Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Take Your Stations

Most of the post-apocalyptic fiction I've consumed, particularly in recent years, features zombies. There are lots of potential apocalypses, of course: nuclear fallout, biological warfare, the rapture. No matter how you get there, the end results look similar: a much smaller remnant of humanity, struggling to survive within the carapace of the much larger race that preceded it. Easy access to the fruits of civilization; no more worrying about whether you can afford something or need permission to enter a building. But the factories are silent, the grid has powered down, and there's no way to replenish those things once they are consumed.



One of the more distinct and haunting post-apocalyptic visions I've seen lately is "Station Eleven," a novel by Emily St. John Mandel that my brother Pat gave me for my birthday. As I was reading it, I found myself making (positive) comparisons to The Walking Dead: that offered a singularly grim view of human nature and famously makes its people more monstrous than the zombies. Station Eleven's future is definitely a challenging one: besides the obvious hardships that come with the collapse of civilization, there are still dangerous people out there, using guns and violence to take what they want from the few remaining survivors. But those are the exception rather than the rule; most of the people we meet are wary but optimistic, working together for common goals, holding grudges against one another that would never boil over into bloodshed.

MINI SPOILERS

The structure of the novel is interesting too; in every piece of apocalyptic fiction that I can think of, the action starts during or after the collapse of civilization. Station Eleven, though, alternates between telling what happened in the week leading up to the catastrophe, and what is happening twenty years after. And what we're reading doesn't directly have to do with the Georgian Flu itself; we aren't following officials reading reports of the pandemic and marshaling their doomed response. Instead we follow a quiet, beautiful, mundane story about the aging actor Arthur and the constellation of people around him: ex-wives, estranged friends, adoring fans. What's especially poignant about this is how, as we return again and again from the bleak future, those mundane actions become extraordinarily meaningful. This will be the last time he argues with her, because in a week they'll both be dead. That cup of coffee will be an unimaginable luxury once international shipping breaks down. That uncomfortable airplane ride is an extraordinary achievement of man's ingenuity over the force of gravity.

The future feels somewhat familiar, as we're following a band of survivors who travel the roads on their caravan. But what's beautiful about Station Eleven is that they aren't hard-bitten mercenaries staking out territory or scientists searching for a cure. They are artists: musicians and actors. They travel with their musical instruments and costumes and props and backdrops. We learn that, after the early anarchic bloody years that immediately followed the Georgian Flu outbreak, survivors have started forming small villages and settlements: a roadside motel, a big-box store, a ranch house. The Shakespearean acting company and orchestra travels between these hamlets, putting on plays and performing symphonies. It's strange and wonderful.

I think what I ultimately love about Station Eleven is that it doesn't just answer the "what" and the "how" of surviving the apocalypse, but the "why". One recurring message in this novel, quoting Star Trek, is "Survival is insufficient." There's a primal hunger for art, for stories, for producing and performing for others, for witnessing the art that others create. The nihilistic message of works like The Walking Dead is that we're all ultimately animals, that when you strip away the trappings of civilization you uncover the ugly truth beneath. Station Eleven makes it clear that we're not animals, that we carry within us the spark of beauty and creation, and it's that spark that helps drive us towards creating society, towards building civilization, that gives us this impulse and lends us the motivation to do the hard work it requires.

MEGA SPOILERS

Part of me almost wishes that The Prophet wasn't in the novel; at first it kind of seemed like he was shoehorned in for the sake of creating a conflict to overcome, which felt more traditional and less exciting than the general sweep of the novel. But by the end of his arc I was pretty happy with it. I'd figured out who The Prophet was after the flashback with Elizabeth and Clark making the emergency landing and realizing that his age lined up to be Arthur's son. I am kind of curious if his time in Israel helped fuel the religious "savior" mentality that eventually took hold.

I did really like how the surviving characters from the earlier section of the book were only gradually re-introduced in the aftermath and belatedly learn of each others' continued existence. It's interesting how the book so forthrightly reveals future events and strips away potential tension; early on, it reminded me a little of Kurt Vonnegut when Mandel would end a scene and say "Alice would die in two days, Bob in a week. Carly would last ten whole days." Perhaps because of that sense of candor, I was genuinely surprised to learn that, say, Elizabeth had survived.

Jeevan is a bit of an odd case. He's the first viewpoint character in the novel, the first one we know who hears about the Georgian Flu, and the only person taking specific actions to prepare for the onslaught ahead. It's strange how he just disappears for much of the book, and then pops up in Virginia, far removed from the other survivors we've been following in the Great Lakes region. He's such a major connector character, particularly illuminating every phase of Arthur's career, but also crossing paths with the major survivors. It seems a little odd to have him missing from the big reunion at Severn City Airport at the end, his only real contribution to the post-apocalyptic storyline being to receive some narration on how The Prophet operates.

But... I dunno, I ultimately like how things end up sort of messy and incomplete. There are some wonderful connections, like Clark seeing himself in the Station Eleven comics; but it's also kind of cool that he doesn't see the paperweight again, even after we've traced its very long journey through the decades. The world of the future is vast and largely unknowable, the maps filled in with lots of darkness and question marks, and those enduring mysteries make all the discoveries feel more significant.

