Monday, February 19, 2018

The Cost

I'm still thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer a lot. My dad recently recommended "Saints and Villains", a novelized biography by Denise Giardina, which I have greatly enjoyed reading. The writing is fine, and the story is excellent: his life is incredibly compelling to begin with, and she helps make it even more accessible and moving, portraying a believable inner life for him and exploring the moral struggles he faced while opposing the Nazi government.


I was struck by... well, a lot, but two things in particular stood out to me: Dietrich's consistency and his evolution. The first was exemplified by his steadfast and unwavering resistance to the racism and totalitarianism of Hitler's government. Even when the Nazi party was a fringe movement that nobody in his social circle was taking seriously, Bonhoeffer warned loudly and emphatically about the threat they posed. And he continued to fight against them: not only when those actions threatened his life and the lives of his loved ones, but even when he thought that his actions risked damning his eternal soul. (Giardina includes many lines from Bonhoeffer's own speeches and writings within the text, but I was reminded of one that doesn't appear here, "When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace".)

But while he was politically constant, he was personally and theologically in flux. He wasn't an especially committed or passionate believer early in life: he decided to study theology because its intellectual rigor appealed to him, not because it spoke to his innermost feelings. Well into his adult life, he didn't think of himself as an especially religious person. As shown here, and backed up by his biography, he had a sort of spiritual awakening during his time in Manhattan and Harlem: first by connecting with the African-American church, and then through seeing how his fellow-seminarians were engaging with the world around him to combat poverty, injustice, and bigotry. Suddenly, theology was not merely an abstract system to analyze: it was an urgent call to action, a clear demand for how Christians should behave in this world.

This is one area where the novel takes a few liberties, coloring in details that (to the best of my knowledge) aren't supported by his biography but are in keeping with what we know of his thoughts and actions. Dietrich did explore America, borrowing a car and driving with friends to Mexico and back. In the novel, this includes a longish interlude in Appalachia, where he witnesses an even more brutal form of the anti-black racism that already appalled him in Manhattan. These incidents don't occur in a vacuum: Giardina portrays the systems of wealth and power that benefit from such oppression, and throughout the novel sympathetically portrays the socialist activists who seek to dismantle those systems, whether in the Old World or the new. Dietrich doesn't directly join their ranks, but is moved by all they show him, and evolves his scholarship to accommodate the wider world he finds.

It's very tempting for Americans to point with horror at all that occurred in the Third Reich, and Giardina doesn't shy away from that horror, but I'm really glad that she shows how the United States actually influenced Nazi racial policy. At the time of Dietrich's visit to America, our own laws were far crueler than anything he had seen: from the codified white supremacy of Jim Crow to the genocide of Native Americans, we were much more discriminatory and hateful to our own citizens than the vaguely multicultural Weimar Republic. It's very believable that Dietrich's witnessing of our strict segregation primed him to be alert when those ideas began to be espoused by the fascists: when everyone else dismissed Hitler as a loudmouth who didn't mean what he said, Dietrich clearly and forcefully denounced the ideology and where it was heading.

Bonhoeffer does admirable things, but, contrary to what you might think from the title, he isn't a saint. I loved how Giardina focused on his humanity, showing the many imperfections of the man. He came from a very privileged life, had the luxury to pursue whatever career interested him, and throughout his life was attached to his comforts: his cigarettes, fine food, classical and jazz music. He wasn't a revolutionary by nature, and wasn't especially brave, but I think that makes it all the more impressive that he did the right thing. Someone who feels intense fear and has a lot to lose, but still does it anyways, can be more compelling than someone who is afraid of nothing and has nothing left to lose.

His romantic involvements are another element that might raise an eyebrow. On paper, I was a bit skeptical of the invention of Elisabeth: it sounded like it was trying to give a more personal reason for Dietrich to oppose anti-Semitism and eventually help smuggle Jewish victims out of Germany, instead of just doing it because it was right. As the story unfolded, though, I was happy with how their relationship ended up. Elisabeth is ultimately more important for the window she opens on the Jewish experience, not for her influence on Dietrich. He lives in a more rarefied social circle and, apart from his brother-in-law, doesn't have much insight into the gradually intensifying prejudice faced by this group. Elisabeth shows how insidious and gradual the growth of anti-Semitic policy was, and also how... almost banal it could be. She doesn't even consider herself Jewish at the start of the novel, since her family converted to Christianity generations ago, and those who meet her don't question her identity. By the end, the Nazi obsession with racial purity has her wearing a yellow star and hiding out in a nearly-abandoned apartment building. She helps turn the abstract into the concrete, connecting Dietrich's moral principles to a physical reality.

