Monday, October 16, 2017

Well copy my cats and call me "designer"

For the first time in the long years since first downloading it, I've uninstalled Team Fortress 2, a game I've yakked about several times here starting with post #7. I was willing to put up with cartoonish graphics and even praised their up-side of malleability. I was willing to put up with Valve shoving demands for more cash in my face, with their retarded "achievements" and ludicrous crafting system and seeing them waste all their time developing more funny hat skins for the cash shop than actual gameplay. I was even willing to put up with the utterly troglodytic playerbase 'cause... well shit, it's an online game - 'nuff said. What finally killed it for me altogether was last year's big small-team patch, and today realizing that since writing that disgusted patch review more than a year ago I had only logged in... maybe twice? And I hadn't even missed it.

At the time I couldn't explain to myself why Team Fortress, a game designed for 12 vs. 12 matches, was limiting its new auto-matchmade "competitive" mode to a sparse 6 vs. 6 players, negating most of its own gameplay options... like defense... in favor of moronic twitchy scout dueling. Having played MOBAs I knew it must have something to do with their smaller team sizes. Having not played Overwatch, it took me a while to realize 6v6 happens to be the team size of TF2's direct biggest competitor, which had been kicking TF2's ass up and down the internet since coming out earlier last year. That Overwatch is itself supposedly a cross-bred bastard child of TF2 and DotA does sort of vindicate my suspicions, but that's not my focus here.

My point of contention is Valve's panicked, reflexive response to competition. Yeah, Overwatch has pretty much curbstomped TF2. You can actually see TF2's usage statistics visibly drop in late 2015 when Overwatch went into closed beta, and again in early 2016 when it released. You can also see players returning to TF2 in droves in late summer 2016 when it released its big patch, then hilariously flee again after one, maybe two months, taking even more of Valve's customers back with them, likely right over to Blizzard.

The crazy part is that TF2 actually tried forcing Overwatch's game mode on their players, which basically amounted to free advertising for and a concession to Blizzard. Instead of looking at distancing themselves, building on their strengths and advertising what they can do better (like a hectic, punishing, goal-oriented large-team melee instead of dick-measuring over individual k/d scores MOBA-style) at maintaining a unique brand identity, they tried copying the newer, glitzier product which had already out-copycatted them. Can a dead horse beat itself?

It seems utterly perplexing that in a field arguably defined by neophilia, computer game designers are still stuck in the mentality of infinite growth of the dot-com bubble years. They're still trying to party like it's 1999. They seem to assume they exist in an exponentially expanding market which can accommodate endless identical copycats, that they can just ride a trend like "MMO" or "MOBA" without actually designing anything of their own. Except, Googling "video game industry growth" brings up the top hit "An Aging Video Gaming Industry Wars Against Slowing Growth" accompanied by such first-page rejoinders as "Jobs for Video Game Developers Have Dropped by 65% Since 2014" and Fortune warning back in 2015 in an otherwise exultantly congratulatory article that the upswing was nevertheless hitting its peak. Never mind that even then, much of the growth was coming from consoles... or worse, phone apps.

Amusingly, what business analysts know, computer gamers know also, because we've been sitting here watching one cheesy knock-off after another bite the dust. Vanguard, anyone? Even in one of the newest markets, MOBAs, Wikipedia's list has a third of them "discontinued" and I can tell you from personal experience that proportion should be higher. No-one's played Demigod since before the Mayan Apocalypse. Half of them flop right out of the box, like Sins of a Dark Age.

Games, especially computer games might have to try and stand out in a crowd now. They might need actual features, selling points, innovation, even if it's superficial. There are only so many slices in that pie. The financier overlords know it, we petty rabble know it. Somehow it's the people in the middle of the whole mess, game designers and publishers themselves, who haven't heard the news.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


There's actually very little to say about Darken beyond its basic nature as one of the many D&D-inspired webcomics. An unlikely hero joins a band of elves and dragons and <fast-forward> the monster falls to their mighty blowing <fast-forward> intrigue deepens as suspicion falls upon <f-f> evil twin <f-f> reconciliation <f-f> boss fight, and they all gain unimaginable power and learn the twue meaning of wuv, the end. The rest is in the execution. Artistically it ain't Rembrandt but gets its point across and improves over time, characters run as deep as "sword and sorcery" usually delves, plot's twisty enough not to challenge you but to keep you awake, etc. Even comedically, it has its moments. If you like that sort of thing, Darken's the sort of thing you might like.

The one outstanding question's begged by its basic premise: why write about an evil adventuring party if they never do anything evil? Thieves, assassins, dragons, drow, infernal blackguards, you'd think between all of them they'd manage to torch some peasants or rip an orphan's guts out now and then to stay in character. Instead they're routinely infantilized into paragons of prosocial codependence, comforting their loved ones, making mutually beneficial alliances and keeping any negative ramifications of their actions for the most part conveniently off-panel. I'd wonder where this Disneyed antiheroism came from, but given the comic started in 2003 and the hero's a dual-wielding drow male, we can pretty safely lay the blame on some guy named Salvatore.

While it's readable enough, Darken's evil-lite also illustrates stereotypical spineless adolescent bluster, the desperation to pass oneself off as a grim, dangerous rebel while also slavishly vying for everyone's adulation and reinforcement.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Elyria, Fame Inflation and Pay-to-Grief

A couple of second thoughts after my last post on Chronicles of Elyria's amusing take on fleecing its customer base:

The subscription time loss per death ramps up with a player's "fame" which the developers are apparently leaving utterly up to their own discretion. So, as the game wears on and customers get more emotionally invested in the ongoing struggle (and therefore more likely to re-subscribe if they're perma-killed) expect to see inordinate proportions of characters get upgraded to "notable" or "prominent" and higher to speed up their next $30 payment.
Expect it to play out like magic item inflation. Pretty much no-one except complete newbies will be "unknown" after a while, just like no-one uses "common" items past level 3 in a fantasy game. They will likely justify it by telling you you've been involved in the game world long enough that your fame has increased... even if you're Joe Schmoe doing nothing more eventful than killing ten rats.

Assume a 1.5x or 2.0 inflation to your death penalties at the very least, more likely 4x if you're really obsessed with the game and they can be sure you'll come begging for more abuse. Compound that with your 4x death penalty every day you join a PvP battleground, and your elevated "griefer" penalties whenever you decapitate someone, and however else the developers decide to stack the deck against you. They will ensure you don't get more than three months for your $30, if that.

Scratch Elyria not being pay-to-win. It is:
"We recognize that not all players can (or want to) spend the same amount of time per week farming gold for that special armor. We also recognize some people have a ton of free time, but not a lot of money. We're attempting to equalize this by having an in-game exchange market."

Legitimized cheating for the fatcats. Ensure rich players who already don't give a shit about their subscription cost are also the best-geared, empowering them to grief endlessly and with as great an impact as possible, inflicting as many quick perma-deaths on others around them as possible and therefore driving up the community's re-subscription rate as a whole.


God damn. The more I read into this, the more it looks like an outright scam - and the more I want to buy into it just for the trainwreck appeal, just to be there watching innocent teenagers who thought they were buying a year's worth of game time get booted out after one or two months, then spammed with "discounted" re-subscription e-mails. As though a 10 or 20% discount is going to compensate for an 80 or 90% reduction in playtime. Forty bucks so I can witness the most hilariously sadistic MMO scam since Project Entropia. I want to taste that river of tears.

I think I need to play this game. Why? Because I fucking hate myself, that's why.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Spark of Cash

Always on the lookout for an immersive virtual world in which to lose myself, I'm kind of torn on the topic of Chronicles of Elyria.

On one hand, I'm loving the aesthetics and philosophy they're advertising. Coherently proportioned character models and environments? A low-magic fantasy world with frontier pioneering overtones? Sign me up!
Gameplay mechanics sound half lifted from my own mmmanifesto and half a mix of daring, immersive RPG features only seen once in a blue moon in cRPGs. You want a development freakshow? Try a Miasmata-like or old-school Morrowind map-and-compass navigation instead of endless GPS markers on your HUD. Or how about realistic encumbrance penalties so you can't carry a whole village in your pocketses and a need to bandage your wounds and stay well fed a la Stalker? Or, try a material-shaping minigame crafting system I haven't run into since A Tale in the Desert., or players retaining monopolies on new technologies, which caused no end of scandals in EVE-Online. Try a lineage system, something I haven't personally seen outside the initial showing of Elemental: War of Magic, and the requisite incentive to re-incarnate: character aging and permadeath.
Yeah, permadeath. That gigantic bugaboo always proposed but never implemented in online games, excepting a rare, highly specialized indie project like Faery Tale Online.