END SPOILERS

I'm pretty sure that this is a stand-alone novel and we won't be returning to this world, but it is a pretty wonderful piece of worldbuilding. I was reminded of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, and while this book speaks to the powerful hold these devastating scenarios can hold on our imagination, it's also a startlingly hopeful book, one that focuses on our resiliency and capacity for creation. I'm really glad to have it as an example of the other sorts of stories we can tell in these kinds of worlds.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Twitch Reflexes

Like a lot of older people, the very concept of Twitch has been somewhat baffling for me. Why would I spend my precious free time watching someone else play video games instead of, y'know, playing one myself?

Over the years I've come to understand it more. For certain games, like competitive player-versus-player ones, it can be really exciting to watch highly skilled players performing well; watching those, I realize one could just as easily ask "Why would I spend time watching televised basketball instead of, y'know, playing basketball myself?" Beyond the content of the game itself, much of the appeal in Twitch lies with the broadcasters, and watching a stream is often at least as much about their performance as with the game they're playing. That used to always turn me off when I would watch streams of games I liked, as it can seem very distracting and undercut the content of the game; but just as often it can enhance my enjoyment. Maybe the streamer finds something that I'd missed, or can offer some funny commentary, or does fun impromptu voice acting for a text-only game.

In the last couple of months I've come to realize that Twitch can be a phenomenal tool not only for game publishers, who notoriously use the platform to advertise and promote their existing games, but also for game developers, as it gives access to see how real people are actually playing your game. In my case, I've been able to watch people play through my Shadowrun mods. This is the first time I have ever seen another human being actually play my games, and it is a fascinating, illuminating experience. I get plenty of feedback from my players, via comments on my Steam Workshop pages or direct messages or blog posts, but they're inevitably condensing their experiences of playing 10+ hours into a couple of sentences. Watching what actually happens during those hours is a whole other level.

One impact is that I feel a lot better about giving players copious hints and directions. I provided more and more of these with each new campaign, and would often worry that I was "dumbing down" the game too much, over-communicating their goals and objectives. But, many players tackle these games in chunks: they're definitely not playing through the whole campaign in one sitting, and probably not over consecutive days. A Twitch streamer will typically play once a week for a few hours; in real life, people might go even longer between sessions. It's actually helpful for me to hear someone at the start of a stream say something like, "We're in San Francisco, but I forget why, I think we're supposed to meet someone or kill them or something?", and then over the next hour or so reconstruct the current state of the game. This is also an argument for keeping plots simple: not dumb or boring, but I think that if you make a few vivid things (colorful personalities, high-stakes problems, anything to stick in a player's mind), it really helps orient them.

One of the mortifying experiences I had came a few months ago when I was watching a player attempt to navigate the Sacramento map in CFiC, one of the more puzzle-and-exploration-heavy scenes in the game. After many agonizing minutes had passed, I started to yell at my monitor: "Click the icon! It's right there! It's glowing and blinking! The compass is pointing right at it!" I watched as he paused, walked his character over, see the mouse slooooowly move towards the icon... then he would turn around and wander over to the other side of the map. Stuff like that keeps me from wanting to stream myself: not being able to solve a puzzle feels kind of embarrassing to start with, I don't think I'd be able to handle knowing that other people are watching me not get something.

For the most part, though, it's been encouraging to see how rarely players get stuck. Most of the riddles and similar things work like I would hope, with the player mulling things over and maybe failing a couple of times before figuring it out. Other times they brute-force their way through, which is fine too; I'm sure that for both players and their viewers, it would be annoying to get stuck on a single part of the game for very long, and in general it seems like even the more obtuse puzzles in Antumbra Saga don't hold them up for very long.

Another unanticipated finding has been how many players almost exclusively use the default attacks: the basic single-bullet attack on a gun, Powerbolt on mages, and the basic deck attack in the Matrix, never using more powerful cooldown-limited abilities like Aimed Shot, Flamethrower, or Killer. In my own playthroughs I make heavy use of these, using Aimed Shot any time it's available and a given shot has a 50-80% chance of landing, and using Killer or Flamethrower any time an enemy has more health than my default attack. Not using the special attacks makes each fight longer and harder than I planned while designing the combat, though this is mitigated since the streamers seem to be playing on Easy mode. This is one of the few cases where I would genuinely like to interview the players and figure out why they so strongly prefer the basic attacks. Are they deliberately holding back the special attacks so they would be available if needed? Are they trying to keep things fast-paced for their viewers (a single click to attack is quicker than one click to select a mode and a second click to attack)? Do they think the special attacks give themselves an unfair advantage over enemies who eschew them? Are they unsure what they do? I'm now curious to see what those same streamers would do when unlocking custom attacks in the Caldecott Caper or CalFree in Chains: if there's a small plot and some dialogue introducing the attack, will they be any more likely to use it than if it just appears as an option in the UI?

There's a ton of useful information in these streams, and I've even pushed out a few new updates as the result of what I've seen: typos in the dialogue, clarifying some plot points that were confusing, noticing that some events wouldn't properly fire in all cases. I'm already thinking ahead to a hypothetical future (non-Shadowrun!) campaign and wondering if future beta testers would be willing to privately stream their runs; my existing system is great for identifying game-breaking bugs and the most important feedback, but there's so much more that I get from seeing people actually, y'know, play the game.

