Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Homage to Catalonia

For various reasons, I've been thinking a lot over the last couple of years about Homage to Catalonia. It was the first book I read that presented anarchism as anything other than bloodthirsty nihilism, and made democratic socialism appear heroic and admirable. Since the 2016 election, modern groups like Antifa and the DSA have jolted those old memories back to the forefront of my mind, and I've gone on a bit of a retro kick: seeking out the amazing poster art from the Spanish Civil War, reading about the old revolutionary slogans and songs. I've finally belatedly returned to the book, for the first time in over twenty years, partly out of curiosity to see how true my memories are.

 
The answer is they are somewhat faithful, but not completely trustworthy. I remembered the book as primarily being about the struggle between anarchism, socialism, and Stalinist Communism; that does form the backdrop for many of the events, but for the most part there are only brief references throughout the narrative portion of the book. Orwell makes a point of how irrelevant the political disputes seemed to his experiences at the front, which make up most of the pages of the book. The final chapters in the book give a more focused treatment of the parties and their alliances and betrayals, but never really dives into the ideologies of each faction.

Looking back, I think that reading this book probably prompted me to go off and do additional research on the war and its combatants from other sources; this was in the dark ages before Google or Wikipedia, so I would have combed the card catalog to find another book or two in my high school library. If memory serves, this may have led into my senior-year self-study program on revolutions, which led to some cool research and papers on the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and (I think) the Spanish Civil War.

On a personal level, I used to be a rather bloodthirsty young jingo, cheering on America's first invasion of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Around this time I was converting into a pacifist, recoiling at our bombings of Serbs during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina; if I didn't already identify as a pacifist, this book probably nudged me further in that direction, as it gives a decidedly unglamorous look at war. Orwell writes more about trying to keep warm at night, foraging for firewood, battling public lice, or eating moldy bread than he does about actual combat. Most of his existence at the front is marked by boredom, toil, and frustration than by fear. When combat does occur, it is exciting but not heroic. He misses his shot, or his gun jams, or some other problem occurs. In later actions he probably kills people, or at least wounds them, but can't be sure: there's a rolled grenade in the dark and a bang and a cry of agony.

Overall, Orwell's attitude towards war seems to occupy a middle ground between Hemingway's grim-but-necessary view and Vonnegut or Heller's war-is-a-meaningless-absurdity takes. Orwell hates war and finds it ridiculous, but he nevertheless feels compelled to fight. He writes "When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist — after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct." It's tempting to view Orwell as an idealist, with his commitment to worldwide revolution and his personal sacrifices, but he's really endlessly making the best of the bad choices before him. I'm somewhat reminded of Bonhoeffer's tormented decision to commit the sin of murder, not believing that it could be justified or excused, but because his conscience demanded it.

You can see Orwell's thoughts on the importance of freedom versus authoritarianism crystallizing during his experiences and being formalized in this book, and they will be presented memorably in their final form in 1984. Homage to Catalonia is a bridge book between his earlier socialist books like Down and Out in Paris and London and his anti-Soviet Animal Farm and 1984. I think it's important to see him as a democratic socialist and not as a liberal: he's on the side of the (self-organized) workers, not the (authoritarian and democratic) police. As he writes, "I have no particular love for the idealized 'worker' as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on." It seems like Orwell's experience of Communist propaganda that distorted and lied about things he directly experienced was what pushed him over the edge into direct opposition to that party.

As a young man, and a libertarian, I embraced the 1984 version of Orwell. I believed that the worst things a government can do is suppress free speech and disseminate falsehood; the solution was to prevent censorship and get the government out of media. As an older lefty, I now see censorship as just a single aspect in a complex problem. The real problem is people not knowing the truth, whether they're consuming the propaganda of Alex Jones lying about Sandy Hook victims, or embracing the delusions of QAnon, and more speech has certainly not dissuaded the masses from massive delusions. I increasingly want to shut down propaganda, or make it harder to find, and get infuriated when corporations like YouTube and Facebook start algorithmically driving victims towards radical falsehoods.

Several years ago I started watching Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and YouTube's algorithm kept encouraging me to watch hateful misogynistic videos; the algorithm had been hijacked by alt-right provocateurs, but as YouTube is directly profiting off of video views it has an obligation to stop that manipulation. Years later, YouTube continues to funnel young men down a right-wing rabbit hole that leads from debate videos to white-supremacist propaganda. It's a different problem than what Orwell was writing about, as the world and media are more fragmented today, but individuals can do more damage: a single man with a machine gun can wound 800 people in Las Vegas, a single Twitter feed can destroy a reputation or incite a massacre. Orwell's views evolved over time based on what he saw in the world, from Burmese imperialism to London poverty to Soviet show trials, and I'm curious what he would make of the 21st century. Ultimately he always comes down on the side of the people, not as abstract units of political power but as breathing, passionate people who enjoy good food and tobacco and comradeship and sunsets. Honestly, I imagine that he'd feel more comfortable battling the techno-capitalist powers of 2019 than he was fighting intra-left disputes in 1938.

One particularly amusing, albeit potentially "problematic", aspect of this book is Orwell's constant stereotyping of Spaniards. He dryly notes how his life was saved many times thanks to the poor marksmanship of his enemies and his fellow-militiamen. He creates a national character and consistently applies it to all Spanish people in the book: they are unfailingly friendly, lazy, good cooks and enthusiastic eaters. This is a recurring tic of Orwell, who similarly presented the French in Down & Out as smelly and unsanitary, and the Germans as efficient, and the Italians as emotionally demonstrative. All of these stereotypes ultimately reinforce Orwell's own Englishness: despite his professed commitment to global solidarity, he fundamentally is, well, kind of a hobbit: fussy, proper, aghast at poor manners and hygiene, suspicious of other cultures but ultimately buoyed by inner determination and practicality.

The book as a whole kind of reminds me of Nick's disclaimer in The Great Gatsby that he is one of the few honest people he knows. Orwell is trying to be truthful, and openly admits his biases and limitations. He tries to be dispassionate in how he writes about his personal experiences and carefully separates this from the chapters that were built on his research and conversation with friends. All of this gives him a lot of credibility when he then looks at the official reporting and propaganda to come out of the war. We believe him, as he's shared ample criticisms of the POUM and isn't aggrandizing his own stature. I'm left with more admiration for him than ever before: at his courage and sacrifices, and at retaining an open heart and clear eyes, able to grow and change based on the evidence of what he saw.

There were lots of great quotes in this book, but here are a couple that I bothered to jot down. Page numbers from the 1955 Beacon Paperback.

"It was like an allegorical picture of war, the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one's heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all." - p. 192

"It seems to always be the case when I get mixed up in war or politics - I am conscious of nothing save physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over. Afterwards I can see the significance of events, but while they are happening I merely want to be out of them - an ignoble trait, perhaps." - p. 212

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mr. Thrones

And so it begins! That one TV show based on a fantasy series that I really liked has just started its eighth and final season, firmly leaving the books in its dust. My enthusiasm for Game Of Thrones has waned somewhat during its run, and I'm not quite as plugged into the fan community these days, but it remains one of my favorite shows and I'm eagerly looking forward to the remaining episodes.

One small little fan thing I did participate in was the /r/gameofthrones pool. The question this asks is "Who do you want to win the Iron Throne?" Notably, it did not ask who you think will win. There are a lot of names I like on there, but only one honest answer for me: Lyanna Mormont. As incredibly unlikely as it would be, it would be awesome to end the series with her in charge.



The question of who will win is a lot harder, and honestly I don't have great confidence in any particular theory. So here is my personal ranking of what I view as the most-likely to least-likely outcome of the show.

MINI SPOILERS
  1. Nobody. I'm more confident that the books will end this way, and there's a decent chance the series will as well. This might include the Throne itself being burnt by dragonfire, or blown up with wildfire, or everyone in the series dying or fleeing to Essos.
  2. Night King. Even if some of our heroes survive, I think there's a fair chance he will win. I don't know if the throne means anything in particular to the White Walkers, but it could be a trophy for them.
  3. Daenerys Targaryen. She's the only person on this list who actually wants the throne at this point besides Cersei. She isn't especially cutthroat, but her ambition and resources and nascent alliances could put her on top.
  4. Jon Snow. He seems a very likely compromise candidate in the same way Robert Baratheon was, with a claim to the throne and strong ties to important factions.
  5. Cersei Lannister.
  6. Tyrion Lannister. I have a hard time seeing him openly sit on the Throne, but (if you subscribe to certain book theories) he may have a strong claim, and he seems like he would be a good ruler. He's much more likely to be Hand again, though.
  7. Sansa Stark. This name and all the remaining ones are significantly less likely.
  8. Bran Stark. Only if everyone above him on this list dies. OR if he wargs into someone above him!
  9. Gendry. Arguably the heir to Robert!
  10. Jaime Lannister.
  11. Arya Stark. She's capable, but I don't see her wanting it. She would make an intriguing Master of Whispers, though.
  12. Lyanna Mormont.
  13. Sam Tarly.
  14. Missandei. She's #2 in my "want to win", but has no faction.
  15. Euron Greyjoy. Realistically he should be much higher since he has ambition, resources, and ruthlessness; but narratively he's a late player and I don't see the TV series building to this.
  16. Theon Greyjoy. Kind of the opposite as Euron: There would be huge narrative satisfaction in his redemption arc ending on the throne, but he definitely doesn't want it.