It sounds too good to be true, and after my last grave disappointment with Dawntide I've grown wary of small developers' big campaign promises. Certainly some of the proposed features on Chronicles of Elyria's website sound a bit naive, like auto-generating personalized quests to trigger during every character's lifetime, something nobody can swing even for single-player games. The amount of development time required to elevate these past laughably trite "kill ten rats" tedium would likely fund a whole separate AAA game in itself.

Or take the proposition that the game map will be somehow "secret" with players charting it themselves and sharing this info at will. Have these people played nothing online in the past twenty years? In a multiplayer game, no static content is ever secret. Within three hours of launch, you'll have ten different websites posting complete maps of the game world cobbled together from thousands of players' individual maps, and the cartography system which took up fuck knows how many hundreds of work-hours of (customer-funded) development time will have added no more to your customers' immersion than a link to the unofficial wiki. The next day, you'll get a UI mod which automatically draws every player a complete map.
The only way to make exploration worthwhile in an online game is with constantly shifting, ephemeral changes.

Despite such stumbling, I was all set to pre-order until the different purchase tiers brought to my attention the Spark of Life system and CoE's odd interpretation of an old marketing scheme. You need to buy your continued existence with real-world currency. Sounds like a welcome step back from the idiotic "Free-to-play" real-money-trading responsible for so much of multiplayer games' degradation, a return to subscription systems, but... remember that touchy permadeath issue? Though details are (I can only assume, deliberately) vague on this most important topic, it seems every character death cuts into your subscription time, from the original 10-14 months to 3.75. Even less if you're a successful player, the equivalent of a guild leader.
To render this tragedy more comical, CoE's developers repeatedly advertise this as a measure to -reduce- griefing, by punishing aggressors more harshly than their victims.
Mmmnnyeah... No.

Questions abound. How exactly does this address the vast majority of griefing? After all, griefers by definition don't play fair, don't need to walk up to their victims and initiate direct combat. Just off the top of my head, I can imagine griefers depopulating entire regions of wildlife to starve other players, destroying goods, blocking traffic, "training" monsters onto their victims, etc. and all other players being unable to do anything to stop them without being themselves labelled griefers. I don't care how good you think your algorithms are, they'll have more loopholes than a toy racecar track, and will in fact be the means by which griefers operate. Look at EVE-Online. Half of combat involves exploiting aggression timers.

Imagine all the griefing in any other game amped up by a simple proposal: that you can cost other people real-world money by killing them in-game, and you'll get some idea of how many ass-clowns this game will attract. Far from their apparent starry-eyed innocence in promoting this as an anti-griefing measure, a more rational look suggests Soulbound's aim is the exact opposite. Chronicles of Elyria monetizes griefing. It banks on the most abundant activity in any online game to shorten subscription times and increase re-subscription rates.

Sadly, despite this disgustingly sadistic profiteering, I'm still strongly leaning toward pre-ordering. $30 for a supposed minimum subscription time of ~3-4 months still divides down to slightly under the $10, $12 or $15 monthly standard of subscription-based MMOs, not to mention the much steeper costs of staying competitive in a pay-to-win FTP title. It's a price worth paying to get away from WoW-clones. Sad state of affairs, but the game industry's just that shitty, and if it delivers on even half of its campaign promises, Chronicles of Elyria might be the least of many evils.

Friday, October 6, 2017

ST:TNG - The Price of Booby Holidays

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

Seriesdate: 3.08
The Price

Deanna makes time with hotshot interstellar negotiator. He's tall, well-dressed, slick, flawlessly coiffed, aristocratically mannered, Hollywood pretty, a smooth talker and best of all he's implicitly filthy rich! You go, girl!
Said negotiator's negotiating in a bidding war for stable wormhole, a heretofore unproven scientific phenomenon. Here to waaaay "fore." The planet over which it spawned ('course anything in space happens near an inhabited planet, it's not like there's lots of space in space or anything ; shut up) happens to be inhabited by a race devoid of other marketable goods or technology so like any beggar with a diamond they're pawning the damn thing off to the highest bidder. Enter the Ferengi, who dump a bag of gold on the table... because 24th century bidding war equals some bazaar from One Thousand and One Nights, apparently. Before they can escalate to bartering on donkeys and olive oil or whatever, they decide they should probably get a closer look at what they're buying, and boldly worm the hole alongside a Geordi / Data shuttlecraft expedition. Hilarity ensues.

If you're wondering what exactly all this has to do with dedicating half the episode to gently and sensually caressing Marina Sirtis from head to toe to the tune of harps, well you're probably not the only one. This scene, though:
- is totally plot-crucial, and I'll definitely explain why as soon as I figure it out.

So, anyway, turns out Deanna's Troi-boi's secretly part betazoid like her, which is such an amazing coincidence it almost sounds contrived. By the end of the episode, she unmasks his underhanded psychic manipulation of the auction, likely ruining his career in the process. Far from resenting her for it, he instead takes his browbeating, shows up at her door and begs her to come with him to "help him change" and become a better man, by the power of ovaries. She tells him off and he shuffles meekly into the sunset.


Seriesdate: 3.19
Captain's Holiday

Picard makes time with Lara Croft's less-endowed umpteen-great grand-daughter.
After getting pressured into taking a vacation on the planet of swimsuits and negligees and making a laughing-stock of himself for getting tricked into openly displaying the local equivalent of a fertility fetish in public, he gets dragged by another tourist into a race against her former Ferengi colleague to claim a super-weapon from the future. Prodded by time-traveling aliens claiming the weapon by right of "'cuz we said so" Picard -uses his authority as a Starfleet captain to requisition a high-tech geological survey team and rapidly pinpoint the location of the incredibly dangerous star-destroying macguffin in a logical and scientific manner.-
Heh. No, just kidding. That would make too much sense.
They spend a night digging for it. With shovels.
Isn't it nice when the whole plot's a hole?

I mean, you almost don't notice it, as on one hand this re-iteration of Planet Baywatch offers plenty else to ogle and on the other hand the directing's quite impressively tight and snappy and does an excellent job of drawing the viewer in. Still, seriously, there's suspension of disbelief, there's plot holes and then there's this level of Gilligan's Island goofiness.

Anyway, despite the student archaeologist repeatedly lying to Picard, mocking him and deliberately endangering his life (not to mention the whole planet) she's just so lovable a rogue that he doesn't even bring up her endless list of transgressions. It's not like he's any sort of legal authority figure or anything. By the end of the episode he soulfully declares his fervent wish they'll meet again.
Why, Jean-Luc? You hoping she'll toss you down a volcano to fish her up some diamonds?


Seriesdate: 3.06
Booby Trap

Geordi Makes time with... a hologram.
Umm, okay.

The Enterprise investigates a thousand-year-old battlefield only to set off an unexploded mine and gets stuck in the interstellar equivalent of a Chinese finger trap. The more they light up their reactor, the harder it pulls them in. Not the most original plot premise, but it's well executed aside from the unresolved question of why it took the Federation's finest minds forty-five minutes plus commercial breaks to come up with the obvious solution of coasting out of range on minimal power.

Anyway, we start the episode by watching Geordi get humiliated for being disconsidered as a mate by the ship's women. We proceed to Guinan condescending to Geordi that he should just "be himself" and then to sneering at him from behind the fourth wall for flirting with a holodeck simulation of a ship designer.

Let's just admit right now that any putative holodeck's memory banks would likely hold the same proportion of fuck-bots as the internet's content of porn. Geordi's actually showing remarkable restraint in not holding these debates about drive shafts with his computerized houri while shafting her drive.

Anyway, by the end of the episode the hologram simulating that sexy nerd-girl tells Geordi that she'll always be with him. Anytime he's touching the engine, he's touching her (which is not regulation use of a fuel injector!) and so he ends the simulation, presumably so he can go back to throwing himself at the mercy of human women in return for fifty shades of "let's just be friends" and condemnation as a blue-balled loser. And they all lived happily ever after, at least by women's definition of happiness anyway.