That said, the experience has also reminded me that, my best intentions aside, I can be kind of thin-skinned when it comes to criticism of my work. For the most part streamers have been very complimentary and excited, and it's a very fulfilling thrill to see others derive joy from something I put many, many hours into creating. But when I hear complaints, even made idly in passing, I instinctively want to put up a defense: "This part is supposed to be hard!" "It will all make sense in an hour!" "That's because you didn't talk to anyone back at the bar!" "You could have sided with the other faction!" "The engine doesn't support that!" Of course, I'd never actually pull a Brett Stephens over this; it seems petty and creepy for a creator to argue with players. And my focus should be on the experience my players are actually having, not the one I wanted them to have. I do think that, even for smaller dev studios, this is probably the sort of thing that could benefit a lot from some mediation: an intern or professional sifting through this raw footage, synthesizing the common, valid feedback, and propagating it up the studio as actionable feedback.

By far, my favorite part of dipping into Twitch has been watching players have emotional reactions to the stuff I've made. My entire motivation for creating these campaigns has been to instill a certain feeling, hit certain emotional beats, and I put a lot of thought and effort into reaching those points. The written feedback I've received so far has been really encouraging and validating, helping me recognize that at least some people are connecting with my story. Actually seeing it is even better, and makes all the long nights of work feel worthwhile.


It does feel a little narcissistic to focus on my own games like this, so I'll probably try and wean myself off of these particular Twitch streams in the near future. But it's been a very illuminating experience! I've gotten a ton of useful feedback for the games I've made, have made some discoveries about the different ways people play games that will help inform any future projects, and have some new tools that may help with future development and playtesting efforts. None of that is what Twitch was originally designed for, but it's a pretty darn good reason for it to exist.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Stop The Clock! New No-No!

I just wrapped up the sixth book of Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series. I haven't been blogging about intermediate books since the first one; partly because I haven't had a lot to say about them, but more because it's so clearly a single continuous story. At the end, I find I still don't have a ton to say - much less than Fall! - but I'd like to say what I do have.

 
MEGA SPOILERS

My favorite aspect of this series is just how over-the-top the plotting is. It gets more and more audacious and ridiculous and epic with every book. Very roughly, the progression looks like:
  • A biotech company is secretly involved in the drug trade!
  • The high-tech media is part of the conspiracy!!
  • They sent assassins after the reporter who figured it out!!!
  • The assassins are from a parallel universe!!!!
  • The reporter can also travel to that universe!!!!!
  • The assassins are part of the Clan, a quasi-governmental organization that's been trafficking drugs for decades!!!!!!
  • The reporter is a princess!!!!!!!
  • There's a civil war within the Clan!!!!!!!!
  • There's a secret faction from a third universe!!!!!!!!!
  • The reporter is an industrial capitalist now!!!!!!!!!!
  • The US government knows about what's going on!!!!!!!!!!!
  • The US government has known for a while about all this!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • The Clan is secretly raising a generation of multiverse-traveling babies!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • The reporter/princess is betrothed! Oh no her groom was assassinated!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • There's an even more secret conspiracy to raise a generation of test-tube world-walking babies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • The reporter/princess failed to expose that conspiracy, and has been artificially impregnated with the heir to the throne!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • The US government is preparing to invade the other worlds!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Oh shit, Dick Cheney has been behind all this from the start!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • The Clan stole atomic bombs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • They nuked the White House!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • President Dick Cheney is gonna nuke the other world in retaliation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Cheney died of a heart attack, now President Donald Rumsfeld is gonna do the nukes to shock-and-awe Russia and China!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Like, everyone on that world has been vaporized or is gonna die of radiation poisoning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • THE END
I'm skipping over some stuff, but that's the general thrust! There's just constant escalation and stakes-raising, to a pretty absurd degree, but it keeps things super-interesting.

One of several odd aspects of the series is that Paul Krugman has blurbed the books, appearing on the back cover with glowing praise. It feels a bit odd to have a lefty NYT columnist praising a gonzo speculative fiction book. My favorite parts of the series probably were those that weighed in on economic issues, looking at how different timelines were faring under different political, cultural and business regimes: there's some ongoing discussion of runaway inflation in New Britain, a development trap in the Gruinmarkt, arbitrage of weight and illicit materials via the Postal Service, etc. One of several frustrations I had with the book is how fleetingly these are covered, though. I was particularly disappointed that Miriam's business enterprise, which seemed so interesting and cool, got completely axed; likewise, we get lots of details about New Britain's woes, and some speculation on how to fix it, but nothing is ever done with them.

The series ultimately felt pretty unsatisfying: lots of exciting things are happening, but many plot threads are completely dropped, character arcs unfulfilled, not much really wrapped up. The last book features a kiss between two characters who I guess are in love but who I'd forgotten about; meanwhile, Miriam and Erasmus are just building up some "will they or won't they?" energy that will never be explored. There are all these really interesting doors that get opened during the series, but most of them are left unexplored, with just a pure testosterone burst at the end. Miriam herself feels unfairly sidelined in her own series, losing the cool agency she had and suffering as a powerless victim for multiple books.

END SPOILERS

The Trade of Queens opens with a note that it is the final entry in this arc. As it stands, I find it hard to recommend. The first few books have likeable characters but the writing can be kind of dodgy; the middle books are pretty wonderful with lots of fun surprises, more believable dialogue, and the pleasure of watching talented people make the most of their situation; the final books ramp up the excitement and stakes considerably, but lose much of the most impressive plot and wind up to an abrupt, arbitrary conclusion. It looks like there is another trilogy coming that follows a new plot in this same world. There's enough about the setting that I like for me to keep an eye on it, but I'll probably read the reviews before committing.

