Archive for August, 2010

Starcraft II Round-Up

Longtime TMA listeners and readers know that I’ve been deeply skeptical of Starcraft II for quite awhile, and now that I’ve played it, I think my skepticism was well founded. However, I didn’t expect to like the direction Blizzard have gone nearly as much as I do.

But I don’t think it’s the towering achievement that it is so often portrayed to be. In fact, I think this is one of the toughest games to assess.

Last night, Tom Chick rejoined us on TMA, and ex-Gamasutra writer and future Irrational employee Chris Remo stopped by to share his thoughts. We had a fantastic discussion, and wrestled with the many problems Starcraft II poses for those trying to judge it. Go give it a listen.

However, I also penned some thoughts of my own for Gamers With Jobs, a site at which I will now be writing regularly. This is exciting. GWJ is probably my favorite gaming community, and I’m friends with just about everyone who writes there. In fact, my not writing there was starting to seem a bit odd. So they took me in, and I promptly picked a fight about Starcraft II.

Go read my first piece for the site, and enjoy the brisk discussion that follows.

Year 28′s Delightful Beginning

A streak of bad birthdays finally broke yesterday, despite the best efforts of the MBTA and an underwhelming food truck festival in the South End. The Red Line wasn’t running between Kendall and Park, but nobody bothered to tell MK and me as we climbed aboard the train parked at the inbound platform. There are few things more disconcerting than having the T suddenly lurch in the wrong direction, leaving you wondering whether or not something has gone horribly awry and you are at that very moment in the path of another train hurtling along the same track.

So our friends came and rescued us, but by the time we got to the festival, the bare handful of food trucks were running low on everything you might want. There was nearly a riot when people who had been waiting for an hour for ribs were told that there was nothing left but cornbread.

Still, things can only be so bad when it’s a beautiful summer’s day and you’re out with friends. And they’re bound to get better when you all come home for an evening of drinks, cake, and games. Jason taught us mahjong, a game at which I am complete crap but enjoy very much, before we rounded out the evening playing one of my favorite games: Agricola.

I have argued before that Agricola is an RTS in turn-based strategy’s clothing. Each round, you can only perform as many actions as your farm has family members, and you can only perform an action if its space on the board is currently unoccupied. So even though you play sequentially, you still have to anticipate how the other players will change the board during their turn, while sparing a thought for the harvest round, during which you must ensure your family has enough food.

I eked out an extremely narrow victory over MK, who for once went a Polyface Farms direction rather than playing like Monsanto. I ran a more aggressive, higher-risk game than usual, probably because I’ve been playing so much Starcrat. I basically took a big risk on being able to feed my family in exchange for expanding early. Having an extra action each turn so early in the game meant that I could rapidly expand and diversify the farm.

Anyway, it was a vastly improved birthday over last year’s food-poisoning and the previous year’s heatwave-induced depression and drunkenness at the apartment on Linnaean.

Beyond that, there is the undeniable fact that life is simply better now than it was a year ago, or two years ago. Previous birthdays here in Cambridge have been lonely affairs, because everyone in my life besides MK was a thousand miles away. But in my 27th year, I finally started living my life here rather than passing time. I became friends with Troy, who then brought me aboard Three Moves Ahead and busted me out of the Freelance Isolation Chamber. PAX East came to town, and I finally started meeting colleagues and kindred spirits. Drew, Bryan, and Jason became invaluable local comrades. Julian brought me into the Gamers With Jobs circle, where it turns out I had a bunch of friends I simply had not met. This year, I feel confident that I’m finally figuring out how to work this.

Pentagon Morality

As a standard-bearer for responsible disclosure, Wikileaks is a deeply flawed organization. Too much Julian Assange’s brainchild, its moralizing and the obvious glee in spiting institutions it exposes serves only to undercut the often important information Wikileaks brings to light. I suspect that its high-profile will only serve to make sources, like Bradley Manning, more reticent about sharing classified information. This is especially true in light of the fact that the Afghanistan war documents apparently compromised the identity of some Afghans who have aided NATO forces. What conscience-driven whistle-blower is going to entrust information that could harm comrades and allies to an organization that does not respect the import of the information? Wikileaks may have harmed its mission.

