemy is trying to do all combine to turn tanking into a text game.
Most instance bosses in TSW were thought up with inescapable one-hit-kill encounter wiping abilities which the tank (being in melee range) had to interrupt. Tanking = memorizing a hundred different completely abstract ability names and watching for them in one corner of the screen to hit an interrupt button. Simple reflex. Hilariously, the Legends relaunch removed target lock, thus removing the only reliable way for tanks to keep track of these abilities while dodging around in fights. TSW doesn't dis-incentivize tanking because it's hard or for lack of soloing appeal, but by amateurish implementation.

So it should come as no surprise that Funcom's latest fix for their interface issues, after dumbing gameplay down for five years straight... was to dumb it down some more. They removed the need or ability to interrupt most bosses, so that tanks, the only halfway interesting class, have even less to do now aside from running left to right spamming their AoE aggro builder.

Not only does oversimplification drive away the necessary best customers, it's most often a complete non-sequitur to faults in design, graphic design and programming. Can you guess what effect TSW-Legends' further dumbing down of an already dumbed-down combat system had on players' willingness to tank? None! I have sat here while writing this queued as a damage dealer without getting a single group. I sign up as a tank and it pops up instantly.  It's no accident that Icewind fitted so well as a segue to this discussion of MMOs, because its freedom to mix and match an entire party so closely resembles the supply and demand market of player occupations which a true MMO should facilitate, and it must do so consciously. Sure, Stone Nuisances were aggravating in having to find their weakness by trial and error (or dumb clerical luck) but there's an easy fix for that: divination magic! One of those eyeball icons in my skill bars in LotRO is Knowledge of the Lore-Master, a minor debuff which also displays a quick summary of an enemy's strengths and weaknesses. Need some lore mastered? I'm your Noldo!

What exactly was wrong with this system of resistances that it had to be dumbed down to "damage is damage" and all DPS is hunter DPS? Game developers have got to learn that their customers are usually wrong. Grant their fondest wish (zero difficulty, zero penalties and zero choices) and they'll just wander off anyway, not even realizing how bored they've gotten. Leave that retarded shit to Farmville.
I tried playing TSW a few days ago, to see what's new. Got a group. Got pissed at them and kicked out. Queued up again. Same group.
One five-player group. Seems that's all TSW can scrape together now. That's what endless monotony gets you. Rot in pieces you pathetic morons.

As for other, potentially more serious developers, try, just try to figure out that WoW was a one-off, that in terms of mindless repetition you'll never out-do the latest glitzy K-pop trash copycatting Lineage. The MMO genre needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Load a restore point from before WoW's release and start from there. For one thing, remember "situational" is not a dirty word, nor does every single player need to be able to do every single activity at any time.
Choice should matter. Knowledge should matter. Planning should matter. Cooperation and coordination should matter.
Retards should not.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Do you ever feel your joints creak and envision the rot setting in, driving life out, splitting apart, growling at you possessively from between, from within, sin incarnate terminal languishing inexisting perfecting sundering rejecting, digression detritic self-ception?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Ten Levels of Arcanum

"And I'm an ape of God
I got a face that made for violence upon"

Marilyn Manson - Disposable Teens

Working subtitles:
The Reload Game
The Quest for Pants.

Though I loved V:tM - Bloodlines, I've always heard Troika's other titles suffered from terrible mechanics and even more bugginess than VtMB at its launch (if that's possible) so never bothered with them. Still, I wanted to give it a chance, so I'm going to play Arcanum through at least level ten.
Hum-dee-dum-dum... might as well pick a race I haven't played in other fantasy games.
Half ogre with the troll blood trait. Ugly, fugly mofo I am, and with the social skills to FUCK YOU!

Level... 0
Opening cinematic bugs out and shows the in-game interface around it. Well, that's off to a good start.

Level 1
Told Virgil, presumably the tutorial NPC, to go stick a crank up his shaft and went off exploring the starter area by myself.
Good night, everyone.
Re-rolled same character next day because I hadn't even thought to save game.
Lather, rinse, kill wolf that killed me the first time.
Died. To a boar. Re-re-created my character, having again ignored saving. Third time's the charm, right?
(just in case)
Real-time combat - off. Success! Wolf after wolf fall to my mighty blows. Oh, so the blue stuff's stamina, not mana? Maybe both? Maybe I should read the manual? Nah.
On second thought, went back and told Virgil he can tag along. Many a boisterous boar bears bi-battering

Level 2!
Minimized to take that screenshot. Game locked up. Screw it, I'm gonna play Dwarf Fortress.
Ok, cooled off overnight. Onwards! Hmmm, ghost wants me to kill evil wizard... might be above my pay grade at the mome. Wait. What's this? I'm the reincarnation of...
Nasrudin? Nasreddin Hodja Efendi? So will I be expected to play the fool, giving seeming non-sequitur solutions to conflicts of social posturing, thereby unmasking unwarranted presumptions of entitlement?
Mmmnnaaaahh. Couldn't be. Maybe I'll just ride an ass backwards.

