Archive for January, 2010

Still Engrossed

Looking through the contents of this blog’s slender archive, Europa Universalis III seems to come up more often than any other game. If you click on the tag to the left of this post, you’ll find a bunch of posts on it that are of admittedly varying quality and interest.

I mention this because it has become undeniable that EU3 has absorbed me more completely than any strategy game since Civilization IV. In the past couple weeks I’ve been working on another EU3-related project and wound up sucked into a playthrough of the grand campaign. I only wanted to verify a few things to myself before I wrote about them, but the moment I started time moving and received a mission to start annexing French vassals, I was hooked.

Yet despite my obvious affection for EU3, I’ve always been rather qualified with my praise. This is an acquired taste. The learning curve is steep. The interface is opaque. It’s a game for people who like history.

All of that might be true, but I just don’t care, and I don’t think you should either. So what if the game is tricky to learn? I’m still learning it, but I started having a blast with it after only a few hours of play. Scores of hours later, and I’m having even more fun. I go from cheering to wailing and back again in the space of only a few minutes. I will be just about to quit for the evening when some backstabbing sonofabitch declares war on me and rolls into my territory with 30,000 men. Am I supposed to go to sleep after something like that happens? No. I drop what I’m doing until I hammer out a peace settlement. Preferably one that ends in his abject humiliation.

I’m about to go to bed, and there should be a lot of important things on my mind. But really, tonight I’m more preoccupied with whether or not I should embrace the Counter-Reformation and start trying to quash Protestantism, or whether I should get behind the Protestants and sever my ties with the Vatican. And what should I do about the Reformed church?

On top of everything else, the Heir to the Throne expansion is just a huge win for the team at Paradox. I am so very glad they did not leave off their work with In Nomine, because Heir to the Throne just makes the entire game system more comprehensible and interesting. It takes me just a moment to check whether or not I have a plausible casus belli against another country, and how my country would react to a new war. Peace negotiations make crystal clear how much I will be feared, loved, and hated for imposing a harsher settlement on a vanquished enemy. Sometimes, even though I know it will make me a pariah, I just pile on the penalties against a country that had the audacity to make me fight a war. As my man Tiberius said: “Let them hate so long as they fear.”

So if you come to the end of this month and find some extra money burning a hole in your pocket, or if you someday see EU3 Complete on sale, I suggest you grab it along with the Heir to the Throne expansion. It might not be for everyone. Few games worth playing are. But if it turns out that you’re the kind of person who likes EU3 (and you won’t know for sure until you’ve put a few hours into the game), then you will find this is a game that fires the imagination like few others.

One Move Behind – Narrative & Stairway Thoughts

I have hit saturation point with 2 v 2 Age of Mythology comp-stomps, I realized last night. My girlfriend and I had a date for some LAN gaming, but the thought of more AoM made me a little ill. What we need to do, I realize, is just bite the bullet and get another copy so that we can go play online. But for some reason, paying $20 for a game we already own just rubs us the wrong way.

While we were negotiating what else we could play (a conversation that requires UN mediation), I noticed Skype was blinking at me. Troy was about to record Three Moves Ahead and it was looking like it was going to be just him and Julian Murdoch unless I could join. The topic was narrative and story in strategy games, and we were recording in three minutes. I ran over to the bar, poured a drink, and got back to the computer just as the call began.

Given the lack of prep time, I was surprised at how well the podcast went. It’s one of my favorites. It turns out I had lots of things to say on this subject, as did Troy and Julian. Nevertheless, within ten minutes of wrapping up the podcast I had thought of a couple things I should have said.

First, I made the argument that the nature of a strategy game doesn’t gel with the nature of story, which is all about the author manipulating events. Strategy games are more systemic than shooters, because their mechanics are inseparable from competition between players. Julian, in what I consider an almost criminal abuse of semantic agility, made the case that all games are systems and this is no more a problem for strategy games as it is for shooters. Shooter fans are as focused on multiplayer as strategy players.