The real-life situation with Maria seemed to be handled well. Giardina doesn't wave away or excuse the oddness of this situation, where Dietrich became engaged to (but apparently was never physical with) a woman half his age. Again, she focuses on the humanity of the people involved. Dietrich comes off as a bit smitten, a bit confused, a bit cerebral, and, near the end, a little desperate. Maria is young, vulnerable, romantic, optimistic, trusting, and, near the end, filled with pity. I thought it was a very good choice to focus on Maria. She's one of the very few viewpoint characters in this story, and, though that special insight, we can track her own evolution of feeling and the brave decisions she makes as the novel nears its end.

MEGA SPOILERS

It's clear for some time that Alois Bauer will be involved in Dietrich's inevitable death. I don't think I ever quite clicked with what Bauer was doing or who he was supposed to be. Given his chapter titles, it seems that he's intended to be Bonhoeffer's doppelganger, but I'm not sure what that means. They have different backgrounds: Bonhoeffer is aristocratic, Bauer bourgeois. They have different personalities: Dietrich is generally quiet and thoughtful, Bauer more impassioned and assertive. They have vastly different outlooks on life: Dietrich is a Christian with a deep belief in God that guides his actions, Bauer is an agnostic and motivated by his self-interest. Their roles, of course, diverge tremendously, with Bonhoeffer diligently trying to bring down the Third Reich with any means at his disposal while Bauer, until the end, works tirelessly to strengthen and spread it. Anyways, given all that, and the fact that they don't seem to look alike, I'm curious what aspect would make them seem to be doppelgangers.

I'm also not sure what to make of Bauer's love of Mozart, which seems to be very significant given the section titles and his recurring obsession with the manuscript. It does make for a somewhat interesting contrast with Bonhoeffer's love of Bach, especially if you look towards their originators: Mozart is more remembered for breaking norms and advancing himself, while Bach focused more on praising the divine. Anyways... was the music intended to humanize Bauer, to emphasize that Nazis were also people with passions of their own and not just mindless murdering robots? Is it just supposed to define him more as a character, give him a quirk to differentiate him from the various other less-important Nazis? Or what?

Even knowing how the story must end, I thought the plotting near the end was done extremely well. You can't help but hope that the assassination attempts against Hitler will succeed, even knowing that they failed. There's an agonizingly long lull as Bonhoeffer languishes in Tegel prison. And, as Bauer closes in on him, it seems to move in one direction, and then lurches in another, with a cruel promise of escape for Dietrich right before the conclusion.

I was surprised by just how emotional I felt at the end. I'd enjoyed reading the book and revisiting the story, but also felt a certain distance. The last page, though, hit me really hard, and it's still kind of reverberating for me.

END SPOILERS

Difficult times reveal just how extraordinary people can be. If Bonhoeffer had been around before the Great War or after the Marshall Plan, he would have written some good theology (maybe more than he did, thanks to a much longer life) and spoken out against injustice. But because evil was so strong and so visible in his lifetime, he had the opportunity to make a far bigger impact. And so he did: not because it was in his nature, but because he felt compelled to do so, and pursued his mission wholeheartedly. This book reinforces Bonhoeffer's status as one of my heroes, and I'm glad to have a perspective that breathes new life into the man and his story.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Campaigner

This is my final wrap-up post on CalFree in Chains. The campaign has been live for a little over a month now, and I thought it might be interesting to look at the metrics around its performance so far. I'm sure there's a little ego involved, but my main motivation is to provide data that might help other content creators who are evaluating whether to spend time making their own campaigns on this platform.

In this post I'll frequently refer back to my post-launch analysis of The Caldecott Caper. That game was launched just a few months after Shadowrun Hong Kong came out, back when there was more marketing for the official game but before it started going on sale. There are now more players who own Hong Kong (potential subscribers), but probably fewer folks actively playing it at any given time.

First of all, the top-line numbers:


38 days is a weird figure, that just happened to be the delay before my Caldecott post, and I wanted to use the same value here for an apples-to-apples comparison. I am shocked that the number of subscribers is so close to Caldecott's; that must be very encouraging to anyone considering releasing additional content. Regardless of how many people are playing Hong Kong, it looks like there's still an appetite for playing new UGC campaigns more than two years after the official game was released. If that's the case, there's a slight chance that the potential audience could even be larger in the future, as more budget gamers pick up Hong Kong and look for more content.

I had anticipated that CFiC would receive far fewer subscribers due to the lower profile of Hong Kong, and I was mostly curious whether it would be "slightly fewer" or "far fewer". It may have helped that Caldecott was well-received; I have more people watching me on Steam now than I did when I released Caldecott, and I've heard from a few people who specifically re-installed Hong Kong because they enjoyed Caldecott and wanted to try the new campaign (quite a compliment!).

The subscriber graph for CFiC looks similar to the original one for Caldecott:


Caldecott's graph was close to flat throughout, actually accelerating a little after the first three weeks and then dipping down a little. CFiC had slightly stronger uptakes in the first 2 weeks before beginning to level off. I suspect that this may indicate that my more-assertive "marketing" actually had some impact: I'd announced the game on Reddit and Steam several weeks before launch, as opposed to Caldecott which just dematerialized overnight, so some early adopters may have been primed to check it out early. That said, it doesn't seem to have made a huge difference in overall numbers, just slightly shifted around when various people discovered it.

