Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The Big Apple

I have a short update on a very long game, and a long update on a very short game, both published by Paradox Interactive!

 I've abandoned my Feverian run of Stellaris, thanks entirely to my own stupidity. The game had been going great: my "be nice or we'll beat you up" hegemony had absorbed every single empire in the galaxy shortly after 2300, and my empire was already researching future techs. I'd vassalized and absorbed a few other empires, was the sole Council member in the Galactic Community, terraformed all my planets into Gaia worlds. And then, like an idiot, I rivaled the Fallen Empires.

I think I was remembering my previous Pacifist game, where it was surprisingly hard to get the FEs to attack me, so I wanted to start preparing the groundwork early. And I was just starting to build Gateways, so Influence was in shorter supply than ever. But of course you can't choose when the FEs will attack you. Oddly enough, it wasn't the Fanatic Xenophobes, but rather the Fanatic Materialists who came after me. Their Fleet Power was maybe 25% or so higher than mine, and at first they did the trademark brain-dead FE thing and flew away in the exact opposite direction. But once I started attacking their bases they quickly returned and annihilated me, including my brand-new Juggernaut. Alas.

It would be interesting to keep it going and try to recover, but I decided to call it a game and try something else out. During a recent Steam sale during Paradox's annual convention, they offered big discounts across their entire catalog. I picked up a handful of other Stellaris DLCs I wanted, like Distant Stars and Ancient Relics; and I also grabbed Vampire: The Masquerade: Coteries of New York, which is by another studio called Draw Distance but published by Paradox.

It was pretty big news a couple of years ago when Paradox acquired rights to the World of Darkness, which have languished since the demise of Troika. The big reveal was the proper sequel to Bloodlines, which I have been excited for and then alarmed about. But in addition to that big-budget game, Paradox has also been partnering with a surprisingly wide range of developers for lower-budget indie-esque takes on the property. I don't remember seeing an approach like that before; the closest analogue is probably Lucasfilm, making a bunch of Star Wars-themed games across a wide variety of genres and game types.

Coteries of New York was one of the (or perhaps the?) first games to come out under the new arrangement. At first blush, it looks a lot like a visual novel. It's very text-heavy, with no recorded dialogue. The vast majority of scenes show a single character standing in front of a background scene, delivering dialogue, and eventually culminating in a three-choice response from you.

 

That said, the production values are a lot higher than you'd expect from a Ren'Py-type visual novel. The backgrounds in particular are fantastic. When looking at a map of New York City, the arterial streets pulse with blood. Flickering fluorescent lights battle against downpouring rain to illuminate a darkened storefront. Dancers jump and writhe in the background of a club.


The visual design is also fantastic. The character designs are a real highlight, with the vampires looking brooding and magnetic. The city itself is wonderfully gritty; you're often just around the corner from some famous tourist spot, scraping up against the real hard edges of the city, with potholed streets and rusty drainpipes and overgrown bushes.


The overall writing and dialogue are really good. There are a handful of minor typos, and a couple of places where it seems like some lines are just skipped: you have to press "Continue" twice to advance, and then see a response without any prompt. But with so much text these minor hiccups don't really stand out. Each character has a nicely distinctive voice, recognizable motivations and personality. Almost all of the action in the game is communicated through text instead of visuals, and they do a great job at making you viscerally feel the punches and gunshots and metallic taste of blood thanks to the evocative writing.

Music is great in the game, with a mix of ambient tunes and background sound, but there are some inexplicable silent stretches in the game that made me miss it.

And the gameplay? Well, the introduction is a pure straight-up visual novel. There are lots of branching paths choose-your-own-adventure-style, but no real mechanics. Once you move into the main game, there's a bit more gameplay, but it's very light. The game really just has one mechanic, Hunger. Your Hunger increases slowly over time, and more rapidly if you take physical damage or use vampiric abilities like Presence or Fortitude. Hunger decreases when you feed on humans. I never saw what happens when Hunger gets too high, but presumably it's Very Bad.


From what I can tell, you should pretty much always Feed whenever the game gives you the opportunity to do so; these chances just come up at predefined points during specific stories, so you can't seek them out when Hunger gets high. There are a few symbols that appear on Hunger-related options, and sometimes they are unavailable, which I think might mean you have too much or too little hunger? The symbols were honestly a bit annoying, they only tell you what they mean once and you can't look it up again later, either in-game or anywhere online.


In practice, most Hunger-related situations feel like a wash. Using a vampiric power will increase Hunger while letting you avoid damage; not using the power will deal you damage and thus increase Hunger. If you Feed early in a mission, you'll probably face an encounter later that increases Hunger again. Not always, though! The game does generally make sense, and based on what you know about situations and characters, you might be able to navigate through a scenario without ever using a Power or getting injured.

All of this power and hunger and blood stuff lines up very well with my previous experiences in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, and presumably with the original White Wolf pen-and-paper game. Overall the game feels very lore-friendly. Stuff is explained well in-game and aligns with the overall mythology and mood of V:TM.

While hunger is the one mechanic, you do have a good amount of control over what your character does, mostly driven by mission selection. In the main part of the game, you can choose what to do each night. Most nights you can do two things, some nights only one. Usually a given subplot will have a slight pause between acts, forcing you to spread your attentions a bit instead of just following one line until its conclusion.