A few other names that aren't on the list and may be worth considering:
  1. Young Griff. OK, almost definitely not, but it is interesting that they bothered to introduce the Golden Company in the TV show, so there's at least a small chance we're getting a late delivery of that plot.
  2. Jaqn H'ghar. Possibly in the guise of one of the other characters; if so, probably in service to a third character.
END SPOILERS

Pretty crazy to think of all this speculation building up and then ending in just a few months. I'll be gone on vacation when the series finale drops and am already wondering how I can remain unspoiled until I safely return. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Everything That Can Be Invented Has Been Invented

We live in a highly specialized society. I'm pretty good at writing Android apps for mobile phones, but I have only the vaguest understanding of the many technologies that underlie my career. If I had to I could probably write a compiler, but I couldn't manufacture a phone, or build a cell tower, or fabricate a circuit board, or create a monitor; going deeper, I couldn't make the steel for the tower or the silicon for a circuit board or the liquid crystals (?) for a monitor; heck, I can't even mine the iron to make the steel, and if someone asked me to collect some liquid crystals my first instinct would be to go looking for a wizard.



Fortunately, I now have a book that will solve all my problems: How To Invent Everything, by the inestimable Ryan North. I've avidly followed his online comic Dinosaur Comics for many years, and have felt oddly proud at seeing him branch out and succeed in so many other ventures: publishing books (To Be and/or Not To Be), writing comics (Adventure Time, Squirrel Girl), engaging in thoughtful and nuanced literary criticism (B to the F), climbing out of a hole. In a fun little coincidence, I received his latest book as a Christmas gift, and then got to see him in person when he came to the Bay Area and spoke at a library about 1500 feet away from my home. In person he has the same voice I've come to enjoy so much over the years: fun, wry, curious, generous. He gave a great, discursive but fascinating talk that covered the history of the human race and how he got into comics writing. One major theme to which he kept returning was just much time humanity wasted along the way: thousands and thousands of years when we had all the equipment necessary to do something but hadn't thought to actually do it. He also held a wonderful Q&A session, good-naturedly laughing at the jokes helpfully offered by an elderly veteran ("You're a comedian, here's some jokes you can use!") and discussing everything from his own favorite comics to Aphantasia to the (poseable! never posed!) clip art source of his Dino Comics to... well, all sorts of good and interesting things.

The book itself is great. The conceit is that it's a guide written for time-travelers who get stuck in the Earth's past: at any time that they arrive after humans have started to, uh, become human, it gives detailed and practical instructions on how rebuild the sort of civilization we're used to in the 21st century from scratch. It's designed so you can flip around and read about individual technologies and inventions that you're interested in, but I read it straight through from cover to cover and loved it. It's structured to start with some relatively simple things, like how to make a fire, and then what you can do with that, like how to make charcoal. I've only ever thought of charcoal as a material for making delicious grilled meats, but it's incredibly useful and is used in turn to create a wide variety of other things. You'll learn superior farming techniques so your society can create a calorie surplus, which will then free their bodies and brains to take on more specialized jobs, and eventually you'll be able to teach miners how to mine, blacksmiths how to smith, farriers how to shoe, and so on.

Coolest of all, the book goes all the way up to some truly modern inventions, covering the basics of the internal combustion engine, the airplane, and, yes, the computer. All of these have great diagrams giving helpful context to the descriptions, and are also presented with practical context. While the book tells you how you can create an internal combustion engine, it also cautions that your society will likely not have the precision engineering necessary for a very efficient one, and so you'd be better served by the simpler steam engine. The computer section stirred memories in my mind of my CS201 course back in college, with its NAND gates and full adders, but it also demonstrated how non-electrical computers could be constructed, including ones that used water or undersea crabs. (Which in turn reminded me of Nell's analytical engine from The Diamond Age - I need to re-read that! North and Stephenson share some of the same gift for demystifying technical arcana in an entertaining way.)

This book was super-fun! It was a light and compelling read, but never felt dumbed-down. The strong humor throughout made everything interesting, above and beyond the naturally intriguing how-to structure. I had a blast reading this, and while I hope I never need to rebuild civilization from scratch, I'm in a far better position to do so now than I was last month.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Legal Tender

I joined the crowd of RPG fans elated at the recent announcement in San Francisco about a new Vampire: The Masquerade game. I'd been loosely following the rumors swirling over the last couple of weeks, mostly driven by the ARG Tender app, and was curious about what was in store, but honestly was not expecting a proper sequel to Bloodlines. Very few games have made a sequel after 15+ years of silence. It's really thrilling to see this is actually happening: Bloodlines has been an underdog cult classic for so long, but continues to see good traction on the Steam and GoG charts, and has a vibrant and active modding community, so I think the corporate suits with money noticed that there's a legitimate opportunity here and funded it. And it surely doesn't hurt that the game is so beloved by so many.

I'm allowing myself be be somewhat optimistic... not exactly preorder-optimistic (though it is already up on the Steam storefront), but the early news seems very encouraging. Paradox has a terrific reputation: I've only played Europa Universalis, but I know Stellaris has been getting rave reviews, and Paradox has a great track record for supporting their games long into their lifespan. What's really selling me on Bloodlines 2 at the moment is the writing staff. Brian Mitsoda, the original lead writer, is back, which by itself would be hugely encouraging. He's joined by Cara Ellison, a smart and thoughtful critic and writer who most recently helped deliver Dishonored 2. And rounding out the trio is Chris Avellone, an RPG writing hall-of-famer.


I'm not super impressed by the one trailer we've seen so far; it's almost entirely combat-focused, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks fondly of the combat from VtMB1. But there's certainly room to improve the combat, so maybe that was the purpose; and action-heavy trailers definitely show better than long and nuanced dialogue trees. I am a little apprehensive that VtMB2 will be to VtMB1 as the new Deus Ex games are to the original: streamlined action/RPGs that honor the setting and tone but lose the vast, wide-open "anything goes" design that allows immense flexibility in solving problems, instead following a more slick and cinematic sneak-and-shoot approach.

We have about a year until the game comes out, and I'm confident we will learn a lot more about it by then!

The timing of the announcement is fortuitous in a couple of ways. A couple of weeks ago I downloaded and installed (but hadn't actually started playing) the Clan Quest Mod, a well-regarded fan-made expansion to the base game. My original (and so far only) playthrough was with the Unofficial Patch, and I'd initially been planning on doing a modded run with the Unofficial Patch Plus, but the CQM recently came out with a major new release and I wanted to check it out. It adds new quests for each of the seven clans, and the latest version also adds a new hub area, new voiced NPCs, the option to leave the Camarilla and join the Sabbat, and contains several new endings. It also functions as a mod-manager, pulling in an assortment of features from various other mods: most (not all) of the Patch Plus content, new weapons from the Arsenal Mod, gameplay changes from the Camarilla mod, thrall followers from the Companion Mod, and a few other odds and ends.


I finally fired it up after watching the trailer and getting all inspired. There are already some major differences from the character creation process: in addition to choosing a clan, you can also select a colorful background for your character, like Burnout, Dropped On Head As A Baby, Runaway, Completely Batshit, etc. These obviously impact your perception of your character, and also have mechanical impacts: for example, a Burnout is a mellow stoner who is more likely to resist Frenzy, but also has a -1 penalty to Wits. Completely Batshit is a unique background for Malkavians that gives makes their Dementation ability more potent, at the cost of more expensive Obfuscation powers.


I initially skipped the tutorial, then went back and did it anyways since it's been a while and I wanted to reacquaint myself with the controls. I've noticed a little bit of wonkiness so far: one door didn't want to open at first, and I occasionally have trouble where the third-person camera is perpendicular to my character's movement. Those have easily been fixed by exiting and restarting. I'll keep an eye open on those things going forward; mods can definitely make games less stable, but Bloodlines was a notoriously unstable game to begin with, so it's always difficult to establish the ultimate source of an error.

The other cool little bit of synchronicity was that my new LP from Chiasm arrived in the mail on the same day as the trailer. I first discovered Chiasm from her amazing track "Isolated," which plays inside the club The Asylum in the first game. Since then I've gone on to devour all of her other albums, and have really enjoyed hearing how her sound has evolved and grown over the years.

Her new album is Reset, re-establishing a naming theme from the predecessors Reform and Relapse. It's great! Several tracks on it have appeared an earlier LP, like "Mice on a Wheel," "World Left," and "Make Believe." "Make Believe" in particular was such a joy to hear for the first time, delightful and surprising. After several listens, I think my new favorite is "Locked In," a beautiful track that ambles through the depths before soaring into the sky. Given how many original contributors to VtMB are coming back for the sequel, I think it would be awesome to have one of Chiasm's newer tracks included in the new game as well. "Ella" or "Stumble" would work particularly well with the game's heavy industrial soundtrack.

