Archive for May, 2010

Exit Interview – Runner

Let me just start by saying that Merc and I were really taken aback when you walked out on that last mission. We’d both been really impressed by your dedication to the job, and had some big plans for you. Why did you decide to resign?

A lot of reasons, really. To start with, I guess I just didn’t enjoy the day-to-day, you know? I wanted to be a runner, and if that’s what the job actually was, it’d be great. But it seems like I’m never running. I’m always looking around rooftops for some improbable network of catwalks, HVAC units, and air ducts to help me get from Point Fucking A to Point Motherfucking B.

Pathfinding is part of the job.

You know what’s annoying, though? Trying to pathfind while being shot to death by guys with assault rifles.

No one said it would be easy. Running is illegal in New Eden.

OK, but why are police waiting for me everywhere I go? It seems like the entire police force just hangs out on top of buildings, waiting for me show up. Then Merc is always in my ear, stating the obvious. “Careful, Faith. There’s a increased blue activity in the area.” Hmm. I wonder if that means they’ll show up? “Careful Faith! There’s blues ahead of you!” Thanks, Merc! I couldn’t see them ’cause I was blinded by their muzzle flashes.

And do we have to call them “blues” all the time? I mean, I know we”re rebellious, militant pseudo-hipsters, but can’t we ever give it a rest and call a thing by its name? This one guy, I can’t ask him a simple question without him being like, “Catch you later, Faithee! What can I give you, Faithee? Think you can handle me, Faithee.” Then, after wasting my time with his insinuations, he goes darting off. So I’ve gotta chase him for twenty minutes just to ask him a simple question. And for some reason, everyone just goes along with this shit. Nobody can just answer a direct question. Or ask one. It’s all oblique references.

I think we’re getting rather far afield fro-

No, see, this is why I’m quitting. I’m trying to investigate this murder that my sister was framed for, and instead of just asking people, “Hey, what do you know about this murder?” I’ve gotta couch everything in these little code-phrases. And I get answers in kind. “Very powerful people are involved in this, Faith.”

“Who?”

“Let’s just say, there are forces that would like to take control of the police.”

“Who?”

“There’s a cabal of-”

Fuck it, I just lost interest. And to be honest, I don’t really give a shit about my sister, either. What? My jack-booted thug of a sibling gets busted by the conniving fascists she works for and I’m supposed to drop everything to bail her out? Yeah, she’s the only sister I’ve got, but seriously, it’s the scorpion and the blind dog, you know? So it was okay for her to crush dissidents and hunt down runners last week, but now that she’s framed for a killing that for once she and her friends didn’t commit, she’s on side of the angels?

So you’re quitting because you hate your sister?

Not just her. I’m quitting, however, because Merc sent me into a room full of policemen for the umpteenth time. It was ridiculous. Door opens and it’s basically a firing squad. I run through and started dodging bullets, and just as I start to feel pretty good about myself, I realize something. Every other door is locked. So I start running circles around the room looking for an exit, but I can’t find one. It must be upstairs, but to get there I’ve got to get past the cops. Except there was no way to to get upstairs without getting shot to death. The only thing missing from that little scene was the Benny Hill music.

Maybe if you looked harder-

Certainly. But you know what? I didn’t want to. I’d looked hard for the way out of other traps, and all I got were more traps. I felt like I was escaping from jail cell into a coffin. So this time, I just walked out of the room, got a wall between me and the cops, and called it a career. When I get home, I’m going to pour myself a nice glass of wine, lie down on my IKEA sofa, and try to forget everything about New Eden. What a stupid name for a city.

Rise of Prussia Review

GameShark just published my review of Rise of Prussia. This was a big disappointment for me, since I’m a Seven Years’ War nerd. Metacritic will convert my “C” into something much harsher than it actually is, but there is no avoiding the fact that I did not enjoy myself a great deal with this game, and was really put off by the whole package.

That’s where I put most of my focus in this review. I could have gotten into a much more nuts-and-bolts discussion about how the game models Frederican warfare and whether or not the AGEOD system really does a good job of modeling it. It does and it doesn’t. There are far too many battles where only a fraction of the forces in a given territory actually take part in a battle. The AI, although generally quite good, is too fond of laying siege to every fort, everywhere, rather than concentrating its efforts. I was astonished when the Austrian army practically dissolved itself along the Oder river, laying simultaneous sieges and Breslau, Schweidnitz, and a bunch of other places.

I could have talked about some of the annoying gameplay quirks, like the maddening ease with which you can destroy a friendly army simply by forgetting to triple-check its rules of engagement, thus destroying the work of over a hundred turns.

