Friday, December 24, 2010

favorite PC games of 2010

Blogging really took a hit this year, and it's quite likely that Aili and I will just let this thing die next year.  We have a baby coming and neither of us is particularly motivated to write on here nowadays.  I suspect the internet won't notice our absence.

Regardless, I did want to do an end-of-the-year round-up of the PC games I played and enjoyed in 2010.  I should note off the bat that most of these were not actually released in 2010.  Like most gamers, I tend to wait a while before purchasing and playing - save money, wait for patches, read player feedback, and play games that better match my system's aging specs.

So, here are the 5 PC games I enjoyed the most in 2010.  I spent more hours playing these than I'd care to admit.

#5:  King's Bounty: Armored Princess

The follow-up tactical RPG to the awesomely wacky 2008 hit.  In some ways, AP was a bit of a let-down.  It didn't feature the bizarro quests and side-stories that the original had in spades, and didn't advance the gaming system in any significant way.  Basically, it was more of the same.  Much, much more.  Good thing I really like King's Bounty.  The tactical battles never got old for me - every one was an enjoyable puzzle, and the variety of tactical options (via unit special abilities, spells, and pet dragon abilities) was spectacular.  I still fondly remember the power-combo of Stone Skin & Target on my Ancient Ents.  Deciding on which units to use in my army was possibly just as satisfying as spec'ing out my party in Baldur's Gate II. It's that kind of fun.  Paladins, Trolls, Black Dragons, Inquisitors, and Demonologists.  Fucking batshit insane. The RPG aspects are integrated well, requiring you to level up skills and abilities intelligently or else you'll get overwhelmed in later stages of the game.  I played on the "Hard" (but not "Impossible") difficulty level as a Mage and was able to get through nearly everything.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get past the last couple boss battles, no matter how I shifted things around.  But I definitely sunk over 60 hours into this beast earlier this year.

#4:  Batman: Arkham Asylum

A fantastic, tight action-adventure game.  This is one of those ports that almost starts you thinking that console game development is actually up-to-par with the PC.  Visceral.  Learning the punch/kick/throw/take-down combos, and then using them to go through a mob of 50 thugs was incredibly satisfying.  As the critics have said, this game succeeds at making you feel like Batman.  "I am a total bad-ass."  I loved the grappling hook mechanic, which allowed you to escape out of sticky situations and observe your enemy from above.  The plot was good enough, the variety of villains was fabulous (loved the freaky Scarecrow sequences), and I never felt too frustrated to quit.  I didn't get obsessed with collecting all the Riddler's bullshit, but got a dopamine burst every time I found a question mark.  Steam tells me this took 23 hours of my life.  Probably 90% of that was from the actual campaign, but I also played through a significant number of the challenges.  Whenever I needed to relax for a few minutes, I'd see how long I could keep a combo going versus a horde of hoodlums.  There are few single-player games that I consider replaying when I finish (Bioshock is one), but Batman: AA is certainly worthy of a rerun.

 #3:  Team Fortress 2

What more can I say that hasn't already been said?  Best current online shooter?  Check.  Best online shooter ever?  Quite possibly.  I got the Orange Box in 2008 and have been playing TF2 on-and-off ever since.  I quit, I thought permanently, late last year when I saw the "hat" phenomenon starting to obfuscate what I loved about the game.  I missed a number of the class updates - kept track of the changes via blogs and internet-drip - but didn't feel the pull back in until this Halloween.  For whatever reason, I decided to re-install on Steam and see if I had been missing anything, and that's all it took.  TF2's greatest strength is that you get near-immediate pleasure from the game.  It's incredibly easy to find a game, jump in, and start contributing to your team.  It's almost certainly the most noob-friendly online shooter, and that reduces the asshole factor significantly.  Especially this late in its lifespan, most players are mellow, there to have a good time, and willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.  I also love TF2 since I'm now typically one of the better players on the servers I visit.  Picking medic and turning a control-point game around for your team is absolutely thrilling.  I also love TF2's balance system.  If teams are uneven, some players will get switched around - but more importantly, it doesn't matter much since the teams can be randomized for the next map (which on fast rotations, isn't that far away).  Just a great great game that's only gotten better with time.  Over 200 hours played and I still don't fucking know how to play a Spy well.

#2:  Demigod

It's almost embarrassing to admit it, but I suppose I'm over that.  I just loved this game to death.  Flaws?  You bet.  Probably the biggest being the small player base that made getting into a decent game an exercise in frustration.  I'd literally spend 45 min waiting for every 30 minutes of playtime.  And that's eventually what broke me.  The release of Starcraft II took just enough players away to effectively kill Demigod, and around that same time it also became clear that GPG & Stardock were no longer interested in supporting the game.  They did give us 2 more demigods to play with:  the underpowered Demon Assassin and the overpowered Oculus (see above), but the community's continual call for a significant item overhaul went unanswered.  After more than 500 games, it's no surprise that I got pretty good - and when I found myself in a 3v3 with five other solid players, the intensity was unmatched in my gaming life.  Until someone would randomly disconnect.  Ahh, Demigod.  How I love and loath thee.  I *hope* someone resurrects you one day, as Demigod 2: the Rebirthening, with dedicated servers and better item balance.  You could have been so much more.

#1:  Left 4 Dead 2

L4D2 has to win my personal game-of-the-year, since it so captured my heart.  In a time when zombies are overplayed, it's a testament to Valve's design team that L4D2 so perfectly represents what I want out of a zombie-killing game.  Co-op play, where a single panicked idiot can take the whole team down.  An AI Director who changes up the experience each time you play and periodically throws the perfect storm at you to make your life a living hell.  Losing never felt so good.  A versus mode that's highly competitive (and attracts some douchebags) but intensely satisfying.  I never quite got "good" at versus, but I stopped feeling like a total noob.  Tip:  you can aim your Booms up to get greater range and coverage.  The free released content (especially the No Mercy campaign) was fantastic, and allowed us to play as the characters from L4D.  Getting through the entire Dark Carnival campaign on Advanced difficulty (never even got close on Expert) with three other solid players who communicate and help each other throughout is one of the best experiences there is in gaming.

Honorable Mentions

Civilization 5:  a poor AI kept this off my top-5, but the newest patch may have tightened things up a bit.  See my last post for why I think this might end up being the best Civ yet.
Dawn of Discovery:  the game I wish I had more time to play.  A deep, satisfying city-building game with a complex economy.  I hope to get back into this one soon.
Dirt 2:  a hard-as-nails racer. Varied race-types, beautiful courses, tons of unlockables, and challenging events.  Ultimately, however, I just couldn't handle the repetition-to-perfection cycle that's necessary to succeed in games of this ilk.  Someone recently compared racing games to Super Meat Boy and I'd have to nod in agreement.  This is both a good and bad thing.
Solium Infernum:  a mind-boggling interesting game, I wrote about this one in early 2010.  What kept this off my top 5?  Well, I only ever really played 2 full games (against humans).  It was just a bit too hard to organize a game and run it to completion.  The play-by-email format was pleasant, in that you could take your time with plotting, but ultimately the slow pace did get a bit frustrating.  Probably the most "intelligent" and interesting game I played this year.


Magic the Gathering: Duel of the Planeswalkers:  no deck-building in an MtG game?  I don't understand.  Otherwise, a lovely interface and classic gameplay at a decent price.
Battlefield Bad Company 2:  I tried hard to get into this (mostly so I could break my TF2 habit), but it just never clicked.  It didn't help that I really really sucked.  I would join a squad, spawn, and die within 15 seconds.  I also hated how poorly balanced the teams often seemed to be.  Finally, I don't think my PC is good enough to play this at a decent frame-rate.
Tropico 3:  it pains me to put this on the list, since I do adored the 1st Tropico.  But this version was really nothing different.  Plus, the economy was too simple which took all the fun and challenge out of the game.  I need to play through more of the campaign to see if it gets better, but I consider this one of my biggest gaming disappointments of 2010.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Civilization V: some thoughts

Sid Meier's Civilization games are all about the enjoyment of making decisions.  Yes, there's a narrative that emerges due to the outcome of your decisions interacting with the "decisions" of various AI entities, and that narrative can be quite fulfilling (especially in retrospect).  But I'd argue that the majority of your minute-to-minute happiness while playing Civ is based upon the interesting decisions that are presented to you.  Should I built the Hanging Gardens now?  Should I settle to the north where there is a flood-plain and an abundance of food, or to the south where there is ivory and incense?  The greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Civ franchise lie within these decisions.  Some are compelling:  they present difficult choices, carry meaningful outcomes, and allow you to "feel" like a world leader.  Others are distracting:  they are embedded within the intricacies of the game system and are only meaningful on that level.  They annoy and frustrate you.