 
And that gets me daydreaming about what a licensed VtMB soundtrack might look like in 2020. The Birthday Massacre seems like an obvious choice to get some great goth in there. Ayria would be a ton of fun, almost any of her tracks would work great for a new club; "Feed Her To The Wolves" and "Hunger" would be great thematic matches, while "Friends And Enemies" is particularly danceable even for Ayria. I:Scintilla would be an awesome addition, especially one of their heavier tracks like Melt. And of course hearing more from Lacuna Coil and other OG artists would be awesome.

So, yeah... lots of excitement over here, and I'm keeping my fingers tightly crossed that I'll be playing a fun game a year from now!

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Storm that Speaks

Despite my earlier predictions of a break, I dove (drove? chugged?) right back into Sunless Skies. This time I was pursuing one of the two "story-based" ambitions, The Martyr-King's Cup. (There is a good amount of story for Wealth, and a surprisingly large amount of story for Song of the Sky, but The Truth and TM-KC are primarily billed as story ambitions.) This is a somewhat unusual ambition in that it can be failed: if you lose at some specific challenges, the ambition terminates prematurely and you are forced to choose another. In some ways, this is worse than death: if you take too much damage or incur too much terror, you have the possibility of reloading or save-scumming, but if you fail in the ambition, there is no recovering.


Partly because of that, I opted to do TM-KC first, even though I suspect The Truth is intended as an easier/earlier challenge. Since I've already completed Wealth and SotS, I figured that if I did fail at TM-KC, I could fall back to The Truth and still get a good campaign out of it.


Fortunately, such scheming was unnecessary: I was able to successfully complete the ambition on my first try, woohoo! It was a very close call, though: at one point I faced a Veils check with only an 18% chance to pass, and was convinced that I was going to lose, only to be amazed when the RNG smiled on me for the first time in my life. Not wanting to push my luck, I passed on an 82% Iron chance that would have given me 8,000 sovereigns if I won, but ended the ambition if I lost.

MINI SPOILERS

Before getting into the content of this ambition, I should first correct the record from a few (mis-)statements I've made in previous posts:

I'd mentioned that I couldn't find the transit point to Eleutheria. That's because, despite me somehow being convinced that it was in Albion, it is, in fact, in The Reach. That did make sense in retrospect, and I now think of The Reach as being a kind of crossroads rather than the hinterlands. After all, you start your lineage outside the Blue Kingdom transit relay, and the Albion relay is there, so why not Eleutheria as well? It took me an embarassingly long time to figure this out; I finally realized my error after recruiting the Fortunate Navigator for, like, the third time, and noticed a small note at the bottom directing me to Hybras in order to locate the relay. Of course, that was the one area of the Reach that I had not thoroughly explored: in my game, Hybras is far from any sources of fuel or supplies, and I had no compelling reason to go there. Before now, at least.

Similarly, I had multiple Captains with the mistaken belief that Eagle's Empyrean was located in Albion, and that I was just terribly unlucky in never getting a Prospect for it. I have a better idea of where this idea came from: on my first visit to London, both the Fortunate Navigator and the Firebrand Conductor directed me to the Empyrean, so of course I assumed that it was in the region.

As a side note, the Empyrean just might be my favorite port in the game. Much of Eleutheria is ominous and forboding, and Pan is a rather unpleasant central hub (though more exciting than New Winchester), but the Empyrean is a (literal!) bright spot in that dark region. I absolutely love the music, too; that and the lore remind me of some of my favorite bits of Sunless Sea, and it's really nice to see that carried forward into this game.


I groused at length in my last post about my inability to secure a Captivating Treasure. After publishing that, I broke down and visited the wiki. I have a love/hate relationship with wikis and Failbetter games. I prefer going in blind and exploring stuff on my own, solving mysteries and being surprised. But many of their games have devastating punishments to seemingly inconsequential decisions, and after that happens a couple of times (losing 1CP of Dangerous while pursuing London's Sinew, anyone?), you get in the habit of obsessively checking the wiki before clicking on anything new. Sunless Skies is actually much, much better in this regard than in any of their previous games; I don't remember a scenario this time around where it felt like they were playing "Gotcha!" with me, which is great. (Well, I guess the stat losses in a few storylines do sting a little, but they're much less punishing than, say, losing your Scion or becoming an Admirer of Art.)

Anyways! Like I was saying, I looked it up and, sure enough, there are plenty of ways to get Captivating Treasures. The most easily repeatable way is to kill a Guest, who will often drop one as loot. I always "NOPE!"d out of there whenever I ran across a Guest, but now that I've built up my equipment, they're pretty easy and profitable to take down. I smacked myself in the head when I found an easy early-game way to get one: when turning the Spirifer over to the Presiding Deviless at Carillon, as for a substantial reward. That's the one outcome I haven't chosen in all my playthroughs, and it seems so obvious in retrospect that it would grant such a treasure.

Incidentally, the relative rarity, usefulness and value of each type of item is very inconsistent. Searing Enigmas are the most expensive Academic item, but I always end up with, like 8 or 10 of them by the end of the game without trying for any, and usually only find around 2 or so Condemned Experiments, which are only worth half as much. But on the Bohemian side, I get dozens of Moments of Inspiration, and few or no Captivating Treasures. Crimson Promises are valuable, but seem completely useless; I think they are options for some of the Fortune endings, and don't recall ever seeing another use for them. Searing Enigmas and Moments of Inspiration get tons of use, while Condemned Experiments and Captivating Treasures get very few. I dunno, it's strange.

One final correction/update for the record: as is my wont, I whined a bit about limited romance options. There are more than I'd initially thought; by my count three of the nine officers are romanceable. The ones who aren't romanceable include a gang of talking rats, a book, and your aunt, each of whom would be taboo for their own very distinct reason. What I really wanted to talk about, though, is that I hadn't initially grasped just how many of your officers are transgender or nonbinary. Failbetter consistently does a wonderful job at representation, and Skies is no exception; one of the coolest aspects is that there are multiple trans people in your crew, who have very distinct experiences. As a result they never feel like tokens or stand-ins, but as fully-realized people. I imagine that writing romances for these sorts of characters is potentially even more fraught than usual, and I'm impressed that they did include at least one, with the Felined Eccentric making a dramatic appearance in my most recent game.

On to the plot itself!

MEGA SPOILERS

So, The Martyr-King's Cup is basically a Terry Gilliam movie in video-game form, and therefore it's one of my favorite things ever. It absolutely nails the wonderful slippery sense you get from his best movies, crossing between the mundane and the fantastical worlds, having a heightened sense of destiny and importance to what may actually be a delusion.

This builds and unfolds terrifically over time. You start out with the quest itself: investigating rumors of a chalice that grants immortality, finding a realm hidden beneath London, meeting the Unseen Queen and her retinue. As the story continues, you get a sense that something isn't quite right. Cleverly, this has a strong mechanical component: by passing a Mirrors check, you can discern that you are witnessing an illusion. You're standing in a decrepit sewer, not a subterranean castle. You're surrounded by rats, not retainers. The Queen is a filthy old portrait with its face slashed out, propped up on a broken chair, not a resplendent throne.


As you continue along the stages of this Arthurian quest, you can pivot back and forth between these perspectives. It's really fun! And useful! Like, you may be facing a vigorous knight wielding a broadsword in mortal combat; but by passing the Mirrors check, you realize that it's just a clerk waving a fountain pen at you, and that's much easier to beat up. On the other hand, you may be trying to cross a rickety narrow bridge strung between two towers and need to pass a daunting Iron check to avoid failing the quest... or you can slip into the moonlit world, convinced that you are a fearless knight, and confidently stride across without hesitation.

Like those movies I love, the sense of reality grows increasingly muddled. For quite a while there's a good working thesis that the mundane world is "real" and everything else you see is a hallucination or spell or other artifice; as time goes on, though, you start seeing snatches of those other visions even while you are supposedly in control of your senses. Scruffy robbers may briefly flicker into demonic forms, and that portrait is still speaking to you even when you see the rats. Over time, doubt begins to set in. Is it possible that the moonlit world is, in fact, the real one? After all, this is a video game I'm playing: why am I acting like the world with space choo-choo trains and exploding Correspondence sigils and sentient tea leaves is a "mundane" and "realistic" world? Isn't it at least possible that, within the world of the game, "reality" is a fantasy quest, and these visions of voyages between the stars are just dreams?



This wonderful duality carries through all the way to the very end. There is a huge and very satisfying lore dump near the end. Failbetter's style is typically to hint and allude to historical events and leave you to connect the dots yourself, but in this particular quest you are rewarded with a surprisingly detailed explanation of the Storm the Speaks, the death of the King of Hours, the Unseen Queen and various other major players and events in the game. At the very, very end, your available choices are shaped by how you have experienced the story thus far. Depending on how often you have experienced the moonlit world, versus how much you stay rooted in the world as it is, you can lock or unlock various choices. In my case, I was just barely enough on the fantastical side to embrace the world as it ought to be, and turn my sci-fi game into a fantasy game at the very end.