Oh: it may also be worth noting that the numbers are fairly consistent across the two releases despite the change in "competition". Caldecott was released around the same time as the first wave of mods were arriving for Hong Kong, mostly balance and unofficial bugfix mods, and it only spent about a week in the featured mod slot (visible within the Steam client) before being shuffled off. The workshop is a bit quieter now, although with a couple of original campaigns releasing around the same time as mine. I think CFiC may have been in that featured slot for a bit longer, which I had assumed was the primary driver of traffic, but I don't have any metrics to support that.

And, finally, the deltas:


No huge surprises here. The biggest interest came early on, and has bounced around since then at a slightly lower level; from a quick eyeball, I'm gaining roughly 35 new subscribers a day, down from the roughly 80 daily over the first 2 weeks. As a reminder, the numbers at the end of these graphs always under-count the actual values.

And, just for fun, let's check in on how the earlier campaigns are doing!


It looks like The Caldecott Caper has picked up about 15,000 new subscribers in the approximately two years since we checked in last - not too bad! That's roughly eightfold growth since I stopped thinking about it. I'm really curious how this compares to commercial games; I tend to think that those titles, especially AAA entries, sell the most in the first few months, but Caldecott has chugged along slowly and steadily.

Speaking of which, give me those deltas:


As I'd predicted before, there was a big spike when the Hong Kong mini-campaign was released, which turned out to be by far my biggest one-day gain, as well as driving more subscriptions in the following weeks (presumably as returning players wrapped up that campaign and went looking for more content). There are a couple of other spikes in there that are mysteries to me: Jan 17 2017 and May 7 2017 also saw big surges in views and subscribers, but I can't think off hand what could have caused those; I wonder if I may have overlooked some Let's Plays or media snippets or something. Oh! Actually, now that I think about it, it's more likely that these were times when Hong Kong went on sale. I think I've seen upticks in comments on my campaigns in the weeks after a major discount, and it makes sense that those would correspond with those subscriber counts.

It doesn't look like my interminable blogging drove any traffic to Caldecott, which is fine and understandable: that wasn't a motivation in doing this. It does seem like the release of CFiC incentivized more people to download Caldecott, which is cool and interesting: far more people played Caldecott and then followed that with CFiC (which makes sense for all sorts of reasons), but it looks like at least a few people are going in the other direction, or hearing about CFiC and deciding to try Caldecott for the first time.

Caldecott has a long tail, but it's definitely tapering down. It looks like it's currently gaining around 25-30 subscribers per day; in the quiet time before CFiC was released, it was averaging around 15-20. If that continues around the lower end of the range, I might acquire around 7,000 additional subscribers per year going forward.

Finally, let's look back one last time at Antumbra Saga, where this all began.


Those are big numbers, and I don't think the later games will ever overtake it. Even though you could argue that The Caldecott Caper is objectively better (I'll note its 99% favorable rating, as opposed to Antumbra Saga's dismal 96%), I think that the larger Dragonfall install base and the earlier enthusiasm for mods will ensure it continues to rule the numbers. And it isn't just due to early spiking, either. Here's the lifetime graph:


As a reminder, Antumbra Saga is actually just a collection of existing mods for Shadowrun Returns, with some updates to run properly in the Dragonfall engine. Because I only had to update existing stuff, I released it pretty soon after Dragonfall Director's Cut came out, and caught a wave of people playing the official game. Even since then, though, the week-over-week growth on Antumbra is almost always bigger than on Caldecott. Here's a zoomed-in view of the past month:


Here, my average is around 30 new subs per day, which matches the highs of Caldecott.

So, what's the take-away? If your primary goal is to reach as many players as possible, you're probably better off modding Dragonfall instead of Hong Kong. It has more players, it has a lot of Workshop interest, and even older mods are doing better on there. (That said, it doesn't seem to be a huge difference, so you won't penalize yourself too badly if you'd prefer to take advantage of the superior Hong Kong engine and assets.)

And now, let's take a quick visit to the parallel universe of Nexus Mods:


The numbers for CFiC seem a bit better than the launch of Caldecott, but it doesn't really matter: I'm maybe averaging about 5 downloads a day for CFiC, versus around 4 a day at the launch of Caldecott. The values are so low that I hesitate to draw any conclusions from them, it's all just statistical noise.

The numbers get a bit more meaningful over longer periods of time; I can't yet analyze CFiC, but Caldecott now has enough data to be potentially useful. Here's a graph showing monthly downloads of Caldecott since it was released.


