Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Here are a few random thoughts percolating in my brain-pan. Mild spoilers for each paragraph, provided after an introductory sentence stating the topic:

After much dedicating urging from my brother, I've finally started watching the British TV series Misfits. It's really good! It's darkly comic, with lots of fun sex and violence, set in a moderately grim modern London. There are multiple good hooks into the show, but one of the best is that all of the main characters are awful: they've broken the law (and not in the impressive sense of "I stole the crown jewels" or "I avenged my father", more like "I stole too much candy" or "I set fire to a house"), and are various degrees of stupid, greedy, dangerous, or just plain antisocial. The entire cast is really good, but the standout is Iwan Rheon, who plays... erm, an especially memorable character in season 3 of "Game of Thrones". After seeing this show, I can totally see why HBO would cast him in that role: he has the perfect eyes for the part. Those creepy, creepy eyes. Incredibly, though, he and the rest of the cast manage to be somewhat endearing, at the same time as they're being perfectly awful. Anyways! It's a standard British show, which makes me fall in love with it, and then sad that they don't believe in producing more than six episodes in a season. Now I need to decide whether to binge or savor the remaining episodes.

I'm all caught up on Doctor Who.  The two final specials were typical Doctor Who, in that they amused and frustrated me in equal measure. It was a lot of fun to see Tennant again, and I enjoyed the little cameos they gave prior Doctors. On the other hand, pretty much any time they go back in history it sets my teeth on edge, and the Queen Elizabeth storyline elicited a record number of groans from me. Honestly, I'm not really sure why they had that plot line at all: it felt like they weren't confident that a major storyline tying together all the doctors and determining the fate of Gallifrey was enough to keep people's interest? So they dropped in a sub-B-plot with badly-designed aliens and corny dialogue to prop it up? I dunno. The Christmas special was also pretty dumb: fun dumb, but the plot made less and less sense the more I thought about it. Which really is the lesson I need to learn: if I want to ever enjoy this show, I should really stop holding it to any sort of rigorous intellectual standard. But, Capaldi's introduction was excellent, and I'm already looking forward to the edge he might be able to bring to the character. Also, it was pretty fun to catch several direct addresses to the raving Who fanbase, such as a direct statement by Matt Smith calling himself the Twelfth Doctor, instantly resolving the long-running debate about whether the War Doctor counts in the chronology.

Heroes of Dragon Age has acquired a surprisingly resilient hold on my attention. Which, fortunately, is minor: it's the sort of thing I can pick up once or twice a day, make some progress, then put away. I still haven't paid any money for it, so it's way more grindy than I would have thought I could tolerate, but still enough progress to keep me going. I'm currently defending Minrathous against the Qunari during the first Qunari war. My go-to team is Black-oriented, with Grey Warden Carver and Duncan in the front line, Merrill and a Desire Demon in the rear, supported by an Inferno Golem. It's a pretty solid team, especially against the Quest maps (the Desire Demon has low health and so doesn't last very long in PVP). Merrill continues to be my MVP: she Hits All with a lot of power on a Medium speed, so she's effective in PVP at wiping out Desire Demons, Grey Warden Mages or Tevinter Mages before they get a chance to move. She also drains power, which helps a ton in all fights. I maxed out her crit chance a long time ago, and with her in the back row she's very deadly. For a long time I kept my Dark Revenant on the team, since he has very solid stats and made a good frontliner, but I eventually decided to swap him out for a top-tier Desire Demon: she doesn't help much in PVP, but she has a lot of utility in quest maps since she Hits All with a medium chance to stun. For any medium-difficulty challenge, I just need to replay it enough times to get lucky with landing the stuns, and then it becomes a cakewalk. Duncan replaces my Grey Warden Rogue; both are quick single hitters, Duncan doesn't gain power after hits, but he has stronger stats across the board and so can fill the front row spot vacated by my Revenant. Carver is another very solid addition: he has good stats, attacks rows, and even has a small chance to stun. Finally, I love my Inferno Golem, who is a ridiculous damage sponge. He's slow, so he doesn't hit often, and doesn't do a ton of damage, but he can absorb a huge number of hits, distracting enemies from my more vulnerable teammates.

I've slightly updated my strategy for this game. I no longer bother screening my PVP matches at all, and just accept the first fight I'm offered. I hardly fell in the rankings at all, and much more importantly, I'm earning more gold and experience. My previous strategy of only taking easy fights works well for any individual fight, but once you get "too high" in the rankings, these fights will earn a pittance, and your inevitable loss will shoot you way down. Since you tend to lose about 3-4 times as many trophies on a loss as your earn in a win, once you reach equilibrium you'll get about 3-4 wins per loss: and, since you're competing from a lower bracket, you'll earn a lot more for each win.

I have a ton of games that I want to play - I received Burial at Sea for Bioshock, have both of the Enhanced Editions of Baldur's Gate queued up, and am still less than halfway through the main campaign of NWN2 - so of course I immediately started another game of Fall from Heaven 2. It's just so much fun! I wanted to have a builder-oriented game after my more combat-oriented Amurites campaign, so I reluctantly postponed my long-promised try at an evil civ (still love the flavor for Calabim and Svartflar, just don't particularly like the warmongering gameplay they're optimized for), and instead went full elf: Arendel Phaedra of Ljosalfar, promulgating the Fellowship of Leaves faith.