Season 3 drove in a very decisive fashion toward fleshing out the individual lives of the Enterprise's inhabitants. Crew members begin to state personal preferences and acquire quirks, hopes and shadows of the past big and small. Much of the time it works out well, as with the re-iteration of Picard's archaeology hobby or Worf's childhood trauma. However, whenever the topic turned to the crew's sex lives, TNG's writers consistently embarrassed themselves, torturing otherwise workable plots into sheer nonsense in order to shoehorn in romantic interludes. Leaving aside the more obvious fan service (fine, leotards are funny enough, but does bending over in front of a mirror recharge dilithium crystals or what?) it's interesting to note the presumptions of good and evil, entitlement and vilification apparent in these relationships.

For one thing, of three men and one woman the only one to actually get laid is Deanna. Picard's femme fatale strings him along quite expertly and Geordi's simulacrum presumably has "Mattel" stamped across her crotch. Riker's romantic target from The Vengeance Factor was taken so far as to be explicitly asexual and aromantic and yet he's still groveling for her attention.
When Riker praises the creativity of Risan women, Troi immediately takes umbrage. When Troi's new boyfriend flaunts his conquest of her to Riker, Billy stiffens up his lip and claims he's "just friends" with her and meekly stays out of it.
Deanna rates a paramour du jour quite clearly above her station who endlessly lavishes attention on her, while the captain of the Federation's finest vessel gets leashed by a petty crook, his chief engineer gets beaten off with a stick by a random female redshirt and the first officer moons after a serving girl whose privates froze a century prior.
Geordi's attempt to woo a female crew member with romantic music is explicitly ridiculed, yet two episodes later the music score swells with romantic strings as Troi meets her new lover's eyes... from... across... the... room.
Picard's running off to go digging in the night with Lara Croft's a ridiculous lapse in his professional integrity, sure, but when Troi hides the negotiator's clearly unethical (and probably unlawful) deceit for half an episode, we're actively pushed to feel sorry for her as though she'd somehow been personally wronged by her own lying, despite losing nothing, risking nothing and receiving not so much as a scowl for shirking her duties in not bringing this to the captain's attention.
When Riker shoots his teenage centenarian girlfriend in defense of law and order, he's shown drowning his remorse at the end of the episode. Troi, on the other hand, who outright helped her criminal boyfriend, gets to slam him one last time and retain the moral high ground. 

The entire paradigm's pretty tidily summed up by contrasting the presentation of Troi and Geordi. She, a radiant fertility goddess, he a stumbling schlub whose every romantic mishap is entirely his fault and who must change himself and abandon his ideal while she re-affirms her social superiority.
This was the gender paradigm in 1990, the horribly anti-woman world of feminist legend, already bashing men at every step, already blaming men for all of women's problems plus their own. This has always been the dominant gender paradigm.

Oh, well. In one respect at least the Booby Trap episode rings true.
Errr, two respects if you count the inherent pun in the title.
Given the larger variability in male genetics as compared to female, highly intelligent men outnumber comparable women the smarter they get. Geordi LaForge the brilliant engineer would indeed be very unlikely to meet any women to whom he can truly relate.
- which is of course his own damn fault for being too smart, the sexist pig!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Man Who Sold the Moon

"He said I was his friend,
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
'I though you died alone a long, long time ago'"

David Bowie - The Man Who Sold the World

(Yes, I just found out that wasn't originally a Nirvana song. David freaking Bowie. Wild, huh?)

Robert Heinlein had a knack for antiheroic cowboys, for tooth-gritting survivalists and morally compromised misanthropes grudgingly shuffling their feet toward the right course of action, for human weakness strengthened by hard decisions. Usually this tendency birthed lovable, sneering rogues and grinches like Jubal Harshaw. Occasionally it overshot into outrightly unlikeable protagonists. The Man Who Sold the Moon falls somewhere in between.

For most of the story's length, Delos Harriman's stated noble goals are continually undermined by his deceitful, manipulative methods. Hard to believe the obscenely wealthy cut-throat corporate profiteer who won't shy away from bilking boy scouts out of their lunch money has anything but his own interest in mind when he finagles the United Nations into signing Earth's only natural satellite over to his company... purely for humanitarian reasons. Between this and the slightly dragging patter about legal precedents and stock majority, you're likely to ask yourself why you're still reading halfway through the story.

About that same time you begin to discern a paradoxical change by stability in Harriman, not that the character himself is altered but that his obsessive persistence in the objective goal of space travel invalidates the initial impression of shifty avarice. Comparisons with Citizen Kane (which had come out earlier in the same decade) seem warranted, and by the time Harriman reaches his "Rosebud" moment in the brief follow-up Requiem, we're hardly surprised to find the soul-less aged fatcat still clinging desperately to a childhood dream. What The Man Who Sold the Moon lacks in mystery, it gains in the well-executed characterization of the pioneering spirit in the form of a scheming, lying powermonger, idealism buried under a lifetime of make-work social competition.

Not that we should expect the inner workings of the rich in reality to consist of anything other than bloodthirst and the slavemaster's whip, but Heinlein still puts an interesting spin on the question of ambition, both hollow and meaningful.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Were in the Mirror

"Take a look at yourself and then make that change"

Michael Jackson - Man in the Mirror

I've finally started getting into Dwarf Fortress. I say "finally" because its station at the intersection of games, complexity, world-building and self-destructiveness made it only a matter of time before I barricaded myself under some mountain or another to chisel stone thrones and throw stones on my enemies. It's just taken me five years or so since first downloading it to get over the nauseating text-based "graphics" and learn to hate it for its mouseless control scheme instead, but more on that some other time. Given my preference for jumping into games without documentation, I've also racked up a pretty hefty head-count over my half-dozen failed attempts as I learn everything the hard way.

So far my fortresses have died once of starvation and three times of dehydration - in three different ways no less: evaporation, freezing and "whaddayamean wells need to be built over water to give water?" One fortress I grew to hate for the myriad mistakes I'd made in designing it, so I tried taking divine vengeance by having the dwarves tunnel into the bottom of a lake. To compound my frustration, the lake was so shallow as to barely drench the floor of a side corridor, and my hated underlings went glumly about their business with muddy feet until I hung my head in shame and left them in peace to start fresh.

The two remaining losses, however, came at the hands paws of were-beasts. The universe, as frequently noted, has a sense of humor. My very first attempt as Werwolfe, leader of dwarves, lasted not even a year:
After that, Dumat of Mange of Moons, last survivor of rampant wereantelope infection, spent a few lonely months puttering around the empty halls, choking on the miasma given off by the corpses of his slain comrades and breaking things faster than he could build them. I like to think he's still there, nursing his infection underground like his Dragon Age namesake until he will one day rise up with an army of Wereantelope-spawn to blight the landscape.

Two attempts later the story was if anything even more heartbreaking. Remembering Dumat, I had the wherewithal to move all my industry indoors and lock said doors when a werelizard came calling, cutting my losses to the few workers caught milking livestock or pickin' posies. Too late (after the full moon had passed, the monster departed and doors re-opened) did I notice two survivors: two children who had been playing outside at the time of the attack. Sure enough on closer inspection they both bore injuries, and on the next full moon the adorable little tykes rose up to slaughter the score of adults who'd welcomed them into the fortress.

Thus is a wer-beast hoist by his own petard.

Friday, September 29, 2017

None gains or guesses what it hints at giving

"I cannot tell why some things hold for me
A sense of unplumbed marvels to befall,
Or of a rift in the horizon's wall
Opening to worlds where only gods can be.
It is in sunsets and strange city spires,
Old villages and woods and misty downs"

H.P. Lovecraft - Fungi From Yuggoth XXVIII - Expectancy

I maintain that the ending of The Lord of the Rings is one of the saddest in all literature. The survival of humanity scores a pyrrhic victory at best, and more rightly an insult to the superhuman wisdom and grace of the noble elves doomed to fade, to relinquish the world to short-lived, small-minded petty vermin.
To us, that is.

While my familiarity with H.P Lovecraft can't qualify as exhaustive, a recent reading of Fungi from Yuggoth has put the various disjointed yarns about fish-monsters and morbidity in perspective. Most of the Fungi are more or less what you'd expect from Lovecraft, florid descriptions of Bosch-like monsters and shuddering invocations of unknowable dangers lurking in the shadows. A little over halfway through the collection, however, several poems slip into a surprisingly touching, soulful melancholy which centers the author's viewpoint.