While this didn't end the way I would have liked it to, it does remind me that Stross is a very versatile writer: I've enjoyed all of his other books more than this, and it has been a lot of fun to see him work in another genre and style. I don't plan to return to the Merchant Princes soon, but this does remind me that I should check out some more of his books.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

That Game You Like Is Going To Come Back In Style

Things have picked up in Divinity: Original Sin 2 (henceforth DOS2). This is more due to me than the game. I felt a bit pokey at first: playing for a little while, then getting frustrated and overwhelmed by the cruft in the game (the ginormous inventories, encumbrances, crafting, and hard-to-compare equipment: do I want a ring that gives +31 Magical Armor, +2 Warfare and +1 Telekinesis, or one that gives +35 Magic Armor, +1 Warfare, +1 Scoundrel and +1 Bartering?). I'd take a break for a week or so, then dive back in again. By now, though, things are clicking: I'm getting invested in the story, in my companions, and have at least a rudimentary system in place for managing the metric tons of crap the game shovels into my pockets.


I think I'm still pretty early in the game; I just reached level 13, and it looks like I've uncovered maybe a bit less than half the map for Act 2. Since I've been playing for so long, though, I wanted to capture some in-progress thoughts, focusing on the things I think this game does very well in comparison to other RPGs I've enjoyed.


One big, obvious thing is the steep power curve. Basically, everything doubles in difficulty every 2 levels: all things being equal, the enemies you face at level 10 are twice as hard as the enemies you face at level 8, and four times as hard as the enemies at level 6; the enemies I face at level 14 will be 4 times as hard as at level 10, etc. Likewise, Level 10 equipment is roughly twice as strong as Level 8 equipment. This has a bunch of secondary implications for gameplay:
  • There are no scaling enemies. If something is too hard, you can come back later and crush them.
  • Virtually the entire game is "soft gated" by enemy difficulty, and not "hard gated" by artificial barriers. You theoretically can go pretty much anywhere, but the risk of being far under-level is extremely high.
  • But conversely, if you do tough it out through a single encounter against much higher-level opponents, you will be richly rewarded: the gear you find could easily be twice as strong as what you'd find for on-level combat.
  • You need to continually upgrade your equipment to stay viable. This can be very frustrating at lower levels, as you'll need to replace cool unique items with great abilities because their raw stats are so poor. By this point in the game, though, the levels have slowed down enough that there's a good cadence.
  • On a related note, money is very useful. Loot is random, but you probably won't get enough to maximize your slots. Springing for Epic/Legendary/Whatever equipment lets you choose great abilities, and will usually remain viable for longer than Uncommon/Rare looted equipment will.
  • The curve isn't just steep: it's very finely tuned. You need to do pretty much everything in an available zone, and will barely get enough experience to be on-level for the following zone. There's no grindable XP, and so far the encounters have remained nicely challenging.

To expand on that final point a little more: one of the coolest things about the DOS series is its encounter design. There are no trash fights: each combat is extremely finely tuned, with a unique setting and enemies and abilities and mechanics. In other RPGs, I dread grinding through combat so I can get to the good story bits. In DOS2, the fights are hands-down my favorite part of the game.


The world design is insanely good, especially when it comes to secrets. There are so many ways to get from Point A to Point B, and it's always worth keeping your eyes open and a high-Wits character in the party so you can find buried treasure, traps, and other unexpected items along the way.


I like the party specialization system. There are no fixed classes, so you can build your party around any concept you like; at the same time, there are limited skill and attribute points available, so you're incentivized to assign specialties.

Speaking of, here's my current party loadout. (I name some characters here, but there's no plot info, hence no spoiler tags.)


My PC is Lohse. She is a dual-wielding-dagger backstabber. She mostly uses Scoundrel abilities, with a few Necromancer skills to occasionally summon corpses for damage and more bodies on the field. She's almost all oriented towards Finesse, with splashes in Memory and a little Constitution and Wits. (Since she usually backstabs for guaranteed crits, Wits' increased critical chance isn't that useful.) As party leader (but not Leader), she focuses on Persuasion, and stacks some Bartering points as well. She has Pet Pal and some other good talents. For combat, she has a lot of Warfare, Scoundrel, and Dual Wielding.

I think Sebille is canonically supposed to be a dual-wielding dagger rogue, but since that slot is filled I respecced her into an Archer. She's also high in Finesse, and is the main Wits character in my party, currently in the low 20s to spot secrets. She's mostly focused on Huntsman skills, with some Polymorph and one or two Scoundrel. She builds on her Elven advantages to be the Loremaster for the party. She has Huntsman, Warfare, and Ranged combat skills. There are more useful Talents for her than anyone else, including ones to expand her range, recover special arrows, inflict deadly status effects, and so on.


Beast is my tank, wielding a single-handed weapon and a massive shield. I don't think he's ever died, other than falling into lava or deathfog. He focuses on Warfare skills, with some Aerothurge as well; initially I took some damage skills there, but now he just has utility ones like Teleportation and Nether Swap. He has a lot of useful-but-not-crucial talents, like Lucky Charm, Leadership and Retribution, but lately I've been focusing on pushing up his damage. His Constitution is probably higher than it needs to be, so now I'm focusing on his Strength.

