July 2017


OK, these two games have nothing to do with each other, but at least one review is a positive and one is a negative.  First, To Be or Not To Be.

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It is permadeath, but you have options

This is Ryan North’s choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet. You can play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet’s Dad, and you can follow Shakespeare or not.  And you will do all of the above, because in classic CYOA style the paths are pretty short and you’ll want to get a good sampling, at least.

I suppose some very earnest and glum person might not care for North’s off-the-wall humor.  I am not that person.  It’s pretty hilarious, and though North is not as well-versed in verse, I have to admit that in terms of choosing adventure, he’s got Shakespeare beat. I’d venture to say that his version of Hamlet is even better than Cowboy Wally’s. It’s also pretty cheap, so what are you waiting for?

About the only other thing to say is that as an engine for a mostly text game, it’s done very well.  You have to do maybe a little too much clicking to explore a previous path to the previous branch, but there are save points to help out, and it’s really not onerous to explore a bunch of possible plots.  There are also a bunch of illustrations for those who don’t like to read.

Next, Black Desert Online.  I promised a Steam pal a review, and here it is.  That is, there’s a review that indicates how some people might like it.  I didn’t manage to.

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One badass cutie, coming up

I heard about BDO, strangely enough, from a rave review of its character generator. And by golly, it does have a magnificent character generator. For instance, in the above image the blue spot isn’t a tattoo, it’s a control. You can take that area and shift it, rotate it, or resize it, and so with each other part of the face and body.

And yet, the process reveals that after this next-gen character generator, we really need a next-next-gen character generator.  As you can see, by default you get a cute Korean girl. And… what do you do next?  She looks fine.  Honestly it’s more interesting to spend the time in Oblivion  making its potato faces a little more acceptable.  Given a beautiful face, about all you can do is mess it up.  A next-next-gen program might help you discover how to move the face in a particular direction– e.g. you want Faye Wong or Lucy Liu or Ritsuko Taneda or Maggie Cheung instead of the default face.  Most of us have no idea how to program a face– what polygons to nudge to get those characters.

Once the game starts, what do you get?  I’ve read about it being a Different Kind of MMO, but it seemed like every other MMO I’ve tried, only more generic.  You have a starting village where you talk to people and learn the interface.  There are starter monsters that never go away, and yet killing a few seems to make an NPC happier. There are quests and item sellers and other PCs dashing around and having endless discussion of Trump in open chat. Combat is mostly mashing keys, though I’m told you get various combos later (but no real aiming). You can certainly keep busy, but none of this is as well done as (say) The Secret World, and the world isn’t as interesting as (say) DC Universe Online.

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It is gorgeous, I’ll give it that. It’s a pleasant colorful world. Above is how your character will appear in the world after all that customization: almost identical to other PCs.

Now, from the real review I linked to, you can see that you can invest in businesses, go fishing, hire NPCS, and so on.  Which sounds excruciatingly dull to me.  I can be amused building bases for awhile, as in Empyrion, but hauling products was a chore in Civ 2 and I doubt it’s improved since.  (Well, I did like Euro Truck Simulator 2, but the minimal tasks required to drive a simulated truck are more interesting than following a path in an MMO.)

So, if all this sounds like your cup of simulated medieval gruel, dive in!  I absolutely can’t say I’ve spent enough time in the game to really see what it has to offer.  But I do say that it does a poor job of selling itself in the first 4 to 5 hours.

 

 

With a few hundred thousand other people, i’ve been mesmerized by Jon Bois’s 17776.  It’s over here.  Take an hour and go through it all.

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Avid football fan

Now, I am one of the few American males who does not get football. Never really mastered the rules, and nothing about it makes me want to. But I love Jon Bois. He has a series called Breaking Madden that’s hilarious. He takes a football sim (that would be Madden), forces it to do insane things, and tells the results as a story. Sometimes the game cooperates, sometimes it glitches out, it’s all good.