Seeing both sides of an argument tripped me up here, but on reflection I still think Julian was underplaying a key difference. The strategy game usually has no existence outside its multiplayer mechanics. Build a base, destroy the enemy base. Capture and hold some key locations. It’s the same in both multiplayer and single-player. That’s just not true in shooters.

The most popular FPS game modes (capture the flag, king of the hill, control point, assault-defend) have no single-player analogue. The single-player shooter is about a one-man army versus an actual army. All the systems that govern multiplayer depend on teams and magic-circle constructs: my team and I are going to defend this flagpole because that is the point of the game, and you are going to try and take it. We will all use different weapons that complement one another, and whoever fights best and coordinates best will win.

However, I do have an example of an FPS game that is a competitive system and tries to adapt that system to a single-player campaign: Section 8. Section 8 brings all the multiplayer mechanics into the campaign, and result is exactly the kind of brainless, repetitive missions you find in RTS campaigns. So there is a case in point for you.

Second, I wanted to mention World in Conflict as a great example for a story with great production values and some good characters that is hamstrung by the player’s lack of identity and its lousy mission structure. In World in Conflict and the Soviet Assault campaign, you play as the American Lt. Parker and the Soviet Lt. Romanov. Parker is ostensibly your narrator, Alec Baldwin, but he is mute in all the cutscenes involving other characters. He just nods while the NPCs argue with one another, at which point you have to ask why they bothered making your guy a character at all. At least he has an avatar, however, whereas Lt. Romanov is invisible. This gets awkward as the other characters make decisions that your guy would want to discuss, presumably. It’s especially bad in the Soviet campaign, where your character plays no role whatsoever in a growing schism among the Soviet leadership.

Worse, however, is the way the missions are crafted. No matter how dramatic the situation, each mission boils down to a list of menial errands. You start off capturing a hill  at the edge of a town, and are then sent to capture the bridge. You capture the bridge, but naturally the enemy destroys it before you can cross. Your commander then tells you that you have to march all the way around to the other side of the map and capture another hill. You go do that. Then he orders you to march around the map again (at this point you have traveled in a full circle) and take a road leading into the town. Then you have to go take the town. Then you have to hold it.

That is every mission in this game. Over and over again.  Just a lot of pointless marching around to different victory locations with the vague assurance that this is all very important.

Third, I wanted to mention the exact mission that made me stop playing the Company of Heroes campaign: the V-2 mission. Every WW2 game has some bullshit mission where you have to go infiltrate a Nazi base, usually to stop them launching V-1 or V-2 rockets. It’s always a Top Secret mission, which means that it’s obnoxiously difficult and you’re hamstrung from using most of your equipment.

I had played this exact mission, and variants of it, in a wide variety of shooters and strategy games. Running across it again in Company of Heroes, which was already straining itself trying to be Saving Private Band of Brothers: The RTS, was a bridge too far.

Oh, and I could have been more articulate about Myth, but it’s difficult to explain why that game works so well without getting into a serious discussion about its elements. Hopefully we’ll have a Myth retrospective on TMA, and really do the game justice.

It's Just That Easy!

If I ever write about From Beirut to Jerusalem, I will probably have some very nice things to say about Thomas L. Friedman. But nuggets like this are why I always regret reading his column.

The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things, is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things. Without inventing more new products and services that make people more productive, healthier or entertained — that we can sell around the world — we’ll never be able to afford the health care our people need, let alone pay off our debts.

Obama should bring together the country’s leading innovators and ask them: “What legislation, what tax incentives, do we need right now to replicate you all a million times over” — and make that his No. 1 priority. Inspiring, reviving and empowering Start-up America is his moon shot.