Finally, Fane is my jack-of-all-trades spellcaster. He uses Pyrokinetic, Geomancer and Hydrosophist, and I'm starting to squeeze in some Summoner as well. He's almost 50:50 between Intelligence and Memory, so his attacks aren't as powerful as they could be but he has a ton of useful buffs and utility spells available. He uses his bony finger to accomplish Thievery tasks with aplomb. Fane and Sebille are both Stinky, helping them avoid some of their foes' personal attentions in combat; he also has many skills that make his status effects more deadly.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with the setup. The one big problem is that Fane doesn't have any teleportation skills, so I'm mulling maybe having him take over Aero from Beast and giving Beast... I dunno, maybe Hydro or something. Sebille can run out of abilities sometimes, but her basic attack is crazy good already, plus she has special arrows to spare; in any case, I just got her Skin Graft, which should help her with those cooldowns in the future.


Sebille usually goes first in combat, and, especially with her Flesh Sacrifice and Adrenaline skills, she can often take out an enemy before they get a chance to even move. When I can I try to take out the first enemy in the rotation order, which lets me use two characters back-to-back; if they seem too strong, I'll focus on someone further down the chain so a later party member can take them down before their move. I'm very Physical Damage-heavy in my party, but she will use elemental arrows if facing enemies with weak Magic Armor.

Beast usually dives into the fray and tries to use his CC skills. Even if Sebille didn't kill an enemy, it's very likely that she stripped their Physical Armor, in which case Beast can lay them out flat for the turn. The Taunting skill in this game is garbage so I almost never use that, but I do try to position Beast so he's a more tempting target than my squishier members.

Lohse is another single-target damage-dealer. She can inflict some nasty status effects (Bleeding, Ruptured Tendons, Atrophy), but I've come to realize that she usually kills an enemy in a single turn anyways so there isn't much point. When she has an extra action point left over, she'll CC a low-magic enemy with her Chloroform, or buff the rest of the party with Encourage. She and Beast are the only non-Stinky party members, so she does tend to get banged up in tougher fights; in the long run, I'd like to focus on increasing her Dodge to make her more survivable, and/or give her options to duck into Stealth.

Fane has by far the most abilities on the team, but it's often hard to find stuff for him to do. This is mostly because the rest of my party is so focused on Physical damage, so a lot of the stuff Fane could do would be pointless. That said, he is great in AOE scenarios, especially when enemies have weak Physical Armor and environmental vulnerabilities. In practice, he often ends up buffing deadlier teammates with Haste and Clear Minded, and replenishes Physical and Magical Armor as needed. I'm hoping to build out his Summons some more, which may let him indirectly contribute to this Physical Damage Party I've got going.

Hm, as long as I'm writing this post, let's chat about some

MINI SPOILERS

I've escaped Spellhold Fort Joy, and have finished almost all of the Driftwood-area quests, including the long arc to confront Mordus the undead dwarf Sourceror. Perhaps amusingly, I totally failed to find the Blackroot in the basement, so I didn't get my Spirit Vision / Source Vampirism abilities until Level 12. It is kind of cool that the game lets you do so much without it: again, it's a game of soft gates, not hard ones. But what's a little frustrating is that there are a few puzzles that are impossible to solve without Spirit Vision, and the game doesn't make that clear, so I'd still be trying to solve those if I hadn't gone online to search the wiki and found out that I didn't have the ability I needed.


I've earned the "Hero" tag, so I guess I'm mostly doing a "Good Guy" playthrough. I still don't have a totally solid bead yet on my interpretation of Lohse; there are good roleplaying hooks in the dialogue options, especially in the Hall of Echoes when conversing with your demon, but I'm not sure yet whether she's afraid or vengeful or flippant or what. Among my companions, Fane is slightly annoying but bearable (not nearly as offputting as the aristocratic Red Prince was); Beast seems a bit boring in spite of his revolutionary storyline; Sebille has been the most interesting of the four so far, but I think I've gotten less of her story than anyone else's.


After some early promising flirtation dialogue, and a romantic assignation in a Driftwood inn that proves to be a bad idea, I haven't really seen any romance options in the game. I'm very curious to see if there are any more substantial arcs related to that in the future; so far the game doesn't seem to go as in-depth on companion and NPC relationships as BioWare does, but there's enough there that it wouldn't be surprising to see something more pop up.


And let's see, for biggish decisions so far, I've:
  • Convinced Gareth to spare that one dude, and just found out it was a Very Bad Idea.
  • Made peace with Lohar, the dwarven crime boss. I'm ambivalent about that, but he seems to be a far lesser evil than the Magisters or Justinia.
  • Solved the Magister murders, helped the suspect escape, confronted the murderer myself and claimed the reward (reloading after an earlier game where the disbarred elven magister pre-empted my announcement).
  • Defeated Mordus and let him escape; I'm ambivalent about this, too. So far the dialogue in the game doesn't seem to distinguish between you killing him or just defeating him, so I'm hoping there aren't long-term consequences.
  • I'm currently working for Ryker, but have gotten more and more hints that he's a Bad Dude, so I reserve the right to cancel my contract with extreme prejudice. 