Personally, I've found that most Civilization games (I should note that I have experience with II-V) tend to ware me out after I've played a few full games.  I *want* to love these games.  And part of me does, since I have such a fondness for complex turn-based strategy.  But as the game progresses, the number of fun & interesting decisions becomes heavily outweighed by the number of mundane decisions.  Other Civ players have decried this as "excessive micromanagement," but that somewhat misses the point.  Some micro can be fun - if the decisions are interesting, meaningful, and immersed in role-playing.  Some macro can be distracting - if it feels too "gamey" and like pushing numbers on a spreadsheet around, instead of conquering the world.

One reason why I think the latest Civilization (V) might be the best of them all, is that it has gotten rid of a lot of mundane decision-making.  That, inevitably, has led to a backlash among long-time Civ players that it has been "dumbed-down" to be made more "accessible" to "retarded console players."  I'm not even sure what they're referring to when they say this, but the 2K forums are full of posts like this.  Place me firmly on the side that thinks many of the changes made to Civ V are positive - but, of course, there's great room for improvement which I am optimistic will come.

Back to the point.  Using Civ V as an example, here are some decisions that I would consider interesting and meaningful.  I have attempted to rank these from most interesting to least:

  1. What victory strategy will I pursue?  Military domination, cultural, space-race, diplomatic, or score?
  2. Should I go to war?  And when?  When turns out to be a very interesting decision in Civ.  It is almost always a good idea to time your wars to coincide with the development of your "unique unit" for example.  This is especially powerful early in the game, when the number of military units involved will be relatively small.  In my last game as the Persians, I tried to time my wars to coincide with Golden Ages, since Persian military units receive a +10% bonus during these times.  
  3. Tactical decisions during wartime:  how and where should I attack my opponent?  Civ V has made some great improvements in making tactical combat decisions more interesting.   An aspect of the game which was always compelling is now more so, due to a greater emphasis on unit diversity and use of surrounding terrain.
  4. What social policy should I pursue?  I, for one, like the new social policy system in Civ V - but if you prefer, think of the Civic system of Civ IV.  Interesting decisions that carry weight and meaning in the game, and feed into the role-playing nature of civilization evolution.
  5. Where should I build this city? 
  6. What should I do with this Great Leader?
  7. What technology should I research next?
  8. What kind of city is this one going to be?  Production emphasis, gold income, high population with specialists, etc.
  9. How should I spend my excess gold?  To form a friendship with this city-state?  To purchase a new tile for my city?  In a trade agreement with another civ for a luxury resource I don't have?
  10. What tiles should my citizens be working?  Should some citizens be specialists?
  11. What should I build next in this city?  This decision should support my overarching strategy (#1).
I put city-decisions at the end of the list, because while I do find them to be interesting throughout much of a Civ game, there comes a time when I usually stop caring.  Especially in previous incarnations of Civ.  For example, if you can build every building in every city, then the decision becomes mundane.  Civ V has made this decision more interesting because:
  1. You do not have the time to construct every building.
  2. There are high maintenance costs on buildings, so you shouldn't spam.
  3. There is a greater emphasis on designing your cities to serve particular functions (for production, for population/research, etc.).

Here are a couple Civ decisions that I find less compelling:
  1. Where should I adjust my tax slider?  To tweak out a little extra research, or happiness, or culture?
  2. What should my workers be doing right now?  Building roads?  Cutting down trees to speed along production in one of my cities?  etc.
This is obviously a less than complete list but it is telling that these two issues (along with the last two from above) have typically ruined Civ games for me.  Especially at the end of a game, in previous Civ incarnations it really felt like most of your game-time was spent tweaking the tax slider (every turn, to maximize efficiency), assigning and re-assigning workers, and visiting every city in your empire to decide what to build and how to assign your population.  Ugggg.

If Civilization V has done something right (and I believe that it has), it has reduced the amount of time spent making dull decisions.  Unfortunately, it has not adequately filled that time I now have with other, more interesting decisions - especially if I'm pursuing a non-military victory.  As others have said, you will press "Next Turn" a lot in Civ V without having made a single decision that turn. I don't think that is a good thing.

Here are some changes/additions I would like to see instantiated in Civ V, which I think would enhance the fun-and-interesting decision space:
  1. More intricate diplomacy.  Diplomacy should be like a mini-game, and it should matter.  Achieving a Diplomatic victory should be complex, difficult, and an exercise in juggling different personalities and demands. Every few turns, I should be making a "fun" diplomatic decision (e.g. send ambassador, boycott, increase tariffs, publicly denounce at the U.N., etc.).  The current system, which emphasizes trade relationships and pre-war alliances is fairly mundane and shallow.
  2. Espionage.  I suspect they'll bring Espionage back into Civ V in a future expansion, and I hope they offer compelling decisions that don't bog down the system.
  3. Science and research.  I'd actually like to see additional complexity to science & research.  Perhaps individual cities (or research labs) can focus on particular inventions or "breakthroughs" that are separate from the standard Tech-tree.  Maybe there could be civilization-specific technologies to research.
  4. Enhanced cultural options.  Pursuing a cultural victory still feels quite "gamey" at this point.  There is no real sense of a civilization's "culture" spreading across the world.  In my first complete game, I played as Gandhi and achieved a cultural victory on "Prince" difficulty.  Overall, I enjoyed the experience, especially in the mid-game where I had to step lightly in the diplomatic game to ensure that none of my overly aggressive neighbors attacked me.  However, much of my late-game was spent pressing "Next Turn," waiting to unlock my next social policy. Maybe if the player was given choice of which direction you could focus your culture:  great works of art and music, better consumer products (intersecting with scientific research, perhaps), athletes, movies and television, etc.
  5. Disease.  This could be my personal bias, but I believe that disease has had a major impact on civilizations since the beginning (consider Europe's Black Death).  As such, I'd like to see disease instantiated in the system - with high population density increasing the probability of an outbreak and certain buildings (Hospital) and technologies (Medicine) ameliorating damage.  I didn't much like the "Health" meter of Civ IV since it added more city micromanagement.  Rather, I'd like to see Disease (like Happiness in Civ V) represented on a civilization-wide level.  This would make decision-making simpler and also more impactful.  And just a side-note:  what if you could (purposely even) spread disease into adjacent civilizations?
  6. Natural disasters.  I can only assume these are coming, and I'd certainly like to see them make an appearance.  And, of course, players should be able to turn them on-or-off at the Set Up screen.  Disasters are interesting because they can throw a wrench into your long-term plans.  What if an earthquake hits right when you're in the middle of a war against the Aztecs?  Should you pull out and focus on rebuilding? If a tsunami hits your ally, Japan, will you send them some money to help rebuild their empire?
 Oh, and beef up the A.I.  Because it really really sucks.

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    demigod strategy: tower-slam rook build

    I thought I had my Demigod habit kicked but apparently not.  No doubt, Demigod can be incredibly frustrating.  On a slow night, it can take nearly an hour to get into a decent game.  Connectivity issues have cleared up a little, but still plague players regularly:  "mystery lag" can slow down a match in which everyone's ping seems to be fine, and your teammate might get disconnected unexpectedly halfway through.  It's enough to make you want to poke your eyes out.  But when it all gels, Demigod is still one of the best tactical, team-based games on the market.  

    After having played ~400 complete games, I feel relatively competent with most of the demigods.  I'm probably weakest with Queen of Thorns and the Demon Assassin, but they're the weakest demigods for everyone.  It look me a long time to get the hang of Rook, but I finally feel like I can help my team dominate a match with the Big Guy.