The elevator pitch for 17776 is “What football will look like in the future.” And he gets there! But 17776 is so much bigger and weirder than that. It’s a science fiction story. It’s a multimedia experience. It’s about sentient space probes.  It’s about human beings.  It’s a utopia— a bittersweet one.  It’s about friendship and God and in a couple of places it’s really moving.

First, the football.  No, wait, that won’t make sense without the basic situation. His method is to insert one wild hypothetical, and draw out its implications with no further magic. The hypothetical is this: in 2026, for no reason ever explained, people stop aging and dying (and being born).  That’s it.  Everyone finds themselves immortal. What do they do?

For one thing, they play football. For 15,000 years.  The rulebook gets really long and strange over that time. Bois invents half a dozen or more weird versions of football. The least weird of these is the first one he gets to: the playing field is the state of Nebraska; the end zones are Iowa and Wyoming. There are thousands of players at any one time, but only one ball, and the game lasts for years.

We’re introduced to this game, by the way, because the protagonists are watching it. They’re space probes— two Pioneer units, and a Jupiter probe that in 2017 hasn’t launched yet. One of the units— Pioneer 9— is woken up at the beginning of the story, which gives us a character who has to learn about all this world just as we do.

The story is mostly text conversations, but it plays with the medium expertly.  There are pictures, found documents real and imagined, GIFs and videos. Many of these use Google Earth to bounce over the globe, zooming effortlessly from outer space down to individual houses or football stadiums. (I’m inclined to say: don’t try this at home. Bois makes it work, but I really don’t want every story to be told this way.)

Bois has an interesting take on utopias / the future.  In his scenario, the people of 17776 are the same people who were alive in 2026. And for the most part, their society is ours, only perfected: nanobots keep people from injury and want; war and capitalism are gone. His take is that people will try the fancier visions of sf writers— flying cars, robots, etc.— but ultimately get rid of them because they don’t like them. People want to have jobs and walk around and cook and hold elections and hang out with their pals, to say nothing of playing and watching football. Plus, they’re 2026ers at heart and they stick with what they know.

Granted, his approach may only make sense in the narrow scenario he’s created. But there’s a lot of wisdom in his take. Other writers have seriously considered what people would do with near-immortality— Julian Barnes and Jorge Luis Borges, for instance. Bois is by far the most optimistic of them. Barnes and Borges concluded that most people would get bored within a thousand years; Bois thinks the human sense of play is enough to keep us going indefinitely.  (My own sf future envisions more change, but also doubts that getting too far from our primate heritage is a great idea.)

17776 is full of novelty and pure fun, but what makes it unforgettable is Bois’s heart. There’s all sorts of grimness and outrage these days; we don’t always get this full blast of benignity. Bois seems to just like people. There’s no real villains here— except maybe for a few cheap moves in some of the football games. And it’s hard not to surrender to this future of Nice But Not Amazing.

I think I’ve written a book. This is a special verb aspect, the “dubious completive.” As any author can tell you, a book isn’t done till it’s available for purchase, and that just means the author has finally shrugged and decided to put any further changes into the next edition.

Anyway, the India Construction Kit is at the point where it needs readers.  Is that you?

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If so, contact me (you probably have my e-mail, but if not it’s here). It’d be nice to have a mix of readers who know and don’t know something about India.  (Though if you have some special expertise, please mention it!)  I will need feedback in the next month or two, so keep that in mind if you’re entering cryostasis or something for that period.

I usually get more readers than I can handle; if you offered before but didn’t get a chance to read last time, tell me and I’ll try to make sure you’re included.

Edit: Got a good crew already. If you’re still interested, watch this space for the second draft.  (If you’re actually South Asian, though, write me!)

If for some reason you’re unclear, this is much like my China book, only not about China. It gives a somewhat brief overview of Indian history (believe me, not even the scholars memorize the dozens of dynasties of medieval times), moves to a fairly extensive discussion of Indian religions. Then there’s chapters on daily life, clothing, and architecture. Finally, there are grammatical overviews of Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil.

