Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Wellhold HD

Been meaning to try Stronghold for a while now, having heard some describe it as the greatest thing since sliced awesomeness and others as... meh, y'know, could've been better. So I fire the damn thing up and immediately realize this must've been made sometime just after Age of Empires 2 for all the aesthetic copycatting. Sure enough, only a year or two separate the two games. A bit more charm, a bit less historic scope, but Stronghold's proportions, animations and decorations certainly seem to have been intended as suggestive of a certain much more famous title.

A few superficial aesthetics aside, though, Stronghold's definitely not a clone. It truncates the classic point and click RTS routine somewhat in favor of mixing in some more robust city simulator infrastructure development. Or maybe it was a simplistic city sim with a few RTS combat mechanics stapled to it. Either way, the developers made the mistake of never completely combining its two halves, shipping it with two game modes - the "economics" and "military" missions and campaigns, to be precise, focusing on either aspect while including a bit of the other.

As an RTS, Stronghold can't hold a candle to games with much more detailed unit AI, abilities and stats. Its city simulator side is a bit more interesting, making you balance taxing your people for money to train soldiers while also keeping everyone happy and fed. Wheat harvested from farms has to be moved to mills, then bakeries before it can be eaten and weapons manufactories must be supplied with iron to function, giving the game a little bit of depth despite its lack of a tech tree. Still, not much to talk about here. If you've seen other resource-management games you've seen Stronghold, and even RTSes made years prior will have better combat. It's not a bad game. Had it been expanded into some truly epic city sim with fully integrated combat featuring distinct units, this could easily have blown much more famous titles out of the water. The design team obviously had a fair bit of talent. Truncated and schizophrenic as it is, though, Stronghold can't really offer much except to players completely unfamiliar with the genres on which it's based.

One more thing, though: fire. Like many half-made products, Stronghold includes some game-breakingly untested features. I've heard others complain mostly about units' irrational combat algorithms and paper-thin castle masonry, and those seem like valid bitching, but since I've mostly been playing the largest "economic" map, I'd like to offer Stronghold's firefighting mechanics as a negative object lesson for any would-be designers.

See, your buildings can catch fire. That'd another city simulator gimmick, been around since the early Sim Cities. In most such games you usually fight to prevent fires by making sure all buildings are placed within the radius of a fire station, or by allocating more of your budget to hire bronze-age firefighters to patrol the streets, etcetera. Fires in SH cannot be prevented. They seem to be scripted events. They just happen. What's more, they spread instantly. Within a couple of seconds (literally!) every building within several spaces of the original spark will go up in flames. A couple more seconds after that, the ones next to them.

Aside from building everything impractically far apart, the only thing you can do to help is build wells. Your citizens can grab water from these and rush over (for a certain lackadaisical definition of rushing) to put out the blaze.... which does very little since if a building gets doused, it will, again, within a second or two, re-ignite from its neighbours. Plus, while they're as instantly flammable as buildings your townsfolk's AI contains nothing to the tune of "fire bad" so more often than not most of your population will amble casually into the towering inferno then run around like quaint little two-legged candles before collapsing in a gruesome fiery death.

The picture above shows one of my attempts to build an efficiently-packed castle while still keeping fires under control. I've circled all the nearby wells I can remember placing or can spot visually
(where's Welldo?)

That is a shitload of wells.
- and most of the buildings which caught fire were still destroyed.
Including a few wells.

Look, whack-a-mole's a quaint little game in its own right, but as part of any larger activity it's mostly just disruptive. It's why we don't buy whack-a-mole games from arcades in real life to play them with one hand while, say, writing a blog post, chopping vegetables or doing our taxes. Game developers will too often appeal to this sort of gimmick to artificially insert some tension into an otherwise coherent pattern of game mechanics.
It can work... sometimes. Not this time. Stronghold's developers obviously wanted fire to be a fearsome entity, one gargantuan freakin' mole popping up in your city now and then. What they wound up with is a restriction which completely over-rides the considerations which should actually be the point of their product. Fire, by itself, an event which occurs completely out of the player's control or prediction, can cause a faster loss than an enemy attack, a famine or loss of popularity. Boom, half your infrastructure's gone.

Interestingly, all the mechanics surrounding fires also seem to have been designed to prevent the player from being able to combat this pyrotechnic Mole-zilla, to make it as much of a chore to deal with as possible. Aside from the lack of prevention or forewarning, the spread faster than anything else in the game, the anemic firefighting via underpowered wells and your workforce cheerfully running in to burn to death, you also have to manually replace each and every one of the buildings you lost. That's right. No automated rebuilding. So you have to sit there trying to remember whether this clump of rubble was a bakery or tannery and try getting each little square back to exactly the minute placement you had it in before... again, and again, and again.

