November 2015

I’ve been playing Fallout 4, and I thought I’d write about it when I’m still all confused but also happy, because the first twenty levels tend to be the sweet spot in Bethesda games.


Entering a Vault. What could go wrong?

We are staying with friends, and I was amazed when the entire game downloaded in about an hour. Gonna have to look at why our Internet connection is so much worse.

People seem to have mixed reactions to the introduction, but I thought it was great. For the first time (Tranquility Lane doesn’t quite count) we get to see and walk around the bright paternalistic prewar world of 2077, which is fun. (I’m not sure why there is so little apparent social and aesthetic change in the 120 years since the 1950s. On the other hand, maybe there’s more than it looks like. E.g., from the postwar world, it doesn’t seem like 2077 was much riven by racism or sexism.)

I have to say that I couldn’t figure out the new facial creation system. It feels like a step backwards: instead of a dozen sliders for the nose, say, you basically get two or three. So I couldn’t get the face I wanted.

Fallout 3 looked great, back in 2008, but F4 looks amazing. Look at the Vault above… all of that inscrutable machinery… it’s like stepping into a Jack Kirby drawing.  Plus it’s a welcome relief to have, like, all the colors. The greenish tint of F3 was effective in conveying a mood, but it really doesn’t show off a world to put a filter over it.

The actual gameplay is familiar yet streamlined.  I was immediately rifling through containers, crouch-walking through ruins sniping at raiders, and picking up quests from interesting people. I felt that Fallout New Vegas was too railroaded, so I like the fact that you can just wander again, losing yourself in the game and not worrying too much about where you are supposed to go next.

So a F3/FNV player will immediately know what they’re doing; and you’ll also appreciate lots of minor improvements: one-click container looting; time slowed but not stopped in VATS; integrated skills/perks; two levels of clothing; no need for repairs.  Plus all the enemies above the radroach feel like they’ve leveled up: even a mole rat attack feels frantic.

I like the voice-acted main character.  I’d prefer three voice options, as in Saints Row, but we can’t have everything. You no longer get a frozen world while you talk to someone; but the participants don’t look at each other, so it’s still a Strange Bethesda Encounter.

A sequel ought to add something new and engaging, and in F4 there are two big novelties:

  • The power armor. You get this very quickly, and to underline how badass it is, they throw a Deathclaw at you.  It has insane damage resistance, so it kind of feels like cheating. But hey, sometimes you just feel like walloping enemies, or just not dying so much.
  • Creating settlements. This is awesome fun– moving things around, scrapping items, and building up the place to attract settlers.  And I know I’ve only scratched the surface: I’ve seen screenshots of people making virtual castles, and working signboards… I can see this being a huge time sink. Plus you now have an excuse to loot pretty much everything; it’s far more satisfying than simply building weird weapons as in F3.

This is where Arkham Knight fell down, I think: the Batmobile was supposed to be way awesome, but it isn’t that fun and doesn’t fit thematically with the rest of the game.

You can modify weapons and armor, and this feels like the only big negative for me. Most of the options are locked… I’m 25 hours in and about all I can do is look at mods I may someday be able to use. You do get diverse weapons from enemies, but it’s not always clear what’s better. I’m still not clear on what piped weapons are…

The game occasionally slows down for me, though on the whole it plays nicely on Ultra.  It does crash unexpectedly at times, though I remember this being far worse on F3.


At least the Apocalypse killed all the Boston drivers

I already regret only being able to take one companion along at a time.  I like Dogmeat, Piper, and Nick. The interactions are fun, and in combat they have a useful ability to draw enemies’ attention so they’re not shooting at me so much.

I lived in Quincy for a few years, so I’m tickled that this area made it into the game, though I haven’t been down that way yet.  Since I know the area more, it does seem awfully compressed… you can walk between areas in about the same time it would take to drive in real life.  It does feel vaguely off that the Commonwealth is more into the Red Sox than the Patriots.  When the GECK comes out I really want to mod in my old house…

In case you missed it, a couple of changes on


I’v e been proofing China Construction Kit, plus incorporating reviewers’ suggestions.  It’s about time to print another proof; I think I’m still on target for a release at the end of the month.


Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, the de facto and disappointing late-19C ruler

But I find myself with a few opinions that didn’t get into the book. A few opinions made it in, but opinions take up a lot of room, you know, so I’ll put them here instead.

The biggest point is in reaction to William Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing.  He notes that scholarly tradition, in East and West, has been to divide the Qīng (Manchu) dynasty in 1842, with the first Opium War.  The preceding period goes with the rest of imperial China; the later period is part of modern history.  He describes his book as “revisionist”, incorporating a new overall picture of the Qīng, in which the Opium War is only one incident, and the Qīng were stronger and better than they looked.

He then spends the rest of the book basically showing, despite himself, that the traditional view is more or less correct.

Now, it’s not that he’s wrong, exactly. Early European visitors tended to be impressed with China, until the 19C when they suddenly saw it as backwards yet arrogant (and, more to the point, ready for plucking).  It’s hard sometimes not to just exclaim that 19C Westerners just sucked.  At the same time they were roughing up China, they treated Chinese immigrants, well, about like the West is dealing with Syrian refugees today– that is, with a maximum of ignorant fear and horror.  And when the West got around to the scholarly study of modern China, they were way too interested in the history of Westerners in China.

From a Chinese point of view, an answer to the burning question of why China was slow to modernize was: it came down to really bad luck.  A pattern going back two thousand years is that Chinese dynasties move from active and prosperous, to divided and chaotic. When a dynasty is started, a lot can get done: distribute land, expand the borders, establish internal peace, promote scholarship.  The dynamic period rarely lasts more than 150 years.  Large landowners start to take most of the land, which reduces the tax rolls, which leads to tax increases on the poor, which eventually leads to starvation and revolts.  Often later monarchs are dominated by the eunuchs (or in the Manchu era, their families).  The scholar-officials get bogged down in acrimonious debates, which bring down any serious reform movements. Finally everything falls apart.

The Manchus produced some especially fine early rulers, who lasted till about 1800… which means, the Westerners became powerful just at the worst possible time, after the 150-year mark when the dynasty started to decline fast.  From a purely internal point of view, there was more destruction caused by the White Lotus Rebellion and the Taiping Rebellion than by the wars with the West.

At the same time… well, the Manchu response to the West was pitifully inadequate.  But then, the same can be said of almost every other non-Western nation– it’s not a particular shame for the Chinese.  The Japanese ability to adapt Western ways with great speed is the real outlier.

Development is a tricky problem, and I’d venture to say that almost all the Western advice that China received, for a century, was useless. Not only did 19C Westerners not know how to develop a country, they didn’t even want to.  They wanted to trade, do missionary work, and if possible take over. If they couldn’t take over, they wanted local leaders who would guarantee stability and safeguard Western interests.  To the extent that the West had some good ideas about democracy, free speech, science, civil law, and free enterprise, they did their best to keep it to themselves.

Anyway, see the book for the actual course of events. I do try not to over-emphasize the West, though of course it has to be discussed in the modern period. So I’ve left out (say) what the British ambassador thought of China in 1793, something that tends to fascinate British authors.

And while I’m offering opinions, here’s another one: the Empire was better governed than perhaps any Western monarchy; but monarchy still sucks. This was realized, of course, in both East and West. The Western path was to limit the absolute power of the monarch– basically, in favor of the other power bases of Western society: the nobility, the church, and the towns. The Chinese way was to inculcate in both monarchs and officials an ideology of public-spirited rule.  Mark Elvin quotes some remarkable letters from Manchu monarchs expressing personal shame over reports of droughts and other poor weather. The teaching was that Heaven might show its displeasure with a ruler by bringing such catastrophes; one may wonder if the emperor 100% believed in what he was saying, but he obviously thought it worth saying, and it’s hard to imagine George III or Napoleon or Frederick the Great ever saying it. When the emperor was scrupulous, hardworking, and respectful of his officials, government was more effective than Westerners managed until very late in history.

