Thursday, May 26, 2016

Raising Steam, a review of the last (adult) Discworld novel

Raising Steam
Grade: D
Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre: Fantasy satire/parody
Published: 2013

As the last of the adult Discworld novels (the very last Discworld book was The Shepard's Crown, a YA book), this was often quite obviously the book Pratchett was using to, well, clean up the Discworld and make it a nicer place.

Much as I dislike the result, I can sympathize with the urge.  Pratchett obviously loved the Discworld, all of the readers loved it, and the urge to tidy up, make things less tense, end wars, improve the lives of the denizens, and so forth are understandable. But while the urge is understandable it makes for a bad book.

Despite signs of the embuggerment (Pratchett's term for the mental degradation he experienced as his early onset Alzheimer's) making the book less tightly written and snappy than the earlier Discworld books, it was the cleanup effort that truly caused Raising Steam to be, well, bad.

It is, in a word, twee.

Begin with the goblins. I'd hoped that they would vanish after Snuff, but regrettably not.  Like Pratchett's attempt to rehabilitate, or put a different twist on, orcs in Unseen Academicals, the goblins simply don't work.

In theory they might, the Discworld has always been a place for Pratchett to set up, take the mick out of, and generally twist around and play with fantasy tropes and it's hard to find a fantasy trope more ripe for improvement than goblins and orcs.  While there had never been any real inclusion of either orcs or goblins in any prior Discworld novel their sudden addition wasn't really completely out of character for the series.  Pratchett has never been hobbled by continuity, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all, so the fact that he'd never mentioned them before and yet was now having everyone talk about them as if they'd been involved from the beginning isn't as big a deal as it might have been with a different author or a different series.

What is a big deal is how awful they are as characters and the clumsy, ham handed, way Pratchett handled them.

Goblins are established in Snuff as basically the Mary Sues of the Discworld.  Abused and put upon by the cold and unfeeling humans, dwarves, and trolls, the poor goblins struggle on despite it all, and are better at absolutely everything they attempt than any of the other races.  This saccharine cute victimhood is made even worse by the colonial approach to civilizing them and saving them from themselves and their victimhood.  One goblin girl, trained up by a well intentioned human to dress in human styles and learn human arts, plays the harp so well that everyone suddenly realizes that goblins are wonderful and laws are passed making them people.

They're back, and in many ways worse, in Raising Steam.  Now the goblins, such wonderful Mary Sues, have been found to be perfect at running clacks towers, turn out to be amazingly hyper competent mechanics, and super humanly good warriors to boot.  Or, rather, when lead by a white man they are anyway.

At one point Moist von Lipwig finds a particularly pathetic group of goblins, goblins who have literally had their children hunted for food by bandits for long enough for huge bone piles to build up, but goblins who apparently never thought to fight back until Moist (of all people) appears to lead them to victory at which point they quite handily eradicate the bandits in a single battle.

W.T.F. Pratchett?

The very racist trope he so successfully mocked in Jingo he now plays painfully straight.  Goblins are as supremely good at fighting as they are at literally everything else, yet until a human leader appears to tell them it's ok, they won't even fight back to save their children from being EATEN by human bandits?

This could possibly work if the goblins had been portrayed as having some sort of built in racial slave mentality, or total inability to do much of anything without outside guidance, or inability to think of doing things for themselves, or something.  And that would have made for some interesting ethical conundrums.  But no, they're perfectly capable of being independent, resourceful, snarky, and generally all around fully competent people.  Just not until a designated heroic human comes along and tells them it's ok.

Raising Steam is a book about trains, and so trains appear and spread with the sudden and impossible success that all new things do in the Discworld.  But unlike in the other books where he sort of glosses over the impossibly fast way things get built (the Clacks suddenly appearing, for example), Raising Steam spends an inordinate amount of time discussing how it is built, and since the speed at which it is built is flat out impossible, the whole book feels fake in a way that even Snuff didn't.

The Patrician's mysterious demand for train service to be extended several hundreds of miles to Bonk, all in a month or two, is never actually explained, it is simply a clumsy motive for a preposterous and utterly unbelievable set of events.

The train is used as the explanation for how Pratchett fixes up the Discworld and makes it all nice and twee before he leaves.  Life just gets better wherever the train goes, and the book assures us that soon the trail will go everywhere.

The Low King of the Dwarfs travels back home, after leaving in the middle of a crisis for no good reason but to allow a palace coup by the evil religious fanatics, returns and by his mere presence makes everything ok again, and then to fix the dwarfs Rhys Rhysson (known to us readers to be female since Fifth Element), publicly comes out as a woman.