Were nothing else wrong or unfinished with Stronghold, this one minor chore so utterly overblown into an all-consuming grind would still eclipse most of the game's better points.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Pearls Before Swine

"Time was when men had simple souls, desires as natural as their eyes, a little reasonable philathropy, a little reasonable philoprogenitiveness, hunger, and a taste for good living, a decent, personal vanity, a healthy, satisfying pugnacity and so forth. But now we are taught and disciplined for years and years, and thereafter we read and read for all the time some strenuous, nerve-destroying business permits. Pedagogic hypnotists, pulpit and platform hypnotists, book-writing hypnotists, newspaper-writing hypnotists, are at us all. This sugar you are eating, they tell us, is ink, and forthwith we reject it with infinite disgust. This black draught of unrequited toil is True Happiness, and down it goes with every symptom of pleasure. This Ibsen, they say, is dull past believing, and we yawn and stretch beyond endurance. Pardon! they interrupt, but this Ibsen is deep and delightful, and we vie with one another in an excess of entertainment. And when we open the heads of these two young people, we find, not a straightforward motive on the surface anywhere; we find, indeed, not a soul so much as an oversoul, a zeitgeist, a congestion of acquired ideas, a highway's feast of fine, confused thinking."

H.G.Wells - The Wheels of Chance


Wells' amusing little romp (or roll) along the southern shores of England tends to push gentle satire somewhat over the top in that verbose belabored Victorian rambling (which I often find myself emulating, so let me get to the point.) It's hard to tell when he's joking or not. Most comedians would decry this as a failure and Wells wasn't particularly known for his humor. A sort of dry, observant wit, on the other hand...

Though this is not one of Wells' SF stories, assume the above passage was delivered in the usual style of the Science Fiction mid-narrative pedantic monologue outlining the failures of society. It's got the right tone and falls at about the right place in the story. Assume it's mostly honest. Forgiving the venerable master his occasional primitivism, his misplaced romantic nostalgia for a nonexistent healthy natural state of the human individual, I'm always struck by passages from decades or centuries past which echo some tones of my own brand of disgust with society.

For how many generations has indirect social control via various media outlets been spinning our inner compass in every which way? On one hand it seems like every generation thinks the sky is falling, that the latest technology is destroying the arts of interpersonal communication as they existed at the time when the speaker was, conveniently enough, a starry-eyed youth. (There's an amusing Wondermark strip about that but I'll be damned if I can find it at the moment.) On the other hand, there's something to be said against everybody saying something all the damn time.

The tribal and medieval worlds were those of near-absolute authority. The individual aped the moral standards of local authority. Only way to keep from getting skinned alive and torn apart by dogs on the bishop's orders. We laud the printing press and other technologies (like, ummm, this) for easing the dissemination of ideas but at some point we have to realize that most human beings are simply incapable of independent thought and even the best of us fall to easily into our social ape brown-nosing. Instead of one hierarchy, the tail-chasing maelstrom of modern sensibilities has us continually bowing left and right to the latest moral authority. We have gradually exchanged two ruling estates for two hundred, but we genuflect as much as ever - only without admitting we are.

This isn't a matter of reactionary backsliding, of reverting to some false idol of the noble savage. Our regret, instead, should be for an unreachable future, for the possibilities inherent in human consciousness which we never quite embody, that Nietzschean bridge we fear to cross. If every increase in freedom of choice brings only more frenzied chasing of that increasing congestion of acquired ideas, a greater desperation for an oversoul in place of missing individuality, then we have to acknowledge that something is inherently wrong with the social nature of the human animal, that this state of "humanity" is unfit for progress.

H.G. Wells wrote The Wheels of Chance one hundred and twenty years ago. For all the velocipede's benefaction and all the blogs that Blogger can blog, the human weakness for social manipulation has not changed. Intelligence needs better materials than our instinct-riddled carcasses to work with.


(Oh, and before you look up Ibsen, he wrote plays.)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Kerbal Space Program and Rializm

"Against the law to talk about the rocket in the park
I sent it off to be examined by a scientific team
On the moon, on the moon, on the moon, on the moon"

Rasputina - Things I'm Gonna Do


Lookit me circlin' da Mun!
Periapsis 4273m, yeah, s'up biznatches? My satellite, that's what. I am the greatest cosmo-guy that ever astroed naught. Eat that, you NASA chumps!
...
Errr... by which I mean Kerbal Space Program is a clean, wholesome and edifying activity for the whole family.

You've probably heard about it. You probably haven't played it. That's ok. You may be excused for mistaking this game for some sort of hipster fad or "educational" product or some other achingly pointless gift your aunt Mildred forces you to fake a smile for receiving. Sadly (or perhaps happily) KSP fails miserably to actually utilize true scientific parameters. You know what? That's okay. Kerbal science is like Europa Universalis' version of history: once you get past the fact that Norwegian conquistadors turned central Africa Eastern Orthodox in 1500, you get to learn some nifty place names and terminology.
What, you think I actually knew what the hell "periapsis" meant before playing this?

And hey, guess what? Despite our talk of tropo, strato and other spheres, the atmosphere doesn't organize itself into neatly delineated layers with discrete densities, either. Many of the Kerbal-related complaints (and praise... and anything Kerbal) tend to fit into the old debate about the desirability of realism. An old, old debate.
When Counterstrike replaced Team Fortress Classic as the most popular Half-life mod around Y2K, it was praised mostly about such hyper-realistic mechanics as crouching to increase weapon accuracy. Immediately gun nuts started critiquing the finest details of the in-game weapons from muzzle to... errr, whatever the opposite end of a gun's called.
When the next generation of Half-Life mods came along like Day of Defeat, it in turn was praised for even more hyperer realism of not just crouching but going prone while shooting to increase accuracy even more. At the same time, criticism arose that despite the one-shot kill ratio of damage to health, bullet wounds were not realistic enough.
When STALKER came out it was lauded for the realistic demands in keeping your character fed and bandaging wounds to stop bleeding. Nonetheless others immediately complained that these actions were too quick and didn't carry the true realism of bandaging a wound. I don't doubt I could probably find some whack-job who thinks eating's not realistic enough in computer games unless you actually have to move your character's jaw to chew bite by bite.

