lib7

As I’ve said before, we in the US live under plutocracy, where we once had liberalism.
Even given that, it’s getting harder and harder to defend capitalism. A few years ago it would have been biting satire to point out that we were moving back to robber baron capitalism. Now it’s just robber capitalism. The plutocrats are not even building things any more; they’re just looting.

The news these days is almost all bad news, and that’s before we get to the politics.

  • The leading tech firm is Facebook, whose business model is monetizing your life; which is easily used by bad actors to spread right-wing fake news; which is touting an app called “Protect” which installs spyware on your device.
  • Amazon is trying to patent wristbands that track employees’ locations to the inch.
  • Salon has decided that it’s not enough to pile up their pages with bloatware ads; if you turn on an ad blocker they want to mine cryptocurrency using your computer.
  • Speaking of cryptocurrency: it’s nice that the nuts have a hobby, but did they have to create one that wastes massive amounts of electricity and drives up hardware prices?
  • Barnes & Nobles is apparently on its way out: they just fired their most skilled employees and keep reducing the space for books. Shouldn’t capitalism be able to manage one of its core competencies— running a fucking store?
  • Toys R Us is apparently going out of business, not because they can’t make money selling toys, but because vultures loaded them up with debt.
  • Silicon Valley’s idea of brilliance is to take an old industry and “reinvent it”: that is, throw out all regulations and turn the salaried workers into precarious part-timers.
  • Do you think that only happens in fringe industries? 94% of the jobs created since 2005 are temporary or freelance.
  • The latest stock market crash was said to be spurred by investors’ fears that with unemployment at a low, wages would rise. That is, the investor class is terrified of a prosperous nation. Adam Smith warned us about this, but isn’t the whole reason we tolerate capitalism so that the rest of us live better?
  • IT, long an area where actual workers were paid well, is no longer immune. Remaining devs: enjoy the permanent death marches, and the mergers and layoffs.
  • Peter Thiel deserves his own bullet point here. His favorite book is apparently a Randian political screed that hopes to destroy democracy so rich people can rule even more openly.
  • The move from manufacturing to services is perhaps inevitable, but it seems much harder to make these operate humanely. The natural structure of a manufacturing-based economy is a set of competing firms— which at least means they compete with each other for consumer loyalty, and anti-trust law can keep them from getting too big. Tech firms naturally seek monopolies— which are anti-consumer.

And again, that’s just recent news, without getting into our overall predicament: productivity gains are now going only to the 10%; income and wealth are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the super-rich; the US and even Europe are returning to a rentier economy, where wealth isn’t even held by entrepreneurs and innovators, but by their do-nothing offspring.

And all that’s without considering the political climate. The GOP just gets worse and worse… in the Bush years, they at least threw the middle class a bone once in awhile, like Medicare prescription drugs. Now all they want to do is deregulate busines, cut taxes for the super-rich, and cripple government services. Oh, and throttle immigration, because somehow a growing economy is bad.

(BTW, I’m aware that reading the news can overemphasize the disasters. But that’s why we look at long-term and large-scale indicators too. So long as the productivity/compensation chart looks like that, we’ve got a big problem.)

What happens next? Well, there’s three overall possibilities.

One: Keep going! Transfer even more power to a rentier aristocracy; have a cyberpunk dystopia forever.

I hear a lot about “late stage capitalism” these days, but I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking. A rentier aristocracy can stay in power indefinitely— it’s basically what Europe had from 1815 to 1914. Even more broadly, a conservative aristocracy maintained power in Latin America for five hundred years. It’s not that hard. They have all the main sources of power; they co-opt the small middle class; they use religion and racial solidarity and the police to keep the bulk of the masses in control; the bottom of the heap suffers forever.

That said, we should remember George Orwell’s point: aristocracies are pretty stupid. And this stupidity is not accidental: to be smart enough to see how the system operates makes you incapable of defending it.

The European upper classes were destroyed by two world wars. That’s the problem with stupidity: it’s fine for dull times, but it becomes a liability during a crisis. So I don’t really think we’ll have a rentier aristocracy for five hundred years; if we keep going, we’ll have world wars and/or ecological collapse by 2100.

