ZBB is back

The ZBB is back.

The brief story: Bluehost upgraded the scripting software, php. The forum software, phpbb, doesn’t work with the new php. Bluehost did not bother to inform clients about the upgrade, and only of three reps I talked to even understood the issue. And they didn’t seem to know what phpbb was.

On the plus side: it was clear what to do, namely upgrade phpbb. This went smoothly enough, though it was tedious and took most of the afternoon. Bonus, I have a FTP client now that I know works.

ZBB ongoing…

I heard from Bluehost. The good news: they finally did the restore. The bad news: it doesn’t help.

But, this rep was slightly more on the ball than the others. She said that they had upgraded php, the scripting software the board uses, and that was causing things to break. It would have been nice to get some warning about this, or for other reps to be informed, but whatevs.

The obvious next step is to upgrade the phpbb software. I’ve downloaded the latest version and unzipped it, but I still have to mess with getting it onto the server. If you hear muffled cursing over the next few days, that’ll be me.

Edit: Looks like I got FTP to work. Kind of. Too tired to work on it now though.

ZBB troubles

For those who are smart enough to check here for news…

The ZBB was down since yesterday. Bluehost was of little help; I think the first rep I talked to didn’t understand that phpBB is a program Bluehost supports. I called back and asked them to restore the website from a backup taken last week. They don’t seem to have gotten to that yet.

Now, their support did point to a particular file, deep within phpbb, that was causing the error. Alert user bradrn pointed out that his version (from incatena.org) didn’t match. It looked like a change I had made to that file years ago was suddenly causing an error. I removed the change and lo and behold, the board is visible again.

But, bad news: it’s still borked. In particular, posting is broken, which makes it pretty unusable. A bunch of minor things look wrong too.

I am going to let them do the restore, at the cost of losing a week’s worth of posts. Maybe that will fix things.

If that doesn’t work, I will probably have to upgrade phpBB, which is about as much fun as dental work, only you can’t get Novocaine.

Little Nightmares

I don’t even like platformers, but I loved this game. It’s just $4 in the Steam sale, though only for the next eight hours. If I finish this review quickly.

The situation: you are a very small child in an enormous ship full of monsters. You have to escape it and them, and you have no combat skills at all. Your one advantage is your size: you can hide under tables and in small niches the big lumbering things can’t reach. So you sneak around, hide or run from the monsters, climb walls and dressers. There are puzzles to solve to advance, and some collectables to find.

Oh, and for some reason you’re ravenously hungry.

(Supposedly your character is named Six and is a little girl, but nothing in the game itself indicates either fact.)

Edit: I should clarify that it’s not a 1990s 2-D platformer. It’s 2.5D. That is, it’s largely left-to-right, so you’re normally hitting D not W to move forward; but the levels have some depth and you can move around within this area.

I’ve read some reviews that reckoned that the puzzles were too easy. Maybe so, but they’re not intended to be brain-teasers; they’re mostly an excuse to traverse a scary environment. Also that it’s short, which is true– I played it in six hours, and if you’re familiar with this sort of game you can do it in far less.

What’s amazing about the game is a) the beautiful modeling and animations; b) the perfect lighting and level design; c) the sounds; d) the pacing.

It’s a horror game, or maybe a grotesquerie game. The monsters are humans– arguably the game captures a certain feeling from young childhood, when adults outside your close family are huge, inscrutable, and kind of gross. Fitting in with the game’s theme, almost all of them have to do with eating. The Janitor– with impossible long arms that search for you, pictured above– traps children and send them to the kitchen. The Chefs endlessly prepare cuts of meat, including you if they catch you. The Guests gluttonously eat what they prepare.

If you’ve ever seen the films of Jan Švankmeier, there’s definitely a family resemblance. The monsters are grotesque though not especially scary– but of course they’ll kill you if they catch you. They move in a jerky way that suggests stop motion. They have weird designs that may make you think of things pretending to be human, not too successfully. (E.g. the Chefs have expressive faces that are possibly masks hiding their real faces.)

This lovely interview gives some insight into how the animations were made, with nice examples. Note how, for instance, the monsters reach for you, with evident frustration if they can’t reach. If you watch a video this is more comic than scary, but it’s more effective in game, when you have to maneuver yourself skillfully past them.

