Friday, June 29, 2012

The Starveling Cat! The Starveling Cat! Louder than a dog! Taller than a rat!

Some random thoughts:

There was a surprisingly interesting profile of Ben Stiller in a recent New Yorker article. I'm a little ambivalent about Stiller, and I was surprised to see that he shares my ambivalence; specifically, he isn't a big fan of the franchises that have made him famous, like Meet the Fockers, and seems to often wish that he had ended up as a lower-tier director, working on small projects that he felt passionate about. As long as he's rich and famous, though, he's trying to use his powers to create good movies on his own terms. The main focus of the article was his film of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a fairly big-budget movie that Fox is backing, after an extended period of wrangling with Stiller over the budget. I was most intrigued, though, by a little snippet where he revealed that, for the past 15 years, he's been trying to make a movie out of George Saunder's phenomenal "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." He's been able to attract a lot of talent to the project, including Sean Penn and Owen Wilson as the leads, but hasn't been able to raise the money to make it. The article includes this great quote from Saunders:

"It was the reverse of the cliche about the pandering movie guy and the noble fiction writer, because I would absolutely have sold out to get the movie made -- added car chases, a puppy cluster, whatever -- and Ben always insisted on returning to the darkest, oddest version of this story."

So, I'm a little bummed that Saunders' genius will continue to be hidden from broader American society; but, it's also encouraging to see that people are looking out for the integrity of his art.

Speaking of movie adaptations: Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash seems to be finally moving forward. It's still a long ways off from getting green-lit; a guy named Joe Cornish plans to write the adaptation and direct it, so there are still a lot of ways this could get derailed. In a recent Reddit AMA, Stephenson said that he's chatted with Cornish, but will be staying out of his way and letting him make the thing. That seems like a good approach to these kinds of projects: pick good people, then trust them to do good work with it. Stephenson also had some wise words in response to the predictable fears that people would ruin his book: "I think that fans' expectations can get out of whack when they use vocab like 'the book is being made into a movie,' which kind of implies that the book reaches some kind of apotheosis in the form of the movie, and ceases to exist as a book. That's not what happens. The book isn't going to change. It'll always be there. In addition to the book, there is going to be this other thing, a movie." That did give me pause. I often approach cinematic adaptations of literature with a mixture of excitement and dread. I enjoyed reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so greatly that I have gone to great lengths to avoid the movie, out of fear that it would pollute my appreciation of the work. The Lord of the Rings took one of my favorite stories of all time and created one of my favorite movies of all time. I think part of the reality of the way my mind works is that I'm not great at compartmentalizing different aspects of a single work. I can watch Blues Brothers and enjoy it, but I'll also periodically cringe, because parts of the movie will remind me of Blues Brothers 2000 and how awful that was.

That said, as long as the new work is a net good, I'm in favor of it being created, even if it isn't as good as its predecessor. That probably also explains why I'm so grateful that REM stuck around as long as they did - just because they didn't create another Green or Automatic for the People didn't keep them from improving the world by giving us lots of great new songs. Snow Crash: The Movie might not contain all the awesomeness of Snow Crash: The Book, but as long as it's a good movie (either because it's interesting, or it's amusing, or it's exciting, and hopefully some combination of those virtues), I'll be glad to see it added to the universe.

Continuing to topic-hop... Louis CK is continuing his iconoclastic entrepreneurial sprint. After the rousing social and financial success of his Live at the Beacon experiment, Louis has revamped comedy touring with his upcoming shows at the end of this year. He has cut out the middlemen and gotten rid of the universally loathed TicketMaster: he is now selling tickets directly to consumers, through his website, and only playing at venues that will accommodate the way he wants to do business (no scalping allowed). In San Francisco, that means that he'll be appearing at Davies Symphony Hall, possibly the most gorgeous performing space in a city that has many to recommend. Buying tickets from Louis is such a refreshingly enjoyable experience: no extra surcharges, ticket handling fees, delivery fees, facility charges, or other cruft piled on top of the price. Just a flat $45 per seat, anywhere in the country. (We acted as a team here in the office to snag our tickets. Zac got the email announcing the tickets, and forwarded it on to Eric and me. By the time we had opened it, Zac's session had timed out so he was locked out, but Eric and I were able to proceed with the purchase. Each person is limited to buying 4 tickets, so we got 8 between the two of us, and - drum roll - we'll be in the 4th and 5th row at Davies. Nice!)

On the whole, I'm madly in love with Louis's approach. It's great for the artist, and great for the fans. However, I do wonder whether this is paving the way for a better future (a world where Ticketmaster doesn't exist and artists get to charge less and keep more), or if it's going to be a peculiar outlier that can only be offered by people at the top of their field. There's an easy analogy to make here to Radiohead's In Rainbows experiment: that was a media bonanza for them, and ended up making them a fair amount of money, but they only got away with it because they're Radiohead; other, smaller bands still need the support of record labels to publish new albums. Basically what I'm wondering is, do middlemen still have a role to play, and are we losing anything by cutting them out? Will it be harder for newer bands or comedians or authors to get big and recognized if there are no more record labels or tour promoters or publishing houses? I hope not - my ideal vision of the future is one where a wide variety of artists can connect directly with passionate fans - but I'll admit to a strain of pessimism.

Then again, there may be reason for optimism. Other comedians, like Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan, have followed in Louis's footsteps with online DRM-free video sales and seem to be doing pretty well. I'd been concerned that Louis's was successful only because it was novel and got a lot of free coverage - it was reported on NPR and other surprising sources. It looks like there's a real appetite out there for honest sellers with a quality product, though. Similarly, I was very excited by the successful Kickstarter by Tim Schafer's DoubleFine, and thought that it was largely because of the novelty of old-school games making a comeback; that said, newer projects like Shadowrun have continued to do well, which makes me cautiously optimistic that the direct funding model may be a viable path forward.

Oh, on the topic of Shadowrun: Jordan Weisman is publishing a serialized story set in Shadowrun's 2050 world. The first entry is now available. I highly recommend it! I felt weirdly nostalgic when reading it; given that I had played the Genesis game for the first time only a few months ago, I shouldn't feel that level of warm familiarity with Julius Strouther and the Sega CTY-360 and Renraku Pyramid. So it goes. This kind of storytelling makes me very happy for the story-driven Shadowrun game!

Quick TV roundup:

The new season of Louie starts tonight!

I finished watching both extant seasons of Party Down. It was incredible, and I can see why people love it so much. The only downside is that, now that I've finished watching it, I have a harder time getting behind the Ben/Leslie romance on Parks & Recreation. Don't get me wrong, they're an extremely cute couple, but Adam and Lizzy had such amazing chemistry on that show that anything else is bound to feel inferior.

Game of Thrones ended on a phenomenal note! I absolutely adored the Blackwater episode, and barely minded that they got rid of the chain. That's probably the single most impressive TV episode I've ever seen. I'm actually kind of tempted to check out the director's movies now; I've wanted to see The Descent for a while anyways, and what he did here was just phenomenal. (If you like the series, or just the process of directing, I highly recommend Neil Marshall's interview with The Empire about making this episode. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that his budget for this episode is about the same as the budget he's had for his feature movies. Go, HBO! Also, there apparently really is an HBO executive whose job is to get as much T&A into each episode as possible.) The finale was also good; I felt a little let down, but mostly just because I wanted more, which is probably a good sign. (TV AND BOOK SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH): I was really surprised that they wrapped up the destruction of Winterfell into this season; I had thought that they would delay it into season 3, just so they could introduce the Bastard properly. I'm really curious to see where they take that plot from here, and if they rejoin the book's continuity or go in another direction. I missed the awesome crazy visions that were in the book's version of House of the Undying, but the couple of scenes we got in the TV version were gorgeous. I wonder if the TV series is doing anything with Rhaegar, though? He seems pretty important in the books, and has barely even been mentioned in the show. Oh, yeah: and that final shot that closed out the season was just amazing. Army of ice zombies FTW! I was pretty impressed by the CGI there.

Finally, from the I-can't-believe-that-I'm-only-now-getting-into-this-show department, I'm filling my post-GoT depression by finally watching Deadwood, and finding that it does a surprisingly good job of filling that void. Both shows are very dense, with sprawling casts, intricate plots, surprising story turns (including a willingness to kill off major characters), sex, and violence. I now totally get why everyone reveres Ian McShane the way they do. Early on, I thought Bullock was the noble hero, and Al Swearengen his charismatic villain. Swearengen is just SO magnetic and fascinating, though, that partway through the first season he eclipses Bullock (who is hardly a slouch) and becomes the center of the story. I've loved everything, but the final episode of the first season in particular was jaw-droppingly good. It whirls and spins through a staggering number of plot threads, yet feels like a close character study at the same time. It even provided some very welcome catharsis in the form of Doc Cochran and Jewel's treatment. (Man oh man, Brad Dourif is one of the many astonishing things on that show. I've always vaguely thought of Dourif as the creepy character actor; his depiction of Doc is incredible.) The show somehow got even better in the second season: the writing, which was already good, became even more elevated, to the point where it feels like I'm watching a Shakespearean play. EB Farnum and Mr. Wolcott regularly deliver soliloquies, Farnum often also acts as a Polonius figure, and Richardson is a perfect Fool. I feel like I'm witnessing some sort of fever dream whenever I encounter that unique blend of elevated dialog and base profanity. (This show has turned the compound c---s----- into a flexible and surprisingly powerful phrase.) I can't wait to check out the third season, and am already anticipating the sadness I'll feel that HBO ended the series.