The irony is that empowering Donald Trump was possibly a fatal miscalculation. Yes, it turned out his populism was a sham; the 1% got their tax cuts and can run rampant for a few years. But it turns out Trump is really unpopular, and the GOP victory risks being swept away. Honestly, to pull off this scam you want either a complete nonentity like Dubya Bush, or a friendly uncle like Ronald Reagan. (And again, as I’ve been saying for a long time, the problem is not Trump himself. He was an unusually poor choice, but so was runner-up Ted Cruz; so was Ben Carson; so is Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.)

Option two: Socialism!

You almost have to hand it to the capitalists: they’ve made young Americans turn against capitalism, 51% to 42%. That’s pretty amazing, in the one country where “socialist” was historically a slur and political death.

And who can say the young people are wrong? They’re the most precarious victims of  plutocracy. They lost their jobs in 2008; the good careers are mostly gone; housing prices are insane; they’re crippled by college debt; they’re watching their elders try to take away their health care, deport their friends, stomp on their sexuality.

What I said above about the 19th century has to be nuanced: in the modern world, the oppressed can communicate, organize, and rebel. Socialism didn’t come out of nowhere; it’s the inevitable response when the oppressors get too blatant. And when the upper classes keep trying to make life shittier, the rest of the population starts to feel it has nothing to lose with radical change.

Now, I have some reservations about socialism, based on how it’s been practiced. Reigns of terror bad, OK guys? But so long as it stays democratic, it should stay sane. “Socialism is running amok!” is not a worry on our actual planet in 2017.  “Reactionaries running amok” is.

If you’re a socialist, here’s some free advice: start building cooperative institutions now. We’ve seen that capitalism apparently can’t even run a bookstore chain anymore. Why not create a bookstore that’s worth visiting and breaks even financially? (Actually, the only bookstore left in my town is already run by socialists.)

Option three: Back to liberalism!

I know, you’re thinking “What, Hillary Clinton?” I think you underestimate Hillary, but if you can’t get past that, at least think about Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Obama.

If you want to totally turn me off, start spouting both-sides-ism and dissing the Democrats. They’re not as progressive as I’d like either. But there’s something to be said for not destroying the country and the planet. There’s also something to be said for understanding the political predicament we have in this country: up to half the electorate is extremely regressive— and our political system is set up to give recalcitrant minorities exceptional power. Obama got quite a lot done, but he would have done a whole lot more if he weren’t opposed at every step of the way by Congress.

Plus, for too long leftists have considered politics a spectator sport. They sat by and complained about Democrats, while conservatives packed the school boards, primaried their moderate opponents, took over state legislature after state legislature. Now, I think, that’s changing. Progressives are starting to organize, to demonstrate, to run for goddamn office, to get out the vote. If we don’t mess it up, we might actually win a midterm election this year. But if not, remember that conservatives were willing to play the long game. They started that low-level organizing in the 1980s; it paid off twenty years later.

But anyway, what I mean by liberalism is not ’90s compromises; it’s right back to Roosevelt. Why were the plutocrats under control for fifty years? Because we had 90% tax rates, we had strong unions, we had cheap housing and education, we regulated business, we had social norms that made corporations raise workers’ salaries, hire managers rather than load CEOS with stock options, and compete with each other.

 

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I can’t say I’ve truly explored the walking simulator genre, but I can say that What Remains of Edith Finch is the best so far. It’s deeply weird and beautifully done. I think I’d like it a lot better if it weren’t for the ending, but that’s true of a lot of games.

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You play as Edith Finch, returning to your family home after years being away.  And I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, because the Steam store page reveals it and also I think the game does in the first few minutes: your rather large extended family is all dead, and you’ll spend the game learning their stories.

(You never really see Edith, but charmingly, you can look down and see your body. And you occasionally see your hands. For some reason you sport knitted fingerless gloves. Kind of goth, but so is the game.)

This sounds a bit like Gone Home, and you do spend a lot of time listening to Edith’s reactions, but as soon as you explore the first family story– Molly’s– the game veers off in a different direction entirely.  You don’t just hear Molly’s story, you play it, and it’s a weird but exhilarating burst of magic realism.

