November 2012

I updated the print version of the Planet Construction Kit to the revised text, edition 1.1.  (The Kindle version already has the revised text.)

The biggest changes are to divide up the over-long Culture chapter, fix the index, and add revised some pictures in the Illustration chapter.  I’ll create a PDF of the changes so readers of the old edition don’t miss out on anything.

I just finished another Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Lonesome Road.  Although not nearly as weird and cool as Old World Blues, it’s a good run, enlivened by some great voice acting.  (This comes down to one character, Ulysses; for the record the dude playing him is Roger Cross.)  Got some nice guns out of it, too (the Riot Shotgun has the highest DPS I’ve seen so far), plus an unbelievable amount of ammo.

It’s highly railroaded for Fallout; you mostly follow the single path, killing mutations and occasionally chatting with Ulysses or your robot pal ED-E.  The gorgeous devastation below is from one of the toughest bits: crossing an elevated highway that’s infested with Deathclaws.  As these can disembowel you in about two strokes, and they’re fast, it’s a challenge.

Next radiation-free exit: 148 miles

The story is compelling as you play but doesn’t make much sense in retrospect.  It gets into the history of the Courier (your character) from before the main game, but this strikes me as misguided.  The whole point of roleplaying games is that you make your own character, and your path is defined by your choices.  It’s fine to have a history (Jade Empire does this very well), but although the Courier is apparently indirectly responsible for this bit of nuclear horror, you, Obsidian, are just not going to make me feel responsible for my character’s actions when I wasn’t controlling her.

Beyond that, the theme seems to be War is bad mmmkay.  Which is not a bad message!  But I wonder if the designers realized that they communicated that message already, and far more effectively, in the level design.  The Lonesome Road area is the most pathetically mangled area we’ve seen, even worse than DC in Fallout 3.  Just walking through it makes you reflect on one of the underlying themes of the series: the fact that we had (and have) a technology that, given a few jingoistic blunders, could actually destroy our civilization and render large parts of the planet uninhabitable.  I don’t know that the actual story elements add anything to the visual impact, and they just raise questions.

Like… it turns out Ulysses has (spoilers in white) aimed a few nukes at the Mojave.  I managed to undo that, and we ended up pals, kind of.  This was welcome gamewise as he’s a hard boss monster, and the fight you get as pals (against more mutants) is much easier.  But thematically– I dunno, I usually play a kind of soft-spoken rogue who doesn’t go out of her way to make enemies, but I am not as willing to forgive atrocities as pop culture apparently thinks I should be.  I don’t trust Lando Calrissian either.

Got a nice duster out of it, though.  Made me finally give up on the leather armor I started the game with, as it’s DT 13 rather than 8, despite having no sleeves.

The right to bare arms

I dealt with Ulysses not with my mighty Riot Shotgun but with my mighty 95 speech skill.  FNV pro tip: max out Speech.  And Science.  The best outcomes of many a quest depend on these.

I have mixed feelings about this as a game mechanic.  On the one hand, choices between different approaches are great, and it should have consequences what your dump stat is.  It turns out I can’t use the fancy Rawr Claw I got because my Unarmed skill is a little short of the required figure (you need 75 and mine is 14), and I’m fine with that.

Plus, the Obsidian writers are occasionally quite clever in suggesting why just one line might persuade someone.  E.g. the Science and Repair checks have just enough techno-jargon to suggest that your character actually does have some expertise.

On the other hand, I think games have still not figured out how to make speech work as a gameplay element.  If you have a high Guns skill, you still have to aim and fire the damn gun.  If you have a high Speech skill, you just click on the dialog option that has [SPEECH] next to it.  I know voice acting is expensive, but this is not a satisfying mechanic.

Remember that persuasion minigame in Oblivion?  It was dumb and some people hated it, but at least it was an actual gameplay mechanic, one you could master or fail.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution tried something where you had to monitor someone’s alpha or beta status or something as they talked– that was a start.  Speech is not an easy problem, but we really need some better approaches.

Back in the wasteland, I went egg hunting for an arena operator named Red Lucy.  The DLCs are stupefyingly generous with XP, as I seem to be kind of overpowered.  I had some trouble with the Deathclaws but not nearly as much as back on that highway– my shiny new missile launcher made short work of them.   (As my companion Veronica likes melee, it made short work of her too, but she recovers and they don’t.)

Red Lucy gives you plenty of caps for the eggs of various monsters, but she also offers an interesting reward: herself.