Turning away from digital entertainment... summer in the Bay Area is amazing as always. I've been ramping back up on my cycling, and have finished my last few trips up Kings Mountain Road barely breaking a sweat, so I think I'll soon be ready to make my first 2012 loop trip to Pescadero. I'm also loving the Bay Area's rich bounty. Figs are now in season! Yum! Peaches are near their peak, too; I made a Peach Puzzle a few weeks ago, and I think I've finally nailed the exact right degree of ripeness to make that turn out best. (Freestone peaches are also a crucial component.) I've been doing a fair amount of baking in general lately. I've made what may be the ultimate chocolate-chip cookie, based on the New York Times recipe. I splurged and bought some Valrhona chocolate discs for my first batch, which is pretty expensive - that stuff is about $20/pound, compared to the few bucks I normally spend on a 12-ounce package of chips - so I won't be using it often, but I have to admit that it does make them even more tasty. The cookies are so huge, though, that they're pretty absurd to eat. I love having them in my repertoire, but even if these are the ultimate cookie, there's still an opening for the ultimate PRACTICAL cookie.

I'm finally starting David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It's pretty good so far, but I'm curious to see where it goes.

Still loving Fallen London. (Slight gameplay spoilers follow for the rest of the paragraph.) I'm continuing to build up my character's primary qualities, although I haven't acquired much equipment lately. I've come to realize that it's almost always better to hold on to your goods rather than sell them, and it often costs 12 echoes or more for a simple +1 piece of equipment with no negatives. You can advance quickly enough as-is that it doesn't seem worth the expense, and besides, it's much more fun to unlock an option in an Opportunity card with your 500 rats on a string than it is to sell them and try to pick up some clothing. I've encountered a glitch in the game that game me a massive undeserved boost to my Dangerous quality; I now have a Dangerous of 79, while all my other stats are in the 40s. I've gotten much better at managing my Menaces. Early in the game, while I was trying to open the way to the Forgotten Quarter (i.e., the Fourth City), I went insane while studying the London streets. That was actually pretty cool, but made me very cautious about how I manage my negatives. Unfortunately, I'm now trying to increase my Watchful, and I'm finding that Nightmares are hands-down the most difficult Menace to keep under control. With a low Scandal, you can start doing "Attend a Church Service," which usually succeeds and not only lowers Scandal but also increases your Church connection. You can Attend to your Wounds, which usually succeeds as well. There's a Storylet in Spite that lets you blackmail a Constable to lower your Suspicion, which also increases your Shadowy progression. With Nightmares, though... the only storylet in your lodgings is "Confess your Fears," which requires (1) a Sudden Insight, which I tend to immediately and unintentionally consume while raising my Watching; and (2) a willing Friend, who is penalized and receives no benefit for their help. After your Nightmares get up to 5, you can try to Ignore the Cheery Man, but this only has a 50/50 chance of working, and no other benefit whether you succeed or fail. Anyways... as a result, I'm extremely cautious when increasing my Watchful, which has me sticking to very easy challenges, and also using extreme care to keep my Nightmares as low as possible. I don't want to get into the story here, but it's been a lot of fun. There's an astonishing variety of mini-arcs, and you generally get a fair amount of choice in how to complete each one.

I've picked up Mass Effect 2, and am absolutely loving it. I'll probably do a full write-up later on about the story, so for now I'll mostly restrict myself to the gameplay. I'd heard before that Bioware had streamlined it, and for the most part I'm very happy with how that turned out. They've gotten rid of the most tedious micro-managing aspects of the game: there's no longer any inventory, no more omni-gel, and no selling anything. As a result, the game tends to move much more quickly; it's kind of astonishing just how much time I spent clicking through a list of 50 weapons in the first game. Powers have also been simplified a great deal; I think that in the first game, most characters could build up 8 powers, which each had a maximum level of, um, maybe 12 points; Shepherd had 12 powers available. In ME2, each character has only 4 powers available, with 4 levels for each. It's a bit easier to manage, but I'm a little disappointed at how similar the progression is for the powers. In most cases, the final level 4 is a choice between "This attack has a wider radius that affects multiple enemies!" and "This attack does more damage!". A few powers like Overload have more interesting choices at the top tier, like choosing a form that makes robots explode.

I generally like the structure of the game, which has changed from a largely free-roaming experience in ME1 to a more focused series of linear levels in ME2. That's in contrast to my usual preference for open worlds in games like Ultima and Elder Scrolls, but Bioware takes great advantage of these crafted levels and makes them a lot of fun. My big complaint here is that they've put crucial power-ups in each level, sometimes in places that aren't very easy to find, and since you aren't allowed to re-visit levels afterwards, I end up being way too OCD on these levels: instead of just having fun and moving forward, I'll defeat a group of enemies, then comb over every square inch of the room to make sure that I'm not passing up a new Heavy Pistol or a Biotic Damage research project. In retrospect, I kind of wish that Bioware would give you some way to acquire items that you missed on your initial run-through, perhaps by letting your purchase them at another location or having them show up in later levels.

 Oh, and the worst part of the game is definitely the rare but infuriating bugs. Specifically, there are some cases where enemies get into invisible locations where you can't kill them and they can't hurt you, and there are some cases where you'll get stuck against a pillar or outside the geometry of the map. In both cases, the only solution is to reload your last save and try again. Much like the problem with hidden research projects, this keeps me from enjoying the action of the game in a long and fun burst, and instead drives me into the OCD behavior of maniacally saving after every successful fight, to minimize the pain of running into bugs. Granted, I've only gotten stuck this way a half-dozen times, but it's made me change the way I play every aspect of the game, which is a shame. It seems like it would have been easy for them to fix, too... just some equivalent of the /stuck command in SW:TOR that would put everyone back into a valid map location.

As long as I'm complaining... while ME2 has largely gotten rid of the tedious and time-consuming aspects of ME1, it introduced a new burden in the form of scanning planets. This is technically optional, but if you want to unlock the full capability of your weapons and squad, you'll need to do A LOT of scanning to gather the resources necessary for research. Each planet can take a minute or more to scan, and it's mind-numbing: sweep your cursor back and forth, back and forth, listening and watching for spikes, then launch a probe, wait for it to land, then resume sweeping.

The hacking mini-game is also a bit annoying, but mostly just because I'm coming off of the awesomeness of the hacking games in Deus Ex and Shadowrun, so ME2 feels like flim-flam in comparison. The two games here are no worse than the "get to the middle" mini-game of ME1.
That's pretty much it from the complaint department, though. While levels are linear, your overall progress through the game is pretty much wide open, and you can pick which planets to visit and when to go to each. Resource management is a breeze. I really love the squad combat in this game; it was already good in ME1, but it's been further simplified in ME2, so you no longer need to select which weapon each teammate is using during a fight, and they're good about using their powers at appropriate times. (The "go to" commands that you can trigger by pressing Q and E seem pretty awful, since as far as I can tell they'll go to that location and then just stay there, no longer entering cover. So, I just don't press those buttons any more.) On the whole, I think ME2 does a fantastic job of letting you focus on the most fun aspects of the game. Heh... there's even some in-game commentary on this from a nerdy Salarian on the Citadel who runs a game store. At one point he says something like, "The new RPGs aren't as good as the old ones. Today's games are all about big choices and character customization. I preferred the old games where you needed to remember to drink water, and it took five hours in real-time to fly somewhere."

That's it for now - more anon!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fallen London

I've been getting really into a browser game called "Fallen London." It's kinda similar to an idea I had for a web game a few years ago, but with a much more clever set of mechanics and a deeper level of polish than I'd be able to have made. Plus, y'know, they actually did it.

It's a very story-based game, which sets apart from the other browser games I've checked out in the past and endears itself to me immensely. It's a very sprawling and open-ended game that allows you to simultaneously pursue any of the dozens of plots that interest you. Imagine having a whole set of Choose Your Own Adventure books, all set in the same world, that you're playing at the same time, and you have a good idea of what this is like.

The setting is excellent, but I actually don't want to get into it too much, since part of the fun of the game is discovering where you are and what's happening. The game starts in media res, without any real background or exposition, and you gradually pick up more of the setting as you begin to explore London Beneath.

