December 2012

My light reading for about a month has been An economic history of medieval Europe, by N.J.G. Pounds.  I recommend it half-heartedly.

What do we know about medieval economics?  Frustratingly little, it turns out.  Every few pages Pounds has to remind us that there just isn’t much data.  He goes over what we have, but it’s really impossible to build up the sort of overall statistics that we take for granted today.  It’s almost impossible to get estimates of production of goods, or even to definitively answer questions like when the moldboard plow was actually adopted, or whether the 1400s were a period of depression or a time of productive improvement.

The book is from 1974, so it’s possible that nearly 30 years have produced a slightly clearer picture.  E.g. I don’t quite buy his statements that medieval technology was stagnant, not after reading Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine.  Pounds even mentions some of the same inventions, such as the blossoming of mill technology and the later focus on mining.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in the first few chapters, on the late Roman Empire.  We have a picture of a flourishing, sophisticated, rich urban civilization, but in many ways this is an illusion.  Most of the Empire was at a barely subsistent level; the western half was “an uninhabited wilderness, broken by islands of cultivation”; trade was minimal; large-scale enterprises were undertaken only by the state; Rome itself basically produced nothing.  The East was of course richer and more urbanized.

The book also emphasizes that the lot of the peasant, from Roman times till well into the modern age, frankly sucked.  At the subsistence level, the peasant couldn’t afford much in the way of urban wares, so the cities remained small and trade was largely in luxury goods.  The empty spaces on the map filled in, and new towns appeared, but that just meant there were more and more peasants and on more marginal land.  The only real improvement in living conditions were a) in colonizing new lands, especially in Eastern Europe; and b) after the Black Death, when depopulation temporarily created a labor shortage.

And as Eastern Europe filled up, the feudal lords exerted more and more control and turned most of the peasants into serfs.  In Western Europe the tendency was for the king to rein in the nobles, which was a little better for the peasants.

There’s a discussion of the guilds; Pounds seems to think that they never amounted to much.  They always tried for monopoly power, which in theory could restrain the economy; but in most places it was the merchants, not the craftsmen, who really ran the economy.  (Often they supplied the raw materials and even the tools.)  In any case, when the urban cloth workers grew too expensive, the merchants simply outsourced the work to the rural areas.

One surprising assertion is that the cities had trouble feeding themselves– the northern Italian cities had to import grain from as far as Sicily.  This seems a bit odd when none of them exceeded 50,000 residents.  But perhaps the surplus of the European farmer really was that low– or perhaps the situation illustrates the price differential of wagons vs. ships.

There’s quite a bit about how the early fairs developed into permanent commercial markets, and how the early traders operated.  Currency was scarce, so things were arranged such that little money had to actually change hands.  You’d bring your alum to Bruges, take home a shipment of woolens, and payments were mostly handled by moving numbers within the bankers’ ledgers.  (The last few days of a fair were devoted to the settling of accounts.)  At first the big merchants actually traveled across the continent; later on they simply employed local agents.

Kings and other lords were constantly interfering in the market.  Landowners, including the king, were generally able stewards of their own estates.  Their powers of enforcement over the rest of society were limited, which led to interesting compromises.  Close control was impossible, but on the other hand focusses of wealth could be seized.  Thus cities were given a large measure of autonomy, but were also easily taxed.   In many countries the king had the right to all mineral resources– but as he could hardly mine everywhere, what this came down to was that anyone could mine, but owed a tax to the king.  Most states were highly in debt to the banks, but didn’t scruple at confiscating a local bank or defaulting to a foreign one.

Another lesson is just how miscellaneous Europe was.  Generalizations at the national level are almost useless; you have to look at each region and even each town.  The Elder Scrolls continent of Tamriel, with its ragged multiplicity of races and regions, is actually not a bad model, certainly much better than the usual fantasy expedient of one uniform country with perhaps one exotic neighbor.

I picked this up during the last Steam sale, and just beat it.  It’s surprisingly good.

Combat is not very hard– though the werewolves can be pretty nasty.  I think I used about half a dozen healing potions for the whole game, but I wasn’t in challenging mode.  You have swords, guns, and magic, and can switch between them easily.  They each have their advantages.  Guns can be used at far range; magic offers both ranged attacks and an area of effect spell; melee lets you block enemy attacks.  I relied heavily on magic, with swords in second place.

Hello there

Magic missile!

The first part of the game is a standard RPG, where you fight enemies, do quests, explore the world, find allies, and level up.  You start out as a princess (or prince), and your aim is to take over the kingdom from your evil brother Logan.