I’m not sure I’ve talked about lighting before– it sounds like complimenting a game on its catering department. But I don’t talk about it because in most games it’s just adequate. One exception is the original Left 4 Dead, where lighting was carefully used to draw you to objectives.

That’s even more true here. Often the lighting is atmospheric, dark enough to be creepy. Often it focuses attention– it’s subtler than (as some games do) painting the edges white where you can climb up. Sometime it enhances danger, if you don’t know where a danger is lurking. And in a few areas it’s thematic– there are a few places where too much light kills.

The level design and art direction are also amazing: everything contributes to the atmosphere. It’s a very weird place, and the realistic textures and the physics applied to the many objects you can interact with keep it grounded, even if parts of it are baroque (like huge stacks of books or meat). The scale of everything is important too: your character is simply too small to be the child version of the adult monsters, or whoever the chairs and tables are meant for. (For that matter, the furniture, huge for you, seems too small for the monsters.)

The sounds are also well done– little footsteps for you, big clomping steps for the Chef, disgusting eating noises from the Guests. The ship creaks as it sways. When a monster sees you, it lets out an elephant-like shriek; you also hear a heartbeat, signaling how close it is.

As for pacing, I like the way the game has quiet exploring bits, tense sneaking bits, and a few frantic chases. Some games try to take it up to 11 all the time, and even when you’re idle send you an endless stream of messages or voice calls. (Borderlands 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 are particular offenders.) But it’s nice to have safe spots where you can look around, or take a break.

Now, I found a few sections difficult, at least at first. And if you die, sometimes you have to repeat a whole subsection. But it would be disappointing if nothing was difficult. There’s one section where you have to run across a table where Guests are eating, and they will grab you if you come too close. At first I always got grabbed, but I learned how to avoid that (if they get near, jump), but then I kept missing the next jump. I finally got it, and well, once is all you need. Again, people used to platformers don’t seem to find it difficult at all.

One interesting oddity is that there is something sinister about Six herself. As I said, she’s hungry, and has to eat at several points. There’s a logical progression to this, and it makes for a more complicated picture.

There’s a sequel out now, but I haven’t tried that.

Amarna

I’ve been perusing the secret diplomatic messages of Egypt— top-level messages between the rulers of all the major Middle Eastern states. These were acquired via an egregious lapse in security. The Egyptians just left the tablets in a room, 3300 years ago.

That is, I’m reading The Amarna Letters, translated by William Moran. Amarna is the modern name— really el-ʿAmārna. The ancient name was Akhetaten, and it was the new capital established by Amenhotep IV, pictured above, better known as Akhenaten, as part of his plan to re-orient Egypt toward the sole worship of Aten. Or to give him his proper name, “the living one, the Ra-Horus of the horizon, who rejoices in the horizon in his identity of light which is in the sun-disk [Aten].” You may be able to see why we abbreviate it.

The letters are almost all written in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the day. Very bad Akkadian, I should add, with a good deal of West Semitic interference. A few are in Hittite or Hurrian. Curiously, though Egypt controlled Canaan at this time, it never occurred to anyone to write to the Egyptian king in Egyptian.

There are over 300 letters. There are a couple from the Egyptian king, probably drafts or copies of letters sent. Apparently there was another place where Egyptian records were kept, and we don’t have that, so most of the correspondence is from abroad. (So my statement above may be wrong. If anyone did write to the king in Egyptian, it wouldn’t have been filed with the Akkadian documents.)

Your first question is undoubtedly, how do I, a Middle Eastern king, start a letter to the king of Egypt? Like this:

Say to Nimu’wareya, the king of Egypt, my brother: Thus Kadašman-Enlil, the king of Karaduniyaš, your brother. For me all indeed goes well. For you, your household, your wives, and for your sons, your country, your chariots, your horses, your magnates, may all go very well.

I like the way you wish well to the king’s horses and chariots. This is like telling a modern president that you wish his nuclear weapons to be in good working order.

Other kings wrote Mimmuwareya, or Napḫurureya, or Nibḫurrereya. These are attempts at Neferkheperura, Akhenaten’s throne name. As for Karaduniyaš, that was the Kassite name for Babylon. The Kassites were originally nomads from the Zagros, who took over Babylon in 1590, and ruled for nearly half a millennium— pretty impressive as Mesopotamian dynasties go.