The primary audience is expected to be conlangers and conworlders, who will find plenty of interest to help stop making Standard European Fantasy Kingdoms. But it’s really for anyone who doesn’t feel up to speed on one of the planet’s biggest and most vibrant civilizations.

I’ve just read two books in what might be a new subgenre: People Gawking at Modern 51-9UeT8hwL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_India. They are India Becoming by Akash Kapur, and India Calling by Anand. Besides having similar titles and themes, they both have quotes by William Dalrymple on the back cover.

Both writers are Indian by descent, spent their formative years in the US, and went to live in India to report on its remarkable boom times. Kapur is Tamil and focuses on Tamil Nadu; Giridharadas has roots in Mumbai and reports from there and other northern cities. They also share methods: the books are a mixture of personal reflections and the stories of people they met and talked to.

Per capita GDP in India has increased sixfold since 1960— most of this since the economic liberalization of 1991. The result is a scramble, generally successful, to make money. This means former Dalits getting rich; poor people upgrading from grass huts to concrete houses; one billion people getting cell phones; cities expanding into their hinterlands; the upper quintile hastening to get cars and air conditioners.

The left these days distrusts money, and it has good reason to do so.  But money is one of the best and fastest ways of dissolving old systems of oppression.  Brahmins can’t keep oppressing Dalits when the latter can quit their ancient professions, make money in a new one, and move into the rich part of town. Women can’t be held under their family’s thumb when they have their own jobs or houses, or even their own businesses. Caste restrictions on professions mean nothing when people can simply study for a new job, or just move to a new city and take one.

Of course, the boom has its downsides. Both authors are originally enthralled by the new opportunities and new attitudes, but some people are left behind, and there are new things to worry about. Indira Gandhi once dismissed pollution as something only First World nations needed to worry about; now it’s a growing threat within India. Kapur meets people living on a growing, unregulated trash dump. Appalled, he promises that he’ll do everything he can to shut it down. The people are aghast and beg him not to: it’s their livelihood— skimming the landfill for things to use— and they don’t have any other. Kapur also mentions the problem of thugs: it’s cheap and easy to hire them, and they’re used for instance to pressure farmers to sell their land.

The opportunities within a boom can verge on the comic. Giridharadas meets a man, once a penniless Dalit, who has become a big man in a small town. His first big venture was English lessons— there’s a mania for learning English even in the middle of nowhere. (These schools are rough-and-ready, concentrating on teaching idiom and practical speaking rather than literature.) He also organized a local beauty pageant, for both men and women. But he only made it big with… roller skating. He established a roller skating team and ended up coaching the national team. Giridharadas also finds a man who write puff pieces for technological journals in English, and Maoist polemics in Telugu.

Giridharadas is the wittier author; for instance, he describes Indians’ passion for knowing his “native place”, which turns out to mean “where my ancestors had most recently milked cows, even if ‘recent’ meant the year 1500.” He recounts a typical conversation where people ask where is he from.  Washington DC, he replies.  No, no, he is Indian, where is he from?  He was born in Ohio. No, no, your native place.  His parents grew up in Mumbai.  Ah, so you are Maharashtrian.  Well, no, his parents were Tamil and Punjabi— they met in Mumbai. So, basically, you are Punjabi— your father is from Punjab?  No, that’s his mother, his father is Tamil.  Ah, so basically you are South Indian.

Both authors marvel at the changes in gender relations. Arranged marriage is still common. On the other hand, dating and premarital sex are becoming common too. Some women still take the role of always-submissive helper/cook; others indignantly reject it. As love marriages rise, so do divorces.

(Both books were written before Modi’s BJP took power in 2014, so they don’t address the rise of right-wing nationalism, and indeed have little to say about politics at all.)

The books are long on stories, short on analysis. And they rely a lot on chance contacts— but then, knowing the local language, they are far better informed than the Western style of talking only to one’s cab driver and a few high officials.