The tone is all over the place.  Very early on there’s a rather arresting moral dilemma– a Joker choice.  Logan has you decide whether to execute some rebels, or your own lover.  Pretty serious stuff.  Later on the tone is mostly lighthearted, indeed often silly in a particularly British way.  (The chicken liberation, for instance.  Or the snarking gnomes, or the side quest where you break up a marriage.  The wizards running a tabletop game campaign is another highlight.)  Another quest, once you get to the neighboring land of Aurora, verges on horror.  I don’t think any of this is bad; it keeps the game lively.

So, you beat down Logan and become queen of Albion.  And this is where the game gives you a serious shock.  Logan was such a bastard because he was trying to raise money to meet a huge threat– an invasion of the kingdom.  That’s your job now.  To do it you’ll need 6,500,000 gold.  Oh, and you had to make promises to your allies; now they come due, and they add a few million more gold in obligations.

In Oblivion (or Skyrim), you can become master of a guild– indeed, all the guilds.  For this you get a few minor perks and pretty much nothing else.  I always thought it’d be great if, once you ran the guild, you had to face problems at an entirely new level– rather than dungeons to clear, you’d have intrigue to manage, guild rivalries, financial troubles.  Well, Fable III does this.  Becoming queen turns out to be the easy part.  Now you have to raise millions of gold in a limited time.  And all the easy ways will make people hate you.

This is not actually the worst makeup I've worn in a video game

Pondering. This is not actually the worst makeup I’ve worn in a video game

Fable III has the dreaded good/evil morality, but it’s the only game I know of that makes it work.  That’s because the choices are not just changes in decor, or in a few slides in the post-game wrap-up.  They affect the world– you can ruin entire regions of the map if you like.  And they affect how all the NPCs feel about you.

More importantly, there’s a cost to doing good, and keeping your promises… namely, a cost of about 9,000,000 in gold.  Evil, you see, translates as cheap and easy.  Merely by betraying your friends and becoming a tyrant, you get scads of money and can easily raise the money to face the invasion.  If you take the good path, you have to raise that money in other ways.  That’s a really clever approach and, in fact, a pretty wise moral lesson.

Now, how do you raise the money?  I did most of it by baking pies.

Beyond combat, you see, Fable III is a kind of medieval life simulator.  You can meet people and interact with them to raise or lower their disposition.  You can get married and have or adopt children.  You can buy property or stores and get a share in the profits.  And there are lucrative jobs available– blacksmith, lute player, and pie maker.  They’re variants on a simple minigame.  It’s just tedious enough to make the evil path tempting, but also requires just enough skill to keep you awake.  (As opposed to, say, cutting lumber in Skyrim, which doesn’t even try to amuse you.)

A quarter hour of pie making, plus rent once you’ve bought up all the shops, should net you nearly half a million in gold.  Those are pretty fabulous pies.

(Things I’d Wish I’d Known: maxing out any of the job costs ‘guild seals’, the game’s version of XP.  Don’t waste your seals on more than one job type.)

(For being so evil, Logan is a piss-poor manager; he leaves you only a pittance in the treasury.  Too bad he never learned how to make pies.)

The NPCs are always chattering, and on the whole more interestingly than in Skyrim.  (They’ll even comment on the quality of the clothes you wear– though the clothes have no other function; there’s no idea of armor.)  If you interact with them, it gets all symbolic.  You can dance with them, hug them, kiss them– an interview I found mentions that they purposely made the interactions very tactile, in order to make you care for the little buggers.  (If you want to be evil, there are options for being a jerk, too.)  It’s pretty cute, really.

You can take someone’s hand and lead them somewhere… to bed, for instance.  If you hit E on the bed, you get the very frank options “Sleep” and “Have sex”.  The screen fades to black… but you get a full set of sound effects.  It’s amusing rather than laviscious, but not many American games are quite this accepting.  You can go on to marry your partner and raise children, and you can even have marriages in several cities.

When you interact with an NPC, the game helpfully tells you their sexual orientation.  Disappointingly, I couldn’t find a single lesbian in Aurora.  I did find a lesbian noblewoman, and I bought an expensive house in Albion’s aristo district for her.  Leading her there, by the hand, we were attacked by werewolves and she was killed to death.  Ouch.  I consoled myself with my other two wives, and by renting out the expensive house.

Till death do us part.  Which will come in about one minute

Till death do us part. Which will come in about one minute

The game has a kind of clever inventory management system: as a genuine hero, you have an extradimensional sanctuary, and you manage your costumes, weapons, and weapons there– under the attentive eye of your butler.  At least it explains why you always have access to all this gear, something that’s a complete mystery in most RPGs.  It actually works pretty well.

