Thursday, March 31, 2016

Food Blogging: Rigatoni alla Genovese

Pasta alla Genovese

Type: Italian
Difficulty: Easy
Non-Standard Ingredients: None
Grade: C

I'd never made la Genovese before, but prompted by a posting on reddit, I decided to give it a shot.  I stuck with the most traditional recipes I could find, looking for that authentic taste, and I think I'd have liked it better if I'd moved away from the traditional a bit.

For my taste, it's kind of bland and way to sweet.

My partner said she thought it was pretty good, but that she preferred a more savory sauce herself. Our kid said he thought it was OK in his "I'm being very polite" tone of voice, and then asked me not to make it again.  Unfortunately he's quite picky so that wasn't a surprise. How a pair of foodies like us wound up with a picky eater is a mystery.

My hope had been that, like all the people singing the praises of la Genovese say, the simplicity would make things amazing.  Either my palate is too unrefined, or I did something wrong, or it just plain isn't the sort of thing I like.  I'm leaning towards the last option.

Make no mistake, it wasn't bad.  I just felt kind of meh about it.  If I were to make it again I'd add rosemary maybe, or perhaps oregano and basil, maybe some tarragon to go with the onion. Something.

It is not a short recipe.  Total cooking time is around six hours, but your involvement is about 30 minutes of prep and occasionally stirring.  Not a great meal for a weeknight, but you can make it on the weekend and still get in your reading or Netflixing or gaming or what have you.

You begin with a mirepoix, or at least the carrot and celery parts of a mirepoix, because you'll be adding plenty of onion very soon. I used a rib of celery and a carrot, some recipes called for two celery and two carrots but most called for one so I went along.

Then the meat, in my case 2.8 pounds of bone in shoulder roast, nice and fatty, bone for extra flavor, and all in all a good choice of meat for a long braise, which is basically what la Genovese is.

I cut it into bite sized chunks, browned it, then added the carrot and celery, also the bones and all the meat I couldn't cut off the bones.

dang that's a lot of onions

That's 7 large yellow onions, one onion short of 5.5 pounds, six thin sliced and ready to go the seventh left for scale in the photo then sliced and added to the bowl.

They filled the pot, almost to the brim. Slapped a lid on, gave it stir every now and then, and an hour later it looked like this:

Why no, I didn't add any liquid, that's all onion and meat juice.

After letting it cook for a total of five hours or so, removing the bones and pulling all the cooked meat off I could, and then letting it gently boil down with the lid off to get a bit less watery, it looked delicious.

The recipes all said a big cylindrical pasta was best, so I went with rigatoni.  Mixed the pasta with the sauce, plated, and the result was indeed a lovely looking dish of pasta.  I added Parmesan, the real stuff not that nasty crap from Kraft, per the recipe, before I ate, but took a picture of just the sauce and pasta.

And it was.... ok.  Obviously a lot of people like it, but as I noted earlier I found it a bit meh, and too sweet.  I knew it'd be sweet, you can't cook down 5.5 pounds of onions for hours without getting a sweet result, but I was unprepared for how almost cloyingly sweet it was.

Again, it wasn't bad.  I just didn't care much for it.  Which is a shame, because I love onions, and really wanted to like it.  Oh well, I may make a less traditional batch with some herbs and spices added someday.

Full Recipe:

2.8 pounds of fatty beef with bone in, or 2 pounds of leaner boneless beef.
5 to 7 pounds onions
1 rib celery
1 carrot
Olive oil
Rigatoni or your favorite large cylindrical pasta

Thin slice the onions, this will take a while, there's a lot.  If you have a mandolin that'd be the quickest and most dangerous way to get the job done.

Cut the beef into bite sized cubes and brown with a touch of olive oil in the pot, including the bones if you've got bones.  Once browned, add the carrot and celery, saute for a moment, then reduce heat to medium add the onions.  All of them.

Add salt and pepper, then lid and allow to cook for ten or fifteen minutes before stirring for the first time.  Lid again, and give a stir every fifteen or so minutes for the next four to five hours until cooked into a delicious mass with the onions mostly dissolving into delicious oniony mushy goodness.

Once cooked to mush, remove the bones, pick off any meat left on the bones and reintroduce to the sauce, and discard the bones.

Remove the lid and allow to boil down until it thickens, depending on how watery your onions were, how tight your lid was, etc this could take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour.

Prepare your pasta ever so slightly al dente, once it is finished mix with the sauce.  I used a pound of pasta and found it to be not quite enough, I had sauce left over.

Plate, add a healthy sprinkling of fresh grated Parmesian cheese, and broil util the cheese is nice and melty.

You're finished!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Not gaming related, but answers to Today Christian's 10 questions they claim atheists can't answer.

Grade: Difficult to assign a single grade.
Grade for the questions as questions: D-
Grade for clickbait quality: C

Today Christian indulges in the periodic exercise that many Christian publications do of asking fake questions of atheists.  Mostly this shows that the author of the piece has never actually met or talked to an atheist, usually they have clickbait titles, like this one does, making the assertion that an honest atheist can't answer the questions.   

Their clickbait intro above the questions exposes the actual purpose: "Some Questions Atheist [sic] Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…"  

I'm betting it has to do with Romans 1:18-20 and the conclusion that atheists are all secret believers in God who just want to rebel or live in sin.  That's typically where publications of this nature go when they think about atheism.

I have a few questions of my own, beginning with, how did they decide on the name "Today Christian", because that's a terrible, awkward, name.  Perhaps the founder wasn't a native English speaker?  But I'll save my questions and answer theirs.  Unsurprisingly, the answers are not difficult at all.

Link to Today Christian's list of "questions".  
1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?
 I didn't become an atheist, I started as an atheist and see no reason to change that position.  I wasn't raised religious and never had any faith in any god.  Unlike many atheists, I don't have a deconversion story.  I've always been an atheist, kind of boring I'll admit but a very easy answer.
2.       What happens when we die?
We cease to exist. Not exactly a fun or desirable prospect, but reality is what it is and wishing won't make it any different.  One day we may discover a way to do mind uploading or some other technological way to cheat death, I'm pretty sure that we will one day, but I doubt it will be in my lifetime.  My child or possibly his child may live to see immortality,  I almost certainly won't.
3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
What if you're wrong and the real god is Allah? And he's mad because you worshiped Jesus instead of him?  And he's going to throw you into HELL! 