A section on the astonishing amount of administrative tasks you have to perform would not be out of place. I loved building and organizing armies, but the frequency with which I had to reorganize was off-putting. I also had stacks of unassigned generals roving the map looking for brigade commands, who seemed never to be where I needed them.

But I focused on the other elements of the Rise of Prussia package, things you could argue are external to the core game, because they are where the whole experience started to turn sour. It just did not seem very interesting to rehash the AGEOD wargame system again, especially since most of the people who are genuinely interested in Rise of Prussia probably already know what they think about it. AGEOD’s bare-bones approach is what really dragged this game down.

So let me be honest about some of my expectations. With a mature series like this one, I start to look for more refinement and polish in later titles. When Birth of America came out I thought it was a breath of fresh air: handsome art assets, a solid and inventive portrayal of Revolutionary warfare, and a smart treatment of command and logistics. I wrestled with the interface a bit, and always felt like I was being asked to hunt down and interpret too much information. That paled beside the game’s obvious achievements.

But with Rise of Prussia, I find that I’m still battling the same problems. The core game is as good as ever, and AGEOD have made some nice improvements, but shouldn’t the presentation be better by now? Should I still be tasked with being my own supply officer? Couldn’t the ledger have some better sorting options by now, so that I spend less time hunting for specific units and generals?

On top of that, there are far fewer scenarios, and everything is large-scale. With the first game, Birth of America, AGEOD wrote a lot of different scenarios at different scales. I could try a grand campaign covering an entire war, I could focus on Montcalm’s opening offensive against the British, or Amherst’s sprint up the St. Lawrence. I could play Birth of America on my own terms. Rise of Prussia can be played one way.

Even little things, like the way you run email games, seem clumsy and user-unfriendly. Why do I have to do so much file management for a play-by-email game? Why can’t the game do it for me?

Personally, with experienced developers iterating on a familiar design, I look for signs of caring, thoughtful craftsmanship. Rise of Prussia did not have them.

Disaster on the Horizon

For all the iconic images of that day, my clearest memory from 9/11 is of my friend B looking over his shoulder. B is a Palestinian-American. We were in the same class when the first tower fell.

The history teacher across the hall brought us the news, and that was when our teacher finally gave up on lecturing. He turned off the lights and put on the television. Not long after that, the second tower fountained apart into the dust cloud. Then came the reports that Palestinians were dancing in the streets.

B visibly flinched. Then, looking as hunted as I’ve ever seen anyone, he flashed a nervous glance over each shoulder. He curled forward in his seat, then slumped down and rested his head in the crook of his folded arms. I wanted to say something to him, but I don’t remember what. A lot has changed since then.

I grew up with Muslim kids. Anti-Muslim sentiment was always strange to me, because Muslims were not oddities where I grew up. But they all had experiences with it. A Pakistani girl I grew up with once told me a story about the day of the Oklahoma city bombing. She and her family were taking a flight out of O’Hare, and nobody knew anything about what had happened beyond the fact that there had been a terrorist attack. She said that a woman on her plane went into hysterics and started yelling at the flight attendants to take this girl and her family off the plane. She was terrified that there were going to be more terrorist attacks, and the Pakistanis looked like terrorists to her. Everyone else just stared at them.

I do not know what was going through other Muslims’ minds that morning. I’d imagine the same horror, but with even more apprehension and sense of loss. But B was the only one from a place where people were openly rejoicing at the deaths of Americans. I felt sorry for how conspicuous and ashamed he must have felt. At the same time, I entertained dark visions of cluster bombs being dropped across Palestine, showering the dancers with their own limbs.

So I don’t know what I would have said to him. “I know you don’t feel that way,” or maybe, “We know you’re not one of them.” But would that even have been true? Was he only embarrassed by the behavior the Palestinians across the world, or was he also conflicted because he understood why they danced?

Ten years ago, the media framed America’s reaction as one of bewilderment and hurt confusion: “Why do they hate us?” It alighted on comforting answers. The basest response was that the terrorists hated us for our virtues. Freedom and economic opportunity drove terrorists crazy, because it interfered with their dream of establishing a global caliphate. In this formulation, the terrorist was a Grinch-like figure, flying passenger jets into Whoville because he could not stand their happiness.

The more liberal, and superficially more thoughtful response, was that they hated us for supporting dictators who pillaged their nations and crushed their dreams, and those dictators had played a masterful con game on their own people. They convinced these angry young Muslims that Israel and its American ally were responsible for all their ills. 9/11 was a case of misdirected anger. The root evil was corrupt regimes, and America’s acquiescence to them.