Unlike, say, the Shadowrun video games, you will only be able to do a limited number of sidequests during the course of the game. There are a limited number of nights, and the main plot automatically progresses on specific nights regardless of your actions. I think you're best off going "deep", picking a couple of specific stories and following them through to completion, rather than going "wide", starting a bunch of different stories. Which specific stories you follow don't seem to matter much, but at least one should probably involve recruiting coterie members.

MINI SPOILERS

Coteries of New York is good on the "choice" front, but not so good on the "consequences" side. For example, you can pick one of three characters to play as; but based on what I've seen after 1.5 playthroughs, the main part of the game is the game for all of them, with some relatively minor flavor text differences. You seem to have a lot of choices in how you progress through the introduction, but either you get railroaded into the same main plot or the game ends early. I was curious if your actions during that phase could cause you to become aligned with another faction, but it doesn't look like you can.


People do pay attention to how you treat them. For coterie members, that seems to affect whether they agree to join you or not. For other characters it affects their dialogue. Different people like different things and require particular approaches: for some people, you have to be really direct and project a tough image, while for others you have to be deferential and polite.


So, the game does track your words and actions, but that's the only thing it tracks. There aren't any items to collect or gear to upgrade or powers to learn or anything. It's all about relationships.

MEGA SPOILERS

This seems like a prime example of a "buy it on sale" game. I feel kind of bad writing that, since I always say that I want shorter games, and at about five hours for a playthrough this is actually a pretty awesome length for me. But the actual ending, while very appropriate to the lore and mood of Vampire The Masquerade, feels unsatisfying.

 


I was reminded in some ways of the Shadowrun games. In both universes, you are only a tiny insignificant pawn of far greater forces: the megacorps and the dragons of Shadowrun, or the ancient senior vampires and centuries-old traditions and societies of V:TM. I feel like the Shadowrun CRPGs do a good job at honoring this setting by emphasizing the impact you can make on a small slice of the world, even if you can't hope to change the status quo. In CoNY, you are left feeling like you had no agency or purpose at all, which is a much more deflating feeling for a player. (Though, granted, very much in line with my understanding of the tone of V:TM.)

END SPOILERS

As noted above, this game is on the short side and might be something to wishlist rather than purchase; I was really happy with it at $8, but I might have been more bummed at $20. If you really like vampires, though, this game delivers them in spades.


It's available on Steam for all computers, and on consoles, including the Switch. I actually feel like this would be an excellent game for mobile play: it's divided into nice short storytelling chunks, is text-heavy, and doesn't have any time-sensitive action gameplay. It would be great for commutes and plane flights now that we're doing those again. It's interesting to me that it isn't available for tablets or phones, since it isn't extremely technically advanced and seems like a great match for those devices.

While I didn't love this game, I did thoroughly enjoy it, and will be checking out the sequel once it's on sale too. Paradox has been publishing a bunch of World Of Darkness games, some of which seem to be even more text-heavy than this one. This seems to be a sensible direction for TTRPG adaptations, to try out a bunch of different projects with different partners aimed at different markets, rather than putting all of your eggs in one basket and hoping that a decade-long effort bears fruit.

In many ways, the visual novel (or text adventure!) adaptations seem to be closer to the experience of playing a pen-and-paper roleplaying game with a GM than a graphically-intensive first-person open-world game would be. It's all about imagination, and words can be incredibly evocative if we let them be.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Pretty Niess!

And, just like that, I've finished The Broken Earth Trilogy! The Stone Sky is the third and final entry, and it pulls off an admirable job bringing things to a satisfying conclusion. There's an interesting telescoping effect throughout the series: as we read more, we learn more about what's happening in The Stillness as the story moves forward in time; but we're also learning more about the history of the world, how things got to be this way and why. This isn't just world-building: the protagonists' only chance of making things better rests on understanding what led up to this point. For the most part we're learning things at the same time that they are, keeping a nice sense of mystery and tension through the novel.

 


 

MINI SPOILERS

 

Way back while reading the first book, I was wondering whether The Stillness was a post-apocalyptic version of our Earth. Now that the series is wrapped up, I feel fairly confident that it is not. There are definitely similarities: the geological formation of the planet is similar, as are the lifeforms, the core and mantle and crust, and a single satellite in orbit; but we go, like, forty thousands years into the past of the Stillness, and never learn of anything that's clearly from our own timeline. It seems to be a fantasy world, not our own. Which isn't to say that it has nothing to say about us! But I don't think it's a direct tie-in along the lines of, say, Planet of the Apes.

The main argument I had earlier on for the planets being the same was the similar-but-not-identical language, with words like "Comm" and "Quad" that seemed like possible descendants of English. There is interesting use of language and words throughout the series, and I think I'm missing some of their significance. I was surprised early in the second book to learn of a town named Found Moon, shortly after Essun heard about the Moon for the first time. I kept wondering why it was named that, and am still wondering at the end of the third book. It seems like it can't possibly be a coincidence.

