September 2014


I’ve been revising the Book of Cuzei, and today I ordered a second proof copy. It usually takes less than a week to arrive; if it’s OK I’ll approve it for sale, and if not corrections will probably be minor and it’ll take a few more days.

Babblers-cover-front

One complication was that Microsoft Word turns out to be crappy at what should be its major competence: editing book-length printable manuscripts. This happened with The Conlanger’s Lexipedia too: if there’s enough complex formatting, then any additional editing, including adding a new paragraph, will crash the program. The only solution I’ve found is to divide the document in two. This is why the Lexipedia doesn’t have a comprehensive index. The Book of Cuzei does, but only because I hand-edited it. I can’t express how mega-stupid this is; this is what Word is for.

I also uploaded the files for the omnibus edition today. Unfortunately Amazon won’t let me sell it for the price point I wanted– it’s going to be $22.95 in print, though they’ll probably discount it. That’s still less than the $29 it’d cost to buy both books. I am ordering a proof copy of this too, of course, so I can see if the 650-page behemoth is actually usable. (If not I’ll probably have to reformat it for a larger page size, which will probably be delightful.)

The Kindle version will follow shortly. It’s not much use creating it until the print text is finalized. But doing so only takes a day or so.

There won’t be a Kindle omnibus; I was going to just charge $4 or so extra for it, and then realized that I might as well just charge $3.49 for the Kindle Book of Cuzei. That is, selling Book A for $X and Book B for $Y and Book A+B for $X+Y makes no real sense. Just buy both books.

Finally, a shout-out to Edwin Perales who drew the illustration for the cover shown above, and to Mornche Geddick who read the whole Book of Cuzei. There’s not many readers who can find typos in Cuêzi, but she’s one of them, and I wholeheartedly recommend her services in case you have some Cuêzi proofreading to do– undoubtedly a growth industry as there’s nowhere to go but up.

Lego Batman 2 was on sale recently, so I picked it up.  In brief: the main story is fun and very cute; the open world bit is only half cooked.

Where should I stand to press G?

Where should I stand to press G?

I’ve never played one of these Lego games before, so here’s how that works: the characters are made of Legos. So are part but not all of their surroundings– in general, the Lego bits are the things you can interact with, which is a pretty clever bit of design signaling.  (If you’ve played the others, apparently it’s a big thing that in this one the characters talk.)

A level basically consists of a series of obstacles, to be solved by the characters’ special abilities. E.g. you might use Batman’s batarangs to destroy something out of reach, or Robin’s acrobatics to climb, or Superman’s super-breath to turn water into ice (which can be traversed). It looks like it’s optimized for two-player co-op, but it’s quite easy to play solo– there’s a key press to switch characters. At first you only get Batman and Robin, but later you get Superman and then a whole slew of heroes. The puzzles are designed so that you have to switch frequently.

Sometimes when you destroy something, they can rebuild the Lego pieces into something else. Often this is a suit dispenser: jump on it and Batman or Robin changes into a different outfit with new powers. In the screenshot, Bats is wearing his Electrical Suit, which lets him walk through electrified areas and power devices up or down.

The story levels are a lot of fun. The designers have worked hard to make the game look and act like a set of toys: the characters waddle around cutely, they look pleased as punch when they change suits, when a character dies it shatters into blocks, and you are encouraged to mindlessly destroy things. If you die yourself, you respawn right there, so it’s never a real setback. Most of the time it’s fairly clear what to do; I am not very good at the sort of thinking required and had to consult a walkthrough.

The game was evidently designed for consoles, so it comes with a pretty horrible set of controls– all keys, no mouse. I had to remap just about everything to have it make sense. (I recommend using the arrow keys for movement, using space for jump and E for action as in sanely designed games, then using T for tag and G for ‘special’. Then you move with the right hand and do stuff with the left.) There aren’t many controls, and most are explained in-game, but they neglected to tell you how to punch things (it’s Action, the one I remapped to E).

