January 2017


For some reason my post on suffering got an unusual amount of attention and possibly some new readers.  Now I’ll send them all away again by talking about video games.

I’m in the middle of Dishonored 2. Alert readers may recall that I wasn’t sure I liked Dishonored at first, but the DLC won me over. Spoiler: the new game is great. It’s much like Mass Effect 2: adding to what works, quietly removing what doesn’t.

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Basic gameplay: Can you arrange bodies more artfully than the developers?

You play as either Corvo Attano (as in the first game), or as Empress Emily.  I’m playing as Emily, of course, because Corvo? You’re fired. You had one job, Corvo– you are Royal Protector to the Empress– and you’ve fucked it up twice. In the first few minutes of the game, Corvo completely fails to notice an empire-wide conspiracy, sees his charge captured, and gets turned to stone. I expect I’ll rescue him eventually, but really, thanks Dad.

The gameplay is basically that of the first game: you get a target and a small but richly detailed mini-world to find them in. You carefully sneak around, inching forward or teleporting to useful perches, and then curse and reload because one of the frigging guards saw you.

You can fight everyone if you want, which will give you a High Chaos walkthrough– which in turn makes the game world a little nastier. You’ll get more bloodfly infestations, and in general people are more murderous.  E.g. there’s a scene where an officer talks to a woman who’s been stealing for her; in low chaos they are lovers, and in high chaos the officer pushes her off a building. How exactly this is caused by Emily choosing to choke rather than kill guards in another district isn’t quite explained, but it does appeal to our moral intuitions. (It’s very Confucian: the morality of the ruler wafts out to become that of the populace.) However, here and in Deus Ex, I’ve had a lot more fun sneaking and finding all the lore and runes than in combat, so for me it’s Low Chaos all the way.

You get special powers from the Outsider. Intriguingly, you can reject them. Kudos to anyone who can play the game without the teleport; I don’t think I could. The first mission, before you get your powers, can be quite frustrating.

Now, I think the Arkham games are the perfect stealth games, and that’s largely because Batman has so many options. And if you get into a bad situation, you don’t reach for the reload button, you reach for a gargoyle.  Dishonored 2 doesn’t give you the same range of options, though it does move in that direction. E.g. if discovered, Emily can leave a magic clone behind and escape in shadow form. (However, this takes a lot of mana, and mana potions are kind of rare, so I just hit reload.)

More interesting is Domino, which lets you magically link 2 (and later 3 or 4) victims. What happens to one will happen to the others. Most prosaically, you can choke or sleep-dart one, taking them all out. In High Chaos you have more entertaining options– e.g. link that officer to the civilian she is pushing off a building, and she’ll die too.

(Emily’s teleport is technically different from Corvo’s, but you use it exactly the same way.)

The Empire is a pretty fucked-up place. You have the frequent assassinations and coups, the sadistic whale-draining, the rat plague, the trigger-happy guards, the lethal checkpoints,  the witches, and now you have enormous flies that make the rats look cute, a tyrannical duke, clockwork killing machines, and exploitation of the workers. And you’re playing the person who is supposedly in charge of all this. The game occasionally confronts the paradox– e.g. Emily comments to someone that while the workers suffer, the Duke is eating from fine silver, and she’s reminded that she ate from fine silver in Dunwall Tower too. And there’s a story that tells us that Emily’s mother wasn’t exactly a saint.

Maybe this is addressed later, but it does still seem that Emily gets off too easy. She’s 25, which is young, but monarchy is a rough game– if you don’t know what’s going on in your empire by that age, and aren’t pulling the strings, it’s you that’s the puppet.

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The game’s biggest showcase is surely the Clockwork Mansion, created by mad scientist Jindosh Kirin. It can be reconfigured, you see: clockwork turns your bathroom into a study, or your music room into an electric death room. It puts the punk into steampunk.  (Though the Empire is permeated by magic, Jindosh seems to be a tech only guy. His transitions have a pleasing mechanical slowness, as if they were controlled by a punch card somewhere.)