Level 3!
Decided to ignore Virgil's advice to map teleport to my destination and took the long way around. Dying repeatedly to wolves in a completely linear canyon with absolutely no other interactions or decor available. More wolves. More canyon. More death, completely luck based since my character with his presumably standard 10 DEX, apparently couldn't even hit the ground if he threw himself at it. Die. Reload. Hope for lucky autoattack hits.
Ok, I seem to be past the wolves.
I seem to be past everything. Lots of empty terrain. Oh, wait, so is this a big open world, Morrowind style? Cool.
... Is this a big completely empty and barren open world with absolutely nothing to see, do or pick up? Not so cool.
Fuck this.
Ok, another good night's sleep later, let's give this game a fourth chance.
Map travel it is. Seems very Fallout-y.
Hello Shrouded Hills!
Constable, might you direct me to the... hey, insult my noble half-ogre heritage, will you? DIE!
(Three reloads later, one dead constable.) Okay, maybe shouldn't make a habit of that.
Hm... local doctor wants to shoot some people; one well-placed grenade takes care of that. Thanks doc, pleasure doing business with you, give Hippocrates an extra stiff middle finger from me, will you?

Level 4!
Warning: content potentially NSFW.
Clothing broke. Now everyone bitches at me for blinding them with my half-ogre sexayness. And apparently I'm not allowed to repair a fully broken item. And apparently nobody sells "large" sized clothing. Of any sort, no armor, frilly frock or even a tasteful but useless robe. Wait, was there a half-ogre drinking at the inn? Cm'ere, you.
Hm... all he was wearing were rags... which are also broken. How do you even brea- never mind. Ok, so the armor situation sucks but at least I can work my way to the big city where they're sure to have a big'n'tall shop. Sure enough, the main quest and the side quest from the mine both lead there.
Except the bandits guarding the only bridge out of town are too tough for me (though their clothes might fit) so... how do I even move on?
Clear out every corner of the abandoned mine (more wolves) (plus, oooooh, spiders, what a treat) to maybe level up my fighting skill and take on the bandits?

Level 5!

Skill up melee and dodge. Slowly dragging up my dexterity too as I go... yet somehow my character's still hitting himself in the face constantly during combat.
Bridge bandits, DIE!
Reload. Okay, go level some more.
Critical miss. Critical miss. Died to a bunny. Please, no Holy Grail jokes.
Reload. More wolf killing. More RNG death.
Reload. Run back to do the not-so-evil-after-all wizard quest. Bad guy just stands there and lets me kill him. Bug? Who can even tell?
More wolf killing. More RNG death.
So, I have to wonder... who managed to come up with a combat system combining all the clunky, convoluted redundancy of a D&D adaptation with the mindless repetition of an ARPG Diablo clone?