But of course emperors could also be lazy or incompetent, or paranoid and vicious, or dominated by the court. And in between dynasties, you generally had warlords of varying ferocity. And worldwide, no one ever really achieved a better record with monarchy; see here for more.

(I know, we look at Donald Trump and things don’t seem much better.  But Trump is– thankfully, so far– an opposition candidate, and nothing about democracy guarantees that the opposition is any good.  When you really have a stinker of a president, you can get rid of him in 4 years; a bad monarch can afflict you for decades, and act much more opposite the interest of the masses.)





Here’s an interesting essay by Cory Doctorow: “The Internet Will Always Suck”.

His point is that “we always use our vital technologies at the edge of their capabilities.” The Internet sucked in 1995 because it could barely handle images; it sucks today because it can’t reliably deliver high-res movies to moving cellphones in remote areas.

1500 year old Roman comb

1500 year old Roman comb

It’s an excellent point— as technology gets better and more ubiquitous, it’s stretched, and it’ll be used in non-optimal ways, with attendant errors and frustrations. Doctorow pointedly reminds designers to plan for those error conditions… don’t succumb to the engineer’s perennial optimism that things will work as they’re supposed to, or as they do in optimal conditions at the engineer’s desk.

It’s the always that goes too far, though. We’re living in a time of hair-raisingly fast technological development, but that is almost certainly just dumb luck and won’t continue in the same way. Will the Internet still be advancing in leaps and bounds in fifty years? Maybe. In five hundred years? Almost certainly not.

Technologies do mature, and settle down in usable, predictable forms. There’s probably an example in front of you: the QWERTY keyboard, first produced by Remington in 1878, still going strong a century and a half later despite its original purpose (preventing jams on the typewriter) being entirely moot today. It’s not the best design, but it’s stable, and thus allows people to transfer their knowledge between machines and even between technologies.

Automobiles have changed in all sorts of ways in a hundred years, but the user interface of the automobile is nearly unchanged in the last half century. Your grandfather could drive your car, with maybe 30 seconds’ instruction in how to use the automatic transmission (mainly learning not to use the nonexistent clutch). As Bill McKibben points out, you’d have trouble understanding how to make a meal in the typical kitchen of 1900— but that of 1950 would be no trouble.

Many tools have had roughly the same shape and function for hundreds of years or more. The illustration is exactly what it looks like, a comb— the idea of dragging an array of hard spikes through the hair has never been surpassed.

The obvious objection is that there is improvement in automobiles, guns, hammers, pianos, coffee makers, whatever. We don’t make combs out of antler anymore. Well, of course. But we change the user-facing portions the least, and every field doesn’t see the spectacular rate of change of electronics.

Computers are still in rapid development… though I’d note that programming hasn’t advanced anywhere near as fast as computers. You can write a program in Javascript today that’s remarkably similar to the Pascal of 1970. And even if computers stop changing, business hasn’t finished thinking up all the possibilities for transforming services and production.

It’s easy enough to imagine the process continuing for another fifty years. But five hundred? Five thousand? Even sf writers can’t make that convincing; they just mutter about “weakly godlike entities” and talk about something else instead.

I’ll venture a prediction: as soon as you can have sex with robots, we’ll be done. Less provocatively phrased: we’re now trying to stream megapixel movies on demand. Imagine a few more iterations of that: moving hi-res holograms; involvement of other senses; responses to the user’s position and movement. When we have a sensorium that mimics real life… where else is there to go? You essentially have Star Trek’s holodeck… or the capabilities of Second Life in real life. Once you can near-perfectly fool the human senses, that’s all you need to do; there’s little point in a fourfold increase in speed beyond that.  All the engineers will move over to genomics, in order to make furries a reality.

(Well, there’s one more requirement: your 3-d printer needs to be able to create a pizza. Then we’re done.)

