Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Pub/Sub

You'll be pleased to learn that the galaxy is now safe. You're welcome!


This has been a bit of a whirl, but Trel'ves is now up to about the point where Seberin left off back in 2012: Level 50, completed the class and faction storylines, and dipping into the Interlude end-game content. The difference, of course, is that Seberin eventually segued into true multiplayer guild business, while Trel'ves has a large amount of new single-player content to look forward to.

I've remarked before that leveling and progression is much faster now than at launch, as seems to generally be the case for maturing MMOs with receding endgames. That said, it feels like it's taken roughly the same time to reach this point. I guess the fights and stuff along the way have been easier this time, but as I'm still hitting all of the same sidequests and stuff, I'm spending about as much time as before in cutscenes and walking around, which still adds up to quite a long time. It's kind of amusing that I started this off thinking that returning to SW:TOR would be a quicker experience than picking up a brand-new CRPG. Nope!



There are quite a few quality-of-life improvements that helped streamline this playthrough. A lot of these are tied to the Legacy system, which I think is really good design: a brand-new player's initial playthrough will be a bit slower and guide them through the systems gradually, while subsequent characters can hop around to the spots that interest them. These include things like teleportation options to a variety of locations (I find the trip back to your starship most useful), and purchaseable cooldowns on Quick Travel. You can get this all the way down to 0, which significantly cuts down on the tedium of retracing your steps to turn in quests.


Another really nice change has been transitioning Flashpoints to Story Mode. At launch, Flashpoints were group-only content that you could only complete with three other decently-well-geared and competent human beings. A lot of these have now been retuned so a solo player can finish them. These are a blast! I'd tried a couple of them with T'may back when I was leveling her, and have been more consistent about playing through the story-mode ones with Trel'ves (thanks to this very useful story order guide). They're a significant step up from the normal landscape questing process. They're a lot more exciting, cinematic, and fun: instead of roaming back and forth over an area juggling simultaneous quests ("Defeat 5 Wampa Rats," "Disable 3 Uplink Poles," "Retrieve the Crystal Trigger"), you have a strong narrative pull along a single path with a clear, compelling objective. The fights along the way are all more interesting: not overly hard, but they feel more substantial, call for some tactics, and have more engaging animations and sound effects. There's the same amount of choice-and-consequences as regular story quests, but because you're following a single plot line, you can more easily remember what you did and trace through the implications, instead of squinting at the screen and muttering "Who are you, again?"



My focused playthroughs of the Flashpoints also highlighted an oddity. Star Wars: The Old Republic is an MMORPG, but it's also a quasi-sequel to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a beloved single-player RPG. The plot of the MMO picks up roughly one generation after the end of KOTOR 2. Most of the links are just in background and atmosphere, but the direct continuation of the KOTOR plot happens entirely through Flashpoints, which, at launch, were the one part that you couldn't complete as a single player. I'm still curious why this was: was it an attempt to strongly urge the solo players who only bought the game because of KOTOR to get involved in multiplayer? Regardless, it makes a ton of sense that these segments have now been rebalanced for solo play and make them more accessible to people who want more KOTOR.

MEGA SPOILERS (Imperial Agent and Jedi Knight class stories)

That said: It's also interesting that the story is split across mutually exclusive faction arcs. My years-ago run through the Imperial-only flashpoints gave crucial insight into the fates of KOTOR's companions; my more recent excursions into the Republic line finally shared a glimpse of Revan. I guess that's a nice way to keep subsequent playthroughs / alts more interesting, and it also makes the worldbuilding feel really cool and vast and interconnected.



I think that, ultimately, that's one of my favorite things about SW:TOR - just how big the universe seems, and the prismatic effect you get at watching the same events unfurl from different perspectives. Or even different outcomes. Regardless of whether you are playing as a Republic or Imperial character, the overall story has to be "You are the hero and did great stuff and the galaxy has changed as a result!", while the actual facts on the ground have to be the same regardless.



I feel like the Imperial progression makes a bit more sense. Again, it's been ages since I played, but I feel like there was a strong sense of momentum there: as you contributed to the war effort on each planet, you won a string of victories, pulling those planets into the Empire's control and setting the stage for future planets who were cowed by your actions. So your early work on Taris and Tatooine emboldens the Imperial faction in Alderaan's civil war; conquering Quesh and Hoth and Taris inspires the uprisings on Belsavis; all of this makes the Voss open to alliance; and finally, as a capstone, you launch an all-out assault on the core Republic world of Corellia, finally crushing them with a decisive victory.


The Republic side goes through almost the exact same progression, but instead of regular momentum, it's always two steps forward, one step back. You put down the Empire's play for a Hutt alliance on Nar Shaddaa...  oh, but now they're trying to win the civil war on Alderaan. You take care of that and pull Alderaan back into the fold... but now they're trying to seize Balmorra's weapons factories. You thwart their plots on Hoth... but now they're stirring up trouble on Belsavis. So you put that down, but the folks on Voss are still super-interested in them. You defeat the Empire everywhere in the galaxy, but they're still launching an all-out war on the core world of Corellia. It feels like you're constantly putting out fires, running around and reacting to the Empire's incursions.
 

Which... I guess that's how it usually felt in the movies, and also the usual good-guy/bad-guy dynamic in games and novels and such. It just feels kind of odd to have such a strong difference over such a long period of time, and to see it from both perspectives. The good guy needs to always be the underdog, fighting a more-powerful enemy against overwhelming odds, but that gets kind of hard to convincingly maintain over a hundred hours where you're constantly winning.