 

MEGA SPOILERS

 

We do have a slightly clearer picture of what's up with the Guardians, though. While it isn't ever explicitly spelled out, my personal read on it is that most of the Guardians were dedicated to preserving the status quo: controlling orogenes, using them to quell most Seasons, and just surviving through the Seasons that still occur. The three Guardians in Found Moon were taken over by Father Earth and working for him; I'm not sure exactly what their mission was, but I'm guessing they were training the orogenes to turn them into weapons and eventually destroy humanity. Schaffa was then turned to a third direction, as a result of a confluence of influences: vague memories of pre-Shattering life, regret over his cumulative actions as a Guardian, and a sense of protection towards Nassun. I think he ended up with the same goals as Hoa, seeking to heal the wounds of the past, make peace with the Earth and help orogenes live in peace with stills.

As for the majority of the Guardians, my hunch is that they were somehow connected to the surviving humans on the moon who were struck by the exploding angry rock. Perhaps during that 100-year period between the failed launch and the Shattering they learned how to modify the influence of the Earth's iron shards, while keeping its power to prolong their lives and have superhuman abilities

It's interesting to think that there might have been factions even during that century, as humanity decided how best to prepare for the catastrophe. Perhaps Guardians and Lorists represented two different factions, with the Guardians as cold pragmatists and the Lorists as hopeful optimists. The Guardians' near-immortality kept their mission more or less on track through the millennia, while the Lorists' shorter and more fraught lifespans eventually stripped away much of the meaning behind their traditions.

Learning about the corruption of stonelore was really fascinating: some knowledge was just lost or forgotten, but some of it was deliberately repressed, like the Third Tablet (I think) that the Sanzed modified in order to justify their cruel treatment of orogenes. That ties in with an ongoing interest of mine about how hard it is to remain to a principle or a project across centuries, let alone millennia.

One specific piece of stonelore that we learn near the start of the first book is gates should be built out of stone instead of metal. At the time that had struck me as odd; metal is more malleable and less brittle than stone. By the end of the third book, we learn the true, forgotten reason behind that verse: it is because metal serves Father Earth, and cannot be trusted, because it could attack the inhabitants at any time. That said, it's odd to me that geologically they can trust stone: both stone and metal come from the earth, after all. I wonder if there are chemical properties of iron that make it more dangerous than stone. In real life iron is vastly more conductive, and perhaps in the world of the Stillness that means it's easier for Father Earth to control.

And man, Father Earth is terrifying! It's a trip to realize that he/it really is a sentient entity and not just a folkloric idea. Learning about what happens to dead people after they are buried in the ground is shocking and horrifying. It seems like a literal depiction of hell.

But, what Father Earth does to the souls of the dead has strong parallels to what Syl Anagist did to the Niess. Humanity did it to itself long before the Earth did. It really clarifies why Alabaster was so adamant that he not be buried after death.

Heh, I feel like I've written way too much about the backstory and nothing about the actual plot! It was really cool. I was curious how the Essun/Nassun dynamic would be resolved, it ended up being pretty sad, but in a way that felt very earned and kind of cathartic. After all of their history I would have had a hard time swallowing a happy reconciliation. I loved the focus on community, which often gets ignored or shortchanged in fantasy novels. Knowing that Castrima will survive and be able to model positive relations between orogenes and stills gives a huge amount of hope to the end of the book, despite the loss of a major character.


END SPOILERS

 

All in all, a really great series from a new (to me) author! I hadn't heard of N. K. Jemisin before, but it looks like she's written a lot of other stuff, and I'm very tempted to check more of it out. At least in this series, she really nicely threaded the needle between worldbuilding, character development, strong themes, clever twists, and excellent writing, feeding many different parts of my brain. I can't ask for more!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Cat Scratch Fever

I'm finally checking out the Federation DLC for Stellaris, and am having a blast with it. The timing worked out pretty well: Paradox just rolled out the significant 3.0 update version to Stellaris, and as usual most of those updates are made freely available to all players. I've been getting up to speed on the base game tweaks and also playing with all the shiny new toys from Federation.


I made another custom civ this time around, the Feverians: they're cute fox-like mammals. This build was somewhat similar to my last game as the Phasianidae: I'm a Pacifist, Fanaticically Xenophilic Oligarchy, running the Shadow Council and Meritocracy civics. I switched up the Traits a little bit, grabbing a few negative characteristics so I could also get more positive ones. Nonadaptive gives 10% Habitability, which hypothetically makes settled planets less happy and productive, but in practice its downsides are really limited. Your home planet always has 100% Habitability regardless, and I usually try to go for the World Shaper Ascension Perk early to get Gaia worlds, which also have a fixed 100% rating. And, since I try and get Migration Treaties early with a variety of aliens, as long as I can use someone else to initially colonize, I get the full Habitability for all species on the planet, even later-arriving Feverians. I also took the Fleeting trait, which reduces leader lifespans by 10 years. Again, since I run multi-cultural empires I can draw leaders from a variety of species; and once you hit the endgame, you can research repeatable tech to indefinitely extend your leaders' lifespans, so they're effectively immortal anyways. And finally I chose Quarrelsome, which reduces Unity output. I was a bit torn on that; Unity is super-important for much of the game, especially early on, when each Tradition and especially Ascension Perk can be game-changing. But in all of my games so far, I end up producing way more Unity than I can use, even while keeping all Unity Edicts up all the time, and there's no way to utilize the surplus.
 