Look, take it from an old lycanthrope who's gained the wisdom of ages on this matter over a couple of decades of playing everything from Pong to Skyrim. It's not realism that truly matters but complexity. The number of objects you can interact with, the number of actions you can take, the interconnection and nuance which ties them together and gives meaning to the player's choices, that's the game. Now, of course if you're adding that many elements to an otherwise abstract activity in a virtual medium, you may as well lend some of them recognizable forms and functions. That appeals to our monkey brains, same as popular tropes in books and movies allow the reader / viewer to situate oneself vis-a-vis the relevant demands that activity places upon consciousness. "Realism" is immersion. It plays the same role as sound and visual arts on the whole in fleshing out a game but it is not the point of the activity in itself.

In terms of complexity, Kerbal is a very interesting game. It demands you think about a lot of factors in order to get whatever junk-pile you slapped together off the ground. Many of these factors carry familiar names like "gravity" "mass" and "friction" but at its core Kerbal satisfies us as primates because it addresses the unique genius of the vertebrate order mostly known for its grasping appendages: our skill in estimating ballistics. That same visceral satisfaction our ancestors got from tossing poop and jocks get from tossing rubber balls around and khaki-clad murderers get from the distant reverberation of a perfectly-angled mortar round also feeds the nerdy satisfaction in nudging a satellite's trajectory just right so it loops around da mun.

And yes, of all the activities listed above, KSP's the most cerebral (though some of my launches have looked like piles of crap) because you do have to keep in mind, all at once, that large bodies exert a constant attractive force around them and that a denser medium offers more resistance to motion and a propulsive force is only as good as the lack of mass of whatever it's shoving up your well.

But it's still a game. Real space exploration looks like math. Real science in general looks like math. Hell, counting gophers these days involves enough statistics to make Archimedes cringe. Shelter is no exhaustive dissertation on the life of badgers either yet was still wildly successful in making the player feel badgered. My own area of study involves nondescript globs of white slime in Petri dishes. Wanna hear how realistic I think Spore should've been?

If you want to play football you buy a bouncy rubber object and bounce it around with a couple dozen other apes and accept that you'll get sweaty and eat some grass. You don't need FIFA or Madden umpteen. If you want the full homemaker experience you don't play The Sims; you find a mate, spawn some podlings and waste the rest of your life trying to raise their social standing. If you want realistic spaceflight you study your ass off for two decades and join the European Space Agency and maybe find a space-squid under the Europan ice sheets. If you just like thinking about it you watch the movie. Or maybe you play Kerbal.

KSP's not perfect. Plane wheels seem hopelessly misaligned, making spaceplanes nearly impossible to get off the ground. Components sometimes fly apart for no discernible reason. No two launches are ever the same no matter how often you revert your flight back to launch. Your spaceships will look less like sleek, glorious conquerors of the universe and more like ridiculous layer-cakes. You get plenty of do-overs to allow you to get creative and the career mode is open enough to allow you to more or less choose your own next challenge. More importantly it's challenging enough that reaching that next milestone feels like more of an achievement than slaying any number of zombies in the latest FPS.

It's enough to satisfy nerds in general. It doesn't require an engineering degree to play; just a brain. It's a game for geeks of a wide swath of ages and denominations. And hey, you will eventually get a much more realistic virtual rocketry experience... a couple decades from now, if the average level of education keeps rising, if general knowledge encompasses more and more physics... if scientific education isn't completely destroyed by postmodernism and its bastard offshoots of cultural relativism and spiritualism and animal rights and feminism and anti-intellectualism of all brands. Just as Europa Universalis contains more actual historical factoids than the Society for Creative Anachronism could have dug up three decades ago. We learn, we grow. We pile more knowledge as best we can into public consciousness.

Kerballistics is good popular science now, as it is. Enjoy flinging poop around da Mun and dreaming of the vast outer reaches of space. Marvel at that band of white dots appearing above you as you break free of the suffocating, blinding confines of the atmosphere.
Escape gravity. Pun intended.
Escape.

"I have half a mind, it's cracked and breaking
It's recommended as great for tasting
Spit in the face of the tried and true one
These are things that I'm gonna do"

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ex Machina

"Do you or don't you want this to be your song?
It doesn't take a rebel to sing along
This art is weak in its pretty pretty frame"

Marilyn Manson - Born Again


Ex Machina's crap.
Not complete crap. Its basic concept carries a great deal of weight and it benefited from an ending much better than that of much better movies. Still, overall I'm starting to think 28 Days Later must've been elevated by Danny Boyle's handiwork because in terms of directing, Alex Garland pretty much face-planted this one. No amount of critic ass-kissing can change that.

Most of the basic elements could have made for a great movie. The acting, admittedly, is quite good within the limitations of the roles assigned. The special effects are great both technologically and artistically. The plot's skeleton was solid. However, the movie vastly overplays its hand with its characters' cinema verite awkwardness and simplicity. These men do not speak, do not move, do not conceptualize like the kind of minds which wrap themselves around such grandiose concepts as artificial consciousness. Their every line reads more like backstreet hooligans' bullshitting while shooting hoops than nerdy banter or speculation.