MINI SPOILERS (pretty tame stuff that you'll find in your first play session or two)

This is a fairly Victorian game, with the elements you would expect from that time period. There are bohemians reading one another's poetry in parlors, street urchins living on rooftops, bomb-tossing anarchists, constables chasing after horse-drawn carriages, etc.

There's also a Lovecraftian strain through the game. I haven't gotten too deep into that aspect yet, but my character has already started having nightmares, and there are whispers of strange creatures roaming through the luminescent dark tunnels.

In the story as in everything else, though, the game lets you do whatever you want. I suspect that the Cthulhu-ish elements are there for people who feel like indulging in the weird mysteries of the deep, and everyone else can enjoy their own game experience, whether it's a vaguely steam-punk-ish action/adventure, a Sherlock Holmes investigation, a Jane Austen comedy of manners, a Charles Dickens exploration of social class, a Lewis Carroll literary exploration of drug dens, or any of the many other diversions Fallen London has to offer.


The mechanics are remarkably intuitive while allowing for a nicely complex style of play. After you finish the tutorial, you can move between different locations within Fallen London by clicking the "Travel" button (towards the upper right; it took a little while for me to find) and then clicking on your destination. You'll spend most of your time in the location(s) that best align with the type of story you enjoy, but it can be in your interest to occasionally visit other areas to see what other adventures are brewing.

Within a location, you'll see a bunch of "Storylets" that you can play. Each Storylet is a particular occasion or encounter. Clicking it will present a paragraph that describes the situation, and give you one or more action you can take in response. For example, a Storylet might describe an urchin snatching a purse from a gentleman; your responses might be to pursue the urchin, or to create a distraction, or to console the gentleman. Each of these responses could use different skills, be of different difficulties, and lead to different results.

Oh, I suppose I should describe skills. Fallen London is sort of a role-playing game, but, very refreshingly, it does not use the standard D&D style statistics of strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc.; instead, the skills are things like Watchful, Dangerous, and Persuasive. You increase your skills by using them, and can be as focused or as disparate as you like; I've been primarily focusing on my Watchful and Persuasive skills, while also keeping up my Shadowy skill somewhat, and still have a Dangerous level of only 1. Beyond these main skills, though, there's a stunning and often hilarious range of attributes your character can gain, like "Friend of Bohemians," "Connected to the Duchess," "Hedonist," "Suspicious," "Altruistic," etc. Some of these steadily increase as you use them; others can go up or down as you trade in favors and make future decisions.

Besides the "Storylets", you can also draw from a deck of Story cards. These behave somewhat similarly to Storylets, except that a Storylet is always available for as long as you meet the requirements, while you can only have a few Story cards at a time, and each is random.

Making a choice in a Storylet or a Story consumes an action point. This is the main mechanic that limits and guides your gameplay. It's impossible to die in this game, or to be permanently stuck anywhere; even if you fail at a challenge, you can keep retrying it until you succeed. So, to keep Fallen London from being something that you just obsessively keep clicking until you eventually finish, the game limits that number of choices that you can make in a session. You start out with 10 Action Points, which means you can complete 10 storylets or stories. You regain action points over time, back up to a maximum of 10. So, you can check in a couple of times a day and advance your storylines. It's a very... civilised way of doing an online game.

There's a bunch of other stuff in here too, which I haven't really explored yet. There's the Bazaar, where you can sell some of the many rewards that you've earned, and buy clothing, "weapons" (like bottles of wine, watches, canes, and magnifying glasses), or pets (including a Winsome Dispossessed Orphan and a Malevolent Monkey). There's a circus, which kind of baffles me; I may re-visit when I hit a lull in my stories. There's a whole social aspect, which I'm not doing anything with; it seems to be optional, but it can provide some mild improvements to your character's social and psychological constitution. (My profile is pretty bare at the moment, but may evolve over time.)

Anywho... I'm having a blast, and really admire the great job the developers and creators have done at creating something that feels like a casual game, but is way more entertaining and higher-quality than any other casual/social game that I've played. I recommend checking it out, and if you decide to stay in the streets of Fallen London for a while, do stop by my place for a cup of tea.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hedge Fund

I'm pretty surprised that it took me this long to read George R. R. Martin's Tales of Dunk and Egg. I'm a huge fan of his series A Song of Ice and Fire, but I haven't been too tempted to check out his other works, like Wild Cards or his early sci-fi stories. (That said, a recent A. V. Club "Gateway to Geekery" article does make me think I'd at least enjoy the sci-fi stuff.) I've recently learned that his Dunk and Egg stories are more connected to the plots of ASoIaF than I'd assumed. Since I've got another ten months or so until my next fix of the TV show, and several years until my next fix for the novels, I decided to take them in.

Unfortunately, they're pretty hard to get. Each is published in a separate anthology, and so contains a bunch of stories by other authors as well. I hope that eventually Martin will collect them all in one volume, but I suspect there may be one or two more entries before he completes and collects them. In the meantime, you can find them if you look hard enough. They should be read in order to avoid spoilers: The Hedge Knight comes first, then The Sworn Sword and finally (for now) The Mystery Knight. (Apparently, at least a few of these have been adapted into graphic novels, but so far I've just read the original novellas.)

They're excellent stories. They're very well-written, with a few deeply drawn characters. Each stands on its own well as a short story, and I think that even someone who hasn't read any of the ASoIaF books could totally understand what's going on... they're very heavily tied to recognizable medieval concepts (tourneys, chivalry, squires, etc.), with a couple of references to standard fantasy tropes (dragons and sorcerers, neither of which has a very direct impact on the plot but colors the narrative). Unlike ASoIaF, there's a single point-of-view narrator, and basically a single narrative thread, although we do also learn in passing about some wider events taking place in the Seven Kingdoms and bump up against a few other plots along the way.

Specifically, these stories take place approximately 100 years before the start of A Game of Thrones, and about 200 years after Aegon the Conqueror's landing in Westeros. So there are no characters who appear in both works, but we do get to see the ancestors of some major characters, and learn more about various large and small Houses.

MEGA SPOILERS (for all stories and the novels)

Martin does a good job at maintaining mystery. Either that, or I'm really stupid. I'd suspected early on that Egg was a Targaryen - Dunk notices that his eyes look purple - but I had no idea that he was actually a prince or any kind of nobility. I'd sort of assumed that he might be a bastard offspring of a Targaryen king. I was wrong, of course, and what's worse, I've actually argued in the past that the Targaryen genes are highly recessive (much like the Baratheon genes are dominant), which explains the rareness of their coloring and the reason for their interbreeding. Purple eyes probably means two Targaryens, which probably means royalty.

After finishing The Mystery Knight, I pseudo-cheated and looked up the Targaryen family tree to see just where Egg belongs. And - historical spoiler alert! - it looks like he will actually become the King, specifically King Aegon the Unlikely. Unlikely indeed. His brother is Aemon, who I think of as Aemon the Awesome. I mean, seriously, isn't the dude, like, over a hundred years old?

As is his wont, Martin has a fairly realistic bent to his writing. Dunk is the hero, and a very likeable person, but he's also pretty stupid, and fails at much of what he tries to do. Dunk is absolutely enormous, nearly seven feet tall (what is with Martin and ginormous men?), and because of his height he's an effective fighter, but he isn't, like, the most skilled knight in the land or anything too dramatic like that. He's trying to do the best he can.

Oh, yeah, and as to the ASoIaF connection: I can't take credit for this, but a keen observer has noted that the "Aegon" of A Dance with Dragons, who supposedly is Rhaegar's son who was rescued and spirited away before the Sack of King's Landing, may actually be a Blackfyre.  Blackfyres have the exact same coloring as Targaryens, so he would fit in well; and it certainly explains why he would pop up in Essos, consorting with the Golden Company. "Aegon" himself may or may not be aware that he isn't actually Rhaegar's son. Anyways... one of the best parts of these stories is learning more about the Blackfyre rebellion, which adds even more color to an already intriguing plot.


One of the things I most enjoyed about these stories was getting a better look at the life lived by the very lowest end of nobility. The world of Westeros is a very caste-centric world, and most of ASoIaF is concerned with the lives of people at the very top of that world: the kings and princes and their hand-picked champions. Starting with A Feast for Crows, we've started getting a better look at the life lived by the smallfolk: much like peasants in our own middle ages, their lot is far worse, and Martin gives us some inkling of their lives, dominated by fear of starvation but also helplessness in the face of arbitrary power.

Dunk is in between those two worlds. He's fortunate enough to be a knight, which gives him a certain position and certain rights; however, he has no land, and no possessions other than what he carries with him; his horses, sword, and armor are basically the entirety of his wealth. He has a degree of freedom and autonomy that no smallfolk have, but he must follow the rules of his caste.

