Sunday, August 20, 2017

Regular Boys, House Paint and Dead Baby Jokes

"Life's been treating you nice
You better be wise - and enjoy your moment
Take one look at yourself through your eyes
How you treated your life it wasn't wise
'Cause it's getting closer"

Infected Mushroom - The Legend of the Black Shawarma


Heparin's a very common blood thinner, routinely prescribed in hospitals. If necessary, it can be neutralized with protamine sulfate. <- Important plot point.

Back in 2007, some babies died due to overdoses of heparin, which is supposedly not uncommonly administered in very small doses to support some neonatal procedures like intravenous lines. They were mistakenly given dosages from the wrong bottle at 1000 times the concentration and promptly expired, not very painfully one should think, but still rather gruesomely.

Us plains apes being so parentally invested by nature, dead babies are just the sort of tearjerker which gets multimedia corporations salivating. Still, probably nobody would've thought much of it if a Hollywood actor's progeny hadn't narrowly escaped the same fate a couple of months later, by which expedient the usual three-ring circus was erected, complete with televised performances by random schlubs and ditzes on the street agreeing that babies bleeding to death was a bad thing, very bad, yes, very bad. Something had to be done! Won't somebody pleeeaase think of the children?

At the time, yours truly happened to be working as a temp for a pharmaceutical company supplying some of those midwestern American hospitals which found themselves under baby-bleeding scrutiny when the pitchforks and torches came out. Oh, I wasn't doing anything fancy, call it warehouse work, except unlike most of the other warehouse workers I occasionally read those little fine-printed leaflets full of instructions we put into medicine cartons so you can toss them out when you get home without even unfolding them.
Yeah, that's right. You're not fooling anyone. We were on to you all along!
Thanks to my unusual reading habits, I recognized the name protamine sulfate when it rather abruptly replaced much of our work schedule, bumping such trivialities as chemotherapy drugs to the back of the line.

How about your reading comprehension? Can you tell what had happened? What the moral of the story is, or at least what it was from the lofty viewpoint of a pharmaceutical corporation executive?
Phase 1: dead babies
Phase 2: media frenzy pushing hospitals to do "something" about that evil, evil heparin, like buying the antidote
Phase 3: profit!
My bosses' bosses' bosses knew they could strong-arm hospitals into buying completely superfluous overstocks of medication as a show of compliance to outraged watchdog groups. Note this step makes no damn sense in the context of the accidents, which were caused by indirect miscommunication between the hospitals' ranks of technicians and some perhaps too similar labels on the heparin bottles. Nobody had complained of a lack of protamine sulfate. They weren't sitting there twiddling their thumbs watching babies hemorrhage to death for lack of an antidote. There was no threat of a sudden increased rash of heparin-related baby deaths, especially after the scandal had hit the media and every hospital's staff was already on high alert. It was, un-intuitively, a non-sequitur, and who the hell knows in what ways hospitals' services suffered to the effect of causing other accidents while they were distracted by all that bullshit?

But my pharmaceutical company knew it could bleed (pun intended) hospitals for some extra cash, with your public outrage to cudgel administrators into submission. Ever wonder where all those prohibitively high hospital costs come from? Sometimes even a simple story takes a page to tell and involves TV actors and your own ignorance. Nobody remembers the big heparin outrage of aught-seven a decade later, but the panic had practical repercussions at the time, offered the big dogs a chance to take a few more bites out of the public. This is how empires fall: a tiny self-serving exaggeration, a contract on false pretenses, a cheat at a time, a thousand times a second, from every industry and school and media outlet. Rot. Auto mechanics overcharging, headshrinkers prescribing an unnecessary bottle of pills, high school students cribbing final projects, construction companies opting for the cheap plywood. Dead babies, and the profit to be made thereupon. All of Rome, fiddling in tune with Nero.

I won't pretend I quit my job over that event. It was monotonous and potentially hazardous to my health and an entry-level career dead end and my boss was an asshole and my co-workers idiots and I wanted to go back to college, etc., all the usual litany of motivations played a bigger role. But it was always in the back of my mind, along with all the rest of the villainy we've come to expect from big pharma. The actual baby deaths were excusable by human imperfection. Hospitals don't go out of their way to get sued, but they deal in life and death and even the smallest mistakes can have massive repercussions. Shit happens, and when it happens in a hospital, it's always a massive pile of shit.

What I could not excuse was the behavior of my superiors, who took a positive step toward a negative outcome and consciously made a bad situation worse for their own profit, feeding on public fearmongering and disinformation. And I was in on it. In a very minor way, sure, qualified flunky, but I was as culpable as any of Goldfinger's minions working the big laser. For an entry-level job it paid pretty damn well, but I've always felt a bit guilty for doing their bidding.

On the other hand, I feel no guilt as to my "privilege" in being middle-class, for not being forced to work a grunt job for Bond villains my entire life. I owe the world nothing for what I have - only for what I do.

This brings us, weirdly enough, to page 3550 of the webcomic Questionable Content... but then if you've read any of my posts you know I'm all about the long-winded, awkward segues. An artificial intelligence gets a shiny new humanoid body as a present from his human companion, who happens to be filthy stinking rich. He runs around bragging to all the other robots until one of them verbally bitch-slaps him for rubbing his good luck in her face (which she recently had to get re-upholstered as it was falling apart; she's broke) and then he spends a couple of pages sulking over his white hetero male guilt (note the author made his new body at least two of those, for extra pedantry - and his antagonist nominally female) in tune with the mandatory self-flagellation of the contemporary left wings of Western politics. How can you live with yourself, being all... regular deluxe, like that?

"What utter bullshit" thinks I, before realizing how similar it was to an e-mail exchange from a couple of months ago in which someone (a "regular boy deluxe" in his own right) bemoaned his guilt at worrying about what color to paint his house "in a world full of people who can't afford a house in the first place" and I told him off, possibly a bit too forcefully, as is my wont. Then again... remember the horse from Animal Farm, T?

Is your car larger than utility and physical comfort would dictate? Does your fruit come from farther away than it should? Are you throwing out your old phone for no reason other than Apple's advertising? All these are potentially negative actions in and of themselves, and should be judged individually, but the simple fact that you can afford a car, or fruit or a me-myself-and-I-phone is not in itself an ethical quandary. Guilt over "privilege" is that protamine sulfate being shoved down your throat, the unnecessary antidote to an illness already past, a pretext for others to control you, to use you to prop themselves up as moral dictators. Fuck 'em. Shit happens. If you think yourself responsible for others' poverty, then are you doing something to make them poor? Are you making them put their trust in primitive superstitions, and breed without limit? Are you the one spreading the lies that "all's fair in love and war" or "you can't argue with success?" Are you the one teaching them how to emotionally manipulate each other? Are you advertising the latest quack nostrum? Are you spreading moral panics and fomenting witch hunts? Are you promoting irrationalism?

Or are you just a crumpled caryatid beating yourself up for not doing enough to prop up a civilization being torn down by that very same vulgus who have convinced you that you owe them something just for existing?

How much money you have is not the issue. How you got it is. Are you henching for Goldfinger?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Clevon, the Lesser Evil

"I'll be your scapegoat
I'll be your savior
I'm the better of two evils"

Marilyn Manson - The Better of Two Evils


Planetside 2 seems to be stagnating a bit after Sony sold off SOE. Its painfully uncreative monotony of tanks and assault rifles, while lacking any of the first Planetside's Science Fiction immersion, has nonetheless attracted a stable following of drooling rednecks eager to deafen each other with military slang. Seriously, I've never heard so many southern accents over voice comms. Though most of the intelligent leadership which made things interesting at the game's launch has wandered off in search of something more engaging, I still find it possible to get into semi-organized squads about half the times I randomly decide to log in.

Hey, it's still more purposeful coordination than you'll get in other online games. Sadly, PS2 lacks the necessary interface features (beyond waypoints) to integrate strategic / tactical planning (nothing like Savage 2's RTS command interface) but they did at some point implement the ability to draw directions on the map.

Now, anyone who's visited the Internet will tell you the inevitable consequence of letting players draw on the map:


Granted its rather rare to see something like this (the screenshot itself dates from this past winter) so I assume Daybreak's facetiously policing morality and taste like every other company. Nevertheless, PS2's playerbase comes across as just slightly different. They're idiots, sure, but they can occasionally push an objective.

Anyone who's played the game can tell from the screenshot above that, aside from his questionable aesthetic tastes, the artiste in question was also leading his platoon into a pointless, inevitable three-way stalemate instead of being satisfied with holding one of the most easily reinforced positions on the map. Nevertheless, he was leading. He was providing initiative and a focus for a group of forty players, and if you've logged into any online game over the past decade, be it MMO, FPS, RPG, Arena, whatever, you know how increasingly rare that is. A few of us told him he's an idiot. Then we kept playing, because the game is the game, and the practical effects of his game-play outweighed the sheer irrelevance of anything he said. No insults, whether drawn on the map or shouted over voice chat or typed, will ever blow up an enemy tank column. Having someone to call for a coherent missile launcher defense will. The game is the game. It is its own world, and the worth or guilt of any player should always be weighed by how much it impacts that world. The greatest crime he committed was obscuring more relevant information on the map with his crayon scrawls. That has practical repercussions within the game. That matters.

