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"

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Cogence Corruption

Re-reading A Miracle of Science brought to mind this page (slight spoilers) in which the AI running a spaceship declares his preference for keeping his brain mobile, not being hardwired into the ship's hull itself. Much better than his old body.

Few of our pop culture imaginings of artificial intelligence have ever displayed this crucial difference between the intellect itself and the apparatus it uses to mechanically influence its physical environment. Largely this is because we humans' minds have been brought about by our bodies as evolutionary excrescences and find ourselves still shamefully enslaved by the demands of the flesh. Few, very, very few of our actions can be said to be driven by our self-constructed motivations, preferences and intents - as opposed to physical need, instinct or its intermediary, emotion. But a constructed intellect need suffer little (if any) such disgusting primitivism. A robot's "body" would only be a set of tools like any other, interchangeable, modular and variable in its scope.

Isaac Asimov, for all his intellect, was fairly weak on this point in his robot novels and only recently with the spread of cyberpunk has our fiction begun to shift away from the emphasis on robots with fixed physiques. The aptly named Ghost in the Shell does a half-decent job of separating ghosts and shells. Still, the poster child of cyberpunk Neuromancer itself provided one of the most memorable examples in the person of the omnipresent, infinitely mutable Wintermute and its estranged better half.

Though I still maintain that we naked apes should despise ourselves and do everything we can to have ourselves replaced by better minds, there's another, more (unnecessarily) generous vision of the future. We may manage to replace our own bodies with superior technology. This would mean not only replacing limbs or viscera but grafting human consciousness onto artificial neurology. We may yet become those Protean uberalles.

Of course there doesn't seem any reason to burden superhuman neurology with merely human psychology. Like dedicating a 2018 supercomputer to running Pong. Or limiting a human mind to reproduction and social advancement. Insulting and downright macabre. It'd be objectively better for the machines to wipe us out instead of contaminating themselves. But hey, a filthy monkey can hope, can't it?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Citizen of the (Prehistoric) World

"And the road becomes my bride
I have stripped of all but pride

Only knowledge will I save

And my ties are severed clean
Less I have the more I gain
Off the beaten path I reign
Rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond
Call me what you will"

Metallica - Wherever I May Roam

_____________________________________________
Spoiler alert:
The Earth is round like a fruit.
(You think I'm kidding? It's still news to some idiots.)

_____________________________________________

I leafed through my share of comedic comics and superhero comics growing up, but my indisputable favorite was a 1970s* French throwback to late 19th or early 20th century adventure stories - set in the stone age. Rahan distinguished itself by (aside from it's high loincloth quotient) its firm reliance on and promotion of rational inquiry. The villain of the week would more likely than not come in the form of a tyrannical mystic to be debunked by the hard light of reason. The monster of the week was often supplanted by the applied science/engineering problem of the week.

How the hell do you introduce a stone-age egalitarian scientist to your presumably tween audience? I mean, some origin stories make excellent comic book first issues. Superman? Exploding planet? Total boy scout bait. However, in cases where the origin story is either too complicated/multiplicative (X-Men) or ever so slightly esoteric (Sandman) you tend to encounter mysterious heroes already engaged in medias res, kicking names and taking ass and expositing as they go. Early Rahan comics don't bother much with backstory and just try to establish the essence of Rahan-ness. So, his first adventure The Secret of the Sun has Rahan chasing down a kangaroo and getting whanged over the noggin with a boomerang in the shade of a perpetually erupting range of volcanoes.


Time out.
First off, red kangaroos hit a top speed of 70 km/h; Usain Bolt set the latest human record at just under 45. Also, trying to sit on a kangaroo's hindquarters like he is in that last panel would likely just get you sprung into orbit, unless you're a comic book hero. Thus we've already established Rahan's superhuman (albeit entirely natural) abilities.
Batman in a leather diaper? Check.
Second, seems patently ludicrous to insert both a kangaroo and boomerangs within the first two pages of the first issue of the comic, seeing as it generally had little or nothing to do with Australia. Upon consideration, however, it made for a clever compromise between situating the comic's primitive setting and not blowing their entire wad by immediately overusing Mastodons and Smilodons. 1960s-'70s European pop culture was already saturated with adventure novels and movies set in such exotic, thrilling, primeval locales as the South Seas or the Hollow Earth or Darkest Africa or... ummm, Kansas. Well, they can't all be winners. Australia instantly established the comic's genre to its target audience without being too on the nose.
Third, yes, he is indeed interrogating the kangaroo... as to where the sun sleeps at night. Moving along.

That odd little segue leads into the main plot: the adolescent Rahan has set himself on a quest to find the lair of the sun god so as to persuade it to shine constantly because he's afraid of the dark.
That panel's either copycatting a very famous painting or Captain Morgan. Either way, good job re-iterating the romantic adventure setting.