The stories are quick reads, and would probably be perfect introductions to ASoIaF for new readers. Well, I guess that the TV series is actually the perfect introduction... but these stories are still a great entry point, rewarding without being overly complicated. Veteran readers like myself will not only enjoy a deeper immersion into some aspects of Martin's world, but may also gain an insight or two into the main series.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Melon-Collie Baby

Like everyone I know, I have more books that I want to read than books I can read. Since I'm a nerd, I handle this situation via an online Google Docs spreadsheet that includes the titles of the novels I want to read, along with pertinent information like their authors, the source of the recommendation, their availability in my local library, and perhaps a few brief notes. The list isn't a queue, so some books can languish for many years before I get the chance to pick them up.

One book had been on there for so long that I remember its presence on the list far better than I can recall any reason why I put it on the list: "The Melancholy of Resistance," by the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai. It's one of the few titles on my list to have come from a review in the New Yorker. I almost always read the fiction reviews in the magazine, far more often than I read the actual fiction. The few New Yorker recommendations I've read have included Murakami's Kafka on the Shore and Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, so it's a pretty high bar. Basically, a review has to not just say "this is a good book," but also "this is a very weird book."

Melancholy's weirdness is of a whole different order than my other weird books. While there is a slight tinge of supernatural atmosphere within the book, the vast majority of it is very ground-level, realistic, and grimy. However, its form is very different and challenging; even when the author is describing a fairly mundane scene, like a widow's pantry of jarred preserves or the behavior of feral cats, the author uses very purple prose and a visually impenetrable block of text. I'm curious what this book looks like in the original Hungarian, but I imagine it looks almost identical, because I can't imagine any translator cruel enough to invent this style. Each chapter is exactly one paragraph long, so every page is one solid block of end-to-end justified text. The sentences tend to be quite long as well, many about a page long, although there's no great consistency to their length. The other oddity in format is the author's use of "a veritable plethora of" quoted phrases, inserted into the middle of sentences "without a care in the world," often using expressions that are "dull as dishwater." Sometimes these quotes appear to be verbatim snatches from dialog; very little straightforward conversation appears in the book, instead we get long descriptions that summarize what a person is saying, peppered with those periodically quoted words. Quite often, though, the quotes belong to the narrator and not to a character, and I still don't really get what purpose they serve. They're kind of self-evidently cliched, and I can't tell if they're being quoted as a way of apologizing for them, or to expose their artificiality, or what. It's cool, just a bit mind-boggling.


The book seems focused on decay, in all its forms. The surprising and saddening opening chapter focuses on the perspective of an elderly woman who is returning to her hometown after a shopping trip, and we see her bemoan all the ways in which the world is getting worse. People are getting increasingly rude or even violent; the town's infrastructure has decayed, such that buses no longer run late at night and even street lighting has been lost; everywhere the city is in disrepair, and nature itself is either reclaiming land or destroying itself, as when a giant tree simply topples over, lifting up all of its roots and a wide chunk of pavement around it. This sense of disintegration spreads throughout the book, growing blacker and darker. Great public minds have been reduced to bizarre private obsessions; petty ambitions win out in an environment of absolute lethargy; goodness and innocence is swept up in a silent, ominous swell of violence.

I found myself often thinking of Thomas Pynchon. Although in many ways these books are complete opposites, Pynchon's books are keenly interested in the idea of entropy, which seems closely related to Melancholy's theme of decay. Reflecting on it, I came to the tentative hypothesis that entropy, as explored in Pynchon, is primarily about inorganic systems, like physics, or abstract systems, like conspiracies. Decay, as explored in Melancholy, is primarily about biological and organic systems, like human health, the human mind, wooden structures, and the psychology of crowds. To put it bluntly, decay is a sadder topic than entropy, probably because it's closer to our daily experience and harder to separate from ourselves. And Laszlo doesn't give us the feel-good new-age solution of decay and death being part of a cycle of rebirth and grows. We never see anything good and new being created in this book, just the corruption of what was once good and its replacement with something lesser, something evil, or nothing at all.

The few truly active forces in this book are primarily destructive in aspect, and they are never seriously opposed by anything else. Mrs. Eszter is a shockingly venal person, who seems willing to bring down the whole town in exchange for a better house, an impressive title, and some of the respect that she feels she was missing. She plots, but her plots just seem so petty and so ineffectual that it's amazing she succeeds as well as she does. Much more interesting, and much more mysterious, is The Prince, whose seemingly supernatural control over the army of ruffians is the most inexplicable part of the book. Laszlo does an amazing job of creating an intense atmosphere around the circus, filled with dread and wonder. (Between this book and Something Wicked This Way Comes, I have very little desire to ever visit a carnival again.) We never get a truly satisfactory answer as to... just WHAT the Prince is, how much control he has over the acts of the mob, whether he has long-term plans and what they might be.

And, boy, that mob sure was brutal. At a couple of points I felt like I was reading Blood Meridian again. Laszlo's prose isn't nearly as gory, but it's at least as dreadful, in the literal sense of causing dread. Between that darkness of spirit, and the highly idiosyncratic writing style, these two books could be pillars in the tales of the awfulness of man.

Against these forces of evil we have two points of light who fill most of the novel's middle pages. Valuska is a simple-minded person, but I don't believe he's actually an idiot like the rest of the town believes: his mind just works in a very different way which is much less helpful and practical, but creates real good in the world: sharing his largely incomprehensible but deeply, profoundly felt awe at the movement of solar bodies provides the town with entertainment and a relatively peaceful way to wind down a night of drinking. Valuska's deep, almost spiritual connection with the stars is of a kind with Mr. Eszter's own profound connection with music; however, where Valuska's obsession gives him drive and a means of social engagement, Mr. Eszter's has brought him misery and isolation. I was fascinated by Laszlo's intense description of the crisis of faith Mr. Eszter underwent when he discovered the mutability of musical scales and tuning.


I don't think "crisis of faith" is too mild a term for the wrenching psychological upheaval that Mr. Eszter underwent; glum and despairing of any certainty in a relative world, he cast himself adrift from the warm companionship of the town to gloomily contemplate the meaninglessness of art. Valuska's presence is the only flickering candle that lights Mr. Eszter's existence, and it's utterly tragic that 

The book ends in an utterly fascinating way. Mrs. Eszter, triumphant, presides over a funeral and reads a speech. From here, the narrator abruptly departs from the story he's been telling for the previous 300+ pages and starts talking about a body. (I suspect that it's the body of Mrs. Plauf in the coffin, but there's absolutely nothing in the text that segues from the funeral to this section.) He gives a vivid, clinical, scientific description of the body succumbing to death. This included some of the most chilling passages of the entire book, including the phrase at the end of this sentence, that instantly reverberated within my mind:

"As a result of the endeavours of the enslaved enzymatic units the glycogen in the liver decomposed into its simple elements and this was followed by the autolysis of the pancreas, the term autolysis throwing a pitiless light on the truth it hides, which is that from the moment of birth every living organism carries within it the seeds of its own destruction."

Goosebumps! I felt like I recognized it; I may have picked up on it from the original New Yorker review. There's also powerful stuff like this:

"So, through various delicate channels, a superior organism welcomed them, dividing them neatly between organic and inorganic forms of being, and when, after a long and stiff resistance, the remaining tissue, cartilage, and finally the bone gave up the hopeless struggle, nothing remained and yet not one atom has been lost."

There isn't a single word in these last few breathless pages about the town, about the circus, about Mr. or Mrs. Eszter or Valuska or the Harrers or anything outside the body. The narrative slams you into a close-up focus and holds your gaze on the decaying, disintegrating, doomed flesh. It isn't as macabre as it sounds, but it's still shocking and a heck of a way to end this tale.


This book was originally published in 1989, and I can't help but think of the historical moment while reading it. Hungary, along with the rest of Eastern Europe, was emerging from the shadow of the USSR; it was a chaotic time, but in retrospect far less bloody than people had thought. I have no idea if the story is meant to be at all allegorical, and if so, what its target is. Is it trying to shine a light on the internal rot of the Soviet state, showing how everyone had given up trying and surrendered to apathetically enduring? Or, more worryingly, was it a comment on the revolutions of its day, arguing that changing leadership could not improve a poor situation, that revolution could only destroy and not create? It's perfectly possible that Laszlo didn't write this as a political book, but it's hard to believe that he wasn't influenced by the violence occurring in his country.

I think The Melancholy of Resistance is a great book, but also one that I'll have a tough time recommending. It's a downer of a story, and the prose is deliberately challenging. Still, those who can persevere through the technical and emotional challenges will be rewarded by the complex and deeply felt story.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Say You Want a Revolution

(How predictable am I? I nearly titled this post "Your Revolution Is A Silly Idea Yeah," but fortunately I checked and saw that I already used that for a post on Civ Revolutions back in 2010. You're welcome!)