I more recently played with a hyperactive little shit who constantly spammed voice chat with overexcited war movie catchphrases. Cluttering voice chat with white noise is counteproductive. I loathe it. And yet... I have a mute button. I muted him and kept playing. In fact, I supported him in asking the platoon leader for a squad leadership position because I knew this attention-starved little meth-head would actively place beacons and update waypoints and provide transportation for our squad... and he did. Then I called him a degenerate retard as I muted him, then we both kept playing.

The game is the game.
It is not a chat room. It is not a social club. It should most certainly never be a "safe space' for the spineless millennial snowflake Gestapo policing language and choking the life out of any public interactions.

The Secret World's recent re-release as "Secret World Legends" has been filled with endless numbers of bugs. Anything and everything is bugged, from graphics to items, monsters, whole missions or instances, crashes to desktop, etc. At the same time, Funcom's very aggressively trying to force players to buy amusement park money by selling items, inventory space, even character movement speed increases for cold hard real-world cash. Of course, they refuse to put any of this income into bettering the game itself, only cranking out more glitz. Among other things, they've refused to pay for anywhere near enough customer support to handle their playerbase's desperation at the product's nigh-unplayable state. Petitions pile up. As I mentioned, response time to three of my petitions for bugged missions and gear took anywhere from five to eight days, with the item being irrevocably lost.

When I cursed out the retarded trash in General chat, I was harassed only an hour or two later by a GM who took the time to personally materialize in game next to me threatening to ban me. When this is developers' single focus, morally cleansing their games' chat box, is it any wonder multiplayer -anything- has become such a joke?

Meanwhile, every single redneck, valley girl, dudebro, jock and church lady in TSW is mindlessly grinding the same instances over, and over, and over... so long as someone else leads the team. So long as someone else tanks, so they can continue to measure their social status in terms of DPS meters. So long as someone else organizes the raid so they don't have to think about goals. Their demands for oversimplification are what's destroyed MMOs. As much as I despise PS2's redneck brigades, they are still preferable to the painstakingly polite but actively counterproductive population of most online games. I will gladly take the racist, drunken, dick-obsessed crackheads so long as they actually work towards the activity's logical goals, toward playing well.

I've been banned temporarily or permanently from half a dozen different games for calling retards retards, and in each and very single one of those games I was addressing degenerate vermin actively sabotaging their teams, actively damaging the game itself, not the chat box. Quitting in the middle of a match, refusing to work toward team goals, abusing exploits, refusing to try anything with a difficulty level steeper than the bunny slopes, any and all of this should be a bannable offense before harassing your own customers over their chat is even considered. All we've gotten with this idiotic politically correct head-chopping is a population of cowardly, brown-nosing schoolyard bullies, shoving you down the stairs then crying when the teacher shows up because you called them doodyheads.

Worse yet when the teacher coddles the bullies, neh? Isn't it amazing that you can grief to your heart's delight in any multiplayer game yet the only thing that will actually get you banned is cursing out a griefer?

And how fucking sad has this culture gotten when hicks and hillbillies show clearer thinking than urbane modern society? Did John Galt already steal all the nerds off the Internet when I wasn't looking?

There's a line I used to repeat when recruiting players for teams a decade ago in CoH:
LFM for whatever. "Must be able to follow simple directions."
That was usually the only criterion I considered worth adopting. It is the main criterion by which gamers should be condemned by game-master authority: their gameplay. Once you have a population of pragmatically cooperative, honest, dedicated players, then worry about the aesthetics of their moronic babbling.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You can spread your wings as wide as you want but you'll still drop.
Someone stole all the air.
The gutter's waiting for you.
Welcome.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

ST: TNG - High Crusher Symbiosis

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 1.22
Symbiosis

Hey-hey, kiiids! Who wants to learn about drug addiction?
Drugs're baaad, mmmkay? So don't do drugs. 'Cuz they're baaad. Mmmmkaaay?

So you rescue two species of aliens from a damaged freighter-
Yes, aliens, those are aliens in the picture. You can tell because their noses are a little bit wrinkled.
Totally alien!
Anyway, it turns out both of their species can shoot lightning from their fingertips. Cool huh? So now we've shown you that, let's forget all about them Palpatining each other to death and instead launch into a tedious half-hour utterly transparent morality play about crack addiction. 'Cuz sci fi.


Look, I've frequently said that good SF is often social commentary, and at its best the genre can blow our minds with practical and ethical scenarios transcending the human condition. And then there's crap like this: orcs in space, shotguns in space, nazis in space, cowboys in space, samurai in space and hell, why not, crack addicts... IN SPAAAAAACE! Cheap, lazy, nonsensical plots lifted from public service announcements, but you're not allowed to criticize them because we are tackling social issues. Turns out one of those Palpatines is an (unwitting) addict and the other his pusher selling narcotics under the guise of antibiotics. Cue lots of "but we need our fix" and "not until you pay up, bitches" dialogues. The whole cheese wagon kind of skips its tracks when fresh-faced good-boy Wesley Crusher sits down with some responsible adults to ask why people become addicts - and is answered, true to form, in groaningly pedantic catchphrases that may as well have been ghostwritten by a high school guidance counselor.

As with other episodes wrecked by either Wesleyitis or an overdose of social activism, I have to remark that the basic plot about cultures subjugating each other via subterfuge could have made for a solid, classic speculative tale. Could, had the writers been less obsessed with linking their fictional drug Felicium to the crack epidemic of late '80s American inner cities, to the point where they go out of their way to specify that the purification process increases its addictiveness. Never mind that all the rambling moralizing about addiction (and the motivations thereof) which eats up much of the episode ignores the biggest plot point that the addicts in this case don't even know they're addicted, being under the impression they're injecting a palliative treatment for a highly virulent endemic plague.

At least the gimmick of withholding the ship replacement parts was spot-on.

Aside from that, there's the issue of Beverly Crusher, who benefits from one or two decent "medical detective" scenes sussing out the real issue behind the non-existent plague, but otherwise spends most of the episode browbeating her ship's captain over his lack of compassion in enforcing the Prime Directive. She wants to cuddle the addict planet's hurts away, and non-interference be damned, because of course how could a doctor of all people tolerate abiding by a statistically proven methodology like the Prime Directive?

____________________________________________

Seriesdate 3.12
The High Ground

Beverly Crusher's been taken hostage by Irish separatists!
Errr, sorry... I mean, she's been taken hostage by "Ansatan" separatists on the planet Rutia IV. They just contain an inordinate proportion of redheads and their leader's name just happens to be "Finn" for no particular reason. Also it's explained they're rebelling because "seventy years ago we denied them independence" hint-hint, episode written in 1990. Except, y'know: IN SPAAAAACE!
Oh, also? Totally alien hair streak there.
Largely free of first-season baggage unlike Symbiosis, the script's technically decently enough written and executed, with detailed sets, lots of extras, choreographed phaser battles, a toned-down Wesley delivering quaint technobabble about untraceable dimensional shifting teleportation, and a surprisingly competent actress playing the one-shot role of the local security chief.

Still, something beyond the cheap analogy to Irish nationalism rubbed me the wrong way and looking at the credits, the writer's name immediately jumps out at me. I've heard Melinda Snodgrass applauded by various fanboys over the years but so far I can't help but bristle at certain rants both in this episode and The Ensigns of Command. It's not so much the writing itself (dramatically purplish speeches I can stomach, and even cheer on (and occasionally deliver)) as the constant unspoken, unanalyzed assumption of the masses as meek, obedient cattle to be prodded and herded by charismatic charlatans or fanatics already occupying leadership roles. She may have been what put me off the Wild Cards book I skimmed as well, though it's a bit too long ago to remember.

Aside from that, once again, a greater problem arises: it's Beverly's time to shine! Except she doesn't. She plays out a bland Stockholm syndrome scenario, bemoans violence every five minutes and pines for her son and asks all the leading questions to set up the rebel leader's speeches, and I can hardly blame this on Snodgrass, as it's pretty much a constant for Crusher's character. She's the mother hen, the caring one. If I had to encapsulate my preference for Dr. Pulaski, it would be her stiff-necked, goal-oriented, dignified stoicism in the same situation, whether she was taken prisoner or merely stranded behind quarantine lines. Pulaski simply fits the image of the highly-trained exploration ship's doctor much better. The position begged a cerebral researcher, not a cuddly general practitioner to wipe everyone's noses.