    I'd argue there are two viable Rook builds:
    • Tower spam:  max out Power of the Tower, load up on some mana items, and annoy the hell out of your opponents.  This is probably the most common build and it certainly can be an effective one.
    • Hybrid tower-slam:  some have argued that the problem with a 100% tower build is that Rook's towers decrease in value as a game goes on.  Enemy demigods will start stacking health and armor, so that even the thickest tower farms aren't doing enough damage on their own.  As such, it can help Rook significantly to have an additional Ace up his sleeve.
    Here's the Rook build I've been working with lately:

    1.  Power of the Tower I
    2.  Archer Tower
    3.  Structural Transfer I
    4.  Power of the Tower II
    5.  Boulder Roll I
    6.  Tower of Light
    7.  Hammer Slam I
    8.  Hammer Slam II
    9.  Hammer Slam III
    10.  Boulder Roll II
    11.  Hammer Slam IV
    12.  Power of the Tower III
    13.  Trebuchet
    14.  Power of the Tower IV
    15.  Dizzying Force

    First, some comments on Rook's weaknesses.
    • Rook is slow.  This is an understatement.  As such, you are at serious risk of getting ganked at almost any point of a game.  Different players utilize different strategies for dealing with this, but one thing is certain:  you need to have a Teleport scroll on you (or the Amulet of Teleportation) at all times.  If I'm flush with a little extra cash around level 7 or so, I'll also spring for the Wand of Speed (1750 gold) which can get you out of jam in a hurry.
    • Rook has low base armor.  I'm not sure if a lot of players are aware of this, but Rook (at level 1) has the same Armor rating (240) as Torchbearer.  Only Erebus (at 220) is lower, but Erebus has incredible speed and life-steal abilities to make up for this.  Rook looks a lot tougher than he actually is.  What this means is that Rook needs to be particular wary of an enemy Erebus, whose Bite (at level 1) reduces Armor by 250.  This would put Rook in negative armor, which means he will take massive amounts of damage from auto-attacks.  Rook also needs decent armor so that he can take out enemy towers, whose damage is mitigated by high armor.  As such, Nimoth Chest Armor is one of the best items you can get for Rook - and I try to get it ASAP.

    So what are Rook's strengths?
    • Rook can dominant a lane.  Most teams like to send their Rook to the health flag on Cataract right away, so that he can set up camp and establish dominance over that +15% health bonus.  Along with a couple towers, Rook can farm creeps, level up, and keep enemy demigods out of the lane.
    • Rook can take down enemy towers in a snap.  Structural transfer helps quite a bit with this, but it's not even necessary. 
    • Rook's towers serve as teleportation beacons for his teammates throughout the entire map.  Thus, Rook makes ganking easier. 
    • Rook can do a shit-ton of damage.  He has tower farms, a good auto-attack that only gets better, and a Hammer Slam that can flatten any demigod.

    Hybrid Rook works like this.  Through level 7 or so, play like a normal tower-spammer.  Try to have 2 or 4 towers up at all times (depending on what level you are), and use them to dominant lanes.  Your goal in the early game is two-fold:  1) help your team get a significant lead in Warscore, and 2) take down some enemy towers.  You are not out there to kill, and you must avoid dying.  Get dirty when your teammates port in to your towers for opportunistic ganks, but don't take any crazy risks.  Use Boulder Roll to stun enemy demigods trying to escape or chasing for kills.  Use Hammer Slam conservatively to take out some creep waves (for faster leveling) and minion armies.  If Oak's spirits are harassing you, a single Hammer Slam will usually do the trick.

    Taking down enemy towers is a relatively simple affair.  It's best to wait until the opposing team leaves you alone in a lane.  Approach an enemy tower with a friendly creep wave just ahead of you.  Build a tower immediately in front of the enemy tower - this will draw it's fire while you crush it.  Start whacking away.  If your health dips (to 2/3 max), use Structural Transfer on the opposing tower.  Then whack away until it's gone.  This entire process should not take more than 10 seconds.  Good opposing teams will know not to leave a Rook alone in a lane, or if they do, they'll port in to protect their tower as soon as they hear the warning that it's under attack.  Keep an eye out for port-swirls 

    Bolder Roll is such a great skill it deserves it's own paragraph and pic.  The true power of Boulder Roll emerges when you get to level 10.  As soon as you Roll an enemy demigod, start your Slam.  The 2 sec stun is enough to ensure they'll get crushed by the full weight of 1700 damage.

    I can't count the number of times that a Rook has caught me off-guard with this move.  Level IV Hammer Slam is the single-most damaging skill in the game - and that includes Level IV Spit, which does 1650 damage over 10 seconds.  The problem with Hammer Slam is it's 1.5 sec cast time and obvious wind-up.  Any observant demigod with an interrupt is going to whack you as soon as they see it coming.  But if you stun them first with Boulder Roll, they're doomed.  No Heal or Shield is going to help them now.

    The way I see it, Rook's biggest strength is that he's deceptive.  Early game, your opponents will view Rook as an easy target.  He's slow and he's big, so enemy demigods tend to target him by default and his low armor means that he really can't handle too much attention at once.  Your tower farms can cause headaches, but woe to the Rook caught outside a farm.

    But then something happens.  Around level 8 (and certainly 10), Rook becomes a monster.  His role transforms from lane-controller to offensive powerhouse.  And it usually catches people off-guard.  Maybe they haven't even seen you pull off a Hammer Slam until that point in the game.  And BAM, they go from 2000 hp to 300.  Maybe it's that pesky Regulus, who thinks he's got your number with Mines.  Stun... SLAM!  Dead.  It's pretty satisfying, and honestly, a more fun way to play Rook that straight tower-spam.

    What about items?

    Favor:  you have a few options here. 
    • Personally, I like Dark Crimson Vial.  Once they patched this guy up a bit, it became a viable alternative to the standard Blood of the Fallen.  I prefer the Vial since it allows you to play dead and surprise your opponents.  That's half the trick of Rook.  Make your opponents think you're weak, lure them into your tower farm, and then pop the Vial.  Now they're running away and you can Roll and Slam for the kill.
    • On bigger maps especially, the Amulet of Teleportation can be Rook's best friend.  It basically guarantees that you'll always have that telie on you.
    • Pure tower-spammers will sometimes take Blade of the Serpent, which can completely solve your mana problems.  This also means that you don't really have to buy any helms and can stack health and armor.
     Items:  in order of importance to my particular build
    •  starting:  Banded Armor & Scaled Helm.  You could get Banded & Scalemail, but you'll run out of juice for your towers too quickly.  And it's key that Rook be able to stay in the field for as long as possible in the early game.  Remember:  you want to dominant a lane, control a flag, and level up.  If Rook falls behind on leveling, things can get ugly fast.
    • Nimoth Chest Armor:  your best friend in the world, until you can afford Groffling.
    • Unbreakable Boots:  your 2nd best friend in the world, and one of the best items for the money.
    • trade Scaled Helm for Vlemish Faceguard:   you're going to need one helm throughout this build, and it's likely that Vlemish will be enough. 
    • Wand of Speed:  especially if you're facing fast opponents, like UB, Erebus, fire TB, etc.
    • Duelist's Cuirass:  this is just a personal taste thing.  The safe bet would be to go with Hauberk of Life, for standard health stacking and auto-healing, but I don't think you need it if you're carrying the Crimson Vial.  Instead, I like the added offensive bonus that the Cuirass provides.
    If the game lasts well past level 10, then you're going to need to make some final adjustments to all this:
    • trade Banded for Groffling Warplate.
    • trade Wand of Speed for Orb of Defiance.

    A lot of Rook players love the Orb, since it can give your teammates time to port in (remember to always build a tower near you!) and reverse a losing situation. It also provides a great +500/500 health/armor boost to late-game Rook.

    And there it is.  It's funny:  in the early days of Demigod, there was a lot of muted disappointment over Rook.  Not surprisingly, he was GPG's poster-child for their new IP.  Massive, towering over the battlefield, dominating all who approached.  He was the assassin you couldn't wait to play.  But then you played him and he was surprisingly fragile.  Slow and methodical, in a game that favored speed and flexibility.  Rook dropped to the bottom of the ranks (just above Queen of Thorns) in win %.  Players called for buffs.

    Fast forward to now.  Rook is considered a "Tier 1" demigod, at least when paired with the right teammates (Oak and UB, for example).  A good Rook can completely dominate a match, tear down enemy towers on Cataract before anyone even hits level 3, and establish a unassailable Warscore advantage for his team.  What happened?  Well, people learned how to play him.  He's not an easy demigod to master.  He takes patience and skill and careful micro-management.  His item builds are vital to his success.  But when it all comes together, the Big Boy is a beauty to behold.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010

    the sorcerer's house: analysis, part 3

    In this 3rd installment of my (admittedly mediocre) analysis of Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House, I'm going to take a close look at letter #31:  "Get Out - And Got Out".  I find this letter particularly interesting because it involves one of the more mysterious characters in the book:  the malevolent dwarf, Quorn.

    First, note that this is a letter addressed to Millie from Bax.  As such, we should be suspicious of its content.  Bax paints himself to be extraordinarily brave, powerful, and heroic (even referring to himself as such, via Doris), and may be doing so as part of his plan to seduce his brother's wife.