I don't think I've been writing much about my captains. On the whole I think the roguelike elements work far better in Skies than they did in Sea, but since I do restart captains semi-regularly I don't find myself getting as attached to them as I do to, say, my characters in RPGs. But I do really like the mechanical and flavor customization options, and that helps keep things feeling fresh. My main characters so far have been:
  • Intendant Lloyd, an Auditor with the Ministry of Public Decency who retired to a life of Wealth in London.
  • Lady Sybil, a Celestial Poet who wrote the Song of the Sky.
  • Professor Lydia, a Scholar of the Correspondence who went insane and found that Martyr-King's Cup.

  

All of my captains' builds have been fairly similar so far: I emphasize Hearts, with either Mirror or Iron close behind, then catch up the other once the other two are at 75. Veils is a persistent dump stat that maxes out around 20 or so at my max level. For a while I was feeling like the game incentivizes you to replicate builds like this, since you can inherit equipment that has a usage requirement, so if you want to outfit the gear you've already got you need to hit the same stat levels. But now that I've gone so far along on this lineage, I'm consistently passing down significant dowries on each new captain, so I think I can afford to, say, finally make a Veils-heavy guy and pick up the stuff I need. And finally check out how smuggling works!


That's still a ways off, though. In the meantime, here is my current end-game loadout.
  • Engine: Mandos, the Moloch-class liner. I love the built-in storage and many Bridge slots. My biggest gripe is how slowly it turns, which makes it poor in combat, but I don't fight much and can take decent punishment when I do.
  • Front weapon: The Wrath of Heaven, a powerful (Hearts-based!) missile that is very On Brand for my Scholar of the Correspondence. Does immense damage to enemies, but is also risky: it does burst damage, which makes it more harmful than good when enemies spawn at discoveries.
  • Rear weapon: Wit & Vinegar Zounderkite. A great mine. I think it has a wider trigger radius than the Sneeze-lurker. I rarely destroy enemies with this, but I'm pretty sure it staggers them, which is all I ask for when I'm trying to leave.
  • Plating: The Watchers in Azure, an Assaying device that also gives decent armor. This was the first level-75 upgrade I purchased, and maybe still my favorite, totally worth the early visit to the Blue Kingdom.
  • Scout: Cyclopean Owl. I feel really bad for players who didn't back the Kickstarter, I've tried out some of the other scouts and they all seem notably inferior.
  • Auxiliary 1: Osiris, a great Royal Society invention that gives Butchery and Hold. I love Hold! Having surplus Hold has been game-changing, and I squeeze it into every slot I can, as you will soon see.
  • Auxiliary 2: Canktankerous Boring Rig, another Royal Society invention, this one giving Mining and, yes, Hold. And even a little Hull as a bonus!
  • Bridge 1: Fitted Cupboards. Extra Hold at a reasonable Iron requirement.
  • Bridge 2: Fitted Cupboards. Keep 'em coming!
  • Bridge 3: In this screenshot it's an Adjustable Infirmary, for more Crew, but honestly I think I'm going to swap it out for more Fitted Cupboards on my next captain. Even without it, there's plenty of Crew space on the Moloch. There doesn't seem to be any benefit to keeping more than 12 crew, and even that is only occasionally useful, mostly in Pan; you'll "spend" some crew in The Reach while doing quests, but they're cheap and easy to replace and there's no need to stock up.
I haven't tried the other top-tier ships yet, so I may also try those on a future captain, but I have a really hard time imagining giving up all of my Hold. It's really changed the way I play the game. I just go wherever I want to go to pursue my Ambition stories, crew plotlines, etc. Along the way I buy up every Bargain I find. The next time I come to a central port I check my bank, deposit items if I'm running low on a particular stash, and otherwise liquidate everything I got. It isn't quite as profitable per-item as focusing on Prospects, but it makes the game feel a lot faster since you're just focusing on the main plot, and you can do enough volume to make up for lower margins.

Then again, if I do try a Veils captain in the future, I'll be focusing on trading of another kind. It'll be interesting to see how short-haul high-pressure opportunities compare to my current existence as a market maker.

END SPOILERS

That was a profoundly satisfying ending! I've been happy with all the conclusions so far, but this one is definitely my favorite. It makes me eager to check out The Truth and get another long-form plot set in this world. Again, I think I'll try and take a little break; there have been some very helpful bug-fix updates over recent weeks, and some allusions to upcoming content updates, so I might wait for a more substantial patch before my next thorough voyage. Then again, I wasn't expecting to dive in so soon on this ambition, and certainly do not regret having done so. We will see what the future holds! Hopefully more space trains!

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Granted

I'm not that big of a biography guy. I've probably read fewer than a dozen in my entire life, vastly fewer than the number of, say, time-travel science-fiction stories or Wheel Of Time novels. But when I do pick up one, I usually end up enjoying it.

My most recent excursion was with Grant, the latest book from Ron Chernow. A disproportionate number of my biographies are of American presidents and statesmen, many from Chernow himself: I've previously devoured his Hamilton and Washington books. While reading Grant, though, I found myself most often thinking of a book from another author: David McCullough's Truman biography. Neither book even mentions the other person, but I thought the arcs of their lives were remarkably similar. Both led fairly mundane and unremarkable lives, then were propelled into greatness around their middle age and turned out to have enormous talents, unrevealed until a crisis thrust them into action.



Both men lived in the shadows of giants, with Truman succeeding FDR and Grant carrying out Lincoln's war and then winning the following election. Both are, perhaps in part because of their close association with superior men, somewhat underrated by history; however, both played crucial roles in cementing the achievements of their predecessors, turning goals into policy and controversial laws into settled reality. Interestingly, both men also incorporated racial justice into the military, with Grant raising the first black regiments and repeatedly proving their equal worth, and Truman integrating the armed forces across regiments.

Grant's life was very different from Hamilton's or Washington's, both of whom started achieving great things from very young ages. But one way that this book is similar to those is in Chernow's deep understanding of financial and economic matters. Chernow briefly but authoritatively covers a bunch of interesting topics over the course of the book. There's the transition from greenbacks to a gold standard, which was a foundation of Grant's Presidential policy as a "hard money" man. There's the "inflation bill" that was designed to combat a financial crisis; Chernow sketches out the advantages and disadvantages of the bill with aplomb, pointing out how modern economic theorists would consider the bill versus how Grant's contemporaries would. He spends a long time describing the Alabama claims, a long-forgotten but, in Chernow's view, critical disagreement between America and Britain over indirect support for the Confederacy. Chernow ultimately makes the point that settling these claims cleared the way for British capital to expand American infrastructure, just as railroads and factories were ascending, and thus directly led to the enormous expansion of the late nineteenth century and the rise of the United States as a global power.

Also like the earlier books, Chernow pays a lot of respectful attention to his subjects' wife and to specific valets, aides, and other people who have been invisible in many histories. He makes it clear how valuable these contributions were, with enormous respect paid in particular to John Rawlins, who was constantly by Grant's side throughout the Civil War and singlehandedly kept the general from descending into drunkenness over many, many, many long and stressful years.

The biography presents a sympathetic look at Grant's alcoholism. Chernow treats it as a disease Grant battles against and not as a moral weakness, reflecting a more modern understanding of alcoholism. Chernow spends a lot of time correcting the historical record on Grant's drinking, which gets a little tedious over time: it feels like he raises every single accusation of drinking in Grant's entire life, and each time thoroughly analyzes the account and offers judgment on the veracity. A few are likely true, particularly early accounts during his remote Army postings; some are likely exaggerated, making an incident that likely occurred seem to have more dire consequences than it probably did; and many, especially from later in life, were almost certainly fabricated. Chernow believes that Grant had a very specific pattern to his drinking: he would imbibe when he was traveling away from home, without his wife Julia or trusted friends looking over him. Only a few sips would be required for him to be strongly affected. When he got drunk, he would slur his speech, revert to childlike behavior, and act silly. You get the idea very early on, and I'm not sure if it needed quite as much repetition throughout the book.

Based on my own prior knowledge of Grant, I suspect the two things most casual history readers know about Grant are "He was a talented drunk general" and "He was a mediocre corrupt President". Roughly the first 2/3 of the book are addressing the first, and the last 1/3 addresses the second. The military sections are really thrilling; for some reason, I've tended to think of the Civil War as kind of boring, but accounts like the Vicksburg campaign are really thrilling and fantastically well-told. It's also very cool from a personal standpoint to see Grant's redemption from earlier failures: after being drummed out of the military for drinking, failing at farming, failing at wood-selling, and finally being forced to accept the charity of a low-status clerking job from his brother, the onset of the Civil War suddenly pulls this sad shell of a man into a milieu where he personally thrives, and also provides so much for his country, steadily winning the respect and love of Abraham Lincoln and the entire nation.