"I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town"

It's a sentiment familiar to many who scoff at their contemporaries' stumbling re-enactment of the human tragedy echoed in crumbling masonry from Babylon to Boston. One can't call it nostalgia though, as its sufferers have often never known these places, nor is it glorification of imaginary "golden ages" in themselves. Lovecraft was by what I've heard of him, like his hero Poe, too much of a snob and a dandy to really fall for romantic medievalism or the charms of quaint rustics keeping the old ways. The human world, in all its lack, is a cruel trick to play on sentient minds.There must be something more. There should have been something more.

It's more of a lament for the unfulfilled promise of past possibilities, the presque vu of man's fumbling helplessly within grasp of his rightful divinity, age after age, generation after generation, the constant backsliding into bestiality. Degeneration, not merely the loss of the elves but of the elvish blood of Numenor, the loss of promise in the secondborn. For all his grave warnings about the terrors of the cosmos, Lovecraft's most famous denouements as often as not yielded a human devolution (The Lurking Fear, The Rats in the Walls, etc.) In light of all accomplished in the past, the pettiness of the present is worse than stagnation, a betrayal of our own promise, and the insanity induced by eldritch horrors is less a comment on the vastness of the universe as on the diminution of human intellect.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

She's put-a-tree in motion!

My DnD character once fought a druidess who'd enchanted treants to read minds and inflict disease on their victims.

She blighted me with psy-ents!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Shelter 2

Why do game developers so often forget they're supposed to be developing games and not movies? Two years ago I praised the small independent game Shelter, a... badger simulator, of all things, for its beautiful and original atmosphere so refreshingly well integrated into gameplay that even a stodgy, sour old snarler like me could get emotionally attached to mothering my cubs. While very linear and lacking replay value, it delivered a unique experience more than worth its indie title bargain bin asking price, one of those rare little gems you find yourself playing breathlessly through the night. Shelter 2 has a smidge more replay value. It's also taken me four tries to get into it despite the warm and fuzzy anticipation incited by its predecessor.

I had originally planned to word this post a bit more harshly, but in the course of trying to snap some screenshots for the purposes of condemnation I wound up enjoying the game more than I had to date. To do so, you must largely ignore the cheesy fluff tacked onto the Shelter 1 formula in lieu of production values. Ignore the stupid little two-sentence text interludes which rather disrupt and intrude upon your lynxy life rather than illustrate it. Ignore also the cheesy fantasy-themed prologue/epilogue blathering about your lynx following the stars (they're just breadcrumb trails like in any other game, ok?) Ignore that either of these "features" could've been much more seamlessly integrated into the right-click scent overlay. I can only assume the project lead wanted to justify the added expenditure of hiring more official writers. Ignore the unbearably romantic moonlit soiree in which you meet your new beau at the end of each playthrough. Sniffing out a new mate, if anything, should've been handled via sniffing.

That scent overlay itself (highlighting prey and zone transitions when you right-click) shows the half-assed implementation of new features, as it's not only missing the applications above but the logical extension of tracking scents. Despite a complete lack of programming knowledge, I'll go out on a limb and guess it would've been trivial to make prey drop blobs of "scent" every so often which fade over time, creating de facto gradients by which to track them, instead of just seeing them highlighted in bright red from across the map. At the very least this functionality could've been prioritized over the nonsensical implementation of "collections" of items for which you're expected to comb all the various maps. Yeah, 'cause that's what lynx life is all about: collecting sticks and leaves as keepsakes. I'm a lean, mean, hunting machine shaped by evolution for pouncing on backs, snapping necks, sheltering my young and... scrapbooking. Oy...

The distinctive artistic style employed by both Shelter games is still lovely, and more immersive than that of projects with a hundred times the budget. I'd find it hard to overstate the emotive impact of the deceptively minimalist but highly fluid construction-paper visuals and moody soundtrack, and everything you as a player do in that world takes on the bittersweet air of an ancient ballad.

If only there were more to do!

Sure, most of the elements from Shelter 1 seem included, but most of them are so toned down, pared down and dumbed down that it takes a couple of cat lives just to realize they're there at all. You can still shake the odd tree (for bird nests, not apples) but they're few and far between. There's a natural disaster (mudslide and/or flood; forum chatter just calls it "the blob") but you can safely and calmly amble away from it and just watch it dissipate from high ground. Every once in a while something will screech and snatch one of your young; that I can only assume is the eagle, but as it happens so quickly and without warning as to always take place off-camera, it carries none of the tension and player involvement of the original swooping terror. In contrast, wolf attacks might be a threat if only their dramatic buildup weren't overemphasized, giving you ample time to reach cover. With the "mountains" DLC you can run into a bear, but getting mauled by it is fixed as easily as snatching up one measly gopher meal. Even sneaking has been taken out of player control: the game now crouches your character when it deems fit.

In fact the rarity, inevitability or triviality of all other activities leaves chasing down small prey as the single defining endeavor of Shelter 2, but while sprinting across the landscape trying to intersect the path of a zig-zagging bunny has its charm, this wears thin after a few hundred repetitions, especially given their completely predictable movements in an open field. Even this is hopelessly trivialized by the sheer abundance of prey, so thick that on several occasions I've caught a rabbit or gopher by accident, tripping over it while chasing its neighbor. Your kittens run no danger of starving.

The expanded maps and more freeform movements allow for a larger dose of the simple pleasures of exploration: discover clifftop shortcuts, a meteorite crater, a mammoth corpse (and it's in a perfectly logical spot too) walk the ice over frozen rivers or listen to the wind blowing in off the seashore. Too bad most will never play even the one or two hours needed to sight-see any of that, since Shelter 2's bunny-chasing smorgasbord utterly fails to engage the player, to provide any sort of challenge or tension or tragedy. That survival horror element of natural competition I praised in the original is wholly lacking in the sequel. Though a much less egregious offender than Defense Grid 2Dreamfall or Trine 2, I can't help but notice the same tendency in Shelter 2 toward preening, cinematic passivity detracting from actual gameplay. Does this stem from a lack of inspiration, Hollywood envy, a snobbish art major resentment of an interactive medium or a cynical attempt to justify hiring more artists and "writers" bleeding customers for a bloated, overbuilt product?

Is this nothing but the old bait and switch profiteering? I can't help but notice these titles are all sequels.


edit, fifteen minutes later:
Turns out if you're quick enough to turn around when you hear the eagle screeching, you can catch it trying to flutter off with one of your kittens, and a successful pounce will not only save the kit but bring down the predator for the young'uns to feast on its flesh. Turnabout is fair play.

So, yeah, I'll give 'em this one. Works out beautifully.
For those of you who, like me, were put off by this game's weaker elements or unjustifiable yammering about constellations and romantic... cats... try to skip over that and give it another chance or three. There's some quality buried under there.
Did I mention that eagle kill went down atop a mountain plateau under the shimmering veils of the northern lights?

Friday, September 22, 2017

You Got Old Twelve Years Ago, Brent

"Another protester has crossed the line
To find the money's on the other side"

Green Day - Holiday

Scott Kurtz made a funny. That this should surprise me at all seems a bit sad, as PvP was one of the first webcomics I ever read, if not the first. Green as I was, the notion "wow, here's one about computer games" actually struck me as a wonderful novelty back around Y2K, and I found Kurtz an amusing dork for being into that roleplaying shit like Ultima Online. Sure I was playing Diablo at the time and wrote fan fiction about my Diablo character but that was totally different of course.

I stopped reading PvP over a decade ago, and skimming its archives now I can't say I'm sorry I did. Though I doubt that even when struggling its popularity ever waned below the average of online cartoonery, it did get quite a bit of grief for gradually moving away from its initial online gamer focus. To his credit Kurtz was relatively honest about snubbing his old audience in favor of embracing the all-too-human condition, and even after the strip degenerated to a plain-Jane relationship comedy, he still managed to pull off the occasional memorable showstopper. It just wasn't funny anymore. The only reason I even visited the site today was for the spin-off comic, Table Titans, which recaptures some small modicum of the old adventuring spirit with an eye toward gamer foibles. Whether it's a GM dramatically setting the scene with crumbs in his beard or a gamer swooning at having an incredibly amateurish portrait drawn of his character, it's still funnier and more lovable than the old cast's frequently overextended dating/family/office dramas. Unless, of course, you've lost your sense of perspective and quality and instead of ridiculing incompetence as we all should, you think some worthless idiot's Diablo fanfic should be held up as worthy of attention.