Friedman’s ultimate point is that the second year of the Obama administration must focus on this effort. In another inimitable Friedman-ism, “You want more good jobs, spawn more Steve Jobs.” What he is proposing is that the United States essentially find an economic Northwest Passage that will do an end run around all the nasty, contentious problems that have bogged down the country this year. If we just invent enough new iPods and microprocessors, other problems will be solved as a matter of course.

He has it exactly backwards. Innovation isn’t the silver bullet that can kill the problems afflicting the country right now, but those problems can definitely help choke innovation. If we want to promote the kind of risk-taking and creativity that will revitalize the economy and produce the kind of good jobs that we’ve been shedding with de-industrialization, I think we must address healthcare and a lot of other difficult issues that don’t fire the imagination like an “Innovation Movement”.

I once worked at a company that offered decent health coverage and a lousy wage in exchange for some truly awful work. More than half my fellow employees hated working there and did as little as they could get away with, but everyone stayed because they were terrified of leaving the company and losing their coverage. The company had a demoralized, indifferent workforce that was staying for the benefits that imposed a major burden on the company and made them as cautious about hiring as a man picking his away through a minefield. A lot of us were smart, capable people, and the company wasn’t really that terrible. But we were stuck in a bad marriage, and health care was the shotgun that got us to the altar.

When I didn’t have insurance, I suffered a minor injury and had to pay $1000 for a one-hour emergency room visit. My partner and I had to cut out all our luxuries and shave our expenses down to the bone in order to cover the unforeseen expense. Mind you, if I’d had insurance I’d have had to pay almost nothing but the insurance company would have had to pay almost twice as much. I believe the economists call this an inefficiency.

Graduating with tens of thousands of dollars of college debt (and far more if you go to a professional grad school) is probably not going to make anyone a bold innovator either. When I graduated from college, my summa cum laude Classics and Government degree and I took a job at a liquor store because I needed to keep a roof over my head and start paying off my student loans. That was probably not the best use of my skills, and someone else probably could have used the job, but I didn’t have a choice but to take it. I still spend several hundred a month on undergraduate debt. Not exactly an obligation that makes you free to follow your Muse.

And I had it easy. I had it good.

Friedman also suggests some science and entrepreneurship initiative in low-income school districts, which is the kind of idea that can only sound good to someone who knows nothing about the reality of a low-income school district. Since No Child Left Behind, the average teacher in a poor school district has about as much independence as a private in the North Korean army. Classroom creativity and innovative education initiatives are difficult to slip into a busy schedule of teaching and grading 150 students every day and attending cover-your-ass meetings ginned up by administrators to ensure that any blame for low-performance falls on teachers.

I might also point out that having incomprehensible amounts of wealth destroyed by poorly-regulated financial markets, and resultant credit shortages, is not going to make a thousand flowers bloom. But I’ll stick to the things I know about, which would be excellent advice for Friedman.

Dark Force Rising – Further Geek Reminiscences

The second book of Thrawn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy is unique in that it ultimately revolves around a MacGuffin, in this case a lost fleet of warships that could tilt that balance of the war in favor of whoever acquires it, and it focuses almost entirely on the backwaters of the Star Wars universe.

The central character in this chase is the smuggler-king Talon Karrde. Karrde is another character who would prove so popular that he would continue to play major and minor parts throughout the rest of the Expanded Universe’s development. He is established as a criminal counterpart to Grand Admiral Thrawn. Both men are practically omniscient: Thrawn assesses people and predicts events by studying their art, while  information-gathering have been Karrde’s life’s work. Karrde leads a smuggling organization mainly because that’s the best job for someone who wants to know what is really going on in the galaxy; the wealth and power are fringe benefits.

This means that Karrde starts out a dedicated neutral in the war between the New Republic and the Empire. He is content to do arms-length business with both sides, but mostly wishes to keep tabs on them. Yet Thrawn is on a crusade to defeat the New Republic, and begins dividing the galaxy into those who are with the Empire, and those who are against it. As he applies greater pressure to Karrde, Karrde watches his options dwindle until Thrawn finally eliminates the middle-course: neutrality is hostility, and so Karrde finds himself alone against the might of the Empire, his destruction one of the Grand Admiral’s pet projects.

