November 2011


Man, this game is a blast.  Arkham Asylum is one of my favorite games, and how do you top it?  Well, you keep all the cool bits and then add more. 

For those who came in late, in Arkham Asylum you played Batman, dealing with Joker’s takeover of the asylum.  It had a combat mechanic that worked great once I got past the urge to mash buttons.  You have to get into a rhythm of swinging the mouse around to face someone (aim is only approximate) and hitting the mouse once, paying attention to impending attacks to block them, and using your combos which are unstoppable and also give you a moment’s breathing room.  And then the stealth… in other games this is mostly a matter of holding down Ctrl.  It’s fun in AA because there’s a whole slew of things you can do: silent takedown, ledge takedown, gargoyle drop, batarang attack, signalling suicide collars to break up the pack, to say nothing of swinging around up in the heights or tunneling through vents.  Plus the thugs get increasingly terrified. 

This game turns a whole swath of Gotham into a sprawling prison city. 

Yeah, that's gonna work out well.

Tooling around the city is fun, because you can glide and grapple almost everywhere.  You can take any route you like, and sometimes find challenges or side missions along the way.  There’s usually knots of thugs here and there… you can avoid them or take them out. 

If you got fairly good at the mechanics in Arkham Asylum, the good news is that you can use all your skills here– the basics are the same, and you start with most of the extras from the first game.  Plus there’s exciting new gadgets and moves. 

And then there’s Catwoman, who is a playable character, adorable and deadly.  I could play Catwoman all day long.  (Fortunately she can play all the unlockable challenge rooms.)

Kitty stalking her prey

Gameplay as Catwoman is similar to Batman, but she has her own toys and moves.  She doesn’t have a grapple but a whip, so she moves across the cityscape a little differently; she has a whip attack as a combo move… it’s just different enough to be fun.  Plus she is particularly cute in steath mode… she crawls around like a cat. 

She may overplay the sultry femme fatale a bit… but hell, Batman overplays the macho badass.  And she can take out a roomful of thugs just as fast as Batman.  (Just how she does it isn’t completely clear– she must weight half a thug.  Let’s just say it’s momentum.)  So far she adds a lightness that’s a nice contrast to the relentlessly serious Bats.

I do have to complain about Games for Windows Live, which you have to sign in to even for single player, which is just megastupid.  At least you can ignore it once you’re in.

More reports later as I get further into the story…

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I’ve been pacing myself on Skyrim– some of my friends have finished the main quest already; I’m almost ignoring it.  I went to meet the Greybeards, but that’s it so far.  I’ve been perfectly happy fetching lost swords and the like for people.  Finally, more or less because I was in the area, I headed up to Winterhold and signed up for magic.  And that’s been tasty so far.  I plan to save the nasty guilds (thieves and murderers) for another playthrough– maybe as a dunmer as the ugliness will fit.

I have to say, this game is awfully pretty. 

No, Lydia is not attacking me. She doesn’t even have any points in Sneak.

Really, really pretty:

Whiterun

It bugs me sometimes that the world is so desaturated.  Everything seems like it’s in shades of brown and gray– though I have to say that they’ve really learned how to capture the appearance of metal. 

Water, fire, and snow effects are amazing.  They have great snowstorms, the addition of currents in the rivers is a nice touch, and you get quite a show after killing a dragon:

Fucker appeared right at the College of Winterhold

I went and got married, to a chick named Sylgja.  She was really the first person to flirt with me after I got the Amulet of Mara, and she’s cute in a slightly butch way:

Not a dunmer. They uglified the dunmer, remember?

Marriage is really a perk: your spouse opens up a store in your house, which gives you profits as well as a convenient place to unload goods.  Sylgja has some sweet dialog– I like the way she says “my love”– but it’s so repetitive that there’s not much point to staying home.   It’s nice, however, that the cheapest house, in Whiterun, is actually pretty nice, especially once it’s decorated.   Much nicer than your Imperial City shack!

I’ve grown fond of my companion Lydia, too.  She’s a help fighting most anything, and tends to see that one last enemy better than I do.  A couple times I’ve had to reload an earlier save because she can be killed by friendly fire… area of effect spells can be troublesome.

I appreciate the fact that the main conflict is a) so ignorable, and b) not clear-cut.  It’s pretty sophisticated for a video game.

I just finished Perdido Street Station, and I’m going to have to ratchet up my opinion of China Miéville.  I liked Kraken but didn’t see the point of The Scar, which is set in the same world as Perdido.  But this book is amazing.  Once it gets going, it never lets go— it kept me away from Skyrim for gods’ sake.