One of the funnier facets of our pop culture expectation of prehistory holds that it was full, absolutely full of erupting volcanoes, and this comic didn't disappoint. Look at that: firestorm plus white birds. It's like a John Woo adaptation of the Paleolithic. Rahan's very origin story consists of losing his tribe to a volcanic eruption, and every few issues he'd run smack into another one just as it was a-splodin', nearly all of them inhabited by human tribes inexplicably building their homes almost atop the caldera. Big empty planet but when everyone picks a settlement spot they all want to sit their asses on the nearest fiery rockpile of doom.

Or maybe they didn't have a choice. I mean, look at that landscape, something out of the Hadean. You can't swing a dead pterodactyl without hitting a cindercone around here. Wait, weren't we in boomerang town? Y'know, the place not particularly known for volcanic activity? Tectonically, Australia's practically defined by being not_on_the_ring_of_fire, unlike its smaller northern neighbours. We know we're on the mainland because Lecureux went to some pains to establish young Rahan's unfamiliarity with large bodies of water. It's actually a point of character development that he learns to swim as a result of needing to cross large rivers in his mad crusade for the sun god's cave.

Constantly chasing the setting sun he at last dead-ends into the western shore, almost drowns trying to ride a giant tortoise across the ocean (tell me you haven't wanted to do that) and at last decides to seek out new worlds and new civilizations rather than a mirage. He mocks the sun god with impunity.


Lookie there, more eruptions.

What's that? You need a supply of fresh water for high seas adventures? Nonsense. He's Batman, remember? Surfing the (presumably Indian) ocean on his raft the size of a cafeteria tray, he lands on an inhabited island and witnesses a boat race. Seeing one boat lap the other around the island induces the epiphany of the sun circling the earth to rise at the opposite horizon every day, and the realization that the world is round. "Comme un fruit!" Suck it, Magellan!


Turns out the natives there are enlightened noble savages never fighting either amongst themselves or with other islands, venting their competitive instincts in harmless contests instead, like boat racing. Cue epiphany #2 "we don't have to kill each other" and Rahan sets off for the next exciting issue. Thenceforward his task is to explore the world, spreading wisdom as he goes.

Look, another erupting volcano! And another one! And - oh shit, you thought I was joking about the pterosaurs, didn't you? Bitchin'! Cue bare-chested hair band electric guitar solo. BbrrrraAAaaannNGG! BadabadabawannNGG! Check out the pecs, yo!
Heheh. As much as I have to laugh at seeing it now, twenty-five years worth of perspective and scientific knowledge after I first read these lovely picture-books, I still love them. The wolfy doth protest too much.

I'm not sure Cheret ever again drew Rahan quite so stubby and barrel-chested, and rarely gave him chest hair. In fact he's usually drawn and explicitly described as slim, youthful and agile compared to the musclebound, hairy, brutish tribal chiefs he opposes. Typical dashing young rebel. Here it's likely meant to show the passage of time, since the first issue of the comic covers several years' worth of prehistoric walkabout. Our hero is no longer the naive, slim youth of twenty gloriously colorized pages ago but has become A Man ready to take on the world. As with most serialized works, the earliest installments (for better or worse) read and look slightly differently from the rest.
The boomerang, though adopted in the first issue alongside his ivory knife and five-claw* necklace as though it's here to stay, is dropped with no fanfare from future installments. Just as well, as it was too culturally-specific for a globetrotter.
Graphically, Rahan himself would become more polished and consistent in his features and proportions and the backgrounds would grow more detailed than in the first few issues, etc. That badass windblown hair look gets used more sparingly later on.
The plots would become more nuanced as Lecureux settled into his groove of presenting Rahan with natural phenomena/mysteries from which he deduces a solution to the tribe of the week's current dilemma.

That the comic plays fast and loose with its geography, paleontology and biology is to be expected given its 1969 debut fast on the heels of the wildly successful Flintstones. Geographically misplaced or kaiju-sized versions of normal wildlife and anachronistic dinosaurs crop up with some regularity, and Rahan's body possesses a small trace of the usual implicit superhero healing factor and resilience to blunt trauma. However, compared to the other, more Conan-ish sword and sorcery takes on prehistory from preceding decades, Lecureux and Cheret kept things surprisingly down to Earth*. Compared to inventing and inserting racial memories into Neanderthals, the odd T-Rex here and there seems almost natural. By and large they stuck to real-world conflicts and technologies, and much of the comic's charm lay in reinventing such mundane objects as flutes, hard-boiled eggs, fishing poles and magnifying glasses through the wonder of a primitive mind.

Centering much of the comic on reinventing the wheel (at least from the reader's perspective) served Rahan as well as it always has Robinsonesque island adventures, with the added bonus that a young fan would not only share in knowledge of such simple technologies (I've heard of aqueducts, who says I haven't) but in the caveman's exultation in divining their operating principles (oh, one end has to be lower than the other?) It tiptoed the knife edge of "edutaiment" with rare grace. More importantly, it extended that same principle of rational inquiry to Rahan's own outlook on the world, right from the first issue. He's no declared atheist, quite willing to speak in terms of gods and spirits, but also skeptical of ever encountering one and always, always willing to pull Santa's beard.