    A brief synopsis (assuming truth):  Bax returns to his house from his Chinese dinner with Jake and Dorris (described in letter #28), prompted in part by a phone call from Winkle.  Winkle tells Bax that a fat blond girl had arrived, started exploring the house, and now was lost.  This girl is the newspaper reporter, Cathy Ruth, whom Bax had agreed to meet that night for an exploration of the house's cellar.  Doris and Bax enter the cellar and begin looking for Cathy.  A rat "that looked larger than her head" attacks Doris (or, at least, is "clutching her hair") and Bax clubs it away with his flashlight.  They attempt to back-track to leave the cellar but fail to discover the original staircase.  They come across a different staircase and hear a dog yapping (Toby) and a woman scream (most likely Pogach).  Bax busts down the door and they see Quorn grappling with Pogach.  Bax commands Quorn to leave, and the dwarf complies.  They find Cathy also in the room, who has been raped by Quorn.  Winker appears and presents an ancient sword to Bax.  Winker leads them back through the house.  Doris decides to take Cathy to the hospital.  George suddenly arrives, thrusts open the trunk on the back of Bax's limousine and releases the vampire, Nicholas.  Nicholas, with George in pursuit, runs into the house and disappears.  Bax ends the letter to Millie by saying that he searched for his brother for hours, could not find him, and eventually went to bed.

    An action-packed letter to be sure.  I assume the title of the letter refers to the following events:

    • "Get Out" - part of Bax's command to Quorn.
    •  "And Got Out" - the escape of Nicholas from the trunk.
    • (however, it is possible that "got out" refers to George getting out of jail)
    If we view Bax's house as a ley-line between our world and that of Faerie, than I think there is something to be gained from analyzing these events symbolically.  A descent into a cellar, for example, might more broadly be viewed as a descent into the most dangerous and evil aspects of Faerie.  What do Bax and Doris encounter in the depths of the house?  Heaps of "objects veiled in dust," "hairy spiders as large as saucers," and a gigantic rat.  Not particularly enlightening, and this aspect of the letter makes me believe that it is, at least in part, a Bax confabulation designed to scare and impress Millie using stereotypical horror-genre tropes.

    The cellar may also serve as a crossing point between worlds, much like the window in Bax's bedroom.  When Bax and Doris climb the 2nd staircase and confront Quorn, they could be within Faerie at that point.  Could this be relevant?  Perhaps.  It might explain why Quorn reacts so strongly to Bax's command, after his initial disdain.

    When Bax first confronts Quorn, the dwarf is unafraid of his gun.

    "They call me Ironskin."  He advanced, still grinning, and I pulled the trigger.

    Perhaps Quorn knows that, in Faerie, he is invulnerable to the weapons of our world.  Bax drops his useless gun...

    ... and pointed both index fingers at him as though I held modern revolvers.  I intended to shout, but perhaps I screamed - I cannot be sure.  "Get out of here, you devil! This is my house! Out! I don't want you here!" With much, much more in the same vein.

    The blood drained from his face, leaving it a dirty gray.  He backed away.  "Sorry, sir! I meaned no harm! No harm at all!"  He took a few more steps backward, knuckling his forehead, and fled.  I ought to have been amazed, but I was raging and there was no room for it.

    In Faerie, Bax's wizardly powers emerge, especially since he wields magic rings ("weapons of sorcery").  Recall that in letter #41 ("The Riverman"), Martha tells Bax, "Magic is diplomacy.  It isn't just saying the words.  It's who says them, how he says them, and when he says them."  The voice of command that Bax adopts, in his rage towards Quorn, is imbued with mystical strength - Quorn instantly recognizes Bax as a legitimate sorcerer and a dangerous man.

    Quorn's role in The Sorcerer's House is vague, at best.  We first encounter him "chained to a staple in the door frame" of Ieuan's room in letter #17 ("A Tramp").  I suspect that Quorn may serve as Ieuan's familiar.  At least two other characters within the narrative have familiars:  Bax has Winkle, and Old Nick/Zwart has Toby.  Interestingly, in both of these latter cases, the familiars are shapeshifters.  Does this suggest that Quorn also is a shapeshifter?  Does he make another appearance in the book, as an alternate character?  I can't think of a reasonable possibility, off-hand.

    Symbolically, this scene could simply serve as evidence that Bax's powers are evolving and that he has vast potential to become a powerful force in Faerie, like his father.  I suspect it is his father, in fact, who sends Winker into the room soon after this confrontation with the magical samurai blade.

    "This is a new reign.  There's a new emperor now.... Once in each reign we present the Fox Sword to a hero friend."

    Wolfe certainly has a fondness for magic swords in his novels.  Severian had Terminus Est,  Able quested for (and lost) a magic sword, Latro discovers a magic sword in a river within the first couple chapters of Soldier of the Mist, etc.  In part, I believe, this is because Wolfe likes to utilize (and play with) genre tropes.  Heroes in fantasy novels have magic swords.  They're fun.  Period.  But also, these swords tend to serve symbolic purposes in the text.  What is the narrative function of the Fox Sword?  Bax wields it in the final battle (described in #41) on the Skotos strip against the werewolf, Lupine, and her pack.  The strip, like Bax's house, falls on a ley-line and is another location where his magic powers can make themselves evident.  If we assume his father granted him this sword, it is given to both aid in victory and help secure the continued dominance of the Black family line.

    Sunday, April 25, 2010

    the sorcerer's house: analysis, part 2

    Broadly speaking, there are 2 possible interpretations to the events of The Sorcerer's House.

    A.  None of the supernatural events reported by Bax are true.  Bax makes everything up in order to defraud and kill his brother and seduce Millie. I shall quote from a comment by gwern (from the Urth-list archives, an online discussion board of Wolfe's work), as a possible summary of this interpretation:

    1. Bax moves into the mansion.
    2. When he tries to regularize his squatting, he goes to Martha and using his smooth wiles on a lonely old woman, cons her into letting him stay under the perfectly normal custodial arrangement.
    3. He thoroughly searches the house, and discovers the eccentric previous owners had had valuable collections. Bax didn't lie about the gold coins, but he found many more. Gold is very valuable, after all, especially collectibles. Bax has modest needs. Alternate scheme: he takes out a mortgage.
    4. He embarks on his elaborate con/murder scheme of George.
    5. Mischief managed.
    6. He forges Murrey's will - she also had the Skotos Strip. (Why not? She seems to have tons of real estate in general.) Alternate scheme: he gets her to sign that over as well / forges her signature.
    7. Murrey vanishes like George.

    B.  Many (but possibly not all) of the supernatural events within The Sorcerer's House take place.  Bax actually is the son of a sorcerer and the Black House falls upon a so-called ley line which connects our reality with that of Faerie.  Bax describes these events to his brother George in order to make him jealous and lure him into a trap.  George's disappearance could mean that 1) Bax killed George, or 2) George became trapped in Faerie somehow, or 3) George decided to stay in Faerie (possibly to conquer it).

    These interpretations are obviously directly contradictory to one another.  I favor (B) but am not 100% convinced.

    Evidence in favor of (A).  (I shall add to these lists as necessary)
    • Bax is a liar and a con-artist.  As such, it is quite possible that there are more "realistic" explanations for how he comes by the various properties and gets rids of George.
    • Bax's letters to Shell are devoid of explicit supernatural content.  They do, however, speak to him possessing guns and wanting to prepare for the possible murder of his brother.
    • The supernatural phenomena in The Sorcerer's House do not fall within a consistent mythological tradition.  There are vampires, werewolves, and zombies - but also Japanese kitsune.  These inconsistencies may be the result of Bax's extensive education in European history and tradition, just as he draws upon his expertise in literature to periodically make parallels to stories and characters by Dickens (see "Quilp"="Quorn").

    Evidence in favor of (B).
    • The text is far too complex and intricate to merely serve as a means of deceiving George and Millie.  I suspect there are many many other ways that Bax could have lured George to Medicine Man, besides fabricating a multilayered plot involving sorcerers and fairies.  Furthermore, such a fabrication suggests that George would be particularly susceptible to a fantastical story.  Why?  With Millie, there is a clearer explanation - she is gullible, naive, and believes in supernatural phenomena (hiring a psychic, for example).  George, however, might be lured into the trap if he also possessed the genes of a sorcerer and so intuitively believed some aspects of Bax's letters.  It is possible, in fact, that George has independently discovered some aspects of their family background and is incensed that Bax is attempting to claim the entirety of their inheritance.
    • A series of unexplained killings does take place in Medicine Man, and their nature is indicative of werewolves.
    • The compiler confirms the existence of the samurai sword, at least insofar as Millie was able to describe it in detail.
    • In letter #44, "George" (Bax) says he will be returning with the fox, Winkle.
    • Supernatural happenings could explain 1) why Bax is drawn to Medicine Man in the first place, after being released from prison and 2) how he comes to easily inherit both the Black House and the Skotos property. 
    • Doris's letter #42 mentions the ghost of her dead husband, werewolves, the vampire Nicholas, and the malevolent dwarf.  If we are to believe this letter is real, it is the strongest independent evidence for Bax's story.
    • In letter #21, Bax writes to Shell and says, "There are other things I could tell you about, but you would not believe a word of it."   Not specific reference to anything supernatural, but suggestive. (Another interesting aspect to this letter:  in it, Bax asks Shell if he's ever heard of Mary King - the ghostly hitchhiker who appears in letter #25, from Bax to Mrs. Pogach.  It refers to events that took place after Bax had his meeting with the lawyer, George was arrested, and the dinner-date with Dorris - described in letters 22 and 23, possibly the most important letters in the book.  Why would Bax ask Shell about Mary King?)
    Furthermore, there are easy counter-arguments to most items in the (A) list.  We need not concern ourselves with "realistic" explanations for how Bax comes into easy property, since this is Gene Wolfe and this is a piece of fantasy.  We know that Wolfe "believes" in faerie, and so oughtn't we?  Also, it is hard for me to understand how Bax comes to Medicine Man in the first place and easily acquires said properties (UNLESS he has some previous relationship with Alexander Skotos, hinted at in Shell's letters but which Bax himself seems unaware of).

