Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Cyberpunk 2078

So, another great birthday gift I got was the long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077! Like many other cyberpunk nerds, I'd been eagerly anticipating this game for nearly a decade, then was scared off by the harsh reception at launch, and am now dipping my toe in after half a year of patches.

 


I'm still really early in - maybe ten hours of gameplay, Level 6 for my character, and I just passed the main title screen. I'll definitely have more updates later, but wanted to capture some initial impressions.

In summary: it's messy and has some frustrating bits, but is also a lot of fun and very stylish. The gameplay feels a lot like Grand Theft Auto, merged with RPG-style inventory management and character progression like The Witcher. Stealth feels like Metal Gear, and hacking is sort of its own thing.

High points thus far:

Character creation is really cool. It's based around presets rather than sliders, which seems to be the current trend. As has been much-discussed, you can even customize your character's genitalia. All this fits in really nicely with existing cyberpunk themes and style. The game is also pretty trans- and genderqueer-friendly, letting you mix and match various sex characteristics.


What I've seen so far of Night City looks great. It's big and comprehensible, with a really bustling street scene.

 


In-game artwork is pretty amazing, particularly the advertising campaigns you see all over town. They tend to be extremely raunchy but also pretty funny.

 


I love the character designs. Most NPCs seem to be procedurally generated, and they look ridiculous, but fortunately ridiculous is exactly what this game needs. Major NPCs are more bespoke and are just oozing with character and charm.




I've been delighted by the music and club scene. Cyberpunk 2077 is a welcome throwback to the Rocker-style cyberpunk attitude of the genre's inception of the 1980s and 1990s, where every major fixer meet goes down in a dimly-lit and crowded nightclub while loud music pounds in the background. I've deeply missed this aesthetic in more modern cyberpunk, and am thrilled to see it again.


Overall performance seems to be great, on my modern but not top-notch gaming rig. I haven't run into any bugs or major glitches, barring a few minor items detailed below. 

The main plot has been good so far. It's surprised me at a few beats and definitely has me curious to learn more.

I'm not as deeply versed in Cyberpunk (2020) lore as I am Shadowrun lore, but from what I can see the game seems to be true to it, and includes tons of great little call-outs in the various texts you read over the course of the game, fansites, and emails. This game is set in the 2070s but is very aware of its past in the (fictional) 2020s, which adds a lot to the depth of the world.


 



Oddities I've observed:

For as long as the tutorials are, there's a lot of stuff that the game doesn't seem to ever explain. I keep seeing symbols in dialogue options and I have no idea what they mean. And I'm pretty sure the game showed before how to duck back into a car while firing from the passenger window, but I've forgotten how and that information is nowhere to be found in the keybinding menu.

 


I'm still on the fence about the perspective. As a player, I definitely prefer third-person over first-person. That said, first person does match this particular game's lore and setting extremely well: you are constantly getting retinal popups on your HUD, and the game makes good, extensive use of the fact that a computer is sitting between your cybereyes and your brain, leading to lots of awesome visual effects. It isn't necessarily fun, but it's stylish as hell.

 


Driving a car with a keyboard and mouse sucks. Or maybe I just suck at it. Those controls are great for the rest of the game, but I kind of want to plug in a controller just so driving sucks less. I'm not sure yet just how much of the game is driving, though.

Progression is pretty interesting. You gain overall XP, which gives both Attribute points (to raise Body, Intelligence, etc.) and Skill points (which typically unlock unique abilities). You can also raise your Traits, like Stealth and Breach Protocol, by using those traits. So Traits work more like, say, Elder Scrolls stats: the more you use them, they higher they get. From what I can see, though, you can just spam the same abilities over and over again (like running Ping on an enemy) and keep leveling up your skill. It isn't necessarily bad, just odd.

I'm still early in, but so far, it seems like the most common type of side-quest is helping the Night City Police Department catch criminals. And maybe this is just me, but for me, helping out the cops doesn't seem like the most punk thing to do? More broadly, the aesthetics of the game are generally very solid, but you get occasional notes like this that makes it seem like they're missing the point.



Low points so far:

Have I mentioned recently how much I loathe inventory management in RPGs? I feel like half of my game time is spent picking up soda cans and discarded rifles, then finding out that my encumbrance is too high and spending time sorting through my inventory and selling stuff I don't want to keep. I hate it.