This is absolutely cool, and yet doesn’t quite succeed as level design, because it confuses the player. It’s not at all clear how you are supposed to attack this thing. I had to consult a walkthrough, which mentions among other things that any given room only has two configurations. You also have to defeat a clockwork soldier, and these have been designed so you can’t really defeat them with stealth, which is a little annoying. On the other hand they don’t count as kills, so the most effective way to deal with them is to blow off their heads.

I departed from the walkthrough, simply in that I wandered into a part of the mansion and there he was.  I immediately sleep-darted him.  That left two clockwork soldiers to deal with. I think I blew up the head of one, which made him kill the other.  I’m not sure, it was kind of chaotic. (If you’ve played that level, you’ll love this video on 80 ways to kill Jindosh.)

The next level offers you an interesting choice. To get into the next culprit’s mansion, you need to solve a hard riddle. The district is divided between Overseers (zealous anti-Outsider clerics) and a street gang, and each will help you if you deliver to them the body of the enemy’s leader. Or you can skip all that by solving the riddle! Which is what I did. It’s not that hard, though it probably helps to think like a programmer. Anyway, I could have gone right on to the mansion if I liked, but I scoured the district anyway, so I could get the runes and bonecharms.

I wonder if the studio brought in Anita Sarkeesian for a talk or something, because they’ve reduced the already low levels of sexualization. Emily is a very stylish assassin but not particularly sexy:

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Nice eyes,though

Plus there are no brothel levels, and the gangs and guards now include women.

I like the fact that the protagonists are voiced. The old Valve idea was that we can identify more with a silent protagonist (plus, it was cheaper), but I think that’s wrong: a silent character seems dissociated. If they have no reaction to what’s going on, why should we?

I said the sequel was better, but it’s mostly a bunch of smallish things:

  • The choice of protagonists, and giving them a voice.
  • Emily’s new powers.
  • There are more powers available for stealth. (In the first game it felt like most of them were intended for combat.)
  • The levels are not much larger, but they feel packed with things to find and people to choke.
  • Neat ideas like the Clockwork Mansion; apparently there’s some time travel stuff coming up.
  • Marketplaces in each level, so you are not restricted to five sleep darts per map.
  • They evidently had more money for voice acting… the guards are a lot less repetitive.
  • More civilians around– Dunwall felt dead, Karnaca feels much more alive.
  • Minor, but a satisfying change: Corvo in the first game is just told what to do. Emily (like Daud in the DLC) gets clues but seems to make her own decisions.

It plays well on my PC, but it better– I bought the damn thing a month ago just to be ready for Dishonored 2, which simply laughed at the specs of my old machine.

One thing they didn’t change, and this is just fine: it’s still very linear. “Open world” is a big thing these days, but it’s really hard to do well. The Saints Row and Bethesda games are the models, I think. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst moved to an open world design, and I think it’s too overwhelming. Dishonored 2 takes a different approach: you may only be exploring a few blocks at a time, but they are exquisitely arranged and detailed.

(My only plea for Dishonored 3: please, do not start with Corvo failing to do his job again. The title is a brand by now; you don’t have to make it describe the plot.)

I just finished The Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, which is all about the British Raj. Spoiler: he’s not in favor. In fact, his thesis is that the British never really knew what they were doing; they were constantly and pointlessly nervous and paranoid about their presence there, and alternated between unnecessary violence and out-of-touch bureaucracy.

In the early days, in the 1600s, the English simply didn’t understand how business or government was done in India– which was by face-to-face negotiation.  Whether kings and lords, or nobles and peasants, or authorities and merchants, arrangements were worked out by talk. (A show of force was not incorrect– but the Mughal way was to defeat an enemy, then make accommodations to make the defeated into an ally.) The English basically made outrageous demands (e.g. they wanted to trade tax-free and wanted the EIC to have a monopoly even over other English traders) and hated to negotiate.  They were constantly worried that they would be disrespected, harassed, or overwhelmed by the Indians, and the only way they could ever think of to get their way was by force.