On the positive side, I took Intelligent, which boosts all Science jobs. In all of my successful games so far I've invested hard into research early on, then used that to slingshot my economy, then used that to slingshot my navy. (But see below for some new thoughts I have on that.) I also took Rapid Breeders, which increases your population growth speed. In my previous games, getting a lot of Pops was the single most important recipe for success. It sounds like 3.0 has made some significant changes to pop growth, turning into a more severely logarithmic curve. I'm curious if Rapid Breeders will help with that change or be less relevant as a result.

But I had one huge change from my previous game: the Origin. The Federations DLC adds a bunch of new Origin options, and I opted for "Hegemon", which starts you off as the leader of a hegemony. This gives you two free Traditions to unlock the Federation Diplomacy option, and sets you up with two friendly neighbors who share your Ethics and contribute to your Hegemony.
 

As noted in earlier posts, I've been very jealous of the Federation options gated behind the DLC, and for the most part this has solved all of my earlier complaints about them. First off, the Hegemony itself is really cool. It is a little bizarre the way I'm using it; we're now collectively mostly a Xenophilic Pacifist Authoritarian Spiritualist Hegemony who aggressively use Liberation Wars to force the rest of the galaxy to be Pacifist Xenophiles too. I feel a lot like the United States circa 1880-1970: Lots of running up to dictators, shouting "BE MORE PEACEFUL!!!" and punching them in the face until they say "Fine, fine! We'll be peaceful, just stop punching us!" Then I absorb them into my Hegemony and we keep rolling. It feels a bit like Germany joining NATO or Japan allying with the US after WW2.
 

I didn't use Liberation Wars much before now, and I really really love them. At the end of the war you'll get a huge "Liberator" opinion bonus that usually jumps your overall relation to something like +1000, making them very amenable partners. The Status Quo outcome will create a brand-new empire, with no existing diplomatic relations and, again, a huge Liberator bonus to you.

I've needed to re-learn that Stellaris really wants you to fight each war twice. You can usually unlock the Status Quo outcome within a couple of months, after winning a major naval engagement and invading at least one planet. Getting to Surrender can take a decade against a large opponent, though. You'll usually need to occupy all planets and most systems; and since defeated fleets will reappear after six months or so, those wars can drag on for ages as you chase them all around the system. My current favorite MO against large empires is to hit quick, invading all but one of their planets, then end the war with Status Quo. This will create a new friendly empire that you can bring into your fold, while crippling the power and resources of the old empire. Then after the cease-fire has passed, declare war again. This time you should only need to invade one planet, or maybe two if they've freshly colonized, and the bulk of their fleets should be above that same planet. All in all that means a total of about one year at war, separated by a decade, instead of a solid decade of war.
 

There are multiple ways to bring into the fold. I've really been loving the hegemony/federation approach. Besides encouraging (or, in the case of a Hegemony, forcing) its members to get along, it lets you outsource your military. In my current game, my Naval Capacity is just 18 (!), but I'm controlling a Federation Fleet that consists of 70 corvettes, 16 destroyers and 6 cruisers, all paid for and built by my dutiful subjects-er-I-mean-allies. I've ignored almost all military techs (except for ones that boost ship speed, power, and detection, which also apply to my Science and Construction ships); but the lacking techs don't matter, since the Federation Ship Designers can use any tech that any member has unlocked. The upshot is that I get vastly more military prowess and a significant boost to my production and tech, all without incurring any more Sprawl.

Another thing that I recently tried out and loved is creating Subjects. I kind of stumbled into this: I had done my one-two punch on the B'henn Thell Commonwealth, but after they joined my Hegemony, they embraced their Xenophobic faction, creating a big loss of cohesion due to conflicting ethics. I was ticked off and booted them from my Hegemony (which, thanks to Federations, I can do unilaterally), with the vague plan of doing another Liberation War to force them back. But they still had a really high opinion of me, and a few weeks later, they asked me to accept them as a Protectorate. I agreed. To make a long story short, I was eventually able to integrate them into my empire: this only cost 105 Influence points, and gave me 37 (!!) systems, four starbases, two planets, about 50 pops, and a smattering of ships and other resources. The outposts alone are worth at least 2775 influence, let alone whatever value you'd put on the pops and stuff. 

 
So, yeah, that's going to make me give some pretty serious thought to how I want to handle conquest and expansion in the future. In the past, when I've wanted to expand into a rival's territory, I've pretty much always used Claims followed by a Conquest war. But that's really expensive, especially since going more than 1 system deep into their territory has an increasing Influence cost. In the future I might lean more towards using the Subjugation casus belli, or doing a Liberation and then diplomacy to turn the new or reformed empire into a subject. Interestingly, this also gives a viable way for Pacifist empires to expand into rival territory, which I previously hadn't really understood.

Also, I was curious if, as a Pacifist empire, I'd be able to use the Establish Hegemony wargoal despite having my policy set to Liberation Wars Only. It turns out that, yes, you totally can! That's extra exciting since it probably means that Fanatic Pacifists will also have access to that wargoal. My original plan with this was to use Establish Hegemony on empires that already shared my ethics and Liberation on empires that did not. I'm not 100% sure, but I think I've seen that empires conquered with Establish Hegemony are adopting my ethics anyways; we'll see if that lasts. (My hope is that, over the long term, being in a Federation with active Migration Treaties will gradually shift everyone in a Xenophilic direction anyways.)