Of course there's a reason for that. Men are stupid - or so the line toed by Hollywood stretches. Men are evil. Men are pigs. The movie fails to live up to its potential because it sacrifices science fiction for feminist propaganda, and has been lionized and glamorized for the same reason. Over-sexualized and under-analyzed it settles for simplistic shock value where it could have actually explored the question of what exactly it is about intelligence which we can recognize on sight. It settles for a cheap sexist pastiche of stupid, primitive, unrefined men keeping nominal women as sex toys in their basement - and of course getting what they deserve in the end.

How different would the story have been with gender roles mixed a bit? The ending is excellent, yet it's a pity that we can only get such an ending when it's aimed at reinforcing men's role as feminists' punching bags.

Could a social-media-based artifice of interpersonal control not have won over a female test subject as well? Would "she" have appealed to sisterly solidarity over the evil, evil man treating "her" as a sexual object or would a different latex face have allowed "him" to charm a female human just as easily?

Do we have any reason to believe a female researcher would have been less prone to create a male mirror to her own desires? Do we still suffer the mass delusion that the female gaze does not sculpt? Has anyone not heard of romance novels? Has no-one ever seen a romantic comedy?

Or is female control over male thought truly so absolute that even had the two male characters been intellectuals instead of street-corner dude-bros, had they been believable progenitors of new ideas and new technology like so many men throughout history, they would still have been controlled and subverted by a neotenized female face and the curves to match?

Is that why the movie's blatant abuse was swallowed so easily?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Guild

"Billy was born within sight of the shipyard
First son of a riveter's son"

Sting - Island of Souls


a.k.a. Europa 1400 - The Guild.

The third installment in this series is slated for release sometime this year. Unfortunately I'll be much too busy with other new (or old) stuff to give it a try but I did want to get a taste for what the series has to offer so I've been giving the first one a run for whatever money I paid for it.

Something about medievalism just gets our social ape motor running. It's got the right community size and population density to feel abundantly tribal, it revolves around objects built and actions taken at the medium-size animal level which our brains can intuitively grasp, it's got just enough technology to provide some toys to play with while lacking the sort of complexity which might make us feel stupid (what the hell is quantum physics anyway) it legitimized and glamorized our sadistic and violent omnivore instincts and since we've largely forgotten all the myriad iron-clad medieval social rules which made personal choice an irrelevant fiction and littered life with social pitfalls leading by some path or another to death by torture, we get to fantasize about a simple life of personal agency.

So let's do some of that.
During a balmy summer morn, a humble worker lugs a cart full of granite to one of my masonries, perhaps throwing a wistful glance over his shoulder while passing my sumptuous palace. At first I was tempted to compare The Guild to Mount&Blade due to the superficially similar freeform medieval aesthetics but in truth The Guild has very little to do with mounts or blades. Instead of the usual feudal army-building it centers on the rise of the mercantile bourgeoisie during the Renaissance. Yet, though played not from an FPS perspective but a city-sim top-down view, it takes Children of the Nile's attitude in focusing more on the comings and goings of the various inhabitants of that city than on buildings and resources. Not enough to get you to care about them by name though. Also, with only a few dozen buildings it doesn't quite offer the expansive megalomania of city sims.

So what the hell does this thing have going for it?
Time.

You start the game in 1400, in one of a half-dozen possible European cities. I chose populous, thriving Nuremberg and started my career with a little workshop assembling bricks and granite into sharpening stones. The first requirements are simple enough. Keep an eye out for ingredients when they're cheap. Wait to sell your goods when prices rise at the market. Oh, and marry. Marry young, because this is the middle ages and death is always around the corner. If you do well, you'll become a full-fledged citizen of your fine town. You can stop by the town hall and apply for a public office. Something simple like a night watchman. Wealth and respectability (and the respectability that wealth brings) lead to further advancement. You expand your shop. The goods you make get more complicated, with more ingredients to juggle. You buy another business, maybe one that can supply your main one with materials for free, like a mine, quarry or sawmill.

Then you die. (The flowers on your grave are exquisite, the cinematic assures you.)

If you managed to raise a child to at least twelve years of age, you can continue playing as your progeny... and now you realize the real game is just beginning. By 1461 my original character's great-grandson was a duke. The Guild's true selling point is that rarely touched upon concept of dynasty building. Train your children in a craft, then send them to university. They inherit a great deal of your wealth. By ten years later, Wer Wolfe son of Wer Wolfe son of Wer Wolfe son of Wer Wolfe son of Wer Wolfe is a bona-fide prince and judge to boot, rubbing elbows with mayors and cardinals at soirees on which he expends more money than his great-great-grandfather's entire life-long wealth.
Schmooze and bribe some officials to have yourself elected to ever more lucrative positions in the town or church councils. Spy on your enemies to catch them with their pants down or post scathing lampoons about them in the market square. Defend yourself from thieves and falsify evidence. Wear flashy status symbols like a nobleman's staff or a gold chain around your neck to impress the townsfolk. Each real-time round of the game consists of one day symbolically representing a year, with each year being represented by the next season. Sounds needlessly convoluted at first but it yields a wonderful immersion. It makes you feel the passing of every season as you struggle to get yourself out of debt or make some big sale/purchase by the symbolic 23:00 round's end. Year by year the Wolfe dynasty grew until it owned a quarter of Nuremberg. Eight stonemasons fed by my very own mine and quarry ground out luxury goods with which to flood the market. Palaces and statues boasted the Wolfe lineage's prestige and if defamation, beatings and poisonings didn't eliminate the competition I could always mount my castle's highest tower and light up a cannon to smite mine enemies!