    The inconsistency in mythologies can be explained by acknowledging that that is how Faerie works.  Faerie is a land generated by human imagination, desire, and fear.  It is a product of our id and collective unconscious.  Therefore, it will be populated by a mish-mash of archetypes and icons from various cultural traditions.  It might also be argued that the Faerie world which Bax encounters is based upon his own personal imagination - one largely steeped in European tradition, but perhaps tinged with a slight interest in the Orient.

    We saw a similar mish-mash occur in Wolfe's Castleview, which is a helpful reference point for understanding some aspects of The Sorcerer's House.  Another novel in which a sleepy Midwestern town falls upon a ley-line between dimensions, into which faerie invade and cause havoc.

      the sorcerer's house: analysis, part 1

      Gene Wolfe's newest book, The Sorcerer's House (2009), is not his best work but that's an unfair assessment.  After all, Wolfe's tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, might be the best science fiction ever written - of course everything he has published since seems faded in comparison.  But like all his fiction, The Sorcerer's House is a puzzlebox that haunts you upon completion.  It's a fun and vigorous read but so much is left unsaid and unwritten, that if you want to get the most out of it, you need to re-read and spend some time analyzing. I'm going to share my thoughts on this blog as I go through my second run-through, and perhaps by writing these ideas out I'll clarify some mysteries for myself.

      First, some basic assumptions.

      1.  I am going to assume that the "compiler" is not Bax.  If the compiler is Bax, then analysis of the story almost becomes meaningless, since everything is questionable.  So...

      2.  The following people are, at the least, real:  Bax and George (twins), Millie, Orizia Pogach (the psychic), Sheldon Hawes, Martha Murrey, Zwart Black (and Alexander Skotos - may or may not be the same person).  This is based upon their mention in the final Compiler's Note.  I also assume that Dorris Griffin and Kate Finn are real.  Many other characters may or may not be real (for example, Thelma "Naber", whose last name sounds like "neighbor" could very well be a Bax fabrication, meaning that the whole Thelma & Martha twin story is a lie; similarly, "Jake Jacobs" could be another joke by Bax).

      [There are 2 more complications which make identification of "actual" people difficult:  1) the compiler states that he/she has changed some names within the text "to protect innocent persons" and 2) there is a "Significant Names" chapter at the very end of the book.  How are we, the reader, to take this final section?  Was this put together by the compiler?  Or was it put together by Wolfe (the Author, with a capital "A")?  If the latter, should this be taken as a clue that these characters indeed exist?]

      3.  Bax was well-educated (claiming to have 2 PhD's:  one in English literature, the other in ancient history) and had been convicted of fraud against his brother and some of his brother's friends/associates.  The story presented in this narrative begins soon after his release from prison.

      4.  George is very wealthy.  We know little else of his personality, background, and behavior.  If we are to believe Millie's letters to Bax, he's arrogant, demeaning, and at least somewhat abusive.  Most everything we see of George is filtered through Bax, who, presumably, hates him and is toying with him for some nefarious reason (the two most likely possibilities being money and revenge).

      5.  Letter 44 strongly suggests that Bax has somehow rid himself of his twin brother, George, and is impersonating him.  The Compiler's Note indicates that Bax was successful at this identity theft for at least several years (although I suppose it's possible that Millie saw through his disguise right away but either didn't care, or was too afraid to do anything about it).  It is quite possible that this was Bax's plan from the beginning, and indeed, something he was plotting while in prison.

      6.  Bax, following his release from prison, somehow came into possession of the "Black House," the Skotos property, and Martha Murrey's house.

      7.  Something or someone in Medicine Man killed a number of people in particularly gruesome and brutal ways.  The "Hound of Horror" is not a Bax fabrication, insofar as the local newspaper did print several stories on a series of local killings that were blamed upon a large dog or wolf.

      8.  We may assume that the most, if not all, of the content of Bax's letters to his friend, Sheldon is truthful.  It is notable that he never mentions any supernatural phenomena to Sheldon in these letters, although it is possible that he only avoid these topics because he suspects that would make him look like a "sucker" or someone who is mentally deranged.  Therefore, on this 2nd reading, it will be important to pay attention to the exact content of his letters to Sheldon, as well as Sheldon's replies.  As I recall, these letters confirm the existence of someone who is likely to be Alexander Skotos.  And that someone was actively asking about Bax.  I believe this is a major hint as to how Bax ended up with these properties in the first place.

      9.  Any letter written by Bax to either his brother, George, or to George's wife, Millie, is suspect.  As these letters contain the vast majority of the plot of The Sorcerer's House, the reader is left to determine what actually happened.  Hence, this analysis.  I will assume (although this could be dangerous) that the majority of letters written back to Bax are genuine and were not substantially altered by him (although he may have acquired a certain expertise in forgery).  Millie's letters indicate her naivety but also suggest that George is not a paragon of humanity (as might be expected in the "good twin").  Pogach's indicate that she did visit the Black House and interact with Bax.  Doris's indicate that she became emotionally involved with Bax and, later, quite confused.  It is notable that both Pogach and Doris mention supernatural phenomena in their letters.  Doris's letter "A Terrible Mistake" (#42) is particularly interesting and will require several close reads.  George writes only one letter (I believe) to Bax, and that is "The Challenge" (#37).  This letter is written in such a style that it may very well be a forgery by Bax, done so to implicate George.  However, this interpretation is complicated by the fact that Bax assumes George's identity at the end.  Why would Bax try to paint George as a possible murderer out for revenge just before taking on his identity?

      [One additional issue that concerns me regarding the authenticity of these letters is the following:  once Bax assumes George's identity, he theoretically comes into possession of all the letters that he previously sent his brother.  He could, at this point, engage in a great deal of editing.  However, what would be his motivation for doing so?  He would only do so if he believed that someone would later discover these letters and read them.  For example, he might edit if he was worried that the police could eventually come into possession of these letters.  However, I don't find this line of reasoning plausible since there is a great deal of "unsavory" information in these letters.  E.g., he squats in the Black House, he shoots a wolf-thing in the face and it later becomes a human man, etc.]

      That's as far as I will go now, as you can see I'm already starting to drift away from my initial assumptions.

      Tuesday, April 20, 2010

      small world on ipad

      Been slowing increasing in envy for FP's iPad.  To be perfectly honest, I probably won't get one for years (after they're gone through 3 generations and it's already being replaced by something cooler), but I'm starting to appreciate its versatility.  Not surprisingly, much of the power of the iPad comes from the burgeoning family of available Apps.

      I am especially enthusiastic about the possibility of playing boardgames on an iPad.  The other night, FP and I played a couple games of Small World, for 2 player on his iPad.  It was exquisite.  I mean, I love boardgames - so I sort of missed the feel of the pieces, and the process of the set-up, but the fact of the matter is that the team of engineers who ported this game over to the iPad did a fantastic job.  We scanned the Quick Rules, and decided to throw caution to the wind and just try a game.  Because the iPad enforces the movement and attack rules, we were able to learn through trial-and-error - much faster than constantly referring to a rule book to make sure we didn't do something wrong.

       We were able to whip through 2 games in under an hour.  It played without a glitch.  And they are still working on improving things - the current release is 0.91. 

      After just this brief stint, I started daydreaming about having an iPad with a vast boardgame collection on it.  Neuroshima Hex.  Memoir '44. Attika.  Carcasonne.  Drakon.  Ghost Stories (for solitaire play).  Nexus Ops.  Not everything would work, of course.  iPad boardgames should probably be solitaire or 2-player only and not require too much table space.  As much as I'd like to be able to play Arkham Horror on an iPad, I just can't see how that could happen with all the components, cards, text, tokens, etc.