Now, as we try and figure out why Faisal Shahzad packed a car full of combustibles and tried to attack his adopted country, we cannot afford to be so naive. It requires absolutely no imagination to come up with reasons why a Pakistani might want to take American lives. In the past we could always claim that Muslims who hated America did so because they did not understand us, or because they were misguided. Unfortunately, we have made our identity and our values appallingly clear.

The Obama administration has bombed Pakistan with impunity since taking office, and precious few elected officials or American citizens seem to care. Anonymous Pentagon spokesmen always claim that each drone strike kills “x number of militants,” as if we should not be concerned in the slightest that we might be terrorizing the civilian population of a country with which we are not at war by constantly bombarding it with missiles and bombs. We are told that the dead resulting from one of these strikes were all the enemy, but we have no way of knowing whether or not that is true. Our record in Afghanistan has hardly been confidence inspiring. The government is killing foreign citizens by remote, and offering no evidence to support its actions beyond, “Trust us.” As if credibility is something the military, intelligence, and foreign policy communities still possessed.

Drone strikes are merely the latest in a series of appalling accidents and intentional atrocities that have dogged our every step since 9/11, and at every turn public outrage has been muted. After 9/11 we heard so much about America’s tradition of tolerance, about the great respect American leaders had for that great religion, Islam, and how terrorists were evil for profaning its name. It was so important, as we sent troops into Afghanistan and prepared to send them into Iraq, that we make clear that we respected Islam and its practitioners. It was important that American Muslims not feel torn between their ethnic and religious identities on the one hand, and their civic identity on the other.

Then the Bush administration invaded Iraq on a mistaken assumption, and plunged the country into chaos and sectarian civil war. Evidence surfaced of sadistic detainee abuse. People suspected of being terrorists were swallowed up by the black-site prison system, basically kidnapped and sent somewhere to be tortured. The United States imprisoned people for years at Guantanamo Bay with scant evidence. Horrifying mistakes occurred, some of them caught on film like the Wikileaks video that came out several weeks ago, showing American troops killing civilians. American politicians routinely demand that terror suspects be stripped of their rights and treated like animals. A congressional candidate managed to win a major party primary after running one of the most horrifyingly racist ads I have ever seen.

What conclusions might an American Muslim reach when he sees firsthand how little anyone cares about Muslim lives, and how widespread and accepted anti-Muslim bigotry has become?

Nine years ago I wondered what B was thinking and feeling as he heard about his fellow Palestinians cheering and dancing as thousands of Americans perished. But now, I think I know. I don’t know how I would begin to look my Muslim friends in the eye. I certainly could not make the case that it was all a misunderstanding. They would know America far too well to fall for that.

But here is the thing: unless we start thinking about this stuff, unless we start pushing back against abuses committed in our name, and question the policies of a defense and foreign policy establishment that has blundered from one mistake to the next, we are going to fast reach a point where we are locked into a course that will antagonize Muslims at home and abroad. Because the moment “home-grown” Islamic terrorism ceases to be unusual, we will be unable to address any of the reasons why American Muslims might turn on the United States. An act of terrorism always confirms the policies that birthed it, because any retreat from those policies, no matter how counterproductive they might be, will be viewed as a victory for terrorists.

At that point, the cycle of violence is all but unbreakable. We kill in reprisal for our dead, and terrorists will step forward to kill in reprisal for theirs. That is the world in which we will grow old, and that is the world into which we will bring our children.

Back among the Living

This has not been the best month so far. Just as MK was starting to feel better, I felt a familiar rawness at the back of my throat and a creeping lightheadedness. After a week of being unaffected by whatever MK had caught, it mugged me one afternoon while I was doing a little housework.

These two bouts of sickness could not have been better timed to screw up my life. First it reduced how much time I could spend researching and writing a feature for The Escapist because I was busy taking care of MK and household chores, and then it forced me to actually write the damn thing with a strobing pain between my eyes. This meant requesting another deadline extension from an editor I’ve never really worked with before. Always nice to get a relationship off on the right foot like that.

In other news, I bought a PS3 from Amazon, asked my parents to send me the 5.1 surround system I’d loaned them, and tried to buy a TV. So I now know exactly what the home entertainment setup will be, and how it will be arranged for maximum viewing pleasure… I just don’t have any part of it yet.

We found a really good deal on a used HDTV here in town, but when MK went to check it out the seller basically reneged and admitted that she was waiting for a better offer. She was also a catty bitch. There were thinly veiled snide remarks at the fact that MK and are not married, an implication that she’s doing us a huge favor by selling us this TV if she does sell it to us (a pointed look at MK’s frayed housework clothes), and a reminder that this woman cannot do anything until her “chaaaasband” gives his say so. It was great.