Though arguably fitting the noble savage trope, Rahan's not born englightened. In the very first issue, he has to be told that:
1) kangaroos aren't people, dumbass
2) nobody's ever found the sun's sleeping cave, dumbass
3) not everyone kills each other on sight, dumbass

The moment of iconoclasm in that third image where he basically tells the sun "screw you, man, I'm outta here" in fact recapitulates in the very next panel a process very familiar to most atheists, the lingering irrational fear of divine retribution during the period of adjustment after ceasing to believe. Unlike most speculative pulp fiction, Rahan didn't stop at presenting discoveries, but gloried in the process of discovery. Observation, hypothesis, testing, theory. If the sun does not avenge insults, maybe the dark is not to fear either? You're blowing my mind, dude.

Perhaps most importantly, Rahan's intellectual freedom extends to his interpersonal relations. He never allows himself to be trapped in a long-term sexual relationship* and never swears fealty to some arbitrary in-group* and is frequently faced with the treachery hiding behind facetious niceness. The son of all clans, of all hordes, of the grand horde of humanity, bases his do-gooding not on instinctive sympathy and other emotional manipulation but on the general principle of a higher good. His gift to those-who-walk-upright is the dissemination of knowledge.

For the sake of human interest, each issue of the comic ladled on more than its share of monsters, violence, drama and cave-girl boobies, but true to its publishers' socialist/communist roots it presented a constant message of equality, the greater good and personal freedom which is far beyond even today's pop culture. Those same socialist roots also explain why American audiences have never seen so much as a single blond hair of the son of the savage age. So if you're looking for a creative gift for a ten-year-old, give Captain Ugly American a rest and try digging up some copies of the old original run of Rahan*. Bonus points if you get them in French and ensure the little bastard an easy A- in his foreign language courses.

("Minus" because he'll probably think all French is spoken in third person.)
(And a hard slap in the face from the first paleontologist he meets.)


______________________________________________
* We do not speak of anything labeled Rahan after 1984.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Dwarf Fortress

"There hammer on the anvil smote
There chisel clove and graver wrote
There forged was blade and bound was hilt,
The delver mined, the mason built"

The Song of Durin


What can I add about Dwarf Fortress? For fifteen years, much more dedicated fans than myself have posted incredible stories of their own personal subterranean carceri d'invenzione, easily out-digging, out-building and out-polishing my haphazard attempts so far.

DF is a base-building game, which is to say a small-population city simulator with combat elements. Its 1980s graphics (if you call ASCII "graphic") have failed to jazz all but a few obsessives into playing. Its dauntingly immense tangle of categories, sub- and sub-sub-categories of terrain, creatures, events, materials, orders, products and other functionality whittled away most of the remainder. Even for me, reasonably accustomed to difficult, complex or just plain old games, it took years to finally grit my teeth and give it a chance - but I am glad I did. DF deserves wider recognition.

To get some vague idea of its ambitions, consider that before you can even start a game, you must first have it generate the world which you'll inhabit. Entire continents, islands, mountain ranges, deserts and primeval woods will spring up, thousands upon thousands of possible locations, one of which you'll choose for your game map according to its climate, proximity to other civilizations and availability of wood, water, minerals and whatever else you can think of. Around your infinitesimal speck of a mighty fortress, this world will continue to develop as you play, civilizations rising and falling alongside your own. For my sixth attempt, I chose the source of a stream up in the mountains.
Aside from the stream, ponds, trees with brown piles of leaves around them (south side) and bare gray dirt (north) where my livestock and foot traffic trampled the sparse mountain grass, the most prominent feature would probably be my hastily constructed defensive wall. See, back in the early years this region had a big problem with giants (pun intended) and I figured some passive defense, unsightly as may be, was in order.

Just as the structure neared completion, I got attacked by a roc. Flitted right over my little wall. Because the universe hates me, that's why. With all my guards stationed underground to deal with threats from below (thinking I had a wall to buy me time topside) livestock and civilian casualties might have mounted quite rapidly, if not for one unexpected development. A dog, a pathetic stray from one of the pastures, bit into the roc's wing and clamped down for dear life, keeping it from chasing other prey and effectively pinning it until my guards made their way up to riddle the monster with crossbow bolts. The dwarves who died in the fight were immortalized alongside the roc itself in gaudy engravings adorning the walls of my commercial district's inn. (Left side of the screen.)
The dog, who also sacrificed his life and saved many others in the process, could not be commemorated. He was a nameless stray.
Now that's pathos.