Massive and belated thanks to Andrew for giving me the latest Deus Ex game, Human Revolution, for Christmas last year! Deus Ex has an outsized hold on my imagination given the surprisingly little time I've spent actually playing the franchise. I was entranced with the description of the first game long before it came out, but due to my computer situation at the time (early in my sojourn as a fanatical Linux-only user), I wouldn't get to play the first installment until its graphics had grown dated. I'd heard enough bad things about its sequel, Invisible War, that I never even picked it up. Human Revolution had gotten good buzz, though, and I was excited to return to that world and check things out.

People who've known me for a while know that I'm fascinated by, and perhaps even obsessed with, conspiracy theories. I don't BELIEVE in them, mind you, but I have a great deal of fun reading about them, mapping them out, and thinking through the hypothetical scenarios they present. I'm even a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to conspiracy theories. I've never been that enamored of the X-Files-style theories, which rely on government coverups and superior alien intelligences; that feels a bit like cheating. I am, however, utterly entranced with Illuminati-style conspiracies, in the mode of Robert Anton Wilson, which posit shadowy, secretive (and fully human) societies that have existing behind the scenes for centuries or millennia, subtly guiding the course of large, public events in order to serve their own nefarious ends. A good conspiracy theory should seek to link together as many visible events as possible, while remaining infuriatingly vague about who is pulling the strings from the center.

So, from the first time that I learned that Deus Ex was a game about secret conspiracies, and I heard whispers that the Illuminati might be involved, I knew I had to try it out. The original Deus Ex was kind of a cyberpunk game, set in a dystopic (but not post-apocalyptic) future with a heavy police state, pervasive surveillance and networking. I honestly don't remember that much about the plot, but do remember the joy of poking around in this world, which I could pretend was my own future world.

Human Revolution feels pretty different, but honestly a lot of those changes might be from me; it's been many years since I played the original, and I'm playing this version on the PS3 instead of the PC. I think the focus of the game is different as well, though... I recall the original Deus Ex as being more focused on the information side of things, while Human Revolution seems more interested in biology and biomedicine, as is appropriate for its title.

More on the plot eventually, but first, the gameplay:

Human Revolution is a first-person game, but it's very rarely a shooter; you do much better by sneaking around and avoiding combat than you do by charging in with guns blazing. In this respect it's a lot like the Metal Gear games, although HR gives even more choices for how to accomplish your goal. Say you need to get to the other side of a large room that's being patrolled by enemies. You could try to shoot them all; this would likely lead to disaster, though, especially since the survivors will probably raise the alarm and summon even more guards. You could try to sneak through the environment by hiding behind obstacles and carefully moving when their backs are turned. You could find a concealed air vent and work your way through the ventilation system. You could try to lure away guards by tossing around some cardboard boxes, then knocking them out cold once they're removed from the room. You could look for a terminal to hack, which might allow you to activate some robots or turrets that you can turn against the enemies. You could look for a weak section of the wall to smash through in order to bypass the main room. And on and on; I love that breadth of freedom in the game.

Of course, you don't always get all those choices. You almost always have at least two different solutions to any given problem; the major exception is in boss battles, where the only possible outcome is to shoot them enough times until they die. That's a little annoying, and actually kind of an inversion of how many other games operate: often, fighting the minions is a dull and repetitive process, while fighting the boss takes creative thinking and strategy; in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the opposite is true.

I mostly love the leveling system. You don't directly gain levels, but you get XP by accomplishing certain tasks, and larger amounts for finishing quests. The amounts you get in rewards all feel pretty appropriate; maybe 10XP for killing an enemy, 50XP for silently knocking them out, 75XP for hacking into a moderately secure computer, 100XP for finding a secret passage, 250XP for making significant progress in an optional side-quest. 5,000 XP grants you a "Praxis point". Generally, a Praxis point lets you unlock a new ability, although some powerful abilities require two points. Praxis allows you to upgrade virtually every conceivable aspect of your body and mind: you could invest in becoming a better hacker, or gain the ability to jump higher, or better handle recoil from your gun, or gain the ability to see through walls or breathe poisonous gas.

Early on, it's very tough to figure out where to allocate Praxis points. You want to put a lot into your hacking abilities so you can take on the more advanced computers and keypads that you run across; however, there are a few other skills that are also very essential, like the ability to lift heavy objects. I tended to agonize over these choices early on, and would put off actually spending the point until I reached an area where I would actually use the new ability. By about 1/3 of the way through the game, I'd finally acquired everything that I felt like I "had" to have. From then on, it was more fun to just spend Praxis points on things that seemed like they would make my life easier. (Oh: you can also gain Praxis points by buying them, or picking up Praxis kits in the environment, but those are both very rare options, so by far most of the points I got game from playing the game and getting XP.)

I really love the way that Praxis are explained within the game, too. The basic idea is that your hardware has been upgraded, with much of your physical body replaced by machinery; however, your mind hasn't yet gotten accustomed to controlling everything yet. So, many latent capabilities of your new body are "switched off" and waiting for instructions to activate. As you run your body through its paces and get to know it more, more of its features get turned on. Anyways, it's nice to see the developer put thought into this process, instead of just mindlessly following the vague "leveling up" idea that always gets used by default in RPGs.

Although Praxis points are useful, I found currency much less so. You can find some currently in the world in the form of credit chips, and you can earn a little more by selling weapons, ammo, and equipment that you no longer need. After the first major part of the game, though, I no longer had much use for money. You can buy Praxis kits, which are nice, but you'll only be able to spend about 10k credits per city that way. Stores sell other stuff like weapons, grenades, food, first aid, etc., but you can find plenty of those things in the environment and don't need to buy it from stores. So credits end up just being sort of a score card; I guess I did use credits to help complete one or two missions, but it didn't feel like a trade-off to use them, since I knew I wouldn't need them for anything else.

Inventory management is... okay. You start out with basically enough space to carry a single large weapon (like a tranquilizer rifle) and some ammo, but not much else. You can use Praxis to upgrade your inventory, and can eventually get enough space to hold a couple of things at a time - at the end of the game I was sporting a pistol, revolver, energy gun, and sniper rifle - but it's still limited, so you'll need to decide what to take and what to drop. Ammo also takes up inventory space, so it's entirely possible that you might find yourself with a huge sniper rifle in your pack but no bullets to shoot from it. And there are also grenades, and mines, and consumables that replenish your health and energy. Honestly, for me I mostly just grabbed everything so I could sell it later, and mostly just held on to a fairly small permanent kit of a pistol, 10MM bullets, painkillers, and energy bars, then sold everything else whenever I could... but, as noted above, I really didn't have any use for the credits I got from selling stuff, so it ended up feeling like an overly elaborate masochistic strategy.

Speaking of masochism! Or addiction, either way: the game is really good at encouraging my usually-easily-repressed OCD behaviors. There are a couple of things you can do that will always net you small, discrete rewards: taking down a guard properly grants 50XP, and hacking a computer will grant some XP and probably some emails to read. So, I would semi-obsessively try and take down every guard I came across, and fully-obsessively crack every computer or keypad or door I ever found. Fortunately, these are fairly fun activities. Taking out guards requires patience and skill. You need to make sure they're far away from witnesses, that no cameras are watching you, that their backs are turned, and that you can get close to them before they turn around. Then there's usually a nice little adrenaline rush after the fact, as you immediately (but slowly and quietly) drag their bodies away so they aren't noticed by security.

Hacking requires its own paragraph. Shadowrun is very fresh in my mind, and I'll probably get more into the similarities between Deus Ex and Shadowrun down below in spoilertown, but this is a good place to call out that Shadowrun (Genesis) and Human Revolution probably have the two "best" hacking mini-games I've ever played. They're very different. Shadowrun's is more in-depth, and involves acquiring a variety of programs ahead of time, building a deck of hardware and software; and, once in the matrix, engaging in lengthy battles against ICE. Human Revolution is simpler and faster; the races against the security nodes don't feel as epic as the battles against CPU ICE, but honestly, I think the Human Revolution depiction may be a better representation of what it's actually like to hack a system. After all, there's no such thing as ICE. In the real world, what opposes a hacker? Prior protection of a computer (locking down ports, keeping up-to-date with patches, etc., which could be represented by its Rating); automated defenses (simple programs that detect DDOS attacks, find when a single IP has 1000 consecutive unsuccessful login attempts, or sound an alarm when a system is accessed at an unusual time of day); and human operators, who can figure out that a system has been penetrated and then use the tools at their disposal to kick off the attacker and lock down the system. Both Shadowrun and Deus Ex give a really good picture of what it's like to break into a system: early on you might be very passive, just looking at the endpoints and gently probing what's there; eventually, you need to make your move, and from then on you're running against the clock, hoping to finish compromising the system (essentially, installing a rootkit) before anyone figures out what you're up to. So you take weaker points first (logging into a guest account, or finding an abandoned user account on a fileserver), then from those points try to trade up into better-protected and more important parts of the system. There's no real way to represent that in a video game, but I feel like these two have made the best attempts. (Infinitely better than a minigame with pipes and water!)