Aside from the general shape of each arc, though, it's really cool to have information gleaned in one playthrough help illuminate events in another. There are tons of examples even just from these two class stories, but the big one I'm thinking of now is the climax of the game, with Darth Malgus seizing control of the stealth fleet and declaring the New Empire. First, the world state of this event can be very different: if you're an Imperial, then Malgus is a traitor launching a coup against the true Emperor; if you're with the Republic, though, the Emperor is already dead, and Malgus is just making a bold move to succeed him.



Now: In the Jedi Knight story, you got to know the Emperor rather well during the game. In contrast, the Dark Council is an enigma: I think they're referenced in passing a couple of times, but aren't really highlighted as a major threat. You're mostly concerned with the head, not the underlings.


In the Imperial Agent storyline, it's the exact opposite. The Emperor is a total enigma: you never hear from him, or even get the impression he's very involved in running the Empire. He's a distant, brooding figure: pursuing his long-ranging arcane schemes, leaving his Council to manage the actual administration of the Empire and the war, while desperately vying for the favor of their disinterested liege. You get to know the Council very well: their factions, their rivalries, their tensions with the civilian and military infrastructure driving the Empire.



All that to say, I think the whole False Emperor arc is a lot more interesting if you've been through both of those paths and know both the Emperor and the Council. It doesn't necessarily need it - the story makes sense with only a few pieces of the puzzle - but it gets cooler and more compelling once you add the other facets to the story.



I'm like 99.5% sure I won't replay this game with yet another class, but this experience makes me very curious about just that: what additional lore and characters will be illuminated by their own stories, both for their own sake and to help add more dimensions to the stories I've already played.

This seems like a good point for a quick rundown on the Jedi Knight storyline:

Favorite companion: Kira Carsen



Favorite planet, aesthetics: Tie between Corellia and Nar Shaddaa



Favorite planet, gameplay: Tatooine

Favorite skybox: Illum



Favorite alien species: Voss



Favorite side content: Space missions


Favorite flashpoint: Maelstrom Prison

Favorite quote: "I'm in the prime of my life and I'm spending it with people who enjoy running around on exploding planets." - Doc


END SPOILERS

I was planning to roll right on into the expansion content, which is kind of the whole reason I started this playthrough in the first case. But it sounds like a new content update is dropping in December, so I might postpone my planned one-month subscription to overlap with that. The way SW:TOR handles expansions and subscriptions is kind of unusual and very cool: whenever you subscribe, you automatically and permanently get access to all the content in the game at that time, even after you unsubscribe. It looks a lot simpler than LOTRO, which usually requires a combination of subscription, expansions, and quest packs to get access to everything.


Anyways - I think there are still a few Level 50 things I can do in the meantime, but I'll probably slow my pace down for a bit, while checking in often enough to keep my key combinations memorized. But I'm definitely looking forward to making my way through all of the expansions and meeting the new companions in store!

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Helping Others Is Both A Duty And An Honor

And now, Chapter 2 of my Jedi Knight playthrough of Star Wars: The Old Republic is in the bag. Or wherever people in a galaxy far, far away store their playthroughs.


I'm digging it more as I get further along. I'm already having trouble recalling the plot of the first chapter, but so far the later developments have been more intriguing.

MINI SPOILERS

I neglected to discuss the companions in my prior post. Kira is by far my favorite: I almost always bring her along, and I really enjoy her personality and her story. She is a Jedi, but comes from an unusual background: she grew up in poverty, ran away from home, and was a criminal for many years. (And, as you learn at the end of Act 1, she even served the Empire for a time.) She has a nicely sardonic and cynical worldview that's a fun change of pace from the generally self-serious Jedi you otherwise encounter.  Her dialogue reactions are interesting: she generally likes you espousing pro-Jedi and pro-Republic views, but also appreciates when you poke fun at those institutions. Her deprecating asides about institutions and planets are always a lot of fun.

 
There's a long gap between meeting Kira and Doc. Doc comes on way too hard; I'm playing as a  Jedi woman, and almost every single dialogue choice with him is responding to his aggressive flirting. This was mostly annoying - take the hint, already! - but I did kind of laugh at how he responds to some of the putdowns. He always pretends that they're compliments and continues on unfazed. This is especially fun when he has an audience. He implies we're seeing each other, I coldly shoot him down in the most devastating way possible, and he says "See? She's wild about me!"


Since my initial playthrough, BioWare has changed the Approval system to an Influence system, and my interactions with Doc make me very glad that they made that change. Virtually every interaction I had with him was negative, but it still "counts" as Influence. Now that we're past the final rejection dialogue, I can finally lighten up and build our friendship. (I marked the occasion by giving him a new custom appearance. He has the same voice, but I can kinda pretend that this is a new guy on my ship who actually respects boundaries.)


That said, the whole Doc experience has prompted me to think more about romance design in video games. (Which, granted, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about anyways.) I'm used to having only a limited few number of opportunities to start a romantic arc, which has conditioned me to mash that "Like" button a bunch when I want to hook up: I'm always worried that I'll miss an on-ramp to the content I crave. In this game, it felt a bit tedious and unrealistic to repeat my "dislike" options so many times along the way: how many people in real life would keep trying? But, from a storytelling and roleplaying perspective, it is kind of nice to have a sort of tsundere path, with resistance before acquiescence. "I didn't like you and now I do" is a much more interesting arc than "I always liked you." Granted, this is probably trickier to handle now in a Me Too, "no means no" environment: I think that in just a couple of years pop culture has moved from seeing persistence as admirable to seeing it as creepy. I dunno. It's tough to do right, and important to do right, but it ultimately might be more interesting to let a player experience approval and disapproval at various stages along their romantic journey. I love the idea of being able to set specific boundaries, and see those boundaries honored, without necessarily killing off the romance as a whole.