Then again, Crusher wasn't written as a doctor. She seems written to fill out the weird-ass nuclear family unit that was obviously intended at the start of the series along with her son and Picard, a notion which thankfully disintegrated sometime around season three. Unfortunately, McFadden was cast in that role and built it up accordingly. In the mire of the first few dozen episodes' randomness and confusion, her consistency was one of the few high points, but as the series gradually found its footing her over-emoting began to clash with that chilly SF emphasis on plot above characters. While not nearly as glaring as Weasely, her character still belongs to some different genre. TNG was not a family drama.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Beastwoman Smells Guuud

"Won't be hard to pull you underground
And won't be long 'til you love me
And I'll be coming at your back to bring you down
[...]
Leave you with an open wound
Left to die alone like an animal"

Genitorturers - Lecher Bitch


_________________________________
Minor Tyranny spoilers.
_________________________________
While Obsidian's recent RPG Tyranny suffered more than its share of problems, mostly revolving around its unsatisfyingly truncated last act, it offered among its better features the companionship of an NPC roster running the gamut of an evil overlord's minions, lackeys, henchmen, grunts and toadies. Ya got the fanatics, collaborators and conscripts, the bootlicks and backstabbers and the scheming usurpers, and of course no evil overlord's army would be complete without a breed/brand of nominally inhuman monsters to confirm, by proxy, the villain's own place outside the cozy, empathetic bonds of human normalcy.
Meet my trusty bolverk, Kills-in-Shadow.
Though she seems to spend most of her time scratching her hairy pits or even hairier teats, this girl really comes through for you whenever you need some heads bashed in or limbs ripped apart. Her playstyle's a perfect complement for my own mix of squishiness, suicidal aggression and crowd control. Unable to equip any armor, waiting for me to initiate before launching herself into the fray, dashing across the battlefield while knocking enemies on their asses, howling and yelping when she gets in over her head, she'd be a laugh riot even if she weren't both well-written and well-voiced.
Her dialogue manages to play up the moldy old routine of the primitive and/or imbecile musclehead who hasn't mastered personal pronouns (what TVTropes calls "Hulkspeak") while somehow coming across as quite natural, clever and even weirdly... poetic, at times. Beastwoman speech strings varied adjectives around a few evocative verbs to great effect, and belying its initial awkwardness, you quickly learn that Kills-in-Shadow suffers little impediment in communicating her feelings on any number of topics. Often this entails a concise, lurid bluntness. Possibly the scariest moment in my first playthrough came when Kills-in-Shadow confessed getting a bit frisky toward my character -
 - especially since it's not clear whether she intends to ride me like a pogo stick or floss her fangs with my intestines or both in whichever order. As with Barik's particular quirk suggesting a similarity to Vhailor from Planescape: Torment, several conversations with Kills-in-Shadow bring to mind Ignus' freewheeling mania, a loose cannon you can barely manage to keep rolling away from yourself, though unfortunately in terms of gameplay she doesn't seem to ever go as far as turning against you like Ignus could.
Or maybe I just like her too much and consistently stayed on her good side... by bitchslapping her down to enforce pack hierarchy.
In any case, she counts among the various reasons to consider Tyranny a truer spiritual successor to the original Torment than the more kid-friendly Tides of Numenera claims to be.

The success of the character hinges partly on some good voice acting maintaining a quick, excitable, rolling tempo to that third-person caveman routine which prevents it from sounding stiff or dopey. Largely, however, she and the whole beastwoman race were solidly designed from the ground up for both an instantly recognizable thematic place within Kyros' world and for internal consistency. Not as stupid as they seem but for the most part lacking self-control or a measurable attention span, their dialogues reveal an appropriately bestial synesthesia, a hypersensitive maelstrom of haptic, olfactory, visual and aural data keeping their decision-making solidly mired in the obsessive bloodthirsty "now."

They're a welcome slap in the face to furries and their tendency to infantilize the object of their fascination, to every mewling catgirl on the internet, and every vegan werewolf begging for treats. They break modern cliches left and right, not least the more recent bemoaning of racism among fictional elves and goblins. Tyranny's various human societies share an almost universal racist prejudice against these sentient predators, but it's for the most part entirely justified. They prove themselves at every turn to be vicious, impulsively murderous and largely deserving of their gradual extermination. They make Larry Niven's Kzinti look clean-cut, clearheaded and reasonable by comparison. Kills-in-Shadow's on your side after all, the evil, ravenously megalomaniacal side of the story and ironically, it's arguably the most evil and sadistic faction in the game which is even willing to enroll beastmen at all rather than hunt them to extinction. These ain't heartstring-tugging beaten puppies.

As for Kills-in-Shadow, she's quickly earned her place in the roster of truly memorable cRPG henchmen, with the added distinction of being one of the least likeable or sympathetic.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Bootstrapped out of Zombiehood

"I might
And you might
But neither of us do though
And neither of us will"

Modest Mouse - Might


I flipped through Robert Heinlein's By His Bootstraps years ago and didn't think much of it. Before I get to spoiling the ending for you, let me say despite being one of his weaker scribbles, it's worth reading if you like time travel stories.

Upon re-reading it now, I find myself mostly comparing it to Heinlein's later re-hash of the same theme, All You Zombies. Unfavorably. Can't figure out why so many Heinlein book covers advertise "by the author of such-and-such and By His Bootstraps" when its writing is both less expressive and more repetitive, its themes less daring, its characters less memorable and its action more disjointed than most of the master's tales. Sure I could resign myself to saying that Bootstraps was one of his earlier works and in the seventeen intervening years he'd learned a few tricks so of course All You Zombies was better... but then what kind of fanboyish old geek would I be if I didn't over-analyze it?

Zombies is better, but why is it better? Technical flaws aside, there's also a glaring discrepancy between the two protagonists. While the Unmarried Mother comes across as angry and bitter, this is justified by life experience. Bob the university student, on the other hand, is a thoroughly unlikeable sort of sniveling, two-faced, overentitled, drunken faux-intellectual, nearly the last person deserving of a far-future kingdom of eloi to lord over. Maybe Heinlein only wrote him in keeping with the story's title as appropriately Munchausen-ish, an undependable blowhard.

However, why did Bootstraps necessitate a screw-up as main character? Zombies, as I declared in my last post about it, is a very Heinlein-ish tale of self-determination: somewhat darkly humorous, uncompromising and unapologetic in its grim individualism. Bob's future adventures with Diktor deliver almost the exact opposite amidst all that aimless blundering into inadvertent rulership over meek degenerate humanoids. Whether the young Heinlein himself thought this might sell better or he delivered it to publisher specifications, I'm going to guess the story he was writing might've grated against his personal idealism. Enough at least that he took a creator's vengeance on his creation, turning him into the only type of man who would be king: a bumbling charlatan.

Then again once again and again, maybe Bootstraps really did wind up as a mix of The Man Who Would Be King and of The Time Machine because its author simply hadn't sufficiently developed his own style quite yet and was still rehashing the literature of his youth. His greatness was yet to come. I find this interpretation particularly encouraging, as Heinlein was exactly my age when he published it.

Of course, he could actually manage to get published at my age.
Less encouraging.

Of course, he probably sent a manuscript out now and then too.
All I'm saying is, I find myself uncomfortably Boostrappy and insufficiently post-Zombic for my own tastes.
At least I've never wanted to be king.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Quantify my dairy colony

So here's me failing to declare my independence in the Civilization 4 modification Colonization.
The throng of ex-cons and workhouse flunkies at the bottom of the screen are waiting in line to get their ejumacayshun at prestigious Nyctimus University. Come see our team, the fighting Poxies, and their mascot Mangey the huggable lycan-trope!

I'd heard of Colonization back in Civ 4's prime, but game mods are an even bigger pain to sift through for quality than games themselves, so this has been one of the many I've passed up over the years. Given that it came bundled into GoG's release however, I recently had a chance to try it out. Decent, if obviously rushed decor, nice music, cheap, half-assed flavor text. As conversions go it's acceptable, definitely lacking the scope, balance and polish of its parent title but nonetheless complex enough that I've repeatedly lost track of my ultimate objective of stickin' it to tha man for getting wrapped up in stitching together my little colonial ant farm.

While converting dem heathen hinjuns into skilled jacks of all toils, pacing your trading so as to make the most of your European commerce before your king taxes you to death and conquistaing some d'oro on the side all add a bit to the game experience, Colonization's basically a resource management game. Maximize your raw goods acquisition and processing through specialized units, pick your cotton to ship it off as cloth, that sort of thing. This economic side all takes place in a space of intelligible, straightforward scalar values with few hidden softcaps or penalties for success, a system made to be gamed. An extra two units of sugar you harvest don't mysteriously morph into 1.73 simply to punish you for doing things right, and can be processed into rum at a known, player-controlled rate.

I can't speak for how well the Civ 4 mod emulates the original Colonization game, having never played it, so for me it's reminiscent rather of another title from around the mid-'90s:
Lords of the Realm was guilty of a lot more obfuscation of its exact formulae, but nonetheless offered the same rational, purposeful resource management. Granted, it's partly remembered for this because its combat side was crap, but the satisfaction of juggling peasant occupations from season to season hinged on grasping the value of those one to three-digit resource production and consumption figures. You were never just mindlessly clicking the "more grain" button but trying to approach a specific amount of grain you needed.

By the mid-2000s, Civ 4: Colonization was already a nostalgic throwback to the days of real numbers on screen - at the same time City of Heroes considered its "real numbers initiative" a risky, daring proposition to show players the exact values behind their characters' stats. Just as mana and ammunition were excised from RPGs and FPS games, strategy game resources have gradually drifted off-screen, out of sight and out of mind. Every building upgrade in Galactic Civilizations 3 or Sins of a Solar Empire gives an extra 20% or 50% to its particular resource while rarely or never bothering the player with the actual figures being multiplied, with the worst offender likely being the likes of Supreme Commander with its mindless piling on of bigger and bigger... stuff. Where resource counters show up at all it's increasingly in the form of pinball scores, ten thousand points a pop. More is just better you see, and the player is rewarded for the repetitive behavior pattern of incremental build-up instead of any understanding of the underlying mechanics, the careful weighing and balancing of options which has always meant true strategy.

