Sunday, April 22, 2018

V:tM - Bloodlines ! How not to design a chase scene

I never did finish off my little series on V:tM - Bloodlines. Oh, well, no time like the present.

Let's talk werewolves. Both V:tM cRPG adaptations feature exactly one (1) werewolf encounter. This is blatant tokenism and my were-lawyer shall hear of it. Redemption's version was somewhat criticized for it non-sequitur simplicity. As you exit a quest location, a werewolf bursts out of a wooden crate and jumps you. Completely unrelated to anything else going on in the game. WTF? The fight itself wasn't much better; standard tank'n'spank with lots of health potion abuse.

Bloodlines was a far superior game. Its werewolf fight, however, was even worse.
Let me lament, once again, the portrayal of werewolves as over-beefed and under-characterized. Why did it have to be a kaiju? But more to the point, Bloodlines' werewolf fight is not a fight. You cannot harm the beast and it can take you out in 3-4 swipes, so you spend four minutes running in circles around Griffith Park Observatory trying to glitch the AI's pathing at doorways and corners to buy yourself time. So how does it fail?

1) You're running in circles. Good chase scenes are linear (think Half-Life 2's opening sequence or utterly gratuitous (yet cool!) hoverboat gauntlet) or maybe sometimes they can be spirals, letting you watch your own progress. This rodeo on the other hand gets old after a couple of laps. And then you realize it's only been thirty seconds. Three more minutes to go.

2) No interaction. Chase scenes have a lot in common with stealth-based games in emphasizing traps, obstacles and other indirect interaction. If you can't kill the boogeyman, can you trip him? Blind him? Lock him in the fridge? Bloodlines' observatory romp lacks any interactable objects beyond opening and closing doors. No barrels to blow up, no chairs to knock over. There is a way to actually kill the werewolf by pressing a couple of switches, or so a walkthrough informs. I swear to all that's toothy that in three? four? more? campaigns I've never bothered with it. The trap itself shows no signs that it might be activated and its switches give no feedback that you're actually progressing toward a solution.

3) For all its frustration, evading the werewolf by running in circles is actually quite easy, giving you no incentive to look for another solution, managing to both demand constant attention yet provide no real challenge, nerve-wracking and dull at the same time. All you have to do is keep chasing your tail for four minutes straight and you're done. It reeks of the sort of penultimate chapter game-changer which developers like to throw in to wreck their own pacing and coherence.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Apotheosis Project

- or: "how I wasted three bucks"

Hadn't played an old-timey adventure game in a while, and while weighing various titles from my GoG collection I remembered I'd already installed The Apotheosis Project last year when I picked it up as part of a package deal or whatnot. And now I've uninstalled it.

There's not much to say here. Gameplay mechanics are standard 1980's fare: lots of 2D pixel-hunting and "use key on door" type of stuff. You can also switch between two main characters, a less common but still well-rehearsed gimmick. I've seen worse. It's the aesthetics that make this a waste of a gigabyte's worth of memory.

For one thing the voice acting, crucial in a genre with otherwise very sparse features, is just horrendous intern-quality read-throughs, managing to be at once overly dramatic and bland. One. of. the. FIRST. villains... talks. in. NOTHING but... dramatic! pauses. Thankfully he vanishes after his first scene, but the rest are about as bad. I'm halfway expecting one of them to say "I did not hit her, it's bullshit... o hai Mark"

I suppose I could stand bad voice acting if the lines being acted were in themselves worth hearing, but the writing makes most indie games sound like Hamlet. Most is just utterly redundant, adding neither color nor illumination to your visible surroundings. I hover my mouse over a red button. The floating text says "red button." The voiceover description? "It's a red button." The rest is fourth-wall-breaking exposition, mostly redundant.

Maybe you think logical consistency might salvage such a mess. Nope. In that same second scene you're supposed to save your partner from a prison cell guarded by the standard-issue One Inept Guard. Pressing the giant red button causes a trap door to open and sets off an alarm, klaxons blaring, red-and-blue warning lights flashing, the works. The guard runs in, ignoring all alarms, and falls through it. Mission accomplished. The voiceover? "Oh my god. What an idiot." I assume you mean the writer.

Maybe you're thinking this is a comedic spoof of such games, but every development is presented in deadly serious scenery-chewing dramatism. There's even a "Noooooo!" to rival the infamous Darth Vader cherry topper to the Star Wars prequels.