Pascal's Wager only works if you assume there exactly two options: your specific religion and atheism.  Once you widen it to include all the other religions that actually exist then it fails.  And, really, even if it made logical sense, I don't see how it'd lead to salvation.  Surely an all knowing god would be able to differentiate between a genuine believer and someone faking it as a sort of spiritual insurance policy?

Moreover, the question is just a not so veiled threat, a Mafia protection racket on your soul.  Worship my god, you say, or he'll torture you for all eternity.  That's not one beggar telling another where to find free bread, that's a threat and a worse threat than any gangster has ever made.  A mortal gangster after all can, at worst, torture you to death once.  You claim the sadistic and cruel god you worship can torture a person for all eternity without even the hope of death as a way to escape the agony.  That's only "kind and loving" if you suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.

If I'm wrong, well, any just god wouldn't torture people forever based on a failure to worship him, and any unjust god is unworthy of worship.  

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?
The same place you do.  There's a bit built into our genome, and a lot from society.  I'd like to imagine that I'm some sort of paragon of virtue and that if I'd lived in the Roman Empire I'd have been an abolitionist and an advocate of women's rights, but in all honesty I'd probably have been like any other Roman citizen.  People generally conform to whatever conditions exist in their society, with a few reformers urging progressive change, and a few reactionaries fighting against progressive change.  

Christians don't get their morality from the Bible, much as they may claim to.  Note, for example, the near total absence of Christians protesting against bankers who charge interest despite the Bible being very explicit in condemning loaning money at interest, and the long history of Christians persecuting Jews who did loan money at interest.  Or the almost universal Christian acceptance of divorce, even among Catholics (though some will justify it by inventing loopholes and rule laywering to allow someone to "annul" a marriage, which totally isn't the same as divorce, because annul starts with an A and divorce starts with a D).

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
If the only thing holding you back from murdering and raping is fear of some father figure in the sky punishing you after death, you must be a pretty awful person and I'd really rather you weren't around children.  Perhaps you should seek professional help?

Can we do what we want?  No.  We exist in a society and that society has rules.  Violate those rules and they'll be enforced by society.  And, thanks to our evolutionary path, societies tend to have very similar rules for the basics.  Murder, rape, theft, and assault are crimes in every society.  It gets less universal when you get to the details (what, exactly, differentiates murder from a justified killing?  what, specifically, makes for assault?) but the broad patterns are the same across human societies.

More important, we have an innate sense of morality due to our evolution as a social species.  That fails sometimes, sociopaths for example lack that sense of empathy and morality, and the inborn sense was evolved to be beneficial in a small tribe or pack of humans.  This means it can lead us astray in our current environment.  But that sense that it is wrong to kill or hurt other people has been demonstrated to be inborn rather than social.

Good deeds are unrewarded sometimes.  That's not nice, but it's true.  And bad things happen to good people, because the universe has a large random component.  

Most importantly, why would a god be considered objective even if there was a god?  That's not objective, that's just a god's subjective opinions coupled with a belief that might makes right.
6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
I make meaning for myself, as do you.  That's what people do, we make meaning.  
7.       Where did the universe come from?
I don't know.  Current best evidence says there was a big bang around 14 billion years ago and that started the whole thing, but what came before that (or if that question is even meaningful) I don't know.  People are working on figuring that out, and perhaps they'll have an answer before I die.  

The GodDidIt answer is just a long winded and confusing way of saying "I don't know".  The difference between us is not that you know the true origin of the universe and I don't, it's that I'm honest in admitting my ignorance and you aren't. 

Until the 1920's no one knew how the sun burned either, that didn't mean it was a miracle beyond human understanding, it just meant that humanity hadn't yet discovered the principle of atomic fusion.  
8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
I would say such people are either mistaken or lying.  People, it turns out, are really bad at accurately observing things.  One of the things that makes science work are the steps a process takes to minimize human error in the observations.  That's why science uses double blind tests, control groups, measurement by instrument rather than human senses, and all the other annoying, painstaking, steps it does.

Human memory is infamously malleable.  People adjust their memories all the time, and will in all honesty remember events that never happened.

Show me a testable miracle that can be empirically verified and I'll concede that it is real.  A bunch of people who imagine that once they saw an angel, I'm afraid I can't just take them at their word.  UFO believers swear they see little green men.  That doesn't mean aliens are really performing proctologies on rednecks.
9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
They have (or had, Hitchens is dead now) the occasional valuable contribution.  In addition to that Harris is a right wing lunatic who can't or won't apply even the tiniest bits of reason or self examination to his thought process.  Hitchens was a contrarian for the sake of it and took pleasure in annoying people.  Dawkins has turned into a jerk, or perhaps he always was and it just wasn't obvious, with a serious case of unexamined privilege.  

I'd also ask why you call out those three, I suspect its just laziness as it isn't as if they are the only atheists, or even the only outspoken atheists, in the world.  Asking me to justify them is no more proper or fair than me asking you to justify Timothy McVeigh simply because he happened to be Christian.
10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

I'm not an anthropologist, but my layman's understanding of it is that it seems that our brains are hardwired for the pathetic fallacy, which has a survival benefit out in the wild even if it isn't true, and which will tend to develop into religion among smart people as time passes.  I will note that "religion" and "god belief" are separate things and that there are societies that have religion while technically being atheist in that they have no gods.  For example, many forms of Buddhism involve no gods.  

There you have it Today Christian, your ten "unanswerable" questions answered, completely honestly and without any real difficulty or trouble.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, a review of a classic

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Grade: A
Platform: Windows, Mac
Genre: 4X
GOG $5.99

Easily one of the best 4X games ever developed, available at GOG now for only six bucks, if you haven't played it yet just stop reading and go buy it and you'll easily spend a couple hundred hours playing before you realize it.

Or, if you insist there is more to say in review.

Positioned as a sort of thematic or conceptual sequel to the starship victory in the Civilization series, Alpha Centuri follows the colonists to their new home where they promptly split into ideology driven, as opposed to nationalist or ethnic, factions and start competing for dominance.