And that’s kind of the note of the game. It’s really a set of macabre short stories, each told in a different but very inventive style. There’s plenty of environmental storytelling (each person’s room is highly personal and packed with personal items), but the game is constantly exploring new means of interaction. I usually feel I should warn people in reviews of offbeat games that you don’t get to shoot anything, but here you do.

I have some reservations, though I also have reservations about my reservations. I mean, it’s about death, and it’s sometimes appropriately sad or creepy, but it’s mostly about a theatrical, Edward Gorey version of death. And it’s absolutely OK to grieve at death and also laugh at it, but I’m not sure if the game knows which it wants to do. Sometimes it seems a bit flippant– the death of one more Finch feels like a punchline.

On the other hand, sometimes it gets just the right amount of poignancy, such as in the story of the cannery worker, Lewis.  (If you’ve played the game, and NOT BEFORE, read Pip Warr’s wonderful breakdown of how this amazing sequence works and how the developers struggled to make it work.)

Also, as I said, I don’t like the ending.  (Mouseover to read.)  The deaths of Edith’s mother and Edith seem rushed and gratuitous. There’s nothing edgy or macabre or interesting about killing off the player character; it just seems mean. It left a bad taste in my mouth; and yet it’s literally the last few minutes of the game; they could have left it out and greatly improved the game.)

One more note: it’s short, about two and a half hours. (If $20 seems steep for that, wait for the next Steam sale…)

In gameplay and storytelling, I think people will be mining Edith Finch for years.  “Wait, we can tell a story in games without just relying on audiologs and picking up props?”

 

 

 

 

Two game things.  One, if you’ve already read Concerned and you’re caught up on Freeman’s Mind 2, check out Robert Yang’s playthrough of Half-Life 2 concentrating on level design.

Yang actually teaches level design, and he was one of the creators of the HL1 remake Black Mesa, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll comment on the layout of the rooms or levels, the texturing, how NPCs move around, how the level designer is making things easier or harder for the player, how eager Valve was to show off its physics engine, and so on. But he’s also just a friendly and fun guy, and I like how he gets sad over the death of a lone headcrab, or decides to carry a sentry gun as far as he can.

He’s gone through other games as well, including Half-Life 1 and Bioshock 1.

The other thing: you might also go pick up Gorogoa, a fun little puzzle game.  I heard about it from this RPS article about how it was put together, and it sounded fun.

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It’s all gorgeously hand-drawn, and it shows you from two to four pictures at one time.  All you do is move them about or zoom within them, but this turns out to be a surprisingly rich game mechanic.  Sometimes you find pictures that go together, and aligning them will join them (usually advancing the story). Sometimes a picture changes depending on its position.  Sometimes it has holes in it, and that lets you move it over another picture.

It’s short, but that’s fine– you won’t get tired of it.  And I can’t think of any other game that’s quite like it.

 

I just finished re-reading God: a biography, by Jack Miles. It came out in 1996, and I read and liked it then.  I’m surprised I’ve never written about it; I think it’s my favorite book about God.

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Illo by Robert Leighton

We often hear about “the Bible as literature”, but we rarely treat it as literature. This is what Miles does; more precisely, he aims to analyze God as a literary character.

This probably wouldn’t work without one further constraint: Miles goes through the Tanakh in order, analyzing what the text says about God without reading ahead, and without reference to later theology, whether Jewish or Christian.  That turns the book from a humdrum Bible-reading plan into a series of shocks and surprises.

Now, eventually this process will result in a portrait of the God most people remember. But it takes surprisingly long to add in all the pieces.  God, at first, makes few demands on humans.  Even when he finds some humans he commits to— Noah, Abram, Joseph— he does not ask for worship or prayer, does not talk about love or law or justice. He has a strange obsession with human fertility.  He does not refer to himself as a father till the story of David; does not present himself as a king until we reach the Prophets.