It’s interesting to compare these books to those of earlier observers, such as Octavio Paz’s In Light of India (1995) and V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). Paz is full of solidarity as a fellow Third Worlder, but finds it most easy to relate to India’s great history in literature and religion. Naipaul is terribly worried at the centrifugal tendencies of Indian society.

This sounded intriguing, and it’s discounted in the Steam summer sale, so I picked it up. It’s not quite what I expected (which was roughly, more like Bayonetta, which is from the same developer), but I’m digging it.

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Operator 60 confesses her girl problems

I’m about 7 hours in, which might be a quarter of the way through the main story. Like Bayonetta, it’s intended to be played through multiple times. Unlike Bayonetta and just about everything else, the game is different on the second playthrough.

I did get a crash when I first started the game, but I upgraded my AMD drivers and it’s been fine ever since.

One warning: the beginning hour or so offers no autosave, a poor design decision that is not true of the rest of the game. And it ends with a massive boss fight, which sends you back to the beginning if you fail. This is pretty crappy while you are still learning how the game works.  Fortunately there’s a legit workaround: go through it on easy mode, and turn on the auto-targeting (with Q); then 2B will fight on her own and all you have to do is move her around.  You should only need to do this for the boss fights.  (It’s a nice mechanic, though.  You can enjoy the story without being fazed by twitchy bosses.)

Basic situation: you are an android named 2B, basically part of the android special forces. Aliens have taken over the earth, though they are unseen; instead you fight their emissaries, machines ranging from the size of a trash can to the size of a refinery. The androids fight on behalf of the humans, now exiled on the moon.

2B, because this is a Japanese game, is not a chunky space marine but a girl with twin samurai swords (plus a flying probe with a laser gun), dressed in Gothic Lolita style.  She has a partner, another android named 9S, also dressed in black but in boyish shorts. For some reason they both wear black cloth visors that cover their eyes. (Presumably not blindfolds as they seem perfectly able to see.)

You can either go up close and use your swords, or stay back and use the probe’s gun.  Or both at once.  It’s said to work best with a controller, but I don’t have one.  Many enemies shoot out big purple bullets in nice patterns– a genre known as bullet hell.

I recommend rebinding the keys, though.  The default keyboard setup is absurd– e.g. weapons assigned to left and right shift.  How you are supposed to use those and navigate using WASD, I have no idea.  I moved all the weaponry to the numpad so I can move with left hand, fight with right.  (You can’t assign the weapon keys to the mouse, though you perhaps wouldn’t want to, since there are four keys. The mouse can be used to control the camera, or to advance dialogs.)

What surprised me is the pacing. Past the initial section, Automata becomes almost tranquil. You find an android base in a ruined city. You can talk briefly to various androids and collect detritus to sell. The city has some peaceful machine residents, and only a few hostile ones. When you see running water, you’re prompted to go fishing.  You have missions to go to, but in between you can simply walk around the pretty post-apocalyptia.

It’s pretty much lampshaded that Things Are Not As They Seem.  The androids’ dedication to unseen humans (they salute each other with “Glory to mankind!”) is a bit creepy. 2B is all business, mostly shooting down 9S’s friendly overtures. We soon meet peaceful machines who don’t want to fight the androids. We don’t see either the aliens or the humans.

There are some unusual design choices… one is that you can encounter the corpses of other players.  There is no multiplayer, but when you find them, you can choose to revive them (they will fight by your side for a time), or retrieve their parts. In either case you also get a little meditation on mortality.

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Ave atque vale, Eason. Though you must have been a noob to die in this spot.

But the real mind-blowers are supposed to come later.  E.g., there are 26 different endings.  You can sell various bits of your HUD if you like.  You can even remove your operating system… which will kill you, you fool.  Apparently one of the endings is a bullet hell version of the credits.

More later, but I like what I’ve seen so far.  (After the prologue.)