It plays largely like other games in the Civilization family tree, the most obvious mechanical difference being that unlike most other Civ games you can design individual units rather than just getting a default unit with certain tech advances.  But there is more to the difference than the obvious, some of the mechanics are significantly different from Civilization's model, and often better.  Alpha Centauri has a dynamic weather system and you can use terraforming to not only help your own society but to hurt your enemies.  Change rainfall patterns to make their crops wither, or even flood them via global warming.  The tech tree is improved as well and has an option for blind research that adds an interesting element to the game.

But what sets Alpha Centauri apart from the Civilization series is not just setting or tone, or even the mechanical differences, but the fact that Alpha Centauri has a story and characters.  The characters are developed mainly as you climb the tech tree or build wonders, each tech or wonder has a quote that is usually from one of the faction leaders and helps breathe life both into their faction and the leader themselves.  The story develops as you play, both in alterations to gameplay and in small text vignettes.

The planet, simply called Planet, is inhabited by life that's alien beyond even starfish aliens.  The dominant life form is a fungus, simply called xenofungus or "the fungus", and all the other life you encounter is deeply related to and basically part of the fungus.  The fungus is also telepathic and pre-sapient when you first encounter it, but grows into a person, a single mind, as it spreads over the planet.

At first the fungus is an obstruction, worthless in terms of resources, slowing down your units, and acting as a hiding place for mind worms which are exactly as awful as they sound; the discovery of fungicidal add ons for your terraformers seems like the best thing ever.  As you progress you can learn how to make the fungus the most valuable resource in the game, you'll be carpeting your territory with as much as you can manage and you'll curse your earlier efforts to get rid of it.

Alpha Centauri takes a decidedly transhumanist approach to things, allowing cybernetics, genetic engineering, brain mapping and upload, and more.  All of which fits the game perfectly and helps propel the story to its natural conclusion.

Each faction is clear, has advantages and disadvantages that fit its ideology, an agenda that makes sense given that ideology, and they will react to you based on your social decisions as well as your more overt diplomatic or warmaking decisions.  The AI isn't especially amazing, but it does a good enough job of providing a challenge.

In addition to the quality writing for the factions and the storyline in general, Alpha Centauri features well done voice acting for each faction leader that helps make them memorable.  The rich rolling voice of CEO Nwabudike Morgan helps establish him as the sort of person who despises most of humanity but makes a pretense of caring about the little people, while Sister Miriam Godwinson speaks with a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle), but threatening, air of conviction and righteousness.

If it weren't for the overarching story, the rich world building, the well developed factions, and the integration of transhumanist themes, Alpha Centauri would simply have been Civilization with different art assets (looking at you Civilization: Beyond Earth) and we'd have long forgotten it.  As it is, it stands out not merely as a well done member of the Civilization family, but also as one of the better 4X games yet developed.  This shows that it is possible to incorporate a story and characters into the 4X genre, and that if done well it can make the game vastly better.

It holds up very well, both in terms of graphics and gameplay.  Despite being 17 years old  the gameplay is still fresh (which says something not at all hopeful about the 4X genre, which seems to be stagnating) and the game entertaining and challenging.

The only expansion for the game, Alien Crossfire, is a mixed bag.  The alien factions are interesting enough, and obviously thought went into trying to make them alien, but the extra human factions mostly seemed cheap and lazy compared to the original factions, a couple stood out as worthwhile but mostly they were bleh. Mostly it is worthwhile for the gameplay improvements, the addition of fungal towers we very good, and some of the added tech improves the game greatly. Fortunately it is possible to use the improvements of the add on without bothering with the somewhat inferior factions it included.

The combination of a fresh take on the 4X genre, the well executed world building, the addition of personalities, characters, and story to the 4X genre, all combine to make Alpha Centauri a game truly worthy of an A.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Where Dishonored went right, and speculation on why

A new post, a repeated warning:


One of the reasons why I suspect the unfortunate dedication to the idea of the silent protagonist was largely responsible for the character and story weakening sexist tropes for Corvo and the overall story of Dishonored is how well the game handled women and society outside the main story.

In many small ways Dishonored shows that at least some of the writers had been thinking a about gender issues (unsurprising since one of them has published feminist essays) and this influenced them and made the world a better realized and interesting place.  There's a number of games where the world is, at heart, populated by men with a few women tacked on as an afterthought at best.  We see less of this than we once did, but it still happens more often than it should.  Dishonored is not one of those games.

It's also a good example of how media doesn't have to take an overtly feminist approach, or have any examples of feminism in world, to have a positive, and indeed feminist, message. Despite the Empress apparently having a lot of real political power, its clear that the government and society of the Isles is not sexually egalitarian in the slightest.

This fits with the quasi-historic period the game inhabits, remember that it wasn't until 1884 that the first states in the USA began allowing married women to even own property.  Until then when a woman married she was, in the legal language of the day, covered by her husband's person.  Meaning basically that she ceased to exist as a person, from a legal standpoint, and was counted as part of her husband.  That didn't fully end until 1981 when the Supreme Court overturned a law in Louisiana that gave sole control of all marital property to the husband.  And it wasn't until 1998, just 18 years ago, that marital rape became a crime in all fifty states (Oklahoma and North Carolina were the holdouts)

Taking into consideration the legal restrictions on women for so much of history can be, if poorly thought out and implemented, nothing more than an excuse for a game basically having no women.  Or it can be a way to display the injustice of the past (and several places here and now) and get the player to think about it a bit and simply make a fictional world more realistic and believable.  Dishonored takes the second approach, and in a non-preachy sort of way that fits in with the game as a whole.

In a particularly good example, Emily expresses interest in pirates and mayhem to be told by Callista, her tutor/governess, that girls aren't supposed to be interested in such things.  But if you use the heart on Callista it tells you "She dreams of freedom, and the decks of whaling ships fast after the beasts of sea. But alas, she is a woman."  That juxtaposition, a woman both as the victim of patriarchy and the enforcer of patriarchy, works on many levels, both artistically as a minor tragedy in the midst of a larger tragedy, historically and currently in that woman generally are among the prime instruments by which patriarchy is perpetuated, and thematically for the game.

By including women as more fully realized characters, and by giving thought and consideration to how patriarchy affects women and their place in the world, Dishonored became deeper, more complete, and the world (the best part of the game) also became richer.  You can't do good world building if you don't consider how half of humanity fits into the world, and clearly the design team at Arkane did.