Along with my periodic frustrations at Doc, the most striking feature of Chapter 2 were the incredibly repetitive choices. SO MANY MISSIONS come down to a final decision of "Should we keep these experimental weapons to aid the Republic, or destroy them so ensure nobody uses them in the future?" It's kind of an interesting choice, but they return to that well way too often and it ceases to be interesting. It's kind of like BioShock's question of "Will you kill this little girl?" - if you said "No" the first time, why the hell would you say "Yes" any of the next 20 times?


There were also a ton of choices of the form "You've defeated [bad guy]. What do?" One option is to kill (always Dark Side), and there are also choices to arrest and/or release them (always Light Side). That structure is also very repetitive, although here I did occasionally mix things up: I generally took the Light Side path, but there were one or two cases where, based on the circumstances, it seemed like all parties would be better served by execution.


It's been many years since I played the Imperial Agent storyline, and I've been trying to remember if those choices were better or if I was just more forgiving of them. From what I hazily recall, a lot of those choices had more to do with alliances: whether to honor agreements with non-Imperial forces, and how to handle misbehaving elements within the Empire. Those still had LS/DS annotations, but I thought their real-world implications were a lot more nuanced and debatable. And, ultimately, I think it's inherently more interesting to play as a good guy inside a bad hierarchy than as a good guy in a good hierarchy. Playing a Light Side Imperial Agent is inherently conflicted; a Light Side Jedi only has the conflict you create for yourself.

I feel like the game doesn't even acknowledge what could be one of the most devastating conflicts: the morality of mindfucking your opponents. I was stunned to see that, most of the time, the [Force Persuade] option has a Light Side value associated with it. It seems deeply wrong to me that hypnotizing someone else and violating their inner self, forcing them to do your bidding, would be seen as a good action. But it is! The game appears deeply confused as to whether or not the ends justify the means: yelling at someone to get your way may be Dark Side, while brainwashing them is Light Side. As with so many of my concerns, though, this really goes back to the source material. We all had a good laugh when Old Ben Kenobi did it in Episode Four, so it's canon that good guys do it, so that gets carried forward in derived media.

MEGA SPOILERS

I was still playing the game, but rolling my eyes ever-harder at each fresh iteration of "WhAt ShOuLd wE dO wItH tHeSe WeApOnS?!?!111!one!" That said, the story got really good once Chapter 2 finally hit its climax. The plot all along was really dumb and ambitious - not the plot of the story, I mean, but the scheme hatched by your Jedi masters. They're like, "Hey, why don't we just go get the emperor!" And I'm like, "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, how has nobody ever thought of this before?" It's self-evident that the plan is doomed to failure and incredibly risky and dumb, but I still was all-in for it, since I love big, dumb, ambitious gestures.


So, the bulk of Chapter 2 is you doing busywork leading up to two big achievements: finding where the Emperor's hidden space station is located, and acquiring a cloaking device that will allow your team to safely approach it. You eventually head to the station. This is where Star Wars' faux-sci-fi trappings really start to strain. It's supposedly a "thousand-year-old" station, which seems incredibly dumb in a sci-fi context - you would think that technology had significantly advanced during the past thousand years, rendering the initial construction obsolete. Just think of if, say, Theresa May retreated to a fortress constructed before the Norman Conquest. But, really, Star Wars has always been a fantasy story, wrapped in a thin sci-fi wrapper, and it makes a lot more sense here. The Emperor is ultimately an Evil Wizard, and the space station is ultimately a magic castle, and of course a thousand-year-old magic castle is gonna be more impressive than one which was built last year.


Some decently surprising stuff happens at the climax. Your party is discovered (shocking!) and defeated (wow!!!!!), and you're brainwashed by the Emperor and turned into his slave (okay, that's actually kinda unexpected). Your dead master shows back up, helps you shake off the mind control, then you rescue Kira and sneak your way off the station. At the end you meet with Lord Scourge, who you spared back in Chapter 1, and join forces with him as you leave.


So, yeah, that was a lot more plot-dense and interesting than what had come before, and helped Chapter 2 end on a particularly high note. But, the more I've thought about it, I've realized that it's almost exactly ripping off the Imperial Agent storyline. Mind control? Check - though in the IA case, it lasted for quite a while and was an interesting overarching burden you dealt with across multiple missions, whereas here it's introduced and overcome within a few real-world minutes. A spared lieutenant from the enemy returns to aid you in an hour of need? Check. I think that, in the Imperial Agent storyline, Ardun Kothe's fate can be decided by you, which makes the eventual reactive outcome more personal and meaningful. On the other hand, though, Lord Scourge actually joins you as a companion in the Jedi Knight storyline, which may feel like a more impressive result in the long run.


On the whole, though, I do really appreciate how different the class stories are. One of the most immediately obvious is the diversity. Throughout the IA storyline, you're constantly embedded inside the Imperial hierarchy, and thus constantly surrounded by humans. I remember feeling minor shock when, very late in the game, I arrived on Hoth and, for the first time, experienced being in a human-minority structure (as the Chiss compose the majority of Imperial power there). In contrast, the Republic and Jedi cultures are filled with a wide variety of non-human species, which lends a lot more visual interest and a sense of a patchwork alliance. For the most part I really dig this, but after playing for many hours, it's impossible to ignore the fact that a relatively limited number of "alien" dialogues were recorded, and then replayed over and over again across multiple planets, species, and individuals. You start to recognize these nonsensical but very distinctive phrases and anticipate exactly what they're going to say: "Ah hoka noka no pisto" is one of several favorites. What they're supposedly saying is different each time, as reflected in the subtitles; but the subtitle length bears little or no connection to the length of the recorded line. This leads to some very long and awkward silences within alien dialogue, as they wait for you to read their words long after the last syllable in a sentence has been uttered.