It's surprisingly consistent over time. As with Steam, the first peak came after the release of the official expansion Shadows of Hong Kong. I think the second peak may have come after I removed the "Not Safe for Work" tag; I'd initially set it based on a strict interpretation of the Nexus TOS, but after further reflection realized that it didn't really apply to the mod. Removing the tag allows it to appear in more places in the Nexus. Since then, I've been averaging roughly 3 downloads a day. Nothing huge, but Nexus users tend to be polite and supportive, so I haven't minded the effort of maintaining parallel versions.

And here are top-level stats for Caldecott:


Ever since my very first mods back in 2013, I've been seeing about 10x as much engagement in Steam as on Nexus, and that continues to be true in 2018. However, Nexus players are about twice as likely to endorse my campaign as Steam players are to rate it.

So! This will probably be my last-ever blog post on my Shadowrun stuff. It's been a really fun run! I've deeply enjoyed experiencing every stage of these mammoth projects, from pie-in-the-sky brainstorming to nitpicky bugfixing and data analysis. Seeing numbers like this is very encouraging: it's hard to evaluate "real" users that partially overlap across three (or six!) titles on two different portals, but my best guess is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 people have at least downloaded at least one of my campaigns. That isn't bad! If and when I move on to doing something else, it will be very encouraging to know that there's a group of folks out there who have enjoyed my work in the past, and at least a portion of them might follow me to future projects.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Coyote Point

My brain is weird. Reading Ammonite reminded me of The Company, which reminded me of Kage Baker, which reminded me that I never finished her Company novels, so I recently dove back in with the second entry in the series, "Coyote Sky". It's been several years since I finished The Garden of Iden, and my memories had faded somewhat, but I remembered enjoying the writing and the world, and quickly got back up to speed.


Again, my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think that Sky Coyote is a funnier work, while The Garden of Iden was more focused on romance. This is mostly due to the narrators: Iden was narrated by Mendoza, while Sky Coyote is narrated by Joseph, who was a compelling character in the earlier book. Their roles are now switched, with Mendoza occasionally popping up and making an impression, but Joseph both drives the plot and provides the overall tone of the story.

MINI SPOILERS

Joseph is a lot older than Mendoza, by tens of thousands of years. He's much more cynical: near the end of the novel he has a line like "As I always say, in a hundred years who's going to care?" It's not that he doesn't care about anything: he's surprisingly loyal to the Company, takes pleasure in art (Warner Brothers cartoons, certain foods and beverages, works by Dashiell Hammett), and is fond of specific employees. But he's seen that everything fades and is destroyed, and learned the folly of attaching his happiness to transient things, so he tends to be unsentimental, even while appreciating things in the moment.

The plot for this book felt a bit looser than Iden. The action sort of drifts from New World One up to California and the Chumash village, but everything tends to go fairly smoothly and according to plan, with short-lived obstacles. It's still engaging, though, thanks to Joseph's fantastic voice and commentary. It might feel light as a stand-alone novel, but it does a great job at extending the overall arc and building out the world more.

Joseph is a master at interacting with every group of people, from Company immortals to Company mortals to the native peoples he encounters. The most interesting relations are those with the Chumash, a native Californian tribe: his main mission for the book is to save them from extinction and capture their culture for posterity. Like a lot of people, I have a fairly simplistic mental image of what pre-Columbian native American culture looked like: either a peaceful and idyllic life sustained in harmony with nature, or a powerful and violent society. The Chumash, though, are surprisingly modern: they have guilds, and trade agreements (along with an understanding of monopolistic practices and collusion), along with labor unions and vocational schools. They may live in huts and craft canoes, but their social structure is virtually identical to ours; even at the familial level, they often divorce and remarry, and a lot of them don't much care for raising kids.

The dialogue here was especially funny, mostly in Joseph's statements but also how the Chumash spoke amongst themselves. I found myself thinking of Christopher Moore, who also deploys a breezy, humorous, anachronistic style of patter in unexpected places.

END SPOILERS

This was a much faster read than I expected, but I enjoyed it! I'm increasingly hooked on the Company, and looking forward to where the series goes from here. The mysteries have grown deeper in this book, and I'm curious to see answers to some of the questions that have been raised.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Looking for Trouble

As much as I enjoy cyberpunk, I'm actually not incredibly familiar with the literature. I came to the genre late; apart from Shadowrun, I only started reading these books in the early 2000s, and haven't strayed far from the titans like Gibson. Recently, I resolved to seek out some of the lesser-known authors and round out my exposure.



The first entry on that new list is Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott. This is vintage cyberpunk, from the early 1990s, and is a nostalgic romp through an era I had largely forgotten. Many of the specific references feel dated - BBSs are important hubs of activity, hackers swap out disks while copying large files. But this era also had wonderfully lyrical writing: back before most readers had ever gone online, or even had a good idea of what that meant, authors used breathless metaphors, filled with sensations of speed and touch and lighting, to try and communicate how the digital virtual space felt. The sense of awe and limitless possibility shines brightly in these early books, something that has largely vanished now that those experiences are universal and mundane.