After the Asylum mission you can wander Gotham City as you like. The walkthrough suggested that you wait till the story mode is over before doing so, as there’s a lot you can’t do till you’ve unlocked all the basic heroes. This is bad advice, because the story missions are the best part, and you shouldn’t rush through them.

In any case, the main mission took me about 15 hours. After this you can roam Gotham and pick up new characters.

Robin and Catwoman on a date at the carnival

Robin and Catwoman on a date at the carnival

This part of the game is frankly disappointing. For one thing, you have to buy each character– not with real money, but with the studs you’ve collected by destroying Lego objects. This was a strange design decision, because it’s easy to run out of studs, so you can’t collect more heroes till you go on a rampage. And busting up objects, in the quantities needed to collect 50 characters, is not that fun.

There’s a lot to do– climb buildings as Robin, rescue citizens, drive or boat around. But it feels like you have to run a round quite a bit to find these diversions. Finding the unlockable characters sounds like it should be a great time– each one is slightly different– but for the most part the fights are too easy and the payoff is low. (One exception is Lex Luthor, who you want for his special gun that destroys black Lego objects, which no other character can do.) Plus if you defeat them and you don’t have enough studs, you’re out of luck, which is a strange punishment for the game to apply.

So, it’s fun to run around for awhile changing characters, but actually unlocking everyone and finding all the collectibles doesn’t seem very attractive. I think they would have done a lot better to have fewer characters, but more challenging mini-levels to get through to unlock them.  Or have more character-specific things to do, like the Robin acrobatics diversions.

Story mode has a story, by the way.  It’s pretty good, as Batman stories go. Probably the best thing about it is the interaction between grumpy Batman and cocky jocky Superman. It lightly pokes fun at their relationship, and yet it actually creates a character arc for the game, which is more than you might expect in a kids’ version of DC.

To my surprise, I’ve been playing League of Legends for over a month now. With an ordinary game I’d be a guru; with Mobas this means you’re still a bright green noob, but you understand the basic mechanics and have some favorite champions.

Sometimes fans come up with awesome game variants. In TF2 we occasionally play all melee, or maybe all one class, which can be a blast. LOL players came up with All Random All Mid, which means random champions fighting it out only in the mid lane. Riot turned this into an actual game mode. To make it even more deathmatchy, you start at level 3 and generate mana faster, but don’t heal if you return to base. And to lower the pain of having to play champions you suck at, you can trade before the game with other players, and have a limited ability to re-roll.

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It’s a lot of fun. I’ve actually played far more ARAM than the normal game, and I recommend it to newcomers, for two reasons:

  • It’s faster and lower-key. People understand that you may be playing champions you haven’t mastered. Plus there’s far less strategy. “Stay together and try to hit the enemy” is almost all the plan you need.
  • The random process is biased toward champions you’ve played, or own, though it throws in new ones too. So it’s an excellent way to learn the frigging huge array of champions. In normal games, even with matchmaking geared to your level, there’s less tolerance for trying someone new.

My first loves are still Jinx, Ashe, and Sona. But in ARAM I’ve also done well with Quinn, Anivia, Heimerdinger, Nasus, Sivir, Karthus, and Amumu.

Today I realized why, when I play with my friend Ash, I seem to suck more. It’s because he’s a far higher-level player, so the matchmaking finds better opponents. E.g., last night in one of our games, I was Nasus, and had a dispiriting 1/16/16 record. But then I happened to play Nasus in a game with my peers, and dominated: 16/4/31. So if you’re playing with much better friends, be aware of this tradeoff: it’s more companionable but you’re going to be reminded how much you’ve still got to learn.

Champions all share the same basic controls: mouse2 for basic attack, Q/W/E for their main spells, and R for their ultimate (a powerful spell with a long cooldown). At first you can use the strategy “spam QWE and use R when you can”, but of course you need to be smarter, and understand your champions. E.g. Nasus’s Q is very distinctive: each time he gets a kill, it gets more powerful. That means you want to spend a good deal of the early game carefully hitting Q just before killing a minion– since you don’t get the upgrade if you merely hurt them. In a normal game you might spend 10-15 minutes doing this, but even in ARAM you want to spend some time at it.