The general NPC situation is pretty dire. They all look cool, hustling and bustling around, but almost immediately you realize that there is a very very finite number of voice-recorded lines, and you'll hear the same one-liners any time you talk to anyone. It reminds me a lot of Morrowind, but with even less personality. I don't know why the game even bothers letting you talk to randos if they're this thin and recycled.

You can customize your character in a lot of different ways, and the main mission segments give a lot of freedom in how to progress: charge in guns blazing (quick!), try to sneak through and use silent non-lethal takedowns (endless reloads!) or hack your way through (confusing and slow!). But then it will drop you into a non-skippable combat sequence, where your 0-Firearms character needs to shoot down a half-dozen military drones while under nonstop heavy fire, with the game abruptly ending if you get hit too many times. This game doesn't remind me much about Deus Ex so far, but this one particular element is straight out of Human Revolution and Mankind Divided.

Probably my biggest gripe so far at ten hours in is the complete lack of roleplaying. In dialogue, you get one option to continue the conversation, and maybe several other side-questions you can choose to ask before continuing. That's it. I haven't seen a single branching conversation or quest objective yet. This was particularly galling in an early encounter when some heavies were trying to get my PC to give up some data. I totally get that the plot requires me to surrender that data, but it didn't fit with my conception of my character at all to roll over. But I had no choice. Which, the more I think about it, probably shouldn't surprise me, since The Witcher also didn't have much in the way of choices, with at most getting to choose between Geralt being a sarcastic asshole and being a mean asshole. But you don't even get the "sarcastic or mean" choice in Cyberpunk 2077. Given how thoroughly you can customize every aspect of your character, it feels really weird to get no say at all in their personality or values.

That's it for now! I had more lows listed than highs, but I am still having a great time.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

A Pond in the Rain

George Saunders is almost certainly my favorite short-story writer today, and I've enjoyed his other works over the years as well: essays, profiles, a novel. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't pick up A Swim in a Pond in the Rain when it was released earlier this year, but I'm glad that I didn't, because my brother (no, my other brother) gave it to me as a long-term-loan-slash-birthday-present a couple of weeks ago.

 


In addition to writing fiction, Saunders also teaches writing at Syracuse University, and has done so for decades. This book is an attempt to capture some of what he teaches in a seminar built around nineteenth-century Russian authors, where he and his students will read those stories, analyze and discuss what the authors are doing and how they're doing it, and use some of those techniques in works of their own.

This book includes the full (translated) text of a half-dozen stories from Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Each story is then followed by a friendly, conversational essay and analysis. Saunders will ask questions of the reader, then offer his own answers. What is this part doing in the story? What would be lost if it was cut? Why did the author spend so much time describing this character who doesn't do much? After reading the last paragraph, did you also go back and re-scan the story to see if that message can be applied anywhere else?

It's all great stuff from a literary criticism perspective, but Saunders is doing something different, trying to figure out why these stories are so great and how we could apply those lessons to our own fiction. Of course, his words carry a lot of weight coming from someone who has been so widely read and admired over the years.

I personally hadn't read any of these stories before. They're different from one another, despite some repeated authors, and all great. I think I might have enjoyed Tolstoy's "Master and Man" the most, in large part because of the strong moral convictions of the author that suffuse the whole story; but Gogol's "The Nose" was terrific and might have been the most fun to read. (And I liked "The Nose" even better after reading the analysis, which repeatedly drove home just what a terrible job the narrator of that story is doing, and why Gogol is choosing to make the narrator that inept.)

There's a lot of terrific insight in this book, but a few specific things really stick with me. One is his focus on what he calls "meaningful action" (as a sort of substitute for the more nebulous term "plot"). A short story should frequently escalate as it continues. We want to grab a reader's attention, and be respectful of their time. Whenever things escalate, it re-acquires our focus and makes us ask questions that we'll need to continue reading to answer. ("How will Sam get out of this jam?" "Wait, why is Susan mad at Frank now?")

He says that he's observed that, when he compares his students who have gone on to be published authors with those who do not, the former have two consistent traits. First of all, they're willing to continually revise and rewrite their work. Secondly, they're able to convey causality within their stories. Things don't just happen: they show how event A causes event B which leads to emotion C which results in catastrophe D. Without that tight sense of causality, you can have a collection of interesting well-written scenes, but you don't really have a story.