Incidentally, if you ever want to read a thrilling book about tracking down a hacker, check out The Cuckoo's Egg. And, for a more literal and surprisingly satisfying PC game about the early days of networks, don't forget about Digital: A Love Story.

Back to Deus Ex! The game is an interesting blend of linear and non-linear gameplay. The game as a whole is pretty linear: the plot moves in a predetermined sequence from event to event, most of the areas you visit you can only visit once, and you typically move from Point A to Point B throughout each area. However, there are some very long stretches of the game where you're more or less on your own, in a city environment, and here you can walk around at your own pace, pick up side-quests, and explore to your heart's content. Even within the linear areas, as previously noted, you usually have many choices as to HOW you can move from point A to point B, so the game rarely feels restrictive. On the whole, I like it fine... my general preference is for less linear, more open-ended gameplay, but there's certainly a place for more tightly plotted games like this.

On the Action/RPG spectrum, I think it errs a tad more on the action side. The RPG elements of money, XP, and inventory management are all embraced; but these parts really aren't very important to the game as a whole. The story is well-done, but a bit limited, at least in comparison with the Bioware titles that are my gold standard for RPGs: you have a very narrow range of reactions available to you, not even the false good/evil choices from games like Fallout and Bioshock. Still, the way the game can indulge your desire for alternate solutions does feel very RPG-ish, so I'll give them credit for that.

Some complaints before I get into the story:

The graphics look really nice, but the human animations were incredibly distracting and off-putting. I think I'd been spoiled by the months I'd spent playing SW:TOR. In that game, which had decently realistic-looking people, a lot of the game was spent talking with a huge variety of people. Over time, you would gradually come to recognize some of the animations that got recycled and reused across multiple people: characters crossing their arms, cocking their head to one side, resting a hand on their hips. Still, those gestures individually looked good, and lent a lot to my enjoyment of that game. In contrast, Deus Ex has a far smaller number of characters, and their animations look wholly unnatural. In any scene where two people are talking to each other, there's this weird... twitchiness to their movements, as each one constantly gives little jerks and spasms. It's like their marionettes operated by an apprentice puppeteer.

The voiceover work is far better, though still not perfect. I was initially bummed when I arrived in China, because the first few characters you speak with do not sound like any Chinese people I have ever met. Later on, though, most of the extras you meet do have believable accents, so I guess those early ones were mostly flukes. My biggest complaint is with the protagonist, Adam Jensen himself. Adam is COMPLETELY modeled off of Neo from the Matrix trilogy: same sunglasses, same black leather clothing, etc. Which is fine and all - The Matrix has defined cyberpunk for the 21st century, and I can't blame the developers for playing along with it - but I don't understand why anyone would voluntarily choose to emulate Keanu Reeves' performance. Adam rarely emotes, preferring to communicate in a low-frequency hoarse series of questions. It felt entirely too cliche, and not even a particularly entertaining cliche.

Finally, bugs! Or, rather, bug. For the most part, the game feels tight and well-made, and it doesn't suffer from the clipping problems and quest drops that plague some other games. However, there's a horribly nasty bug that occurs fairly early in the game: you're directed to dispose of the six bad guys in an apartment complex, and can take out five of them, but the sixth... is apparently floating above a water tower several hundred meters away. It's impossible to reach him, and impossible to complete the quest. This has been a known bug since the game first came out late last year, and it's disgusting that Eidos still hasn't fixed it. (I took the unusual step of writing in to the company reporting the bug, just on the off chance that they hadn't seen the dozens of threads with hundreds of posts complaining about it, only to be insulted by a smarmy representative from the company. Smooth move, Eidos. You won't be seeing purchases from me any time soon.)

All right, let's move gently into the plot, starting with some


To me, the mark of a great RPG is that it's as much fun to learn about the world as it is to complete the quests. Deus Ex totally succeeds in that. The game is set in.... hmm, I think something like 2027, a ways into our future but still close enough to be recognizable. One of the many things I admire about the game is that it isn't afraid to make you read: yeah, all the important plot points happen through high-res motion-captured cut-scenes, but a TON of content is buried inside email messages, e-books, etc. For my money, that's some of the best stuff of the game: the details of the world you're living in, and how we got there from here. Also, while the main game is almost entirely focused on the augmentation "controversy" (I do really enjoy Yahtzee's take on this), the secondary information sets up a whole bunch of other stuff as well: the rise of corporations, the decline of the United States in the face of an ascendant China, the outbreak of pandemics in Asia-Pacific countries, Iran's creation of a pan-Arab league that neutralizes Israel's nuclear capabilities at the start of the Six Month War, etc. Most of this doesn't matter to the plot at all, and that makes me love it even more.

Of course, a lot of the information you find along the way DOES directly relate to yourself, either by commenting on the current action, providing background for your character's situation, or (occasionally) providing clues about future developments. Again, all this stuff can be skipped if you don't feel like hacking and reading, but I enjoyed it all a lot. One particularly interesting experience comes of your time infiltrating the Picus news organization's headquarters. Early on, when you're sneaking through the secretarial pool and customer-relations offices, the correspondence you discovery is pretty rote, describing Picus's overall strategies with a thick layer of corporate-ese. As you penetrate deeper into the building, you start reading the emails from reporters, and start seeing evidence that Picus is deliberately manipulating news coverage in order to sway public opinion in a desired direction. Towards the end, you find email from Picus executives that bluntly lays out their goals and tactics in a pretty chilling way. I think this stuff would be very controversial if it was part of the main story's plot and explained in cut-scenes; for example, they're currently agitating for a war in Australia against the separatists, and the Picus leaders warn that they'll need to be careful in the evidence they produce, lest they create a public-relations disaster "like the second Iraq war." Yep: the game is invoking Judith Miller and the whole New York Times fiasco, and also positing that this sort of thing hasn't stopped: people can and will still use the news media to disseminate misleading "facts" that can sway public opinion in a rush to war. (The game doesn't exactly come down on one side of today's political spectrum; after all, the whole idea that "the media" are a vast conspiracy - in this case, they're directly controlled by the Illuminati - is a standard right-wing trope.)

In at least one case, I was chagrined to realize that, by failing to heed information, I made a poor game decision. Late in the game, your cybernetics start misbehaving: you'll lose your HUD for a few seconds and your vision will blur. Pritchard informs you of a problem that's been reported with your chip, and suggests that you go to a LIMB clinic to install the patch. I did so - after all, it showed up as a secondary objective in my mission log, and I ALWAYS do secondary objectives! - but that proved to be a mistake. I'd JUST finished reading a ton of emails from the Tai Yong Medical R&D lab in which scientists complained about poor quality control, and the way the company was rushing out a bunch of chips with no prior review that could cause serious problems. I was all, "Put that metal in my skull!" This had serious repercussions down the line, when my enemies totally shut down my cybernetics during a boss battle, which proved to be the toughest of the game for me: my vision was awful, I was missing all my HUD markers (including even my health information and radar), and I couldn't use the Typhoon. Sigh, poor me.

One of my few complaints about this wealth of information is how poorly integrated these discoveries are into the main plotline. There were so many times throughout the game where I would figure out what was going on by reading the emails and doing side-quests; then I would reach a cut scene and have to watch Adam looking like an idiot, claiming ignorance about whatever was happening. I'm guessing this is just because they didn't want the expense of creating multiple versions of cut scenes, one of which just has Adam going "Yeah, yeah, I know," and the other with him going, "What? Explain yourself!"


The messages you read, and a few side-quests, also fill in background on yourself. For my own edification, here's my understanding of the entire game's plot:

The Illuminati, working through a front corporation, wants to create a more advanced/evolved group of humans who can help do their bidding. They do this in a very scientific and very inhumane matter: by creating a ton of babies, in the hopes of making a genetic mutation that will make a human who's more adaptable to cybernetic enhancements. A specific man and woman are making these babies; I suspect that they had promising genes to start with. Of course, the vast majority of babies are "failures"; we never learn what happen to them, but most likely they were disposed of.

Finally, you, Adam, are born, and you have the mutation they were hoping for. However, the mom and dad are horrified by everything that's been happening, so they start a fire that burns down the facility, including all your records; they put you in the care of an employee, but they themselves die in the blaze.

Your savior puts you up for adoption by the Jensens; Mr. Jensen was formerly involved in covert ops, and so his record has been wiped blank, thus making him and you virtually impossible to trace. You grow up fairly normally, and join the Detroit police department. You excel in the department, eventually making the SWAT team; but you have enemies in the department, so they drum you out following a failed rescue mission.

