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 That is, if any studio were willing to adapt the book honestly, keeping both Heinlein's outdated science vis-a-vis said red planet and his gun-toting cowboy political rhetoric.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?