If you’re a believer, the book is likely to be challenging, yet fascinating. Miles doesn’t assume orthodox theology, so he is constantly asking: what do we know about God so far; what does God think he’s doing? God is always supremely confident, but Miles makes a good case from the text that he is constantly improvising, constantly surprised at the things humans do, surprised too at what he himself does in response. From being the creator of mankind he moves to being a fiery destroyer… seems to repent of that, and concentrates on a single human family, becoming its patron… loses track of them, then rediscovers them as a large population oppressed in Egypt… turns himself into a mighty warrior on behalf of his adopted people, yet becomes murderous when they don’t do what he wants, which is often.

Though he doesn’t use later theology to elucidate any of this, he does use historical criticism— showing how strands of God’s character come from different traditions, related to various Semitic gods. Genesis, for instance, has been knit together from two accounts, one of which calls God ʾElohim (‘god’), the other Yahweh. The patron god of Abraham acts much like other friendly family gods; the warrior god of Exodus has much in common with Baʿal. (The goddesses are largely present as an absence: the compilers made sure God was both extremely male, and devoid of sexuality. Yet feminine points of view do appear later in the book.)

This is given as essential background information, but isn’t allowed to undermine the unity of the text.  The Tanakh was put together as one text, after all, and we read it, not the original sources or myths.  But the seams where it was knit together show, and help explain exactly why God, as a character, is both compelling and unpredictable. He seems conflicted because he was put together out of conflicting elements. We don’t read the text as a story of multiple gods, but of one personality whose conflicts, like ours, are internal.

Miles chooses to read the book in the Jewish order.  Tanakh is an abbreviation: Torah + Nebiʾim (Prophets) + Ketubim (writings). You can compare the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic orders here. But in short, the Tanakh follows the Christian order through Kings (with the exception of Ruth).  Then it includes all the prophets, major and minor. Then, everything else: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel. Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.

The order doesn’t make a difference for the main narrative of the Exodus, the lawgiving, the conquest of Israel, the apogee under Solomon, the centuries of decadence, and the final catastrophe— the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon.

But it does make a huge difference toward the end: in the last of the Writings, God is increasingly eclipsed. His last words are spoken in Job; after that, for nine books, he is silent. He is frequently discussed and invoked and referred to, of course, but he never speaks, much less acts in the world as he did in the first books.  He’s barely present in Song of Songs and Esther; and in Ezra and Nehemiah the roles of the Jews and God have almost reversed: where once God acted and the Israelites reacted (or disobeyed), now the Jews act, and God is simply their passive inspiration.

It’s often said that God answered and silenced Job, and Job repented.  From the text as written, however, it would be more accurate to say that Job has silenced God. Job is truly a strange book: first, a new character named Satan is introduced; he makes a wager— which God accepts— that Job will renounce God if his worldly goods and his health are removed. Job does not renounce God, but he bitterly complains about his treatment: why should an innocent man be punished?  God appears to reprimand him, but tries to change the subject: his entire discourse is an eloquent poem on his own sovereign power. Job concedes, of course, that God is all-powerful. God does not attribute sin to Job, neither does he explain the very ungodly wager he made.

In most translations Job repents, but Miles makes a good case that this is a pious mistranslation. Rather than “I repent in ashes”, Job says “I feel loathing and sorrow for man’s state.”

God never apologizes in words, but occasionally he changes his course of action, and in this case he quickly restores Job’s fortunes. We hear no more of Satan. And perhaps he goes off to think about what sort of being he’s become, because he offers no more prophesy and no more miraculous interventions in history.

And yet it’s not a defeat— more of a retirement in honor. If anything, the Jews do better— taking the Law and their God more seriously than they ever did when he was constantly and directly involved with them.

Miles is by no mean a hostile observer. Sometimes you need to shake things up to make a text come alive. He is always erudite and charming.  And if you’re not a believer, there’s no better or safer guide to the Tanakh.  He’ll show you what’s there, and introduce you to the striking characters inside it, without prodding you to believe or disbelieve in anything.

In 2002 he came out with a sequel, Christ: a crisis in the life of God. It attempts to apply the same treatment to the New Testament, but I found it far less interesting, because it takes far fewer liberties. It basically goes over the standard idea of the incarnation, but doesn’t bring much that’s new to the story. If you want new ways to think about the NT, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, which reconstructs the dizzying array of theological options in the first centuries of Christianity, without assuming the correctness of what became the orthodox faction.