Your girlfriend, Megan Reed, is a scientist for Sarif Industries, a biotechnology firm that's one of the pioneers in human enhancement technology. David Sarif has located the company in Detroit, and his company has almost single-handedly saved Detroit from complete poverty: his high-paying jobs and economic expenditures have given Detroit a lifeline from its decrepit post-industrial morass. (This leads to a fairly uneasy relationship, where each party feels unappreciated by the other: Detroit resents the way that Sarif acts like he owns the city, and Sarif doesn't think Detroit appreciates all that he's done for the city.) Megan's research focus is overcoming the body's biological rejection of mechanical implants. Typically after cyberware is installed, it will be fine for a short period of time, but the body will treat the implant as invasive, and try to isolate and eject it. The best solution that had been found so far was a chemical called Neuropozyne which can shut down the body's defense systems and leave the implants alone; however, there are side effects to the drug, and people can become addicted to it since they need to take it their entire post-of lives.

More or less by accident, Megan discovers that your own DNA is missing the elements that cause most people to reject cybernetics. You appear to be the perfect cyber recipient, and should be able to stand any level of implants without ever suffering side effects. She and Sarif start a line of research based on your DNA, while you remain in the dark, continuing your role as the chief security officer.

Sarif, as one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the world, is aware of the Illuminati, although he isn't one of its members; he discovers during a background check of your pre-natal connection to them, and tries to hide you from them. However, the Illuminati is already concerned about the direction that Sarif is taking: a planet full of cyber-enhanced supermen would be harder to control. So, shortly before Megan heads to Washington, D.C. to report on her research to Congress, the Illuminati sends a team of mercenaries into Sarif Industries. They destroy all of the labs, appear to kill all of the scientists involved in Megan's research, and leave you for dead.

You haven't experienced brain-death, though, so Sarif is able to rush you to a LIMB clinic and save your body by replacing it. Virtually every bit of flesh you have is removed and replaced with cybernetic hardware. Even your brain is upgraded with several neural chips that increase your vision, allow direct interfacing with computer networks, etc. You emerge after several months to help Sarif Industries fight back from its weakened position. Anti-augmentation sentiment has been steadily rising, and the UN is now on the verge of outlawing further research into cybernetics; various gangs and paramilitary groups are taking the fight against corporations like Sarif into their own hands.

You gradually investigate and piece together who was behind the attack on Sarif; early evidence points towards FEMA, but that's just a convenient cover. One of the mercenaries who had attacked you reveals that they were taking orders from Hengsha, China. This eventually leads you to the offices of Tai Yong Medical, one of Sarif's biggest rivals: they aren't as pioneering as Sarif, but are  the largest enhancement company in the world, and have been expanding at a breathtaking pace by acquiring smaller companies, often under suspicious circumstances.

You meet Zhao Yun Ru, the chairwoman and president of Tai Yong. In an unfortunate Dragon Lady cinematic, she attempts to seduce you, claiming that she's as much a pawn of the Illuminati as you are; and then makes her mistake, sic-ing her guards on you. You've learned enough here to grow suspicious of David Sarif, and are increasingly convinced that the Picus news corporation is somehow involved in all this, so you ignore David's request to return home to Detroit and instead make a detour to Picus.

In the least surprising plot twist of the entire game, you learn that Eliza Cassan, the spokeswoman and anchor for Picus TV, is actually an AI. C'mon, Eidos, seriously! When you name a character "Eliza," everyone will automatically ASSUME that she's an AI. Anyways... Eliza was created by the Illuminati, but she seems to have some autonomy, and is willing to help you on your quest and provide you with some answers. From her you get most of the story about what's really going on. You learn that Megan is still alive; William Taggart's aide, a doctor, was in league with the mercenaries, and operated on them to remove their "GPL" (I assume this is geo-positioning locator, sort of a homing beacon, and not Richard Stallman's software) devices, making them drop off the map and look dead.

Back in Detroit, Picus's careful manipulation of public opinion has caused riots to break out; Sarif is on lock-down, and the police have largely taken over the streets. William Taggart, an anti-augmentation activist (and a Mormon!) is speaking at the convention center. You go to see him and persuade him to turn over his aide's location; from his aide, you learn that the surgery had failed, but the scientists' positions are being obscured by a jamming signal. He doesn't know where they are now, but they were sent to Hengsha  after he operated. Back on the plane you go!

You're ambushed when you arrive in Hengsha; the situation is notoriously corrupt there, with the Belltower Associates (a not-too-thinly-veiled version of Blackwater Associates) responsible for security; Belltower is, of course, controlled by the Illuminati, and has impunity from the Chinese government, so they take the opportunity of your approach to shoot down your helicopter. This led into the toughest sequence of the game for me: I was trying to defend the burning helicopter against a dozen enemies, trying to defeat them all before it exploded, WITHOUT killing any of them. (That last part isn't required by the game, but I was trying to go through the game without any kills.) It probably took me close to twenty tries to do this; I hadn't brought along a tranquilizer rifle or PEPS, so I had to sprint around the battlefield while cloaked, taking down soldiers from stealth and using EMP mines on a big scary robot. Eventually she got clear and flew away.

After cutting a deal with a shadowy underworld figure, I was able to smuggle myself on board a Belltower ship, which brought me to a facility in Singapore. I located the missing Sarif scientists, most of whom were still alive, and convinced them to help me find and rescue Megan. Right before reaching Megan, I had that nasty fight I described above where my augmentations were disabled; I eventually beat it by tossing down every single fragmentation mine I was carrying into one huge Pile o' Death, then was able to finish him off by emptying all my 10mm clips into the boss and most of my Pistol as well. It really made me miss the Typhoon. It's kind of funny... since I was trying to be as pacifist as possible, and used takedowns almost exclusively, I almost never bothered to pay much attention to my armament; but, since the game forces you to kill the bosses, I did need to bring enough firepower to take care of them. Once I was able to get my Typhoon augmentations, I mostly stopped needing to worry about the bosses, but it failed me in this case.

I was finally reunited with Megan. Things were... tense. The other Sarif researchers were clearly working under duress, but she seemed to be more privileged than they. Also, I couldn't help but notice that she seemed to be sharing a room with Hugh Darrow, the father of cybernetic technology. She claimed that she had known nothing of the plot and was a victim; I believed her, mostly. We tuned into Picus to watch a live broadcast from Panchaea, Darrow's immense aquatic installation that aims to be both a research facility and a solution to global warming. Darrow had gathered together all the major players in the cybernetic controversy: manufacturers like Sarif, opponents like Taggart, and representatives from the United Nations, who were hoping to come to some equitable agreement. Darrow, who had created this tech in the first place but has grown more leery of it in recent years, apologized for what he was about to do, and then flipped a switch. Immediately, all neurally enhanced people on Panchaea went insane, attacking everyone on sight and causing gory, violent carnage. Darrow, as a rogue Illuminatus, had hijacked the kill-switch that Yai Tong had disseminated, and repurposed it to drive individuals mad. Clearly, this would set back the upcoming vote.

Megan collected the other scientists while I prepared their exit. Faridah arrived and flew them out, and I hopped into Darrow's private shuttle and headed for Panchaea. This environment was extremely spooky: it's enormous, but you see almost nobody for your first several minutes on board: everything is deserted, with just some fires and signs of destruction around. I eventually made my way up to a tower where Hugh had barricaded himself inside. This led to a climactic confrontation, which fortunately was one of the "social battles" that the game tends to do so well. (I don't think I've praised these before, so I'll do so now: I absolutely love any game that lets you solve problems through dialog, and I really appreciate that so many parts of this game give you the option to overcome an obstacle or at least lower its difficulty by talking. The "social analyzer" enhancement was also really cool; it didn't let you automatically win these "battles," but did give generally useful assistance. After experiencing this, I don't think I'll be able to go back to a stupid conversation mini-game like those in Elder Scrolls.) This one felt a little cheesy, since you eventually break him down with some hackneyed Psychology 101 analysis; still, the voice-acting in this encounter was some of the best of the game, and felt appropriately dramatic.

Darrow gives you the codes that will let you into the bottom of Panchaea, which is broadcasting the insanity signal; he warns you, though, that lowering the defenses will release the hordes of slavering monsters that he has created. And man, they are creepy indeed. Individually, they're far from the most dangerous opponents you've faced; most of them are borderline catatonic, staring at the walls in front of them and muttering gibberish to themselves, while a few stride around like Torgo and angrily challenge the empty air in front of them. However, they are in massive packs, and if you're trying to be stealthy like me, they're way more challenging than usual to avoid; I made good use of my invisibility augmentation, and this was the only point in the game where I also used my silence augmentation.

There are just a few non-crazy people down below. One is a helpful LIMB clinic attendee, just in case you felt like spending any of the useless credits you've been acquiring. (She won't buy any of your equipment, though, so don't bother picking up any gear after your second visit to Hengsha unless you plan on actually using it.) You also hear some broadcasts from Taggart and Sarif, who have barricaded themselves in different parts of the station. Each of them makes you an offer when you free them. Taggart directly admits to being part of the Illuminati; he is impressed by all you have done, and offers to recruit you to their cause. The Illuminati doesn't want to ban augmentation, he says; they just want to guide it, acting as benevolent masters for a race that is incapable of ruling itself. Sarif also admits to his own role in deceiving you and building a product line on your DNA. However, he points out that he wants to help all of humanity gain the same advantages that you were born with. He makes a really evocative invocation of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods: mankind will now be able to chart its own course, free of the Illuminati, by empowering every individual within the race. In order to do this, he encourages you to lie to the media and tell everyone that Taggart's group released a drug that made people crazy; this will turn public opinion back against them, and allow R&D to continue.