END SPOILERS


So, yeah, I feel like I've got a nice bit of momentum going in the game now. There isn't much else on the horizon for me game-wise until 2020, when the next big batch of games begin to drop, so I'm hoping I can continue to hold this huge game inside my head and enjoy the rest of my journey.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Fell

I've gotten out of the habit of grabbing new Neal Stephenson books right at release. For over a decade I would pre-order each book and devour it immediately. That habit got interrupted when he started creating more collaborative books with multiple authors, like The Mongoliad and D.O.D.O. For his newest book, "Fall; or, Dodge in Hell", I ended up putting a hold on the book at the library and waiting more than a month to start reading it.



Now that I've finished, I'm fairly confident that I'll end up buying the hardcover and adding it to my growing shelf of first-edition Stephenson novels. It's really good. It has the hallmarks I've come to appreciate from his books: tons of interesting ideas, which Stephenson doggedly chases down and thoroughly fleshes out; ballsy plotting; plentiful digressions. And it once again avoids feeling like a rehash of any of his earlier books: you can definitely draw comparisons to prior novels, but it's doing its own thing, and it's a lot of fun to discover what it's trying to do.

MINI SPOILERS

As with all books I anticipate reading, I'd avoided any spoilers going in, and so it wasn't until I was about five pages into the book that I finally realized that it's a sequel to REAMDE. I'd greatly enjoyed that book, and I increasingly think that it's the title I'll recommend to people who are wondering if they should get into Stephenson.

That said, it doesn't read like REAMDE much. REAMDE was a fun and fast-paced thriller, with a lot of tech stuff and other nerdy content filling in the cracks, but very much an action-driven book. Fall is not; it's much more a book about ideas, where confrontations happen in board rooms or coffee shops over pointed words and court filings rather than in hotels with gunfire. Over the long run, it actually ends up covering much the same content as Anathem, but it gets there through a vastly more comprehensible path than Anathem's tossing-in-the-deep-end approach. And structurally, Fall reminded me a lot of Seveneves, with a roughly 2/3 build-up and an almost-completely-separate story filling the final act.

As with REAMDE, Fall begins in our near-future; pretty much all of the technology is stuff that exists today or is generally recognized as being on the imminent horizon. The early concern of the book revolves around social media in particular and human knowledge more generally. Stephenson retains his uncanny skill at inventing perfect names for fictional tech companies, and the best example here is "Lyke" as a new social media network.

An early bang in the story comes when the Utah city of Moab is annihilated by a nuclear explosion. That would have caught my attention anyways, but it was even more arresting since I was just there a few months ago on my southwest backpacking trip. We soon learn, though, that this "explosion" was a fraud: a mildly expensive but not terribly difficult hoax that seeded a burst of disinformation, then sat back and watched it spread like wildfire throughout the Internet (very appropriately dubbed the "Miasma" here).

The trouble of sifting out truth from falsehood in the Miasma reminded me strongly of the troubles with the Arkies in Seveneves. Both plotlines deal with the general problem of digital noise: we have easy and instant access to far more information than ever before in human history, and it's now becoming apparent that this is a liability rather than an asset, as the sheer volume makes it nearly impossible to extract the true and useful information from data that is false, manipulative, or useless.

It's cool to see Stephenson returning to this topic and digging into it some more; I'm reminded that the 2016 election happened between Seveneves and Fall, and the reading public is probably more aware today of the ways social networks were exploited and weaponized in that campaign. I've always liked it when Stephenson has gotten interested in concepts and then mulled them over through multiple books, like the bicameral mind in The Big U and Snow Crash, or currencies in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.

The trouble of truth and accurate communication is a real problem, but the way it's framed in Seveneves and Fall kind of highlights Stephenson's elitism. His heroes are scientists, engineers, smart people who know better than anyone else. Democracy feels inherently bad in his worldview, mired in mediocrities and only looking out for themselves, unlike an ideal enlightened technocracy. This division is most obvious and pointed in the Ameristan chapters early in the book, but also underlies the conflict in the Land later: does someone who built something deserve more power and influence? It's unsurprising that Stephenson is so popular among us programmers, as his books show a very idealized version of who we are and suggests that creators "like us" are superior.

The ultimate creator is arguably Dodge himself. I was struck by the biblical language used when Richard's mind "wakes up" in the Hole in the Wall. Echoing Genesis, he divides the light from the dark, and decides that "it is good." That same rhythm proceeds throughout the creation process, as he defines the boundary between land and water or sets the cycles of day and night.

The Tower of Babel is one of Neal's oldest preoccupations, dating back at least as far as the Sumerian nam-shub curses of Snow Crash, but Fall has by far the most thorough and powerful presentation of that story yet. It's interesting that we don't get any perspective into what the Blob is thinking; Dodge has essentially ascended to divinity by now, and he and his pantheon are out of touch with the concerns of petty mortals. In the abstract, it is an interesting struggle between a powerful few and the will of the many. I'm honestly not sure if we're meant to be cheering on Dodge during his victory, or if it's a criticism of his pride and egotism, or what; based on his thoughts alone, he seems to be motivated out of a petty desire to have the biggest pole. But anyways, it's really interesting to see the breaking and its effects in real-time: the promise of direct communication between two souls is ended, an artificial barrier has been erected to foment division between people, and as a result the position of the powerful is secured while the many lose the potential for collective action that could have won them a share of resources.