Of all concepts to lose from games, isn't this one of the oddest: that games should be game-able systems? That the numbers governing in-game actions should be there for players to manipulate, and not hidden behind the scenery? This shift from the old frugal, interconnected, predictive balancing-act oikonomia of Lords of the Realm to an obsession with surplus wealth expressed apart from its underlying production numbers, is it just a fear of scaring away the idiots with math, or is it more a case of servile adulation of a core fable of capitalism, that "wealth" as a thing apart can just be... created?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Joiners' Guild

When you talk about joining a club, you don't really have to specify which. Throughout all of human history there's only ever been the one club. It's always the same. The people in it are always the same, sporting the same supercilious grins to cover the insecurity of their footing within the bounds of social acceptability. Everyone else is always outside of it and keeping them out encompasses the alpha and omega of clubs, and clubbing. There are no friends without enemies, no wealth without poverty, no rulers without ruled, no brotherhood without nominal evil oppressors to hate.

I'm not much of a joiner. I'm just your best enemy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

We've only reached the third tier of...

"I can already see your name disintegrating from my lips
I've got bullets in the booth
Rather be your victim than be with you"

Marilyn Manson - Third Day of a Seven Day Binge


It's a month after Funcom re-released its dead horse The Secret World and predictably enough it broke a couple of legs right out the gate. However, despite the idiotically simplified gameplay and seemingly endless parade of bugs (literally, a giant bug boss in one of the instances is now in the habit of duplicating itself) this maze of bad ideas has managed to retain a few paying customers.

A few. And when you have just a few customers for a nominally multiplayer game, you'd think you'd be struggling to keep them in contact with each other no matter what. Old TSW failed to do that by segregating players into several tiers of gear quality requirements. You had your regular, elite and nightmare "difficulty" instances, then elite Tokyo and NM Tokyo instances. As more tiers were ladled on top of the old ones, the gap between new and old players widened, a process recognizable from any moronic WoW-clone online game. New players can't get groups because old players have no reason to group with them and as the number of old players thins due to various forms of attrition, they too become isolated.

New TSW's chat window's already peppered with occasional complaints about the impossibility of finding a group for even the most common daily grind in the game, tier 1 elite instances. What are those, you ask?
Why it's the first of ten tiers of l33tness segregated by nothing more than the number of upgrades you've acquired on your equipment. The same eight instances you'd encounter in the introductory Story Mode, reiterated in a tenfold gear grinding timesink.

I was able to heal and DPS through l33t instances with under 60 "item power" with few or no problems. Now I can't get groups, not because the instances have changed but because the brainless trash who've farmed over 250 power refuse to group with my measly 120. My e-peen is too small :( and size matters when you decide to pretend it matters.

This is one month into a system which is supposed to yield a player community viable for years on end. The loot grinding treadmill is already fracturing the game on entirely artificial, self-inflicted grounds yielding no extra content or improved gameplay whatsoever. And holy shit, this is still talking about players playing within the same second tier of those eleven! Those first eleven of presumably many more to follow!

Character levels have always been counterproductive in multiplayer games, yet somehow developers keep rendering this idiocy more and more laughable.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Men Are Better than Roger Ebert

"Help me, you tear down my reason
Help me, it's your sex I can smell
Help me, you make me *per-fect*
Help me become somebody else"

NIN - Closer


Have you heard?
Women are better than men.
...
- or so Roger Ebert informed us as a last public service the year before dying.

Though their heyday mostly comprised the late '80s and nineties, many of you might've seen the film critics Siskel and Ebert doing their thing, or if you're not old enough might still have seen them parodied as emblems of their profession. Many have since attempted to copy the perceived key to their success, with two commentators of divergent personalities meeting halfway so that their famous "two thumbs up" represented not only an accumulation of scored points but an intersection of desirable qualities. Gene Siskel was the more coldly cerebral and critical of the two, leaving it to limbic Ebert to like the nice things, goodness aside. While I could stomach the dyspeptic Siskel to some extent, Ebert's jowly bonhomie always aroused an instinctive wariness in me. While reading The Fountainhead I semi-consciously appended his face to Rand's subversive, underhandedly scheming villain Ellsworth Toohey, and until now I thought I was being unfair.

The article, in a nutshell: he watched a piece of feminist propaganda, gave it nine thumbs up a la Homer Simpson, and decided to pile on with his own diatribe proclaiming the evils of y-chromosomes and his abject devotion before the manipulative sex. Supposedly, in the movie, a mixed Christian / Muslim village in Lebanon stands on the brink of sectarian violence. It's not the fault of religion of course but of those stupid, evil, brutish, primitive men (of course) and of course it's up to the elevated, pristine, angelic women to rule and civilize their lowly counterparts. Granted I've never seen the flick but, cinematography, directing and other technical aptitude aside, I'm pretty sure I could swallow the same chauvinistic garbage in any Lifetime Channel movie of the week.

I don't normally indulge in the forum war line-by-line quote dissection routine, but I guess I can make an exception for dead film critics.

In Ebert's words:
"The women [...]conspire to distract the men from their foolish chest-beating. They stage fake miracles. They sneak hashish into their diets. In a bold masterstroke, they import a troupe of exotic Ukrainian dancers who are touring Lebanon.
Enough about the movie, except for this simple mind experiment: Can you imagine a movie in which Muslim and Christian women start fighting with religion as their excuse, and the men band together to import go-go boys? Not easily."

True, I can't. Mostly, I can't imagine that movie being made because no movie studio would subject itself to feminist lynch mobs by even the most lighthearted criticism of femininity. We'd also need a new plot, since (as Mr. Ebert had apparently not noticed in his seven decades on the Flying Spaghetti Monster's green earth) men and women don't value sex in the same way. Yes, when it comes to strictly sexual jealousy, men are more apt to mate-guard, to beat other males away with a stick.

However, if you're asking whether I can imagine a world in which men subvert their own desires to feed women's own power-games between each other, then yes. I can imagine men paying for and sitting through tedious social events just so their wives can display their social status to each other. I can conceive of a world in which men torture themselves by legally-enforced monogamy and work to pay for oversized houses for their wives to play out their nesting instincts, in which men subvert their sexual instincts and mentally torture themselves their entire lives trying to fit themselves to female romantic ideals, to unending displays of devotion, to providing and protecting. None of this will of course make for a very novel Sundance movie plot, because we're already living it. Bo-oo-riiiiing.

More striking than his basic premise however were some of grandpa Ebert's smattering of supporting arguments and side comments, like:

"[Women] are far less involved in violent crimes, and crime of all sorts."

Does "less involved" include "less likely to profit from" or are women simply better at pushing men into risk while grabbing the spoils and maintaining deniability? Do mafia wives not share their husbands' mansions? How many ex-wives and sugar babies is every cut-throat corporate climber financing? How much of a convenience store robber's take goes to supporting his baby-momma?

"I believe that a great many things can be explained by the process of evolution, and differences in the sexes are certainly included. We are the descendants of primitive hunting and gathering societies. Men are better are hunting, and women are better at gathering. Men are taller, heavier, stronger. They're not in the child-rearing business."

Well, I guess that shows what movie critics understand about evolution.
Actually, mammalian males have a tendency to devote more energy to their offspring than most of the animal kingdom, and even among mammals human males show an astounding amount of parental investment. This stems from the debilitating effects of our long infancy and goes hand-in-hand with another weird-ass quirk we acquired somewhere between "homo" and "habilis": our females actually compete with each other for mates-as-providers. Not nearly to the extent that males compete for females-as-breeders, but that it happens at all would shock the mores of any self-respecting hen or doe. Thus, while a woman might tolerate a stripper shaking her tits in her husband's face... as long as she then quickly exits, stage whicheverway... they'll still scratch each others' eyes out if they perceive the slightest long-term encroachment, and it's men who get drafted and weaponized in women's turf wars, not the other way around. While women compete for men's service, men compete much more fiercely to be condescendingly permitted to serve women. Men are taller, heavier, stronger, largely so they can play their role as proxies, as a woman's muscle.

"One obvious reason for larger breasts, therefore, is to send a signal to prospective mates that they are promising candidates for motherhood. You may not realize this when you see a crowd of half-loaded guys in a lap-dance joint, but in some primeval sense they're looking for mothers--perhaps their own."

Jesus fuck, that has got to be the most half-assed pop-psych I've seen in years. Is it not obviously self-defeating? Do we even need to get into all the signals men send as high-quality workhorses, providers of resources for women? How many $3000 suits did Ebert own, I wonder? And if those men are looking for mothers, then how much more obvious is it that a woman looking for a dependable lifelong mate to interpose between herself and the world, she's also looking for a daddy figure to take care of her? What he says next though is a lot more interesting:

"Women know things like that. Dogs understand humans by closely observing us. They follow our eyeliners, and discover what interests us. Women understand men in the same way. They observe the whole man, while men tend to focus more on secondary sexual characteristics and signals of availability. This is why a woman is more willing to marry an ugly man than a man is to marry an ugly woman. The woman is looking for reliability, responsibility, bread-winning. The man is looking for boobs."