Since this TV could save us a couple hundred, however, we’ll wait for this progressive couple to get back to us. Besides, it’s not like we have anything to hook the television up to right now, since PS3′s are apparently tough to come by right now. Best Buy has no idea when they’re getting the next shipment, and could not reserve me a unit. So I just bit the bullet and went with Amazon. Not sure when I’ll get the console.

However, when I do get all the pieces together, I’ll have the best entertainment center I’ve ever owned. And I will finally be able to watch some of my favorite movies on a real screen, with a great surround setup, and the option of high-def. I can predict a lot of Michael Mann blu-rays in my near future (Mohicans, if it ever comes out on BR, Heat, and Collateral). But the inaugural movie is likely to be Ratatouille Blu-Ray or Die Hard.

The broader question for me is how to get the most out of my PS3. I worry that if I just end up using it as a BR player, a place to stream Netflix, and an occasional gaming platform, I’ll be under-utilizing it. I also have to admit that I have misgivings about the the BR format. I keep hearing that there are a lot of half-assed transfers , and that you cannot trust a BR disc to deliver BR quality. That would drive me crazy. I notice stuff like that.

In the meantime, before all the components are delivered, I will continue watching TV on my little laptop and it’s mighty 15 fps when streaming Hulu. But when I dream, I dream of home theaters.

A Time of Plague

I’ve been trying to get some work done around here, but I’ve been kind of distracted by the fact that MK has been stricken with some sort of “stagnation o’ th’ lungs”, as the butcher of All Creatures might say. I’m not exactly certain what’s wrong with her (medical science is still working on that) but she’s been kind of zonked out for the past four days.

That’s not ideal in a small apartment, where the living room shares space with the office. Besides which, I have a hard time motivating myself to do much cooking or cleaning when I’m the only one with an appetite or an interest in the apartment’s cleanliness. So I’ve mostly sat with MK here in the shadows, trying to get some research and writing done.

As it has in the past, Good Old Games has come to MK’s rescue. She bought an old childhood favorite, Creatures, and has been happily curled around her laptop for most of the last 72 hours. She’s less miserable when she’s playing it. It seems to be such a remarkable game that I have a hard time believing it exists: it’s a late 90′s genetic sandbox game, where you monitor a population of Gremlin-like creatures and try to make them robust and self-sustaining while addressing potential problems like disease or genetic defects. There’s no saves beyond a self-overwriting autosave. You screw up genetic line or an entire species, you can’t go back and undo it. You just have to fix it.

It’s something I’m going to have to take a look at, because it seems to be very similar to the game that people once believed Spore would be. MK spent several hours trying to perfect a cross of the game’s three species that would combine the best of each, but she eventually had to admit defeat as undesirable traits kept manifesting and the mature crosses showed no inclination to procreate.

Unfortunately, we also lost an old nemesis this week: MK’s HP laptop. In the three years we’ve owned it, I would estimate that it has been broken or RTMed for at least one year. Now, eight months after yet another round of repairs and six months out of warranty, it’s videocard is dead. We will probably not be repairing it, since I have every expectation that another part would fail within a few months.

Since we primarily used MK’s laptop for media,  it seems like it is time to get a TV. And if we’re getting a TV, we might as well get a console to play DVDs and stream media. So that’s exciting. Now I just need to pick one: PS3 or 360?

Another Key to the Kingdom

Earlier this year, when the TMA crew and I covered the Diplomacy expansion to Sins of a Solar Empire, I saw a lot of intriguing ideas that I wanted to explore further. So I spent the next couple months playing the game a lot more with MK and some friends, and trying to get a feel for the system. I promised I’d write more about it, and I finally have: it’s the subject of my latest GSW column.

My feelings about the expansion evolved as I spent more time with it. While my first reaction to the diplomacy system was unenthusiastic, I really missed it when a recurring bug forced me to play a lot of Sins: Entrenchment. Without really noticing, I’d become really dependent on my ability to communicate with other players and AIs via the game’s diplomatic options. When I could go back to playing Diplomacy, it was with a new appreciation for the language of favors and reprisals that Diplomacy opened up.

I think Diplomacy is a fascinating attempt to revitalize and deepen an established game, and so I devoted the latest installment of my GameSetWatch column, “Keys to the Kingdom”, to looking at the expansion’s purpose and effects on gameplay. Go take a look at it and let me know you think. Plus, I’d be really interested to hear what other people have made of the Diplomacy expansion, and how much my experience matches theirs.

If you feel like commenting on the piece, please do so over at GSW.