Another example is one of the lines you might overhear from a maid talking to herself as she works: "I have to keep this position. He says to bring a bottle, I bring a bottle. He says to bring food, I bring food. He says to undress, I undress."  The voice actress sounded merely a bit beaten down and resigned at first but puts a mix of rage and despair into that last sentence that speaks volumes.  The historic reality of women who were vulnerable due to poverty or other needs, which is to say virtually all women, being sexually exploited by those with more power is one that rarely gets comment or thought in games unless it is for titillation.

In general, Dishonored is a world that simply includes women who fit the world and exist as people, and that's something that doesn't happen much in gaming, or most other media.  The default for characters, whether protagonists or background or anything in between, is male and in a lot of games and movies this results in everyone but a few hookers and party members being male.  Shopkeeper?  Dude.  Bartender?  Guy.  Quest giver?  Fella.  Big bad?  Chap.  Mooks?  Bros.  Etc.  Even simply including women at all is sometimes an achievement, sad as that is to say.  Including women well, including women who fit the world, especially if the world isn't egalitarian, is rare.

When it comes to sex and gender issues Dishonored isn't perfect, nothing is, but it handles those issues much better than most games that try and I commend the writing team for their efforts in that area.

There are moments where the more aware writing in Dishonored falters, but even there it does a better job than most other media, games or otherwise, would in a similar situation.  The sequence with Lord Brisby, the creepy stalker, who offers you the non-lethal option of dealing with Lady Boyle is a good example of Dishonored failing on this front, but not too badly.

Lord Brisby is infatuated with one of the ladies Boyle (there are three, all masked, and you have to figure out which one to eliminate), she's rebuffed his advances and he will tell Corvo which of the three is the target, and not coincidentally the lady Boyle he is infatuated with, on the condition that Corvo agree to kidnap her and bring her to Brisby.

In Dishonored none of the non-lethal options are particularly nice, and many seem to be more cruel than simply killing the target.  In this respect, handing Lady Boyle over to a man who is sexually obsessed with her and who intends to spirit her away to a private island and make her his sex slave is not all that different from the other horrible, but non-lethal, fates that you can chose.

I'd argue that the failing is twofold, first in choosing a sexually associated non-lethal option for the only woman on Corvo's list of targets seems to show a certain lazy acceptance of patriarchal tropes.  There's a depressing tendency for writers who don't know what to do with women in their fiction to have them get raped as a way of showing pathos and the brutality of the world.  And it is regrettably true that in the real world rape, even in the USA, is much more common than we'd like to admit  (1 in 6 women in the USA are the victims of an attempted or completed rape [1], statistics for other nations are often higher).

However the trope of women as rape victims, or having fates and circumstances that basically center around sex, is so over used that I think if writers tried to avoid for the most part it would be the sort of self imposed limit that makes for better writing.  

But, while the lazy deployment of an overused trope is not exactly ideal, I believe the true failing is in the writers trying to downplay and minimize the rape at the core of Lady Boyle's non-lethal option.  In the other non-lethal options the brutality, cruelty, and general awfulness of the option is not downplayed, in fact it's often reveled in.  

Not only do you brand High Overseer Campbell's face, but as a result of that he is stripped of everything he owns, cast out in the street to die, and later you find that he has survived somehow, starved and frail, beaten and abused, fallen victim to the plague and become a weeper.  There's a poetic justice there, since he was part of the conspiracy that brought the plague to the Isles, but it is undeniably a horrible and cruel fate, arguably worse than a clean death would have been.

You send the Pendelton Brothers to be slaves in their own mine, and it is emphasized that this is a fate worse than death, that they will spend the remainder of their very short lives being worked to death in a gulag style destructive labor facility and tortured if they refuse to work.

Yet the game tries to present the option of turning Lady Boyle over to a man who clearly intends to turn her into a sex slave and rape her until he's exhausted his infatuation, as not that bad.  Lord Brisby gives you rather obviously fake assurances that he totally doesn't plan to rape Lady Boyle, instead he claims that he'll merely keep her imprisoned until she "voluntarily" chooses to let him fuck her, as if somehow that's better, and as if somehow you're expected to believe that.

I think it would have been better, and certainly more honest, to present Lady Boyle's fate as the cruel, brutal, and horrible one it actually is rather than trying to paint it in a better light.  No one pretended that somehow what you did to the Pendelton brothers wasn't horrible, there's no need to pretend that Lady Boyle's fate is especially better.

But even in where it fails, the Dishonored writing team still managed to do better than virtually every other game.  While there's an effort to pretend that Lady Boyle's fate isn't awful, you can clearly see that it is, no pretense is made that somehow this is something she will enjoy or would secretly desire, and its not difficult to see that Lord Brisby is actually a rapist, however much he might protest to the contrary.

All told, Dishonored presents a world where women exist, have their own personalities and characters, interact with the patriarchy in realistic and generally well thought out ways, and act like people, and moreover people who make up 50% of society.  While I may have quibbles from time to time with certain details, the overall success is undeniable.  I count Dishonored, for all its failings, as one of the better games out there when it comes to the presentation of women and thinking about patriarchal societies. 

And then there's the Golden Cat, which needs its own posting.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A more in depth look at where Dishonored failed, and speculation on why

First off:


Dishonored is over four years old at this point, but there are many patient gamer types out there who may not have played it yet.  For those who haven't played it but plan to, there are spoilers ahead.  Read on at your own risk.

I'll be looking at the ways in which Dishonored did good things from a gender and storytelling standpoint in a later blog post.  This one is about the ways in which a lazy acceptance of patriarchal tropes weakened the story and characters.  A flawed ideology can lead directly to bad writing, anything written by Ayn Rand is a good example of this.  While Rand may have also simply been a bad writer, I think it is undeniable that her deeply flawed ideology contributed directly to just how bad her writing was.  Since real people don't act like Rand's ideology demands, her writing depicts people acting not like people, and situations that simply would never, could never, arise in the real world.

Much the same, I think, applies to some of the deeper failures of plot and characterization in Dishonored.

The truly interesting thing, to me, is that Dishonored was written by three people, two of whom were women, and one of those women has written about feminism in general and specifically feminism in gaming.  So how did a group of people with a not insignificant feminist influence wind up producing a game that relied on worn out, boring, and above all deeply patriarchal tropes?