This one paragraph encompasses so much of our nature, as individuals, as a society, as an instinct-driven species. Women observe men the better to manipulate them. Men avoid acquiring the same understanding, the better to be manipulated by women. Men who delve into self-serving motivations of women are less likely to let themselves become trapped, less likely to be permitted by women to pass on their genetic material. They become less represented in the gene pool. The men who embrace their sacrificial role give their offspring a better chance at the social status which ensures continuation of the bloodline, at being rich enough to dodge the draft. We inherit male slavishness at the same time we inherit female control. Thus, among other mental afflictions, we hear this same willfully ignorant refrain in every corner of our society: that female instinct is somehow less instinctual than male instinct, that the mindless instinctive drive to ensnare a bread-winner is somehow more elevated than the mindless instinctive drive for boobs.

"Consider the role of the sexes in modern times. Men no longer need to be powerful and violent in order to hunt bison, walk behind a plow, tote that barge or lift that bale. In a society where the hunting and gathering is done by corporations, they need to be smart and work well with others.[...]
These are areas in which men are not necessarily better equipped than women. A great deal of male drive is fueled by testosterone. A man wants to defeat other men and become the leader of the pack.[...]
Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the financial industry. Investment bankers do nor sow, and neither do they reap. They make nothing but profits. They create those profits through the stock ownership of companies that do make and sell things, but at their level they hardly care if they're making tractors or dildos."
In the same breath, Ebert lambastes men for being ill-suited to polite modern society and blames men for polite modern society, ignoring the sheer femininity of the system he describes. The corporate world is one of hiding behind legal fictions, taking no direct action, unable to meet one's competitors in direct conflict, prevented from taking individual public recognition for one's victories. Every corporate profiteer, male or female, is a scheming, manipulative trophy wife hiding behind a towering steel-and-glass husband of an office building protecting her from repercussions and providing her with social status. No matter how much men overcompensate, there's nothing in the methodology of the investment circle-jerk to give Conan the Barbarian a hard-on! It's rather what happens when men try to adopt indirect, communal, manipulative feminine tactics.

I'd think someone as observant of cultural trends as Mr. Ebert should have spotted the glaring archetypal mismatch there, but then this is not a matter of true ignorance but willful ignorance. Neither am I accusing him of being some sort of fanatical ideologue. He did not create the system, and I doubt he gave his article half the thought I've given this attack on it. He was, however, emblematic. For over twenty years, his show occupied a spot at the very center of American pop culture. His job as not king or knight but high priest of the celluloid temple was to tell others what to think. Ebert imbibed zeitgiest by the reel, day in and day out for his entire career, and when he regurgitated it, little wonder it turned out to be our society's "egalitarian" feminist consensus: man bad, woman good; men should shut up and serve women. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain.

What you have to ask yourself now is how many articles like Ebert's you've absorbed during your life. If it had been titled "men are better than women" ... well, Ebert's name would've been Hitlerized in a second. Yet any bullshit you care to spew, no matter how un-analyzed, no matter how blatantly abusive, receives a chorus of applause so long as it's abusive toward men. From the cradle on, through film critics and awards speeches, overinflated statistics and political pandering to the female vote, on every channel, in every pop song, in every general education college course, we've absorbed the absolute dogma of male original sin, the aching need to genuflect before primitive she-ape entitlement.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Legendary Fail

"You said someday you'll change
But even a fool will tell you
Someday never comes"

Brandi Carlile - Someday Never Comes


Partial list of bugged features I've personally experienced in The Secret World: Legends :

stuck animations
switching instances to join your group splits groups
ground targeting will not function while queued after another ability
cone AoE hitting even when off-target, at infinite range
invisible ground AOE (many, many examples)
stuck "in combat" for several seconds after fights
tankless groups created by groupfinder algorithm
pvp health rebalancing will only feign working if you swap gear
inventory items flickering in and out of existence
mobs killing through walls while unreachable
mobs going into infinite regeneration mid-fight (no, not evading)
instance bosses misfiring their skills and insta-gibbing the whole group
instance boss running out of the playable area
a different instance boss running out of another playable area
mission item permanently unobtainable if your inventory was full when you clicked it
mission item only activates AFTER the player relogs and re-does most of a mission
"walk through portal" final step of a multi-hour mission chain teleported me to a wrong location and therefore refused to complete

Add to this the fact that TSWL managed to BSOD my computer, a feat even games officially in Beta or Alpha can't usually attain, plus many many other freezes, CTDs and other flavors of fail. Hilariously, most of the bugs in Legends aren't new. They just haven't been fixed since TSW's launch five years ago. Legends simply duplicated and propagated existing problems and piled on with more serious crashes.

I filed a bug petition.
A week later a GM finally replied, apologizing for the delay.
Delay? Fifteen minutes is a reasonable timeframe. Half an hour to an hour is a serious delay. "Delayed" overnight is already pushing the boundaries of the term.
Putting your customers on hold for a solid week means you've capitulated running the show. You are now the joke.

At this point, I'm half in this for trainwreck appeal. This ain't opening night we're talking about, either. Nearly a month after Funcom's big re-launch of a five year old product, the bugs only seem to be multiplying. Hilariously, even that timeframe confuses new players. I've run into three starry-eyed young novices so far who've made comments like "wow, this game looks really good for having come out in 2002/2004/2007!" The very speed with which TSW rendered itself obsolete seems implausible and puts it barely a step above vaporware. When you hear of a re-launch, you picture something at least a decade old.

So what about the relaunch itself? Out with the old, in with the... old, again. As I recollect, soon after its 2003 launch, EVE-Online scandalized its players by rolling back server and character data about a week. It was seen as a shameful display of incompetence. Funcom has now pulled a five-year rollback, dragging all its most faithful customers through the same inane instance-farming marathon all over again. Pragmatically, this serves the function of reconnecting a minute (and continually dwindling) playerbase fragmented by their relative positions on the years-long WoW-clone MMO iterative gear-accumulation treadmill. Just don't expect Funcom to admit that openly. Also don't expect them to admit to purposely slashing benefits for subscribers (and lifers) in favor of aggressively pushing their new pay-to-win cash shop currency "aurum."

The best that can be said of Legends is that it at long last resolved TSW's woefully unbalanced, redundant chore of a skill system, and in all fairness the new interface is much smoother, more intuitive and responsive. Unfortunately, Legends achieves this end by throwing out most of TSW's leeway for player choice, skill variety and synergy. Weapons' effects no longer interact with each other and with target-lock removed from the interface, combat resolves to hitting whatever's in front of you - literally. While it's easier to get into, it's also more dumbed down than ever.

As for new content, there is none. There may be, in the future. Honestly, seeing how bugged the new old content is, I'd love to see them try to implement some new-new zones and instances just for the faceplant comedy value. While considering what tone I'd take with this post I at first thought I'd praise the development team for actually putting an impressive amount of work into Legends. The new tutorial works flawlessly, I must admit. Then, bugs aside (many, many bugs aside) I remembered my own complaints on this blog from three, even four years ago that TSW's updates had quickly diminished to plain text, a trend only partly interrupted by the two Tokyo expansions. While Legends might look impressive in one glance, it represents years of absent balancing or content updates, years of TSW trying to drown its customers in mindlessly repetitive timesinks (AEGIS upgrades, scenarios, the Museum of the Occult) while never addressing its gameplay issues.

When these long-overdue fixes to their shoddy work finally came, they came bundled with renewed demands that players pay into the cash shop for a "new" re-branded product which so far amounts to even less than the old. But hey, their loyal customers are still rushing to create third-party interface cheats to make up for the game's inadequacies, because as previously noted, it's entirely possible to be both incompetent and crooked in the game industry yet still draw a crowd of enthusiastic slaves from gamers.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

C Larsen; C Larsen Run

"Oceans slowly rise
Time to fly"

Syntax - Time to Fly


Isn't it funny that a trillion tons of ice riding the ocean currents count as just one tiny datum in the overwhelming berg of evidence as to how irreparably fucked we are? And still, the glut of apes thickens. Just little caplets of ice poking above the flood of idiocy in our "news" media, floating out of sight, out of mind. We've got bigger fish to fry.
Until we don't.

Run, monkeys, run.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Princess Brooks

The Princess Bride was not a great movie. There, I said it. Fire tomatoes at will.

I'll grant that in its better moments it managed to straddle the line between trite starry-eyed faery-telling and obnoxiously nitpicky deconstructionism, to denote both self-awareness and dedication to its subject matter. Still, on the whole its fan-base seems to spend more time quoting the flick's various catchphrases than watching it, because to actually watch it is to be exposed to the massive amount of filler between those one-liners. It's the sort of movie which can make falling down a mountainside look tedious by dwelling on the stunt doubles' every single tumble. Every monologue is a line too long, every pause a second too pregnant, every line of exposition stretched to two, every establishing shot a few frames over-exposed. This does not negate its many memorable moments, but it does dilute them unnecessarily. Call me a disorderly attention-deficient child of the internet age if you must, but there's simply too little going on in every scene, too little information density to trap my awareness.