It's also, as I expected, interesting to see the same larger political story from two perspectives. Each players' story covers the same timeline, as a cold peace between the Republic and Empire flares into a series of proxy wars and instigated uprisings, and ultimately erupts into a full-fledged hot shooting war by the end. I remember thinking during my initial playthrough that the whole sequence felt very reminiscent of the run-up to World War 2, and I was even more struck by those parallels this time around. I'm fairly certain that the connotations are intentional, as this is yet another thing that is embedded in the Star Wars DNA. The Imperials have always been coded as Nazi Germany, from the Hugo Boss-inspired uniforms to the enormous hangars and banners evoking the Nuremberg rallies. In the game's earlier timeframe, an earlier devastating war resulted in an armistice, although it seems like in this case the Allies were the weaker party by the end. The terms of the Treaty of Coruscant are subverted and violated by the Empire, and the Republic is divided between those who seek to maintain the peace, and those who believe a new war is inevitable and are alarmed by the rapidly increasing strength of their foes. I think this metaphor is especially strong on the planet of Balmorra, which seems to be a stand-in for Czechoslovakia. While Balmorra is a relatively weak state, it has a highly developed industrial base and enormous capacity for weapons manufacturing. As with the annexation of Sudetenland, the Empire seizes this pre-existing infrastracture, which makes it a far deadlier threat as the two sides march towards an inevitable confrontation.



END SPOILERS

I'm just now dipping into Chapter 3, as my Knight attempts to wrap up the fallout from Chapter 2 and, well, we'll see what happens next. As always, there's plenty of nuts-and-bolts stuff to criticize in this game and its hundreds of quests, but the big picture continues to be a hell of a lot of fun.


There's a good chance that this will be my last playthrough of the game. If I do start a new one in the future, it's encouraging to know that I'll easily be able to just focus on the new class storyline, without replaying faction and planet quests. Those have been fairly enjoyable, but are also the most repetitive aspects of the game, and I'm glad to see that BioWare has rebalanced the early game to make them optional.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Commendable

I enjoy reading, but there is a very short list of authors whose books I will buy immediately on release and drop everything to read. Haruki Murakami is one of those few. The last few novel unveilings have taken on a somewhat ritualistic form. I scrupulously avoid all information at all about the book (one reason I use the Mini Spoilers nomenclature on this blog is to honor folks like me who would prefer to know absolutely nothing about a work prior to starting). Green Apple Books in San Francisco hosts midnight release parties for the new books. The previous events for 1Q84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki featured a limited number of autographed books and attracted hundreds of readers. This year there weren't any signed copies of Killing Commendatore, just some limited-edition swag, and only a few dozen showed up. It was still a fun and well-run event, though, with a Murakami-inspired playlist, free Sapporo, Japanese snacks, and a fun scavenger hunt through the rambling bookstore. I started reading the novel on the BART ride home, and just finished it.


I often cite Kafka on the Shore as my favorite Murakami novel. It was also the first novel of his that I read. I suspect that this is a pattern: people who first read Wind-Up Bird generally prefer that, people who first read 1Q84 prefer that, and so on. That isn't a coincidence. Our first exposure to his dreamy, calm, detailed, otherworldly prose has a big impact. Murakami is well-known (and often liked) for his adherence to repeating tropes and touchstones: cats, wells, moons, vanishing people and animals, passive male protagonists, classical music, jazz records, small humanoids, ears, weird sexual encounters. These motifs can build resonance across multiple unconnected novels; unlike David Mitchell, there are never any overt links between his books (except, I suppose, for the Trilogy of the Rat), but the interior of most of his novels have to do with the unexplained correspondence between seemingly disparate objects and events, and that sense of quantum entanglement may be amplified across multiple novels. For better and worse, though, the later novels you read will grow less surprising. You're expecting something odd and unexplained to occur, so it's no longer a shock when it does.

MINI SPOILERS

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed Killing Commendatore more if it was the first Murakami novel I'd read and not the twelfth. The start was especially slow and unengaging. I was reminded of a meme making the rounds on Twitter recently that took the format "We forced a bot to [read/watch] over 1000 [pages/hours] of [White House press briefings / Friends episodes / TED talks / etc.] and made it write its own. Here's what it came up with." The first 40 pages or so of this novel feel a bit like a Mad Libs parody of a Murakami book. Aimless male protagonist? Check. Woman leaving? Check. Attractive woman initiating sex for seemingly no reason? Check.

The book starts hitting its stride when the actual Killing Commendatore appears: there's finally some mystery and purpose to the story. It still feels very drawn-out: the writing is quite good, and it's interesting to learn more about (but never fully understand) Menshiki. The book gets really good at about 500 pages in, but that just leaves around 100 pages to explore this heightened, fascinating world before ending. The length itself isn't a problem - I was completely gripped by 1Q84 from start to finish - but if I hadn't already been determined to finish this book I might not have stuck around until it started getting good.

One aspect that struck me almost immediately was the protagonist's profession as a painter. I found myself thinking of Bluebeard, a Vonnegut novel that also featured a painter and is also one of my less-favorite books from a novelist I generally adore. Murakami writes a lot about painting: technique, motivation, impact, the creative process. I'm fairly certain that this is all a metaphor for writing. Painters and writers seem to follow fairly similar creative processes: it's an activity a person does by themself, in a solitary setting, putting in a great deal of work over a long period of time, before sharing the finished project with the world. The creator must balance their commercial and artistic needs. The artist/writer develops a distinctive style over time, and can evolve that style or mindlessly replicate it or rebel against it. The artist/writer tries to reveal something in their work, and in the process may find something new about it.