Neither forces you to make a decision. You work your way down to the core of Panchaea; you are about to disable the signal when you encounter Zhao. Both of you want to turn it off, which for some reason turns to a boss battle; she says, "Neither of us will trust the other," which seems strange to me; maybe she's worried that you'll modify the broadcast to target her, or something. Anyways. This leads into the final boss battle: Zhao attempts to fuse with the Hyron Project, which you'll never have heard about if you haven't been hacking and reading the emails. Augmentation technology is about putting computer parts into a human body; Hyron is about networking together computer and human minds. Zhao hopes to gain control of Hyron, which will let her direct all of the station's controls and defenses; however, it's too strong for her, and she becomes another slave component to it. This leads to a big and, frankly, pretty confusing final fight. I beat it on the first try, but still don't totally understand all the mechanics behind it.

At last, you reach the station's control room. Eliza manifests here and helpfully breaks down your choices. You can honor Darrow's wishes: come clean about everything that has happened, and implore the world to ban augmentation research. You can ally with Taggart: leave out any mention of the Illuminati, and steer the planet towards limiting and controlling research. You can adopt Sarif's plot: frame Taggart's Humanity Front for the disaster so augmentation continues unchecked. Or, Eliza notes, you can pick a more nihilistic answer: self-destruct the station, killing everyone on board and yourself, removing yourselves from the equation and letting mankind choose their own path.

I was a little unhappy with the choices. I really, really wanted to join the Illuminati - after all, that's kind of been a lifelong dream of mine. However, I didn't like that this required me to slow down the future. I'd have much preferred an outcome where I join the Illuminati, they take over Sarif Industries and Yai Tong, and create chips for everyone that conform to the Illuminati's designs. Now THAT'S a dystopic future!

Eventually, I picked both the Taggart and the Sarif solutions. The ending videos are pretty cool, with some surprisingly contemporary footage mixed in - it was a bit surprising to see foreclosure signs while Adam reflects on the dangers of lack of control. The ending seems to also be somewhat customized based on your playstyle, as both versions seemed to acknowledge that I had followed a peaceful path through the game. (I didn't get the "Pacifist" trophy, however... I'm not sure why, but I suspect that I may have killed some of the enemies in the game's prologue, prior to getting my enhancements that allowed me to perform takedowns.)


Great game! It's nicely philosophical, and if you're looking for story, it has it in spades: a nice, pretty highly evolved revenge/mystery plotline drives most of the action, but a far richer and more subtle and sprawling tale of speculative fiction that's revealed through the wealth of in-game text. The game is a little limited on a few technical fronts - character animation is a little jarring, and a lack of QA leads to painful bugging - but given the whole ambitious sweep of the game, I'll gladly take it.

I wasn't thinking of Shadowrun at all when I first got the game, and it's really interesting to play this in such close proximity to that earlier game. Both are cyberpunk games, and you can really see how the genre has evolved in the last twenty years: much more The Matrix than Blade Runner, more sleek and less grimy, more leather jackets and sunglasses, fewer mohawks and nose rings. Most interestingly, though, both seem to be dealing with roughly the same level of technology, at about the same point in the future. Playing these games back-to-back makes me think that we really are approaching the Singularity, and wonder what it'll feel like once we reach it.

Friday, June 01, 2012


So! Warren Ellis! Pretty talented guy! I finally got around to reading his "Planetary," a series he wrote for Wildstorm that only lasted for 27 issues but spread those issues out over a very long time, running for more than a decade before finally wrapping up in 2009. It's very good, and very different from what I'd expected. Transmetropolitan and Crooked Little Vein were both gleefully profane works of fiction, constantly shocking and provoking the reader in their bizarre and offensive content. Planetary is very different. On its surface, it looks like a typical superhero comic: there's a team, with pretty cool equipment, that consists of people with supernatural powers. However, there's a lot more going on under the hood, and even without getting into the subtext of the story, the rhythms are very different from a typical superhero comic, or even other "alternative" comics: the characters' motivations are oriented more towards discovery, not fighting evil, and the past is much more interesting than the future.

The art is extremely well-done. It's... not exactly realistic, I guess, but not impressionistic either. I loved the character designs, particularly Jakita. The environments tend to be very sweeping and majestic and often awe-inspiring, whether they're in a desert, in a city, or some highly advanced technology. (It was hard not to think of The City when reading Planetary, just because they're so different. The City was pure filth that had calcified into buildings and sidewalks; cities in Planetary tend to be more attractive, partway between practical and impressive.) The coloring is bright and attractive without being too, um, cartoony.


There are a lot of plot twists throughout the story. Most significantly, Elijah Snow, who initially is presented as a new recruit to the Planetary organization, is eventually revealed to have had a prior history with that group. I want to re-read this sometime to see if and how that was foreshadowed... I'd like to think that Ellis had planned that switch all along, but I didn't really see it coming. I'm just a little bummed by the mechanics of that development, since it feels like amnesia stories are too common, but this does have the added beneficial twist of a person's friends (and not their enemies) being in on the con.

The coolest thing about Planetary is what it is: an archaeological group. I love that their purpose is to make discoveries and share them with the world. That's such a cool idea (and not unknown to larger popular culture, given the fame of Indiana Jones), and after reading Planetary, I'm surprised that it isn't done more often. Of course, there are villains and fights, but it's refreshing that the story approaches them obliquely instead of smashing opposing forces head-on.

I have a confession to make: I'm very dumb. I think it was probably around issue 20 or so that I first thought, "Huh... you know, some of the people in The Four have some similarities to that other comic. You know, the Fantastic Four." Then I realized that, duh, The Four are very deliberately a riff on the Fantastic Four. And THEN I started realizing that a ton of stuff throughout the whole series is also inspired by other stuff - some comics, but also pulp novels ("Of COURSE that's Tarzan!") and movies ("Of COURSE that's Godzilla!") That also helped me re-interpret some of the earlier stuff in the book: we'd met Sherlock Holmes in flashback a while ago, and I'd thought that we were getting a glimpse at the fictional "real" Sherlock Holmes - that is, the real man behind the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. By the end of the series, though, I'd come to believe that we were actually seeing an alternate universe's version of Sherlock Holmes.

That's where the story gets very meta, and very good. Stuff finally started sliding into place to me, and stuff that had seemed like nonsensical technobabble turned into incredibly clever post-modern comics writing. When they're talking about living in a three-dimensional world that's contained within a stack of two-dimensional worlds... they're talking about being characters in a comic book. That's SO COOL! I love their treatment of fiction, and the idea of characters moving from one story to another story, being transformed along the way.


That very last issue was a doozy; I was surprised to see that it really was the end of the series, since in the first few pages it felt like something that would kick off an entirely new arc. I was VERY concerned that the time machine would open a portal to the evil Earth, and had a sinking feeling in my stomach when Drums starts tracing out the shape of the loop of light that would power the time machine; Jakita says something like, "I feel like I've seen that shape before..." and of course we have: it's the shape of the portal outside the evil Earth, and I can very easily imagine a version of the story where that space portal is the same as the one Drums is constructing now. Once it is turned on, if the "aliens" are EVER able to visit Earth, even millennia in the future, they'll be able to travel back in time to this moment and conquer the planet. Or - more unsettling - perhaps the "evil Earth" we saw before is THE Earth: it isn't so advanced because it has followed an alternate timeline; it's so advanced because future visitors have come back with their technology and made it so. There's a certain grim sense of inevitable annihilation to this scenario: in turning on the machine, Elijah could be enabling that other timeline in his own world, and creating a Hell on Earth.

Fortunately, I was wrong, and Ellis didn't screw over the universe in the very last pages of his closing issue.

Also: I loved the science of the time machine, which reminded me in a very good way of "Primer", which is hands-down the best time-travel story I've ever heard or seen. It feels like both of them are based on good science, very possibly the same science.


I have a hard time summing up or cataloging Planetary. It's much better and deeper than a superhero comic, but it also isn't trying to be a metaphor powerhouse like "Sandman," or as clearly idiosyncratic as "Bone." Its storytelling is a curiously pleasant blend of episodic and serial, not unlike what you might get from something like "X-Men," while simultaneously retaining an overall focus that keeps the story nicely contained, and not something that endlessly spills out. (Despite my curiosity at the last issue, the story does end rather nicely and definitely, and I don't feel dissatisfied that there won't be a sequel.) I have learned that there are a few one-shots, though, so I'll probably check those out and explore the world a little bit longer.