What did the kings talk about? Overwhelmingly, gifts and marriages. They rarely talk about peace or borders or trade, though they assure each other that they love each other. This period was fairly peaceful anyway, so there’s no political grandstanding.

The Kassites knew how to be diplomatic about their requests. One king, Burra-Buriaš, assures Amenhotep, “In my brother’s country, everything is available and my brother needs absolutely nothing. Furthermore, in my country everything too is available and I for my part need absolutely nothing.” That said, he sends Amenhotep four minas of lapis lazuli and five teams of horses. (A mina is 1/2 kg.) For his part, he is “engaged in a work” and needs “much fine gold.” He complains that the last gift of 40 minas of gold, when put into the kiln, yielded “not even 10 minas”. He discreetly suggests that the king did not personally check the shipment, so some minor official altered it.

The Assyrian king is more direct:

Gold in your country is dirt; one simply gathers it up. Why are you so sparing of it? I am engaged in building a new palace. Send me as much gold as is needed for its adornment.

There’s an almost comic series of letters from Tušratta, the Hurrian king. He claims that Amenhotep had promised him two solid gold statues. However, he received only wooden statues plated with gold. He repeatedly asks for the missing statues, writes to the Queen about it as well, and when Amenhotep dies he writes to his heir, Tutankhamun.

I can’t find a reference to the size of the statues, and we may not be able to get to the bottom of the mystery after 3300 years, but I can’t help thinking that the whole mess rests on a misunderstanding. Even for their own use, so far as I know, the Egyptians didn’t make large statues of gold. The famous mask of Tutankhamun is hollow, the gold being no more than 3 mm thick. Even so, it weighs 10 kg, or 20 minas. What would you want a solid statue for anyway? I think Tušratta just assumed that the statue would be solid. And perhaps the Egyptians didn’t want to disabuse him because the idea of a solid statue fit their image, and what was the king going to do anyway, scrape the gold off?

Tušratta feels particularly entitled because he sent his daughter as a wife for the king. This was the other major preoccupation of kings. They sometimes seem to assume that the daughter or sister they provided would be queen of Egypt, rather than just one resident of the harem. (Kings didn’t all have harems: it doesn’t seem to have been a custom in Babylon, for instance.)

A little ironically, Egypt didn’t produce the gold it was famous for. It had a near-monopoly because it had exclusive access to sources farther south in Africa. Similarly, the Kassites produced neither horses, which came from the Iranian mountains, nor lapis lazuli, which came from Afghanistan.

One curiosity of Amarna diplomacy: kings sometimes complain that their messengers are detained, sometimes for years. One even threatens to detain an Egyptian messenger until his own are freed. It’s not clear why all this was a problem, since surely everyone would have benefited if their messages could go through faster. It doesn’t seem that it gave the detaining king any special leverage. Perhaps it was a matter of prestige: having some foreign ambassadors at court showed that you were a formidable world power.

There are also a large number of letters from Egyptian vassals in Canaan. Curiously, the initial salutation is simpler, though humbler:

Say to the king, my lord: Message of ‘Abdi-Aštarti, servant of the king. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, seven times and seven times, here and now, both on the stomach and on the back.

On the front and then the back? Did you roll over in front of the king? I don’t know.

Most of these letters are agitated, because Egypt was neglecting her colonial possessions, and they were threatened by a local rebellion and/or by the Hurrians. Their needs are small— just 200 archers or so. They don’t seem to have received these, perhaps because Akhenaten was too busy with his religious project.

As it happens that rebellion was led by the same ‘Abdi-Aštarti who wrote the above letter, perhaps in better days. His little kingdom or chiefdom was known as Amurru, and spoke Amorite. His son Aziru allied the kingdom with the Hittites.

I find the letters fascinating, though there’s a reason most histories, like this blog post, just quote the juicy bits. They’re highly repetitive, and of course they form no coherent narrative. Moran has done his best placing letters from the same person together, but without Egyptian replies, and without much historical context, it’s not very satisfying as history. Still, the glimpse into day-to-day affairs and ways of speaking is quite interesting.

Cyberpunk 2077: Worldbuilding, game design

Some miscellaneous thoughts about Cyberpunk 2077. (For the review see here.)