It’s set in the sprawling, nasty city of New Crobuzon, which has mostly 19th century technology (railways, photographs, flintlocks, factories, gaslights, dirigibles, analytical engines, steam power), plus magic, plus a really out-of-control set of humanoids.  It’s been described as steampunk, but I don’t think that’s helpful; I think it’s the period, not the technology, that fascinates Miéville.  And even that may more be a disinterest in the medieval.

Really, it’s a work of horror.  I think Wikipedia defines horror as being about fear, but that’s only partly right… you could write a story about the fear of skyscrapers or financial ruin, and it wouldn’t be horror at all.  I think the essence of horror is violation of bodily integrity.  This can be quite literal: a knife or a claw cutting into flesh, or a rape, or a disfiguring disease.  Or it can refer to death, the terrifying process which turns our bodies into corpses.  A big chunk is close contact with other sorts of bodies: snakes, spiders, big furry predators.  The closest such contact is merger, so a staple of horror fiction is the chimera, a mixture of the human and the  alien.  (The zombie is a quintessential threat because it mixes so many themes: itself the result of a violation, a merger of human and corpse, it also wants to rip us open physically.)

The horrors can be divided into gross but harmless— the merely macabre— and the really dangerous.  Miéville’s humanoids are examples of the first.  One of the protagonists, for instance, is Lin, a khepri, named for the Egyptian scarab-headed god.  Fans have helpfully provided a vivid image.  Miéville lovingly describes exactly how Lin’s insect-head links up with her human body, how the species reproduces (the males are only beetles, though huge ones), how she makes art by secreting a special substance from the back end of the beetle, what the mandibles and legs of the scarab part are doing.  It’s kind of cheerfully disturbing.

Then there’s the Remade— humans turned into chimeras, thaumaturgical mixtures of human with animal or human with machine, mostly done as punishment.  These are played a bit more sadistically.

Finally there’s the main plot, which involves an existential threat to the city— an eight-foot multidimensional moth which dazzles sentient creatures, slips a huge prehensile tongue into their mouths (there’s that bodily violation), and eats their minds.  Several of these things get loose— largely due to the carelessness of the main protagonist, Lin’s human boyfriend Isaac— and terrorize the city.  A number of agencies, civic and anarchic and supernatural, take them on.

Lovecraft mostly achieved his effects by teasing and hiding, a structure Miéville borrowed in The Scar— to no great effect.   Perdido doesn’t pull its punches.  Plenty of nasty stuff happens onstage; people die; the threat of the moths is clear and the eventual plan of attack is satisfying and gripping.

As conworlding, it relies on being so vivid you don’t ask many questions.  Horror doesn’t have to be rigorously worked out anyway.  The humanoids don’t really make biological sense, but it doesn’t really matter.  They’re described so closely and coherently that they work on the narrative level.

New Crobuzon itself is a very lively creation, though my overwhelming sense is that Miéville doesn’t like it, or cities in general.  It’s constantly emphasized how it’s corrupt, stinking, decaying, unjust, and violent.  A map is provided, and the names of the neighborhoods all sound nasty: Murkside, Mog Hill, Nigh Sump, Kinken, Gallmarch, Tar Wedge, Skulkford, Howl Barrow, Smog Bend.  The city’s rivers are the Tar and the Canker.  Isaac and his immediate companions end up traveling by sewer (hiding from their enemies) and hiding in slums, and it’s always pointed out how dirty and smelly they are.  (It’s a nice observation about the adventurers that most fantasy glorifies.)

The city seems like a not very admiring portrait of London.  It’s ancient and formless and compact— it couldn’t be an American city.  And it’s bourgeois and commercial and variegated, its elite preferring to rule by high-minded indirection rather than outright tyranny— it couldn’t be (say) German or Russian.  At the same time, Miéville’s distaste (and perhaps his socialism) makes him deny it any progressivism or development.  Unlike the real 19C London, it’s not rapidly developing in science and economics; its technology is all ancient, and if anything is slowly getting lost.

Besides seeming to dislike cities, Miéville seems to have little interest in how they relate to their surroundings.  New Crobuzon is a city-state, and seems to have no analog to England to lord it over.  There’s no real explanation of why it’s so rich and powerful, or even so big.  He seems to realize that a premodern city was highly unhealthy, but doesn’t draw the necessary conclusion: something about it must be highly attractive, to keep drawing in new citizens.  Rural life must be even worse, and the rewards of the city a powerful inducement even for the poor.  We do have examples of declining technology in history, and they’re associated with urban life evaporating.