While I'm overall loving the federation features, there are still some quirks, and you won't be surprised to learn that most of them have to do with the AI. In no particular order:

The AI is really gullible and often stupid in their voting. One mechanic of federations is that empires are more likely to agree with a proposal when Cohesion is high; in particular, anything over 90% cohesion significantly increases the likelihood of the "Yes" vote. But this seems to apply to any vote, not just ones put forward by the player or the President. In my case, I had a single Xenophobic empire that kept trying to Disable Free Migration. Everyone else in the empire is a Xenophile and loves free migration, but they would support this vote... then, after it passed, everyone would sign Migration Treaties with each other. (Including the Xenophobes!) The upshot is that they all wasted a ton of Influence for absolutely no benefit. After 10 years had passed I would vote to enable Free Migration, and they would all go along with it again.

This is aggravated by another problem which I had run into before, namely that the game is very inconsistent in what votes you can influence. For certain specific votes you can spend Favors to convince other empires to vote your way, but for others you can't. That's frustrating!

There's also one technical quirk that's annoying. Adding or removing a member from the Federation will incur a Cohesion loss. Once the Hegemony reaches a certain level, the penalty for adding to the Federation decreases, which is cool. Also, whenever an empire joins the Hegemony, their Subjects join as well, which is also cool. However, once the Subject is integrated into their parent empire, it counts as them leaving the Federation, which incurs a massive loss of cohesion. It seems like that should be a non-event, since every system and pop that was in the Federation before is still in it afterward.
 

And while it isn't directly related to Federations, it seems messed up that, after successfully completing a Liberation war and forcing an ideology on an empire, they can immediately embrace another faction and switch their ideology back. I really wish that the standard 20-year limit on shifting ethics would count Liberation as an ethics shift. Since it is!

All in all, though, I'm having a blast, and the DLC has solved the vast majority of my earlier annoyances with Federations. Really, it gives you the tools to be the big boss and stay in power: modify the Succession Laws to ensure you will remain the President, then modify the other laws so the President can unilaterally make decisions. It's pretty great!

Some other random thoughts:

One of the most obvious changes I've seen in 3.0 so far has been a reworking of the Building mechanic. Previously, you unlocked a new Building slot for every 5 pops you had on a planet, up to an eventual maximum. Now, they're much more scarce: You unlock one Building Slot for each City District you build; and an extra Slot each time you upgrade the Capital. There are a handful of Techs and Civics and things to give more slots, but they're more limited in general.

Previously, Civilian Industries and Alloy Foundries were the most commonly built buildings, to create Consumer Goods and Alloys. In 3.0, you now build Industrial Districts, which create +2 Housing, +1 Metallurgist and +1 Artisan jobs.

Overall, I think I'm liking the new system a bit better, which seems to be pushing you more towards specialized worlds and sectors. If a planet has a lot of Agriculture districts then it's worth spending a precious Building slot on Food Processing Facilities; if you have an Intelligent Governor, then you'll probably want to place a lot of Research Labs on those planets and not elsewhere in your empire.

I am a little concerned about what things will look like in the endgame. City districts still create a lot more Housing than the Jobs unlocked by their corresponding Buildings. In 2.0 you could pretty easily keep these in sync, but my back-of-napkin math for 3.0 makes me think I'll end up with way too much Housing in the endgame. But, if population growth slows down significantly then I guess maybe running out of jobs won't be a concern. I guess we'll see!

Circling back to tech: As I mentioned before, my strategy in all my games so far has been to go in hard on research right away, and use that to boost my economy, and only invest in military late in the game. But here, while skipping a lot of military tech, I've gotten a lot of Debris from fighting alien empires. In the past I've only really done Debris from the exotic aliens (like ancient mining droids and space amoebas) or late-game ones (like Fallen Empires and the crisis), not my neighbors. I think that's because, by the time I fought them, I had surpassed all their military techs. Anyways, it's been really nice to pick up a lot of free research and even full techs through warfare. It seems like any major naval engagement will leave some debris that, once analyzed, gives +10% progress on any tech they have that you can research but haven't yet discovered. Given all that, I'm now thinking that it would be very viable to play a low-research game: as long as you're just a few steps behind your neighbors, you can catch up to them in the course of prosecuting a war.
 

Finally, I've been sad to see neighbors purging alien pops, but it's also been a huge benefit to me personally: I think I've gained something like 20+ free pops who have fled my (not-yet-liberated) xenophobic neighbors. It looks like there's a specific planet that they conquered, which has like 40+ pops all of a single alien race: none of them are working to produce any resources at all, all of them are just dying off, being purged. It isn't just evil, it's also dumb strategy! Gotta use those pops and get that production, dudes!

Okay, that's it! Oh, I also picked up a few more DLCs in the recent 50% off sale, but I have disabled those in my current game since I'm not sure how they'll change things in progress. I'm looking forward to checking them out in a future excursion, though!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Well, THAT Was Weird!

After I wrote my previous post in April 2020 about my experiences with the Coronavirus lockdown, I started been thinking about what my follow-up post would be: I imagined a summing-up of everything that had happened, how I'd responded to it, and what I was taking away from it. In recent months, though, I've come to realize that there won't be a single moment or day that we can point to and say "This is when it ended." "Getting back to normal" is a process, not a point in time.

That said, today does feel like as good a day as any for this post. Today marks the two-week anniversary of my second Pfizer vaccine, and thus the day that I am fully vaccinated. Hooray!