Ladle on some good old-fashioned misandry while you're at it. There's a stuck drawer. The male character needs to force it open using "brute force" (direct quote) and he pulls out what he says is a "useless piece of paper." He needs to hand it to his female colleague so she can figure out that the words "5 right 4 left 8 right" might just be the combination to the one and only safe on the wall next to the drawer. Because, you see, boys can't read. They're stupid.
Going through these steps awards achievements named "she's the boss" and "female superiority." The heroine's line upon opening the safe? "I've opened the safe using the combination that I found MYSELF." No, really, caps lock included, with verbal emphasis to boot.

Aaaaand that's about enough of that.
So, as it uninstalls, I have to ask: who initially financed the production of this retarded piece of trash and why is it getting packaged with much better games like The Cat Lady?

Thursday, April 19, 2018


I want to like this game, I really do, but its underlying expertise is just snowed under in too many layers of awkward, amateurish fumbling. As a case in point, take the song-and-dance you need to perform to even vendor any loot:

NPC vendors' demands for various items are limited and changing. This would be great, except there's no way to know what those demands are at any one time. This is not a multiplayer game where you can get a price check on phenolic composites in the next constellation from another player. Also, the vendors are all in separate zones. Also, your inventory's limited, so you can't just load everything you think you might sell and do your rounds. You have to go back and forth between your stash and each NPC, checking current demand then going back to grab three or four items to sell, then zoning again to sell them. Do this several times over, through at least two loading screens at a time, after every quest.

UnderRail is a Fallout copycat. We've been getting a lot of those recently, mostly from Fallout's own former developers, which is fine. Fallout should have been much more of a trendsetter than it was in its own time. Unfortunately, would-be copycats tend to zero in on a few superficial details like the setting or action points or weapon reloading and ignore how these meshed together. UnderRail actually contains an impressive number of features which larger developers refuse to implement. Individually, each of these features can even be said to work. The main issue concerns one of my favorite topics revisited year after year here in my little den: world building.
UnderRail has none, either from a storytelling or level design perspective.
Oh look... rats. Rats which are also dogs, because that makes them more interesting? Then later you also run into actual, regular dogs, for extra redundancy. And I can hit them with my single-target magic missile psychic skill, which stuns, or a bouncing magic missile skill which stuns its first target. Your second destination is called Junktown, a territory disputed by two gangs of lawless thugs. Will you have to run missions between them? Possibly! The entire adventure takes place in caves, with such distinguishing names as "lower caves" or "upper caves" or just to change things up a bit "lower passages" each subdivided into a dozen little maps in which you'll meet a cluster of enemies.

Now, the basic ideas here are solid:
A stat / skill system with synergies and advancement through exploration, not killing. Crafting, sneaking, vent crawling, status effects, ammunition, durability loss, pocket-picking, lock-picking, all those golden oldies are included.

Unfortunately, the whole thing stumbles into Arcanum levels of frustration. To re-iterate my comment about Icewind Dale's difficulty, tough enemies are fine as long as they don't also ship in swarms. Then, difficulty turns into a grind. UnderRail has you fighting alone against groups of enemies, which makes those aforementioned status effects hideously overpowered. Stuns are perfectly valid in group-based RPGs inspired by Baldur's Gate (just means shifting some more weight onto your remaining party members) but for a solo adventure, getting stunned for a round means skipping a round. No options. Amateurish implementation.

In fact the whole combat system seems completely unmanageable without grenade-like consumables to whittle down and separate NPCs to avoid getting zerged. Otherwise, you'll easily get knocked out in the first round of combat without ever firing a shot. The fact that most cleared maps tend to respawn only multiplies this frustration, especially as your character advancement depends on exploration, meaning repeatedly crossing hub maps in search of that last exp point. The game as a whole appears to depend on foreknowledge of what skills you'll need and where. Lockpicking requirements and enemy difficulty jump by at least two-fold between maps. Crafting skills are pointless unless you know you'll have access to the appropriate materials.

All of this might have been mitigated by some inspired map-making and storytelling, but UnderRail fails most by being an aimless grind. LotRO makes a good counterpoint, as it is itself a much more mindless grind (being a WoW-clone) but its level design has consistently stood out. You're always treated to sweeping vistas, foreshadowing and nostalgic looks back at your own path. UnderRail seems to consist of exactly two tilesets. Even that might have been salvaged by some clever arrangement, by some sense of escalation or progress. Instead, most of its maps may as well be ten-by-ten rooms.