Girl just likes eggs

I appreciate the fact that Obsidian isn’t as prudish about sex as Bethesda.  There are a few occasions where sex is actually a way of handling a quest– most notably, in dealing with Benny, the guy who shot you.  (On the other hand, fading to black for the sex scenes is awfully stupid in a game that offers a perk that increases gore.  At least a PG-rated cutscene as in Mass Effect 1 would be nice.)

That said, even FNV shies far short of considering how sex would work in a post-apocalyptic world.  They make a point of making the Legion sexist among its other sins, but even the nastiest raiders are co-ed, which is strange when Fallout America’s culture is so retro overall.

It seems unrealistic that there’s never any sense of sexual threat.  I can see why they avoid it– Arkham City was criticized because the criminals make nasty remarks about Catwoman.  Fallout and Borderlands both replace the very realistic threat of rape with the pretty absurd one of cannibalism.  FNV doesn’t just have raiders charging at you in combat threatening to eat you; it has a whole quest devoted to it.

Edgy post-apocalyptic stuff, huh?   A reversion to barbarity is convincing; cannibalism isn’t.  Actual gangsters, warlords, and barbarian hordes are not cannibals.  Historically, in fact, tribes of warriors only rarely were able to make a living by sociopathy.  The Central Asian nomads who terrorized both Europe and China, spent most of their time herding animals.  The Vikings, in between raids on the coast, were farmers.

The Fallout games are set two centuries after the war.  Right after the war, maybe there were large numbers of sociopaths– but they would quickly die out, either killing each other or starving.  Full-time raiders are predators, and predators can only survive as a small fraction of the population.

I’ve got another DLC to try, and then maybe I’ll do something about Hoover Dam.  The Whelk has the best defense I’ve yet read of FNV:

[T]hat’s something you rarely see, the rebuilding part,  where the most horrible thing ever has happened, and now it’s over and we’re trying to have a civilization and the beauty of New Vegas is that it poses the question, so what kind of civilization deserves to exist?

And that is a great question!  The problem is, the game doesn’t offer very intelligent answers.  The Legion’s savagery has nothing going for it at all.  The various mad scientists are not real answers (which is pretty much the same problem I have with Asimov’s later Foundation books).  That leaves only two actual answers: more or less a reconstituted USA, the NCR, or leaving New Vegas as an independent city-state.  That’s an OK choice, but it doesn’t much plumb The Whelk’s question.  It’s not like I get to write New Vegas’s constitution.

The early 1940s Superman cartoons from Dave Fleischer are kind of legendary among animation fans, and now they’re all online.  Here’s the first one:

It’s really well animated, especially the action sequences such as the mad scientist’s lair getting destroyed.  This is why I find modern action cartoons unwatchable– the cheap animation ruins them, makes them seem cheap and static.

Lois was apparently based on journalist Nellie Bly, but where Nellie was able to literally circumnavigate the globe by herself, Lois can’t so much as get a sentence out before the mad scientist abducts her.  But she has a ringside seat for Superman’s escapades, so I guess it’s a modus operandi that worked for her.

The electric death ray seems to give Superman a pretty good fight; it’s amusing that he resorts to  punching it into submission.  (It seems like it would have been a little more efficient to take the few seconds it would have required to fly alongside it to its source rather than rely on blocking it.)

Also amusing: Clark Kent muses “This is a job for Superman” right there in the office, just before disappearing into a closet to change.  Also, doesn’t it bother his editor that he’s assigned a story along with Lois, and apparently does nothing on it?  (Or maybe he writes all those “Identity of Superman still unknown” side articles that accompany the main story?)

I sat down to read the first chapter or two of Alison Bechdel’s new book Are You My Mother?, and ended up reading the whole thing.  It’s great stuff.

If you read her book about her father, Fun Home, the basic method is the same.  It’s more of a profusely illustrated text than a normal graphic novel– it has a running narration, which occasionally goes off in a different direction than the pictures.  And it weaves in ruminations on a set of heavy books– Virginia Woolf, Freud, Alice Miller, Adrienne Rich, and above all Donald Winnicott, who happens to have written a lot about the mother-infant bond, and particularly the type Alison feels she had.

But it works way better than Fun Home, for several reasons.  The storytelling is better– more assured, more playful.  The books aren’t examined so drily, but actually shed light on the relationships.  She was highly confessional in the first book, but even when talking about her own problems or neuroses her tone was professorial.  But this book seems alive and human.

In a sense the personal pain comes through more sharply precisely because her relationship with her mother is less dramatic, more normal.  Plus her mother is still there, is reading the book over our shoulders so to speak, and though this causes Alison a little extra angst, it makes the book more of a duet.  The ultimate problem with Fun Home, I think, was that it only had one real character, Alison herself.  Her father was oberved intently but entirely from the outside.