Level 6!
More dexterity. Buy melee and dodge training from guards.
More wolves, after much searching. Still hitting myself in the face.
Many, many reloads later, still cannot win the bandit fight, unarmored as I am, despite being fairly combat-specced. (Or at least I sure as hell ain't prettiness-specced.) Well, if you can't beat 'em join 'em. Dynamited the villagers' bridge materials in return for safe passage.
Then got killed by random encounters on my way to the big city. Which is fine because all I have to do is reload until RNGesus takes pity on me. Them's sum good game designerin'!
Still in my underwear.
Luckily all I have to do is grovel a bit and every NPC's disposition toward me shoots up by the dozens. Soooo, what's the point of that, then?
Anyway, first stop, Dernholm, to get the real story about the abandoned mine.
Getting around is getting to be a chore. Architecture by FedEx fails to provide recognizable landmarks, and the map's no help either. Can't place map markers, and the scant few automatically placed by the game are little help. Pathing algorithm's so pathetic it needs several waypoints to move more than one screen.
Game locked up again upon minimizing.
Ok, let's give this a seventh chance.
Walked in on the king in my underwear.
Healer companion refuses to be recruited because I'm not tech-aligned. Huh. Nice touch, actually. Gotta say I'm liking having to ask NPCs their name before it becomes their tooltip. It's these little things that make immersion.
Well, this was a long trip for very little XP. Not much else to do in Dernholm, except play matchmaker to a couple of old cranks, and I'm definitely not the half-monster for that job.
Onwards then, to the bigger city, Tar -
Upon running out of Dernholm, I am torn apart by a random gorilla. A very random gorilla.
Onwards, to Tarant!
But first three more random encounters. Wolves, wolves and more wolves.
Huh... ok, this next bit was surprisingly clever:
I asked the first guards by the entrance for directions and possible quest hooks. The guard just shrugged it off. Two paces later, a colorfully dressed NPC catches my eye. If spoken to directly, she launches into the usual tirade against my ugliness and nakedness. Having spoken to the guard causes her to skip past that straight into offering me a quest. While the guard intro isn't strictly necessary, it does make the second dialogue much clearer and decreases the odds of treating her like another random bystander.
That is quite subtle stuff, by cRPG standards. My hat would be off, could I but locate a half-ogre haberdasher.
Tried talking to an inkeeper and Virgil just randomly attacked him, losing me another 15 minutes of gameplay.
Fffffuuuuck thiiiis.
How many chances is this now? Eight? Nine?
Clerk at Simon & Schuster or whatever wants to stonewall me? DIE!
Down in the zombie-infested basement, I'm dead once again because the combat keeps resetting itself to real-time mode at random times.

Level 7!
Upping my DEX and Melee don't seem to be doing much for me. Maybe crafting's the way to go? Let's see. Herbology. Definitely could use some stam restoring. For now... holy shit, I had materials for 15 healing salves in my inventory? Get in there and cloth tank those zombies, Virgil. Work that robe. I'll lube you up.
Critical miss. Stunned. Eaten by zombies.
Critical miss. Knocked down. Eaten by zombies.
Did I mention these zombies are level 3 and I'm level 7? And my hit chance against them is still officially 25-40% with 11 DEX and Apprentice Melee? And my attacks don't hit anywhere near that often? How much dexterity does a zombie have anyway that they're dodging my blows?
Critical miss. Critical Miss. Out of stamina. Eaten by zombies.
So below the zombie-infested basement was a zombie-infested sub-basement and beneath that was a dwarf zombie infested sub-sub-basement. Finally, boss battle! Evil necromancer dead ahead!
Except he's a perfectly reasonable sort, putting otherwise useless dead flesh to some use, in other words agreeing with my views on necromancy. Huh. And he tactfully omits the little matters of my near-nudity or of me brutally murdering his employee upstairs, and he'll help me out with some info in exchange for not giving his business away. Was not expecting that. Put 'er there, partner, yer awright! Now it's just a matter of asking the dried up husk of his dead father for directions. Good, wholesome plot advancement.

Level 8!
Apparently my next step's to find Gilbert Bates, inventor of the steam engine and therefore filthy rich. Oh, ha-ha, "Gil Bates" I get it. And also bet it. And his bitter rival's named Cedric "Apple"by. Oh, I get it. A-haw!
Then a guard warns me off of entering The Boil because it's a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" and this is starting to get annoying. It only takes a few derivative references for them to stop sounding clever and become an obnoxious crutch for lazy writing.
Y'know what, screw Gil, screw the quest for the ring of steam power, screw delving ancient ruins, screw dwarven history and screw all those wolves. I'm on a new quest, a quest for dignity, a quest for warmth, a quest for... Pants!
Wallow's Quality Armour has nothing in a large.
I could try beating up the toughs in the slums, some of which are ogres, but there sure are a lot of the bastards.
Oh what's this?
The fashion palace has me covered, literally. 180 coins is mighty steep but that includes my ugliness, charisma and 0 barter skill taxes.
Gotta say I'm liking Tarant. Much effort sank into making it feel like a real city and not just Questville, from its airy spaciousness to abundant NPCs both quest-related and not, to actual city planning with streets and numbered addresses. With only slightly better map/quest log functionality, it could've been great. Now at long last dressed for success, it's onwards to adventure!
Wait, what did this guy just say to me? You can insult my looks, Cedric Appleby, but not my intelligence. I'll have you know it's a solid ten. DIE!
Wait, did I just pre-empt the invention of "there's an app for that" - ? Score.
Naturally, Appleby's loot includes a second set of large clothes which will now take up space in my inventory pointlessly because I'm scared of getting stuck naked again. Because the universe hates me, that's why.
Alright. It is now Sunday, and I really want to get this over with before the new week starts. So, to-day it's level 10 or bust.
Bust. Bust Appleby's safe open with a stick of dynamite, that is.
What else can I find in Tarant? A P.T. Barnum themed NPC? DIE!
A hobo wants money. Insult him into attacking me. DIE! Free loaf of bread.
A fortune teller? DIE! (and for once I didn't do it (directly))
Obligatory brothel? Ddd- nah, I can't do it. Ya gals are alright.