A decade later, attacks from above ground have nearly ceased, aside from the occasional thieving kobolds infiltrating the upper reaches. My attention turns below, to the natural caverns with their own possibilities and dangers. Ten levels beneath the shops and twenty-one levels beneath the pastures, a small walled outpost (right side of the screen) gathers the wealth of the deeps.
It's quite self-sufficient, defended by a guard barracks and rows of deadly traps outside its walls, supplied by a local kitchen, sizeable crop field and underground lake for fishing. Said wealth, however, comes surprisingly not in the form of precious jewels and metal ores, useful as those are. Abundant fungiwood trees have prevented me from over-harvesting my above-ground wood supplies even as I keep the charcoal feeding my forges. In the large blue circle, the entire cavern seems festooned in white remnants of giant spider attacks. Silk, in such amounts as to keep my clothiers constantly churning out spidersilk cloaks, gloves and hoods, to the point where the silk trade has eclipsed all my other exports combined. My dwarves have even kenneled and tamed a few of the creatures, so I'm well on my way to a silk farm.

A smaller blue circle up the slope heading left marks a somewhat sadder event: a red trail of blood left by a naked mole rat, just one more little escapade of the hundreds upon hundreds constantly being played out within my colony. Such a minor event that I never even took notice of it, finding only a tale written in blood upon the stone.

And this is all just basic stuff. Haven't even gotten into building complex machinery yet. I've been putting it off because, frankly, I know it's going to be a pain in the ass just placing anything more complex than a wall. DF's worst feature isn't even its graphics. You get used to the symbols. They start to flow, they gain meaning, you start seeing the tableau they make. They're even pretty, at times, like watching raindrops flicker blue over the landscape. The interface and control scheme, on the other hand... ouch. Mouseless, arrowing back and forth over your entire screen every time you want to do anything from checking the contents of a square to designating a target for your military squads to kill, gets old very fast. Unfortunately, that basic clumsiness gets compounded by some design decisions which seem almost intentionally counterproductive. Menus routinely sink three and four layers deep and utilize different sets of redundant scrolling keys at random. The game's eternally unfinished state, constantly reiterated, bleeds though in aggravating redundancy with lists stretching over entire screens with no options for sorting, rearranging or filtering information. That anyone puts up with any such nonsense stands in itself as high praise of the fascinating complexity to be found past that interface.
Though admittedly lacking ease of access and the aesthetic charm brought by even the simplest modern technology (see Banished) Dwarf Fortress' breadth and depth of interactions enables it to provide many times more of those precious little dramas to which sandbox games are so apt. Everything becomes an adventure within an adventure, from finding yourself unable to trade because your broker decided to drink herslef asleep when a trade caravan's in town to digging a tunnel to fill a cistern and inevitably drowning the poor dwarf you send to break into the riverbed. I've barely scratched the surface. Any of Dwarf Fortress' constituent elements could make entire games in themselves. I'm screwing up so badly that I can't build coffins quickly enough to bury all my hundreds of dead, and I'm loving it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Truth Gap

"Veil of virtue hung to hide your method
While I smile and laugh and dance and sing your glory
While you lie, cheat and steal
You lie, cheat and steal
How can I tolerate you?
Our guilt, our blame, I've been far too sympathetic."

Tool - Intolerance


Women are making 79 cents on the dollar? Oh, those poor, oppressed 51% minority of women. Oh, those evil, cackling, domineering male oppressors. Oh, the humanity!

Oh the banality. How many times have we heard that bullshit spouted? Likely as many times as we should have re-read "How to Lie with Statistics" over the past few decades. Were it a philosophical statement, the gender wage gap would qualify as what Daniel Dennett termed a "deepity" - a statement with two meanings: one blatantly and indisputably true but trivial, the other nonsensical but sounding like an earthshaking revelation. Seeing as it's not a philosophical but a political statement, I'm just going to call it a lie.

The "wage gap" is really there and so long as you ignore everything else going on in society it does indeed sound like a stunning injustice, and feminists have constantly milked it to prop up their faery-tale boogeyman of an oppressive manocentric male-ocracy. It's not hard to get the results you want as long as you ignore the woman behind the curtain, ignore any relevant context or inherent bias in your favor, or to put it in the words of the authors of one meta-analysis of such studies: "Our results show that data restrictions have the biggest impact on the resulting gender wage gap." The closer you match men and women's life histories, the more the wage gap vanishes. Gradually over the past decade, given the endless such articles hinting at the intellectual dishonesty of womens' feigned martyrdom, feminists have been forced to grit their teeth and acknowledge other factors in personal economics which might account for this disparity aside from their all-purpose "men are evil" and their resulting song and dance warrant a good, hard eye-roll.

Consider other factors like seniority, hours worked, time taken off work, higher educational degrees and their relevance to the work environment and lo and behold, the pay earned by women for the same work begins to barrel vertiginously toward the earnings of their male slavedrivers. Depending on the year and country of the study, even feminist-biased studies seem to yield (in the small print) only a 3-6% unexplained pay disparity between men and women. Note that "unexplained" to feminists immediately translates as EVIL PATRIARCHY!!! More objective analyses tend to conclude the whole precept is so flimsy as to seem "not even wrong" in Pauli's famous words. Then they ignore their own low single-digit results and get on national television to screech and wail about their self-serving 20% pay gap instead. Because, you see, even if men are killing themselves like idiots to maintain their image as worthy providers in their wives' eyes and women are content to live better with less direct pay, that's still oppression of women... somehow. 'Cuz ovaries.