By the end of the book, Karrde has been forced to cast his lot with the New Republic. Thrawn’s attempts to force Karrde into compliance have produced a marriage between the most capable and well-informed criminal organization and the New Republic’s military power. It is another Thrawn miscalculation, and one whose consequences he fails to appreciate. If Karrde could not be made into a friend, he should at all costs not have been made into an enemy. But Thrawn’s mistake is in thinking that understanding and predicting his enemies neutralizes them.

Thrawn’s antithesis in this book is Leia, who goes on a secret mission to Honoghr to convince the Noghri to stop working for the Empire. Thrawn happens to be there at the same time, and the mission nearly goes catastrophically awry, but Thrawn proves once again that his confidence in his own intelligence and capability is his undoing. Where Leia arrives as an uninvited guest, ignorant of local customs and circumstances, Thrawn is a revered lord with long experience dealing with the Noghri. Yet Thrawn casts aside his regard for custom the moment it becomes expedient, using orbital bombardment and the threat of genocide to terrify a people who are already in awe of him. Meanwhile, Leia salvages her mission simply by watching and listening to her hosts, and cooperating with their wishes that she leave their world before she causes trouble.

When I was younger, Leia’s segments of the book bored me. Her wanderings around Noghri villages and growing understanding of their history were poor substitutes for the battles and chases that comprise the rest of the book. This time I found it instructive. The films hinted that Leia was a trained diplomat and politician, but we scarcely ever saw her without a weapon in her hand or a man at her side. What Zahn does with Dark Force Rising is show the heroism of negotiation and discovery. It is Leia’s compassionate and respectful example, as a representative of the New Republic, standing against Thrawn’s blatant manipulations and threats, that make the Noghri willing to listen to what she has to say, and admit some uncomfortable truths to themselves. At the end of this subplot, there is a dramatic speech to a Noghri assembly in which smoking-gun evidence of Imperial perfidy is introduced. But it is the conversations about family and culture that lay the groundwork for victory. Leia’s compassion and understanding are revealed to be strengths just as much as Luke’s Force abilities or Han Solo’s cunning.

I would be lying, however, if I said these were my favorite parts of the book. They are pretty tame compared to the rest of the book, which includes a battle aboard an underwater luxury casino, Luke Skywalker’s and Mara Jade’s heist caper aboard Thrawn’s flagship, a massive battle at the Katana Fleet’s location, and an Alamo-style holding action aboard the Katana itself. The middle installment of any trilogy risks being flat, because it cannot really resolve anything, but Zahn solves this problem the same way The Empire Strikes Back did: by turning the characters loose on a breakneck series of set-pieces that make defeat exhilarating enough to feel like victory.

A Study in Schlock

The Charles River is frozen, and the view looking south from the Longfellow Bridge at night is incredible. The Boston skyline sparkles between the burnt lavender of the clouds and the ghostly layer of ice. Late on a weeknight, with barely any cars going by and nobody else walking the streets, there are few places more peaceful and lovely to be than halfway between Cambridge and Boston.

Unfortunately for MK and me, we continued walking into Boston to go see Sherlock Holmes. Despite a series of lukewarm, mildly negative reviews, we were smitten by the notion of Downey, Jr. and Jude Law going on a homoerotic detective romp through Victorian London. It was going to be loud, silly, and distasteful to a Holmes purist, but that was just the kind of fun we were looking to have on Monday night.

We probably should have just admired the skyline for two hours, then gone home once frostbite claimed our toes.