      But the iPad is calling out for other relatively simple 2-player wargames.  I'd love to be able to drop my iPad in front of my brother, while on vacation, and pull up a dozen or so solid boardgames for us to play.  Days of Wonder has started the trend - here's hoping the rest of the gaming world gets on board (get it?).

      Saturday, April 17, 2010

      plain sight

      As a fan of indie games (and online competition), I recently was tempted to purchase Plain Sight, a unique take on the multiplayer "shooter" genre.  In Plain Sight, you are a suicidal robot ninja with a penchant for jumping and being slung by gravitational forces.  Sounds interesting, no?  Unfortunately, I can't strongly recommend Plain Sight - I've tried it for a solid week now and have become increasingly frustrated.  There's definitely skill involved, but the combat becomes repetitive quickly and I also found myself suffering from motion sickness and vertigo.

      As you can see, the art style is quite lovely and Plain Sight does possess an irreverent and welcome sense of humor.  There are a number of maps and gameplay modes to try, although I've found that most multiplayer games online are straight "deathmatch" (everyone for themselves).  The maps vary in quality and playability.  Perhaps it's just personal preference, but I found some of the bigger, "flimsier" maps like "Unreeled Tournament" (see screenshot below) very frustrating.  Your opponents can be quite distant and traversing the "tape" without getting killed is an exercise in annoyance.

      Briefly, the gameplay consists of the following.  You run around using the standard mouse & keyboard configuration, but jumping (via spacebar) is a near-constant necessity.  You gain a great deal more ground and are a harder target to hit.  Since all these maps take place in "space" with particular physics modeled, you can (and should) use solid objects to slingshot yourself around for better positioning.  It's certainly a clever (and somewhat novel) gameplay addition, but one that can induce vertigo and nausea quickly.  Nothing is really "up" or "down" and you'll have to constantly switch perspectives to successfully attack your opponents.  Your goal is to destroy the other robots on the map by locking onto them with your targeting reticule.  It takes a while to establish a lock, so you often have to chase a particular robot around for a while before you get the opportunity to nail them.  If you time things right, you'll dash towards them and smash them into bits, garnering whatever energy they have.

      Interestingly, this does not, by itself, gain you any points.  To score, you actually need to self-destruct (see screenshot above) - and you gain more points for having a greater amount of energy stored up at that point.  You also gain multipliers for catching other robots in your explosion.  Furthermore, the more energy that you accumulate from destroying other robots, the larger and slower you are - i.e. you become an easier target for others to destroy.  This mechanic creates a very interesting "risk vs. reward" decision:  should you save up that energy you've been gaining for a "big score"?  But you could lose it all in a flash if someone manages to destroy you before you self-destruct.  This is truly a clever and interesting aspect to Plain Sight and the designers deserve kudos for it.

      Another positive aspect to Plain Sight is the skill tree.  As you destroy more robots, you gain points to spend on various upgrades.  For example, you can buy a "warning" system that alerts you when other robots have a lock on you.  You can pair this with a "shield," activated by right-clicking, that can block a charging enemy if timed just right.  The double-jump, I've found, is great for chasing/avoiding enemies.  Unfortunately, there is a slight "runaway leader" aspect to this - the more successful players will be opening up better and better skills, making them harder and harder to kill - so if you get stuck at the bottom of the scoreboard, be prepared to die a lot.

      Plain Sight has a number of interest mechanics, as you can see, but ultimately these don't quite gel into a fully pleasurable experience.  The action is perhaps too fast and chaotic, reducing the value of tactical decisions and proper use of the environment.  It can be very satisfying to accumulate a lot of energy and get a big score before someone kills you, but all too often a multiplayer game ends up being dominated by a single player who is capable of taking anyone out who is starting to gain a little energy.  And most damning (at least for me), I find myself actually getting physically sick playing this.  The strategy of the game demands that you are constantly jumping and spinning and reorienting yourself, which combined with the speed and the need for you to focus on what the other robots are doing at all times, plays havoc with your brain's balance system.  If you don't believe me, here's an extended gameplay video - and trust me, it's worse when you're controlling the robot yourself:

      At only $10, Plain Sight isn't going to piss you off - and I certainly love supporting independent developers who come up with creative ideas - but there are better multiplayer experiences out there and after a few days with Plain Sight, I found myself loading up Team Fortress 2 and Left for Dead 2 to alleviate the nausea.

      Sunday, April 4, 2010

      the silent woman

      While re-reading Gene Wolfe's excellent noir tale, An Evil Guest, I was particularly intrigued by a scene taking place at an otherworldly pub (where the waiter has sharp and hairy ears) called "The Silent Woman."  Cassie remarks as they leave,

      "I saw their sign as we left... It's a woman with no head, and it ought to scare me.  Why doesn't it?"

      "Because it assures you that women should talk as long as they're able to."

      Curious, I looked up "The Silent Woman" in Google and came across this wiki entry.  The Silent Woman is a name commonly given to pubs and taverns in the UK, and the pub-sign associated with these establishments often depicts a decapitated woman holding her own head and/or serving refreshment.

      The meaning of the sign is unclear, although at first glance, seems distinctly misogynistic.  "Come gather here, ye men, and avoid the incessant nagging of your wife!"  Or perhaps, a place where men can safely objectify the bodies of women whilst ignoring the unfortunate presence of feminine mind and emotion.  A sort of Bizarro-world Boxing Helena.

      The legend on one sign says, "Since the woman is quiet, let no man breed a riot."  Implying that male-male conflict typically results from the sinister influence of women - their capacity to breed jealousy and rage, perhaps, or their evil machinations.

      The wiki piece mentions the possibility of the Silent Woman being a martyred saint, but I could find no further research on this topic.  Please post a comment if you know anything about this.

      Sunday, March 21, 2010

      social gaming

      Not surprisingly, for the past several months there has been a lot of buzz in the tech world over "social gaming."  FarmVille, for example, potentially has over 80 million active users on Facebook.  Zynga, the online gaming company that markets FarmVille, generated revenues of over $150 million this year. At the recent Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, social gaming was a central topic of discussion - and more than a few independent game developers were offended by having their creative products compared to the FarmVilles and Mafia Wars of the world.

      you're kidding me, right?  this is popular?

      Soren Johnson, the lead designer for Civilization IV and a highly intelligent and astute game designer, offers the following thoughts on social gaming:  "Fear and Loathing in Farmville."

      It's a good read, for a number of reasons.  One of Johnson's biggest fears is that social gaming removes too much creative power from the designer, and places it either in the hands of a "suit" (more concerned with maximizing the bottom-line versus entertainment value) or the player-base.  This latter point is interesting.  Reiterative design, whereby the structure of a game is steadily and rapidly changed based on player feedback, has the potential to be a powerful force in shaping games to suit players' entertainment desires.  But it also caters to the lowest common denominator, and it makes the concept of a "game designer" (someone with a special creative talent in game design) less meaningful.

      To quote:

      I have to admit my own reservations about this transformation; game design itself simply might be not as much fun as it used to be. I cannot easily sum up how enjoyable brainstorming a game is during the early, heady days of blue skies and distant deadlines. With a release-early-and-iterate mentality, these days are now over, for good. Games will no longer be a manifestation of an individual’s (or a team’s) pure imagination and, instead, will grow out of the murky grey area between developers and players. The designer-as-auteur ideal is perhaps incompatible with this model, but I believe the best game designers are the ones willing to “get dirty” – to engage fully with a community to discover which ideas actually work and which ones were simply wishful thinking. Loss of control is never fun, but as Sid is fond of saying, the player should be the one having the fun, after all, not the designer.

      Most gamers' and designers' primary concern with social gaming, as it stands now, is how these products are built, from the ground up, to abuse and exploit the customer.  Social games typically utilize a partial reinforcement schedule to keep players coming back, much like slot machines in casinos.  The hope of the company is that their customer will become behaviorally addicted to the product and a regular subscriber.  If they can cajole/convince their friends to sign up too, their experience will improve (for example, they might receive some bonus content).  It is also common to sabotage the functionality of the product, requiring payment to improve performance, open up options which are usually standard, etc.

      Now, there's a danger here of over-reaction.  After all, these games are free to play.  If you're careful, they are free to play forever.  Ultimately, it is your choice whether you want to invest any money in furthering your gaming experience.  The business model demands that there be some mechanism of generating revenue to cover the cost of development and distribution of a free-to-play model.  Advertising is one possibility.  Micro-transactions is another.  In and of themselves, there are not necessarily evil things (well, maybe advertising is, but not micro-transactions).