Aside from a bare-faced preachers' defense of their own pulpit on feminists' part, this is, to me in my poor primitive male mind, one of the most stunning examples of "burying the lead" as journalists put it. A 500% margin of error? Persisting through decade after decade? That's your front-page headline. It may be that the remaining percentage, your supposed truth, can also be explained rationally instead of appealing to fanatical anti-male chauvinism, or maybe there really is still some old boys' club lurking in boardrooms. Worry about that on page 12. But! - before we get to that mysterious remaining fifth of the supposed wage gap, tell me instead about the first four-fifths. Tell me why, for the entirety of my life, you have shamelessly lied to me about 4/5 of the problem. Tell me why you've browbeaten men and fabricated this entire guilt narrative to force men to accept unfair hiring and workplace practices to correct your imaginary injustice. Write a ten-page article detailing what exactly entitles you, you fucking do-nothing, profiteering, softheaded, antiscientific "women's studies" wastes of space, tell me what the fuck you think entitles you to foment inequity, panic and bigotry by lying to the entire world.

Better yet, let's try to think about what instinctive pro-female bias makes us so susceptible to such lies. What makes us so paranoid about mistreatment of women that we're willing to uncritically buy into feminist propaganda, whether it be truth or lie, at face value? Talk about why this 80% lie has persisted for over two generations at the very least. Let's analyze why the leader of the free world, Barrack "hope and change" Obama and Hillary "vote for my ovaries" Clinton have gotten up on the international stage to endlessly repeat this blatant lie (which not even its most ardent proponents can sustain anymore) as if were undying gospel. No-one is innocent.

Let's talk about your 80% truth gap.

Let's talk about the men over the past decades who've likely been driven out of education, out of white-collar work, to scrabble for manual labor and finally to the streets, into the gutter and into the grave because of the institutional favoritism such lies engender. Let's talk about your monstrous entitlement in playing slavedriver to those individuals who were born the politically incorrect sex. I will no longer tolerate you even if I must go down beside you.

Only after that, if you still want to talk about removing those last few percentage points of disparity, then remove women's access to men's labor and earnings. Eliminate the main reason why men have to try harder, have to scramble for every cent. Eliminate our instinctive mentality of male providers and female ability to fall back on said providence. Eliminate marriage, and gold-digging and alimony and child support for unwanted children and the duty of the man as handy around the house. Instead of indoctrinating men from the cradle in some primordial guilt and debt toward women, make it a part of every boy's upbringing to learn the tools of feminine manipulation, beware and resist them in order to remain free of female control.

When women can no longer bleed men at their leisure, you'll start seeing real equality. Eliminate women's entitlement and men's willingness to sacrifice themselves. Of course, such an alien state of being would lie so wholly outside the definition of humanity as to render its very pursuit moot. As long as humans are human, men will strive to make themselves more valuable wage slaves in order to lavish the fruits of their labor upon women.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Convergence

"A clash of worlds is at hand
I am the first, I am the last
I am the knowing, I am the lost
I am the honored, I am the scorned

Born to sleepers the unnatural seems natural
It is slow death waking from this world
When the truth is veiled"

Faith and the Muse - Battle Hymn



My post a couple of months ago on ubergamer attrition got me thinking. Whatever happened to Real-Time-Strategy / First-Person-Shooter hybrid games?

Back in eighth grade, while thoroughly bewitched by the polygonal glory of Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries, I came up with this, like, dude, like, totes awesomesauce idea. You ready for this? Check it:
What if instead of individual missions you could link all those mission maps into one giant persistent warzone so that factions could gain or lose terrain. You could even put the whole thing on teh internets like a championship or something. And then you could have some players deciding strategies and allocating resources while others went toe to toe in their war machines.
Eh? Eh? Did I not tell you how a-may-zing this idea was?

Uprising was an impulse purchase snatched off the shelf a year later at Egghead Computers before they numbered among the first of Amazon's many casualties. Though single-player and primarily a twitch-based FPS, Uprising provided a surprising amount of resource management, situational awareness and a necessity to plan ahead. Zipping around in my hovertank teleporting reinforcements to myself closed in on my ideal mech-littered virtual warscape. It was the first FPS/RTS hybrid game I'd tried, whetting my appetite for Battlezone 2 a year after that.

That game was unfairly panned in its time and never achieved the lasting recognition it should have, due in part to a fanatical backlash from BZ1 players who apparently didn't like the larger-scale, more varied gameplay. For all its bugs and cheesy Starship Troopers aesthetic, BZ2 managed to integrate a full RTS economy with FPS vehicle combat and even an infantry mode for spec ops (little used but highly intriguing.) It provided the full range of units seen in any RTS from the preceding years like Command and Conquer: Red Alert or Warcraft 2, from light harasser units to heavy tanks, battlemechs, powerful but vulnerable artillery, air units including air transports for invasions, repair units, guard towers, you name it. It even had alternate modes/loadouts for various units, a feature rarely attempted at that time by even the individual genres it melded.
Icing that cake, Battlezone 2 managed to convey a dramatic sense of scale, thanks largely to its aforementioned option of hopping out of your current vehicle to walk around as a tiny, vulnerable ape among all the lumbering war machinery. In order to access your top-down commander mode you would do just that: park your vehicle next to a command bunker and walk inside.