And then I had to stop. Not because the game got boring - far from it. The sheer avalanche of interconnected features from crafting to buying new businesses to running for office to schmoozing and backstabbing would have kept me plenty busy, not to mention the replay value of trying a less conventional occupation like a priest or a robber. No, much like my stint as Pharaoh, my grand adventure as a Hanseatic merchant prince was brought to a halt by a simple bug. My trade carts stalled at the market without officially reaching it. Not that it was the only such bug. Many businesses got stuck in repetitive scripts. One of the quarries in Nuremberg never mined anything but clay and made nothing but bricks for seventy years straight. A worker in one of my businesses never "woke up" one fine work day. At one point my character got the "you are about to die" message for decades in a row - but then, is immortality really a bug?

Compounding this, the English translation (the developer being German) left a lot to be desired and though the game lavished a wealth of features on players allowing them to immerse themselves in whatever medieval lifestyle they choose, the in-game documentation for those features was rather beggarly. Weird off-the-wall interface choices didn't help matters. Right-clicking takes the role the escape key would in most games - and hitting escape does nothing in some screens. Ingredients lack tooltips on mouse-over in your business' inventory window, leaving you to guess as best you can what's needed from the pixelated ideograms.

Aaaand from what I've read of the sequel, The Guild 2 was if anything even buggier than its predecessor and managed to make a complete chore of every single task by reducing players from taking positive action to whack-a-mole reactions to various events. So I'd have to hear some really glowing reviews of The Guild 3 to even bother taking a look at it. However, the very first incarnation of the series is certainly worth a play-through or two if you've never tried anything like it before. With more funding and more time for bug testing it could've been something truly great.

By the way, amusingly enough despite all the dozen or so professions you could pick, of all the guilds I could've mastered in Nuremberg, the one thing I could not be is a master singer.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

ST:TNG - The Neutral Zone

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.
_____________________________________

Seriesdate: 1.26
The Neutral Zone


When I started these posts I'd set out to relive the unfolding of TNG's artistic and narrative progress from start to finish. That plan went out the window as soon as I started. TNG maintained a slightly tighter continuity than more comedic television shows but it was still largely episodic, with the status quo re-affirmed at the end of each episode... usually by Picard saying "engage" while pointing at the viewer. Worse still the quality of the show's first season was incredibly uneven from one episode to the next, an aimless parade of half-baked ideas, cheesy stock characters and plots written by people who were either obviously still stuck on pre-golden-age pulp scifi tropes about dashing space heroes lazoring little green men or else completely uninterested in SF material at all and kept trying to turn the show into a mystery or romance story.

So this is the transition point. The Neutral Zone marks the end of that hapless, aimless, artless first season, a last-ditch attempt at legitimacy before the audience can gather their first, second and third impressions into inevitable conclusions. Like many first and last episode season bookends, something about it doesn't feel quite... right. Maybe it's these three muppets.

From left to right: the bad, the good and the ludicrous
As the episode opens, Data compassionately rescues three cryogenically frozen 20th century humans whom everyone else including Picard repeatedly says they should have left to die in their derelict satellite. Even Dr. Crusher seems to take the decision to revive them (or not) as some sort of coin flip. Hippocrates? Never heard o' da mook. Ignoring the completely uncharacteristic reactions from the crew and everything else wrong with this scenario (like a derelict object casually and randomly drifting away from Earth would probably have barely cleared the Kuiper Belt in three centuries' time, much less get to however many light years away this neutral zone may be) this contrivance simply feels like ... intermission.

Usually, the sub-plot of individual TV show episodes is meant to somehow weave into the main action, whether complementing it, providing contrast or comic relief or providing a vehicle for minor characters' presence. The Neutral Zone nominally concerns itself with introducing the viewers to the Romulans, TNG's more dignified attempt at a race of recurring antagonists after the overly-clownish Ferengi. These three's predictable comic relief routine of culture shock at being catapulted into the future simply had no place here. A fatcat, a housewife and a clown walk onto a 24th-century spaceship and... even hilarity fails to ensue as the crew reacts with utter blase annoyance at their presence. Meanwhile, the half an hour dedicated to their antics would much better have been spent discussing with or about Romulans, whose appearance takes up a disappointing five to ten minutes of the show.

Weirdly enough though, I think this actually worked for its purpose. Though badly written (supposedly a rush job according to Wikipedia) it nonetheless contains all the appropriate elements meant to capture viewers' attention. The wistful pathos of ordinary people transposed into a strange, alien future and the finger-wagging social commentary at the rich man's power-lust and its meaninglessness in a post-scarcity society, though artlessly blunt, underscored the main draw of science fiction for the show's intended fans. On the other side of the plot, the Romulans in their warbird make a suitably pompous entrance to whet viewers' appetite for future seasons. Better still, the actors made the best of the shoddy script ... especially the three corpse-cicles who delivered unexpectedly nuanced characterizations of their flimsy stock characters. From cloaking devices to melodrama, klingon-romulan race relations, Data observing human quirks, tense negotiations and meeesteeerious hints of a major cosmic force scooping entire colonies off planets' surfaces, there's something trekky for every trekkie.