And of course there's the Garden, a clear parallel to Eden, including such hallmarks as Adam and Eve, long walks with "God", the threat of knowledge, angels with fiery swords to guard the entrance. But other biblical elements are the basis of riffs and variations. The apple is the cause of original shit, not original sin: eating apples brings people into a more physical mode of existence, able to feel cold and hunger and other sensations they did not experience as spirits before tasting it. The worm sort of plays the part of the serpent, but in a very different way.

While reading these sections, I was reminded of Philip Pullman's fantastic His Dark Materials: there's an increasing separation between "God" and lesser beings, where a creator who was very hands-on and present in the early times grows more remote and inaccessible over time, only working through intermediaries. In HDM, "God" is an antagonist, and I found it interesting to think of Dodge in the same way. He takes on devilish characteristics after the Fall, with dark wings and lakes of fire and all those accoutrements, but I'm pretty sure he's intended as the protagonist.

As a side note, it makes perfect sense that Richard would become "God", as his background in creating the virtual world of T'Rain for an MMO becomes perfect preparation for creating the world of the afterlife. El may be unhappy with the outsized role Richard plays, but it's hard to think of another person (other than possibly Pluto) who could have done a better job, or even had the instinct to do it. Watching Richard create Bitworld after leaving Earth reminded me of the Mormon concept of the afterlife. I've only heard about this second-hand, and it's very possible I have it wrong, but my understanding is that in Mormon theology every person will become a "God" or "Goddess" of their own world after they die. There's a definite appeal to the idea of being able to be a creator, to spend eternity building things. I did wonder whether consumers on Earth were all happy with being sent to the same afterlife, or if some of them would have preferred to each have their own private server spun up, so they could have the same sort of freedom and influence that Dodge did. If they address that in the book I forget it; it may be that the overhead in running each world is too great and they need to scale a single world for performance reasons, or it might be related to the fact that Bitworld is able to requisition resources and spread throughout multiple networks and data centers anyways, so even if multiple afterlifes are started they would eventually merge as long as each is connected to the Internet.

I was most attuned to the Christian elements of the novel, but it seems like a lot of different belief systems are represented. There's an interesting animism present: from the very earliest days, certain souls choose to inhabit rocks, trees, bodies of water, or other natural objects and forces, rather than taking on humanoid form. It's cool to see how a "soul" can choose to manifest or inhabit, and take on different sorts of purposes. A typical "spawned" soul will live out a human-ish life, spending its days talking with other souls, building a modest house, eating food, and so on; the formless souls, though, will spend all their years making a rock into the best single rock it can be, or inhabit a westerly wind with far more nuance and force than Dodge or even Pluto could create. It's cool to see some of these souls manifest in the later section of the book, but I also really like the idea that many of them are still quietly fulfilling the purpose they have chosen for themselves, imbuing the created world with a greater power.

Of course, religious topics aren't confined to Bitworld. I was fascinated by the Leviticans, an interesting, and horrifying, way to reconcile the contradiction of "Republican Jesus." In our America today, most self-declared Evangelical Christians have aligned themselves with policies that champion the powerful and rich, and both right-wing politicians and religious leaders invoke a vision of Jesus who craves warfare against our enemies, tax cuts for the wealthy, turning away refugees, leaving the sick and poor to fend for themselves. How do you line that up with the actual text of the Gospels clearly presenting the person of Jesus as a friend of the poor who preached radical generosity and peace, even when it harms the giver? Christians are called to turn the other cheek when struck, not to claim another eye; when someone asks you for your coat, you should give him your cloak, too. This disparity has been particularly crazy-making for me since most members of evangelical and fundamentalist churches will also claim that their beliefs are solely derived from the Scripture and not from man's teachings.

In Fall, this tension between what people want their Jesus to be and what the Bible says their Jesus is is resolved by keeping their desired ideology and ditching the literature: this sect declares that the crucifixion itself (the cornerstone of the Christian faith!) was a hoax, that obviously the Son of God couldn't be killed by mere mortal men. They keep the name of Jesus and still claim to worship Him, but freed from the pesky contradictions of the scripture they can mold Him as they desire. They hold on to the elements they like, mostly the vengeful Old Testament teachings: demanding obedience, retributive punishment, enforcing capricious restrictions (no blended fabrics, no touching menstruating women). They've snipped out the sacrifice that's at the heart of 2000 years of Christian theology, returning to a simplistic Bronze Age ideology of "My God can beat up your God."

I'm pretty sure Stephenson is an atheist, or at least agnostic, but he tends to have a pretty sympathetic view of religion in his books. Like a lot of authors, he presents "faith" as a positive thing, but unlike most other people I read he also sees worth in the structure of religious thought. Real theology wrestles with complex issues, questions itself, applies discipline and rigor, honors tradition while still growing: you can see why, even apart from the content, the field would appeal to him. In this book, Jake Forthrast is probably the best positive example of a devout man. He's very different from the scientists and engineers who are Neal's usual heroes, but Jake has many of the same qualities and is admirable in his own way: he's thoughtful, principled, knows what he believes and why, but also does not think that he has all the answers, and works to improve his knowledge.