With Nasus it can be very effective to first hit E to produce an area of effect damage (but be wary: players at my level are dumb enough to stay in it taking damage, but higher-level players aren’t), then W to slow down a champion, and Q to hopefully finish him off. As always in ARAM, don’t try to play solo; hit with your team.

Jinx has an entirely different strategy. Her W is a rocket with one of the longest ranges in the game, effective for harassing from a distance. E sends out some “chompers”, stationary mines which hurt and slow enemies; this can be used for area denial, thinning out a crowd, or slowing down a pursuer. Her R is an infinite-range rocket, which ideally is used to take out an enemy from across the map; it’s particularly effective on ARAM where enemies conveniently group themselves in a line. I didn’t understand or use her Q for a long time; it switches to a minigun that’s very powerful at close range. You want to use it only when enemies are near death, to finish them off.

How do you learn all this? Reading guides and watching videos can help, but there’s nothing like playing a lot, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. And again, ARAM is best for experimenting.

Screen19

Recently LOL introduced a temporary game mode called Ascension. I enjoyed it a lot though I never got good at it. I did have one perfect game playing as Sona, screen-capped above. Sona’s Q is an area-of-effect damage, W heals her and nearby allies, and E moves faster; her R immobilizes enemies. We stayed in a close knot, I spammed Q and W almost constantly, and we ruled: team score 200-107, kills 64-28, four ascensions on our side, none on theirs. (But this was exceptional– Ash says that Ascension rewards jungler/assassin champions, and I’m not good at any of those.)

I did have a moment of glory in another Ascension game. The mode has a boss, and if you defeat him you assume his powers– you Ascend. The best strategy is to let the other team wear him down, then attack them and finish off the boss. The enemy team was battling the boss alone, and as Jinx, I sashayed in and got the last hit and the Ascension. Moments like that can make up for a string of losses…

Riot has an interesting monetization strategy: they make most of their money selling skins and other things that don’t directly affect gameplay.  (You can buy champions either with real money or with experience points, so they make money off of impatience.)  I read an article which pointed out that they could make far more money with pay-to-win.  But they prefer to keep their fans happy, which strikes me as a far better long-term strategy.  (Still, buying skins is a little disappointing: your character is so small on the screen that it’s hardly worth bothering.)

It’s been twenty years since I wrote the American culture test, so it’s time for an update.

(Mostly it’s new pop culture references, but attitudes about race and sexuality have changed significantly, and there’s more to say about the Internet.)

Yahtzee Croshaw not only does hilarious animated reviews of video games, he writes columns too, did you know?  His latest column is about gender diversity in video games, and it’s an excruciating near-miss.

All games do need a fatness slider

All games do need a fatness slider

The problems start with the title: “Should every game allow you to choose your gender?” Which is a straw man (and not a straw woman). No one has asked for that.  Many games are telling a story about a particular character– Batman, Chell, Sam & Max, Jade, Corvo, Lara– and it’s OK for particular characters to have a gender.  It’s when the character is Generic Space Marine or Generic Spaceship Captain or Generic Zombie Hunter or Generic Swordsperson that there is no reason to limit the player to one gender.

But it hardly matters if a choice of gender is merely aesthetic and means nothing to the game, because it can still mean something to the audience.

Here’s where Yahtzee almost gets it.  Yes, Skyrim doesn’t care if your adventurer is male or female, but it means something to the player. And you don’t have to have AAA studio resources to handle this; games as simple as Dungeons of Dredmor and Don’t Starve allow it.

…it might not be possible to separate a character from their gender. James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2 springs to mind, as a central theme of that game is frustrated male sexuality.

Ah, the GTAIV excuse– they had to have three male characters because they were “exploring masculinity”. Like just about every other damn game.  It’s not horrible to have one more male fantasy hero– it’s just extremely well trodden ground. And trying to use the game to subvert the standard male fantasy hero does not really work as well as some designers think. Your game is what the player spends 90% of their time doing, not whatever contrary thematic material you add at the end or in cutscenes. If what the player is doing is shooting, you’ve made a shooter, not a clever deconstruction of shooters.