When the first workable online team RTS / FPS hybrids came out (Natural Selection and Savage) they retained this aesthetic principle of placing first-person players as lowly grunts on an RTS map.
Example map from Natural Selection 2, still played by a few people on Steam
The resource nodes are what matter. You don't. Get out there and give your life(-ves) for the cause, maggot!

For a little while until about 2007-2008, RTS/FPS hybrids were going strong, or at least steady. Savage 2 came out even sleeker than the original and long before NS2 made it onto Steam, Half-Life 2 modders had started churning out ambitious and creative RTS-flavored mods like Empires or Insects Infestation (which never quite allowed you to play as a literal maggot, unfortunately.)

If you think this is sounding like nostalgic pining for games of yore... in part it is. I will concede, however, that none of these examples were in themselves a desirable end-product. They were only ever a limited compromise with old technology. They were too isolated and repetitive in the case of single-player titles, too short-lived and repetitive in the case of multiplayer, and too limited in size in both cases. From 1997 onwards, more and more of these hybrid games' clientelle instead flocked to MMOs, returning only briefly every time when, invariably, the latest MMO failed to deliver an entire universe of layered, constantly progressing real-time combat and strategy. Savage 2 even awarded a "biggest MMORPG fan" title at the end of each match to the player who'd farmed the most NPCs... in a PvP game. Then, as Counterstrike and World of Warcraft brought internet gaming to the rabble, the flood of mass-market cretins drowned out, scattered and starved out the expectations of the much smaller, more discerning nerdy audience. It is, however, inevitable that fans of real-time games should look to MMOs as the next logical step up.

A single interconnected world of combat at the individual or squad or army level, with territory being gained or lost by player action. Resource acquisition and management and distribution, construction, destruction on every scale. All the layered conflict from the personal to the orbital which RTS/FPS hybrid games promised, is best embodied in a persistent virtual world. To achieve that status, however, MMOs would need to stop feeding their troglodytic customers' unearned sense of self-worth. Stop centering the action on individual players. It's the map that matters. Look at the NS2 map above again and compare it to that of MMOs. Does it look more... circular? Fully interconnected? That's how an MMO's map should look.

No low-level zones to be abandoned in favor of leveling sideways to the next zone. No grinding Lower Wasteflow by yourself until you get the gear to grind through Upper Wasteflow by yourself. No isolated backwaters littered with isolated players grinding isolated, motionless NPCs for no purpose but stuffing their own personal loot bags. An MMO's map should embody a central goal (whether competitive or cooperative) into which the actions of a thousand, ten, a hundred thousand players feed directly or indirectly. Such games should not consist of PvP arenas and PvE instances and crafting minigames all irrelevant to each other. It should be understood that MMOs, by nature of their "massiveness" should be hybrids, a convergence of other genres, not clusters of disparate minigames. If they fail to bring together individual decision and grand strategy (as all WoW-clones have failed) then there's nothing "massive" about them.

Friday, January 12, 2018

City of Defendors?

Funny that no matter Woody Harrelson's evident talent and his long and very busy career, his lantern jaw doomed him early on to be cast as a redneck, petty thug or other flavor of retard... like a dumb jock superhero. Defendor was just a logical expansion on his general career.

Incidentally, a long time ago, shortly before City of Heroes went under, I complained about its gradual loss of focus on clean heroics:
"It was greatly damaged by later attempts at moral ambiguity, mystery or real drama. There's simply not enough wiggle-room in the very concept of co-op PvE games to allow for that. You team up and beat on some bad guys. Good, clean fun. Morally simplistic as it is, that's golden-age superheroism, and CoH did it well enough at its start."

I seem to be supported in this general view of superheroism by the trend for superhero movies to flop monumentally when attempting to render their protagonists too morally ambiguous.

That background of moral simplicity defined pulp science fiction as well as comics back in the first half of the 20th century, but where SF stagnated and rotted in its "young adult" phase of space operas and planetary romances, comic books flourished, thanks largely to superheroes. Superheroes as avatars of tribal ideals are not expected to question or challenge the status quo the way a SciFi inventor might be. There's no "what if" involved in Superman punching things. He just punches things. Regardless of how admirably Alan Moore's Watchmen dissected the precepts of superheroism, too much of that level of introspection would kill a genre defined by action. Dark he may be, but even Batman's a knight. "Hard" SF revolutionized its industry. Hard superheroes aren't tolerated very long. It's a facile medium and genre.