I was checking back on Table Titans, incidentally, after letting a couple of months go by to run out a particularly long-winded violin concert of a self-absorbed RPG character origin story about growing up on the mean streets of Provo, Utah. Like Pandaren in World of Warcraft, the April Fools' jokes of a decade past become the accepted norm as general intelligence drops. A lack of game humor in itself wouldn't have soured PvP... if it had been replaced with something equally imaginative, insightful or snappy. However, the sheer mundane tedium of story arcs about softball and mall santas is only compounded by the mountain of political correctness Kurtz built around his monetization strategy of championing cartooning in the new online medium. With respectability came the lowest common denominator and self-censorship, and two decades later "ale and whores" sadly still appears the funniest thing he's ever written. No wonder the only recent PvP strip which really made me smile was today's call-back to the innocent days of panda maulings, when his humor wasn't subjected to a veto by fear of the moral majority. The same writer who in his more youthful vigor rightly lambasted newspaper comics for their shallow, moralizing activism ("I never learned how to read!") has degenerated to ensuring his cast looks like the village people, self-flagellating over his white hetero male guilt and tackling social issues while strewing eggshells constantly before himself so as not to bring offense.

Doesn't matter that you've got nothing to say so long as you say it in rainbow technicolor.
Vacuous posturing sells.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Beautiful Tyrannous People

"If I was beautiful like you
I would never be at fault
I'd walk in the rain between the raindrops
Bringing traffic to a halt"

Joydrop - Beautiful

Spoilers? Yeah, Tyranny.

Much as I like Tyranny and its setting, characters and role-playing quandaries, its visibly rushed production left many aspects pixelated around the edges, including some characters' personalities. In many cases they simply betray a schizophrenia obviously borne upon multiple writers' quills (and takes on each persona.) The bloody-minded, bold and resolute Verse whom you meet in Act 1 for example simply doesn't speak like the jarringly soulful sympathy-hound which seems to crop up randomly from her psyche during some dialogues. In fact a quick comparison of the game's various NPC companions, quest-givers and bosses shows a marked tendency to lend more dignity to or "redeem" characters occupying a favorable social role. Ask yourself which gender of NPC would receive the moniker "Brown-Bottom" and you'll quickly realize that despite a fair attempt at building a world of villains and misery, the writers' prejudices led them to play favorites.

This certainly becomes apparent with the Archons of War and Secrets who bracket most of your campaign. Granted that the Voices of Nerat was very consistently built up as a prototypical irredeemable sociopath, but somewhere along the way we lose track of the fact that Graven Ashe is only meant to look the lesser evil by comparison to his chief antagonist. Gradually, where the brilliant, philosophical Nerat receives a classic mad scientist's narrative treatment, the comparatively simpleminded but fatherly, protective Ashe is spoken of only in terms of his positive qualities. Does anyone even remember, by the end of the story, that Graven Ashe is an unflinchingly genocidal racist? Or that his scorched earth strategy would yield not only the destruction of the Chorus, but the agonizing starvation of whatever's left of an entire territory?

However, the true teacher's pet must undeniably be named Sirin. I refused to even go near her during my first playthrough, as her mind control superpower strikes my chaotic neutral, Pandemonium-bound lupine self as the absolute creepiest thing in the game, beyond Kills-in-Shadow's manic bloodlust, Bleden Mark's omnipresence or even Nerat's... well, y'know, Nerat. There's little in the conceivable multiverse so inherently vile as controlling another thinking being's thoughts (and therefore being) and yet despite the Archon of Song's casual abuse of this Geneva contravention for her own entertainment, we're repeatedly pushed to swallow the notion of her as an idealistic do-gooder lecturing everyone around her on their character flaws.
Seriously? "Won't somebody please think of the children" delivered by a villainess who snuffs out the very light of reason within flesh by a mere syllable? And the only thing my character can respond to her utterly impractical, shortsighted, nonsensical and insubordinate caterwauling is a stale, snappish little "shut up Wesley" designed only to make the mouthy little brat seem even more sympathetic?

Who the hell Maryd this Sue? There's obviously a disconnect between the initial character design and its ultimate implementation, evident in her very powerset. Where the textual description of her powers comes across as blatantly offensive (both practically and morally) her talent trees make her into a largely team-friendly omnivalent buffbot with none of the thematic coherence of the other characters (why exactly does she have a boulder attack and a lightning storm attack?) Someone desperately wanted to make Sirin look good instead of the capricious spoiled banshee her basic character embodies, and hugely overshot the mark. While we can easily accept that every sadistic powermonger on Terratus would envy her abilities, there's absolutely no reason why everyone would be letting the sanctimonious snot browbeat them without mind control even being mentioned. Even the ostensibly scarier demons like Bleden Mark and Nerat get called names and denounced occasionally, at least behind their backs.

Archon or no Archon, Overlord's pet or not, Sirin gets away with more bullshit than the rest of the cast put together, never getting called out on anything and always getting the last word. Leaving aside the cognitive dissonance of the sole voice of benevolence coming from a teenage girl (has no-one at Obsidian actually met a teenage girl?) where exactly did Sirin acquire her ethical guidelines? From a brief lifetime locked in an ivory tower under the tutelage of the megalomaniacal ancient evil world dictator?

Or let's word these questions another way: had Sirin been a male with the same mind-shattering power, how would he have been portrayed?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kill Six Billion Demons

Spoilers pertaining to the webcomic in question follow here, though this one's certainly no mystery novel.

First off, let us doff our hats to that truly stellar title! I mean, that's the sort of title you normally only find emblazoned in a dripping blood font on death metal album covers. Yet it just rolls off the tongue like bile, an effect the author seems to have quite consciously created, given the one panel in which it visually rolls in incendiary glory from the mouth of an otherworldly terror. And... AND! that's just as you learn this proclamation of doom's no less than somebody's . freaking . Name .

Whew. That's setting a loud decibel level, alright.

I hold world-building to greater relevance than most, and this comes with a staunch appreciation for bombast, for the lavish grandiloquence which built up our ancestors' folklore from the depths of Tartarus to the top of Mount Olympus, from Diyu to Sheol and Niflheim. It's hard to go over the top with material inspired by the rantings of witless, illiterate, flea-bitten bronze-age bards who thought caves and mountaintops were whole separate realms of existence, so a story drawing on classic mythology usually does well to include a primitive's incredulity and sense of wonder at the vastness of the world ("We're going to see the elves, Mr. Frodo!")

Like most modern media products, Kill Six Billion Demons falls into a lot of politically correct posturing, so the revelation that the prophecied hero simply must (naturally!) be replaced by a heroine prompts exhausted eye-rolling rather than raised eyebrows. The frequently trite interpersonal side of the story falls in step, with one of the heroine's two advisors being a trans-sexual angel who at one point rails against her fellow angels' trans-phobia: if god made us sexless, what sense does it make to insist all angels are male?
Actually, by that same logic, what sense does it make for you to want to play dress-up in the first place? If it's no big deal, why are you making such a big deal out of it?
The second heroine's advisor's arguably much worse, being an author avatar, and any of their scenes together comes across more like an embarrassingly overemoting self-insert slashfic of a more dignified plot running in the background. Needless to say this good demon's a quirky, plucky little girl who nonetheless embodies awesomah powah! And she wants to be good but wouldn't you know it the universe is somehow plotting to temp her to evil, presumably to be redeemed by love's true lesbian kiss or some schlock at a later date.
Though eschewing heroes in favor of heroines, villains of course remain decidedly male, with the most notable exception launching into a rant against the male gaze as her self-justification.

Despite such all too common tendencies, that background running behind the trite, shallow, snowflake moral posturing more than makes up for it. That villainness eventually gets called out on (part of) her bullshit, if not nearly as strongly as I'd have preferred, and the frequent by-the-numbers railing against male sexuality (every villain owns a brothel in this story) is halfway allowed to meld into a much wider landscape. KSBD sidesteps the pitfall of its contemporaries like Eth's Skin of grinding the story to a complete halt to bring you this public service announcement. Locale after locale of its mythical world is illustrated in ludicrously detailed crowd scenes, and the splash screens expositing each new backdrop are (and no other word would fit) epic. Basing its story largely on the mythical themes of south-western Asia instead of the elves and dragons we've all grown to yawn at, the artist also puts staggering amounts of work into the convoluted, endlessly re-iterative Rococo parade of angels and devils this entails. If nothing else the sheer visual detail, easy to grasp at a glance but always offering more under closer scrutiny, makes KSBD stand out among the usually perfunctory or amateurish comic "art." It rarely forgets its sense of grandeur and fantastic exploration.