I suspect it began with the decision to make Corvo a silent protagonist.  A number of people in the gaming industry have bought into the idea that the silent protagonist, originally a creation of desperation due to limited hardware resources and the necessarily very simplistic plots of early gaming, is a positive thing in a game.  The argument goes that by making the protagonist silent the player can project themselves into the protagonist, thus making the silent protagonist a fully realized character without any work on the part of the writing team at all and even better drawing the player more deeply into the game than they would with any other sort of character because the silent protagonist is the gamer themselves.

The only thing wrong with this argument is that it's total bullshit in the context of modern, story driven, gaming.

If you have a character willing to go out on a killing spree, you need to have a motive for that character.  Games without much story don't bother with much motive.  Doom, for example, gave your character the simple motive of survival against literal demons seeking to kill him.  The plot was essentially nonexistent (something something demons something something Mars), so it didn't much matter that the character was also essentially nonexistent.  Doom was, at heart, not all that different from Space Invaders or Galaga, in that the mechanics of the game were really all there was to the game.

In that sort of game, perhaps the argument for a silent protagonist make sense.  But once you move beyond "something something demons something something Mars", and into actual plots and stories, the silent protagonist fails, and fails badly. Games with a deeper plot and story require characters who are more than a void labeled Player 1.

Which is why the silent protagonist fails in its ostensible goal of presenting a void into which the player can project themselves.  Even if, as with Link in the Legend of Zelda, the protagonist has no actual dialog or conversation options, by their actions in the game, by the actions the plot forces on them, they develop character.  But, since they are hampered by being silent, and further hampered by a belief that avoiding developing their character is both necessary and good, they develop only the most flat and boring types of character.

And that, I'd argue, is where a wrongful devotion to the myth of the silent protagonist merges and amplifies the inevitable tendency in our culture to go along with patriarchal tropes.  Having eliminated the possibility of making Corvo a real character, who would require real motives and a richer story, the writers fell back onto the easy emotional hooks provided by a patriarchal society.  Not out of any deep rooted commitment to patriarchy, not out of any anti-feminist ideology, but simply because those tropes are easiest to implement with a character who is forbidden from being a character. The failing, at worst, was laziness.

Corvo is not a completely empty shell, much as the developers might have wanted him to be, he's a person.  He's just also a kind of boring and very predictable, and to be brutally honest not all that bright, person.  And he is all of those things because in trying to make him the empty shell into which the player can project themselves, the writers of Dishonored fell into lazy, or easy,  thinking that went directly for bog standard patriarchal tropes.   Its possible that "lazy" is entirely the wrong word here, given the limits imposed by the silent protagonist I'm not sure what other tropes would be available.

As mentioned earlier, a person on a killing spree needs a motive.  Since Corvo hadn't been developed as a character, since he has no background, no history, no beliefs or convictions, not the slightest shred of personality, the only motive they could think to give him was one of the most boring and overused: a dead and/or kidnapped lover.  The dead and/or kidnapped love interest has been the go to motive for male game protagonists since the earliest games because its cheap and easy.  You can introduce the motive in a few lines of text (Kung-Fu Master, in 1984, managed it in 30 words), and then get right into the game.

Worse, since the central character was banned from being a character, the plot and story of the game weren't allowed to go much of anywhere or have much depth.  Even the best writer can't tell a very good story if they aren't allowed to make their central character more than a hollow shell of a person.

The typical game with a kidnapped and/or dead love interest has a plot that can usually be summed up in a few short sentences.  Again, in the early days of gaming this was also enforced by hardware limits, there's just not much room in the 63kb that the Legend of Zelda had to work with to store both all the game resources, logic, and a plot deeper than "the princess is kidnapped by an evil wizard, you must save her and the kingdom".

Modern games, now free from the minuscule storage sizes of the old days, tell bigger, deeper, stories because people like stories.  Or at least they try to tell stories.  Often they fail.

Unfortunately, having settled on the most boring and predictable of character motives, driven by the twin engines of the limits of the silent protagonist and casual acceptance of patriarchal tropes, the writers then had little choice but to settle on a rather boring and predictable plot.

The characters, the story, and possibly even the setting, would have improved drastically simply by refusing to buy into the easy availability of the dead/kidnapped loved one trope.

Imagine a different Dishonored.  A Dishonored where the writing team chose not to fall back on hacknied, patriarchal, plot and character development, and as a consistence were forced to abandon the silent protagonist shtick.  Here's one possible way it could have gone, and how the decision to abandon the easy way out, the sexist way out, might produce a better and deeper story.

In this Dishonored they would need to make Corvo a person, not a shell, in order to provide a motive.  It would have required a bit more storytelling, and a change in pacing, and put the story more at the forefront.  Rather than beginning with Corvo being told that he's returned from a failed trip to gather support (bad and lazy anyway, why would the guards tell him what he just did?) begin with Corvo at his last destination, delivering Jessamine's plea for help to an unsympathetic ruler of one of the allied powers in the Isles.

And suddenly we have an explosion of questions that demand better storytelling to answer. Why Corvo?  Why would the Protector of all people be playing diplomat? Surely Jessamine has a professional diplomatic corps, why send her Protector instead of one of them?  It was never addressed in Dishonored.  But once the writers are allowed, or forced, to look more at the story they want to tell it forces them to improve it, to fill in plot holes.  Clearly Corvo was sent on a diplomat's errand because Jessamine doesn't trust her diplomats.  This Jessamine knows that her government is filled with people seeking to bring it down and she doesn't know who she can trust.  She suspects the plague is deliberate, because in this Dishonored both Jessamine and Corvo are a bit smarter.  But why would Jessamine trust Corvo?

This Corvo, a Corvo developed without reliance on the easy sexist tropes, would need a background; not one told up front but one that comes out in bits and pieces in overheard snippets of conversion and discovered in books and letters.  Perhaps he's a commoner, not from a poor family but his father was merely a successful merchant and therefore no matter how good a soldier he was Corvo could never rise far in the military.  His rise to what little power and position he attained is due entirely to his martial prowess being so amazing that even the class ridden military of Gristol had to let him advance, though not too far of course.  Still, far enough that years ago Jessamine, realizing that she was being undermined by her own advisers and privy council saw him in action and realized that because he was an outsider, a commoner, that made him one of the few people she could count on as being not part of the conspiracy.  So she broke convention and elevated him above his station to make him the Royal Protector.