I’d give the worldbuilding, oh, a solid B. It’s what everyone expects from cyberpunk: enhanced humans, hacking, powerful AIs, sinister corporations, sleazy cities, a strangely powerful Japan. I don’t rate it higher because it rarely surprises. It never transcends or questions the genre.

The genre goes down easily because we more or less live in a cyberpunk dystopia, minus the metallic skeletons. We don’t have complete governmental collapse, but the libertarians and Trumpists have been working on that. We have ever-growing inequality where the 90% slowly slide backwards. We have over-powerful tech corps, though Mark Zuckerberg does not manage to attain the gravitas of Saburo Arasaka.

A seeming problem is that very little seems to have changed between the time of Johnny Silverhands and that of V, fifty years later. This seems to be intentional: the corps are most comfortable when there is no change. But this strikes me as ahistorical. Not wanting change is not the same as not getting any. And surely the corps would be motivated to one-up each other by doing new research.

Two deeper questions. One, doesn’t the system work well anywhere? Night City is supposed to be a hive of scum and villainy, but Goro’s backstory suggests that Japan is no better. Why, if the Japanese corps are so phenomenal? Did anywhere in the world manage to keep a different social system?

We see some of the extremes: River’s sister lives in a trailer park, while the mayoral candidate lives in a penthouse. But honestly, after 50+ years of dystopia, I’d expect the differences to be far more extreme. Even today, Zuckerberg doesn’t live in a penthouse, but in a mansion. In 2077 I’d expect the CEOs to live in space stations, or estates the size of Kenya.

Which leads to a further question: is there still a 10%? How much of a privileged class do you need to run a dystopia? You need executives, doctors, bureaucrats, AI wranglers, architects, robotics engineers, database czars, bodyguards, personal trainers, entertainers, cooks. And you’d prefer that none of these people stink, or hate your guts enough to assassinate you. Presumably these are the people who live in the nicer parts of Night City. Still, do they really not care that it’s a violent hellhole? Someone says in-game that 1/5 of the population died in 2076. About 1/100 died in the US in 2020, and the half a million due to Covid was a major political issue. An elite can last indefinitely while oppressing most of the population, but they’d damn well better take care of the 10%.

Two: Why isn’t there a revolution? The game itself shows high-caliber weaponry available to gangs and even individuals– the key event in Johnny’s career is detonating a mini-nuke against Arasaka (though he had corpo help), and the plot of the game shows that acquiring a tank as well as a military assault on a corp are not that difficult. There are enough wars that plenty of people have military experience. When people are desperate, they don’t even care too much about replacing the current system; they’re content to destroy it.

I don’t have much confidence that fascist and/or plutocratic elements won’t take over and ruin major countries. It’s happened before, and our major bulwark against it here in the US– Rooseveltian liberalism– has been systematically undermined. At the same time, in history, fascist regimes usually crack up relatively quickly, while plutocratic ones generate anarchist or socialist opposition. Or just destroy themselves in a depression, allowing new systems to take over.

Also, I know it kind of militates against the cyberpunk atmosphere if you have to say “Over in Denmark and Taiwan, liberal democracy continued to thrive.” But, well, cyberpunk mostly works by narrowing its focus to the US plus a highly distorted picture of 1970s Japan. As ever, sf is how America criticizes itself. But the US isn’t the only country in the world. I don’t think every country is likely to follow our exact path downward. And yes, you could invent an informed, plausible descent for every other country, but that’s not really something we see in history either. Someone usually does better than everyone else.

One thing that strike me as weird about C77’s Night City: it seems to have no sense of race. This may be due to the fact that it’s written by Polish people, who can imagine an American city but not American racial politics. No one seems to notice anyone’s race; we don’t know if Blacks are still disadvantaged, or how Asian-Americans feel about Arasaka. Despite his name, Jackie Welles is Hispanic; the ofrenda quest is about the only recognition of ethnicity in the game.

I mentioned this in the review, but I do think the writers too easily use sexual sleaziness as a shorthand for social corruption. It’s lazy and regressive. I would expect a futuristic utopia to strike us as full of weird sex. People like sex, and if the weirdness can be indulged without exploiting or harming people, why not?