Perhaps this confirms the existence of a lack of diversity, but I’m not sure how to fix that. Game developers do remain predominantly male through no fault of their own, and asking them, from a male perspective, to make games about a female perspective, would probably produce something rather disingenuous.

This is what we might call a Chestertonian objection… Yahtzee is being clever, but it’s still a silly rationalization. For one thing, it’s hardly a weird radical idea for men to write female characters.  They’ve been doing it for three thousand years.  It’s something an artist should be able to do. And many games do it very well!  No one complains that FemShep, or Portal 2‘s Glados, or  Ragnar Tørnquist‘s April Ryan, are grotesquely unbelievable; quite the opposite.

Plus, you don’t know how to fix it? How about hiring female developers? Kim Swift led the team that created the well-beloved Portal; Rhianna Pratchett was the key writer on Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider; Roberta Williams created the King’s Quest games.

I know that it’s very easy for me, a white dude, to say that about a white-dude-dominated industry. But I don’t buy the argument that biological similarities like race or gender strongly affect whether or not the player identifies with a character.

I’m a white dude too, which is why I defer to non-whites and non-dudes on whether they identify with white dude characters. And what they report is pretty consistent: if you’re not a white dude, you have to identify with white dude characters, but you’d like to not always have to.

Yahtzee reports that he identifies more with Lara Croft than with Kratos. That’s lovely, but Lara is still a rarity– Yahtzee is not often called upon, as a gamer, to trot out his empathy skills. Non-white or non-male gamers have to do it all the time, and it gets tiring.

Plus, many of us like to see the world from other people’s perspective. I like playing female characters, and I’ve argued that they make better player characters anyway.

I don’t think that hero-damsel enforces misogyny. After all, the protagonist, the male, is the one who has it worst. He’s the one who has to put himself at pain, and even die, over and over again, in an endless cycle of torment, for the benefit of the women.

Another Chestertonian paradox. But Yahtzee seems to have forgotten that he’s talking about games— there is no pain and no death involved, he is not sacrificing himself for the pixels arranged to form a female NPC. If you’re not trying to make cute arguments, it’s obvious that the hero-damsel trope is a male power fantasy. It’s designed to make males happy; females, not so much. And that’s precisely the problem: it’s a trope that alienates half your audience.

It’s not hard to understand that people like to enact a fantasy of being the rescuer. But it shouldn’t take Boddhisatva levels of empathy to understand that being rescued feels very different, and isn’t much of a fantasy at all. Plus, how many times in your life, past toddlerhood, have you had to be rescued? It’s really tone deaf of Yahtzee to imagine that this trope is somehow doing women a favor.

And if I object to that, it’s because it’s lazy, and tired […]. Hero-damsel isn’t trying, it’s too easy.

This is where he almost gets it. Yes, it’s a tired, lazy old trope. But so is, say, red meaning “stop” or “blood”, or tutorial dungeons having giant rats and goblins, or a reversal at the end of Act I. Some tropes are old and good; some are shallow but extremely narratively convenient; some should be shaken up now and then to add variety. But some are past their sell-by date– they’re narrative survivals from a time when attitudes were much more regressive. It’s good to reject them for being hackneyed; it’s also good to reject them because they’re insulting and offensive.

I do think it’s true that games could use more diversity. But when I say that, I mean diversity of ideas, thoughtfulness, and perspectives. And that takes a whole lot more than just numerically equalizing the ham sandwiches to the sausage rolls.

Another almost-gets-it moment, followed by another straw man.

Where do you think diversity of perspectives come from? From diverse people. Put a bunch of white dudes in a room, and you’ll get some variation, but you’ll get more if you add people from other genders, races, and cultures. It’s strange and frustrating to see Yahtzee take this position, when half his reviews are scathing rants about the sameness of most games. Put it together, man. Put the same white dudes in the same room all the time, and what do you think will come out?