Level 9!
Lots of little fetch quests, with little twists here and there to keep them fresh. Really, this does make the most of Tarant itself after all the work-hours sunk into it. Making the player constantly look up street addresses might sound annoying, but there's just enough of it to facilitate immersion without becoming redundant, unlike the moronic combat. It most reminds me of Oblivion's Imperial City. Other RPGs with a central quest hub don't usually make such a big point of keeping you busy within it, making it seem alive.
Yeesh. This Sword of the Derian Ka I looted from Apple's vault seems overpowered. Suddenly I'm having no more trouble with basic mobs. Who says crime doesn't pay?
A jaunt through the sewer yields more exp than a bunch of rats have any right to. Add to that several side quest completions aaaand:

Level 10!
Having increased my melee skill to three points to be safe, it's time to start dabbling in Arcanum's magic vs. technology alignment system. With 8 technological skill branches plus twice as many magic ones, there's plenty of redundancy but also plenty of room to mix and match for aesthetic purposes. Do I want to be a volcano god (earth mage flinging molotov cocktails) or an air mage hefting the biggest chaingun / mining laser / rocket launcher I can find or maybe supplement my character's pronounced lack of finesse with divination magic or trap disarming gizmos? Do you want your lightning in the form of bolts or batteries?

The fact is, I don't know. It hasn't come up yet. I've spent most of my first ten levels of a fifty-level game running around in boxer shorts, abusing reloads and being molested by RNGesus, struggling just to keep my character from punching himself to death while my enemies laugh at me. The rest of that time was spent repeating the same three lines of dialogue with one NPC after another to raise their disposition with me. My greatest achievement was managing to finally dress myself, and even that was immediately undermined by sheer dumb luck. I'm still waiting to find that amazing storytelling for which it's so frequently praised, but so far the dialogue's been composed almost entirely of "go there, fetch that" quest prompts.

Arcanum makes an incredibly shitty first impression.

However, at no point was I completely stuck, despite my ugliness and abysmal charisma, my lack of armor and my DIE! approach to random NPCs. In most games, offing the first questgiver (constable whatsisbrokeface) upon entering newbietown wouldn't even be considered an option, much less a viable one. Though many of Arcanum's mechanics and interface options seem infuriatingly obtuse, many dialogues and item interactions are surprisingly logical by comparison. Dynamite works exactly the way you'd think it does. Even using beauty as a dump stat can amount to a blessing in disguise in terms of roleplaying. Though it cuts off access to some dialogue options, having the entire world constantly trying to pick a fight with you makes it that much easier to just... cut loose, once in a while, and cut some heads loose. Growling and snarling in dialogues becomes useful at logical times like when dealing with the underworld. Your choices' influence can be quite extensive. Not only can my half-ogre not find any armor, but my pathetically low charisma limits me to one companion at a time as compared to three to six for most players.

For all its incredibly aggravating bugs and obtuseness, Arcanum really does offer more ways to play than most cRPGs. The wealth of crafting/support options opening up to me now that I've finally raised my combat skill to acceptable levels will, if nothing else, keep me playing.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Emerge, Ent Gameplay!

Is there such a thing as a passive physics-engine-centered game? Or rather a reactive one? I want to play as a tree. Not even a walking tree. Just a tree.

Seriously, just plant the player somewhere. Maybe make choosing your location (soil quality, topography, atmospheric humidity, etc.) part of the pre-game preparation. Start as a little sapling of several different species. Then start throwing things at me: sun, rain, hail, ants, woodpeckers, frost. Limit my actions to managing my internal reserves and immediate milieu: channeling sap, tapping groundwater, spewing pheromones, growing or limiting rood nodules, budding more leaves or maybe even flowering. Or would that last one drive up the ESRB rating? Who knows, maybe the kids these days are scared of getting microaggressed by stamens. In any case, gameplay should center on adapting to changing conditions, not avoiding or defeating them, on weathering each new storm or drought or clambering ten-year-old apes in sneakers scuffing my lovely bark. Let me figure out the best layout for my branches to both maximize sunlight and resist physical stress, the best spread for my roots to support myself and at the same time maximize water uptake.