(Related: metal bodies? Eh. As soon as it’s feasible, people will want to be furries.)

Cyberpunk’s linguistics is worth a glance. I like the fact that V’s neurimplants allow her to immediately understand Spanish and Japanese. (Why they trip up over common Spanish phrases like mija, I don’t know. Did she check the “Local Color” checkbox?) It seems realistic that these come standard, but she has to download something for Haitian Creole.

The game makes an attempt at Near-Future English, mostly by adding new words (eddies, chooms, deltas, chrome, output), but also by syntax: apparently Truncation has become far more common, and the cool kids leave out subject pronouns most of the time. They don’t posit any phonological change, but that would be hard to get the voice actors to do. It’s a little surprising that there aren’t many borrowings, even from Japanese. (Though maybe if everyone has in-head translators, there’s no need for borrowings?)

The games’s intention seems to be to make V a blank slate character. You can choose her sex, orientation, appearance, background, and morality. All that is cool, except where the writers impose their own notion of the character. It bugged me, for instance, that even after romancing Judy, when she talks to River she talks only about old boyfriends. It seems careless to give her a full lesbian romance, and not realize that her past would be lesbian (or bisexual) too.

Similarly, though it’s a minor point, her interactions with Jackie’s family and with Goro and Panam suggest that she doesn’t know either Hispanic or Asian culture. But what if V is Hispanic or Asian? I understand that providing alternate dialog for such options would be work. But they did that amount of work anyway! The dialogs go way beyond the needs of the story, so I don’t think it’s asking too much that an AAA game allow us not only to look non-white, but to act it. If it takes more time, lop off two or three of the available cars.

If you’re designing a game with a generic character, I’m afraid it’s harder than ever these days. It’s no longer enough to just remember in the dialog that the player might be female. Sexuality is way more complicated these days; race and ethnicity is more than just providing a couple more skin tones. Maybe it’s too much to ask to provide more than two voice actors– but Saints Row managed that long ago.

One thing I appreciate about the game is that it often remembers your romance partner. They have a hefty series of quests. Afterward, you can visit them and have a nice chat; you call them before the final mission; you get a cutscene and/or credits message later on. I felt a real affection for Judy once I was done, unlike (say) my Skyrim wife, who I could take on quests. It’s also way better than (say) Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where you can recruit your first girlfriend Odessa for your ship, and see her there subsequently, but with no further story or dialog.

If anything I’d love to have more of that. One of the cool things about Mass Effect 1, or Fallout New Vegas, is that your current companion would comment in various locations. It’d be neat if you could get Judy’s opinion on River, or on other situations. Or if you could take her out now and then.

Finally, one more gameplay complaint: the damn Relic Malfunctions. I get it, V is sick, and they want to remind you, in case the Johnny hallucinations weren’t a strong enough hint. But they invariably do this in the easy-ass way of taking control from you and shoving you into a cutscene.

How else could you do it? One way would be to add some intermittent or persistent debuffs. E.g. less health or stamina, or a slowed walking speed. Maybe you could get these back up with drugs, or counter them with new implants. I don’t necessarily like sanity metrics and other ways of impeding the player (I hated the malaria in Far Cry 2), but if it’s manageable it would add an interesting mechanic.

Cyberpunk 2077 done

I finished the game. I rushed through bits of it, kept complaining a lot, but I’ll also miss it now that it’s over.

I’m not going to avoid spoilers, so finish the game first if that’s important to you. See my initial and midgame thoughts here.

First, a pretty picture…. one of the best moments in the game, a sunrise in the Nomad camp. I didn’t capture it well, sorry.

Good news first: the story only gets stronger. I feel like I did three romance quests, though only one was a romance: Judy, Panam, and River. (I never met Kerry, the fourth choice.) All three are pretty involved– several missions each. Kind of weird: even though I didn’t romance two of them, they felt like they were written as romances anyway. There’s a point where you spend the night with Panam, and have the chance to touch her thigh… from walkthroughs, I know this is a trigger for the actual romance. I didn’t try it, because I’m loyal to Judy, dammit. I also had to let River down softly… sorry dude. But hey, never get involved with a cop. Besides, it seemed like trouble if this was, like, the first time he’d ever let himself have any emotions. Also, I kinda wanted an option to point out that I was already involved.