This Corvo has a reason to favor Jessamine beyond the simple and easy explanation that he loves her. This Jessamine has politics that give the conspiracy a real reason to hate her, make her elevation of Corvo part of a pattern of loosening the grip of the aristocracy and a direct threat to the conspirators, a threat that must be eliminated, ideally eliminated in a way that casts doubt on Jessamine's acceptance of loosening of the class structure.  Now, rather than merely being personally ambitious,  Hiram Burrows and the other conspirators have a deeper motive for their betrayal of Jessamine, they see their entire social order being threatened, and they have a better reason to oppose Corvo personally because he embodies the very thing they fear the most and their desire to frame him for her murder seems to make more sense.  This Corvo, a more politically motivated man, both needs more complicated motives and produces them, needs more complicated enemies and produces them. And by his demand for a better supporting cast forces the other characters and the story to become deeper and more fully realized as well.

Heck, this Corvo doesn't need to be Jessamine's lover at all, and I argue that he'd be lessened as a character if he was. Add an Imperial Consort, a man Corvo gets along with and respects, as Jessamine's lover and Emily's father, he'd be murdered by the conspirators towards the beginning of course.  The false rumor that Corvo was Jessamine's lover might have become part of the smear campaign Hiram and the others waged against him, and against her own support of weakening the class barriers.

From the simple, if difficult, changes of making Corvo a real character and choosing to abandon the easy road of sexist tropes, the whole game would have improved significantly.   Better characters, a better plot, and a better story all become not merely possible but necessary.

All of which is why I'm hoping that Dishonored 2 sets aside the vengeance for a loved one trope.  It isn't bad per se, but it's far too over used and encourages lazy thinking and shallow characters. So far the rumor is that you can play either Emily or Corvo, not both nor switch between the two.  If that means that they're planning to motivate the player by having Emily/Corvo kidnapped or killed so that the one you chose to play is motivated by basically a repeat of Dishonored I'll be greatly disappointed.  Reversing the gender on the kidnapped or killed loved one isn't an improvement. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Dishonored, a look back before the sequel

Grade: B
Platform: PC, 360, PS3
Genre: Stealth FPS RPG
Price: $29.99 GOTY

Dishonored is an example of how well executed world building can team up with solid gameplay and make a game memorable despite a paper thin story and cardboard characters.  It's also an excellent example of how limitations can spur creativity. 

The limitation in question is the fact that Dishonored was one of the last games to be designed for the Xbox360 and the PS3.  Despite being released in 2012, a time when most gaming PC's were equipped with at least 8 gig of RAM, it had to run on creekingly antique hardware that had, in the PS3's case, a mere 256 megabytes of RAM (that's about 62 times less RAM than a gaming PC of the day).  The CPU and GPU of the Xbox360 and PS3 were similarly underpowered, being around 16 times less powerful than 2012's processors.

All of which meant that Dishonored should have looked awful by modern standards, built on obviously low poly models and with textures that made everything look either cartoonish or muddy.

In reality, Dishonored was strikingly beautiful and still stands out as one of the better looking recent games.  How?

By taking the limits of the systems to heart and building a visual look that would work well inside those limits and fit the world as presented.  Dishonored abandoned any attempt for photorealism and embraced a style that made it look as if the player had stepped into an old oil painting.  It meshed perfectly with the world they were presenting, and the tone of the story.  Rather than being muddy, Dishonored is muted, rather than being blocky it is simple.  All of which helps to convey the mood of the world, and helps mask the gaping void where an entertaining and well plotted story should have been.

The single best thing about Dishonored is the world building, the setting is lovingly crafted, you get the impression of a world that goes well beyond the borders of the game. Even, or perhaps especially, the minor characters seem to fit and have a story and life larger than their role in the game.  This is helped by mostly above average (and occasionally excellent) voice acting and music.  

The gentle Cthulhuoid monstrosities so casually referred to as "whales", the religion that has been based almost entirely around opposition to what is apparently the only source of genuine magic in the world, the dying city, and the technology which is wholly based on "whale" oil (to say nothing of the torture involved in extracting it), all fit together beautifully and mesh with the hints of the larger world beyond Dunwall with each element reinforcing the mood of the setting and story.  Even the costumes, in so many games largely ignored leaving characters dumped into costumes that either don't fit the setting or are taken straight from history and break immersion, reflect a thoughtful design influenced by, but not bound by, actual historic costumes.

Even better, for the most part the game gets out of your way and allows you to enjoy the world by having a well done interface.  I can't speak for how it played on a console, but on the PC the controls were smooth and didn't intrude into the game beyond the absolute minimum. 

All of which is good, because without such a well developed world,  mood, and interface, the game would have had to rely on the characters and story, and it would have been largely forgotten if it had.

Apparently having expended all of their creative energies on the world, the developers at Arkane seemed to have little left for the main characters and the plot.  The plot is a bog standard revenge tale motivated by the worn out and tired trope of the dead love interest and/or kidnapped love interest.  Arkane decided to go with both: a dead lover and a kidnapped daughter.

Corvo is, say it with me everyone, a grizzled male silent protagonist.  Someone must have spent a full minute or two thinking that one up.  Like all grizzled male silent protagonists, he needs a shave, has a scar or two, and is ruggedly handsome in a brooding sort of way.  Yeah, just like the dozens, if not hundreds, of other grizzled male silent protagonists you've played.  They broke the mold a bit, rather than a buzz or shaved head, he's got tousled dark hair, but eh.

Most of the other major characters slot neatly into well worn tropes.  There's the socially awkward genius engineer, here's the politically ambitious general, and look over there is the corrupt aristocrat complete with the loyal servant.  The open villains are similarly shopworn, and when the inevitable betrayal plot element comes up it is with a long expected inevitability that couldn't have been more blatantly telegraphed if they'd actually telegraphed it.  You have to wonder if perhaps Corvo just isn't all that bright since he apparently didn't see it coming.

For the most part, the beautifully realized and executed world, the tight gameplay, and the pacing of the game help to keep you sufficiently distracted that you don't (much) notice how the plot is so well worn that you knew it by heart from the first scene, or that the characters are all made of cardboard.