You might laugh, but this is the sort of shit that Will Wright and Maxis used to pull off back in the early '90s while they were still worth mentioning. Look, ma, no elves or lasers or AKs!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Apparently, not feeling suicidal can sometimes be considered a good thing.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Misplaced Mimics

Spoilers: Neverwinter Nights.

Oh, mighty hero! What plights hast thou thwarted? What foes doth thou vanquish? What deeds dost thou tout?
Oh muse of roleplaying, Munchkina who art both minima and maxima, guide my quill that I might with life imbue these ever epicker epics.

A dragon, yes a Dragon! didst our hero slay while merely an apprentice in his one-horse town, seeking a lost marble. A sphinx he did insult, a mummy unravel, the remote control to ancient guardians dug from beneath a plethora of sofa cushions, the stare of the medusa most valiantly held and lo at his touch cities did rain from the skies! Thence to Wateverdeep, to brave the ever darker hordes of under-darkest: from doughty duergar to dastardly drow and fearsome umber hulks, to even those against whom none dare stand: beholders and mind-flayers both! To the netherworld our hero was then banished, to stand unbowed in the bitter wastes of Cania against ice trolls and devils.

Lo the great tale draws near its thounderous conclusion: an archfiend himself shall soon fall to the hero's power! Angels weep, the Heels yawn ope and the climactic world-slaking battle looms ever nearer!

But first, you need to get your pants stolen and run around tossing shiny pebbles in front of a magic box yapping at you in a Mickey Mouse voice.
Welcome to the mimic's chamber. Prepare for epic nuisance.
Wait, what?
We're doing what now?
Are we seriously faceplanting the entire heroic epic into a goofy little breadcrumb puzzle? There is a time and place to introduce a comic relief bit player, you knuckleheads, and as a general rule it's not halfway through act five! Ugh.

I spent some time over the holidays revisiting old favorites, including the two expansion packs for one of the first cRPGs I ever played, Neverwinter Nights. It gave me a chance to try an oddball character type: half-orc Cleric / Weapon Master with a dire mace (a.k.a. a quarterstaff with better stats.) Very Friar Tuck-ish, if not the most practical. It also gave me a chance to rethink my unduly rosy memories of these expansions. I first played NWN in my early twenties, with my RPG experience limited to the likes of Diablo and V:tM - Redemption, in comparison to which Shadows of Undrentide was clearly better written. True, but that's setting a very low bar.

Trudging through it now, Undrentide is pretty weak and Hordes of the Underdark isn't much better. For one thing, the Aurora Engine's three-dimensionality turned a lot of heads at the time, but most environments in NWN appear sparse even compared to older Infinity Engine decor, which made more lustrous use of its two dimensions. Noticeable once you get over your ability to turn the camera OMGWTFBBQ! Much seems to have been ignored for the sake of offering players that moddable 3D wonderland.

Dialogue in Undrentide and most of HotU only extends to <insert villainous boast> and <insert heroic rejoinder> of such shallowness as would make Snidely Whiplash cringe. The voice acting, after playing games like V:tM - Bloodlines and Dragon Age, seems painfully amateurish after only a few lines from Xanos or Drogan. Ironically, the hammiest NPC from the original NWN campaign, Aribeth, actually got the best treatment in HotU by playing down her voicing, playing more with her dialogue and an added layer of moral depth.

Odd storytelling choices didn't help matters. The mimic's lair pictured above is doubly puzzling, jarringly out of place in Cania's grim escalation toward the showdown with Mephistopheles, and even more so when you consider how well it would have fit into the first third of HotU, in the mad wizard's demesne of Undermountain. Also, reintroducing companions from the main NWN campaign only to replace them later with a drow/tiefling duo was needlessly convoluted, especially considering that the only permanent companion remaining was... Deekin, NWN's answer to Ma-Ti's monkey from Captain Planet.
Don't even get me started on all the good-aligned drow.