      Furthermore, there is definitely something to be gleaned from the popularity of these games.  Johnson delineates 4 attributes of social games that "promise great things for both gamers and designers":

      • True friends list: Gaming can now happen exclusively within the context of one’s actual friends. Multiplayer games no longer suffer from the Catch-22 of requiring friends to be fun while new players always start the game without friends.
      • Free-to-play business model: New players need not shell out $60 to join the crowd. Consumers don’t like buying multiplayer games unless they know that their friends are all going to buy the game as well. Free-to-play removes that friction.
      • Persistent, asynchronous play: Finding time to play with one’s real friends is difficult, especially for working, adult gamers. Asynchronous mechanics, however, let gamers play at their own pace and with their own friends, not strangers who happen to be online at the same time.
      • Metrics-based iteration: Retail games are developed in a vacuum, with designers working by gut instinct. Further, games get only one launch, a single chance to succeed. Most developers would love, instead, to iterate quickly on genuine, live feedback.
      And when viewed in this context, one can certainly begin to see why everyone's buzzing about the potential of social gaming - and not just as a money-generating cash-cow, which it surely is.  In particular, #3 (persistent, asynchronous play) appeals to me.  As one grows older and accumulates more life responsibilities, it becomes harder and harder to justify (although I remain capable of doing so) spending 3 hours straight in front of the computer playing with pixels and polygons.  But what if those 3 hours were distributed across a week, in 10-15 minute bites, and you were still able to get a fulfilling strategic gaming experience?  As a related model, consider how much time/energy/enjoyment people get from "playing" fantasy football and its ilk, which are based upon persistent, asynchronous, social interaction.

      Personally, I've never been attracted to casual social games because stuff that appeals to the lowest common denominator is likely to be uninteresting to my refined and spoiled palate (snooty, I know).  After all, I've been a gamer for near-on 30 years and I'm particularly drawn to niche markets that don't have mass appeal.  Furthermore, I'm used to playing my games with complete strangers online - and in some ways, I prefer that.  But I can read the tea leaves as well as anyone else, and the fact of the matter is that when it comes to the bottom line, I'm less relevant to the CEO's and business graduates of the world than the ~400 million Facebook users who aren't willing to slap down $50 for the latest and greatest in video-game technowizardry.

      I'm not going to play Chicken Little here and say the sky is falling, but casual games, and especially social games, are going to have a major impact of what video games 10 years from now look like.  And it might not necessarily be all bad.

      Although if you want to scare yourself, watch this video from DICE 2010, where Carnegie Mellon University professor, Jesse Schell, tries to give us a glimpse into our awesome future.  He's not a great speaker, but it gets very interesting (in a "holy shit, I need to kill myself now" way) around the 20 min mark.

      Wednesday, March 3, 2010

      internet university

      I've been meaning to post some of these links for a while... The internet is a fabulous, horrifying thing, alternatively disgusting, provocative, entertaining, and informative.  For the moment, let's ignore all the other bollocks and focus on "informative."

      Let's say it's been a while since college, or maybe you never went (or, like me, you're just curious to see  how other professors "do it"), but you're self-motivated to do some learning/thinking on your own.  You can now find free university course content from some of the top researchers and lecturers in the world on the internet.  If audio is enough for you - perhaps you just want to listen to a Harvard professor pontificate about Shakespeare on your Ipod while you go for a morning stroll - they try out iTunesU.

      Personally, I found it too distancing.  I think it's overly optimistic of me to presume that I can clean the house or exercise while simultaneously paying attention to Robert Sapolsky.

      Instead, I think that Academic Earth has more potential.  Here, you'll get video feed of the lecture as well as audio.  So, minimally, you'll be able to see the professor in question.  Unfortunately, they still haven't solved the problem of how to nicely synch-up lecture slides with audio presentation (a certainly jump-able hurdle).  Sometimes, the videographer completely ignores the slides which make science lectures, in particular, nearly incomprehensible.

      If the stodginess of Academic Earth is too much for you, you can also try a couple of other websites that offer more intimate and, periodically, controversial snippets from so-called experts.  Both Big Think and offer interviews and speeches from prominent members of the world community, on all number of topics.

      Big Think features direct interviews conducted by Big Think staffers.  For example, here's Helen Fisher, whose theories on romance, sexual attraction, love and lust play a role in some of the research I conduct:, in contrast, typically posts speeches and interviews captured in other contexts.  The pieces can be unsatisfyingly short, which I think is catering to the presumed short attention span of their internet audience.  For example, a male beaver's lament:

      Go forth and nerdify yourself!

      Wednesday, February 3, 2010

      solium infernum AAR

      It all started December 8th.

      Game Parameters:
      Map Size: Normal
      Map Type: Great Rivers
      Places of Power: Uncommon
      Game Length: Normal

      1. Severian (Host)
      2. Meatball
      3. Carnivean
      4. Belshirash
      5. Scratch

      As host, I hoped to finish a game within one month, conducting 2-3 turns per day.  Theoretically, this should have worked but was certainly overly optimistic.  Turns sometimes ground to a slow pace (1/day or less), and several of us were forced to take a break over the holidays.  We finished February 3rd - nearly a 2 month journey through hell.

      I'll put the precis up front for those who just want the meat of the matter:  after 12 conclave tokens had been drawn (around Turn 50), Meatball conquered Pandemonium with a range-heavy legion.  The rest of us had 5 turns to destroy his Stronghold or re-take Pandemonium.  We failed.

      I don't plan to rehash the entire history of our game, since there were far too many machinations, plans, plans within plans, thrilling victories, abject failures, and catastrophic events to summarize in one blog entry.  RPS recently published a wonderful diary of an entire game and I encourage you to read it as well, if you're interested in a more detailed turn-by-turn analysis from several players' perspectives.  This blog will just summarize some of my thoughts on the game, as well as the major events from my personal viewpoint.  Necessarily, this will be a very biased and self-centered view since so much information (regarding other players' builds, strategies, and orders) is unknown to me.

      The Early Game   ...when two sloths reveal themselves while three hares scurry for prestige...and Scratch falls victim to his own hubris...

      I chose this build, which in 20/20 hindsight was relatively poor.  I almost certainly should have started with Charisma 3; the difference between 2 and 3 is vast.  I could have sacrificed either Paranoid or Bully, but my original plan was to try and push a Praetor strategy if possible.  As such, I was worried (paranoid, if you will) about a high Deceit build eventually stealing away my strongest card.  Bully was going to garner me prestige once people started capitulating to my demands, fearful of single-combat vendetta.

      We started this game prior to the 1.5 patch, which meant that taking a high rank was vital.  If I remember correctly, 3 of us chose Duke, 1 was a Marquis, and 1 was a Prince.  As such, my starting legion was relatively strong (high ranged attack) - but so were the bodyguards of everyone else.  In the early game, I spent a great deal of my resources on acquiring both a solid praetor (Zuul) and a useful artifact (Siege Engine).

      The Siege Engine, in particular, allowed me to capture 2 early POP's which started garnering me +3 prestige/turn.  Meatball and Scratch also rushed to conquer POP's and seemed poised to battle over the Garden of Infernal Delights for the remainder of the game.

      Interestingly, neither Carnivean nor Belshirash were doing anything.  It actually took me a couple turns to realize that the movement rate of their starting legions were 1, indicating that they had taken the "Slothful" perk.  I had not encountered Turtlers like this in my AI games and I was worried at my ignorance.  How powerful was this strategy?  It certainly suggested that they were accumulating resources and increasing their attributes while the 3 of us were spending order slots on moves and attacks.

      Scratch quickly took the prestige lead by acquiring some solid POP's.  Unfortunately, this made him a target when players first began flinging demands and vendettas at one another.  Scratch refused to capitulate to a demand from Belshirash relatively early in the game - I doubt any of us would have - and a turn later, Scatch's bodyguards were gone.  Wiped clean from the slate of hell.  And Belshirash's legion had not even moved.

      This was probably the defining moment of the early game for us all, since Scratch had no other legions at this point and losing your bodyguard is a major blow.   Both Belshirash and Carnivean revealed themselves to be clever and dangerous foes.  Belshirash was packing heat:  he was likely already a Destruction 3 or 4, possibly with 2 ritual slots, and was to be avoided.  Carnivean immediately cast Infernal Negotiations, predicting a rash of diplomatic actions in the next few turns.  Several players made demands of Scratch, I cast an insult, and Carnivean cleaned up some nice prestige from this timely ritual.  He also revealed himself as a Prophecy build, which I found curious.  I wasn't sure as to the power of Prophecy (few had spoken well of it on the Cryptic Comet forums) but perhaps he knew how to play it well.