I mostly finished Arkham Knight.  (See the first part of the review here.) That is, I defeated Scarecrow.  I’ve locked up a bunch of supervillains, but there’s a few more to go, and approximately one gazillion Riddler trophies.

Let's test your graphics card with particle effects

Let’s test your graphics card with particle effects

Overall: I have some major reservations, but it’s mostly good.  There’s a conceptual unity to the story that I have to respect.  The other Arkham games were dark but comic-bookish: a really long and difficult night for the Bat, with not much indication that his career choices ever get him down.  He’s dour and a he’s a bit of a dick to Robin, but that’s as far as it goes.  In AK piling on Batman’s weak points isn’t a joke or a side issue, it’s the main thing. It’s a relentless exploration of the idea that Bats needs his friends, pushes them away because of the danger, and gets them in trouble anyway.  And it all comes back on him in one night.

You can quibble with this story or its resolution, but it’s clearly the story Rocksteady wanted to tell… it’s not really useful to say you wanted a different story. There’s a million Batman stories out there, take your pick.

There may be spoilers from here on out; run away screaming if that’s what you need to do.

Storywise, I wasn’t sure I liked the reappearance of the Joker, but in retrospect I see what they were doing. He may be a delusion caused by Joker blood, but the idea that he could take over under the influence of Scarecrow toxin is clever, and pays off very well at the end. Plus, heck, it’s fun to hear Mark Hamill again, and way more fun than the other two villains’ taunting. (I guess you have to have a lot of self-confidence to be a supervillain, but don’t they ever learn that boasting about how dead Batman is going to be starts to sound hollow as the night goes on?)

Will you like the big reveal of the Arkham Knight’s identity? I dunno; I have to confess that I don’t know enough Batman lore to have guessed, or to be bothered or impressed.

In terms of gameplay, there are a number of What Were They Thinking? problems.

First: the goddamn car. There was one sequence I could barely get through– Arkham Knight and his excavator. You have to get the excavator’s attention, then drive like a maniac down a tunnel, avoiding various obstacles, and if you screw up by a microsecond you’re toast. It’s not fun and it doesn’t fit with either the combat (which rewards careful, non-panicked attacking) or the predator bits (which reward patience and opportunity-seeking). It’s like a twitchy Mario level snuck into the game.

One of the Riddler challenges is just as bad; I haven’t beaten it and I don’t know if I will. It involves driving on the wall with precise positioning and split-second button presses, and it pisses me off. It doesn’t help that the Batmobile handles terribly, and the wall-driving thing is incredibly sensitive to the path you start on, so if you almost get it on one try, your next try is likely to be way off.

Edit: I did get this one, and freed Catwoman.  Still, my feeling is “I’m glad I don’t have to do that again” rather than “That was fun, let me see if I can shave 5 seconds off my time.”

There are also endless tank battles, and they just pile on the tanks and missiles to make them harder. The only ones I ended up liking are the Cobra battles, where you have to drive up behind the tanks to take them out. It’s tricky but it at least rhymes with the predator challenges.

Second: why did they mess up the best part of the previous games, the challenge maps? In Arkham City you could take them on four times, for four playable characters, and sometimes I’d play ’em all night, ignoring the main game. In AK you get just four combat and four predator maps, compared to 12 each for the previous games.  You get just a few more if you spring for DLC.  And then you can only play each of them with one character. It’s just a stupid decision– “hey, let’s totally get rid of the most addictive and replayable part of our game!”

Edit: The latest patch adds the ability to play the combat and predator maps with multiple characters, which alone is enough to get me to put aside Fallout 4 for a bit.

And some of them are locked till you figure out the weird things that unlock them. E.g. there’s one where you are supposed to run off a roof and go immediately into a dive. I’ve tried it a dozen times, so far as I’m concerned I did just that, and no unlock, nor any indication of what I did wrong. I hate when games hide what they want you to do.