Considering how few cyberpunk books I've written, it's kind of funny that there are such strong ties between them. In particular, I'm very curious about how the word "Ice" came to be such a universal shibboleth. Various authors will refer to it as "Ice", "ICE", "IC", or, in Scott's argot, "IC(E)". In all cases it means an automated defense program, a digital adversary that blocks or attacks hackers and which must be overcome by programs of their own. None of these books are set in the same continuity, and I don't think there is any real-world basis for ICE, so it's interesting to see it pop up so frequently. I imagine it's a sort of tribute to prior authors, and perhaps also a nod to readers that they are on familiar, if not identical, ground.

The tech in "Trouble and Her Friends" is pretty cool and interesting. The element that stuck out the most for me was the brainworm, which I imagine as sort of like a wetware neural coprocessor. In this world, most hackers have "dolly-slots", the equivalent of a datajack: a port in their heads that they can run a cable into in order to interface with computers without needing a keyboard. The brainworm seems to essentially increase the available bus width for the computer/brain interface, allowing hackers to process more data. This makes them more effective, but also invokes prejudices in other people. That's one of the many things I enjoyed in this novel: tech doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is a part of culture and sub-culture, and, much like real-world arguments over Mac vs. PC or VI vs. Emacs or IDE vs. plaintext, the use of tools is interpreted as an indication of abilities, with different factions using those choices as an excuse to denigrate others.

Trouble (and her friends) are part of a younger generation that have implanted brainworms: it makes them better at what they do, so why wouldn't they? But the old guard hackers look down on them, saying that they aren't actually talented and succeed only through brute force. In reality, the old guard are mostly scared: there's some risk in the surgery, and they are afraid of change. They would rather keep the old mores in place, where they know that they'd be at the top, rather than live in the new world where they need to adapt to keep up. Because of their embrace of the worm and their sexual identities, Trouble's clique are often seen as outsiders; but, at the same time, they are hackers and are a part of the larger culture as well. I really enjoyed how the dynamics between these various social groups and alliances played out, as the same people will shift between being friends and adversaries depending on the circumstances. Have a beef with another hacker? I'll take their side. Now the cops are after you? It's time to circle the wagons, I've got your back.

MINI SPOILERS

Identity is a huge part of this novel. The main plot is set in motion years after Trouble drops out of the net and a new up-and-coming hacker steals her name. Calling him- or her-self Trouble, this hacker uses many of her old programs, but behaves atrociously, boasting about exploits and generally ticking people off. This causes all sorts of trouble for Trouble, who still has a criminal record from the old days, and sets out to reclaim her identity and clear her name.

Reading this book, I found myself surprised that this plot element isn't more widely used in cyberpunk, or in modern fiction in general. One of the defining features of online interactions is how tenuous our identity is: you're a name, and maybe an icon, and that's it. If someone takes that same name, how is someone else to know that it really isn't you? I've had low-key variations of that experience myself: for decades I've used the handle "Cirion" when registering on new sites, and I often get it, but occasionally someone else will have taken it before, and it feels deeply odd to see posts and activity from the doppelganger-Cirion. One particularly odd experience came after the AV Club redid their commenting system: I'd been Cirion on the old system, but a new Cirion took over on the new one. I'd never been particularly active before, but it still felt odd to read comments under "my" name that I disagreed with.

Anyways: it's a particularly rich and resonant theme in any Internet-related story, and more so when it starts to overlap with genres like detective fiction that are already interested in false identities and multiple suspects. The increasing importance of a distinctive name, coupled with the increasing difficulty in protecting it, seems especially important now.

Speaking of identities: the book is mostly focused on Trouble and Cerise, estranged lovers trying to make a living in a new world with harsh laws against hacking. It was a little hard at first to distinguish them: as you might imagine from her name, Trouble has a reputation as the more aggressive of the two, but the book opens with her acting out of extreme caution to avoid danger while Cerise presses forward with a risky venture. It took a while for me to really get their personalities, although it gets a lot easier once they meet up.

The secondary characters don't get as much attention, but are interesting and distinctive. I liked how so many of them already had a history with the leads; if not, they generally know each other by reputation. Having a vast cast makes things much more interesting for a whodunit like this: I'd assumed early on that newTrouble was someone they knew, and it was fun to speculate who it might be and review evidence.

MEGA SPOILERS

The plot moves very quickly near the end, with some of the best-written cyberspace scenes I've read. They're very kinetic and engaging, and I loved the easy camaraderie of Trouble and Cerise.

I'm still a little unclear on the precise relationship between the Mayor and Silk. It doesn't seem like they were lovers. I'd wondered if Silk might be a relative, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support that. Perhaps the Mayor was grooming him to be a successor, or some sort of enforcer of Seahaven.