Color is a big element of painting, and the protagonist spends some time mixing his paints to get things right. I was struck by how, late in the novel, he repeatedly refers to Menshiki as "Colorless", which, of course, is also how Tsukuru Tazaki was called in his previous novel. I don't remember characters in earlier Murakami novels being called "colorless," and I'm curious if this is a newly-emerging Murakami trope. Menshiki remains an enigma throughout the novel, even though he probably speaks more than any other character. Why, exactly, is he colorless? He does seem to have some passion, or at least motivation: he harbors some feelings for his old girlfriend, and has some sentimental and/or emotional connection to Mariye. He seems to be carefully-controlled and deliberate, a man of habits and purpose. There's an intriguing comment by the Commendatore late in the book which suggests that Menshiki is missing something. There's a kind of absence inside of him, and that absence creates a danger, something malign that may threaten Mariye. Is that absence the loss of her mother? I don't think so; I don't get the impression that his life significantly changed after they broke up. It seems more like that absence is an inherent quality of Menshiki himself, something he has always lacked.

Menshiki and the protagonist have a lot of (fairly oblique) conversations about things being "natural". This seems to be especially important to the protagonist; it feels like it takes Menshiki a little while to grok what he means, then afterwards he also often references natural-ness. I'm not totally sure if this is something Menshiki truly believes, or if it's his method to endear himself to the protagonist. In some ways, the "natural"-ness seems to be the polar opposite of Menshiki. As far as I can tell, to be "natural" an event must be unplanned, unforced. It can flow from circumstance or emotion, but not from logic, and it must have no exterior motivation. The irony is that the protagonist wants events to seem natural even though they very much are not. He's constantly pulled into lies of omission and commission, creating an environment that will strike others as natural even though they're highly staged. But this seems to only mildly bother him. I guess that, as long as the space he's created feels natural and people can act "naturally" within it, it's fine if the actions outside of that space, that created that space in the first place, are "unnatural".

Seen from this perspective, Murakami probably thinks that the slow and ambling pace of the book is a feature and not a bug. The protagonist's life definitely feels natural: he brews coffee, cooks delicious lunches, listens to insects, goes for strolls, praises his students. And takes naps - so many naps! I'm pretty sure there are more naps in Killing Commendatore than in any other book I've read, I'm very jealous.

MEGA SPOILERS

By contrast, my favorite part of the book is the least "natural": Mariye's disappearance, the meeting with the senile and dying Tomohiko Amada, and especially descending through Long Face's trapdoor into the underworld. This segment reminded me a bit of Hard-Boiled Wonderland (the other contender for my favorite Murakami novel): the dark, claustrophobic underground caverns with ill-defined malevolent forces lurking at the periphery of perception is an incredible atmosphere. This all helped the novel end on a very high note for me, like a rousing political speech that leaves you wanting more.

While the overall shape of the novel was sometimes frustrating, the nuts-and-bolts writing was as excellent as always. Here are a few segments that particularly stuck out to me:

"It's like an earthquake deep under the sea. In an unseen world, a place where light doesn't reach, in the realm of the unconscious. In other words, a major transformation is taking place. It reaches the surface, where it sets off a series of reactions and eventually takes form where we can see it with our own eyes. I'm no artist, but I can grasp the basic idea behind that process. Outstanding ideas in the business world, too, emerge through a similar series of stages. The best ideas are thoughts that appear, unbidden, from out of the dark."
p. 203 

I really like the writing here, as well as the underlying idea. That's a cool left-field turn in the penultimate sentence: how did we get from art to business so quickly? This kind of reminds me of when I try to describe the sensation of programming to non-programmers. From the outside programming or business may seem like very dry, analytical, rote activities. But people who are immersed in them see that they're just as creative and passionate as any artistic endeavor.

"The Commendatore is not trademarked. If I had appeared as Mickey Mouse or Pocahontas, the Walt Disney Company would be only too happy to slap me with a huge lawsuit, but if I am the Commendatore, I think we are safe, my friends."
p. 235 

This just makes me laugh. Although his personality is very different, the Commodotore reminded me of Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker from Kafka on the Shore, and I'm curious if any threats or fears of litigation from that work informed this presentation here. Also, I'm not sure if it's intentional, but it's intriguing that Pocahontas is treated as a copyrighted character here, when she was of course a real historical person. Murakami hasn't engaged as explicitly with popular culture in his recent novels, and it's interesting to think of the nexus between history, culture, creativity, and commerce. Walt Disney is free to appropriate native peoples' culture in its movies, but attempts to reinterpret those same characters may run up against an army of lawyers.

Truthfully the physical pleasure she provided me left nothing to be desired. Up till then I'd had sexual relationships with a number of women - not so many I could brag about it - but her vagina was more exquisite, more wondrously varied, than any other I'd ever known. And it was a deplorable thing that it had lain there, unused, for so many years.
p. 292

Even when he's writing about fairly conventional sex, Murakami always sounds so weird. But I'll take a dozen pages of this oddly affected prose over one more description of a thirteen-year-old girl's developing breasts.

He said, "There is very little I can explain to my friends about Tomohiko Amada's Killing Commendatore. That is because it is, in essence, allegory and metaphor. Allegories and metaphors are not something you should explain in words. You just grasp them and accept them."
p. 302

I feel like this one paragraph is the best explanation I've read yet of Murakami's writing.