In the first place, Sherlock Holmes is an impressively ugly movie. Not content with maximizing the grit and grime of Victorian London, Ritchie also aims for graininess. Entire scenes look like they were filmed with a webcam. This is Mr. Ritchie’s style, of course, but here it begins to feel less like a style and more like evidence that he lacks one. He knows how to make a movie about ugly English thugs beating the shit out of each other in sewage-colored rooms, and he just keeps on making it.

The difference this time is that one of those English thugs is Sherlock Holmes, but it’s Holmes by way of a Judd Apatow production. It’s Sherlock Holmes and the Pineapple Express. Holmes and Watson are arrested adolescents who live in a criminology frat house, with Mrs. Hudson reduced to the role of ineffectual den mother. Holmes and Watson smirk and flirt at each other, Watson holds Holmes’ hair out of the toilet when he gets too trashed, and Holmes reminds Watson of their bros-before-hoes code when the latter is in danger of getting married and catching a potentially lethal case of cooties.

But let us not forget that Holmes is a great detective! You can tell because in the film’s first scene, Holmes deduces that shattering a dude’s eardrum, then breaking his leg at the knee will, as a matter of elementary logic, fuck that guy up. Case closed! But, will Holmes be able to solve the diabolical Mystery of the Even Bigger Goon later in the film?

There is, of course, a detective story of sorts in this film. Lord Blackthorn is hanged for the murders of several people around London, but no sooner has he been buried than he apparently rises from the dead and starts an unlife of crime. All of this is part of a plan to seize control of Parliament and conquer the world, a task that apparently requires nothing more than a strong ministry in Whitehall.

Knowing all this, would you be astonished to learn that Blackthorn is not really an adversary worthy of Sherlock Holmes? Not that I expected a great battle of wits from a Guy Ritchie movie, but this is like turning Sherlock Holmes loose against the magician at second-grader’s birthday party. Except that would have comedy value, while unmasking Blackthorn’s plot means enduring endless scenes of cut-rate Masons performing boring rituals and giving dire warnings about all the dark, uncontrollable forces Blackthorn is unleashing with his powers.

And that really brings us to central problem of this film: it’s just not very much fun, and a movie as stupid as this needs to be fun. The pro forma tension between Holmes and Watson over Watson’s impending engagement just serves to bring the movie down, along with the boring machinations of the villain, the endless fist fighting, and Moriarty’s momentum-killing cameos. Downey, Jr.’s Holmes and Law’s Watson never really get a chance to play off one another, which is a key element of a good bromantic comedy. With the exception of a few childish establishing scenes, they spend most of the movie either apart, in silence, or brawling side by side.

There is exactly one scene in this movie that really worked. Watson has forced Holmes to come dine with him and his soon-to-be fiancee, but Holmes has arrived at the restaurant too early. As he sits there, the camera catches his eyes as they start to dart around the room. We see his view as he scans the crowd, picking up a cacophony of details and evidence of minor crimes and betrayals. The crowd noise swells to a roar of conversation fragments and sounds.

Next, Holmes shove himself back into his booth, eyes tightly closed and hands pressing against his face. This is obviously a recurring problem, a condition with which he has never come to terms. We see evidence of this as Watson and his fiancee arrive to join him, and she makes the mistake of asking Holmes what he can deduce about her.

What happens next is a slow-motion train wreck. Holmes can’t stop himself from going too far, from telling her too much about herself, and from being cruel out of a misguided protectiveness of Watson. She leaves in a fury, and Watson just looks at Holmes with a mixture of pity and disappointment. It’s the lack of anger that’s the most hurtful thing to Holmes, because it’s clear just how much Watson views Holmes as his sick, broken friend. Holmes just looks back at Watson with a mixture of sheepish defiance, sorry and ashamed but constitutionally incapable of apologizing. It is a pity we never get to see the rest of that movie.

The Decline of American Statesmanship

The first great book I’ve read this year is George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Despite being almost 1000 pages, Colony to Superpower provides a fast-paced yet thorough tour of American foreign policy since Independence that shows the areas where different policies form a coherent whole, and where foreign policy has undergone major discontinuities. By the end of it, I felt like I had been introduced to my own country.