Saunders talks pretty much exclusively about short stories in this book. I'm actually not a huge connoisseur of the form, reading way more novels than short stories. My unexamined prejudice has tended to be that short stories are easier to write than novels: they're shorter, have fewer words to write, and only need to be about one or two things. After reading this, though, I'm rethinking that assessment. Saunders repeatedly points out that the economy of the short story isn't a handicap, it's the whole purpose. Everything that's in a short story should be doing something. Not because it's an interesting idea the author thought about and wanted to write down, not because she liked the sound of a certain phrase. Every sentence in a short story should be crucial, such that the story would be worse if it were removed. There's a lot of discipline and focus that goes into each story, without the flexibility for minor digressions that a longer form like the novel can support.

It's probably a sign of a well-written book that during and after my time reading it I thought "Wow, I should write some short stories!" It brought me back to my own fiction writing course way back in college, which was a lot of fun, but I haven't done anything with that since then. But of course I have done a lot of other writing, both writing technical books for professionals and writing video game dialogue for fun. Those are very different things than short stories, but some stuff in this book really resonated with me. One thing in particular was George's focus on the importance of revision and re-writing. I've always felt and often said that I enjoy editing more than writing, and that I feel like I mostly write so I can get material to edit. I've thought of that as a limitation on my skills as a writer (if I really was a writer I'd love writing more than editing), but I'm now feeling better about my heart being more oriented towards making things better. (For the hundredth time, I'll note that I don't edit my blog posts, much to their detriment.)

The term I personally have used in the past when doing this sort of editing work is "tightening up." I've already gotten down the overall content I want to share, but it's often meandering and inartful. There are some technical things I do to it, like eliminating passive voice and chopping up longer sentences into shorter ones, but I'm also paying attention to how the words sound, and whether they make sense, whether they are engaging, something I'd enjoy reading. They usually get shorter and shorter the more I rewrite them, and I'll also tinker with them to try and heighten the content, make my voice more forceful and bold, or sometimes just toss out a whole sentence or paragraph and start fresh. The end result feels a lot like the writing exercises Saunders includes at the end of this book. I'm amazed at how much better a piece of writing becomes when you cut it.

I thought a lot about video-game writing and which of Saunders' lessons might apply there. His comments on voice really resonate with me: one of my favorite aspects of writing campaigns is coming up with a distinctive voice for major NPCs, and once I have that voice in my head that generates many natural ideas about things that character would do and what opinions they would hold. I don't think video games need as laser-sharp of a focus as short stories: it depends on the game, of course, but particularly for RPGs it can be really fun to have little slice-of-life vignettes that help make the world seem bigger and more real. (Shadowrun Hong Kong would be a much lesser game without Gobbet's noodle obsession.) I think his ideas on causality are extremely important for video games, though maybe through a slightly different lens. It's important for the player to understand how and why things are happening. And, in a video game, it's usually most effective if the causality is caused by the player, if their earlier decisions lead to the later consequences. Of course this is where the art forms significantly diverge, with the player being a participant in the game while the reader remains an observer of the story.

Besides chatting about these Russian stories he loves so much, Saunders also includes "Afterthoughts" as well, which talk about his own personal experiences as a writer: how an especially bad sentence in a student's paper inspired one of his best characters, or some feedback a New Yorker editor gave him, or how a certain story surprised him as he was writing it. I recognized a few of these anecdotes from a talk he gave in San Francisco back in 2013, especially a fantastic recounting of his early desire to be Hemingway and how he eventually realized that he needed to find his own voice. The George writing this book seems exactly like the George I met in real life: humble, kind, generous, funny without ever being mean.

I doubt that there are all that many aspiring short-fiction authors out there, but I think the rest of us can still find a lot to enjoy in this book. The Russian stories alone are worth the price of admission, and the overall experience feels like a return to college in the best possible way: sitting in an interesting seminar with a great teacher, thinking critically about great writing and discussing our various opinions about it. That's a feeling I've missed over the years (and honestly a big part of why I blog about books I've read), and it felt great to recapture a part of that here.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Eat The Rich

I rarely do this, but I got mad at an editorial, and now I'm writing about it on my blog!

The Washington Post Editorial Board recently wrote an editorial arguing that an increase in the capital gains tax rate would eliminate the need for a wealth tax. It's one of the dumbest things I've read, and it's a huge bummer to see it published in my favorite newspaper.