But it’s cool, because these were all intense stories that left me feeling close to the characters. And Panam is one fucking good pal to have. If you’ve played the game, you’ll see the above shot and know that I took the Panam ending… the only good one, so far as I can see.

As for Judy… well, the girl is cute as hell, also a little messed up and I hope I know what I’m doing. But her last mission…

This is the best mission in the game, bar none. And it’s really simple. Judy takes you diving. (There’s a clue in her apartment that she’s into that, but I didn’t see it at the time.) What she wants to show you is… her childhood town, which is buried under a lake. There’s a little anti-corpo message there, but it’s mostly just a quiet, atmospheric mission where you swim around after Judy, learn more about each other, and end up in bed together.

I’ve heard some complaints about the sex scenes in C77, but really, it’s not bad. Not perfect, but compare them to (say) Dragon Age Origins, where the sex was ludicrous. This one wasn’t perfect, but it was comparable to an R-rated scene in a movie, and managed to be sexy rather than cringe.

And look at that picture… Judy has a really great smile.

Perhaps because the creators are Polish, the overall tone of the game is bittersweet. You don’t defeat everyone and retire in glory, as you would in an American game. None of the romance stories end really well: Panam’s leaves her and the clan leader still bickering; River gets fired; Judy’s takeover of Clouds gets fucked up. The main quest is the same. You can’t destroy Arasaka, though you can give it a solid blow. You can get rid of Johnny, but all you get is a reprieve: V has only a few months to live. But with the Panam ending, you feel you have a chance. Maybe we’ll find out in DLC whether that pans out.

One nice bit: you can use Judy’s apartment after you hook up. You can find her there and have an extra conversation, which is nice. This is typical of the game: there is way more effort put into optional dialog than in most games. And it pays off: most of the characters end up feeling like people rather than plot points, and a lot of the endgame is actually rather affecting.

I skipped a lot of side gigs, as well as all the pointless cruft (finding Johnny’s old gear, buying cars, most of the tarot cards, the million NCPD side quests). The side quests (besides the romances) were hit-or-miss anyway. I liked Delamain; the pet tortoise was cute; the Peralezes made a nice portrait of paranoia in the upper crust but was a little skimpy; Lizzy Wizzy was kind of dumb. (Good idea, but too rushed, and the all-metal body thing seemed to be made for the art book– it didn’t add anything to the game.)

The gameplay and level design never really improve. I did get a four-slot cyberdeck, which helped, but it never felt like I could cyberpunk my way through a mission. I could never afford a better deck, which seems like a poor design decision: how am I doing the final missions without being a dangerous cyberfiend? Insultingly, they even make the final mooks immune to hacking.

I got the monofilament, which was OK, and I got a nice sniper rifle, which finally allows you to one-shot enemies, though at the cost of a long reload. My most powerful weapon was still a knife.

I can see now where they put their years of development time. One: animations. Look around in the game: almost every scene has custom animations, probably mocapped. How many hours did Keanu spend leaning on things? Two: cars. There are something like two dozen cars you can buy, if you can find the eddies.

I didn’t buy any, because driving is even worse than the combat. Once more, for any game designers reading this: WASD sucks for driving a car. Let us use the mouse. Play Borderlands if you can’t imagine how to do it. If you do insist on WASD, don’t make the damn cars fishtail so much that it’s hard to make the slightest turn, and don’t punish us for your poor control scheme by sending the police after us when we inevitably crash into things. I used Jackie’s Arch almost exclusively, since it seemed easier to control than any of the cars.

Some thoughts on Night City itself. I recommend taking some time to walk around in one of the busy areas, like a shopping district. Gawk at the weird outfits, catch some conversations, check out the ads. In some ways Saints Row III did better at being a city: having actual attractions, distinct-feeling neighborhoods, side quests that were fun to run into, stores you could enter. But C77 is certainly good at evoking a busy dystopian cityscape. Part of it is just the sheer number of people… in contrast with (say) Mass Effect or Fallout New Vegas, they can now render enough NPCS to make a nightclub look boppin’.

Finally, if you’re worried about bugs… it’s actually quite playable now, after the last patch. (Though I do have a new computer.) What they can’t patch away is the poor combat and level design, but at least I can tell people now that the story does get better.