I think this episode should have failed in every way but despite its severe issues in writing probably did more to keep the audience's interest for a second season than most of the godawful first season put together. It's a bad job that served a good purpose.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Cry Me a River Game

"Boys in the girls' room
Girls in the men's room
You free your mind in your androgyny"

Garbage - Androgyny


I don't know which side I despise more in the latest round of chest-thumping over trans-sexuals' choice of bathrooms: the professional victim brigade making a mountain out of what is (both in terms of population and potential for harm) a very very tiny molehill - or the reactionary redneck rabble losing their shit yet again over the latest end of the world !!!1

Probably the latter. As much as left wingnuts piss me off I'm still hopelessly left-brained myself. When did educators become the children in this equation? Worse still when the governor of a 27-million-strong state is once again trying to hide Texas from the world inside some perpetually unchangeable late night rerun Mayberry, North Carolina. If teenage Timmy has a winky but doesn't want to use the urinals and would rather be called Tammy and your reaction is “This will be the beginning of the end of the public school system as we know it” then you are not sufficiently mentally stable to govern Podunk much less the most heavily armed political entity without its own independent army.

The end of... oh for fuck's sake, Clevon, everything's the end of everything as we know it. That is the definition of change! While we're at it, pocket calculators and CliffNotes did more harm to education than all the social changes and issues of the past century put together, AIDS, drugs and street gangs included. Except possibly for No Child Left Behind. So, whether it's because of Texas Instruments or the Texan child-king who really should have been left behind, Texas has already kind of been racing Alabama to the bottom of the credibility barrel when it comes to education. Trust me, when envisioning an enlightened, scientifically advanced Utopian Star-Trekkish future society, few picture Texas. They extrapolate from Scandinavia. Mad Max, now that's Texas.

On the other hand, let's not pretend Obama's grand gesture has anything to do with progress. It's a blatant publicity stunt on behalf of Clinton's presidential campaign, reminding all the facetious social activist (emphasis on social) suburbanites to vote Democratic. Not accidentally does it address such a singularly small demographic and so symbolic an issue as the sign on a bathroom door. It means to accomplish nothing except to troll for predictable outrage from Fox News and give Rachel Maddow another excuse to whip out her rainbow flag.

You want to convince me you're actually for eliminating the paranoia over sharing shitteries? Push for unisex bathrooms. If it's equality you want, it's equality for everyone, not just your self-righteous constituency's pet demographic of the week. If it's the individual's mental state and not the factory setting of their genitals which determines behind which door you urinate, then that goes for everyone's mental state. There is nothing fundamentally different about a trans-sexual's self-image which should entitle them and them alone to break this particular social divide.

"Biology is not destiny" makes a nice catchphrase to slap on various causes, but biology is still biology. Some gray areas like trisomy do exist, but even for most trans-sexuals the basic biological fact cannot be denied. A genetically male body is a male body. Genetically female is female. However, we as individuals are not bodies. We're minds. We're self-referent patterns of information processing riding a clutter of instinctive programming in a gooey tangle of neurons. We're software, not hardware, and there's no ethical issue with any particular program deciding it wants to act a different part than its beta version dictates. Unfortunately Mother Nature's a shitty programmer, a script-kiddie slapping subroutines in odd places and taking thousands to millions of years to optimize even the slightest fraction of this virus-infested virtual reality I call I. Software often gets the wrong hardware, from gruff pugnacious little scamps to gigantic mama's boys. Sexual identity's a major issue but it's only one facet of a continuum and nowhere near as clear-cut as something you declare to "identify as" like declaring yourself a fan of a sports team. That's just more moronic tribalism. Yes, I'm sorry, ell-gee-bee-tee-whatever declaring a new category every week and demanding it be treated as a separate Platonic ideal is just as idiotic as muscle-headed rednecks talking about what "real men" do or don't do. Before long you end up with a sexual spectrum by Baskin-Robbins and I'm sorry, we just can't fit that many ideograms on one bathroom door! How the hell do you even handle a two-spirit? Do they need two toilets built side by side?

How about this? How about if you're biologically female, it doesn't matter which bathroom you use, and if you're biologically male it also doesn't matter which bathroom you use. Men, stop panicking that a woman might peek at your ding-a-ling at a urinal - other men are probably more likely to do so. Women, stop taking the socially convenient route of pretending that any man in a private setting will rape you. You know damn well they're more worried about you jumping to conclusions than about jumping you. You abuse that insecurity in every other setting anyway.

Everyone's farts stink. You'd think we'd have figured that out by now. As for a presidential decree on urinal cakes trumpeting some kind of apocalypse... get a freakin' grip. Despite Hollywood's rather skewed interpretation of reality, not every school and apartment building's full of adorably quirky sexual misfits. The vast majority of human beings still fall pretty neatly into male/female categories with all the predictable factory settings. Even if by some slim chance you meet one of the zero-point-zero-something-percent of trans-sexuals in a public restroom, it'll play out like any other public restroom encounter: a pair of shoes in the stall next to you and a face you do your best to ignore while both trying to figure out why the soap dispensers don't work.