I'd expected a come-down in the long stretch of the book after Appomattox, as the glories of the war fade and the hard job of governing sets in. The book looks a lot at the scandals and corruption that swirl around Grant after he becomes the most powerful man in the country. Chernow is at pains to point out that Grant himself was unaware of these scandals before they erupted, and did not personally profit from them. On the other hand, though, Grant did openly and publicly benefit from the largesse of plutocrats who gave him houses and money, ostensibly for his service during the war. Grant didn't see anything wrong with accepting these gifts, viewing them as reasonable compensation for the sacrifices he'd made; nor does he have qualms later about implementing policies friendly to the same plutocrats who enriched him. Chernow presents this as evidence of Grant's naivete, but I imagine another author could make those same actions seem more sinister.

The book as a whole takes a similarly sympathetic look at Grant, both the man and his actions. You can tell that Chernow likes and admires him, and wants to raise him from the "mediocre president" label that has hung over him for 150 years. Chernow doesn't really present himself as unbiased, but I like his biases: Chernow and Grant are aligned on the morality of freeing African-Americans from slavery, recognizing and protecting their rights, and bringing them into American society as full citizens. Chernow sees the good Grant accomplished as so great that he should be forgiven for the mistakes he made, which impacted far fewer people for far less time.

Again, I've tended to view the Civil War era as relatively boring, and reading through this account in depth, I was kind of amazed at how contingent the legacy of the war was. I've tended to think of the Civil War as leading directly to suffrage, but it didn't: even after the Union victory, many northern Republican politicians were opposed to extending the vote to former slaves. There was an interesting period, lasting for years, during which the South, under what was effectively a military dictatorship, allowed black people to vote, while the North did not. I usually think of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as being one package deal, but they weren't: each were fought for separately, required enormous political capital, and made powerful electoral enemies. Reading this account, it seems very likely that without Grant leading the way, the 15th amendment might not have passed, and the fruits of the war would have been much murkier.

Of course, though, history doesn't always progress forward, and it is very depressing to see how much is given back after the war. There's a brief period where black Republicans vote in large numbers across the South and we see representation, but that quickly gives way to domestic terrorism in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, Rifle Clubs, and White Leagues. These groups mercilessly torture and kill blacks across the south, not so much out of specific hatred as to enact a political outcome: make these people so frightened that they will not dare show their faces and vote. Those white-power groups carried out stunning coups, whether forcibly seizing statehouses or cold-bloodedly executing elected black sheriffs or flagrantly destroying ballot boxes from majority-black counties. Grant's great achievement was fighting back against this surge, using the newly-formed Department of Justice to enforce federal law over terrorism within the states, deploying the military to defend New Orleans and other cities against insurrections, and maintaining a visible presence of troops to ensure safe access to the polls. But there's an increasing weariness on the part of northern white Republicans to continue enforcing Reconstruction, and Grant is increasingly abandoned by much of his party. Everyone wants to return to normalcy and let the southern states govern themselves, but Grant is one of the few who is unwilling to do that if it means African-American effectively losing the franchise. While he was famously low-key and reserved, you can see his fury and despair at what's happening: what was the point of the years of war, hundreds of thousands of men slaughtered, vast wealth lost, suffering throughout the nation, if at the end of it all Americans are placed back into bondage under another form?

It's even sadder to see how this is all unwound further after Grant's presidency, with subsequent administrations withdrawing from Reconstruction, and it's absolutely infuriating to see the Supreme Court effectively strike down the 15th amendment. Again, when something so hard-fought-for is taken away, the blow is especially strong. I found myself thinking a lot about the recent repeal of the Voting Rights Act and the immediate push for disenfranchisement of African-Americans across the South, with many of the same states like South Carolina leading the charge for the very same reasons: the old establishment is wary of a large black population, and will use whatever tools it can acquire to keep them from the ballot box and keep their own power intact. 150 years later, things are definitely better, but they are certainly not solved, and I am reminded once again that we do not automatically progress towards greater justice.

The arguments about states' rights are, of course, eternal in the United States, and as those played out here I was reminded once again of a theme from Chernow's Washington biography. When I was younger, I tended to think of government and liberty as being opposed to one another: a stronger government implying fewer personal freedoms and vice versa. But episodes like Washington's Newport address paint a much more nuanced and interesting picture. A strong federal government helps protect individual rights against the tyranny of the majority. In an overwhelmingly white and Christian nation, minority communities and individuals can be shielded from local prejudices and violence by a disinterested and powerful federal force. Grant was very much of this same line of thought: where others saw him using federal power to bully weaker states, he saw himself as protecting the far weaker people who those same states were abusing. One of the joys of this book is seeing Grant's gradually dawning statesmanlike mind, as he transforms from a nonpolitical military professional into an empathetic and passionate promoter of racial justice and equality. It's a powerful legacy; in spite of all the disappointing setbacks and reversals after Reconstruction, we're still in a better place now than we would have been without him.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Seeking the Garden

While I'm writing about Failbetter: Hot on the heels of completing the Song of the Sky in Sunless Skies, I finally achieved the last major milestone I've been tracking in Fallen London. I am now the proud owner of a Firkin of Hesperidean Cider!


The game has grown significantly since I first started playing it about seven years ago, but Cider has been an end-game goal from the very beginning. The idea of ever obtaining it seemed ludicrous in those early days. The most expensive item in the Echo Bazaar, it cost a whopping 160,000 echoes, implying years of nonstop cash-grinding. It was always technically achievable - unlike many other elements of the game it was never locked behind content gates - which just made it the more tempting.


The first people to acquire it were folks who handed over real-world cash money; someone actually paid $500 American dollars as a special backer reward for the Silver Tree kickstarter to pick it up. (And, having played the Silver Tree and learning the Princess's story, I see that that's actually a very lore-appropriate place to distribute it.) I think that since then it may have been auctioned off once or twice for charity drives. More recently, people finally earned it through legitimate in-game actions; it has become less exclusive as the game has grown older and the available money grinds have gradually grown infinitesimally higher. (When I first started the most rewarding grind was the Affair of the Box at 1.64 echoes per action; in recent months, end-game players have been flocking to the Tomb of the Silken Thread, which over the long run may earn something closer to 2.24 echoes per action.)

So, what exactly does the Cider do? That leads to some lore:

MINI SPOILERS

The Cider makes you immortal. Both in the lore and mechanically within the game.

Story-wise, certain fruit elixirs can grant eternal life to those who imbibe. This is obviously evocative of the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, but the presentation in the game isn't specifically derivative of that. Interestingly, it seems that several different people have developed their own recipes over the years. The Capering Relicker came up with the original formula, drawing on Mesopotamian bounty. Millennia later, the Gracious Widow crafted her own version, a form of peach brandy with similar effects, enabling her to endure through the Khanate's exodus.

Obviously, immortality is very tempting to any person at any time. It holds a slightly different appeal to those in the Neath. Shielded from the Sun's light and the Judgement's laws, those who live below the surface are effectively immortal already: they can survive stabbings and shootings and drownings and all sorts of deaths, picking their bodies back up and continuing on their way. But after experiencing such a death, they can never again return to the surface. The first rays of the Sun's light will re-establish the Law, and their belated death will catch up to them.

My own character, Seberin Cirion, has always been a reluctant citizen of the Neath. There are marvels to see there, access to hidden wisdom that will fuel his goals. But he longs to feel the sunlight on his face again, to sit beneath the open sky, to lay on grass and see flowering plants once more. Because of this, during my seven-years stay in the Neath I've been very careful to avoid ever dying: I haven't paid any visits to the Slow Boat, and have relied on my Slavering Dream-Hound and other aids to keep my wounds in check.

That said: now that I hold Cider, I can finally cross that final frontier without fear. I can explore that undiscovered country while retaining the ability to return to the surface. Whether it is Paris in 1906 or some other excursion at some other date, I can confidently leave the Neath once I have claimed what I need from it.

Mechanically, the Cider is more complex and interesting than I would have imagined. I had vaguely thought that it might, like, give -8 Wounds when equipped, or let you drop wounds. It does the latter, and more, too. You can drink at any time by selecting it from your inventory. Doing so removes all of your Wounds in a single action... and also gives you 10 levels of a new quality, "A Taste of the Garden". Having these levels makes you eligible to draw new Dream opportunity cards. They are mechanically different from any other cards that I have seen: there is no "Perhaps Not" option to back out after clicking one. They behave like a mix between the red-bordered autofire dream cards and standard opportunity cards.


So far, all of the cards I've seen decrease "A Taste of the Garden" by 1, raise Nightmares by 1, and provide an Extraordinary Implication, worth 250 pence. I'm a bit surprised to see that owning Cider is itself profitable... but I guess that's how capitalism works! More seriously, this does lead to some genuinely interesting considerations for gameplay. You can drop Wounds on demand, but will effectively gain 10cp of Nightmares by doing so. You don't need to take those all at once, and they are fairly profitable to have, but you'll either need to spend future actions to manage them (and thus reduce the profitability of playing those cards), or else they effectively become menace cards.