It's not enough to render the comic's bouts of sour old political correctness palatable, but it's enough to mask the taste. It makes "what fresh hell is this" sound appealing. And, when not playing in tune to modern moral guardians, the dialogue proves itself very endearing in its flowery bazaar manners and rhetoric. An attention to detail ranging from the cadence of syllables to wondrous vistas to scuffs on clay pots to the expression of wing-eyes goes a long way.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Self-DeterminEd to prove - ?

"Therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
I am determined to prove a villain"

Billy Wagglepoker - Dickie Tres


"I'm the last of my guy friends to have never gotten married, and their wives - they don't want them playing with me. I'm like the escaped slave - I bring news of freedom."

- Some Other Billy


Consider the world feminists declare is defined by patriarchal oppression, where any man deemed unfit by women or not subjugating himself to female whims must be immediately brought to heel or if not, branded a villain. Consider that the irrational slavishness to which any American man must swear allegiance in order to run for any political office higher than dog park commissioner includes not only superstitious belief in the supernatural but marriage as well.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Far Cry

Despite being the talk of the town when it came out, Far Cry failed to even temp me into buying it. Damned if I know why it's even in my GoG library now, except as part of some package deal. Still, having bought it I feel somehow obligated to give it a chance, so off I go!

I won't bother with many screenshots. As a graphics card trial-by-fire, Far Cry's been proudly shotted and screened all across the internet by endless l33t-d00dz in the thirteen years since it came out. Suffice it to say there's lots of pretty foliage to admire. I must admit the game successfully both marketed and delivered its main selling point of large, lush, smoothly landscaped outdoor levels, and as level design goes it's quite good. As for everything else, well...
I can't tell whether that magazine was left lying around as ironic self-mockery or whether FarCry's developers really had deluded themselves into thinking they held some kind of artistic high ground over redneck shoot-em-up games. Granted, the high damage/health ratio of gunfire makes you think more actively about cover, positioning, steady shooting and such than you would in the Dooms and Duke Nukems of the '80s and '90s, but this was nothing special. By 2004 the trend toward "realistic" FPS games was already in full swing and other examples like the Half-Life mod Day of Defeat had years prior already implemented frailty more decisively, and done it online both ways through the snow.

I'm not a big FPS fan. To me, FPS is a user interface, not a game genre, and the ones I can stomach are the ones which manage to provide an immersive atmosphere, like Half-life and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. In contrast, pretty rustling bushes aside, Far Cry's aesthetic portion was almost entirely phoned in. You play some kind of nondescript badass secret-soldier-super-agent-type... guy... dude... of sorts, yet one whose dialogue can't even muster the questionable dignity of Connery's "'elloe Pushy" all the while your enemies are taunting you with crotch-grabbingly witty one-liners like "I'm gonna tear you a new one!" that would've seemed trite and tired even in junior high - all voiced by only the finest-quality unpaid interns.
Somehow, this is all delivered in earnest.
You trudge through lots of box-filled warehouses. The villain's an unabashedly German mad scientist. Also, there are goblins. Or, y'know, big muscular growly simian things with claws and teeth and somehow even less personality than the chimps they're supposed to have mutated from.

I suppose all this might yet pass muster if the enemies' AI was not as simplistic as their aesthetic, but the grand total of two behavior patterns wears thin after the first five or six chapters. Dumb as bricks but heavily armed and abundant, it's more the randomized, utterly nonsensical nature of their movements which can surprise you. Yet, again, getting shot by some random grunt who ran aimlessly into the brush and got lost for five minutes only to come up behind you accidentally makes clearing each level a mind-numbing pixel-hunting chore. That's not even counting the part where they can see through walls.

All in all, Far Cry's actually not as terrible a game as I always assumed, though as always I have to ask why developers have historically tended to cut corners on easily amenable bells and whistles. Good ideas cost no more than bad ideas, especially when you're already spending an arm and a leg on your fancy new graphics. Would it have killed them to think up some enemies that are... not goblins? Big guns, big trucks indeed.

Whatever, they were selling graphics and the graphics sold, no matter how unimaginatively they were used. I wonder, how many of these hopelessly generic "grunt with boomstick" shoot-em-ups have I missed over the years?
And do I really care?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Yes, Global Warming is as real as your low IQ

I will not talk about the weather, it bores my readers, I will not talk about the weather, I will not talk about the weather...
Ah, fuck it.
You idiots!

The American empire is evacuating an entire state. Southern Asia's heading for mass starvation for getting flooded out of its few scraps of food. Things will only get worse. Hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons, anything affected by temperature gradients, which is pretty much everything above morlock level, it will all get worse. Worse and worse and worse, decade after decade.

Fun fact: in November 2016, Florida voted for Trump, a global warming denier.
So, y'know what? Go fuck yourself, Florida. Drown in piss for all I care.

Any disaster in Asia, natural or un-natural, produces staggering numbers of victims. Solution? Keep breeding! No matter that you're licking your last grains of rice out of the mud, keep cranking out the next overcrowded generation of illiterate, superstitious primitives.
They make good sneakers.
Hell, even India, a surprisingly organized and reasonable place compared to its neighbors, is still growing its comically overstuffed and underfed masses despite exporting most of the world's incompetent pharmacists, and its most famous intellectual abroad is a shamelessly anti-intellectual mystic.

Meanwhile, in the Bible-thumping West, no politician is even willing to say the words "population control" much less impose such measures. They. make. good. sneakers.

So y'know what, fuck the world. You retarded apes deserve whatever's coming to you. You kept breeding, you kept praying to imaginary supernatural forces, you kept breeding, you kept beating down the nerds willing to enter self-imposed slavery to try improving your lives, you kept breeding, you kept warring, you kept breeding, you kept starving, you kept breeding, you kept emotionally manipulating each other, you kept breeding, you kept rejecting transhumanism, you kept breeding, you stared global catastrophe in the face and decided you'd rather increase your Exxon-Mobil stock value, you kept breeding and breeding and breeding, swarming billions of you degenerate fucking vermin gnawing at the few intelligent individuals in the world.

Fuck the world. Humanity should be abandoned to its fate. There is nothing left in this species worth fighting for, nothing worth saving. This is the Fermi paradox in action. Evolution produces intellect, then drowns it in a tsunami of retards. Cast pearls before swine and the swine will only choke you to death with those same pearls.

Embrace the apocalypse, and watch it keep breeding.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Secret Notes to the Game-Master

I recently revisited Civilization 4... and more recently uninstalled it to keep myself from playing it nonstop. Maybe it's because of its many positive qualities though that its few flaws tend to stand out. For instance, suicidal war declarations:

What are you even thinking, Lincoln? I'm not some agrarian backwater which you might hope to quickly subjugate with your superior population and production capabilities. I've got twice your cities, better upgraded. I'm the top empire in the world and you're the last.

What could this Lincoln AI possibly hope to accomplish by attacking me? He'll take that one city, sure. Then before he can even reach the next one I'll have assembled a dozen troops and beat him back. Then I'll march right over and bash his cheating skull in! Of course, I won't do that because I gave up, because his utterly suicidal attack achieved the real goal of  breaking my stride. Taking the time to build up a real army would drop my development below that of Suryavarman and Boadicea... so it would make sense if one of them had attacked me as a consequential rival. Instead, some penniless stooge from across the continent launches a kamikaze attack motivated by no in-game animosity (note we're the same religion and we've been trading and at pace and everything else which the game tells you makes other factions like you) which makes no sense, either pragmatically or immersively.

It makes no sense, at least, if the AIs are meant to mimic other independent agents within the game world. It makes perfect sense if you assume the game as a whole is playing against you and is sacrificing one tiny portion of itself to screw you over. The richer civs continue to compete against you economically while a poorer one takes the bullet for them to weaken you.