I also never really understood what their motivation was. At first I thought that they were intentionally trying to draw out Trouble, but that doesn't seem to have been the case: everything gets worse for the Mayor once that drama gets stirred up, and it would have been much better for him to live in a world without her than in a world where he can put her down; plus, they don't seem to have had any particular beef before. Was it just Silk being young and stupid? Possible, but odd... it seems like most hackers would prefer to make a name for themself, and he would have been young enough during Trouble's glory days that I doubt they had any meaningful interactions.

Regardless, the denouement was neat and believable. I'd anticipated one or both of them taking over Seahaven ever since Cerise realized how the Mayor controlled the space, and this sort of legal gray space is the perfect spot for them to land.

END SPOILERS

While identity issues are the core of the novel, the political and legal framework is a persistent and intriguing side-plot. Characters in the novel often talk about "the shadows" and "the bright lights" as diametrically opposed factions, but of course there's a broader continuum of legality. On one extreme, you have the mob, straight-up real-world criminal gangs. Then you have the black-hat hackers who commit crimes in cyberspace but would never think of causing harm in meatspace. There are hackers who used to do legal work, but new laws have redefined those same activities to now be illegal. There are private syscops who are primarily interested in the integrity of their own systems and don't care as much about national issues. There are those who might cut corners to uphold the law. And there are the straight-arrow government employees who insist on doing everything by the book. Much as with the subcultures, these relationships are dynamic, and individuals may find ways to create useful alliances on other points of the digital-crime spectrum.

Even the hackers in this book agree that there probably needs to be some sort of law, so the question becomes what is the good law, the appropriate law, that will protect against the really bad stuff happening without stifling the net. This book was published back in 1994, so it would have been shortly after the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, after cases like the Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, after it was clear that existing laws were insufficient, but before the passage of early attempts like the CDA and later efforts like the DMCA. In our own time, this has continued with more aggressive bills like SOPA and COPA. Anyways, it's a topic that was very much part of the zeitgeist, but of course is still an issue today, with issues like net neutrality continuing to drive the conversation of how the government should or should not be involved with the Internet.

So! Really good book - I realize I haven't talked much about the plot here, but it was fun, with great atmosphere and some lovably flawed characters. I'm not sure if Scott wrote other cyberpunk, but I'm definitely interested in checking out more of her work.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don't Eat Tide

Well! I'm writing that follow-up post a lot sooner than I had thought I would. That's partly due to a three-day weekend, partly due to me suffering from a cold during much of that weekend and thus confined to indoor activities, and partly due to the game being shorter than I had expected. Torment: Tides of Numenara clocked in at around 30-ish hours for me by the end, on a fairly in-depth but not exhaustive playthrough. I was diligent about reading all available text and exhausting all dialogues I ran across, but deliberately turned down a couple of quests that I didn't feel up to pursuing.

"Shorter than I expected" is a good thing in my book! I'm increasingly wary of super-long RPGs; to this day I still haven't finished Divinity: Original Sin or Wasteland 2 despite putting in well over 50 hours on each of them. It's no coincidence that some of my favorite recent RPGs, the Shadowrun Returns series, clock in at a svelte dozen or so hours. I hunger for games that can efficiently establish a world and tell a compelling story without overstaying their welcome.


Torment: Tides does decently well on that front. I don't love this game, but I did enjoy it, and feel that I more than got my money's worth from my Kickstarter pledge way back in the dark ages of 2013. It delivers on what I was most excited about: untraditional gameplay, a game much more focused around talking than combat, and unusual mechanics and story elements that you can't find in most other games. The stuff that I was disappointed in is, for the most part, stuff that the game wasn't really trying to do or wasn't a focus.

MINI SPOILERS

I played as a Slick Nano who Brandishes a Silver Tongue. I almost always opted for non-combat skills and abilities, and usually avoided fighting. I've heard that it's possible to complete the game without killing anyone, or maybe just a couple of fights; I was pleased to see that this wasn't just a straightforward "peace good fighting bad" scenario. There were a handful of cases where I deliberately initiated combat because it seemed like the best course of action. It made me realize how much more compelling it is to give choices, even when fighting truly awful people: I think there's a temptation for game designers to make enemies that are so bad that they can safely assume people will want to fight them, but even in those cases, it's much more meaningful for players to actively choose confrontation rather than passively proceed through it.

Here's my build immediately before the end of the game:


The most annoying skill was Perception, which doesn't seem to have options to raise after character creation; I ended up using my Flex Skill amulet each day to bump it up to 2. I didn't mean to overcap the Lore skills, which I don't think are required for the automatic in-dialogue checks, but ended up surprisingly useful for a bunch of late-game effort checks.