The storytelling is, if anything, worse. You arrive at a station. You're given task after task with only the vaguest sense of either present or past context. Given the mutants and undergound living arrangements, presumably there was some kind of nuclear war, not that it's ever clarified. There's a "protectorate" and some stations which function as independent militias, but flavor text and backstory are otherwise conspicuously missing. First you're sent into some caves to the north, then some caves to the west, then some caves to the south. Enemies get tougher with rare warning and you spend half your time zoning back and forth between the painfully small map segments trying to figure out which way to go.

It should be a given feature of game development that games need to be developed, and UnderRail simply was not.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Wonderful World of Superstition: Then and Now

"In finding direction and measuring time, the Egyptian had only the same clues as the hunters and food gatherers of a bygone age: the rising and setting positions of the sun, moon and stars, the shadow of the sun by day and the rotation of star clusters around the Pole Star at night. Years of careful recording, however, enabled the Egyptian to make far better use of these clues. [...] Here we have real science; but many of the priestly drawings of ancient Egypt show the gods busy controlling the points of the compass or the hours of day and night. Along with real science they trailed a heavy load of superstition."

Lancelot Hogben - The Wonderful World of Mathematics
(copyright 1955)


First of all, let's acknowledge how totally rad and tubular a name like "Lancelot Hogben" is. If the kid's gonna get beaten up for his patronymic anyway, you might as well endow him with a pugnacious baptism to compensate.

I ran across the honorable Professor Hog-been's book last year while attempting to pick up my mathematical education where it left off around y2k and realizing I had to go all the way back to the dictionary like Homer Simpson. The Wonderful World of Mathematics proved a bit too basic, being a mere history of math aimed at junior high or maybe 9th/10th grade high-schoolers, but I was impressed with its delivery. It's one of those children's or young adult popularized science books so charmingly intoxicated with their subject matter as to draw young minds into unwitting edification.

It was published thirty years after the Scopes trial. (1955-30, come on, we're talking math here, do the arithmetic.) You've all heard of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, I'm sure. The one with Gene Kelly in it? It sent the Bible-thumpers reeling for several decades, until they re-grouped back in the '70s and '80s to once again try sneaking Creationist superstition into public education. They haven't let up since. Much fewer of you, I'd wager, have heard of the monkey trial's modern reiteration: the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania school district decision on so-called "Intelligent Design" or last decade's fashionable pseudonym for allah and brahma and ymir nose-twitching everything into being. The Nova documentary Judgment Day does a decent job of describing that courtroom drama comedy in its various lunacy (if you can stomach re-enactments; I can't) but I'd rather recommend the eugenial Dr. Scott's own presentations on the matter.

When I ran across Hogben's excerpt above, I did a double-take and immediately checked when and where the book was published, as I could not imagine such a statement about religion (even non-Christian religion) as "superstition" making it past editorial self-censorship in this day and age. In fact the usage of the term "superstition" (if Google is to be believed) has steadily declined since the Enlightenment. I'm somewhat encouraged by the slight rise in incidence since 2000, but half of that is probably just Bill Maher.
Well, I'm doing my part anyway: superstition!
(Have you insulted your fundie today?)

The Scopes trial was started (in true American fashion) for fame and fortune to "put Dayton on the map" with a media frenzy, and it worked. Boy howdy, did it ever work. Did I mention Gene Kelly? In its aftermath, authors like Hogben across the ocean could count on support for science from an American population which had realized it did not want to be portrayed as backward back-woods backbirths, as anti-scientific. For decades, the Scopes trial left the impression that the question had been settled: you can mumble whatever you want in church, but the res publica must be based in reality and public education reflected this.

The Dover trial had its 15 minutes of fame back in 2005 but was quickly eclipsed by the invention of funny cat videos, despite addressing pretty much the same issue in just as urgent a manner. Not only that but unlike in the wake of the Scopes trial, the fundamentalists quickly bounced back with new catch-phrases like "teach the controversy" (there is none, by the way) and other efforts to "wedge" science out of science education. More worrisome, while the Dayton challenge to education was a disingenuous, cold-blooded bid for publicity, the Dover school board seemed deadly earnest in its desire to burn evolution (literally; there was this mural, you see) and regress to the state of ignorant hillbillies.

The right wing has only grown more entrenched over the past century while the left wing, weakened by fifty years of post-modernist anti-intellectualism, can no longer put up a fight.