      In a sense, I feel for Scratch.  He spent much of the remainder of the game dealing with demands, invasions, vendettas and insults.  To his credit, he maintained his prestige lead into the middle game - and in the end, played a major role in how our game panned out.

      The Middle Game   ...when Severian feels the brief winds of victory and is just as quickly cast into mediocrity... Belshirash's fires burn... and Carnivean's general threatens all from afar

      My greatest failing in this game was not building up my attributes high enough, quickly enough.  It took me far too long to even get to Charisma 3.  I originally had planned to achieve 3 move orders (via Destruction 4) by Turn 25, but I was spending too many resources on Praetors and Artifacts and I went through a long drought of Hellfire.  I picked up the Throne of Skulls, which is truly excellent (multiplying a Praetor's effectiveness x3), but never had the chance to actually use it.  It remained in my vault for the entirety of the game.

      I was also keeping Zuul in my vault to protect her from rituals and had won a single-combat vendetta vs. Meatball, allowing her to level up.  My luckiest moment came when I drew the "In Dreadful Deeds" event card, which granted my praetor an extraordinary promotion. 

      I was also able to declare a vendetta vs. Scratch and march through his territory to the City of Dis:  the most powerful POP on the map, not yet conquered.  With a praetor and the Siege Engine attached, I took it and completed my vendetta (capturing cantons) in the same turn.  I felt confident and bold.

      My plan was to sit next to the City of Dis for, possibly, the remainder of the game and fling demands at my opponents with Zuul as my ace-in-the-hole.  Eventually, I lulled Carnivean into a single-combat vendetta.  I played my event after our vendetta was declared, hoping that he would be unprepared for the upgraded power of Zuul.

      Unfortunately, I underestimated his shrewdness.  Carnivean had won an auction for a relic (Goblet of the Traitor) which allowed for the "Annointed of Ash" ritual, another means of upgrading your praetor for single combat.  So his Praetor, Bune, was well matched for Zuul.  We walked into battle near equals... except for his advantage in luck.  Bune's upgrade had granted him a Luck of 4, which time and time again in our single combat gave Bune a powerful advantage over Zuul.  It went two rounds and Zuul would have pulled it off except that her Infernal Attacks fizzled when they should have sizzled.

      For me, this was the turning point of the game.  I had briefly gained command of the lead - but my loss to Carnivean cost me not only prestige but also my strongest play.  He vaulted into first place and from that point on used his praetor to make incessant demands, win periodic vendettas, and earn a great deal of prestige.  In other words, do what I wanted to do.  This was, of course, infuriating.  The praetor strategy is very powerful if you can pull it off.  Once you've developed a show-horse, you can throw out demands at anybody without concern for invasion of your own territory.  The only consolation I, and my colleagues, received (and it was sweet) was when Bune was defeated by the Butcher in the tournament of champions.  However, he simply annointed another Praetor and kept up the harassment.  Overall, Carnivean played an excellent, well-thought out game and most likely would have won if Meatball hadn't gone for the jugular.

      The Late Game   ... when Carnivean distances himself from the slavering fiends... and Meatball positions himself for a shocking usurpation of the throne...

      I felt castrated.  In addition to losing Zuul in single combat, Belshirash had successfully banished my two other praetors in a single turn.  I had very little going for me:  the City of Dis, the Chosen of Severian, and my two artifacts.  I had not yet achieved 3 move orders and I was still struggling with resources.  To add insult to injury, Scratch surprised me by hiring the Sons of Typhon and using his Dimensional Cube to teleport them into the City of Dis.  So now, I had nothing.

      I decided to position myself to attack Meatball, since he was in last place and seemed vulnerable to a well-timed attack on his POP's.  It was desperate but I felt I needed to be aggressive with my legion.  I successfully positioned myself, made a demand, and... we all received word that Meatball had taken Pandemonium.

      His legion was indeed powerful, with a ranged stat of over 22 and the artifact which granted "sulfurous burns" (double damage from ranged attacks).  Most importantly, his stronghold was only 2 cantons away; in other words, he could defend both Pandemonium and his homebase at the same time.  Carnivean and I immediately began to position ourselves closer to his stronghold.  I was somewhat pleased by this turn of events for 2 reasons:
      • I did not believe that Meatball would succeed.  I felt (incorrectly, it turns out) that he was relatively weak and this was a desperate attempt at a win by someone who was in last place and didn't know what else to do.  
      • I was in the best position to take advantage of the situation.  I could immediately invade his territory and conquer 2 of his POP's.  I also had a strong enough legion to potentially take down his stronghold.  This would have the added benefit of fulfilling my Public Objective, Wrath.
      The Beast was in the bazaar.  He was probably our best chance at taking out Meatball's legion, since he forced Ranged attacks to occur last in combat.  Scratch, surprisingly, was the player to pick him up.  This was somewhat fortuitous since Scratch's stronghold (where the Beast would emerge) was close to Pandemonium and Meatball's stronghold.  I still believe that Scratch could have prevented Meatball from winning if he had directly attacked Meatball's stronghold when he had the chance.  Instead, he chose to wait because he hoped to create a situation where all of us would weaken ourselves against Meatball and he would come out ahead.  I cannot blame him for thinking along these lines, as he had served as the communal kicking boy for well over a month of play.

      Unfortunately, Meatball was more powerful than perhaps any of us had anticipated.  His Destruction skill was formidable.  He lost his legion but successfully banished the Beast via three successive Infernal Affliction rituals (I only know this because he told us after the game).  His stronghold was exposed but Carnivean's Darkwing legion was blocking my path.  I attempted to maneuver around him, setting myself up for an attack in 2 turns.  I still felt, at this point, that we had a good chance to stop Meatball.  I thought Carnivean had a praetor or artifact up his sleeve that would allow his Darkwing legion to take out the stronghold.  If that failed, I would be in position with my Siege Engine to attack in a couple more turns.  We still had time.

      That's when a chasm opened under my feet and cast the Chosen of Severian into the abyss.

      I assumed Meatball had held onto this Event ("A Great Fissure"), just in case, and realized my legion was a threat to his stronghold.  As it turns out, he did not play this event - Scratch did.  And I can only imagine his spiteful self-satisfaction as this played out.  Regardless, I have since been informed by Meatball that he had several powerful Destruction rituals lined up against me if necessary, so I suspect that I would not have been able to take his stronghold as readily as I imagined.  Carnivean's Darkwings also succumbed to the fiery power of Meatball.

      Meatball was also cranking out Demonic Premonitions every turn after taking Pandemonium to protect against ritual attacks.  Carnivean was a ritual powerhouse at this point in the game, but his multitude of spells bounced off Meatball like "water off his back".  Meatball's conquest of Pandemonium was not a desperate act by a drowning man but a calculated, strategic powerplay that succeeded because his enemies failed in coordination and communication.

      This is perhaps an appropriate time to comment on the nature of communication within Solium Infernum.  Our play group decided to use the "in-game" mechanism for communicating with each other, which had a built in delay (identical to that used for diplomatic actions).  You send a message - the next turn, it is read - the next turn, you might receive a response.  We did not allow for emails/communications outside of this designed format.  And I think it is to the benefit of the game.  If the four of us had emailed each other immediately after Meatball took Pandemonium, I suspect we could have generated a full-proof plan to take him down.  But because we did not coordinate well, Meatball was able to pick us off one at a time.

      Final Thoughts

      Even though I'm bitter I lost (since I still think I had a chance), I'm glad that Meatball was able to pull off a victory from being in last place.  It says a lot about the design quality of Solium Infernum, that a player is never truly out of a game and that there really are multiple paths to victory.

      Furthermore, while I consider my starting build to be relatively weak and flawed, I also believe that Soilum is won in the game, not at the Edit Avatar screen.  There's perhaps too much worry on the Cryptic Comet forums over imbalanced builds, the value of Charisma vs. other attributes, and the usefulness/cost of certain perks.  In the end, I think a player can win with most builds (maybe not Charisma 0 or 1) if they play smart and adapt to changing circumstances.  At the end of the game, I was still using only 2 orders and I had a single legion.  My Bully perk had maybe garnered me 15 prestige throughout the entire game, and I don't think Paranoid ever came into play.  But I think I played well, overall, had been careful and calculated with my attacks and feints, and was within 60 prestige of Carnivean.  In another couple turns, I was planning on asking Belshirash if he wanted to be my Blood Vassal.  If he had agreed, it is possible that I could have pulled off a victory with our combined power and prestige.

      Enough said.  Congrats to Meatball.  It took two months and pushed my cortisol levels to their limit but it was a hell of a lot of fun.