Are You My Mother? is mostly about the mother-daughter relationship.  Winnicott talks about “good enough” mothers, and without explicitly saying so Alison makes it pretty clear hers wasn’t.  There was something lacking there, and it takes years of therapy, and multiple readings of those psychoanalytic books, to figure out what.  In fact the book is about the therapy process as much as it is about mothers.  And she’s quite honest about the fact that writing this very book is another form of therapy; she is literally constructing a narrative to explain her own life to herself, to get a handle on it.

Does that sound self-indulgent?  Her mother suggests as much; she thinks the best art has no ‘I’ in it.  Alison counters that you can use the specific to get at general truths, and her book is the proof.  Some of our most intimate feelings (and neuroses) are tied up in our relationships with our parents, and we can learn a lot by seeing how someone else works them out.

After writing all this, I checked some reviews, and I’m surprised to find that many people had the opposite reaction– they liked Fun Home better.  Mostly this seems to be because her father was a strange gargoyle of a man, and we always like to read about families that are weirder than ours.

There are complaints that there’s too much psychoanalysis talk here.  It’s true that the quotations from Winnicott and others don’t affect us as they obviously affected Alison.  But as I said, they provide her with a narrative, a model, and that narrative-building process is a big part of healing emotional trauma.  Again, I think it all works better than (say) the discussions of Proust did in the first book.



Finally got to a high enough level to play this DLC for Fallout New Vegas.  And it was worth it!  I like it better than the main game.

Rather than the usual post-apocalyptic wasteland, the Big MT that you explore here is a wasteland of SCIENCE.  It was a think tank before the war, and the leading scientists basically kept at their posts as the war destroyed civilization– going slowly mad, but continuing their experiments– and feuds.  Along the way they take out their brains and put them in mobile robotic contraptions.

WARNING: beyond these fields lies SCIENCE. DANGEROUS science

Mad scientists are generally irresistible, and the add-on has a goofy comic tone, with some really good voice acting.  All the scientists are distinctive, and have exploitable quirks– plus you can talk with them quite a long time.  Plus, naturally, you can get new weapons, a talking stealth suit, and fight nasty new enemies.

Edit: That stealth suit is sweet for, well, stealh.  But I had to drop it pronto.  It injects stimpaks for you– and before I knew it, my carefully hoarded pile of 80 stimpaks was cut in half.  I’d rather manage that myself, suit.

It’s likely to do a number on your ammo. You can scrounge more, but it’s hard to find enough to fill everything with bullets.  On the other hand you’ll get a load of Energy Cells, and a new gun to use them, so put some skill points in Energy Weapons.

Also, for this DLC and for the game as a whole, you can hardly have too much Speech and Science.  A number of quests require a speech level of 75, and one way of getting through the final confrontation requires science 100.  That’s kind of absurd; on the other hand I advanced something like half a dozen levels inside Big MT, so I could actually max out science.

The stealth suit has good DT has an auto-stimpak feature, which turns out to suck– it ate up half my supply before I stopped it and switched back to leather armor.  On the other hand, I like all my new guns– especially the sonic emitter, which also has the great advantages that a) it uses ammo really effectively, and b) after an upgrade (fixing the jukebox), you can get a new one in 100% condition at any time.

Anyway, it’s just $5 on Steam, so what are you waiting for?  Do you hate SCIENCE?

I’ve plugged Mark Newman’s maps before.  But here’s his 2012 page, filled with beautiful and informative election maps.  He’s improved the algorithm so states retain their shape better.  For presidential elections, we should be using this map (with state area tied to electoral vote) rather than the geographical one.  Our eyes can’t adjust for population density; on this map it’s immediately evident who won, and it’s not so distorted as to be ugly or hard to read.

I also like this very pretty map of counties, colored by percentage of Dem/Rep presidential votes.  In this case I like the geographical map better.  The cartogram version is more informative, in that it shows that the country is really mostly purple with blue areas– the all-red counties are very few.  But it’s much harder to read.

Playing Mass Effect 2, I thought it was unrealistic and kind of tacky that whenever Cmdr. Shepherd passes a news outlet, it’s giving news that relates to her own activities in Mass Effect 1.  It seemed like cheap pandering to the player.

But after seeing a number of websites where Amazon is trying to sell my own book to me, I realized that it’s actually a very realistic and clever prediction.  It’s galactic-scale personal marketing.  The news is geared to Shepherd because she’s passing the news outlet.  (Perhaps all consumer have little chips that broadcast their IDs; if not, cameras probably pick them out a block away.)

(Seen this way… boy oh boy must that be annoying for everyone in the galaxy.  Maybe that’s what drove the Illusive Man to genocidal fury.)

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