The voices are all delightfully British.  I envy the Brits for having accents that are so well suited to medieval fantasy.  American accents are too uniform, and are a bit jarring amid the cobblestones and thatched roofs.  I thought the butler occasionally sounded rather Cleesean, and it turns out that this is because he’s played by John Cleese.  Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg, and Ben Kingsley are also along for the ride.

I have just a few cavils.  The sanctuary has a map, but it’s awkward for the (fortunately rare) bits where you have to find a place.  (Normally you can just follow the sparkly lights.)  Switching between quests is a little harder than it ought to be.  I also apparently killed a civilian during the attack on the palace, which meant that for about a day half the people of Brightwall complained about my murdering ways.

There are extra weapons you can get in various ways, but they don’t really add much.  (Neat idea, though: many come with attached achievements, which give you bonuses once they’re fulfilled.)  There’s also the option to redecorate your homes, but the furniture options are pretty limited and this too could have been left out.  Oh, and a health HUD would be useful.

I cut the game a lot of slack because it’s trying something really interesting– a fantasy simulation where hacking and slashing is not the solution to everything.  I think it’s mostly but not perfectly successful.  I think it could have used tougher combat and more variety and harder minigames in the relationship-building.  Apparently your spouse(s) can become unhappy, but this never happened to me.  Any relationship problems can be solved by more hugs and kisses, or slightly tedious fetch quests.

I appreciate the game’s switcheroo– the tyrant you thought you were fighting turns out to be doing what he thinks is the right thing, and you’re given the opportunity to do just as he did.  Still, most of the choices are fairly simplistic, and there’s little point in being only partially evil.  It’d be interesting if you had more or different kinds of options sometimes.  (The closest I came was in deciding whether to rebuild the orphanage or build a brothel.  Why can’t we have both?)

Some review I saw called it grindy, but I wouldn’t say that.  The main and side quests are pretty well done, and there’s a lot of near-Pythonesque humor.  Anyway, if you don’t like the grind of having to make all that money, you can just be evil.

Just got through another Fallout New Vegas DLC: Dead Money.

In this one, you’re invited to the opening of a new casino out in the middle of nowhere.  I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that things go south.  You find yourself without all your equipment, and tied to three other lost souls… by suicide collars that will all explode if any of you die.  So much for Plan C.

Got a nice armored suit out of it

Got a nice armored suit out of it

For the first few missions, then, the DLC recreates the chancy survival of the beginning game, when you value every stimpak and every scrap of ammo.  Which is good; that’s the most compelling part of the genre anyway.

Plus, the pack is surprisingly story- and character-oriented.  Each of your companions is a pretty weird character with a story of their own.  Plus, the story here turns out to be loosely linked to that of Lonesome Road and Old World Blues (as well as to my favorite companion, Veronica).

That said, it’s my least favorite of the three.  This was actually the first DLC, so maybe they were still figuring out how to create a challenge for high-level Couriers.  Their big brainwave: enemies you can’t kill.  I was not thrilled when I killed my first Ghost Hunter and, after a moment, it got right back up again.  But you do get a way to put them down for good not long after.

Their other big idea: a maze of twisty passages, all alike.  The first half of the DLC is set in the Villa, where all the buildings look the same.  Game designers, this is the least exciting way to make it difficult for a character to get where she needs to go.

And then the last section, in the casino itself, approaches Black-Mesa-endgame levels of bad level design.  Basically there are speakers that threaten to set off your suicide collar, and holograms that can shoot you but can’t be killed, and you have to a) find the safe spots where you won’t explode, and b) disable the speakers and hologram emitters.  The thing is, there’s no rhyme or reason to where the safe spots are– very often you have no choice but to run blindly into a death zone hoping that you’ll find a safe spot on the other side.  Often you will, but I think it breaks immersion.  You can’t play as a savvy, wasteland-smart Courier, because running into a death zone is stupid and suicidal.  In a real apocalypse you can’t rely on the goodness of the level designer, or on a walkthrough.

You do get a pretty swanky dress though.

You do get a pretty swanky dress though.

So, it’s a bit of a slog, and you don’t really get any amazing loot out of it. Well, except for money: there is an actual treasure of the Sierra Madre, and it’s comically huge– gold bars that will overstrain your inventory, plus it’s hard to find merchants who can pay for them. But I don’t mind that part; it seems only fitting that the payoff for the biggest treasure trove in Post-Apocalyptia is nearly useless. I have plenty of caps by now anyway, so I’ve set out a gold bar or two in my motel room in Novac, along with the teddy bears, toy cars, space helmet, and glowing bottles of Nuka-Cola.