 

It's flat-out wrong, misleading, or missing the point from top to bottom. Hitting a few highlights here:

* They say that if the wealth tax is implemented, when the price of Tesla stock goes down, Elon would get a "tax cut". He would actually get zero dollars from the government when his wealth went down. Instead, he would pay a smaller tax the following year. If Tesla went bankrupt and Musk's net wealth was zero dollars, then he would owe zero tax. I'm not even sure what they're trying to say here.

* They lament that people with high wealth but low income (e.g. wealthy heirs) would have to sell stock in order to pay the tax. That isn't a bug, it's the whole feature! First of all, if you're doing anything at all with your wealth, you'll easily be able to afford the tax. (Your 100 million shares of $10 stock are worth $1 billion. They go up 4%. You owe 3%. You sell shares to pay $30 million in tax. You're now worth $1.01 billion.)

* Secondly, the whole point of this is to shake up the entrenched wealth of the top .0001%. We shouldn't be bending over backwards to ensure that billionaires can live comfortably in perpetuity.

* They worry about a downward spiral in markets. But markets are overwhelmingly owned by the wealthiest people. Stock is like any other asset: when it comes down in price, it's more affordable. If the stock market crashed in half today, people who automatically contribute to 401k's would be able to buy twice as many stocks as before the crash. Let's say it again for the millionth time: Wall Street is not the real economy, and we should not allow stock prices to dictate our economic policy. Markets should reflect reality, not drive it.

* They then pivot and say that the rich also have other assets that aren't easy to price, like fine art (maybe) and real estate (absolutely false). This is a specific point that Warren repeatedly addressed during her campaign, and I find it impossible to believe that the Washington Post Editorial Board isn't aware of it. As Piketty and others have shown, the vast majority of the wealth of the wealthy is held in financial securities. Fine art and the like is an infinitesimal fraction of that amount. Saying that it's hopeless to tax 98% of the wealth because it's hard to estimate the value of the remaining 2% is asinine. That would be like saying that because some people are paid in DogeCoin and that's hard to price we should stop withholding FICA payments on payrolls in US dollars. So, let's start collecting that 98% today, and tackle the remaining odds and ends (art, patents, copyrights, etc.) when we get to it.

* Piketty wrote at length in Capital And Ideology about why the European wealth taxes of the 1990s were a disappointment, and the very simple technical fixes to address them. (Use more progressive rates, re-appraise annually, don't let the uber-wealthy hide their wealth in secret tax havens.) I guess the Washington Post Editorial Board hasn't read this book. They really really should before they spout out about the wealth tax. Why the hell argue against something you don't understand?

* Reforming property taxes (real estate tax) is the dumbest possible way to try and reduce the wealth gap. The wealth of the middle class is mostly held in real estate, while the wealth of the top 1% is overwhelmingly held in financial assets. You could increase Jeff Bezos's property tax rate by 5000% and it wouldn't make any noticeable impact on his wealth.

* And yes, we should also increase the capital gains rates as the editorial says. The two are not mutually exclusive, which is why folks like Piketty and Warren argue for both!

* And refreshing the estate taxes would also be a great move to make. But again, not mutually exclusive! And estate taxes would not be needed as badly in a world with wealth taxes. It's a choice between a big bite at the moment of death, and smaller levies over a series of years.

* The editorial says in its final paragraph "If the inheritance tax were more substantial people could still aspire to bestow a legacy on their children, but without unduly perpetuating unearned privilege." That contradicts what they are arguing for. Without a wealth tax, and with an inheritance tax less than 100%, parents could bestow legacies on their children that last their entire lives, that will grow over their entire lives, and that they will pass down to subsequent generations, in perpetuity, without anyone needing to ever do any work. I'd call that "unduly perpetuating unearned privilege". Again, the whole point of a wealth tax is to stop exactly that. You can still get wealthy, and you can still inherit wealth, but you have to do something with it, or do something on your own, or else your vast fortune will over the years become merely a respectable fortune.

They say that Part 3 of this editorial is coming soon. I hope it isn't the hot garbage that Part 2 was.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

A Great Migration

I think a couple of readers know my Shadowrun CalFree campaigns, so I wanted to write a quick post notifying any interested parties that my Shadowrun mods will be departing Nexus Mods in the coming weeks. But not to worry! They’ll continue to be available via the brand-new site at www.calfree.net. And Steam players will still continue to get their mods through the Workshop like always.


I may or may not write a long and rambling post later about the reason behind this migration. The short explanation is that it’s in response to this policy change by Nexus. I understand why they’re doing it, but it’s still a bummer.