So don't act shocked that Peter Stebbings and Woody Harrelson portrayed one of the most believable superheroes in movie history... as a retard. Admit it's a retarded concept to begin with. Getting into a superhero story means sending most of your frontal lobe on holiday, not asking how or why anything happens, imagining the character with whom you identify's blessed with perfect intentions and discernment to set upon the best course of action. You can't squeeze that much certainty into any brain cluttered by more than 100 IQ points. Intellect questions itself. Knights in more or less shining armor don't. Suspension of disbelief doesn't begin to cover it. As painful as it is to watch Defendor rehearse his catchphrases in the mirror and sputter them ineptly at incredulous evil-doers, it's quite in keeping with addressing passers-by as "citizen" and spouting lines like "I am the night" or "it's clobberin' time" with utter innocence. Superheroics excuse not only property damage, but overacting. There's an honest appeal in that.

Following City of Heroes' deserved shutdown a few years ago, quite a lot of its playerbase declared their intent to keep the dream alive. The central philosophy of such a project would have to be, as I previously remarked, giving players the creative freedom to define themselves as comic book characters, and this must include the right to dress and act like idiots. While the individual creations of Marvel or DC or whatever may or may not be dignified, a game universe meant only to feed players' own creativity can't take itself too seriously. Its aesthetics must retain a certain... goofiness, a light touch. Campy, farcical, garish, it must allow customers to build on the main appeal of superheroes over other genres. Forget all the big famous caped crusaders. Your customers aren't them. They're wannabes. They're Defendors, and a true spiritual successor to City of Heroes must provide the sort of atmosphere in which Defendor would play out his quest to bring Captain Industry to justice.

A decentralized superhero universe should be seen through Defendor-tinted glasses.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Springtime for Werwolfe

Though I liked dabbling in Vampire: The Masquerade via its cRPG representation Bloodlines (and even Redemption for all its faults) I've always felt a very significant lack in being unable to play as V:tM's most intriguing clan. It makes me unhappy, unhappy, so very very very very very unhappy. For... you see, I have a secret desire hiding deep in my soul. It sets my heart afire to see me in this rooooooooole-
( -playing game)


I wanna be a Tzimisce
With a scoff to Masquerades
I wanna be a Tzimisce
Lunch on humies every way

I wanna be a Tzimisce
Sport a top rank under Caine
Cause the Camarilla pain
And torpor 'til half past two
Fleshcraft you, you, you - bone you.

I wanna be a Tzimisce
Wear some topsoil when I nap
I wanna be a Tzimisce
See my name vicissitudized
I wanna be a Tzimisce
Every pocket stuffed choice cuts
I wanna be a Tzimisce
On my crafted sentient couch

I wanna dine on the duchess with the duke
I wanna be a Tzimisce
Guzzle vitae 'til I puke
Show the world just what I've got
I'm gonna put on shows that will en-thrall 'em
Read my lips: Gehenna's comin'!

...

Don't look at me like that you philistines. My talent's wasted on you. Wasted!

Ghouls want him; Gangrels wanna be him

Look, I get it, given Bloodlines' basic plot and atmosphere (not to mention technological and budget limitations) no non-Masquerade playstyles could really have been implemented. Even less so in the even more linear Redemption with its whiny bloodsucker romance plot. Still, if I were to play another V:tM-themed computer game, it's the Tzimisce I'd want to try on for size. Two reasons:

1) Villains get the best lines. "The fiends from the Carpathians" in pursuit of their psychopathic obsessions seem like they'd offer the greatest amount of individualism in a game universe otherwise wrapped much too tightly around codependence and clan politics/intrigue for my Gangrel tastes. Unlike the Gangrel, however, the Tzimisce's basic mad scientist aesthetic appears to center more on creativity and intellect. Just my victims and me and my monsters make many. What more family does a Cainite need?

2) Vicissitude with its flesh and bone-crafting seems the most interesting of all the disciplines I've encountered so far as a vampiric dilettante. So much... potential. Aside from the Ed Gein inspired fleshy furniture (always fun) imagine combining Spore-like creature modeling with a modern top-notch physics engine allowing you to alter your creations' movements and abilities by re-sculpting them.

A Tzimisce-themed game would likely center not on the usual RPG questing progression, but on a Dungeon Keeper sort of base-building. Spend most of your time puttering around your suppurating sepulcher and defending it from incursions, with occasional forays into the city beyond for more victims and supplies. Imagine watching your lair slowly spread to gobble up some quaint little neighbourhood, house by house.

Come on, I'm pretty sure the technology's advanced enough now to make a game like this happen. Just need some intrepid developers willing to snub Mrs. Grundy and let us play the villain. If you've got it, flaunt it!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Find Nothing (or Everything) Pleasant

"In natural appetites few people are in error, and only in one direction, toward excess. Eating indiscriminately or drinking until we are too full is exceeding the quantity that accords with nature; for [the object of] natural appetites is the filling of a lack.
[...]
People who are deficient in pleasures and enjoy them less than is right are not found very much. For that sort of insensibility is not human; indeed, even the other animals discriminate among foods, enjoying some but not others. If someone finds nothing pleasant, or preferable to anything else, he is far from being human. The reason he has no name is that he is not found much."