There are a few exceptions, Emily doesn't fit easily into any established princess trope, for example.  And despite being a bit unoriginal, the Outsider is just too awesome not to love.

If the plot and characters had been given even a tenth of the attention that was given to the setting, the game as a whole could have been so much better.  

There's a degree of improvement in the DLC.  Daud gets a bit more fleshed out, though he's still rather shallow, but Billie Lurk is actually a good character, and while Delilah Copperspoon isn't all that original, nor is her plot, she's got a bit of zip and manages to avoid the worst of the femme fatale tropes that could have caged her in and made her more boring.

So here's to hoping that in Dishonored 2 they spend a bit more time on plot and character, and have the same attention to detail and world building that went into the first. If Dishonored 2 manages to keep the good stuff from Dishonored and include better characters and plot, it'd be worth an A.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Food blogging: Okonomiyaki, the best way to eat cabbage that exists

Type: Japanese
Difficulty: easy
Non-Standard Ingredients: 2 from any Asian market
Grade: B

Okonomiyaki means "whatever you like fried up", you can put just about anything into okonomiyaki as an extra, but there are some basics that don't change.  It's essentially a savory batter with a bunch of cabbage and green onion mixed in along with your optional ingredients, and then cooked kind of like a pancake with thin strips of pork belly on the bottom.  You top it with a sauce called, boringly enough, okonomiyaki sauce, most people also add mayo.  Its simple and good, and as it says in the title the best way you'll ever find to eat cabbage.

There's two main types of okonomiyaki, I just described Kansai (or Osaka) style, which is the type I like best and the only variety I'd recommend trying to make at home.  Hiroshima style is a lot more complicated to try to make at home and involves layering lots of stuff together rather than mixing it up from the start.  

Despite living in Japan for a semester and knowing more about Meiji Era Japan (1868-1912) than anyone who didn't actually get a degree in East Asian history should, I really don't care for most Japanese food, though there's very little I actively dislike there's also not much that really makes me excited.

There are some Japanese dishes that are excellent, sushi may well be one of the best food inventions ever, and no one ever has anything bad to say about miso soup.  But to me most Japanese cooking is a bit like the less inspiring variety of American midwestern cooking.  It's generally sort of sweetish and bland and boring.  There are several exceptions, Japanese dishes I absolutely love, but for the most part I'm kind of meh about Japanese cooking.  

Okonomiyaki is one of the exceptions.  It is just plain good, and oddly new.  As nearly as anyone can tell, it didn't exist prior to WWII, and may have been invented due to the post-war shortages of rice.

In Japan you mostly encounter it at fairs or restaurants, but it's dead easy to make at home.  Most of the ingredients can be found at any American grocery store, and the stuff you can't find at most American grocery stores can usually be found in even the smallest and less well stocked Asian grocers.

Mind, as long as you're headed to your local Asian grocery anyway, you might as well get some other stuff while you're there because Asian grocers are filled with many amazing, awesome, and delicious things.

This recipe makes either two large servings or three medium servings.

Ingredients From An Asian Market That You MUST Have:

You cannot make okonomiyaki without these two things:

Dashi stock.  HonDashi is usually what you'll find both in your local Asian market and in Japan, it's a powder that looks a bit like baking yeast, a small jar should cost less than $3.  If you really feel like it you can try to make your own from kombu seaweed and bonito flakes, but I've never thought it was really worth it.  Until you know what dashi should taste like, just use the powder.  Dashi is the root of almost all Japanese cookery.

Okonomiyaki sauce.  The brand you'll most likely find is Otafuku, and it is good stuff.  Restaurants in Japan often have their own house secret sauce, but I'm not an okonomiyaki restaurant and neither are you so just buy some from the store.

Optional Extras from an Asian Market:

This stuff is kind of nice to have but not actually necessary.

Kewpie brand mayonnaise, has a somewhat different flavor from American mayo

Aonori, ground up seaweed, makes a nice topping for the okonomiyaki and some other dishes

Bonito flakes: super thin shavings of smoked dried fish, traditional topping for okonomiyaki and quite tasty

Miso you're there anyway, miso soup is bloody delicious, might as well grab some and have it too!

Pickled, shredded, ginger, there's two kinds: gari which you get with sushi and comes in pale pink thin slices, and beni shoga which is radioactive neon obviously fake red and comes in julienned shreds.  You want beni shoga for this.  

If you really, really, feel like it you can try to find naga-imo, Japanese mountain yam, if you do you omit the potato starch from the recipe and grind up a couple tablespoons of naga-imo into a sort of slimy sticky stuff that adds extra body to the batter.  I've never found naga-imo at a low enough price I thought it was worth it.

Ingredients From Any Grocery Store:

1 cup flour
2 tablespoons potato starch
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
4 cups chopped cabbage
12 or so green onions, fine sliced on the white end and chopped to about 1/2 inch pieces on the green end
6 strips bacon (or uncured pork belly if you want to be more traditional) cut into 1/2 inch or so strips.

How to cook it:

Measure 2/3 cups of water and add about 3/4 tablespoon of dashi powder, that's a bit strong for soup but perfect for okonomiyaki.  Stir until dissolved.  Congrats, you now have dashi stock.

Mix the flour, potato starch, and baking powder in a large bowl.  Crack in the eggs, and add the dashi stock, and mix with a spoon or whisk until well blended and smooth.  No need for a hand mixer or stand mixer.

Chop your cabbage into somewhat smaller than 1/2 inch pieces, you're looking for bite size here, and mix that into your batter.

Chop the white part of the green onions into very thin slices, and the green part into roughly 1/2 inch long pieces.  Mix that into your batter.

Heat a large pan or skillet over medium heat until it's about right for making pancakes.  Add a touch of cooking spray then put 1/2 or 1/3 of your batter/cabbage/green onion glop.  

Smoosh it flat and round until its only about 1/2 inch thick.  Put bacon pieces on top.

Cover with a lid and let cook for three to four minutes, until the bottom is golden. 

Flip, you may need two spatulas for this step.  Now your bacon is on the bottom and cooking away merrily.  Cover and cook for three to four more minutes.

When the bottom is cooked and your bacon all nice and done, remove from a pan and plate.  Start your next one right away then decorate the first.