 

 

 

As you know from Kingdom of Loathing— what, you haven’t heard of it?  It’s apparently a browser game, I haven’t played it either.  Anyway, West of Loathing is a standalone game and apparently a sequel to it.

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I think there was something horrible here.  It’s gone now.

Stuff to get across right away, if you haven’t figured it out:

  • It’s a Western.
  • It’s a comedy.
  • It’s really really low-res.

It’s also a pretty expansive RPG.  I’m about ten hours in, and I’ve discovered about 43 of 72 locations, so I suppose, or should I say I reckon, I’m about halfway through.

You play as a cowgirl, or I suppose as a cowboy, seeking adventure in a goofy, magic-infused West, inhabited by stick figure humans, round goblins, evil cows, and more.  You can be a Cow Puncher (melee), Beanslinger (bean magic– that’s me!), or Snake Oiler (snakes). In the opening town, you can find a pardner.  I chose Crazy Pete.

It’s a little like Jazzpunk, in that you’re missing out, and messing up, if you don’t talk to everyone, look at all the item descriptions, and scrub the current location to find all the jokes. The humor tends to wordplay and the absurd, and if one joke doesn’t land, another will come by in moments.

Unlike Jazzpunk, there’s a surprising amount of game in there. You have stats (starting with Muscle, Mysticality, and Moxie), there are clothes and hats and potions and edibles that change them, plus a wide array of weapons and spells.  And dozens of locations.  You can spend a lot of time in the game, and you’ll probably want to, because a) it’s amusing, and b) it’s not that hard, so it’s always painless to check out one more location or cross off one more quest. On the other hand, tedious things like inventory management are left out– so far as I can see, there’s no inventory limit at all.

(Edit: there’s a clever bit that other RPGs might well imitate. You don’t level up. Rather, you get XP, and you can spend XP buffing stats or skills; increments to one thing cost more XP each time.  So, they get rid of a concept (‘levels’) and let you control the process more.)

Combat is turn-based, a sort of simplified version of King’s Bounty. You and your enemies take turns using your abilities and weapons until one side is all dead.

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Wearing my Cultist Mask for extra Mysticality, wasting devil clowns.

It’s not deep.  In fact, I went through several nights of never losing a fight, and wondering what happens if you do.  Then I ran into nastier enemies and lost several fights in a row.  The actual mechanism is clever: losing a fight makes you Angry.  Anger increases your stats slightly, and you can stack it up, but there’s a limit, and when you reach it you faint from rage and wake up the next day back in town, losing the effect of any potions you’d consumed.  So it’s a setback, but pretty minimal. (I don’t think there’s a Save option, or a need for one.)

The stick figures are of course pretty minimal, but they’re animated with charm, and in general the game plays with its limited graphics in nice ways.  E.g. most things are black & white, but ghosts are gray, as are doorways ‘behind’ you (ones leading outward). The above screenshot shows a sepia effect you get at one point. (You can turn it off, but I like it.)

I’ve read a couple of reviews of the game that are near rapturous.  I think it’s a lot of fun, but I also think it’s best to play in shortish sessions. I probably would have been rapturous too when I was younger, because it’s exactly my kind of humor. But zany humor isn’t quite as satisfying as it once was. There’s not much in the game to care about, nor is there a lot of roleplaying choice or combat challenge. So the emotional temperature is fairly low.

Probably for this reason, when something frustrating comes up, it’s more of a turnoff than it should be.  That string of lost fights, for instance: all of a sudden I was facing enemies who could kill me (and my pardner) in two or three turns. Or the circus, which requires an extremely circuitous set of actions.  The sudden roadblock is jarring.

(If you run into the same problems: if you’re underpowered, spend some time wandering in the first region, near Dirtwater– it’s an option on the map– to clean up the easier locations. Keep accumulating stuff and explore the potions and such: you can build up your stats nicely.  And there are some good wikis and walkthroughs if you lose patience with a puzzle.)

I should also mention: I think it gets better a few hours in.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the initial encounters, but just tonight I ran into the funniest place yet (Fort Memoriam) and the creepiest (the Circus).