And in practical terms, not being able to wash your hands in a public restroom is a much bigger issue than what shape hole the person next to you's pissing out of. Or whatever imbecilic stone-age superstition about divine dictates is feeding your terror of the girly-men and manly-girls next door.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Broken Telephone

"We care a lot about you people... about your guns
About the wars we're fighting - gee that looks like fun !
(it's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it)"

Faith No More - We Care A Lot


Broken Telephone is surprisingly acceptable.
When you see comic book artists gettin' politicalous you kind of expect the usual glorification of American middle-class political activism, or in other words political correctness. Especially if the cartoonist(s) in question happens to be a product of American art schools. Women are saints and men are pigs, homosexuality is morally superior, gay pride parade aesthetic tastes are the pinnacle of civilization, nature is good and technology's evil, foreign people are better than you unless they're white, being "spiritual" is smarter than smarts, religion's only evil if it's not new-age jumbled mumbo or Wicca (that shit's totally Buddha-level enlightenment) vegans are martyrs being oppressed for their beliefs and shoehorning a black guy into the White House will totally change that white house's stripes. Also, slogans fix everything.

Broken Telephone is certainly a product of that culture but it's one of the saner varieties. Its overall tone acknowledges the unavoidable fact that activism is as often as not a matter of self-aggrandizement and not genuine progress, while not betraying the dire necessity for progress. As a collaborative project, its artwork may make readers cringe from one chapter to another (I could not stomach The Gecko's chapters) but remains largely readable. The dialogue's clever enough (in places threatening to drift too heavily into one-liners) but it's the plot's play on expectations which makes it stand out.

The extent to which it panders to conceits like those above is somewhat debatable. Certainly a breakdown of positive and negative roles still reveals a predictable bias. However, the plot's various twists and turns give the lie not only to such presumptions but to sitcom tropes and action movie heroics as well. Beneficent do-gooders and hard-bitten hired muscle are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In particular the scene of the great speech by the hero of the revolution (and the rejoinder thereof) was quite brilliant.

None of this, however, is going to make me listen to the sequel in podcast form. Avoiding human voices is one of the main benefits of reading comics.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Stargate

I'm not talking about Stargate SG-1. I just have to mention that because it seems to be the assumption whenever I bring up the title. The fanbase for the series seems to have been at least an order of magnitude larger than that of the original movie. As is so often the case with mass appeal, this should not be taken as praise.

Here's the thing. Stargate itself was no great cinematic achievement. Heroes get girl and/or new lease on life and nuke bad guy in exotic locale. Kurt Russell plays his usual macho hard-ass disenchanted military antihero character, motivated by children. 'Cuz universality. Nerd sidekick discovers his inner manliness. 'Cuz more universality. At the line by line level, many of the dialogues could've been lifted from any buddy comedy or war movie. The producer and director should probably not have tried writing the damn thing themselves.

Now, a couple of years later I did watch what at the time I'd thought to be a sequel for Stargate when it showed up on a video store shelf. This was, as it turns out, the pilot for the spin-off television series, and if nothing else emphasized the predictable nose-dive in quality when a concept shrivels from the silver screen to fit the idiot box. Stargate had utilized bland stereotypes and plot hooks as set pieces, stepped lightly and even deftly from one to the other to build something atop them. SG-1 dove into the lowest common denominator as if its writers thought they had just invented the straight-backed square-jawed dependable male archetype, or creepy-crawly nondescript slimy monsters or gratuitous nudity. Even expanding the Stargate to a "network" from one lonely planet, from the fiefdom of one poignantly solitary villainous relic of an alien species to an endless string of villains of the week eliminated what little true drama the original had scraped together. From an honest (if flawed) science fiction concept it instantly degenerated into such a sexed-up militaristic ode to tribal ape instinct as to make Starship Troopers look philosophical by comparison.

So what made the original worth remembering while Children of the Gods convinced me SG-1 wouldn't be worth the bother? Basically the same distinction about which I've waxed poetic many a time before. Science fiction is the genre of ideas. It depends on a sense of wonder and discovery (pleasant or not as the case may be) for much of its appeal. Amusingly, it's a Wikipediad quote by Stargate's soundtrack composer which best captures the flick's best feature.

"Every time there was an amazing sight, the characters would stand back and say, 'Oh my God!' But James would just smile and walk towards it. That was the basis for the Stargate score, moving forward with a sense of majesty instead of being frightened by what's around the corner." - David Arnold

The "James" in question would be James Spader, the actor playing the nerd half of the soldier / nerd buddy duo. Yeap, that's right. It was the nerd pushing forward, the mind and not the muscle advancing. Not only that but the tool of oppression imposed on the human slave population to keep them from rebelling is... illiteracy, of all things to be concerned with in an action movie! Yes, it provided quite a bit of hugs and guns and other inter-human bullshit but over-arching the petty building blocks it still portrayed an adventure driven by the thrill of discovery. What's this gate thing? What's through this gate thing? What's over this rise? What's in that old temple? What's the story with this weird-ass religion? How big a stick is up this alien's ass anyway?

Speaking of which, I never did like the ending. Blowing up the bad guy, y'know? Ra, as last of his species and a superior intellect encompassing scientific and historic knowledge quite likely unique in the universe, should have been preserved. He was worth any number of dime-a-dozen young anthropoid ape bodies. Feed them to him in exchange for information. Let him keep his little bronze age theocratic play-pen of a planet. The secret to matter transmission alone would be worth a few million commonplace, quasi-sentient human lives.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tweed Patches on a Leather Jacket

Been running around LotRO a bit. I'd just started on the latest expansion... then they released the latest latest expansion so I'm once again a few zones behind everyone else. So instead of spinning my wheel faster like a good little caged vermin I've instead slowly been falling back on the sole remaining valid reason to ever install LotRO, sightseeing in Middle-Earth.