There is a radical newspaper, and labor agitation; but when workers stage what looks like it could be a very effective strike, it’s quickly suppressed with murderous violence.  That is, a little dissent is simply ignored, a façade of benign bourgeois rule is maintained, but any serious threat to the powerful is beaten down.  This would seem like an almost quaint depiction of Victorian politics if I hadn’t been reading the book on a weekend when police departments all over the country— in 2011 America— were organizing to brutally put down nonviolent protests.  Demonstrate against insuring the poor, and for lowering tax rates on the rich, shoot Congressional leaders, darkly hint about a coup d’etat— that is, agitate from the right— and no one does anything.  But when students and unemployed workers sit around in a park, they need to be pepper-sprayed by thugs in Darth Vader uniforms.  It’s disgusting, and makes Miéville’s picture look a lot less caricatured or outmoded.

Good as it is, the book has some structural problems.  Miéville leaves some plot strands unattended to for long periods.  In the middle of the book he expands the number of viewpoints, widening the book to show the crisis affecting the whole city, and it works very well.  But he narrows the focus back to Isaac and friends toward the end— the city as a whole ends up completely unaffected by the crisis it’s gone through.  And then one of the main motivators of the plot gets very sloppily reframed in the last chapter.  It cleans up a loose end of the plot, but plays false with both character and theme.  It feels like an afterthought, and it also leaves the last bit of the book rather distastefully relying on the idea of brutal violation of women.  This is a bit tricky for male writers, I think.  A work of horror certainly need not avoid such things, but I think Miéville swings a little bit too far into defining some of his female characters chiefly as victims of violence.

One more thought on steampunk… I feel the aesthetic appeal, and indeed I’ve pushed Almea into the steam age.  I can’t say I’ve read a lot of it, but much of what I’ve read seems interested only in the aesthetics.  It lets you have enormous gears, mechanical men, and dirigibles as background instead of stone, swords, and wizardry.  OK, that’s cool, but to me, the age of steam can’t be separated from the technology and its inevitable social effects.  It’s not just a change in scenery; it’s a revolution in mores.  It means understanding the world in a way that undermines old philosophies and theologies, and it gives power to people based on something besides noble blood and force of arms.  It means moving round the world at eighty miles an hour instead of twenty, and a huge boom in living standards, and a great decrease in the ungodly tedium of manual work, and the enormous liberation of being able to do things at night.  You can’t just slap steam engines on medieval society; they represent the destruction of medieval society.

 

 

So, at a palate cleanser between bouts of Skyrim, I’ve been playing DC Universe Online. It’s goofy fun, and best of all it’s free.

Basically you mess around in Gotham City and Metropolis, which are both huge cities; it’s always dark and gothic in Gotham, always sunny and futuristic in Metropolis. You are not the One Spoken of In The Prophecies; rather, to defeat an invasion by Brainiac, Lex Luthor has seeded the planet with thousands of new superheroes. The DC Universe honchos cheerfully serve as mentors for you, the fledgling hero or villain.

Not hitting on this Amazon 'cos she's just an NPC

You start by customizing your character. This mostly means choosing body type, skin, hair, and iconic colors; you’ll probably change the apperance of your gear (weapons and costume) as you get new items. Cleverly, though, you can lock in a choice… e.g. my hero always has those red thigh-high boots and no helmet, and my villain always wears her top hat.

It’s an MMO, with all the pluses and minuses that come with the territory. People give you– and whoever else is at that level– tasks, which usually involve defeating n enemies. You just don’t think too hard about the fact that the enemies you defeat will respawn later. The game nicely hides this by giving you new, related quests, culminating in a boss fight in a separate arena. So at least it feels like you get closure on a quest.

You can choose PvE or PvP worlds; I chose the latter because some friends were playing. This of course means that heroes and villains can attack each other… indeed, nothing prevents a max level player from beating up on newbies. This can be annoying if you’re trying to beat a quest; on the other hand it’s pretty satisfying to beat someone from the other faction.

There’s a few other activities, such as timed acrobatics/flying challenges. One of the cute things about the game is that everyone is pretty much invulnerable to normal damage (e.g. falling), and can travel in one of three superpowered ways. The acrobatics one is fun as you can zip up the sides of buildings; flying is even better.  There are a lot of nice touches– e.g. with acrobatics you can double-jump like a Scout, which if timed carefully lets you jump across a street.

It’s most fun as a co-op game, though I recommend only doing this with an external voice server, such as Ventrilo. Some of the boss fights can be tricky and it’s better to bring a friend.