Monday, June 28, 2021

All Power to the Soviets

The book October caught my eye recently. It's written by China Mieville, who has become one of my favorite authors, and it's set during a time I don't know much about, the Russian Revolution of 1917. From the brief blurb of the book, I had thought that it was a historical fiction novel; but it actually isn't, it's a straight history book. But it's history as told by a novelist, and China makes it a gripping, exciting, powerful story. Of course, the source material helps a lot! All of the dialogue in this book is taken from primary-source quotations, and the actual events during this period are absolutely astonishing, often veering into actions that would seem ludicrously unrealistic in a Hollywood movie.

 


China gives some brief background on the history of Russia leading up to the Revolution, and notes some of the major events taking place in Europe and elsewhere in the Russian empire, but most of the book is focused specifically in the capital of Petrograd from February through October (in the Julian calendar) 1917. I'll note at the start of this post what China notes at the end of his book: the Soviet Union turned into an incredibly dark, repressive place: a place with gulags, terror, suppression, murder. I'm reminded of an old saying that any story can be a tragedy or not depending on when you choose to stop telling the story. If you leave "Into the Woods" after Act 1, it seems like a very different story than if you leave it after Act 2. For most of "October", then, China is focused on what it felt like in the moment: the revolutionaries weren't asking for gulags or the purge, they were agitating for freedom, for dignity, for economic justice. I think that's a great choice; he gives the book a focus and drive by engaging with the events at the street level as they were happening, and not constantly coloring everything with the hindsight of the following century.

I spent a lot of the book trying to get a bead on China's precise attitude towards his subjects. He is a proud socialist and has made his political views known both in his fictional works and his public statements. I think that overall I would characterize his attitude as "admiring but not necessarily approving." The sheer scope of what the Bolsheviks accomplished in half a year is simply astonishing. At the same time, he definitely avoids eulogizing any individuals or factions, and doesn't hesitate to point out when they are lying, spinning, missing an opportunity or failing to understand what's happening.

I didn't know a whole lot about this time period before reading the book. I'm sure I covered it in World History in high school, and through osmosis learned a bit about the Tsar and Rasputin and Lenin and Trotsky and other major characters. My understanding of the actual dynamics, though, were very flawed. Probably the single biggest misconception was that I thought Lenin orchestrated and led the revolution. Throughout October, it's surprising just how marginalized and irrelevant he is. During the critical early months, he was far away in Zurich: reading old newspapers about events in Russia and stewing that he wasn't involved. After a brief period in the capital, he went back into hiding, in the countryside and then in Finland, once again writing irate letters to newspaper editors about what everybody was doing wrong. More than anything, the Lenin of this book reminds me of a Twitter Reply Guy: constantly backseat-driving and second-guessing the decisions made by people who are actually doing things.

It isn't just Lenin that seems disconnected, though: really, the biggest thread throughout the book is how the leadership of the Left was constantly scrambling to try and catch up with what grass-roots people were actually doing. This struck me as very similar to the dynamic in Strike!; in that book, I was surprised to learn that labor unions are mostly responsible for preventing strikes rather than instigating them, and likewise in October, the Left to a greater degree and the Bolsheviks to a lesser degree are primarily preoccupied with stopping the Revolution: or, if not stopping it, to delay it for a century or ensure it doesn't go too far.

In Strike!, I'd never really understood just why union leaders opposed strikes, though I had my theories. In China's telling of October, it's clearer why the Socialists opposed revolution. For the most part, everyone on the Left was a dogmatic Marxist, and took as an axiom of faith that history had to go through a series of stages to arrive at their outcome. Russia was a backwards, medieval country of peasants, so of course it could not become a Communist country: first it would need to devolve power from the Tsar to the upper classes, and then the bourgeoisie would develop the country and create a capitalist economy, and finally a sufficiently strong and educated labor movement would bring about the Communist Revolution.

The problem, though, was those dang, uneducated workers! They were not having any of it: sick of the Tsar, sick of the Great War, sick of the lack of respect and poverty they faced, they were the engine that kept driving forward, demanding power. So they pushed on the leaders who claimed to speak for them, the various factions of Socialists.