Of course, diversity in the HR sense isn’t the only way to get new ideas. But it’s a pretty good way to start, and if you take it seriously, it’s an excellent corrective to the groupthink and conventionalism that produce cookie-cutter games.

Saw The Congress tonight, a film by Ari Folman, loosely based on one of my favorite books, The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem.

It’s an amazing book; the film starts slowly (and at first seems to have nothing to do with the book)– I was dubious during the first hour– but then it goes insane. In a good, Lemian way.

the-congress

The first part of the movie is set in the near future. A middle-aged actress, Robin Wright, played by Robin Wright, is approached with what she’s told will be her last film opportunity ever. The studio wants to scan her once, to turn her into a digital character… after that, they have no further need of her, and in fact she’ll be forbidden to act. It’s not spelled out what she’ll get in return, but apparently she’s desperate for cash to take care of her son (who’s going deaf and blind), so she signs the contract.

All this is presented slowly and didactically, and even when the sf elements come in– the actual scanning– it’s not satisfying. They basically want her to emote for a few hours while being photographed… weirdly, there are flashing lights making it seem like they’re taking still pictures. It’s well acted, and yet makes little sense: how could even a couple hours of performance suffice for generating decades of movies?  In the scene she goes from laughter to tears… but what about every other emotion?  Fear, disgust, anger, orgasm? It’d frankly have made more sense if they said they were scanning her brainwaves or something.

Then, we skip forward 20 years, and Wright attends a “Futurist Congress” associated with her studio, which requires taking an ampoule of some drug, which alters her and our perception.  The presentation switches to an animated movie, with a style blending ’20s pipecleaner and ’60s psychedelic animation.  The film suddenly becomes visually inventive, half playful, half nightmarish, and the plot starts to get weird as well.

This half of the film is also, surprisingly, a recognizable adaptation of Lem’s novel, with the substitution of Wright for Lem’s astronaut hero Ijon Tichy. The studio, tired of mere digitization, has switched to powerful customized hallucinogens that reshape reality.  But then things go wrong– there is some kind of rebellion– Wright is rescued by the man who was responsible for animating her, and fell in love with her.  But he can only take her to the underground sewer which the hotel managers have escaped to, with inflatable chairs and their secretaries. And with the chemicals in the air intensifiying, it’s increasingly unclear whether she’s experiencing rescues or drug-induced nightmares.

She’s cryogenically frozen and wakes up in an even stranger future– a world entirely composed of fantasy. Everyone seems happy, but she can’t adjust, and misses her son.  She seizes the chance to take one more drug, which erases all the effects of the hallucinogens… revealing a shabby brown world, back to live action. Should she stay there, or head back to the comforting fantasy world?

I appreciate high weirdness in art, but it’s all too easy to let it get out of control. Fortunately Forman keeps the story coherent– it’s not just a head trip. He grafts the whole story of Wright, her career, and her family onto Lem’s furious satire. It’s an attempt to give the story a heart, which admittedly the novel lacks.  Tichy reacts to things like we would, serving as bemused spectator and then expressing horror and outrage as he learns how the world really is– but we don’t exactly care about him.  Wright on the other hand is little but emotion; she doesn’t seem to think about anything that’s presented to her.

The book is a tour de force, a whirlwind of grotesqueries and wordplay and ideas taken to wild but logical extremes.  But perhaps it was a little too cool-headed to make a good movie.  So read the book and watch the movie… just be patient for the first 45 minutes or so.

I approved the proof of In the Land of Babblers a few days ago, created the Kindle version, and, good lord, it’s available right now. The print book is on sale at $12.56.

Babblers-cover-front

If you’re not in the US, it may take some days for the appropriate Amazon local minions to serve it up.

The proof for The Book of Cuzei arrived too. That’s 382 pages of superior supplementalness. It will take me a bit to read through it, so it’ll probably be available at the end of the month or soon after. Then the omnibus edition is a matter of stitching the two books together. If you think you want both, it’s worth waiting for that.

I had about a week in between proofing the books, which I could have spent in any number of productive ways, but instead I got a massive cold. Still feel pretty rotten, in fact, but it’s getting better.

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