My villain helping Parasite molest Power Girl

The overall gameplay is pretty similar for heroes and villains. The morality of the game is… odd. E.g. as a villain you may be asked to help Lex Luthor infect innocent college students with a mutagen, or help Joker in a gang war. But the overall tone is that all this is kind of harmless naughtiness. Indeed, there are real villains, starting with Brainiac, plus a few renegades like Scarecrow… the bad guys go too far when they really want to destroy the world, or upset the balanced harmony of things.  Telling point: the heroes’ safehouses are police stations, the villians’ are nightclubs.  Whatever that contrast is, it’s not good vs. evil.

You meet a number of famous characters, of course, though except in combat scenes it’s a bit disappointing to meet, say, Flash standing in front of a computer in a particular police station all day long.

Naturally, the freeness extends only so far.  There are premium options, but nothing really annoying.  I.e. there’s no level cap for free play, and the premium players don’t get better gear.  They get things like extra inventory slots, free DLC, more characters (you just get two for free).  The only cap I’ve run into so far is that you can only accumulate $1500.

Combat is fun, especially once you’re racked up a number of special skills and moves.  Some of them use special mouse combos (the worst so far: mouse 1 tap tap tap hold tap) which I’m not good at remembering, but I’m learning.  You don’t really aim– generally you hit the nearest enemy, though you can lock onto an enemy too.  The skill comes in using your superpowers and skills wisely.  Often you have to do a timed interaction with a defeated enemy (representing anything from stealing items to injecting something), and this adds some strategic finesse as you have to defeat nearby enemies first. 

The maps are well done– the entire cities are open, without loading screens, and huge, with extremely wide streets.  It’d be nice if it were a little easier to get between the cities. 

I pre-ordered Arkham City, which I kind of envision as the same thing only serious.

Some time ago there was a posting from a female rock musician noting, or complaining, that it’s surprisingly hard for female rockers to get laid, and here’s another one, from Ellen Campesinos.

She talks about the poor logistics (e.g. when you’re touring and you’re not in a top band, you really have no private space to bring someone to, and very little time anyway), but this is perhaps the key bit.  Why not sleep with a groupie?

This is a really unappealing prospect. There’s something about the power imbalance of that situation that makes me feel sad. I wouldn’t want to sleep with someone whose lust is solely driven by the fact I’m in a band they like. In that scenario, I’m up on a pedestal; there’s no room for me to impress them. Where’s the fun in that? I like the chase. If I don’t need to put any effort into seducing someone, there’s no tension. They don’t like me for my witty quips and knowledge of Sweet Valley High books; they like me for being in a band.

In the comments section some people object to this– what’s wrong with liking the band??– but others zero in on the status discrepancy that Ellen refers to.  Male rockers will get it on with female groupies because both sides are comfortable with male dominance.   And for whatever reason, Ellen obviously doesn’t care for the opposite situation, one where she has an automatic high status. 

It’s just an interesting sociological observation.  Of course my instinct as a conworlder is to subvert it, to wonder what a society would be like if things were different.

So, picked up this little game called Skyrim.  I was expecting a Falloutized Oblivion, and that’s pretty much what it is.  It’s quite a bit grimmer, and it improves on the RPG experience in countless ways.

Starting with: it’s damn pretty.

In between bandits

I thought Oblivion was pretty at the time, but that was five years ago, and if you go back to it now, the people look doughy, the dungeons are repetitive, and it just doesn’t look as detailed.  Skyrim looks much better, and they’ve done amazing things with lighting, snow, and water… I always stop and stare at the water, they’re really good at bubbling streams now. 

The palette could be more varied… it seems like everything is brown and gray. 

I wanted to continue with dunmers, but they’ve run all the elves through an extreme uglifier.  I adjusted about every slider, and my dunmer woman pretty much looked like my grandfather, only not as cute.  So I started over as a Redguard.

This is Audre.

Restarting is annoying, because you start in a long movie which is great the first time but which you can’t skip– a really poor gameplay mechanic in a game that many players will want to replay several times.  Savvy players will create a quicksave just before the character creation process. 

(Edit: the game actually does this for you; look for save 001.)

The UI is mostly better than Oblivion, and  has some nice touches like rotatable models (and in at least one quest you have to rotate an item to learn more about it).  On the other hand you can’t see your character as you change apparel, which is dumb, and the perk changing screens are awful. 