So, yeah! I'm very pleased to have it. I haven't written much about Fallen London here for years; like many veteran players, I go through long stretches without playing, then dive back in for a seasonal festival or when some new content has been released. As I said before, Cider is the last milestone I'm currently really tracking. Here's a quick list of the various accomplishments Seberin Cirion has accomplished in recent years, most of which were added to the game long after Cider:
  • I am a Paramount Presence, fully overcapping all of my primary stats and achieving several distinctive goals.
  • I have acquired all the best-in-slot gear (with the sole exception of the best Shadowy Boots, which I can finally claim in safety from the Slow Boat now that I have the Cider).
  • I am the Poet Laureate of London.
  • I am the Courier's Footprint, the foremost authority on the Correspondence. (I believe I was also the first person to raise Scholar of the Correspondence to level 20.)
  • I have a Sealed Copy of the Crimson Book, which is clearly of enormous interest to the Bazaar.
  • I hold all of the rare Relicker items. (As far as I know, I was the first person to acquire a Rumourmonger's Network.)
  • I've raised all of my Renown as high as I want it to be. (40 for most factions, up to 50 for a few.)
  • I have 0 Renown: Hell. Especially proud of that one!
  • I am a Correspondent.
I think the only major goals left, which I don't plan to pursue, are:
  • Acquiring a Heptagoat.
  • Seeking Mr. Eaten's Name.
  • ... (I was going to say Knife-and-Candle, but I'm pretty sure that's defunct.)
END SPOILERS

So, yeah! I think I'll park my character for a while - it isn't the first time, and won't be the last. There are a few exciting things on the horizon, like the completion of the Ambitions and the fourth tier of Professions, which I'm looking forward to playing once they're available. But most of the updates in recent years have been complete surprises, whether unexpected destinations across the Zee or new archaeological sites to dig up or new works of literature to create. It's been really fun to see Failbetter expand into other regions and other modes of play in recent years, and it's also fun to still kind of have a home in Fallen London to which I can return now and then and enjoy the life I've built there.

Friday, March 01, 2019

No Stars, No Curators

It's been about two weeks since my first victory in Sunless Skies! At first I thought I would be writing this follow-up post very soon, as it seemed like I might achieve my second victory within a couple of days. But it ended up being a classic 80/20 situation, or here maybe closer to 95/5: That last little bit proved excruciatingly difficult to wrap up. That took the wind out of my sails a little (or perhaps the coal out of my boiler?); but for better or worse, I've played an enormous quantity of the game as I stretched towards the finish line, and have a better understanding than before of what makes it tick.



Before delving into my experience writing the Song of the Sky, here are some of the mildly exploity things I've noticed in the game. I'm not sure if they're considered cheating or not, but they may be worth considering if you're facing frustrations.

Most UI buttons are grayed out while you are in a complex storylet, so you cannot interact with your Hold or Officers or anything. However, if you already have one of those panes open before beginning a storylet, it remains accessible. This means that, for example, you can reassign Officers mid-story in order to raise your stats for a particular challenge. This won't take effect if you are already at the challenge point, but often you can see the odds, change your Officers, choose a branch that loops around, then pick the challenge you want with your better stats.


In Sunless Sea, enemies would drop aggro when you approached a port and would stop chasing you. Not so in Skies! They will gleefully follow you as you dock and continue firing weapons at you all the while. You won't actually take damage while in dock, but your hull will get hammered as soon as you leave. Fortunately, in Skies all enemies despawn when exiting the game, and the game autosaves while you are in the station. So: just dock, return to the main menu, then Continue. This incurs a brief loading time, and clears away those pesky enemies. This isn't often necessary, but I made extensive use of this in the Blue Kingdom.


The map is randomly generated in each game. I'd assumed that it was generated at the start of a new game. Not so! Undiscovered locations are reassigned each time you load a game, and only lock into place when you explore them for the first time. This is most obvious when you read the directions on a Prospect for a station you haven't yet discovered. For example, it may say that Lustrum is a far way to the north-northwest. After you exit and restart the game, it may say that Lustrum is a far way to the east-northeast. And, in that game, sailing east-northeast will, in fact, uncover Lustrum. There isn't much you can do with this on an initial Lineage, but I think it could be especially helpful on subsequent Lineages since you can coerce the map you want. For example, you may want to place Port Prosper near Hybras to speed up journeys between Albion and Eleutheria; or you may want to place Titania near Port Prosper if you're planning to do a lot of smuggling; or you may want to evenly space out the Stations selling both Fuel and Supplies to always have one at a reasonable distance from any point.

MINI SPOILERS

So: After becoming wealthy in the, er, Wealth ambition, I decided to try and become famous in the Song of the Sky. I believe this is a parallel to the Zong of the Zee ambition from Sunless Sea, which I don't think I ever did.



For the most part, I really loved the Song ambition. Mechanically, it is kind of inverted from Wealth. With Wealth, you had very specific early goals along the way (raise X Sovereigns, then raise Y Sovereigns), culminating with a wide array of possible goals for the very last step (one might focus on Searing Enigmas and Affiliation: Academe while another focused on Crimson Promises and Affiliation: Villainy). The Song ambition has a really nice cadence to it, alternating between possession-acquisition stages (acquire Visions of the Heaven and Savage Secrets, then a Cryptic Benefactor and a Moment of Inspiration, for example) and achievement stages. Those achievements were my favorite parts. Basically, you would need to do something noteworthy, and then write about that. You can see the whole list of possible options, which I think has over a dozen possibilities on it. Some of these are really intriguing, like having all three gods angry with you at once, or being subject to all four Well-rites. A lot of them were things that I had done on previous captains, which helped make this a relative breeze: for example, I could see that there was an option for sparking the revolutionary uprising in Brabazon, so I made sure to complete that storyline while I was in the area so it would be available for a future canto.



Like I noted up top, this part of the game cruised right along. I'd retained a good number of Possessions from my previous run, and could plan out what accomplishments to accomplish, so within a couple of real-world days I was the toast of the literary establishment, had made my publisher into a very wealthy man, and had decamped from New Winchester to London to achieve still greater heights. And then... it all came skidding to a halt. The freedom of advancement in the early stages ends with a daunting list of ingredients for the seventh and final canto. Specifically, a single item on that list: a Captivating Treasure. By that point I had been playing Sunless Skies for three weeks and hadn't seen a single Captivating Treasure. "Oh," I thought, "I'll just keep on doing stuff, I'm bound to stumble across one sooner or later."



Nope!

In the two weeks since I set my goal, I've:
  • Fully upgraded every Officer
  • Discovered every Station and Platform
  • Completed dozens of long-running storylines, requiring crisscrossing and backtracking across all four regions
And still I haven't found a single "real" Captivating Treasure.  This kind of soured my experience a bit, since I was doing all this cool stuff for the first time in the game, but instead of going "Oh, this is neat!" I was going "You have got to be kidding me! I still don't have a Captivating Treasure?! After ALL THAT?!?!"



In the end, I gave up and chose the only option in the game I've seen to this day. It requires allying with the Revolutionaries in Elutheria, which was very out of character for this character, but I was so desperate to just finish: my quest log was almost empty, I'd bought almost all upgrades I wanted (including the top-tier train and many Level 75 modules), and was worried that I wouldn't have anything new to do for any future Ambitions. (That said: I did make sure to grab multiple Captivating Treasures once I decided to take that option, just so future Captains wouldn't need to endure that agony again.)



So, yeah! I was planning to press ahead with one of the two more story-oriented Ambitions next, but after the fruitless grinding of the last two weeks I think I'm going to take a break from the skies for a little while. When I do pick it back up again, I'll be happily starting from a very strong position with a large bank account, ample experience, an infernally powerful engine and a detailed mental map of how to navigate all of the various regions.

On to some more general reactions:

 
I spent an insane amount of time in Eleutheria for this game. Some random thoughts:
  • It is probably the coolest-looking region of the four. All four look great! But it probably looks the best, especially the mirrors-and-fire islands.
  • Scorn-Flukes are very rare, at least they were in my game. I'd read online about something cool you can do after defeating one, but went for more than a week of real-world time (over a year (!) of in-game time) flying around Eleutheria without ever encountering any. After asking for help online, someone advised me to focus on Langley House, which eventually proved fruitful for me.
  • This is the one part of the game that felt too text-heavy to me, at least with segments like Mignight's Favour in Achlys and the Well of Wonders. The writing is good, but it goes on for what feels like a very long time: lots of clicking and reading, some choices but no action. It made me retroactively grateful for how most of the content in the game is bite-sized, with voyages or battles or encounters breaking up the narrative. (But I'm sure there are people who feel the opposite, and loved reading through an entire story start-to-finish in a single sitting.)
  • The atmosphere is incredibly well-done. Not just the visuals, which are great, but the scene-setting in each station is very distinctive and almost viscerally powerful: whether the subdued wistful longing of the House of Rods and Chains or the body-horror tortures of Piranesi or the uncannily bright and bustling Langley House or the quiet and mysterious Caduceus... maybe even more so than the already-great stations elsewhere, the ones in Eleutheria really stood out to me.