Backing up a bit: the collapse of the monarchy was shockingly fast. Tsar Nicholas refused to entertain any of the demands from his detractors or the pleas of his supporters, to have a parliamentary Duma or appoint a socialist minister or make any concessions. In the tense and miserable conditions of the Great War, immense public anger led to a huge uprising, which Nicholas completely ignored. Finally, once Petrograd had been taken over, he belatedly said "Oh, fine, we'll appoint a cabinet," to which his bewildered aides said "You've lost the country." Nicholas had planned to abdicate in favor of his son; since his son was sickly, he instead designated his brother; his brother realized that his personal safety would be in jeopardy if he accepted the crown and so he declined. And, just like that, the centuries-long Romanov dynasty came crashing to an anticlimactic end.

The point is, all of this was rushed and unplanned and chaotic; there wasn't a strong organized push to overthrow the Tsar and a proposed system to replace him, it all just happened. Coming out of the February Revolution was the so-called "dual power" structure. On the one hand was the Duma, a body elected by the elites, particularly large landowners and capitalists and nobility. These were dominated by "liberals", in the classical European sense and not the modern American sense: people who believe in private industry and private freedoms without interference from the (until recently monarchic) state. Mere months ago, the liberals like the Kadets were a crusading vanguard of a leftward push to reform the backwards autocracy; now, they abruptly were placed in the far-right position of defending private capitalist interests against the majoritarian demands of workers, peasants and soldiers. Their beliefs hadn't changed at all, but their circumstances had violently shifted around them. That must have been a head-spinning change!

The other part of the dual-power system was the Soviet, which is the Russian word for "Council". These were democratically elected representatives from trade unions and soldiers' barracks, which were the two groups most responsible for the overthrow of the Tsar. They had de-facto control over much of the city's infrastructure, as they had overpowered the hated police and occupied key buildings.

The Soviet itself was far from unified. Two things in this book gave me trouble: the many different faction names, and the many different Russian person names. The Soviet included Left SRs, Right SRs, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and some other ones I'm forgetting. One thing almost everyone agreed on was that it was up to the Duma to create a government and usher Russia into a fully developed capitalist phase, and in fact that it was the role of the Soviet to accelerate that transition, so that in the future the Socialists could start a new revolution and create a communist paradise.The Bolsheviks were the only ones who disagreed: they started off as a schism of a faction of a minority of a movement: their numbers were tiny, and they were obstinate and hard to work with.

And hence the slogan that is repeated through the book over and over again, chanted by protesters and unions and rebels: "All power to the Soviets!" It isn't the Soviets who are saying that! It's the masses. Over and over again the Soviet are asked to take power, and in fact handed power on a silver platter, and over and over again they turn it down. All because of their Marxist theory! It's pretty amazing and darkly hilarious.

The structure of the Soviets in particular and the Petrograd milieu in general were a lot more democratic than I had though. A lot of the book focuses all of the various committees and presidiums and conventions and votes and delegates. From early on, the Bolsheviks set a deliberate course of persuasion: organizing at a local level, in individual factory floors and barracks and homes, to bring people over to their point of view. What do they want? Withdrawal from the war, a universal peace, worker control of the government, fairer distribution of profits, equal rights for women and ethnic minorities, a whole host of issues. Person by person, they persuade individual folks and gradually, over that eight month period, they grow their number of supporters, and hence their elected delegates, and eventually grow from the smallest into the largest faction of the Soviet.

We think of blue-collar industrial workers as being the backbone of a socialist movement, but in Russia, it was really a triumvirate: workers, peasant, and soldiers. Workers' importance is self-evident from Marxist theory. Peasants were the dominant reality in Russia at the time: serfdom had only recently been abolished, most of the people were peasants and most of their lives were miserable. Peasants don't seem to have been a major factor in Petrograd proper, but were very important in other Soviets throughout Russia, and were rhetorically very important within Petrograd.

And finally but certainly not least, there were the soldiers. While the workers' and peasants' demands were primarily economic, the soldiers' were moral. They deeply wanted respect and dignity: apparently, the Russian military culture had a deeply ingrained system of humiliation from officers, down to the forms of address they used towards soldiers and many petty acts of cruelty soldiers were forced to endure. In any time this would be terrible, but it became fully intolerable after the humiliations of the Crimean and Russo-Japanese wars, and was past the breaking point when two million Russian soldiers died during the Great War, a war that nobody could clearly explain why they were fighting.