I don't know whether Rob Reiner was infected by this directing style via his father's collaboration with Mel Brooks, because the closest analogy I can think of would be Brooks' own films. Yeah, we can rave about all the hilarious one-liners in Spaceballs or History of the World but that's ignoring the miles of dead air between them, cluttered with minor characters making faces at the camera. Once you get the basic joke of sparking a giant doobie, said doobie's on-screen presence itself is just not that impressive. Nor is the bad guys' repetition of "we've got to get them." Too little challenges our expectations, too little detail sparks mental connections.

This does not resolve to a simple generational fad, either, or budget constraints. The Monty Python movies came out a decade prior, with less funding and more lines, jokes and new ideas. And sure, Princess Bride wasn't primarily comedic like Brooks' parodies, but it still seems to follow the same school of thought in constantly condescending to the audience's slow reaction time. It shows a mental separation between performer and audience, the carnie's disdain for the marks.

How well this feature translates into the internet age is anyone's guess. Optimism would dictate that closer dialogue by creators with their audience would eliminate it, yet cynical awareness of one's virtual surroundings begs the question: how many bloggers, vloggers, webcartoonists, pod-casters and youtube personalites wrap their scripts in slow, overwrought redundancy to make sure you rubes get the punchline?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

I'm very random sometimes.
Sometimes is the best times to be random.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What's HoT, What's DoT and What's Not

The Secret World was re-launched a few weeks ago (more on the "new" version's merits some other time) so after a year's absence I've been chugging along, replaying all the old missions. Hey, at least it's less of a grind than TSW's pathetic excuse for "end-game" content, endlessly repeating the same three instances.

In the due course of "second verse, same as the first" I happened to glance at some loading screen hints informing me of a very helpful "feature." Maybe it's new, maybe it's been around a while and I never noticed. Apparently, re-casting a Healing/Damage Over Time ability on the same target will automatically complete the prior cast's healing or damage remaining on the clock.

By what definition are these abilities "over time" then? The main point of the "over time" concept is to make you consider your timing, ensuring you're not wasting resources on redundancy or long-term spells for short-term targets. Yes, you should have to think about that. Those incapable of such tactical planning should fail. Hard. Retards should suffer.

I'm painfully aware this is no isolated example. The entire history of online games since 2000 or so has been a nonstop dumbing-down and oversimplification. Older games feature epic lists of missing features, gameplay mechanics eliminated or trivialized into uselessness for fear of scaring away the mindless, spineless, clueless mass-market casual filth. Breakable crowd control, specific buffs / debuffs with specific counters, resource management, fairness, group combos, player influence on the game map, stat balancing, long-term character specialization choices, roleplaying choices, organized raids, specific gear use beyond mere stat buffs, self-sacrifice, "no classes, no levels" and anything and everything gets gutted from each game in turn to draw in the mouthbreathing, knuckledragging, brainless sub-sentient human trash incapable of even counting five seconds on their DoT's timer.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Barik Echoes

"Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
Can he walk at all
Or if he moves will he fall?

Is he live or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?"

Black Sabbath - Iron Man


____________________________
Minor spoiler: Tyranny, Barik

____________________________


When I evaluated Torment: Tides of Numenera I said it fails to live up to its claim as successor to Planescape: Torment, and I stand by that. Aside from other aesthetics, the various personalities you meet tend to stop short of the monomaniacal stature of the original tormented. Tides' antivillainess can't hold a candle to the inscrutably sadistic Ravel and your companions seem hopelessly hopeful, lacking that pleasingly pervasive expectation of doom, of sliding inexorably down the universe's undertow.

Tyranny's no match for the original Torment either, but its grim setting allows for a bit more thematic overlap. For example, take your (archetypically) loyal walking panzer, Barik, permanently stuck within a tangle of metal slabs and coils wrapped around him by the monstrous strength of a magical storm. (For bonus villain points, you can actually become the proximate cause of Barik's doom during the pre-game roleplaying choices.) Barik's plight gets played off as sort of a running gag in various dialogues, a gag which grows increasingly macabre as you gain an understanding of just how debilitating his "condition" is - culminating in this dialogue:

Torment fans will probably facepalm at that point and wonder how they didn't see it  coming all along. Barik is basically another Vhailor, a modern fantasy version of El Cid Campeador riding into battle indifferent to pre-existing health conditions like death. He achieves this status more successfully than Qara from NWN2 in her role as proto-Ignus, unhampered by NWN2's kid-friendly limitations. Barik will not die so long as his cause lives.

We met the characters from Torment in their decline, the entire plot consisting of a denouement of lifetimes' worth of adventuring and power struggles. There's a lot of potential in revisiting those archetypes in the making, elaborating the kind of personae and plot twists which can make an Ignus or a Vhailor. One can imagine a Tyranny sequel set centuries after the first, coming across a hollow humanoid form of rusted, tangled metal bands which suddenly booms: "I have... AWAKENED!"

Now, what I'd really like to meet is a proto-Ravel, in the process of weaving herself into her power. Better yet, I'd like to play her.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

From Wells to Fargo

"Capitalism has made it this way
Old-fashioned fascism will take it away"

Marilyn Manson - The Beautiful People



Happy firecracker day everyone!

Ah, yes, yesterday Americans celebrated their peaceable economic acumen by wasting lots of money on makin' big boom-boom. Which differs from the usual routine in keeping the boom-boom at home instead of tossin' it over the neighbors' fence. But it's all done politely, you see. Every SUV now comes with a fainting couch in a sensory deprivation chamber, should any members of Generation Facebook decide to feel micro-aggressed by pigeons crapping on their windshield.
Damn you! Let the robins wear diapers! Save our brothers! Can I get an amen? Can I get a hallelujah?!

Of course, not too long ago in your great-great-grandparents' time, Western society found itself sclerotized by another crop of oversensitive moral dictators fastidious to the point of paralysis. Remember, chickens have dark or white meat, never legs or breasts, and Queen Victoria died in 1901. In the decade before that, H.G. Wells wrote his most famous science fiction books: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Of his career in the four decades after that, most of us haven't heard a peep. Several years ago, I opened up a volume of his complete works to revisit time travel and topped that off with another and another, becoming weirdly fascinated by the path his writing took.

To some extent, Wells' grasp on his own narratives does seem to have loosened. For one thing, his growing obsession with aircraft litters his books with somewhat tedious rhapsodizing on the glory of flight, play-by-play commentary on imaginary aerial combat, convoluted visuals of airplane shapes (most of them ludicrously impractical) etc. The War in the Air is, unsurprisingly, the worst offender in this, yet still manages to overcome it through some chilling prognostication of World War I a decade before it struck. Wells saw the inevitable in the endless build-up of armed forces and armaments which would, by virtue of their very existence, manage to get themselves used at some point. To the man who later coined the phrase "the war to end all war" the system of alliances and global empires only needed a spark of good old Prussian bellicosity to yield the inevitable conclusion. Even if he overstated the immediate importance of aircraft, it only took another three decades for reality to catch up to him, for WWII to become a "war in the air" between the Luftwaffe and RAF, an interweaving of carpet-bombings.

But as eerie as The War in the Air can be to read on its own, it's freakier in the context of Wells' better written, non-SF novel Tono-Bungay, describing the decline of English society. In the rise to fame and fortune of confidence artists selling patent "medicines" and manipulating the economy of an entire nation you find the socio-economic substructure of the military-industrial complex. The willful ignorance of the public, the commoners' enthusiasm in reducing themselves to numbers in the balance sheets of the rich, the eagerness to believe "the big lie" all screech gleefully from Wells' pages at you in recognition. The society Wells described was the last gasp of the Victorian era, with its insecure rising crust constantly vying for a seat on the latest bandwagon. The very model of modern major-generals had already been set at the height of Victoria's reign in 1879, after all, an archetype of aesthetics divorced from reality. Fashions came in the mail, and the mail came often, from places exotically uncivilized.

So here we stand now, a century and a smidge later. Yuppies drink their "fair"-traded coffee out of disposable recyclables and every university student can recite the latest talking points of social activism but not yesterday's chemistry lecture. Snooty grocery stores fill entire aisles with Tono-Bungays by the barrel-full: homeopathy, naturopathy, voodoo-opathy, patheticopathy, you name it and we'll drink it, because reality's all in the nomenclature. Everything's a War On- and everything's a -gate, everything's a scandal, mock and weep to taste. Titles are bought, futures sold on credit. The 2008 crash made uncle Ponderevo look like an amateur, and everyone decries the costly and impractical space program while Lockheed Martin rises in the polls. Everyone wants to give money to the poor, and the diamond industry expects a steady growth of 2-5% per year.