Their first attempt, in the late 1600s, led to a righteous drubbing by the still-powerful Mughals. They did not learn anything from this.

(Now, Wilson may overstate the harmony of Mughal society. The Mughal founder, Babur, certainly found India as alien and unpleasant as any Englishman. But of course they put down roots and adapted, and the English didn’t bother to learn South Asian protocols.)

How did the British take over?  It’s not entirely technology, since the Indians were able to buy Western arms and even Western advisors; for that matter, the French at least were keen to oppose the British takeover. As with China, we can attribute much of the problem to poor luck. When the Mughals were strong, they could hold off Europeans, but the empire crumbled after the Afghan invasion of 1739. And the French never really committed to wars in India– probably because they sensed, correctly, that it wasn’t a profitable proposition. The EIC didn’t really want to take over Bengal, and British home opinion was not really in favor of empire; Plassey was more or less Robert Clive’s mad improvised scheme to replace the hated prospect of negotiation with the more appealing direct intervention to install a supposedly friendlier ruler.

In economics there’s the concept of a Winner’s Curse: in a competition to buy something, the winner is likely to be the one who overestimates the item’s value. The Indian empire was something of a winner’s curse. Bengal provided enormous revenues, enough for the armies that slowly conquered the rest of India… but also enormous expenditures, chiefly the army needed to hold all that territory. The company constantly had to be bailed out by London, and all through the 19th century the EIC and then imperial government was most often in the red. But of course it was unthinkable to simply give up and go home.

Ironically, the one time India was valuable was during the World Wars. It provided huge armies and great masses of war materiel, and this very fact made it completely impossible to maintain as an imperial colony without native involvement. To keep the troops and goods coming, Britain had to promise representative government (in WWI) and eventual independence (in WWII).

The British had no notion of developing education, civil society, industry, or self-government.  They did not seem to realize that Indians expected their rulers to respond to complaints and abuses and to provide relief in bad years.  Their idea of government was not much more than maintaining the army, a cumbersome bureaucracy, and a nice lifestyle for an upper crust of expats. Wilson shows that to the extent that civil society did develop, it was purposely done by Indians themselves away from British eyes.

At this point British readers are likely to be saying, “But we built railways, didn’t we?” But the railways were largely built to ferry troops around. They were too expensive for everyday commerce, they ran at a loss, and they did not develop Indian industry since the locomotives and rails were imported. Britain did not allow Indians to make their own steel until 1899.

As for “We taught them democracy, didn’t we?”– I’m sorry, Brits, but you get no prizes for ruling the country as an absolute monarchy for more than a century. The first elections were held in 1920; only 1/10 of the male population could vote, and for only limited domestic powers. This was three centuries after the first legislature in a British colony (Virginia, 1619).

I could go on and on, but then you could also just read the book. Although he is specifically countering old notions of Britain’s imperial glory or at least competence, it’s also a good overall look at Indian history from the mid-1600s till 1950, giving both the British and Indian sides of the story.

A sometimes endearing, sometime exasperating tendency of the British is their tolerance for constitutional muddle. The deal that gave them the administration of Bengal made them theoretical agents of the Mughal crown, and they maintained this fiction until 1857. And rather than conquering everybody, they left 500 “princely states” with various degrees of self-government. When the India-Pakistan border was drawn, hundreds of enclaves were created with tens of thousands of residents– supposedly a relic of ancient Mughal treaties.  All these eccentricities had a price in inefficiency and incompetence. In this light, Nehru’s insistence on central planning and central control start to make a lot more sense.

(This is of course research for my own book, the India Construction Kit. I’m a little over half done with it, I think.  More on that later…)