Combat is more interesting, as it’s based on use of both hands.  You can strike + block; you can double weild; you can use a weapon + magic; you can use magic + magic; or you can use a two-handed weapon.  These are interesting choices, and you can develop them further with perks– e.g. wield two Destruction spells at once, plus a perk that makes such doubled spells more effective.  I’ve been relying a lot on a sword plus a destruction spell.  There’s a favorites menu, which you can supplement with hotkeys, though I have a tendency to fumble these in the heat of battle. 

There is probably an optimal leveling strategy, but screw that, I just play, and pretty often you get the happy sound of a skill being raised as you use it.  Apparently monsters will level Fallout-style; that is, areas you’ve already been to won’t level with you.  

The AI for magicians seems way better than Oblivion.  They’re dual wield too, and that can be pretty devastating.  I’ve found that using dual magic back doesn’t work so well… go up close and show them some steel.

There’s just a lot of little things that have been tweaked or improved.  The book reading animation is nicer.  You can catch butterflies and lightning bugs.  You can cook things or improve your armor or disenchant a weapon to grab its magic.  You can play hide and seek with the kids.  But above all, NPC interaction is a lot more satisfying.  Haven’t heard them talk about mud crabs yet.  There’s a much wider variety of things people say, and it’s more contextual… e.g. people will react to you based on what you’re wearing… or not wearing. 

If you’re just starting out, a few useful hints:

  • Many spells, including healing and the destruction spells, require you to hold down the mouse key, not just tap it.  I was really pissed at the game till I figured this out.
  • No mortars and pestles; instead you have to use alchemy tables.  The first one you’ll see is probably the one in the castle at Whiterun.
  • Companions  = fighters’ guild; Winterhold = mages’ guild.
  • There is a clever moment in the intro when you get a choice of whether to follow an Imperial or a rebel.  You may not even notice that two people are calling to you.  It doesn’t matter which you pick– it’s not a permanent choice.

It’s really video game heaven right now: in addition to Skyrim I’ve been playing the free MMO DC Universe Online, plus I have Dead Space 2, plus Arkham City is coming out soon.

I just read two more Lovecraft novellas, At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  They’re both fairly different from the dream quest stories– they’re clearly sf for one thing– though also different from what I expected. 

What stands out about both stories is the narrative technique, which I find so antiquated that it’s hard to deal with.  Bluntly, the narration hides the good stuff as long as possible.  It approaches the theme from way off, teases us with ambiguous details, goes out of its way to suggest that there may be rationalistic explanations or it may all be mad hallucinations.  This was kind of standard for the period, of course, but Lovecraft takes it to an extreme.  I let him go on and on, but I think it’s not to modern tastes.  We know you’re going to write about aliens and magic, that’s what we’re here for, just go to it.

Another common theme is Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, again an old trope of sf, present in the first clear examplar, Frankenstein.  This too seems dated; I don’t think many people today really believe in forbidden knowledge.  It’s still a useful literary device to suggest that some medieval magician was really onto something, but we don’t really think they were.  (Yes, I know some fundies retain a horror of magic, but I think it’s more a sense of spiritual danger than a belief in specific powers.  Even (say) Jack Chick seemed more convinced that witches are bad people than that witches have actual physical powers.)

Some spoilers ahead in case you intend to read these stories.

When he does get to it, it turns out that Madness is about aliens (Elder Things) on Earth, and the heart of the story is a fairly extensive bit of conworlding!  The clever bit here is that by a slow process Lovecraft manages to turn our reaction to the aliens from horror to interest to sympathy; the real horror in the piece turns out to be visited upon the Elder Things, not on humans… their own servants turn against them. 

Most of the orientalism of the dream stories is absent here, though the theme of exploration is strongly present.  The story is set in about the one corner of the globe that an unsuspected civilization could still be slotted in, the empty center of Antarctica. 

Ward turns out to be about necromancy, but its structure is that of a detective novel.  The narrator (never named or personalized, but the story is not omniscient and reads like the report someone has compiled) slowly accumulates facts, makes a case, demolishes alternative theories, and finally gets to the stuff the reader has guessed about fifty pages back.  It works more as a horror story than Madness— the necromancers are doing disturbing things in the basement– but the final twist (the revelation that Curwen killed Ward and attempted to take his place) is pure detective story.  (He also has a lot of fun with antiquated English.)

One of the most surprising tropes in Lovecraft is the idea that New England is kind of inherently creepy.  I lived there for three years and mostly associate it with colleges, Pats fans, granite in your yard, jellyfish on the beach, and a road system modeled on spaghetti, but not with eldritch horrors.  I don’t think Yankee Magazine ever even had a photo spread on shoggoths.

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