All of us are, without exception, born to die, and now he was face-to-face with that final stage.
p. 524

Brutal and honest and powerful. I am curious if Murakami is feeling his own mortality more now as a nearly 70-year-old man.

"Goodness, no! I am a Metaphor, nothing more."
"A Metaphor?"
"Yes. A meager Metaphor. Used to link two things together. So please, untie my bonds, I beseech you."
I was getting confused. "If you are as you say, then give me a metaphor now, off the top of your head."
"I am the most humble and lowly form of Metaphor, sir. I cannot devise anything of quality."
"A metaphor of any kind is all right - it doesn't have to be brilliant."
"He was someone who stood out," he said after a moment's pause, "like a man wearing an orange cone hat in a packed commuter train."
Not an impressive metaphor, to be sure. In fact, not really a metaphor at all.
"That's a simile, not a metaphor," I pointed out.
"A million pardons," he said, swear pouring from his forehead. "Let me try again. `He lived as though he were wearing an orange cone hat in a crowded train.'"
"That makes no sense. It's still not a true metaphor. Your story doesn't hold. I'll just have to kill you."
p. 550

I laughed out loud at this. This novel is finally getting good! And it only took 550 pages! 

"To tell the truth," she said, "I'm pregnant. I'm happy to see you, but don't be shocked to see how big my belly's grown."
"I know. Masahiko told me. He said you asked him to."
"That I did," she said.
"I don't know how big you've gotten, but I'd like to see you in any case. If it's not too much of an imposition."
"Can you wait a moment?" she asked.
I waited. She appeared to be leafing through her appointment book. Meanwhile, I tried hard to remember what kind of songs the Go-Go's sang. I doubted they were as good as Masahiko had claimed, but then maybe he was right, and my view was perverse.
"Next Monday evening is good for me," Yuzu said.
p. 608

I included a bit more context here just to hopefully help capture how completely random it is for the protagonist to start thinking about the Go-Go's music. Another laugh-out-loud moment for me, sandwiched inside a really moving and emotional scene.

"Menshiki himself is not an evil man. He is a decent sort, one could say, with abilities that exceed those of most people. There is even a hint of nobility in him, if one looks hard enough. Yet there is a gap in his heart, an empty space that attracts the abnormal and the dangerous. It is there that the problem lies."
p. 646

I talked about this a little up above. It's an interesting concept, that there isn't an evil presence inside a person so much as a space that allows entry to an alien danger. Unlike David Mitchell, Murakami very rarely depicts straight-up evil; the sense you get more often is of something harmful and mysterious. 

"I think it's cool," Mariye said. "It's a work in progress, and I'm a work in progress too, now and forever."
p. 664

This is really sweet. I love this metaphor.

"Perhaps nothing can be certain in this world," I said. "But at least we can believe in something."
p. 673

Man, I love this. It sums up my personal attitude towards religion and politics and all sorts of important, controversial domains. We can't know the truth, and it's important to remember that fact and remain humble. But we can decide to believe something, and then pursue that belief with our full hearts.

END SPOILERS

I liked Killing Commendatore a lot. Particularly after the mild disappointment of Men Without Women, it was encouraging to read something so engaging. It's one of my least favorite Murakami novels, but that says much more about me and about the strength of his other books than it does about this entry. There are still elements that I'll be mentally chewing over for a while, and it's that lingering sense of intrigue and unexplained phenomena that I most treasure about this author.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Planet Peace

Just a quick update on my return to Star Wars: The Old Republic:

I'd wondered before if my swift level advancement was due to playing during a double-XP week. Nope! Even after the event ended, my progress was very quick. I reached Level 48 at the end of Chapter 1, right after completing Alderaan. The game continues to hand out XP Boost items, none of which I have used. I'm curious if the curve will get any steeper after I hit 50, but I suspect that it'll remain fairly quick all the way until the new cap at 70.


It's interesting to see how different games handle being overleveled. In LOTRO, if you're 10 or more levels ahead of the enemy, they cease to threaten you: you can walk right past them, or even through them, without them becoming aggressive. This makes it a breeze to complete quests in low-level areas; granted, those quests won't provide meaningful XP or rewards for your level, but it can still be nice for story-completion purposes.

In SWTOR, the game will instead limit your effective level: if you are level 34, but you're currently on Taris, where enemies are around level 16-20, the game will adjust your level down to 24. It doesn't take away any higher-level abilities, but scales down your raw health and power to be more in line with your foes. That means that fights will be at least somewhat meaningful - you can't just one-shot anybody - but you're still rewarded for being overleveled. It looks like your rewards are also scaled, so you'll receive a decent amount of XP for completing a quest, whereas in LOTRO (or, I'm pretty sure, the original SWTOR) you would just receive a tiny 5XP award if you were significantly over-leveled.


I'm a bit curious about the meaning, if any, of the difference between the two games. One obvious difference is the structure of the content. SWTOR has a ton of different activities you can use to level (PVP combat, story quests, space-fighter missions, multiplayer flashpoints), but the actual story quest is very linear: except for a few minor deviations where, say, you can choose the order in which to visit Tatooine and Alderaan, you must complete each story element to advance to the next. In contrast, LOTRO has far more options in how you advance through the content. Some players visit the Trollshaws after the Lone-Lands; others head to Evendim instead. After reaching Rivendell, you can continue east to the Misty Mountains, or north to Angmar, or west to Forochel. Some players will make their way south down the Misty Mountains through Enedwaith and Dunland, while others strike east through Lorien and Mirkwood. Anyways: all that to say, SWTOR assumes that you will visit every planet in the game, while LOTRO assumes you will skip many regions, and that probably impacts their decisions on why players visit a region they're too high-level for. In LOTRO it's probably because they just want to see the beautiful sights or follow up an Epic Quest line. In SWTOR it's probably because they spent time doing non-story quests.