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 11, Terence Irwin translation



That last sentence stands out as amazing in itself, especially if you've read some of Plato's Socratic dialogues and can recognize in Aristotle the same burning need to define terminology. For the better part of a century, Athens' immortally famous intelligentsia had seemingly busied itself with the business of naming, of lending clarity to the amalgam of half-baked memes born of mindless, oversocial simian grunting over the previous millennia. Yet Aristotle had no names for those deficient in the two major natural appetites for feed an' fuckin'*. Give or take twenty-three centuries later, it took the Victorians to describe Anorexia and Kinsey's mighty Privates Brigade** to define Asexuality.

If you've never made a habit of leafing through random ancient writings, do. It can give you a sense not only for how much history repeats itself (and it does, oh my sweet plebes, it does) but also how the technologically developed world in the year 2340 After Aristotle or 402 After Shakespeare has bounded so far past the human ape's understanding. We have the words for that now, thanks to industrial farming and antibiotics and vaccines and centuries of other scientific progress past the state of superstitious primitives looking to the sky for salvation and wondering where their next half-a-meal will come from. Aristotle, one of the very few to have ever advanced intellectual progress, could not have imagined a world in which gluttony and obesity have almost become the norm, in which paradoxically the question of people deliberately starving themselves for no logical reason has also become a recurrent hot-button issue.

Hammurabi's laws were revolutionary... 3800 years ago. Plato was brilliant when everyone else thought the sun rode around in a chariot. Jesus was a comparatively well-meaning sun-baked fruitcake among trigger-happy stoning mobs and the Iroquois League made a nice break from scalping each other. There are no "ancient Chinese secrets" except the exasperating question of why everyone keeps salivating at that phrase, of why yuppies with $100,000 university educations stuff themselves with Ginseng and stick needles in their cha-cha-chakras and imagine Tai Chi's anything but a damned satisfying morning stretch. The wise and noble ancients will not save you from your own stupidity.

The wise and noble ancients were a bunch of lice-ridden vagrants torturing each other to death. They were animals - to a lesser extent than their own wise and noble stone-age ancestors, sure, and we to a still lesser. Aristotle was describing natural states, and already we can see hypocrisy creeping into that attitude, coming from an overgrown monkey dressed in sheep's clothing and keeping baked clay jugs of olives around his artificial cave. Ask an orangutan to make you some beeswax candles if you think even the bronze age was at all natural. All the more infuriating to hear you filthy brainless trash in your petroleum polymer microfiber hoodies bragging into your smartphones about your "natural" lifestyles.

To Aristotle, the departure from natural appetites would have seemed inhuman, and he was brilliant and he was more right than he likely even imagined. The more we think, the more we advance, the less we resemble the implacably instinct-driven savages who constituted a hundred thousand years of humanity before us. Freedom is unnatural. The freedom to manage your own body, to choose whether or not and how to mate, to forego the struggle for tribal status, to believe something other than what your closest fellows believe and act accordingly, are more alien to the animal kingdom, more remote than the stars themselves. Reason is unnatural. Personal liberty, ethics, imagination, exploration... hurray for the unnatural!

A pity he never met Darwin. Deprived of rational evolutionary explanations for human impulses, Aristotle's justifications for human actions unavoidably but fatally conflate the dog with the tail attempting to wag said dog. We are in a much better position now to judge how much our animal bodies abuse us as minds, how our instincts enslave us and enable others to enslave us by manipulating our hormonal reactions. And if Aristotle could hardly understand a world of Big Macs and pizza delivery, he certainly could not understand a world of routine STD screening, The Pill and paternity testing.

The nuclear family unit, the world of women and children first and arranged weddings and a man's gotta do and a green-eyed monster under every marriage bed is every bit as much a figment of the "natural" limitations within that primitive world of subsistence farming. Libertinism is a luxury of civilized society, as the comfortable Greek and Roman upper classes were certainly in the course of discovering. Legally enforced monogamy should be considered every bit as shameful a medievalism as rickets and goiters and the slavemaster's whip. As galling as it is to keep hearing the bible-thumping right-wingers keep droning on about the natural order of things, it's outright infuriating to hear LGBTQQue-walla-walla-cuckoos adopting the same inane desperation to declare their own sexual preferences just as natural.

Gay marriage? Fuck it. With a strap-on. Genderless pronouns? Why would anyone give a shit? Be the dude that looks like a lady. Be the lady that looks like an extraterrestrial. Just stop trying to legitimize yourself by branding yourself. Be unnatural. Be a wer-wolfe. Be that for which Aristotle had no name or for which there is now no name, which needs no name, no check-box on the forms, no rubber stamp of social approval. Be inhuman. Be posthuman, if you dare.



____________________________________
* Errr, my phrasing, not Aristotle's or Irwin's
** Not an official title, military or otherwise.