Hm... maybe I'll write a bit about my current understanding of the backstory. I'm writing this off the top of my head as a long-time but relatively casual player of Fallen London and Sunless Sea, without consulting any online sources, so I've likely messed up a lot of this, but it's the framework currently in my head at this point of the game.

MEGA SPOILERS

As we all know, stars are Judgments, and they make the law wherever their light shines. For many years London dwelt in the Neath and was free of the Sun's laws. While the Traitor Empress Victoria brooded on her family's fortunes, a rogue faction of her Admiralty started work on an ambitious project to construct their own artificial sun: the Dawn Machine, which would impose their own laws upon the Neath. Meanwhile, certain revolutionaries aimed for a grander strike: abolishing all natural law throughout the universe by destroying the stars.

Far to the NORTH of London lay Avid Horizon, a kind of wormhole. For years madmen from London, driven by dreams of Mr. Eaten, had flocked towards this gate. More recently, a Merchant Venturer from London recruited a captain of the Unterzee to embark on an expedition there. They arrived at Avid Horizon and opened the gate, finding their way into the heavens. (Which, remember, is a 19th-century envisioning of space: a strange place, but not a void.)

London allied with the Khanate, another powerful empire in the Neath, and together streamlined the technology to bring people through the Horizon and into a new star system, which they named Albion. Albion contained many wonders, including Hours: time frozen into minerals. Incorporating this into new technology, the newly spacefaring British Empire was able to, for example, create faster-than-light travel (by directly manipulating time). Much of this pioneering work was done by the team of Singh and Jenkins, who at considerable risk and effort discovered how to create Relays, which could connect distant star systems.


 A newly reinvigorated Empress Victoria led her people into Albion. She and the revolutionaries shared a common enemy: the Sun of Albion. With the revolutionaries' well-known aptitude for constructing explosives, they jointly developed an Unclear Bomb, a star-killing weapon. Albion's Sun was slain... but perhaps not by that bomb. Victoria had fashioned the Throne of Hours: with so many mined Hours, she can effectively turn back time after any setback, ensuring she always makes the best decision in any situation.



With Albion's Sun dead, the Admiralty's long-planned project came to fruition: the Clockwork Sun, building on the prototype of the Dawn Machine, now oversaw the law in Albion. It is a powerful tool, but still flawed: the Clockwork Sun is already decaying as entropy sets in. Still, by this point Victoria's ambitions and influence had vastly increased: no longer content with ruling a single star system, she began establishing colonies, outposts and embassies elsewhere. Now more a god than a human, she has largely transcended the petty concerns of her subjects and is dealing with powers higher up the Great Chain.

OK... I think those are the most immediately relevant parts of the timeline linking FL/SuSe to SuSk. There's a lot of other cool deep lore, like the Halved of Eleutheria and the Devils and all sorts of stuff... but those are more about existing, ancient stories into which humanity is now wandering, I may or may not write about those later.

END SPOILERS

This game has been occupying a lot of my mind lately! I'm going to take a little break to decompress and focus on some other stuff, but I'm sure I'll be back before much longer to uncover the mysteries of the other ambitions.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Infernal Splendor

Huzzah! I just finished my first successful game in Sunless Skies! As with Sunless Sea, my first Ambition to complete was Wealth. Both games took me about three weeks, playing multiple captains along a single lineage, to reach that point, but I think Skies felt like a quicker journey. The resets on death are much less painful, and you don't need to spend as much time building up the "scaffolding" of a legacy. And it feels like there's more narrative thrust in Skies, though it's been years since I played Sea and my memory may have faded somewhat.



Anyways! Let's do a quick run-down, then I'll natter a bit about my Captain's voyage and some light lore speculation.

WHAT'S GOOD

Perfect ratio of text to action. The storylets are meaty enough to feel significant, but never drag on long enough to overstay their welcome.


Roleplaying opportunities. I don't recall any time I felt forced into a choice I didn't want. Which is impressive, since you often only have two or three options, but at least one will feel compelling.

Roleplaying multiple captains. This is a great escape valve: You can pick the "bad" options for various storylines out of curiosity, without feeling like it's "you" who is doing this: you're seeing what a particular character does, and will see someone else making better choices in the future.

Challenge. Since tuning down the combat settings, the whole game has felt nicely balanced: good challenges at the threshold of progression, consequences for failure that feel significant but not debilitating, a sense of progression that turns once-daunting scenarios into more trivial encounters.

Replayable narrative. Probably the single biggest improvement over Sunless Sea in my opinion. In some cases, like Traitor's Wood, what might be a fraught multi-week voyage to crack on your first captain can be satisfactorily completed in a single trip with a later captain, once you can anticipate the requirements.

Ongoing narrative. As above, this is a big improvement over Sunless Sea: certain narrative actions of your captains are permanent, and will continue to impact subsequent members of your lineage. This is especially gratifying for expensive or time-consuming plots. Your later captain may need to make a quick visit, and then will be free to immediately share in the benefit and/or continue the story.

Artwork. I'm particularly amazed by the gorgeous environmental art, the various skies you fly/chug over. Character portraits are also fantastic.


Economy. It's good! Money is always useful, there's always something worth saving for, lots of interesting things to consider and trade off. (Invest in goods to maximize future profits, or remain liquid to take advantage of unexpected opportunities, or acquire equipment to improve your efficiency? Liquidate a bargain ASAP to increase your cash reserves, or bank it for the benefit of a future member of your lineage?)

Build options. As with so much in this game, it lives up to Sid Meier's famous aphorism about a game being "a series of interesting questions". Trading off, say, hold slots versus crew quarters, or assaying versus mining, is interesting. And situational! I personally found the Reach better with crew and mining, and Albion with hold and assaying. Other captains may feel differently, or have entirely different options available based on their qualities.


Area design. There's a wonderful cohesion and logic to each region: not just a random collection of ports, but a real environment and story. Spending time in the Reach, you get the strong sense of this being a wild, lush, mysterious land. So it makes sense that, say, Supplies are plentiful, but you can't count on finding Fuel everywhere. Whereas Albion is industrial and highly developed, so the opposite is often true there.

Lore. It builds on the marvelous Fallen London cosmology that Failbetter has been growing for a decade, and manages to feel revolutionary and revelatory. We aren't just getting a firsthand look at the Judgments and the Correspondence: We're hearing about entirely new entities and concepts for the first time.

Themes. I wrote about this a little in an earlier post, but Sunless Skies has a lot to say about our own world, despite being set a century ago in another universe. It doesn't exactly beat you over the head about these things, but neither does it shy away from them.

Humor. There's more horror than humor in the game, but plenty of both. The narrative voice can be wonderfully understated, droll, or sardonic, depending on the port and the subject matter.

WHAT'S AVERAGE

Music. I enjoy it, but so far it's been less memorable than the Sea soundtrack. (Or maybe I just haven't listened to it enough yet!)

Combat. This has gotten a lot better since making it easier, but it's still one of my (personal) less favorite parts of the game. Evading works really well in places with obstacles, and I do appreciate the rewards for successful fights.

Terror seems a lot less troublesome than in Sea. Even without doing anything special to manage it, I almost never get over 50, and when I do, it's cheap and easy to get it back down. But I have been running with high-Hearts captains, which probably helps; I also haven't been to Eleutheria yet, which I understand has more Terror stuff.

REGRETS

This will shock absolutely everyone, but: I wish there was more romance. I think I had a single option with one Officer, to whom I did not feel especially attached. Sunless Sea had both the comforting domestic romance and the fraught shipboard flings; it's sad to not have either here.

All right, let's dive into some

MINI SPOILERS

This is the story of Intendant Lloyd, an Auditor with the Ministry of Public Decency who started from humble beginnings to become one of the wealthiest men in London.

My general approach was to do all of the unique quests in the Reach first: Crew quests, location quests (Percy Blythe, etc.), one-time port quests (Traitor's Wood expeditions, Circus restoration, Carillon investigation, etc.). I would typically dock at New Winchester, grab Prospects, come up with a route (which might include, say, stopping by Leadbeater Nature Reserve to buy Seeds for Avon if I didn't already have some banked), figure out what narrative quests I could tackle on that same route, then complete it. This kept a lot of money rolling in while I was doing the fun story stuff.


Once those were mostly exhausted (except for, like, one trip to Hybras that I didn't feel like making), I decamped for Albion. In future games I might do this earlier, as you can pick up the Quartermaster and start some quests like Horology that require you to return to the Reach. Anyways, in my case I pretty much followed the same system of staying in Albion and doing narrative quests in conjunction with fulfilling Prospects. By this point I'd assembled a decent bank of cheaply-acquired goods, so my routes started to get rather quick and focused, without needing extra trips to acquire materials.