One thing that has kind of surprised me, but probably shouldn't have, has been how quickly things have opened back up. In lots of ways the end of the pandemic feels eerily similar to the start. I still vividly remember the weeks in late February and early March 2020, when we in the Bay Area were first starting to seriously contemplate what might be coming. I was shocked when Santa Clara banned events of over 5000 people, shutting down professional sports in the county. Mere days later, gatherings of over 50 people were banned. Companies that could work from home started ordering their employees out of the offices, and a few days later we were told to not congregate with anyone we didn't live with.

And now, in May 2021, we got updated CDC guidance stating that fully vaccinated people can safely gather indoors with in small groups without masks, but must continue to mask in almost all other situations. And, just a week or two later, we're told that fully vaccinated people can do pretty much anything, with only a handful of lingering exceptions like flying on airplanes or attending large conferences. (Though the state of California is still holding to its original reopening date of June 15, at least for now.)

In my mind, I was imagining a much more gradual transition and longer timelines. I tend to think that things can be destroyed much faster than they are created: you can tear apart a building or a piece of electronics much more quickly than you can put it back together. I thought of the pandemic and the lockdown as a kind of destruction of our way of life, and what we're entering into now as a phase of healing and rebuilding. That might not be the best way to think of it, though. On a practical level, people are very eager to do the things they miss doing, and it's really hard to tell someone "This thing will be safe, but you need to wait until June to do it."

Another odd bit of mirroring is my ground-level experience with and observation of mask-wearing. In the early days of the pandemic, we were pointedly and repeatedly told not to wear masks: they were only for healthcare workers, and all we had to concern ourselves with was hand-washing and social distancing. I read some sources that were trustworthy and informed but not official, the one I remember most being Nicola Griffith's blog, which were ahead of the curve in offering advice. "Of course you should wear a mask!", they said. "This is a respiratory illness. It would be crazy if it didn't spread through the air!" Personally, I decided early on to be guided by the officials: CDC, county health, California regulations. I'm not a scientist, and don't have the time or mental fortitude to sift through all the data out there, so rather than drive myself crazy about what I should or shouldn't be doing I'd just follow the official guidelines.

Which all sounds well and good, but of course the guidelines kept changing. Which isn't bad! Guidelines are based on science, and science is an ever-evolving consensus rather than a monolithic religion. Still, even though I could draw comfort in knowing that I was following the right process, it was disconcerting to realize that I hadn't always been doing the right thing.

For masks, there was a gradual shift over time as they were forbidden, then accepted "if you are vulnerable and feel like you require one", then encouraged, and finally mandated. Here in the Bay Area, compliance seemed to move pretty much at the same speed as the official guidance, and from one week to the next or even day to day you could see drastic changes in peoples' appearances and behavior.

For the record, I really hated wearing a mask. I did it, and felt better about it over time, but it was probably the single most defeating, soul-sapping aspect of the pandemic for me.

There was a period of time in early 2020 where the state and counties closed down parks and beaches. Knowing what we know now, that seems kind of insane: outdoors activities are vastly safer than indoor ones. Even once they reopened, though, I continued to squat at home, going on some small neighborhood walks but not venturing out to any of my favorite local parks.

I finally broke my hiking fast in... hm, it might have been Memorial Day. I had gone for over ten weeks without hiking, the longest stretch by a long shot since 2003. I went to my normal spot, which includes a nice, broad, paved trail that climbs steeply uphill. It's wide enough that you can maintain six feet of distance while passing someone, which made me feel better about being out and around other people.

But, I wondered, should I be wearing a mask or not? Based on the guidelines at the time, you were supposed to mask up if you couldn't maintain six feet of distance, so technically I was fine; but I would be within that "danger zone" if folks weren't walking single-file or sticking to their side of the path. At first I would carry my mask with me, and mask up if it looked like people I was passing weren't maintaining that horizontal distance or if they were masked up. As the months went on, I got kind of tired of the off-and-on dance, and would typically just keep it on for long stretches, only taking it off very early in the morning or far up the ridge where I could walk for an hour without seeing other people.

All that said, I feel like I'm now going through the opposite process, from getting used to wearing a mask to getting used to not wearing a mask, and once again looking to others for social cues on what I should be doing. Now I default to keeping my mask off, but I still have it with me, and will pull it up if someone else happens to be wearing theirs.

There's been a huge shift in just the last two weeks, though. In just that time I'd say the trail has gone from roughly 80% masked hikers to 20% masked. It feels so nice to be able to smile at people again and see their smiles in return! I've been hiking this trail for so long that I've come to recognize a lot of people, and it's felt kind of emotional to actually see them again. We typically just nod or wave to each other, but last weekend an older woman said "It's so good to see you again!" and I immediately replied "I know, it's good to see your face!" And, it's also great to recognize that we've all been in this together: we've all been keeping careful, doing the right things, and now we can finally relax, thanks to the actions of one another.