Third: the treatment of Catwoman and Oracle. There are a few bits of AK where you can switch to a different character, and it’s always fun. And again, it’s like Rocksteady decided, to hell with fun, let’s limit those elements. Why can’t we wander the city as Catwoman or Robin or Oracle?

Finally: you have to do all the side missions to get the full ending, yet they make it incredibly tedious to do so. Sometimes you can follow a marked route to get somewhere, which is fine. But often you have to just wait till you run into the element, and the city is big enough that scouring it in this way, for a dozen side missions, is no fun. Once I wanted to get all the militia watchtowers on one island. I’d gotten some, but there were 2 left. I found a walkthrough with maps, made a diagram, and checked out every watchtower location. And didn’t find anything. From playing later, it seems that some towers are added later in the game. Ugh.

I understand, I guess, developers’ resistance to providing map locations for everything right off. They want us to explore. But not knowing where things are is really not the gameplay funapalooza that developers seem to think it is. I’d be happy enough if there was a discovery mechanism that unlocks at some point, like the Collectible Finder in Saints Row 3, or even the Riddler informants in AC. (They’re back in AK, but of course they’re no help with finding the next militia point or whatever.)

Edit: Eventually you get ‘intel’ on missions, which gives you waypoints; Still can’t find two checkpoints, at 91% game completion.

A more minor complaint: you start with pretty much the same skills as in the earlier games, but then they add about a dozen new tricks and keystrokes on top of them. Honestly, I can’t even remember them all. On the plus side, I didn’t need most of them either.

I don’t know how many Riddler trophies I have, and I really doubt I’ll find them all.

Still, I ended the game feeling much better about it. What’s right with the game?

For one, there’s some really neat and gorgeous bits. When the Cloudburst appears, for one: it changes the look of the whole city, it looks awful and apocalyptic and yet somehow beautiful. The final confrontation with Scarecrow is also really well done. It has a nice callout back to Arkham Asylum, and it combines both the Scarecrow surrealism and the Joker crazy-murder into one package.

And despite my complaints, I appreciate that AK tried some new things– unlike Arkham Origins which was too much of a retread of the previous game. Some don’t work, but some do: having a place to accumulate arrested enemies; the remote hacking device; silent takedowns from a more forgiving angle; the medics; the fear takedown; quite a few neat levels and puzzles. Even the car, though I didn’t like it very much, represents an attempt to shake up the formula and try new things. And there are many missions that are genuinely fun, like the Nightwing ones, and stopping bank heists.  There’s also a couple of Chekhov’s gun moments I admire.

I just finished Folktales of Japan, edited by Keigo Seki, originally published back in the 1950s. It’s a load of fun. Lots of encounters with ogres, supernatural spouses or children, tales of supernaturally assisted comeuppance, and more.

The collection procedure was to find the most out-of-the-way places possible and solicit stories from the oldest inhabitants, presumably to avoid influence from urban and literary culture. The irony, perhaps, is that the stories turn out to be widespread all over Japan, and clearly connected to similar stories in China, India, Europe, and Africa, going back hundreds of years. Basically, a good story has legs, world-spanning legs.

My other immediate reaction: I feel that I understand Neil Gaiman more. I have a feeling he scours old collections of folktales… his stories and novels belong recognizably to this genre, where the ordinary world is in intimate contact with little-explained (but morally charged) fairies, demons, magic items, and curses, all with the sort of magic that can’t be reduced to D&D rules.

Arkham Knight tells me that I’m 42% done, so it’s time for an in-progress review.  By now you’ve probably heard about the overall setup: the Big Bad is Scarecrow, assisted by a very cocky Batmanlike named the Arkham Knight. You play as Batman.

I have to bring Robin along?

I have to bring Robin along?

Before we get any further you probably want to know: is it fixed? Mostly. It only crashes for me once an hour or two. Crazily, I have to play at high resolution but low everything else in order to avoid the AMD grappling gun crash. But it’s playable.