I'm digging a bit deeper into the whole free-to-play / cartel coin situation. Here are all of the unlocks I've bought thus far:
  • Third crew skill slot
  • GTN terminal and cargo hold decorations for my stronghold on Nar Shaddaa
  • Companion appearance customization

I got the first one early on, and just bought the last. I kind of wish I'd gotten it earlier, so I could have swapped in my new look for Kira near the beginning of her plot instead of near the end. It is a little odd that you only reach those vendors after traveling with your companion for quite some time, as the changes in their look are pretty significant. Still, better late than never, and I'm enjoying making my party more unique-looking.


Oh! I also have had fun with costumes. Back when I was playing before, the main approach to making a decent-looking character was to use custom (orange) gear which had a look that you liked, and then keeping its mods updated as you leveled. Sometime in the past six years, BioWare has added a cosmetic outfit slot so you can display a different outfit than the one which is providing your stats. This works somewhat similarly to the one in LOTRO; the biggest difference is that the SWTOR version charges you credits each time you add an item to your cosmetic outfit, so the stakes for experimenting are higher. Anyways, I spent a very productive hour trawling the cheap aisle of the GTN looking for secondhand gear, and threw together an outfit that I really like and will probably keep for a while. Which, again, is funny - I have zero desire to go thrifting in real life, but happily throw together cute combinations in video games.


It's a somewhat similar situation for companions. All of their gear is now effectively cosmetic, and doesn't affect their stats, so you can put on whatever you like. As I discovered to my chagrin, though, you can't give them items that they can't use. I only figured this out after dropping several grand on the GTN buying light armor with a level requirement of 65. Ah, well. I did get a new chestpiece for Kira, and will be holding on to the other pieces until she can wear them, assuming I don't find something better first.

MINI SPOILERS

I neglected to talk about this in my previous post, but, for better and worse, one of the more interesting elements of the Republic plot line has to do with the Republic itself. Particularly while you're visiting Coruscant and meeting with Senators, there are several plots that deal with the mechanics of government there: elections, representation, campaigning.


On the whole, it's a rather negative portrayal. Senators scheme against one another, sharing polite words in public while arranging betrayals in private. One charismatic woman was elected on a reform platform, but took money from a criminal enterprise to fund her campaign. Another senator is a populist advocating for the Republic to disown the Jedi in order to curry favor with the Sith.

On the one hand, these are actually interesting scenarios! Unlike the binary choices I complained about in my last post, there's some room to consider alternatives and values here. Unfortunately, though, because this is Star Wars, at the end of the day the game imposes its own Light Side / Dark Side value judgment on each situation. It doesn't matter if that woman is delivering real, meaningful structural change and lifting people out of poverty: her money is tainted, so supporting her is Dark Side. It doesn't matter that the man is betraying the principles of the Republic to support the Sith: he represents the will of the people, so supporting him is Light Side. Does that seem contradictory? Don't blame me, take it up with the developers!


In a broader sense... I shouldn't be surprised that, in a post-Phantom Menace game, we get such an underwhelming view of the Senate. The overall impression you get is that it's sclerotic, dysfunctional, indecisive, corrupt. Again, the complexity of that picture is interesting, and does make the Republic/Empire dichotomy more compelling than it would be otherwise. But, playing this game has made me increasingly unhappy that we have so few positive portrayals of representative government in our speculative fiction. Fantasy is probably the worst offender, where a nation's goodness or badness entirely derives from the monarch leading it. (And it's not for lack of historical examples, whether classical Grecian democracy or medieval Italian republics.) Science fiction is a little better, especially Star Trek, but on the whole seems to veer towards militaristic fascism or corporate dystopias.

Anyways! It's so rare for us to get a sci-fi/fantasy game that includes scenes of democratic governing, and it's really discouraging to have it portrayed in such a snide, dismissive way. Over and over this game presents us with the idea that debate and consensus are for weak, sniveling cowards unwilling to make difficult decisions, and that only bold unilateral action can solve problems. That's the opposite message we should be sending.


Or, maybe to put it another way: in speculative fiction, non-representative governments (kingdoms, empires, and so on) can be shown either critically or non-critically. But it seems like representative governments are only shown critically. I definitely don't want to say there's no place in fiction for critiquing problems with democracy - they're definitely there! - but looking over the genre as a whole, it's held to a far higher standard than authoritarian governments are.

Again, though, it's hard to blame the developers for this - it's a big part of the Star Wars DNA, centered on the hero's journey instead of the betterment of society. That's one of the many reasons why I'm cautiously optimistic about what the Expanded Universe might look like after the sequels are finished, as they're doing admirable work in dismantling the bloodline-obsessed values underlying the original movies.

MEGA SPOILERS

As for the actual Jedi Knight story line: It's pretty good. The Imperial Agent one was way better, but I'm still relatively early in the JK plot, so I shouldn't pass final judgment yet. I've avoided reading any spoilers of the plot, but it was relatively highly rated, and the consensus seems to be that it's one of the most "Star Wars" plots. I'd say that's true, and... it actually reminds me in some ways of the sequels (which were started after this game was released) in the way it seems to replicate the story beats of the original trilogy.
  • Young Jedi teaming up with a cute little droid in a personal space ship.

  • Jedi is the secret offspring of a Sith.

  • Empire has built a planet-destroying weapon that only you can stop.