I do feel incredibly relieved to be vaccinated, and feel a sense of awe at all the intelligence and hard work that went into creating the vaccines and distributing them to so many people. I've also been fascinated at the sociology and psychology around vaccinations, from when they were first announced through our current moment (in the US) of abundance. Lots of folks in my social circle seemed to have a sense of FOMO and went to great lengths to try and get vaccinated ASAP: Nobody fibbed about their age or health conditions, but they would spend hours refreshing web sites and hunting through Facebook groups and visiting pharmacies and doing whatever ethical things they could do to acquire a surplus dose. I felt eager, but not quite to that level: I reasoned that (1) I'm very far from the front lines, have very few in-person social interactions, no preexisting conditions, and thus was a few low-risk target for COVID; (2) There really weren't going to be major differences between what I could do as an early-vaccinated vs. late-vaccinated person; and most importantly (3) I'd much rather play video games or read books than navigate frustrating, broken systems to try and snag a shot.

California announced in late March that vaccines would be available to everyone 16+ starting on Thursday April 15, and officially stuck with that date, though there was a considerable loosening at individual sites as the date grew closer. Once the bookings opened up on April 14 I was able to get a slot for April 17, not bad at all! I'd been prepared to drive further inland or visit a random pharmacy or something, but I ended up being able to get one directly from my primary healthcare provider; the location closest to me was unavailable, but one 25 minutes away had slots, so I gladly booked that.

My personal experiences with the shot have been very positive. After the first dose I had some soreness in my arm for a couple of days, and that was it. With the second shot, I didn't even feel it go in, thanks to my awesome nurse. I didn't feel any soreness with that one, but did have a slight headache and a tinge of nausea for the next two days. I felt fine on the third day, then a little sick again on the fourth day, and have been fine again from the fifth day onward.

As many others have noted, while COVID has been a terrible plague on our civilization, it's actually resulted in a lot of us feeling much healthier than ever before. In the last 16 months I haven't gotten a single cold or flu. One interesting thing to think about is what things from the last year we'll take forward from us: tools, attitudes, habits, and other stuff. I suspect that one big thing a lot of people will do is maintain diligence about hand-washing, which is a little funny because coming out of the pandemic we now know that washing hands does basically nothing to stop COVID. But it's a habit that I and many other people have focused on, and I think there's a good chance that everyone who lived through this pandemic will wash their hands more frequently and thoroughly than those who didn't. I'll probably carry a mask with me throughout the cold season, and slip it on whenever I'm in a subway where someone is having a fit of coughing and sneezing, instead of just rolling my eyes and doing my best to ignore it like I used to.


Long-term, I suspect that people will return to live theater and sports games and indoor dining and all the other activities that have been curtailed. It does seem likely that food delivery services and online shopping will remain high: those industries were already growing before the pandemic and really exploded during it, and lots of people will probably continue using them.

I can already tell that, at least in the short term, we'll have a greater appreciation for gathering with other people: just hanging out feels way more special and meaningful than it did pre-pandemic. Likewise, I imagine that students will feel much more emotional about physically going to school and seeing their friends, after spending a year isolated at home.

But, who knows! I was definitely wrong about how bad COVID would end up being, and I could very well be wrong about the aftereffects as well.

One last thing I wanted to document was what I've been thinking of as my "COVID accomplishments": all of my home improvement projects during lockdown, most of which I probably wouldn't have done otherwise. These accomplishments were not evenly distributed throughout the crisis. For the first couple of weeks I was kind of in shock, thinking too much but not doing much. I pepped up a bit heading into summer and became really productive, feeling great about all the stuff I was knocking out. I started to feel a bit weary heading into the fall, and then pretty defeated as cases skyrocketed after Thanksgiving and shelter-in-place was reinstated. I hit my low point around the time of the coup attempt, and have been gradually rebounding since then, much less productive in my personal projects but much more in tune with the world and looking forward to reclaiming my place in it.

Anyways, here we go!

  • Fixed a loose chair leg in a stuffed chair.
  • Changed two burned-out lightbulbs in my (extremely high!) ceiling lights. This required precariously balancing a ladder on top of my entertainment center.
  • Fixed internet speed issues by getting a new router (my old one was from 2008!) and modem.
  • Did a massive cable management job on my entertainment center, transforming a rat's nest of cords spilling out all over to a nicely hidden configuration.
  • Rearranged my spare room: I moved my computer desk to another wall to avoid issues with glare, tossed out an old magazine rack, rehung a bunch of photos, cleared out closets, and just generally de-cluttered it.
  • Shielded some exposed electrical wiring under my kitchen cabinet. That's been on my to-do list for over a decade!
  • The Fridge Saga. I did a bunch of troubleshooting of a cooling issue, and eventually had to replace it, which ended up requiring some minor carpentry to extract it from its too-tight confines. The new one works great!
  • Repainted a bunch of walls.
  • Still in progress, but I'm replacing a baseboard.
I'm sure I would have done some of those things anyways, but honestly probably fewer than half. Maybe only one or two. It's been good to touch up my space a little and be able to bring that forward with me. Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather we hadn't had a global pandemic and those projects remained undone! But for better or worse I've honed my silver-lining-location ability over the last 14 months, and those are some things I've been particularly happy with myself about.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Gatekeeping

I'm still really enjoying the Broken Earth trilogy, and have just finished the second volume, The Obelisk Gate. N. K. Jemisin gives a funny shout-out to "multi-volumers" in the Acknowledgements, and I can see why: tackling a huge story is a really daunting challenge, and each individual book needs to provide some satisfaction on its own while also fitting into the bigger whole, continuing existing plot threads and planting seeds for the upcoming stories. I am encouraged to know that there are only three volumes, having been burned more than once by epic series that petered out.