Herring takes a decidedly unsentimental look at many the myths promulgated by the triumphalist tradition in American historiography, but he doesn’t descend into the bitterness and anger that mark A People’s History of the United States. If Herring is bothered by the injustice and ruthless self-interest that have often characterized American policy, he goes to pains to understand and explain how the principals perceived their own actions and how those unfair policies may have benefited the country. What does bother Herring is the self-satisfaction and forgetfulness that run rampant through the American narrative. The United States is a sometime villain and sometime hero, and usually something in between. Yet it insists on depicting itself as more principled and a greater force for good than any other nation.

This is not new information, but seeing the history of American foreign policy puts a sharp point on it. While the plight of the Native American tribes is well-documented and regretted, the United States has done a much poorer job coming to terms with its predations against Spain, its outright assault on Mexico while that country was in its infancy, and its constant meddling in Caribbean and Latin American affairs. The chapter on the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War was the saddest of any save the last. When you consider how often Americans take a snide and condescending attitude to our “backwards” and “corrupt” hemispheric neighbors, it’s horrifying that the U.S. has never really accepted responsibility for the corrupting and retarding influence it exerted on them.

However, the most profound shift in the book came with the end of WWII and the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Prior to Roosevelt’s death, U.S. foreign policy seemed mostly effective and level-headed. There were administrations who managed foreign affairs in a ham-handed and vicious manner, but the responsible caretakers of U.S. interests were quick to reassert themselves. They conducted themselves professionally abroad, and tended to have a high regard for the processes of diplomacy. The high-water mark seemed to come with Franklin Roosevelt, who did an admirable job of curbing U.S. adventurism within the hemisphere while coming to an early understanding of the threat posed by Hitler. As Herring himself points out, FDR may have used a lot of underhanded and deceptive tactics to bring the U.S. into the war against Germany prior to 1941, but Hitler’s Germany stands as an exceptional case if ever there was one.

The problem, Herring says, is that FDR’s successors used his methods for their own purposes, which were never as noble. Even worse, the country seemed to lose its sense of balance after his death. Herring demonstrates that there was a profound and abrupt reactionary tilt to American policy almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death. Although Roosevelt was as capable as anyone at acting decisively, he was also the sort of man to make decisions in a calm, pragmatic fashion. Truman and the foreign policy team that coalesced around him were not.

Whatever FDR would have done about the Soviet Union’s burgeoning imperialism in Eastern Europe, it probably would have been handled more gracefully than Truman’s instantaneous bellicosity. From the day he assumed the office, Truman took a hard, threatening line against the Soviets that only served to stoke their suspicions that the U.S. was an enemy. Furthermore, Truman’s doctrine of containment placed the United States squarely on the wrong side of history during the retreat of the colonial powers, serving to alienate beyond hope the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and most of Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, he demolished the role of the State Department by creating the National Security Council. American foreign policy, once the domain of diplomatic professionals, would be dominated from then on by a growing class of “defense intellectuals” and military officers.

It is also true that the Cold War bred a cycle of hysteria that afflicts the country to this day. The Republicans and Democrats routinely labeled one another as “soft” on communism, squelching any dissent regarding core assumptions of American policy and only disagreeing about how extreme the U.S. response should be. And so Kennedy took office already boxed in by the anti-Communist rhetoric he used to attack Richard Nixon, and Johnson would commit himself to Vietnam in order to guard his right flank during the 1964 election. Now, terrorism plays the part of communism in the national discourse, with the same effects on policy discussions.

One of the ultimate lessons of From Colony to Superpower, and one of its most troubling conclusions, is that the United States has not been able to debate security policy rationally since 1945. As its economic and military power have increased, the capability and sophistication of its foreign policy apparatus and its polity have diminished, to the point where the latter have begun to destroy the former.