It might be more interesting to talk about what I didn't do. I never found the Eagle's Empyrean station in Albion, so a lot of my plot lines (including the Fortunate Navigator and the, uh, people-smuggling thingy) stalled out. I also never found Eleutheria, where a lot of my Crew storylines were pointing to. On the other hand, I did get multiple plot lines taking me in to the Blue Kingdom, and spent a bit of time there. I was a little surprised at how easy it is to get in: just some permits and an Otherworldly Artifact, and the return trip is free.

I made two circuits of the Blue Kingdom, grabbing some sweet exploration XP and loading up on some hard-to-get items (Immaculate Souls, Navaratine Gemstones). The enemies there are brutal. On my second circuit, I got chased from the Lyceum all the way back to the Transit Relay by the blue Correspondence, who kept slamming me with projectiles until the last second. I watched the screen nervously as they WHOMP WHOMP WHOMPed into the closing relay, hoping that they wouldn't count as damage against me, and made it out with less than 10 Hull. I did pick up an awesome Plating upgrade that also enables Assaying... but thanks to a poor choice with the cult of the Displeased at Avid Horizon, I never assembled the Hearts required to equip it. A situation I believe my next captain will be able to remedy!



As it was, I ended the game with pretty much exactly the same loadout as my last post. That's yet another thing I like about this game's design: equipment is tiered, at 25-point intervals, so you tend to plateau and can spend some time with a loadout, instead of constantly tinkering for marginal improvements. Anyways, my final ship was:

  • Engine: Pellinore-class trader
  • Front gun: Vala (single-shot, high damage)
  • Rear weapon: Sneeze-lurker (mine)
  • Utility 1: Speciometer (assaying)
  • Utility 2: Durendel Canning System (butchery + hold)
  • Bridge: Fitted Cupboards (hold)
  • Plating: Bronzewood Shielding (hull)
As noted before, I plan to swap in The Watchers in Azure for my Bronzewood Plating on my new Captain. After that... I think I've got the best stuff I want for pretty much everything, so I may just start saving up for the 16k Devil ship, or find my way to Eleutheria and see what they have to offer. (The Royal Society has some really tempting stuff, but most of it requires high Veils, which is my dump stat.)

Oh! I should talk about that, too. All of my characters so far have focused on Hearts, then Mirrors and/or Iron, with Veils as my absolute lowest. I don't have a great sense yet for the various stats, but I feel like they're all pretty viable.  Hearts helps a lot with reducing Terror in Albion and various random challenges. Oddly, most "convince people to do something" challenges are Veils and not Hearts, so I haven't been good at, like, elections. Iron and Mirrors help a lot with loot-related challenges.

Unlike in Sunless Sea, your stats don't directly impact gameplay: for example, high Iron doesn't deliver more damage, and high Veils doesn't make you harder to hit. Besides being used for stat challenges in storylets, they also allow you to equip advanced equipment. Starter gear can be equipped with no stats, but better gear requires 25, 50, or 75 in a specific stat.

Let's do some math! Getting 75 in all 4 stats would require 300 points. You start the game with 40 base points, then another 22 from character creation. Each level up gives you 8 more points. There are a maximum of 20 levels in the game, for a total of 160 points. You have 4 officer slots. A fully upgraded officer gives 10 points in a single stat, for a total of 40 points. Finally, the best Mascot I've seen yet gives 3 stat points. Adding this all together, you  may be able to reach a grand total of 265 points with a fully maxed character. (In practice, you'll likely lose some stat points in storylets.) So, I don't think it's possible for a single captain to equip every best-in-slot piece. But you can reach 75 in 3 different stats, which I think is the ideal way to go.

Uh, sorry for the tangent. Anyways, I'd bought the house in London for my Ambition. I wasn't worried about getting the money to retire, but it also requires some difficult-to-acquire items. I actually really like how this Ambition is structured: you can choose which city to house your estate, and can also select from one of, I think, five different options to actually win, each of which costs a different amount of Sovereigns (ranging from 7,000 to 13,666), various collections of high-end Possessions (Searing Enigmas, Royal Dispensations, Cryptic Benefactors, etc.), and possibly 5+ of a given Affiliation (Establishment, Villainy, etc.). Narratively I was mostly drawn to the Establishment-aligned one, but I was far closer to finishing the Infernal one. Most of the others require two Captivating Treasures, which I haven't even seen yet across all my playthroughs. I was able to get the required Crimson Promises at the end of two longish story arcs in Albion, then set about raising the money.


This brought into relief something I'd been mulling for a while: Which is better, items or possessions? For most of the game I'd vastly preferred possessions. They don't take any space in your hold, and you can have an unlimited number of them; they come in handy in various unexpected places, and can often be transformed into other things. But possessions are very much the property of this specific Captain and not of your lineage. Every single item in your Bank will be transmitted into the future, so it's a form of solid capital wealth; possessions, on the other hand, are more of your human/knowledge capital. You can pass down a very limited number of these (1 for each Affiliation point you have), but anything else will be wasted.

In my case, I took this as a prompt to visit all the areas in the game that are thoughtfully set up to liquidate Possessions: Titania for my Sky-Stories (I had over 60) and Visions of Heaven (I had over 40), the Royal Society for Academic items, and finally London itself for my Salon-Stewed Gossip and Ministry Permits. This was a lot of clicking! It did make me realize that I probably should have been gradually liquidating them along the way as I visited those ports; anything over, say, 20 of the low-level items will be more than enough, so you might as well get some XP and gold for it.

Immediately before my retirement, I did wrap up the Rat Brigade's story and the Fatalistic Signalman. I'm very glad that I did! I'd gotten used to how your crew in Sunless Sea reset on each new captain, and it was a genuine delight to see the Signalman's own legacy continue in my personal future.

So, yes, I am very happy with this game and already eager to start off the next! It's interesting to note that my next captain started in London and not New Winchester; this definitely makes sense, as that's where Lloyd retired. I do kind of miss Sea's narrative options to define how your legacy extends (a child, a partner, a rival, etc.), but I should take the opportunity to think of my own creative meta-story for these characters.

Starting in Albion instead of the Reach is interesting. The Prospects tend to be more profitable, and with a substantial Bank of items waiting, she was able to get back on her feet very quickly. But it looks like most of your Officers are still waiting in the Reach, so I'll probably be heading there very shortly to (re-) recruit them. Those extra points are very important, especially when I'm trying to figure out how to spend my Facets. (Oh: Lloyd had retired at, hm, I think level 15 or 16, and my new captain started at 11. Successfully completing the Wealth ambition unlocks a fantastic new Facet that gives you an additional free level up or 1000 Sovereigns.)

That's enough of my lineage. I wanted to jot down a few half-formed thoughts on the High Wilderness:

All of the Hours stuff is really interesting. Sunless Skies is famously set in a Victorian imagination of space, so it's different from ours: not as cold or empty, more like being really high up in the sky. Hours, though, feel like a way to kind of get something akin to Einstein's Theory of Relativity into a pre-Einsteinian universe. The basic idea is that you can mine time: physical material that contains seconds or hours or centuries. Those hours can then be applied to objects or areas to locally slow down time. This is how long-distance travel works in the game: The Reach and Albion are very distant from one another (we would say many light-years away). By coating your locomotive in hours, the locomotive can make the, say, thousand-year journey from point A to point B while, from your perspective, only a single day has passed.


That's all cool and supports the gameplay. Where this gets really interesting, though, is when you start considering what that would actually mean in society, specifically in the highly capitalistic Belle Epoque era of the early 1900s. Industrialists have created "Workworlds" like New Brabazon, enclosing them in Hours to locally speed up time. The laborers inside may toil for a year and produce a year's worth of finished goods, while outside the workworld only a week has passed. This is hugely profitable for the owners, and can be devastating for the workers, as they age and die far faster than their loved ones outside. But there are wrinkles here, too: as the overseers in the game observe, this also means that the revolutionaries have far more time to plot and prepare within their time-well than the overseers do outside it.

This all also helps explain why Albion looks the way it does. By the calendar, we're less than a decade from when Victoria led the Empire through the Avid Horizon, so it's a bit startling to see such a huge and well-constructed infrastructure in place. But it's only a decade from Earth's perspective. Albion was built on the backs of labor, some of whom have spent lifetimes toiling to build. This gets alluded to by, say, the Fatalistic Signalman as well. Some grand projects that might seem like trifles or follies may have consumed entire lives to build.



And speaking of Avid Horizon... I haven't Sought in Fallen London, but I'm at least somewhat cognizant of the lore around NORTH, and did complete the Merchant Venturer's expedition in Sunless Sea. All that to say, it seems a little startling that was felt like such a private, personal, nihilistic pilgrimage by a single tortured soul has, apparently, opened the way for the entire British empire to follow. I never would have imagined that.

END SPOILERS

Lots more to write, I'm sure, but that'll do for now. There's more Sunless Skies yet to play! I'm currently playing a poet who is attempting to write the Song of the Sky. There are at least two more Ambitions that will follow after that... we will see where those lead me!