MINI SPOILERS

The Broken Earth is probably classified as genre fiction, but straddles the line with literature, thanks to the really excellent writing and some interesting techniques. The second volume isn't just a continuation of the first's style and structure, which is good: after learning about the secret behind the three storylines of The Fifth Season, it wouldn't be nearly as impactful to continue that structure here or do the same thing again. Instead, we switch to a new format: one story, told in the second person, following Essun after she arrived in the Castrima geode; and the other, told in the third person, follows Nassun from the events in Tirimo onward. Each section ends with a brief quote from the Stillness's history, and they are occasionally separated by Interludes of a few pages from a first-person narrator.

I'm generally not a huge fan of second-person narration in novels. It can be a fun technique in short stories, but I tend to find it grating to follow over hundreds of pages. The Obelisk Gate was the first time I really dug it. Only one of the storylines uses the second person, which probably helps; but more importantly, we eventually learn that there is a reason for using the second person, which is awesome. In all other cases I can think of that had second-person narration, they always came from omniscient and anonymous narrators. In this book, though, we eventually learn who is telling it, which is really cool.

MEGA SPOILERS

So, a lot of lore bombs drop in this book! An early one caused me to completely rethink the whole series. I've been thinking of The Broken Earth as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia; as I mused earlier, I was curious whether it was our Earth many millennia from now, or some other planet in the universe, and tended to believe the former. A few chapters into The Obelisk Gate, though, a specific word is uttered for the first time in the series: "magic". Just like that, my view of the world flipped upside down, and I started processing it as a fantasy novel instead of a sci-fi one.

Once you start thinking of it that way, stuff makes a lot of sense. After all, this is a low-tech world, with feudal characteristics, various races and fantastic creatures, and powerful individuals who can channel unseen forces to wreak destruction or creation upon the world. That sounds like a fantasy world to me!

As soon as "magic" is introduced to a possibly sci-fi setting, I of course think of the famous Asimov saw about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. Given that, I think it's very interesting that the book pointedly does distinguish them: we are told over and over again the orogeny and magic are two different things. They come from different sources; magic appears to come from organic life-force, while orogeny comes from inorganic matter and heat. The same people can use both of them, but they are different disciplines.

This distinction, like several other things, made me think of the Wheel of Time series. One thing I liked about those books was how they dove into the mechanics of how magic worked: the difference between Saidin and Saidar, weaving, channeling, all that stuff. The Broken Earth is (thankfully!) not as intricate as WoT, but I appreciate how it doesn't just say "Magic!" and instead shows how it feels to work with magic.

I still can't help speculating about what will happen in the third book, even after being spectacularly wrong in my predictions after the first. No, the Moon didn't crash into the Earth to cause the Seasons: quite the opposite, in fact. Something (or someone, perhaps the precursor civilization) dislodged it from its tight orbit around the Earth, sending it on a super-long elliptical path. And no, the Stone Eaters aren't Mooninites, or aliens: they are people. If The Broken Earth is set in the future, then the Stone Eaters are us, people in our civilization who lived for millennia after the Shattering.

Still: It seems very likely that Essun and Nassun will reunite in the third book. The story seems to be building them up to a grand confrontation, which, after seeing Nassun's childhood memories, seems to be pretty well deserved. But, from what I can parse so far, it actually sounds like both Hoa and Steel want the same thing, to activate the Obelisk Gate network and use it to restore the Moon. I wouldn't be shocked if Steel, or even Hoa, were being deceptive, though.

I'm still not totally tracking what the three factions are and who belongs to each. I guess one is maybe Father Earth, a nihilistic rageful compulsion to kill organic life. Then there's the group that wants to restore the Moon and end the Seasons. I guess the third group likes things the way they are? Which seems weird to me, but maybe for some specific people the status quo is better than the status ante.

I'd initially assumed that, like, all the Stone Eaters belonged to the same faction, but by the end it's pretty clear that isn't the case. At the end of the book I'm now wondering if the three factions are all primarily composed of or led by Stone Eaters; it doesn't seem like any regular humans have deep knowledge about what's going on. The Guardians are kind of outliers, though, and seem more likely to be major players.

Speaking of Guardians, Schaffa is a really interesting case. He seems to be getting set up as the major villain, but by the end of the book I wasn't so sure. It's hard to keep track of who is who in his inner war, and to suss out what each side wants. Initially I thought that the thing taking him over was evil, but now I'm curious if it's the Guardians that are evil and if that other force is actually working for good. If so, that would be another cool example of perspective-shifting: the initial possession seems so scary and wrong, but of course that's from a particular point of view of someone who has been trained to prevent it.

Oh! Also, seeing Alabaster apparently become a Stone Eater is really something. That does seem to reinforce the fact that Stone Eaters are really people. It also makes me more curious about the dynamic between Stone Eaters and orogenes. There does seem to be a dynamic where a Stone Eater will "claim" a particular orogene and follow them around. I'm curious if that relationship, uninterrupted, will always end in the creation of a new Stone Eater, or if Alabaster was an exceptional case. Hoa does have a lot to say on this topic but it was a little hard to connect his thoughts.

END SPOILERS

As you can see, I didn't pause for long before jumping from book one to book two, and I doubt I'll wait too long before moving ahead to the third and final entry! Trilogies do seem like the perfect length for a multi-volumer to target.