Except that's by no means how Civ 4 presented things. It's generally accepted (and resented) that the AI in strategy games always cheats. Shenanigans such as above are less off-putting than the usual route of outright giving computer opponents massive hidden economic bonuses but they nonetheless stand out as cheap, non-sequitur anvil drops. Civ 4's diplomatic system was meant as a means of avoiding conflict, but it quickly became apparent the AI was programmed to either ignore it when convenient or fake its way out of it, especially if the player starts getting ahead in the world. Competence must be punished. You'd often see two factions declare war on each other, fight little or not at all and spam you with constant demands to turn against one or the other, deliberately lowering their diplomatic standing toward you so they can turn against you.

While any and all of this can come across as interesting mimicry of real-world events, games have rules, for the player to evaluate and use to whatever end. AI opponents should stick by the official rules. Being less abstracted than chess means maintaining in-universe motivations. A dark age civ should not be playing as though it knows about oil-driven economies or the end-game spaceship construction. They're not supposed to act as though they're in a game.

The game itself should not be meta-gaming!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

ST:TNG - The Hunted Vengeance

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

Seriesdate 3.09
The Vengeance Factor

Road warriors: totally alien!
Worf: "Your ambushes would be more successful if you bathed more often."

Ooooh, sick burn, dude. Worthy of Stan Lee.
Wait, leather jackets in an industrial wasteland... what am I saying? This setting was obviously inspired by William and/or Mel Gibson. Where did interstellar raiders get studded leather vests? Must be all those space-cows grazing on asteroids. Best not to ask I suppose, but do you ever get the feeling the props/costume people are having more fun than anyone else in a SciFi show?
Hey, wait, wait, I got one: for the next episode, let's put 'em all in diapers and make 'em slap each other with squirrels. It'll look totally futuristic!

So anyway, the Enterprise tracks down some space-burglars to a splinter group of a formerly warring society which has only recently found peace, love and cupcakes. Picard attempts to negotiate the reunification of the last warlike outlaw clans with the rest of their species, little realizing he's only facilitating the assassination of the outlaw chieftain by Riker's new hundred-year-old teenage love-interest Yuta who-also-happens-to-be-a-damn-fine-cook!
I don't know why, but that last bit's important. Takes up like a quarter of the show. Apparently she boils a mean root. Hawt.
She's also about as sexual as a walking Frigidaire but nevertheless let's suspend our disbelief that she really boils Billy's bulbs, so it's a tragic shame* when she tries to suicide-fondle the rebel leader (it makes sense in context) and Riker's forced to phaser his new asexual girlfriend out of existence. Turns out Yuta'd been genetically enhanced a century prior to exterminate her clan's killers in revenge, via cooties.

Pretty decent plot by Star Trek standards. Even the technobabble's less forced than usual, the sets complex enough to be believable and Wesley thankfully remains in his seat. More jarringly, the bandit chief and his opponent, the career politician representing an entire species, show no more foresight or control over their emotions than a New York Italian auto mechanic, bellowing out their grievances loudly enough to shake the set. But hey, negotiations are high drama and that means YELLING. Aside from that, the plot begins with a quaint segue, the intrigue develops at a brisk pace (ignoring the screen time wasted on Riker and Yuta giving each other impromptu ocular exams) and the action escalates to a pleasingly dramatic denouement. Most of the episode's flaws can be dismissed as shortcuts necessitated by cramming a full story into forty minutes.

It's actually good enough to tempt one to skip right over the casual reference to Yuta's Acamarians apparently holding (and not using) the secret to near-immortality! Barely aged a day in a century? Holy shit, who wouldn't trade their libido for that?

As in the cases of the reverse-aging admiral and the cloaked planet that can repulse spaceships over an entire galactic arm, the impressive-sounding episodic technologies are sorely out of proportion with the larger setting. The Star Trek universe starts feeling like Tuck Everlasting, with random hillbillies squatting on fountains of youth left and right... and everyone else in the galaxy cheerfully waving at them as they amble on by on their way to death.
* Or is it?


Seriesdate 3.11
The Hunted

While auditing a planet for Federation membership, the Enterprise volunteers for some bounty hunting on the side, soon to be joined by a buxom transient girl with gambling debts, a gender-ambiguous tween hacker and a corgi named "one" - wait, wrong show...

So they catch the escaped prisoner, but not before he gives them a helluva time dodging his shuttle behind moons and magnetic fields and karate-kidding their security personnel.
Metallic paint you can't even see behind his left eyebrow: totally alien!
Turns out he's a former war hero (you can tell by his giant stubbly chin) part of a group of medically and psychologically enhanced supersoldiers which their planet used in their last interstellar war then exiled to the moon instead of re-integrating into society. You can also tell he's a supersoldier because he fights by flailing his arms high above his shoulders while keeping his torso permanently off-balance and pirouetting a lot. If you can act like a pro wrestler and not get your ass handed to you, you must be good.

Some illogic nags at the viewer throughout the episode, like when exactly did the alien prisoner learn Federation programming languages to hack the Enterprise's computers? Still, we get to see both Troi and Worf act as competent, dedicated professionals instead of just screaming at the ceiling or swooning, part of the ongoing season 3 character growth. There's little else intrigue-wise, the rest of the episode consisting of action scenes interspersed with Picard&co.'s growing disdain for the society they had praised at the start of the story, culminating in a surprisingly biting finale. The supersoldiers storm the castle, demanding to be let back onto their homeworld, and Picard simply hangs the government stooges out to dry, refusing to lift a hand against the mistreated war veterans, offering only psychological rehabilitation. Quote:
Picard: "- if the government of Angosia survives the night, we will offer them Federation assistance in their efforts to reprogram their veterans."

Quite a bit more stern than the usual sugar-coated moralizing we've seen from TNG thus far, but if Star Trek's serialized repetition can be praised, it's in providing improved reiterations of its own failures. Both episodes discussed today avoid the major pitfall of those discussed in my last TNG post. They don't bend over backwards to nail their plot to a specific real-world event like the crack cocaine epidemic or Irish separatism. The Vengeance Factor follows almost exactly the same premise as The High Ground, while The Hunted concludes with the same sort of governmental austerity as in Symbiosis, yet in both cases the action feels more immersive, less telegraphed, less insultingly "topical" in its real-world tie-ins.

I'm noticing a rash of military themed episodes around the middle of season 3. The antihero of The Hunted is basically a Rambo clone, which makes sense as Rambo III ("Rambo Does Kabul") had just come out the previous year and the producers were likely sitting on a few Rambo-ish scripts written in its aftermath... maybe not as imitation so much as "we can do it better" revulsion. That doesn't explain clustering a few Klingon / Romulan episodes (always guaranteed to contain "yessirs") together with several involving perfectly human totally alien! episodic species whose plot revolves around a rebel group or supersoldier assassins or some other plot seemingly written for Sylvester Stallone or Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Partly, the show might just have gotten a bit carried away with including stunts, props and shiny lights into a special effects budget which had been limited largely to costumes and camera dissolving for the first couple of seasons, and nothing says Industrial Lights & Magic like blaster crossfire. Implicitly, this tends to make the Stars feel less Trekkish and more War-ish. Personally I can't wait until I reach the more Science Fictiony plots.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


"You say you wanted evolution
The ape was a great big hit
You say you want a revolution, man
And I say that you're full of shit"

Marilyn Manson - Disposable Teens
(No, I've never heard of these "Beatles" of which you speak)

Compelled by whatever mysterious force leads me to hold out hope for AoS games, the single-unit RTS concept which gradually decayed into so-called "Arenas", I'm currently checking out Gigantic. Before anything else, I have to say it's hard to find any video game these days that can't be made to look good in screenshots. While I've defended "cartoonish" graphics in the past, Gigantic's decor outright copycats the flat, blocky, frame-starved, anime-inspired children's cartoons which have become the norm since the '90s.

Higher-resolution textures will no doubt follow (at low-low DLC prices I'm guessing, as per industry standards) but still, they're obviously targeting a very young crowd here. Most of the voiceovers even sound like Disney characters (Mickey Mouse in the case of the alchemist above) and the basic gameplay follows suit, rushing you through frenzied, spastically twitchy battles with no pre-game strategic choices beyond team composition (and even that is sabotaged by being unable to see your enemies' choices to counter them.) Gigantic is not even a MOBA but a fighting game, Kombat with a K most Mortal, a genre by definition aimed at button-mashing, braindead little tween vermin with no attention span.