Come on, one more for the road:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

With apologies to Sir McCartney

Blokes, birds, swinging in the deed of night
Take these broken wangs and learn to fap
You were always wanking for your moment to "arise"


Friday, April 13, 2018

Secret Farmville Legends

Before I abandon The Secret World until their next patch, I'd like to address what I like to call the Tamagotchi Brigade.

TSW is quite a pretty game. It features immersive locales and character models both realistic and theatrical. Unfortunately, this may not make it the easiest program to work within, if its release schedule is any indication. Content updates are few and far between. Even by four years ago, I had remarked that Funcom was swindling its customers with simple text updates instead of working within the game engine for which they'd been charged.

This would be less of an issue if TSW had any replay value, but like any WoW-clone it's a painfully linear slog through a single-player gear farming grindfest. Creativity and unpredictability scare idiots. Content provides no incentive to log in for day after day after day of the same exact run through the same exact scripted instance. Companies need log-in incentives to just get their customers to fire up their game client... just for five minutes... so their addiction to the loot grind can kick in.

So, among other daily log-in rewards, TSW has implemented the "agent network" a minigame mixing trading card random drop collectability with Farmville babysitting. Like previously mentioned texted ventures it features no voice actors and takes place entirely outside the main game environment. Find mooks, equip them with gear and send them on missions. They bring back resources used to run higher-level missions.

That's the interesting part. High-level missions use up a lot of resources. The only way to get these is by having your agents run low-level missions, whose other rewards are utter trash loot, not even vendorable. Missions come in durations of eight, four, one hour or fifteen minutes. With enough agents, by far the most efficient way to gather resources is to constantly run fifteen minute missions... all day long, non stop.

So when your customers run off because your product's a mind-numbingly repetitive grind, your solution is a minigame which is... even more of a grind.
Yes, this will work out well.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Paranoia Agent

"Build a fortress and shield your beliefs
Touch the divine as we fall in line

Destroy this city of delusion
Break these walls down"

Muse - City of Delusion

Satoshi Kon didn't amass a very extensive resume by his untimely demise but he did leave animation with a few raised bars. As much as I liked Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers or Paprika though, Paranoia Agent seems ultimately more memorable, beyond just the hypnotic repetitive screeching of of "maii-ii-aiii-igo" in the opening credits. Shonen Bat is after all a viral meme even in-universe.

For a mishmash of leftover plots that wouldn't fit into full-length movies it holds together surprisingly well, though it takes a second viewing to really catch the multitudinous characters' interconnection and cameos in each others' episodes. A graphic designer gets mugged by a tween boy with a bent baseball bat. Supposedly. The story goes viral. From there on through young, old, male, female, cops and robbers, every episode draws a tangent to this growing urban legend. The vignettes vary wildly in the objective seriousness of their subject matter though they all adopt a generally tragicomic tone, from schoolyard popularity contests to life and death decisions. In fact, by the end, you'll probably be wondering what exactly the show was even about.

But it's obviously about something. Even the most common recurring characters, the two cops investigating the bludgeonings, view Shonen Bat as something like a walking mark of torment seducing the tormented psyches of Tokyo. At least on a superficial level, the series' central theme might be Japanese workaholism, that obsequious shikataganai sarariman devotion to drudgery and putative success which drives so many into hikkikomorbidity. But that's not giving it enough credit. Like the other examples above, Paranoia Agent concerns itself with self-delusion and characters losing themselves to fantasy worlds.

Unlike the more sympathetic hippy-dippy "to each his own" personal empowerment attitude found in Paprika or Tokyo Godfathers, though, Paranoia Agent progresses toward a fairly strong statement in favor of intellectual integrity. It's not the crime, it's the psychological cover-up that gets you, and coming clean about one's faults, inadequacies, errors or transgressive desires would be preferable to fomenting an oncogenic deception. As Ursula Le Guin's character in The Dispossessed put it "Reality is terrible. It can kill you. But it's the lies that make you want to kill yourself."

Paranoia Agent ran in 2004. How much more apt is it now (at least in North America) as snowflake mass hysteria has gripped civilized society? Look at all the kawaii degenerates claiming to be victimized by "institutionalized prejudice" and therefore to be immune from accountability for their own choices and entitled to retribution against their preferred targets of abuse. Observe their pretense of sainthood and martyrdom. Watch the mass hysteria spread, as more and more of the population becomes caught up in the oppression olympics and tell me these idiots wouldn't be improved by a bat upside the head.