Edit: Farther along, I have a big complaint: there’s no journal. This makes it really hard to figure out what to do next if you haven’t played for a few days. You can ask your partner for suggestions, but this doesn’t give you an exhaustive list. I feel stuck right now: one location has a fight I can’t win; another requires a two-day wait which is tedious (and erases some of my current perks). I don’t have any locations on the map I haven’t been to. You shouldn’t have to look in a wiki to find things to do in a game.

 

 

 

 

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m kind of a graphics snob in video games. I just don’t like the look of Half-Life, Fallout 1/2, or Morrowind. So, I was surprised that Robert Yang managed to convince me that, in at least one case, lo-res is better.

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This is a comparison of the original (2006) and a remastered (2017) version of a video game, Final Fantasy XII. And yes, Yang’s contention is that the fuzzy original is better.

(Why the girl is leaning to one side in the remastered version, I don’t know.  It’s distracting, but not the point here.)

His analysis of the “remastering” is helpful:

If I had to guess, the artists probably did this: (1) scale up texture by 200%, (2) increase contrast, (3) desaturated a little for that grayish next-gen feel, (4) apply a sharpen filter, (5) overlay a noisy detail texture on top to try to make the surface look more detailed.

He notes that you can automate this process, so you can handle a whole folder of images in a few minutes.

Now, my first reaction was that I liked the sharper image better. (I’ve never played the game, so I have no nostalgia here to invoke.)  In general, our eyes like sharpness! We can really see the intended patterns; the banner looks ten times better; the leaves are more recognizable.  It’s like putting glasses on!

And none of that is wrong. But look at the things Yang is pointing to: desaturation; the sharpen feature; a noise filter. The way I’d put it: the new image is

  • way too loud– it draws attention to itself, though it’s just a background
  • way too contrasty– if you looked at an actual wall, you wouldn’t be conscious of such a wide tonal range, it would mostly look one color
  • much less warm– look especially at the pavement, which has gone from a warm orange to almost black-and-white
  • too flat; because everything is in focus, it looks like a picture, not a world

You can certainly do realism well, but this realism done badly.

Yang points to another example, a fan remake of Half-Life 2.  I won’t name it, because I’m not going to say anything nice about it and there’s no need to embarrass a hard-working modder. Here’s a comparison.  (The top image is apparently another mod, but much closer to Valve.)

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Oh dear. Let’s go over the problems.

  • What the hell is going on in the screenshot? It’s wicked dark.
  • You can barely see what is supposed to be the focus of the scene: Breen and Eli Vance.
  • Contrariwise, the modder has inserted extremely bright lights where they do no good at all. “Here, I really want you to pay attention to this: the floor.”
  • In general, the physical modeling and the lighting effects are far better– e.g. the round hole in the ceiling isn’t an obvious polygon; the lights, like real lights, don’t just light up the air. But all this realism just hides the narrative.  We don’t get an idea of the shape of the area; we can’t see what’s going on; we don’t know where to go next.
  • Why did he blur the red highlights from the windows?  Why did he lose the overhead light? Come to think of it, why don’t those very bright lights actually illuminate anything?
  • Yes, you’ve learned how to do a shiny floor; but what’s the point? All it does is reflect some lights and thus confuse the scene further.  Does the Combine care that much about waxing their floors?
  • What the hell kind an outfit did he put on Mossman?

Not all the images from the mod are this dark, but when they’re not, they’re generally too busy, too desaturated, and less coherent. They look like someone Googled for hi-res versions of every texture in the scene, without any care to making them work together.

Realism is nice, but isn’t an end in itself. You also have to think about consistency of style, and focusing the player’s attention on what is important, and giving them the information they need to follow the story and navigate the world.  The old Valve was very good at this.

As an example of a game that properly shows off the increased realism that’s now possible, I’d name The Witcher 3. I haven’t finished it, but good lord is it gorgeous. And without losing the readability, consistency, and focus that’s needed for a game to work as a game.

I’ve been playing with Markov text generators.  There was a little too much for a blog entry, so see my results here. Also includes links to web pages where you can run the generators yourself, or even download my C code to run against your own texts.