  • Young Jedi's master gets killed by the Sith adversary, but comes back as a Force Ghost to give guidance and instructions.

I suspect that, in 2011 when we were starved for more Star Wars stuff, this all would have felt awesome. It now all feels pretty familiar. But, again, I have two chapters left to go, and haven't even recruited half of my crew, so I imagine there's more story to come.

END SPOILERS

Despite all my grousing, I'm having a lot of fun! It feels good to be a hero, to help innocent people and solve problems and make the galaxy a safer place. There's a nice rhythm to combat as a Jedi Knight, and you look stylish as hell while swirling around two lightsabers.  I'm determined to press onward and see what else the game has in store for me.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

How You Vote Is The Main Thing

Remember, remember, the sixth of November! Let's see what the ballot holds for us in Northern California, shall we?
 

Governor: Holding my nose and voting for Gavin Newsom. My visceral dislike of the man is tempered by my agreement with virtually all of his positions. He has some very big shoes to fill. Jerry Brown is the best Governor I've ever lived under, by a very wide margin, and if Newsom can uphold Brown's legacy I'll consider us extraordinarily fortunate.

Lieutenant Governor: I am an adult who has written books and it still takes me two tries to spell "Lieutenant" correctly. Anyways: Ed Hernandez.

Secretary of State: Alex Padilla

Controller: Betty Yee

Treasurer: Fiona Ma

Attorney General: Xavier Becerra

Insurance Commissioner: Ricardo Lara. (I'd actually be fine with Poizner getting this, he's a solid choice. But Lara would jumpstart the single-payer campaign in a big way, which is worth pursuing.)

State Board of Equalization: Malia Cohen

US Senator: After much consideration, I'm reversing my primary vote and going with Dianne Feinstein in the general. Since her troubling behavior early in the Trump era, she has really come around, and now has been a consistent and powerful voice against his administration's policies. The cynic in me says that this is just because it's an election year and she saw the need to placate her base; on the other hand, though, I want to reward good behavior, and I do genuinely appreciate her recent actions. On a grand-strategy level, this will almost certainly be the last time she runs for office, and the field to replace her will be just as strong in six years. If she happens to retire early, it will remain a safe Democratic seat.

Congress: Jackie Speier

Assembly: Kevin Mullin

Retain Justice Carol Corrigan? No

Retain Justice Leondra Kruger? Yes

James Humes: Yes

Sandra Margulies: Yes

James Richman: Yes

Marla Miller: Yes

Peter Siggins: Yes

Jon Streeter: Yes

Alison Tucher: Yes

Barbara Jones: Yes

Superintendent: Tony Thurmond

Millbrae City Council: Reuben Holober and Anne Olivia. They've delivered on the smart-growth policies that first attracted me to this city, and I hope our council will serve as an example to our sister cities on the Peninsula in encouraging more housing and infill development.

Harbor District: Ed Larenas, Henry Sutter

Prop 1 (Housing assistance bonds): Yes

Prop 2 (Redirect mental illness treatment to housing): Yes

Prop 3 (Water bonds): No

Prop 4 (Private children's hospitals bonds): No

Prop 5 (Elderly keep low property tax when moving): No

Prop 6 (Repeal gas tax increase): NO. (I'll readily grant that gas taxes are regressive, but California's tax system overall is highly progressive, and there's room for this kind of tax. Increasing the cost of driving is a feature, not a bug, and taxes on fossil fuels are among the best ways to spur large employers and investors to develop and commoditize alternative fuels.)

Prop 7 (End Daylight Savings Time Phase 1): Yes. (I don't care all that much about DST one way or another, but I love this trend: it just undoes a voter mandate and returns the power to the legislature, which should have it in the first place. It's so dumb that we need to vote on, like, rain water barrels every year just because our forebears thought it was super-important to get their pet issues enshrined in the state Constitution.)

Prop 8 (Dialysis oversight): No

Prop 10 (Rent control): See response below.

Prop 11 (Private ambulance workers must remain on duty): No

Prop 12 (Minimum space for farmed animals): Yes

Measure II (Rebuild community center): Yes. (Fun fact: this is the letter "i" twice, and not a Roman numeral 2.)

Measure W (Half-cent sales tax to fund transit): YES

Board of Education: Susan Alvaro

I've probably spent more time mulling over Prop 10 than all the other items on the ballot combined. California has an affordable housing crisis. People who are lucky enough to have rent control today are safe from the crisis, but remain anchored to their apartments forever. More people will be able to claim that safety in the future if this proposition passes, but at the cost of decreasing future housing construction and raising average rental prices across the board. It will be a godsend to established residents, and a cudgel to newcomers. It will make a small but significant decrease in inequality between wealthy landlords and their tenants. And it's worth remembering that approving this proposition doesn't enact rent control; it just gives cities the authority to do so, on terms they decide.
After weighing all this, I ended up voting Yes on 10, with the hope and understanding that it will take more efforts like Prop 1 and Prop 2 to address the increase in prices this will bring about.

And... that's it! I guess this ballot is relatively tame as far as Californian elections go, though I'll be extremely interested to see how the other Congressional Districts in the state turn out. And turnout in general: as I keep noting/complaining, the big statewide races in California tend to be foregone conclusions, which I imagine makes people less motivated to vote here than in battleground states. But with the higher overall interest in politics over the last two years, I hope that leads to greater engagement and participation at all levels. At the end of the day, the local and regional votes we cast make a tremendous difference in our day-to-day lives, and our big-picture energy and motivation can be usefully channeled into human-scale change.

https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2018/08/09/political-cartoons-california-wildfires-and-president-trump/