Add to all this Wells' earlier musings on the unmooring of youthful aspirations in The Wheels of Chance in 1896, the youths who presumably, a decade later, invested in Tono-Bungay: "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." 
Look at the snowflakes, at Generation Facebook, the Bunthornes of our time, the coming collapse, a hermetically sealed world of pre-chewed opinions, so breathlessly enthralled by fad and posturing, each a knight in shining armor, each flying as many banners as they can grab from each other: "spiritual" / "progressive" / "pro-life" / "animal, right?" / "feminist" / "ellgeebeateeovertheheadee" / "athlete" / "organizer" and a hundred other titles and orders in their own self-described aristocracy. Crinolines or yoga pants, their skills nonetheless restricted to feinting and fainting, this is a world which ranks "manspreading" somewhere above beheadings as cause for condemnation. Our panem comes sliced (though no-one knows by whom) and our circenses Olympically intersectional: little brown dogs chase little black Sambos through the rings to the cracking of Mrs. Steinem-Dworkin-Grundy's tightly-gripped rainbow whip.

And oh, the juiciest little tidbit's what's been growing in the cracks, the festering sores behind the carefully posed lace fans:
Fascism.
Decades of overly-polite moral repression, policed speech, padded corners and childproof caps, facetious niceness, taboo reality, mask the reactionary upswing until it connects. Are we talking about the first half of the 20th or 21st century? The British Empire, The Continent or The Colonies? Are we looking at the "big and blond and virile" Teutonic air-pirate prince of The War in the Air with his bird-faced attendant, or at a fire-haired robber baron and his born-again evangelical Catholic sidekick? Cossacks or cowboys? Does it matter?

After the capitulation of the intelligentsia to their own credulity and mysticism over the past few decades, how many rabble-rousing tribal traditionalists, how many snake-oil-peddling confidence artists, have sprung up over the past few years in one election and referendum after another in the U.S., in Britain and the rest of Europe? So in tune with the tribal primitivism of the invasive third world they claim to hate, both echoing off each other, amplifying each other, the waves syncing up. Sarajevo, Sudetenland, Syria, all sounds sorta similar. And, with the military build-up and hollow-centered worldwide usury-based economy growing unrestricted behind the scenes, are we now in Wells' position, staring down the inevitable?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Blob my barbarian bears

My recent complaints about the simplistic, uncreative aliens in the turn-based strategy game Pandora: First Contact bring to mind the consistent lack of creativity in game monsters as a whole. Even RPGs with slightly artsy aspirations like Torment: Tides of Numenera will promise an astounding world of mind-bending futurosity, then restrict themselves to little green men and painfully trite black slimy tentacle monsters. It's especially jarring when a game promotes itself as the spiritual successor to a title it can't even manage to imitate, as Pandora does. Alpha Centauri's ersatz nerve runners didn't just benefit from a solid backstory and flavor text. They interacted with terrain (hiding in fungus) and reacted to player activity.

So in what other ways might we move past the gimmick of "a barbarian bear" using standard movement mechanics and unit stats?

What about monsters coalescing from smaller constituents? Say two mind worm boils randomly enter the same square. They coalesce into a larger boil with the unique property of attracting more boils from any neighboring square into itself. As it grows its attractive range grows as well. Should be easy to implement in a flat turn-based TBS like the Civilization games and their clones: add another square or hex to its radius of effect. Maybe such brain vermin might gain more abilities and not just stats as the swarm grows. It should be particularly amusing combined with invisibility mechanics or simple fog of war. Breathe a sigh of relief as monsters seem to wander out of your lands only to be blindsided by their re-emergence as an unstoppable wave of destruction.

Easily adapted to less sci-fiyish settings as well. Substitute "charismatic leader." Maybe the rebels that spring up in your lands flock to a particular Luke Skywalker, boosting his army.

Or hey, why don't we make better use of that classic of B-horror, The Blob? Give me a blob that doesn't just grow in stats ("experience points") as it grows, but literally grows, taking up more and more squares / hexes as it engulfs your units, terrain improvements and bases.

What else, let's see...
Why can't we adapt those noise-sensitive, sessile tentacles from the first Half-Life to TBS? Place an invincible (or nearly so) and immobile monster on the game map, capable of striking at any of the hexes surrounding it. Scale its aggression with nearby potential targets' ... movement speed, let's say, as a stand-in for noise. So it would swat at any fast-rolling batmobiles but infantry units would slowly trudge past in relative safety. Maybe it tolerates any quiet terrain improvements but attacks any noisy / polluting industrial areas, imposing a quiet amishy farming lifestyle in its surrounding terrain.

Also, why don't flying monsters make nests? I don't mean regular monster spawners, but that wandering neutral monsters should, ida know, lay an egg or something every once in a while. Bring the egg back to base before it hatches in x turns, and you got yourself a tame monster unit.

Turn-based strategy games seem a fairly sterile, stiff medium, but even here there's so much room for creativity outside the expectations of the unthinking.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Oversocial Atavism

"We are informed [...] that you experienced a major atavism today involving antisocial violence."

So Perry Nelson, the protagonist of Robert Heinlein's For Us, The Living, is accosted by the authorities after punching his perceived sexual rival in a fit of jealousy. He then spends some chapters discussing social mores in a futuristic minimum security psychiatric day spa. It's a ... slightly odd little book.

That is, however, a phrase I'd love to see enter public discourse not only in the case of violence but also social manipulation. If someone should display symptoms of religiousity or babbling about all-caring creators:
"Sir, you appear to be experiencing a mythopoetic atavism involving idealized parental figures."

If it's someone fired up about moral superiority for being born the politically correct nation or race:
"You experienced a tribalistic atavism. Care to review your ancestors' actions more objectively?"

Perhaps most importantly, any woman attempting to abuse subliminal cues of sexual availability, familiarity and closeness, neotenized vulnerability or neediness to influence male behavior should be accosted with:
"Your falsetto voice, artificially highlighted innocent eyes, overly-familiar body language and falsely reddened lips suggesting aroused labia indicate you are experiencing a 'precious little princess' atavism leading you to believe you're entitled to favorable treatment. Your prosocial manipulation of others' instinctive protectiveness belies your hypersocial parasitism."

She would then be politely escorted to a psychiatric day spa in which she is made aware that sentient beings converse as equal, rational individuals and not by attempting to subvert each others' primitive codependent impulses for personal gain.

The day when subsentient manipulation of another's instincts and emotions is viewed as despicable primitivism, not by law but by common consensus among civilized beings, intellect will have begun to advance past the state of naked apes.

Monday, June 26, 2017

How many nun-chuck nunchuks could a non-nun Chuck chuck if non-Chuck nunchuk nuns could chuck Chuck none(Chuck's) nunchuks?



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2017/06/29 - edited for greater clarity and logical consistency.
Yes, I'm serious. Shut up.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Pandora: First Contact

"Stratocaster strapped to your back
It's a semi-automatic like dad's.
He taught you how to pause and reset
And that's about as far as you got.

It's a hit! - but are you actually sure?"

Amanda Palmer - Guitar Hero


Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was to turn-based computer strategy games what Planescape:Torment was to cRPGs at around the same time: a classic, not widely popular so as to redefine the genre but routinely cropping up in its niche market's "best of all time" lists even to this day. Unsurprisingly, this niche market coalesced largely out of fans of the various science fiction books which Alpha Centauri cited as inspiration, like for instance Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom's Pandora novels. Multifaceted, philosophical, allowing for the player to express more personality than even RPGs, SMAC came across as an interactive rewrite by the player of the sort of daring, visionary science fiction we all proudly displayed on our bookshelves.

Though some of Alpha Centauri's technical limitations and repetitive gameplay features have been surpassed over the decades, the mystique of terraforming a hostile (and very) alien world has persisted, prompting repeated demands by fans for a spiritual successor. While I quite correctly guessed that Firaxis' own Beyond Earth would not fit that bill, its flop got me to look around for other attempts, possibly from smaller developers more willing to play to niche audiences rather than the hoi polloi. Turns out that just a year prior, a tiny studio by the name of Proxy had released Pandora: First Contact, waving to fans of both Alpha Centauri and Herbert's transhumanist acid trip.

So what the hell, I took the bait, and relocated my den for a time:
Note the flock of pterodactyls at the bottom of the image. Important plot point!

But more on that later. As a strategy game, Pandora's full of good (or at least intriguing) points. Resource system: what you see is what you get; the two minerals you acquire on the map are two extra minerals in your city's production queue. True to classic 4X-ing, there's little to no penalty for overexpansion beyond production / upkeep costs for units and buildings. A common pool of harvested food / minerals is combined with localized consumption, so you can purposefully and very satisfyingly massage your empire into cash / mining / military sectors. Cities' sphere of influence can grow far beyond that of the Civilization games, acquring more and more hexes. Formers can act like SMAC's supply crawlers, gathering resources from unclaimed hexes.

Alpha Centauri fans will immediately recognize the modular unit customization window, where you select a basic chassis for its movement speed then slap on the armor / weapon / ability you prefer. This, along with city management, unit orders, upgrades, research, are all handled through a surprisingly smooth, intuitive interface minimizing flipping through windows. Capturing native life forms is a bit of an adventure, requiring you to build a pool of specialized units, and even sacrifice some redshirts to tame yourself some of the local megafauna, at least twice as powerful as the best early-game units.