Overall: it’s good, and I’m enjoying it, with some complaints. It’s the most gorgeous Arkham game yet, and it’s got Kevin Controy and Mark Hamill back. It definitely shows Arkham Origins as an inferior copy of Arkham City. Rocksteady isn’t afraid to mess with its own formula, adding new combat moves, new puzzle types, and of course the Batmobile.

I have mixed feelings about the wheels. Mostly, it doesn’t quite fit with Batman– playing it feels much more like Grand Theft Auto IV. You can run over pedestrians, destroy cars, blow up tanks, knock down just about anything that’s not a building… it seems way too careless for the Bat. (They put in handwaves to explain that he’s not actually killing anyone, but still.) It’s hard to steer, and even the expanded maps feel too small for the car. But, eh, it does add variety and it’s certainly not terrible.

Curiously, the combat feels mostly easier than Arkham Origins, and there seems to be less emphasis on boss fights, which is fine by me. Unaccountably, they’ve messed strangely with the challenge maps. One, it takes forever to unlock them– I bought some of the DLC packs just to have something to play. Two, you can only play them with the character they’re designed for, which immediately removes a lot of the replay value. Three, the combat maps come in just one round, and with most maps it seems extremely hard to get three stars. The one plus is that you can win special red icons for extra effort (e.g. surviving longer in the infinite-thugs maps).

There are a couple hundred Riddler trophies, of course. They seem strangely hidden though… in Arkham City you’d at least see them all over. There are a number of side missions. of course… my least favorite is chasing APCs, since I haven’t figured out how to reliably hit them.  (Ctrl key, but it’s not at all clear when you can fire it and if not, why not.)

Cute bit: you can’t see into (but can’t access) what was once Arkham City:

Look at the little courthouse!

Look at the little courthouse!

The first screenshot above is from DLC, the Batgirl + Robin adventure.  It’s a good meaty adventure, and I like their version of Batgirl; it’s a pity that you can’t play more Batgirl, even in the challenge maps.

Minor spoilers ahead, though nothing important.

The plot is a frenetic mess, but who cares, it’s what we expect from an Arkham game. One big misstep: the villains kidnap Oracle and Catwoman.  So, their best two female characters become damsels in distress, ugh.  I know it’s an old trope to have Batman’s allies attacked, but why the two women over, say, the five men among his close allies?  It’s particularly annoying in that there’s a model close to hand where both characters were used splendidly: Arkham City.

Part of the story is exploring some of Batman’s neuroses… however, so far they seem to be saying contradictory things: first, that people too close to Batman are endangered… second, that Batman foolishly keeps people from helping him.  Um, maybe #2 is in order to avoid #1?  But I dunno, the “Batman being a dick” thing made a great joke in Arkham City, but the comics usually make him a rather more empathetic (and talkative) character.  It makes no sense either in terms of character or gameplay that he trains Robin and then doesn’t use him.

Edit: Thoughts on finishing the game.

Finally got to this one.  It’s the second DLC for Dishonored, finishing the story of The Knife of Dunwall.

Not steampunk at all!

Not steampunk at all!

My one complaint about Knife was that it felt incomplete; well, Knife + Witches is nearly as long as the original game, and in many ways it’s far more interesting.  Daud is a better and darker protagonist; the witches make for an accelerating threat (unlike the end of the main game which just offers a shitload of guards), and there’s no attempt to whitewash the corrupt, nasty place that is Dunwall.

I played it all Low Chaos, a path which annoys the Outsider.  This game, I finally made use of the stop time ability… it’s often the best way to deal with the witches, who are far more formidable opponents than the guards. I clumsily used every one of my sleep darts on the final mission, but hey, nobody died.

The story is a little convoluted, as there are a couple missions devoted to finding a way to get to the Witches. But the missions themselves are good stealthy fun.

One weird thing: the last mission has coins and valuables scattered about… why?  You can’t buy anything…

Anyway, if you liked Dishonored and weren’t sure about this, go get it.  Then we wait for Dishonored 2