My party composition was stable throughout: I stuck with Calistege after the opening (surrendering at the first fight), recruited Rhin a little later, and picked up Matkina near the end of my stay in Sagus Cliffs. There was a lot of overlap between my Castoff and Calistege, so I tried to give them distinct combat skills (though, again, my Castoff was light on combat in general). I built Rhin as a sort of stealth grenadier and healbot. She can't attack, but she can use cyphers, and later in the game she gets a useful (and fully unique) ability to reuse cyphers multiple times. Interestingly, she actually isn't very good at stealth to begin with; I improved that a bit, but honestly stealth doesn't seem all that useful to me except for characters who can directly use it. Speaking of which, Matkina was by far my heaviest hitter, with devastating single-target damage and very useful fettle infliction.


I was heavily Blue/Gold tides throughout the game (curiously enough, my high school's colors). I'm slightly skeptical of the Blue tide... you get that just by asking questions, which I suspect most players will do a lot of. Gold tends to be for stereotypically "good" actions. The tides represents qualities like empathy and compassion, and you pick it up when you act nicely to people, refuse rewards, or otherwise are "good". That said, I do really appreciate the complexity of the tide system, which provides a great deal of structure without being simplistic like Good/Evil or even Paragon/Renegade. You can be more focused on the bigger picture without being a "bad" person.



The main content things that I intentionally skipped included:
  • All companion quests apart from Calistege, Rhin and Matkina.
  • Giving research to the wannabe Aeon Priest.
  • Resolving the situation with the imprisoned biomechanical monster in Circus Minor.
  • Whatever was going on with that shepherd's crook in that grave place.
  • Recruiting attractive people in the Bloom. (The one I felt comfortable tapping was the Murdens' translator, but after avoiding combat with them I didn't want to fight just for that.)
  • Hooking up the memory addict in the Cirrugen's Swamp.
  • Opening up the human maw in the Bloom.
There may be more that I accidentally missed, though I was pretty thorough (outside of the catacombs).

Okay, let's break down my reaction.

THE GOOD

Flavor text. I'm impressed at just how much thought and care went into the bespoke "vendor trash" items you pick up during the game, and always enjoyed reading through them. 

Cyphers. The "cypher sickness" fettle and limited slots provide one of the best solutions I've seen yet to encouraging players to actually use items instead of letting them collect in your inventory. I was also impressed at just how varied and useful they were: a couple are just grenades, but a lot of them have very unique and interesting abilities. I do wish there had been more non-combat cyphers, things along the lines of Charmpaste were compelling and had their own tradeoffs.

Visual design. Some spots in Sagus Cliffs looked a little generic, but even those areas were really pretty. In contrast, the Bloom was nicely disgusting, making up for all the gross macabre stuff I'd remembered from PS:T and hadn't seen in T:ToN. The best, though, were the planar-type maps, with stunning starfields or other fantastically surreal backgrounds.


Enemy design. Well, this is really just for the Sorrow, but it is so well-done and awesome, with a much more impressive reveal than most AAA villains.


Leveling system. It took me a while to get used to it, but I ended up appreciating the level-versus-tier distinction, which provides a finer-grained upgrade path while still giving a nice sense of accomplishment at rarer intervals. It feels slightly annoying to need to pick through less-useful upgrades before you can get back to the good ones again - Edge is so much more powerful than almost anything else - but it ends up working out fine, and after following it through the game I think it works well.

Economy. Shins balloon a bit near the end, but for most of the game the economy feels nicely tuned, and I was able to buy all the stuff I most wanted without having much leftover cash. I think it was a good idea to limit many (but not all) equipment items to be for the Castoff only, which simplifies ordering and loadout.

Sleep system. I touched in this in my earlier post, but I really like the rhythm that this lends to the game. It would be hard to adapt to other games, since it requires so much specific writing for individual quests to implement the penalties for time passing, but I'm glad that they pulled it off for this game. I probably erred too far in avoiding sleep, especially near the end of the game, avoiding it out of habit even when it seems clear that the game wants you to take advantage of the refilled pools.

Plot. The story is set in a vast and far-ranging universe, but the core plot is nicely comprehensible. It unfolds well, with a good pace of revelations and some interesting wrinkles along the way.


Endings. It's a vintage Obsidian approach, with slideshows and text explaining the variety of outcomes your decisions throughout the game have made, which is one of my favorite ways to end a game. I ran through several of the "big choice" endings, and saw that most of the slides ended up the same, but there were some cool and nicely reactive changes based on the state of the world which impacted some of those smaller stories.


THE MEDIOCRE

Meres. I really liked the idea behind these, and the storybook-esque presentation was really nice.  The interface was a bit annoying: this is the one place where you can't hit the number keys to make a choice. It felt weird to be using your real-world stat pools while in someone else's memories, and it was annoying to not have access to your items and cyphers while doing it. I liked the flavor, but was ultimately confused by what, exactly, they did: early on it seems to imply that you can actually change the past (or maybe switch into another universe?) by the choices you make, but that seems to be totally dropped in the later meres, which makes me think I misunderstood the point.