While the soldiers were coming from a different perspective, the actual dynamics played out very similarly to the workers' uprising. Individual soldiers would be persuaded that the regime was unfit, then the unit as a whole would stand down or come over to the rebellious side, and their officers would either have to go along with it or be removed. The most striking uprising was on Kronstadt, a heavily armored island fortress near Petrograd, where a decades-long powderkeg of fury finally went off and revolutionary soldiers seized basically an entire navy. I don't think of soldiers much when I think of leftist movements, and it was striking how many of the most passionate partisans came from the military and not from organized labor.

It's fascinating to think of how history might have turned out differently, and the Russian Revolution more so than much, since it all feels so contingent and chaotic and surprising. One particular thing that I wondered about over and over again is whether any of this would have happened if World War One hadn't been happening at the same time, or if Nicholas hadn't decided to involve Russia. Without that added fear and strain, would the soldiers still have joined the uprising? And if the soldiers hadn't joined, would it have succeeded? In the end, "power is power": having hundreds of thousands of people on the street is one thing, having machine gunners and Cossacks and battleships is another.

This all gets me thinking again about misery, something I've thought about a fair amount in recent years while reading Piketty and similar writers. Having great inequality in a country, whether of wealth or status, is a recipe for strife and unrest and revolution. It doesn't seem to be coincidental that the great upheavals of the early 20th century came on the heels of the Gilded Age, or that the relatively phlegmatic social relations of the middle of the 20th century came during a long period of comparative equality. But I do wonder if, in addition to the relative inequality between the haves and the have-nots, the absolute income and status of the have-notes is significant. An extremely unequal society that can feed and house all of its citizens seems like it may be more stable than a slightly unequal society that cannot. People who feel desperation may be more likely to take a risk and put their lives on the line for change than those who have something to protect.

All that being said, after reading this book I feel like I now better understand (though do not agree with) the logic of accelerationists. The change that happened in a few months in Russia is really shocking and amazing. I don't think that change could have happened in a happy country, even if led by a Tsar or greedy capitalists. And if someone really wants to bring about a revolution, it might be in their interests to make things worse and not better in the short term, in order to make greater change possible.

I also now have a slightly better understanding of why the Left in Germany did what it did. I've long thought that the Communists were singularly responsible for the rise of the Nazi party, since they refused to join in coalition with the Socialists and thus enabled the Nazis to take power. But... that's pretty much exactly what the Bolsheviks did in Russia in 1917, roughly a decade earlier, and it worked out great for them! Having seen how Lenin refused to cooperate with other leftists, and that ended with the Bolsheviks in command of a communist country, I can see why German communists would have (mistakenly) thought they were on the same path.

And, likewise, I tend to think that much of the failure of the American Left, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, has been due to factionalism and infighting and an impulse to believe that your particular cause is more important than any other. I do think that intersectionalism is our best hope for a better future: acknowledging the myriad and overlapping systems of oppression instead of competing for which system needs to be tackled first. But, again, this is a pretty powerful example from history of great change being done when a minority opposes alliance and cooperation with its ideological cousins. I don't think you can or should derive a law from that example, but it's an interesting one.

Speaking of intersectionality, though, October does a great job at highlighting those overlapping systems of oppression in the Russian empire and how the Bolsheviks and others tackled them. Women were a lot more prominent in the Revolution than I had thought: individual women assassinated powerful figures in the state, led prison revolts, governed villages of rebels, were voted into the Soviet, and took part in the many debates of 1917. National minorities were also a big part of the project: for the most part they didn't want independence from Russia, but did want greater autonomy in making local decisions. This all fit in well with the socialists' worldview, which was always explicitly internationalist and opposed to empire. In a particularly interesting incident, a conference of woman socialists from Turkestan and Tajikistan and other Russian Muslim territories convened. They studied and debated the history of the Quran and whether its words literally applied to the present, and ultimately passed resolutions regarding the optional use of the hijab. Again, I'm impressed by how democratic so much of this was: not a man in a pince-nez writing edicts for a nation to obey, but individual collecting together to debate, convince, and eventually choose a path forward.

October wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it was a great read. Several times throughout the book I thought, "If this scene was in a novel I would think it was way too unrealistic." That period of history, it turns out, was really bonkers. I also feel like I now have better insight into China's own inspirations, as a lot of the politics and stuff in his Bas-Lag books seem to spring from a similarly volatile environment, particularly elements like the Runagate Rampant paper and Mayor Rudgutter; the Three Quills in the books remind me a lot of the Black Hundreds from October. Truth: It's stranger than fiction!

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.