Still, though the NWN games by now count as obvious low points between Black Isle and the newer Bioware / Obsidian games, they had their place in the development of the genre. Shortcuts to the start placed at the end of long instances, a rudimentary crafting system, base building in NWN2, custom weapon upgrades, prestige classes, for better or worse NWN 1 and 2 introduced a lot of us to these notions. HotU even dared to offer a noncombat option for the grand finale (commanding Meph using his True Name) allowing the combat option, as optional, to impose truly epic-level gear requirements. Something I might've liked to know fifteen years ago when my poor mage got his elvish ass spanked by the devil.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Can't ride the red tide

"Jump in my car, we'll go one hundred around the bends
 And we'll pretend feeling rage is feeling real"

Missy Higgins - 100 Round the Bends

A few second impressions of Torment: Tides of Numenera, after completing my second playthrough.

First off, though still annoyed at dignity being considered a gendered concept, I did enjoy the company of the male half of the game's cast well enough. Aligern could've definitely used more fleshing out (pun intended) but then again he and Callistege both were more about their superpowers than about personal growth. Said power seems much less super than Callistege's (especially with the rings of entanglement) but still has potential. Tybir's writing was surprisingly level-headed given his inclinations and current politics. Erritis... suffice it to say I'll be playing Original Sin 2 soon and whatever else Chris Avellone is working on next. Like Durance and Grieving Mother in PoE, Erritis manages to twist a trite archetype into the most interesting character in the game.

Second off, while my party's gender mix was not originally meant as the opposite of my first playthrough, my actual playstyle was. Instead of glorying in the various non-combat options, I glaived myself up to explore TToN's more bellicose side. Smashy-smashy!
I was sorely disappointed. Not in the lack of combat as such - TToN offers about as many pugilistic possibilities as its plot dictates, give or take a victim here and there, and the [Smash] dialogue option is satisfyingly frequent. However, it's clear the combat side of the game was hardly tested. Not only are most combat options simplistic and  redundant but quite a few major fights have bugged out on me. The Endless Gate, the crystalvores, several fights in the Bloom, even the very last, climactic showdown have frozen on some character's turn or another, forcing several reloads or even skipping the encounter altogether via dialogue. Even if not completely, strictly gamebreaking, this being a year and at least one major patch after release it seems pretty unforgivable.

Last off, cast-off, smashy-smashy reads as "red" to me, so I did my best to play as a hotheaded fanatic as per official boilerplate. However, it seems my initial assessment was correct: Tides makes it much too easy to acquire blue alignment bumps and downplays the logically (or rather illogically) red mindless aggression. Shooting first and asking questions later, bullheadedly chasing down a single goal, should fairly reliably redden you. Instead, dialogues constantly reward you blue for merely advancing the plot, qualifying the player's aimless fumbling as "expanding the mind and spirit" even when you're purposely ignoring all the information around you and refusing to investigate context. Take this mission for example:
I'm scavenging a macguffin from a transdimensional vehicle's onboard computer. As I begin, ghostly simulacra of the vehicle's passengers materialize around me, attempting to communicate... and I choose to completely ignore them. For ignoring their motivations, ignoring the technologically fascinating means by which they manifest, the information they might have to impart, ignoring their very nature no less and thoughtlessly ripping out the gizmo I need then leaving, for mindlessly blowing past that uncanny event I'm rewarded with the maximum possible alignment shift in the direction of "wisdom, enlightenment and mysticism" a.k.a... willful ignorance apparently?
Never mind that this is a side quest and "Huge" alignment boosts are in fact so rare that the few red equivalents are handed out only for irreparably sanguine actions like permanently dooming one of your companions as an increasingly suicidal whirlwind of destruction. All the times I yell "Attack!" before my opponents have even launched into their pre-match banter don't seem to count for much either.

As things stand, I couldn't manage to stay red until near the end, when tiding the tongues provides a facile, story-independent red/silver fix. So either I'm incapable of not acting like a nerd (possible) or the game's purposely masking its customers' true nature from themselves, flattering them. Given the choice, most idiots would rather be Narcissus than Damocles so it pays to shift the baseline a bit in favor of barbarity, make them feel less like the sadistic, codependent, self-aggrandizing, anti-intellectual drooling aneuploids they are. We all know that if those purty colors really reflected gamers' commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, most Last Castoffs would never finger-paint their way off the short bus. They just don't want to admit to being brainless petty thugs with the analytical ability of gerbils, to see their actions truly reflected on screen.
 "But then I see my damn reflection in your eyeball"