It's been a really fun game so far. I started out isolated in a coastal valley, and so needed to change my plans slightly, building some coastal towns and acquiring sailing techs. Khazad was the first to acquire a religion (Runes of Kilmorph, natch), but I quickly followed up with Fellowship, and then followed my standard religiously diplomatic strategy and founded all five remaining religions. In most games, this makes it far easier to convert everyone else to your own faith, which does wonders for diplomatic relations and the kind of religious peace that's so conducive for builder games. In my particular case, it has been a mixed success so far. Arturus Thorne is angrily set in his Runes ways. He had somehow managed to convert Varn Gosam to the faith, despite the two of them never meeting, and Varn resisted my inroads for a while. Eventually, Empyrean automatically spread to the Malakim lands, and of course he instantly converted to that faith. Fortunately, as another Good member of the Overcouncil, Varn thinks we're BFFs. And then there's Cassiel, who is Agnostic and can't follow any religion (though I can still convert his cities). Ironically, the most stalwart adherents to the Fellowship are the Clan of Embers and the Calabim, who are also the only two civs to have declared war on me. (Sandalphon of the Sidar was long happy to pay lip service to the faith, but recently has converted to the Council of Essus, which does not bode well for our future relations.)

The most interesting part of the game so far has been its strong exploration focus. In most FfH2 games, there's a burst of exploration early on as you expand the map around your starting location, but by the end of the first century you've usually exhausted all of the tribal villages and such, and move into a phase of warring against barbarians and rivals. This game, though, has tons of nooks and crannies in its Erebus map, and as a result I am still finding new villages and dungeons well into the mid-late portion of the game. Along the same lines, this is the first game I can remember where I have put serious investments into the Recon line: I had a strong core of Hunters fairly early on, and currently have two highly-promoted Rangers exploring distant portions of the map. That's allowed me to use some really fun game mechanics, like scouting with hawks, and taming wild animals to build an army of beasts who accompany my lone elf in wars against distant barbarian cities.

I'm currently in a very strong position, with a significant tech lead over my rivals, a solid manufacturing and financial base (gotta love towns built on top of ancient forests!), four hero units, the Exalted Altar of Luonnotar, and significant soft power in the form of good relations with most civs. I was briefly nervous when Jonas and Alexis independently declared war on me within a few turns of one another, but the war ended up being a good thing. I built Baron Duin Halfmoon, then conquered practically all of Jonas's territory, along the way building up a furry tide of fury that devoured his armies and waxed ever stronger. I eventually researched feudalism and vassalized him, then liberated all of his cities. I think this is the first time I've ever taken a vassal in FfH2, so I'm a bit curious to see how it plays out. The war with Alexis was lower-key: I upgraded some galleys to privateers, then sunk her boats so she couldn't reach me. She refused to negotiate for a while, but eventually relented.

Now, I need to resolve the classic FfH2 dilemma of deciding how to end the game. I'm currently leaning towards a religious victory: I've already spread the Fellowship to over 60% of the planet, and if I can convince Arturus to open his borders, I'll have a good shot of getting to the 80% needed for victory. If that proves too difficult, though, I could also take another shot at finally getting an Altar of Luonnotar victory. I've almost totally neglected the arcane line, so it would take a very long time to research and build, though. Or, I could just shoot for a straight cultural victory. Evermore could very easily reach Legendary status - it's currently at a population of 50 or something ridiculous like that, has maxed out its specialists and hasn't even finished building The City of a Thousand Slums yet.  But, I'm not yet sure what my other two candidates would be, and I'm pretty sure that would be another time-consuming goal to reach.

On a very different video-game-related topic, I finally read an excellent article called "No girls allowed" that looks into the history behind the video game industry's awful attitudes towards female gamers. The general idea is that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy that started in the mid-1980s, when video game manufacturers began exclusively marketing to young boys, and continued (and became distressingly sexualized) as their target audience grew into adults. They point out that in the Atari era, games were marketed equally towards all family members, and women held prominent roles at Atari. It's a very well-researched and convincing article, though I have to quibble a little with their chronology. The article gives the impression that Lori Cole and Roberta Williams were part of a golden age of gender equality prior to the gaming crash of 1983, when in fact virtually all of their games came out well after. You can easily explain this away by virtue of the fact that history is complicated, and moves in currents that can't be easily summarized in a single article (even a long one). More specifically, while the article does a really good job at differentiating between arcade and console games, it doesn't delve into the PC/console dichotomy, which would make an interesting tangent for this topic: I personally feel like, FPSs notwithstanding, the PC has historically been far more welcoming to female gamers than consoles have. A more direct response to the Williams/Cole conundrum, though, is that there's no substitute for ownership of companies. If a woman is in charge of a company, and wants to make games with female protagonists, it's going to happen. If we want more inclusive games to be released in this millennium, one excellent start would be correcting the paucity of women in the boardrooms of major game publishers.

Finally, in literary news, I'm about 2/3 of the way done with The Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. I'm sure I'll do a writeup later, so for now I'll just say that it's the best novel I've read in 2013, and is kind of like a perfect companion to The Crying of Lot 49, one of my all-time favorite books.

Have a happy new year!

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