Companions. They ended up feeling a lot like the ones from Pillars of Eternity: generally interesting and distinct, but shallow, with very limited personal interactions and basic banter. I did appreciate how involved they were in dialogue with third parties; Matkina, in particular, has a lot to say to other people in the Bloom and with other Castoffs. No romances, either, but I was expecting that. They were simultaneously one of my favorite parts of the game and an underwhelming part.


Combat. The system seems cool, with tons of strategic options and tactical positioning and special abilities and fettles and stuff. Honestly, though, it seemed over-designed considering how little I actually used it. The fights were all pretty easy, except for one that was intentionally impossible. The conflation of combat and non-combat skills and abilities was a little annoying, since I always felt compelled to take the non-combat ones; I found myself nostalgic for Inquisition's elegant separation of skills and perks.


Failure. One fascinating aspect of the Effort system is that even failing at a challenge can often yield an interesting result. In some cases, though, that failure is much better than a success: in one early example in Sagus Cliffs, succeeding in a Smashing test will yield a small amount of shins, while a failure will provide a permanent boost to your Might pool - which is vastly more useful! I kind of liked the idea behind this, but it ended up being frustrating to not know if I'd be better off succeeding or failing.

Music. It wasn't bad, but was pretty forgettable.

Voice acting. I liked what little of it there was, but there was very little.

Philosophy. The philosophical talk was pretty light: there are a few factions and cults with interesting beliefs, but they're very closely tied to specific Ninth World issues and not particularly resonant. You get a couple of "What do you believe?" questions along the way, but not much of a background for compelling choices. That isn't necessarily a problem, games don't need to be philosophical, but there was less than I remembered in Planescape: Torment and less than I was expecting.

Message. Along the same lines, the central question of "What does one life matter?" didn't resonate with me as much as "What can change the nature of a man?" did in PS:T. That's very likely due to differences in me and not in the games, but I also feel like PS:T did more work to set up and explore its question.

Stakes. The Castoff's situation is unique and interesting, but partly because of that it felt bloodless and not particularly relatable. You're dealing with vast, metaphysical consequences unlike anything you will encounter in real life. On the one hand, that's cool: it's fiction, so we get to experience something we'll never experience otherwise. On the other hand, though, I didn't really feel especially invested in the outcome, apart from the impact on one or two characters. On the whole, the big decision here didn't feel nearly as compelling as the lower-stakes final choices of the games I've been playing lately. I think that it's hard to write for characters operating at near-god-like power levels, but it might have helped to have stronger analogues to "real life" scenarios instead of being so fantastic.

MEGA SPOILERS

Callistege's ascension was interesting. I'd supported her research throughout, and initially thought I'd messed up when she left my party after I aided her in merging with the datasphere. I thought it was really cool how she popped back up again in the various endings, and behaved differently in them depending on what was happening in the world.



As for the big ending choice: I'd initially mis-read "sever the tidal connections" option. I thought that it would remove the Castoffs' immortality and their tidal abilities, but hadn't realized that it would actually kill them, so I audibly "Whoops!"'d once the Sorrow asked me to justify my choice. After seeing that play out, I went with restoring Miika, which seems like the most "good" ending to the game. (Sidebar: I really liked the delayed revelation that the Changing God was the Ghostly Woman's father; that's especially good game design, as it had been presented as an optional side-quest that I'd closed the book on, so having it resurface so late in the game was really cool.) After that I tried collecting our consciousness in Matkina, which was one of the lower-key endings but still interesting.


My last action was to refuse the Sorrow and destroy it. I'd assumed that this would lead to an optional final battle, and had hoped that it would unlock some better endings. Miika had suggested earlier on that there might be another option for restoring her to life besides eliminating the castoffs, and I only had the Sorrow's word for the consequences its destruction would incur. Instead of a triumphant battle, though, everything plays out the way the Sorrow said, with what seems like a clear worst ending. I'm glad that they included this option, and in general I'm pleased that there's no one "best" / "perfect" outcome (at least as far as I know; I'll spoiler myself as soon as I post this). Trading off between flawed alternatives is a lot more interesting. That said, as noted above, I didn't feel especially invested in these endings, beyond a general desire for Matkina, Rhin and Calistege to be all right.

END SPOILERS

Well, it's been a long time coming! It doesn't sound like T:ToN has been a big success, so it seems unlikely that we'll see a sequel to it or other games set in this universe. Still, the original PS:T was also widely recognized as a failure, and it managed to inspire legions of devoted fans, so who knows what the future might hold for this legacy. I enjoyed this game: it won't be joining my ranks of favorite games, but it's a great palette cleanser that shows other possibilities in how we can make and play RPGs. Even if I'm not particularly eager to play this game again, I suspect I'll be citing aspects of it as examples of good game design for quite a while.