Actually I tend to explore quite a bit in any game, and for products with such large development teams as MMOs you often find some odd half-built areas. In City of Heroes I once found a tunnel connecting two islands, a part of the game map apparently forgotten mid-way through development. It served no function. It was slower to run through it than just running across the ocean and there were no monsters or objects inside it. My character kept getting stuck on its floor because it had never made it into bug-testing. Not really complaining. The tunnel itself was a great idea. The lack of any functionality or purpose appended to it made it a ridiculous waste of processing power. One member of the design team had tried to insert some creativity into an otherwise painfully dull project and was likely axed halfway through this unconscionable act of quality.

LotRO has also benefited from some expert map design, often treating the player to scenic views of this or that quest area or quaint little nooks and crannies. Though Moria fell far short of most zones in this respect with its tangle of identical copy/pasted tunnels and textures by the kilometer, it too contained a few high points. Figuratively speaking of course, being, after all, a mine.
As you ride down from the center of Moria toward the Lower Deeps, if you take a little detour to the west (all the best stuff in Arda may be found to the West) you run into an area where the neatly terraced dwarf masonry runs into rock. Not flat into rock. Not a neatly, evenly, aesthetically measured transition. Great columns supporting the structures upon which you walked during your descent jut upwards from bare rock and a few outcroppings of dwarvish construction dot the cavern's walls.

Occasionally, some other player in LotRO will actually agree with the inevitable kvetching engendered by my visits into the game. To paraphrase one of them "the mapping team must want to strangle the content team."

As I remember this spot from a previous visit many a year ago, it was empty. Nothing had been done with it. Its promising dramatic setup as a transition point, as a border between order and chaos, civilization and nature, greedy delving and the deeps thereof, was left as barren as that tunnel in City of Villains. Now it's got a quest attached to it.

Can you guess what it is?
I'll give you a hint:
See that big fat rat-like thing in the picture? There are at least ten of the dopey things pacing back and forth in their stationary spawn locations along the crevasse. You kill them.

Ah, the glory of roleplaying.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Stretching it a bit, Herb.

"Thus, even in a shop assistant does the warmth of manhood assert itself, and drive him against all the conditions of his calling, against the counsels of prudence and the restrictions of his means, to seek the wholesome delights of exertion and danger and pain."

- from The Wheels of Chance; a Bicycling Idyll
by H.G. Wells

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Darwin Carmichael

- Is Going to Hell

Because that's a thing now. Hell and heaven and every religion in between. Totally legit.
Yeah, it's a fairly standard setup. The supernatural is real and intermixed with daily life. Hilarity ensues. Also, your local angels are laid-back stoner types because that's never been done before. Hilarity assuredly ensues. Also fearsome mythological beasts are cuddly housepets, because there just weren't enough webcomics with dragons as animal sidekicks. Hilarit- well, you get the idea.

Aside from the mish-mash of slightly used tropes, Darwin Carmichael is also the sort of new-age yuppie anti-intellectualism that sells healing crystals, "immune boost" lattes and other scams. Oh, you know those scientists are all too narrow-minded to fheeeelll the spiritual depths of the universe... a-yawp. In principle, I despise this sort of thing. In practice, this comic warrants a quick flip-through. Don't expect a tightly-reasoned plot or hard-headed philosophical musings. However, it manages to convey an honest, guile-less charm and to a fair extent to own its fanciful ramblings. In the end it's rendered somewhat memorable by its characters' consistently invested attitude toward their situation. Ludicrous and slapdash as it may be, this is their reality and their actions within that poorly framed framework are entertaining enough.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

No they don't, CCP

EVE mission  briefing:
"Space battles generally occur around targets of strategic and tactical significance: gates, stations, corporate structures, asteroids or mining colonies, research facilities, outposts, etc."

No, they don't.
EVE battles happen at stargates, where you can catch the enemy. At invulnerable stargates. Not at destructible, player-built structures serving player-weighed and player-invested purposes. EVE fails at battling.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Day

as in "Did you ever march in the ___ ___ parade?"

Isn't it funny that the country which inadvertently kicked off International Workers' Day is now the chief glaring example where it's not observed? Or even remembered? I lived ten blocks from the site of the Haymarket "affair" for four years through several social studies / history classes in junior high and high school and cannot remember this ever being mentioned in passing, if at all. Only recently, as a Wikipedia autodidact, did I take notice of the location while revisiting Chicago.

As further testament to the institutionalization of our communal psyche, the other Labor Day around these parts has of course become yet another spending holiday. Yet another day to celebrate yet another draconian massacre of serfs by the aristocracy's various porcine appendages, turned into yet another pretext for shoveling more debt and dependency onto wage-slaves.

And these are the people who think Middle-Easterners hate them for their freedoms.

Brainwashing: lather, rinse, repeat.
repeat. repeat. repeat. repeat.


____________________________________________________
P.S.:
Does this guy look vaguely ... sieg-heil-ish... to anyone else?
Yeah, I know the timing doesn't match, but still ... damn.