There is a kind of surprising conservatism that runs throughout Neal's work. For an author best known for his prescient predictions about technology and culture, he has an almost Confucian ideology that crops up in multiple books. I first became aware of this in The Diamond Age, a post-cyberpunk book that depicts a post-scarcity world where incredible technology and limitless resources are available to every person; but most of humanity just wastes it, and are mindless consumers who live in anonymous tenement buildings and spend their entire lives eating and watching entertainment. The people who actually run things in this world are from cultures that have strong family units and social structures: the Victorians, the Nipponese, and the Han. Tradition, respect, and an aversion to the latest technological fads are a pre-requisite for social status and leadership. In a similar vein, Anathem showed the value of discipline and self-sacrifice, with the Autists intellectually and culturally superior to those outside their walls. Seveneves was really interested in bloodlines and the moral values that get passed down though generations. REAMDE and Fall posit that having a clan of heavily-armed libertarians lurking in the woods isn't the worst thing; they may seem scary and anti-government, but they are stable, and form a crucial bulwark against external threats.

MEGA SPOILERS

Reading Fall made me think a lot about different layers of reality. The existence of Dodge and the various Spawned and Sprung is fully "real", but is also a contingent reality of our Earth. It's "real" because they can think, perceive the world around them, act upon that world, communicate with one another... everything that we do in our own reality. And yet, it's also true that they exist as electrons distributed across a vast array of computer servers. As real as their world is, it would vanish in an instant if Earth were obliterated, or if solar flares fried the electronics, or even if someone decided to turn off the simulation.

This reminded me a ton of the Wick from Anathem, and unlike in Anathem, I can more clearly understand how one could move "up the wick" or "down the wick". People from Earth could communicate with Bitworld by inserting information into the cloud to send a message; conversely, Bitworld residents could create a message within the cloud that could be observed by visualization programs on Earth.

And, to extend this (similar to the expansion from simple data to complex commands shown in the Illustrated Primer of The Diamond Age), one could imagine, say, a buffer being created within the cloud that's used to drive a robot on Earth. So, even though Bitworld is a contingent reality, Bitworld residents could theoretically physically manipulate objects and events on Earth, extending their control outside the simulation.

This gets spelled out rather explicitly near the end of the book, on page 844, as Corvus is convincing the Quest party of their treasure's otherworldly origin:

Suppose that the other plane of existence is real, and that it was preexisting. Which is to say that the Land was born out of it, much as you were born out of Eve. It follows that in that other plane are powers or faculties of creation that somehow account for the whole story of the Land's coming into being, and underlie every aspect of what we take to be real. Moreover that plane is populated by souls who know of us and our doings, and who from time to time may for reasons we cannot even speculate on choose to effect changes to the Land - but to do so without violating what makes the Land coherent. If you accept these premises, can you not accept that an object [...] might be brought into existence again? Not by any craft of any soul who dwells here, but by one on the other plane of existence, wielding powers the nature of which we cannot begin to understand?

It's heady, mind-bending stuff, and it puts me in mind of some of my favorite movies, like The Matrix and Inception, where a fully-realized world is nestled within and dependent upon another world. Of course, once you start heading down this road, the obvious question becomes, how do we know that Earth is the "prime" reality, and that it is not a contingent reality of another world? Well... we don't. This is another area where faith is helpful, either to choose to believe that we are an original plane of existence, or to recognize God or an equivalent entity/force as coming from a higher reality. I'm reminded yet again of George Berkeley, whose philosophy I like more and more the older I get: approaching the problem from a religious rather than a technological angle, he concluded that there is no real matter and all of our lives are illusory; but it's OK, because we all exist by being perceived by God.

This all ties in very much with Enoch Root, and it was really fun to retroactively make sense of this odd character who has recurred across the many Waterhouse/Shaftoe books leading up to Fall. And apparently it applies to Solly, too. There's always been something that seemed kind of magical about Enoch; but at last we can see that it isn't exactly magic, it's just that he's a visitor from somewhere else that knows a great deal about us. From page 661:

"You're not erudite?"
"Nope," said Solly, "just wise."
"Mm. What do I have to do to become wise?"
"Die," said Enoch, "and go to the next place."
"Seems like a stiff price to pay."
"We paid it," Solly said.
"You look alive to me."
"We paid it," Solly insisted, "where we came from."

And it's only just now as I'm writing this that I'm connecting the dots and realizing that Solly and Enoch weren't just conveniently hanging around while all this was going on. They came from a higher plane of existence, and caused a new (I should say "lower", though that sounds pejorative and shouldn't be) plane to be created. Whatever world they came from didn't just see value in Earth; they saw value in Earth creating its own contingent reality. Why? We can't know for sure, but it seems likely that they recognize that the Sprung of Earth have their own value and worth, and ought to have a reward after death.


END SPOILERS
 
This post made a lot of comparisons to Stephenson's earlier books, but just to be clear, that's more a result of the way I naturally process new books than a deliberate intention on Stephenson's part. He's on record as saying that he doesn't connect lines between his own books; it isn't that he's been building a vast and intricate David Mitchell-esque shared universe that's reached its apotheosis in Fall, it's more that he's a really bright guy who gets deeply curious about things and you see the results of that curiosity across multiple books. It's tremendously fun to be caught up in that curiosity: Neal's enthusiasm is contagious, and I'm always left reflecting over the systems he lays out and wondering how they can be applied to the world around me. I really enjoyed chewing over all this book had to offer, and am pleased to see it enter the Stephenson canon.