Top with stripes of okonomiyaki sauce, mayo, and (if you got it) aonori and bonito flakes.



That's a very basic okonomiyaki.  You can add whatever you like to the basic batter and cabbage mix.  In Japan you usually see octopus or shrimp, but also chicken, sometimes beef, more pork, tofu, extra veggies (zucchini shredded thin is nice), okonomiyaki is all about what you want to add so add whatever sounds good.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2, the only game you really need, and the world's best hat simulator

Grade: B
Platform: PC, GNU/Linux, Mac
Genre: Team FPS
Price: FREE!

Released in October of 2007, TF2 is not the oldest game I play and advocate for, but its definitely on the older side of things.  It is, however, still one of the better games that exists and one that a lot of people turn to when they can't decide what to play. It has hats, and fun filled promotional videos. What more could you ask for?

Unlike most competitive games, TF2 has a community that is generally friendly and not made of the sort of tantrum throwing types that make most MOBAs a nightmare to play. Whether this is due to the quick nature of the games, the way the teams are autoscrambled when one side wins too much, or just the age of the game, I'll leave to social scientists to sort out.  Bu the result is a community that typically ranges from pleasant to meh, I honestly can't recall any time on public servers that I encountered someone throwing a tantrum, or even really being much of a jerk beyond the very passive aggressive jerkdom of being AFK during a fight.

TF2 is a game that is balanced by being unbalanced.  There are nine classes, and each has a blend of strengths and weaknesses that keeps any from being OP.  A team needs at least one of each class just to make up for the deficiencies each class has, and there's ways for even less skilled players to contribute.  There's always a shortage of medics, its a fairly easy class to play (though you will die often, because medics are always a top target), and while following around a Heavy or Pyro you can learn the map.  

I would recommend looking at the wiki for at least an overview of a how a class works and what the expectations are for that class, that way when you're playing Pyro you'll know that you need to spy check.

There are a variety of game modes, the classic King of the Hill and Capture the Flag (ahem, sorry, "intelligence") are there, but the busy people at Valve have been steadily adding content, the most recent released only a couple of weeks ago, including new play modes which keep things fresh, though for my money the Payload game is still the most fun.  Though there is something to be said for loading beer into an alien UFO to make it crash before the enemy team can do the same.

The only downside to TF2 is that all nine classes are men, and other than the announcer women basically don't exist except as the pinup girls in the locker rooms.  But the erasure of women is, regrettably, not something that really makes TF2 stand out, so I'm willing to count it as a good game despite that.

Since TF2 is an older game, it can run on older or less expensive hardware with a nice silky smooth framerate. And, despite being older, it doesn't show its age much, I'd say in large part due to the cartoonish graphics that don't try for photorealism.

More to the point, TF2 is simply fun.  It isn't grimdark, it isn't hyper competitive, its just a good time, and one that doesn't take a huge time commitment.  But despite a shallow learning curve, there is a fair amount of complexity to the game, but you don't actually have to know the details of when and why you might want to use the Axtinguisher instead of the Frying Pan.  

You can load up TF2, hop into a game, and play for several hours, or just a few minutes, and it'll be fun either way, and it is that casual aspect that keeps players coming back when they look at their giant library in Steam and can't decide what to play.  For that reason alone, "screw it, I'll play some Team Fortress" may as well be the unofficial motto of PC gamers everywhere.

There are also hats.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Stardew Valley, the only RPG/dating sim/farming game you'll ever need

Stardew Valley

Grade: C
Platform: PC
Genre: Farming, dating sim, rpg
Price: $14.99

A rarity even in indy games, Stardew Valley is wholly the creation of a single person.  Eric Barone did the coding, the writing, the art, the music, everything.

The result looks like it'd be at home on a Super Nintendo, and that's a good thing.  The 16 bit style graphics add a needed note of whimsy and unreality to the game, reminding you that it isn't really a farming simulator but a game that uses "farming" as a mechanic.

Despite being billed as a farming game, a good portion of the game is a dungeon crawl with an RPGish feel, coupled with a ruthless bit of resource management, with that last being essential to gameplay and much of the challenge.

Your character has a limited endurance, and that pool is consumed when you do much of anything.  Fishing, farming, harvesting crops, fighting monsters, mining for ore, chopping down trees, all consume your energy forcing you to carefully consider what you'd like to do in any given day.  Adding to the problem is that you can't work too late into the day or your character will pass out and you'll be penalized with even lower energy the next day.  And that some things can only be accomplished at certain times of day, or certain weather conditions, or seasons, or days, etc.

Managing your character helps keep the farming from getting boring, as does the variety of available tasks.  If you're bored with farming you can go fishing, or chop wood, or go exploring the caves, or go try to woo a romantic partner.

Because yes, Stardew Valley is also a dating sim.  With all the often squicky problems that dating sims come bundled with.  

Gamifying human relationships is always a fraught exercise.  But in a way Stardew Valley navigates the problem with minimal difficulties.  In part, I think, due to the simple graphics and gameplay that harken back to the older systems it feels less wrong to render human relationships almost entirely as buying someone's love with money.

Because that's how Stardew Valley mostly handles relationships.  Want to date someone?  Give them presents and they'll eventually be your date and marry you.  There's a few added elements, some conversational options similar to the stuff you'd see in a Japanese dating sim, but mostly if you want to pursue a relationship with any of the single people in Stardew Valley you simply find out their favorite product and give it to them repeatedly until they agree to marry you.

Since the rest of the game has a simplified feeling, the purchasing of affection through presents doesn't come across as badly as it sounds at first.

Still, it'd be interesting to see a game where romance options involve some randomness, where every time the game starts some randomly determined characters just aren't that into you and you've got to find that out the hard way.  At least it'd be different.

I will say that Stardew  Valley at least takes a refreshing approach to LGBT issues that fits with the rest of the highly simplified tone of the game.  There are ten single characters you can try to date, five men, five women, and you can pursue any of them regardless of the sex of your character.  Getting a date with a guy, as a guy, plays out exactly the same as getting a date with a girl as a guy.  Bring your intended lots of presents and you'll score.

Even with my reservations about the dating aspect, the game is entertaining and well worth the purchase price.  A solid, averagely fun and enjoyable game.