So what's wrong with it? Well, to start, even Pandora's good points fail to mesh or are more limited than they seem. Endlessly expansive cities negate the use of supply crawlers. The unit design system's largely a chore of implementing the latest completely linear tech upgrade. The AI, while possessing some notable strengths like countering your infantry with vehicles or calling a peace when the natives are about to get restless, is largely an idiot, alternating war declarations with treaty request spam. From one turn to another it'll demand tribute then offer you tribute, denounce you one moment then praise you the next, break pacts the turn after forming them. It's like playing against Trump! And, like Trump, it overcompensates for its ineptitude by getting bankrolled by invisible outside interests and refusing to pay its taxes. Though it's become somewhat of a truism that the AI in strategy games always cheats, Pandora's mounts insurmountable numeric bonuses even at medium difficulty.

Along with a supercharged stream of early-game neutral enemies (monsters) and a tech tree whose demands at least on my game settings scale very poorly against player growth, this yields a pretty dull, predictable setup. If you survive the early swarms of bats and walking fly-traps, you'll then clear off your neighbours and nonetheless end up losing the tech race to faraway enemies out of your control. The end.

For a fan of Alpha Centauri however, a few more lacks readily disqualify Pandora from it's claim as a spiritual successor. Terraforming is pathetically anemic: no boreholes, no elevations, no rain shadows, no water bases or water improvements, no long-term way to weaponize the local wildlife. The wildlife itself, along with the Alien Crossfire -inspired alien invaders never really go anywhere either, again failing to compensate for nonexistent AI planning with brute stats. The giant pterosaurs are only one sign that "Pandora" refers to James Cameron's, painfully shallow, simplistic CGI excuse for a movie and not to Herbert's novels. While tootling some decent music and attempting to build up a backstory, there's no memorable world-building to speak of here. The faction leader personalities are overtly copied one-for-one from Alpha Centauri but lack any personality whatsoever, despite some hamfisted attempts at characterizing them through flavor text. Random stabs at comedy are more jarring than relieving ("the sky is crying", really now?) The aliens are all disappointing little green men or kaiju, refusing to adopt anything as creative (and nightmare-fueling) as Herbert's nerve runners. Planet, the defining Herbert-inspired demiurge overshadowing your entire personal story in Alpha Centauri, is also utterly absent, with no big idea to replace it.

Despite some solid notions of strategy, their shallow implementation and lack of aesthetic charm fail to legitimize this game as anything other than a future quaint oldie to scrounge out of the bargain bin for a few hours of "meh" and a month-later uninstall. Painless, but also joyless to play - and even if I saved you, there's a million more in line.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

You've Come a Long Way, Baby-Daddy

A few days ago the proud nation of Hallmarkia celebrated "father's day" to the best of their wallets' abilities, or so the advertisements surreptitiously blaring at me from various websites informed me. The Home Depot, for instance, informed me dear old dad will disown me if I don't buy him a shiny new Dremel, and touted itself "the toy store for dads" for providing such service.

Apropos of nothing, remember that Futurama episode "Roswell that Ends Well" where they go back in time to 1947? The professor and Leela try to shop for a microwave oven, and the carpet-bagger of a sales clerk, never having heard of the Microwave brand, tries to sell Leela a gas oven with a foot-soaking tub at the bottom "since, as a woman, you'll be standing in front of it all day."
Leela promptly kneecaps him and sets fire to Farnsworth's tie.

So I guess for Mother's Day we'll all be heading to the housewares or appliances section of our local supermarket, or as it's now known "The Toy Store For Moms" filled with happyfuntime gifts for the discerning indentured servant. Or at least I assume that's the case, what with us living in this horribly oppressive patriarchal society requiring constant feminist policing.


And hey, for all you husbands who actually got that Dremel (along with hints that if you're a good boy you'll be permitted to assemble her new bookcase) go ahead and rev it up and tell her where she can stick it.

Friday, June 16, 2017

ST: TNG - Enemy Defectors

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.
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Seriesdate: 3.07
The Enemy

Oh noes! Geordi's trapped on The Planet of the Cliched Dark Stormy Night with a mean old Romulan! Can you kids at home teach our heroes a valuable lesson about cooperation?

Whoa, time out. First off, that is some Tom&Jerry level resilience there. I don't care how Romulan you are, unless you're visiting a planet with the gravitational pull of the Little Prince's asteroid, half a ton of (suspiciously rounded and even-sized) boulders falling on your head will require more than an engineer to pick you back up. Even just one of those falling off a cliff would snap a humanoid spine.

But never mind, technobabble aside...
Wait, did someone say technobabble? As in, wounded Romulan #2 aboard the Enterprise "is going to need a transfusion of compatible ribosomes in order to recover?" Ribosomes. Right. I can just picture one of the writers flipping through the dictionary and thinking "huh, lookit dat, rye-bow-sowmes, that sounds biomological-like!" Ribosomes are too complex to be replicated aboard the Enterprise... which routinely fabricates whole steaks to exact molecular specifications and can re-assemble entire humans from teleporter records.
Also, a few hours' exposure to magnetic fields breaks down your synaptic connections. That's why chemists just take off their rings, car keys and wristwatches before wading into an NMR lab like they own the place. They're sick of having synapses and ribosomes. Particle accelerators routinely liquefy everyone that comes near them. Also, those magnetic balance bracelets? Those totally work! (*wink-wink*)

I know most complaints about Star Trek "science" center on its insane physics but at least on the physics side they had the sense to insert pretextium crystals and other yet-to-be-discovered 24th-century scientific principles. Whenever it came to biology the writers seemed perfectly comfortable rattling off medical jargon as though they had invented these mystical incantations themselves. On the scale of Trekkish insanity, ribosome-eating magnets rank pretty low but it probably still prompted Gates McFadden's doctor to wash her mouth out with soap.

Okay, technobabble aside, this episode seems to serve two main purposes: to continue the more coherent character development which started with season 3 and to expand on the goings-on in the universe outside the Enterprise's shield radius. Toward the first end, Geordi as gadget-goading chief engineer gradually supplants Wesley's messianic nose-twitching to address technical issues, and their indirect interaction in this episode in particular, with the eager young space cadet coming up with a beacon to help the more experienced, trained professional, reads a lot like a bad character passing the neutrino torch to a better one.

The issue of politics is represented by larger-than-life Romulan bombast.
If TNG was to move past original series tropes to a more fleshed-out universe, it needed some more believable alien races. The Ferengi were much too buffoonish, the Betazoids more or less a fantasy race ill-suited to a SF setting, the Q more so. Vulcans epitomize progress, a race of cold-blooded introspective monks, but that leaves little room for other drama. Klingons work well enough as Federation foils, though you wonder how those drooling jocks manage not to blow themselves up at every turn and overusing them would've gotten old quickly. What Star Trek needed were some good believable antagonists so as not to keep resorting to singular aliens with godlike powers at every turn. The Romulans fit the bill as Vulcans-gone-bad: imperious, calculating, disdainful of lesser races. Uncreative as a concept but honestly so (down to their name) they simply work within the series, not because they're particularly interesting but because the developing Star Trek universe desperately needed a go-to evil empire or two.

Amazingly, the show's writers managed not to render them too cartoonishly, baby-eating evil. Albeit indoctrinated in their manifest destiny as rulers of the cosmos, this story already establishes them as capable of cooperation and placing some value on the safety of their subordinates.

The episode's main flaw is leaving Worf's refusal to help a Romulan (by donating ribosomes) unresolved, dedicating several scenes to grandstanding about eyes for eyes then dropping the matter abruptly.
Like I'm doing now.


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Seriesdate: 3.10
The Defector

A thematic continuation of The Enemy, the plot here has the Enterprise pick up a Romulan defector warning of impending war. Despite some weakness (pauses too pregnant, monologues too monotone) the script does an good job of portraying the larger political background in which the Enterprise floats, the sort of thing utterly lacking in the original series. We get to see chains of command, treaties and traps and interplays of allegiance.

None of it is particularly sci-fiyish. The opening, an unreasonably extended Shakespearean interlude, kind of sets the tone. One gets the feeling that in 1989 there was still a serious shortage of screenwriters, actors and other professionals comfortable with SF. In many cases, TNG resorted to trite, recycled plots and settings from detective or romance novels, especially when it came to the cheap cop-out of holodeck episodes. The Defector achieves its effect mainly by being played as a historical drama, SF as written by Alexandre Dumas: intrigue, posturing, loyalties and a lot of blathering about fighting good fights and family ties but not much in the way of boldly going or strange new worlds / civilizations. It better suited the actors' training, at least.

Still, while not one of TNG's high points these two episodes filled a necessary quota of overdue world-building, laying out the backdrop against which the more dramatic conflicts played out. The level of power and conventional villainy of the Romulans serves as a measure for the later, more dramatic and creative Borg. The discussions of cloaking and stealing technological secrets set up the plots of many other episodes in later years. And hey, at least The Defector contains that memorable scene of the Enterprise being ambushed by two cloaked Romulan ships... which are in turn ambushed by three cloaked Klingon ships escorting the Enterprise.
This was TNG finally reaching its version of maturity: special effects fitting their purpose, characters developed, limitations established, political universe mapped. When the phasers go pew-pew, you finally have some idea why they're pew-pewing.