So why does it feel more cerebral than any of the DotA, LoL, Smite etc. variety of 5v5 slapfest? I've long said that AoS games took entirely the opposite turn from what they should have been. Instead of growing into their full RTS complexity, they aimed lower and lower toward the idiot-friendly nadir of FIGHT! Gigantic instead takes that moronic slap-happy premise, adds a few MOBA-themed map elements and manages thus to build on its original theme instead of denigrating it. You find yourself picking moves and countermoves to counter your enemy instead of just min-maxing the one obvious build everyone uses for your character, opting for defensive walls to alter the flow of combat around the map, using personal resources for the team's good, all features conspicuously absent from DotA-clones. It does away with the slavish adherence to DotA's three lanes and last-hitting AI soldiers, instead tying your character advancement intrinsically to your teammates.

Most interestingly, it sneaks a major change in mentality into its basic thematic elements. Like any MOBA, you're fighting to destroy the enemy team's chess-king. However, instead of a static, useless building, this is instead one of two "gigantic" creatures whose booming voices double as announcers, ostensibly ordering you about the map, invincible unless they directly attack each other. Towers can be rebuilt and receive a similar treatment, becoming slightly mobile summonable creatures which provide utility to players. Instead of blocking lanes, they count as player kills, can be bypassed or assaulted as deemed necessary, yet nonetheless provide, if anything, an even greater focus for combat than defensive towers in MOBAs.

All this along with other minutiae serve to shift the focus from individual character advancement to team objectives. There are no AI-controlled mooks for you to farm. You are the mooks. Stylistically, the two warring entities are not you and your enemies but the "gigantic" beasts about whose feet you scurry at breakneck rodential speeds to try to set up the big bosses' attacks on each other, the only opportunities to truly advance in a match.

This single change in perspective, in itself, is enough to make Gigantic noteworthy among its competitors, the necessary optic reversal for every multiplayer game and not just MOBAs, away from individual self-aggrandizement and toward group objectives. And hey, you know what? Maybe they're right marketing this to kids. The current crop of gamers is a waste. Grow a new one. Get 'em young. Maybe after such saccharine small-team cartoonish ultraviolence, the kids playing this now will be more ready in five years to involve themselves in truly "massively multiplayer" virtual worlds instead of simply looking for a place to farm up imaginary status symbols.

Maybe this is the only way to ever build anything: instead of trying to salvage a crumbling edifice, rebuild it from the ground up. Albeit too limited in scope to be truly interesting, logically building on Gigantic's precepts could yield great things down the road. And I'm not just saying that because I like the very apt title I received at the end of one match:

Saturday, August 26, 2017

No Sparkling Furries!

I sat through Pete's Dragon earlier this year. Not an experience I'd recommend, unless you happen to be babysitting a child of at most seven or eight. Much as the Wikipedia article amusingly puffs it up as a "fantasy comedy-drama adventure film" what it is is a disposable, simplistic cut-and-dried Disney kids' flick with none of the wit, social references or double-entendres which make better "family movies" palatable to the rest of the family. Dime a dozen.

In fact, the only thing which caught my attention was the dragon itself. They gave it fur. Presumably this makes it not only more huggable on screen but more marketable as an overpriced plush drool-catcher for whichever life-sapping little parasitic monster you're hoping to render comatose for ninety minutes by renting the movie in the first pace. Seriously though: furry dragon.

Not that it's all that surprising. As one of the tired old myths most abused in modern media, right up there with fairies or vampires, dragons tend to go through endless reiterations and permutations to keep them smelling fresh while retaining brand-name recognition. Still, there's a point beyond which you've deconstructed the original idea so far as to be left with nothing. You want to give your dragon chameleonic glamor magic to stay hidden from Google's satellites? Fine, whatever. Make it a nice, goofy, helpful, saccharine house-pet of a dragon? Whatever, that's kind of implied by the slur "Disney" in the first place. But the scales have got to stay. Whether they're lizards or snakes, whether they breathe fire or poison, winged or not, whether their blood makes your skin poke-proof or not, dragons are reptiles. They appeal to our instinctive fear of the slithering in the grass, the alien, cool, slick, un-mammalian tetrapods next door. And you know what? That sells to kids. Snakes are freakin' cool! Dinosaurs? Fuhgeddaboutit. Watch a five year old bob its head along with an iguana and tell me you can't sell scales to snots. Idiots.

Dragons are imperious reptiles. Vampires bleed people and can't go out during day-time. Zombies decompose and like to chew the fat. Elves are better than you. Werewolves are misanthropes with anger management issues. If you can't make that work, then you've got no claim to the myth itself. Let sleeping wolves lie, don't rape the classics and try, just freaking try to maybe come up with an idea that stands up on its own. Maybe "giant, furry, flying chameleon with puppy-dog eyes" is enough in itself without misappropriating some random title of legendary nobility. Regardless of how many disparate bits of classic folklore went into those myths, we have reached a consensus on them. We know, intuitively, what these names signify, the core around which all the fluff can revolve. It takes a speshul kind of hack to miss a point so obvious.

Enough with the stupid sparkling!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Colony Colanders

This is a colony ship in GC3.
I was going to play No Man's Sky's latest patch, but they managed to screw up even their last remaining selling point, the pretty graphics, by refusing to load high-res textures. So until that bimbo of a game gets her hair done, I thought to revisit another one of my disappointments of recent years, Galactic Civilizations 3, which is spicing up its very dull basic gameplay by making you pay for DLC packs upon DLC packs. Hey, gettin' fleeced is an adventure in its own right, right? Right.

But hey, in all fairness, they did make some very major improvements to the game itself as well, completely free of extra bonus charges. Like, for instance, the colony ship model spins its domes now. I stared at it for a few seconds in admiration before bursting out laughing. Either they flunked their high school science classes or they really should've put a smidge more thought into this.

So, if you're into SF, you've probably seen the classic glass-domed Mothership cliché with a jolly green park for the colonists' frolicking pleasure. Why all the green? Fuck if I know, 'cause even if we genetically engineer plants to thrive in the extremely sparse energy density of interstellar radiation (look up the inverse square law) I'm guessin' good old chlorophyll won't fit the bill. How much blue and red light can there be outside the Kuiper belt? Never mind.

Let us not get distracted by the pretty lights. If it's scientific enough for twelve-year-olds reading Animorphs in the '90s, it's good enough for a sprawling multimillion-dollar "Science" Fiction strategy title in 2015. Garden domes it is. Never mind that big open spaces are kind of a no-no when you're constantly worried about micrometeoroid punctures decompressing you to death, plus it makes air circulation needlessly harder, shut up, I want my interstellar cabbage patch!

So. So: if you're into SF, you've probably also heard about spinning ships along their axis to create artificial gravity because nobody wants to float around in microgravity and do cool high-flying ninja moves; that's no fun. Also keeps your bones from liquefying over time, but that's kind of a secondary concern to "big cool spinny thing" visuals. They did it in Ender's Game and 2001 so it's legit space cowboying. So the domes now spin around the colony ship's middle. Never mind that if the point is to expose photoreceptors to light, you'd probably want just one surface, oriented continually toward your nearest light source at any one time, whatever star you're passing by, without wasting energy and spinning your ship off course. Never mind that you'd probably want to prevent any radiation from wasting off into space, so they'd be opaque from the outside.
Double lime-green spinny-domes just look cooler. Shut up. Shut up!
(Space tourists like taking pictures, okay?)

All that? That's not even the funny part. Now look at their orientation again. You're centrifuging objects outwards, meaning that's where you want to put your floor, not the ceiling. In GC3, you're basically smearing your colonists and livestock all over the glass bubbles. It's an interstellar carnival ride. Wheeee! - up until you funnel them all into a bone-crushing mosh pit at the top/bottom of the domes.

Yeah, sure, its a pulp SF video game, not a dissertation, but as with my complaints about Star Trek "science" the purely rectum-derived pretextium crystals and other make-believe don't grate nearly as much as when the book / show / game's writers and artists try to toss in something that sounds plausible, to lend themselves some legitimacy. Well, until you give it the mere second's thought which they apparently thought would put their project over-budget. Seriously, if you're paying someone to draw pretty pictures anyway, why not pretty pictures that make sense? Show some minimal effort. There's suspension of disbelief and then there's gratuitous stupidity.

Fine, the Ringworld might've been inherently unstable, but at least it wasn't upside down!