This all looks rather bad until you consider its adversary, the Department of Defense. The other day, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell demanded that Wikileaks “do the right thing” by returning the leaked information to the DoD, and removing it from Wikileaks’ website and computers. It was when the DoD invoked the justice and morality of its cause that I remembered exactly why an organization like Wikileaks is so important.

The only reason the government is appealing to Assange’s and Wikileaks’ better angels is because, for once, it has absolutely no coercive power or legal protection. Men like Morrell or Adm. Mullen are shocked, shocked that an organization devoted to the disclosure of classified information would leak information that offers insight into American operations and might reveal the identity and methods of classified sources. Missing from this self-righteous anger is an acknowledgment that the government has made a habit of classifying any information that sits still long enough for its lawyers to get to it. We need leakers and snoops to steal government information because the government has long since stopped providing it legally.

Where was this dedication to “the right thing” when the US kidnapped Maher Arar? Or sent him abroad to be tortured? Where was justice when it came time to hear his case in court? Nowhere, because “national security” means the government can do as it damned well pleases.

When Reuters used the Freedom of Information Act to inquire exactly why in the hell two of its Baghdad bureau reporters were slaughtered by American gunships, did the DoD own up to what had happened? Of course not. They gave assurances that the shooting was in accordance with the rules of engagement, and blew off the FOIA request. It only became a problem once Wikileaks released a video showing the shitty judgment and half-assed oversight that led to the killing.

(If you’re going to offer a “we can’t judge” defense or complain that the video doesn’t show enough conquest, save us both some time and don’t. From 7:30 on the long version of the video, it’s an unambiguous fuckup.)

Then we have the Obama administration descending on leakers and whistle-blowers with the zeal of the Inquisition. This isn’t just about people ratting out his administration, it’s going after people who called the Bush administration on illegal activity and waste. Now it’s true that there are proper channels for employees to take their grievances, but proper channels are worthless if they’re controlled by the same corrupt people you’re trying to expose. In such cases, speaking truth to power is a quick way to ruin your career. Maybe your life. So it’s little wonder that troubled federal employees choose to go the press. Or, to even better protect their anonymity, go to Wikileaks.

But, come on Wikileaks, do the right thing.

Clearing the Rubble

Having a review assignment go spectacularly wrong feels a bit like being John Dortmunder. Dortmunder was the protagonist of Donald Westlake’s comic novels, a brilliant but hopelessly unlucky professional thief who always had the best plans for pulling down a huge score, but who always watched it all go wrong in slow-motion tragi-comedy. While the general arc of the stories was formulaic, the adventures themselves were not, and it was always a joy to watch the new and horrific ways it could all go wrong. But of course, to Dortmunder it was all deadly serious.

I went through a similar thing with this last review. I thought I’d identified a good job, something that would be quick and rewarding, and I sold a a few people on the idea. Then, once I got to work on the assignment, it started to turn on me. In the meantime, other work was sliding away from me because I was furiously trying to extricate myself from the debacle. Now I’ve managed to pull off my daring escape, and the review will go up sometime in the near future, but in the meantime it’s left me in some deep trouble with other assignments.

Still, there is a part of me that feels suffused with virtue. I knew, within an hour of starting my first game, that this game was in trouble. Not too much longer, I knew it was nothing I could ever enjoy or recommend. But I didn’t entirely understand why, which meant I hadn’t yet completed the review process. Anyone can tell you what he likes or doesn’t, but that reaction won’t help anyone unless the reviewer can explain where he’s coming from and why he had the reactions he did. So I continued my grim death-march toward understanding.

I suspect it’s probably a good thing to, every once in awhile, find yourself locked in a room with a bad game. Not because it helps us keep other games in perspective, but because it underlines the bromides and truisms that critics and designers like to throw around. Meier’s “series of interesting decisions” description of a game means a hell of a lot more once you’ve played a game that’s a series of pointless, illusory decisions. It’s easy to wonder why a game doesn’t have certain features that might make it more historically accurate or interesting, until you see how verisimilitude unbound from design discipline can send an entire game cartwheeling into an abyss of incoherence.

Still, it came at a cost. It’s Wednesday morning and I still feel like I’m shaking off a bender. There are sources that must be harassed, editors that must be appeased, stories that must be written, and games that must be played. And there’s not enough time for any of it.