This sudden revelation in the middle of widespread political turmoil, rather than reigniting the just barely put out fires of religious fanaticism and traditionalism, instead makes the dwarfs realize that being a woman is ok.  Less than an hour later as the newly revealed Low Queen of the Dwarfs travels to the Scone of Stone, hundreds of prominent dwarf women have curled their beards, welded heels to their boots, and put on eye shadow in order to show the reader that now dwarf society has been fixed and we don't have to worry about that anymore.

Clumsy, preachy, poorly thought out and executed, Raising Steam is unfortunately both the last Discworld novel, and the worst Discworld noel.  Rather than wrapping everything up neatly and leaving the reader feeling satisfied, it simply feels trite and bland.  And that's coming from a person who is in full agreement with the politics, atheist worldview, and social justice beliefs Pratchett was arguing for.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Party of Trump

The most important thing to realize now is that the rise of Trump should not have been unexpected, and the ugliness he has unmasked is nothing new.

Since before I was born the Republican party has been fanning the flames of racism, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and all manner of bigotries, in hopes of getting enough white men to vote for them.  This started with a strong drive to capture the racist white vote in the Deep South following LBJ's unexpected decision to push the Civil Rights Act through and thus ending the former dominance of the Democratic Party among racists and beginning the shift of the Democratic party to its current position as the less racist of the parties.

Lee Atwater called the plan to win Republican dominance via revanchist rednecks the Southern Strategy, and the name has stuck despite it never really applying just to the South.

With the rise of hate radio the strategy continued, and the Republican Party became ever more dependent on ever more bombastic and vile propaganda.

For forty-eight years now the Republican Party has been advancing by telling mostly poor, white, men that their problems are caused by black people, Latinx people, immigrants, women, gay people, environmentalists, intellectuals, professors, college educated people, foreigners, Muslims, atheists.  The Other.  Anyone, basically, who wasn't a white American conservative.

Neshoba County Mississippi is famous only for one thing: the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, and the well organized efforts of local law enforcement and local political figures to prevent their murder from being discovered.  Local Mississippi officials proclaimed that the civil rights workers had never been to Neshoba County, that their disappearance was a fraud, a hoax conjured up by the civil rights movement to try and make the racist Mississippi government look bad.  But President Johnson put the FBI onto the case rather than letting local law enforcement cover up the murders, and they found the bodies and proved that Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman not only had been murdered, but that they had been murdered by the Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and two Klansmen.  Moreover, that this took place with the knowledge of the Sheriff, and that the local government both knew it and had worked hard to cover up the murder.

The local courts treated the three murderers as heroes and none spent more than six years in prison.

On August 3, 1980, a bare sixteen years after the murders, Ronald Wilson Reagan traveled to tiny Neshoba County to deliver the first speech he would make after winning the Republican Party nomination, and there he declared:

I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to be given to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

 The meaning was clear if never directly stated. The state and local communities Reagan praised and promised to restore to power free of any interference from federal authorities were the ones that had murdered three civil rights workers and worked diligently to cover up that murder.

In newsletters, faxed documents, private conversation, and AM radio the message was never even masked as transparently as it was in Reagan's speech.  Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and bigotry of all sorts was the order of the day.  The message was always that the Republican Party was the only thing that could save white America from the onslaught of the slavering hordes of the Other who were responsible for everything bad that ever happened.

It has never ended, and in many ways the drumbeat of hate has grown stronger over the years. Tiny isolated AM radio stations evolved into the nationwide networks that first channeled Rush Limbaugh's words to anyone who cared to listen and now carry the words of the even more hateful crew who have replaced him.  Newsletters and faxed documents gave way first to email and now to social media.  With each iteration the calls for violence, the calls to eliminate the despised Other, have grown stronger.

What has also grown stronger is the resentment by the bigots against the Republican elites.

Lee Atwater, when describing the Southern Strategy in 1981 said:
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968, you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

But to the seething pool of hate that the Republican elites were stirring that restraint chaffed.  They didn't want to hear about tax rates and busing, they wanted to hear "nigger, nigger, nigger".  

The Party elites supported FOX and hate radio, they grew prosperous and content on the votes that grew from the ground they had fertilized with hate, and they fed ever more hate and ever more calls for violence to the masses in order to retain their support.  They did it deliberately and with malice aforethought.  And then, in public, they claimed that there was no hate, they used dogwhistles to try and pretend that the hate was merely a liberal myth used to smear their noble and principled politics.

They couldn't keep the balancing act up forever.  When you feed your voting base on a steady diet of hate for the Other, but continuously refuse to actually enact open policies to harm the Other, the base grows restless.  Eventually even the naked racism of the War on Drugs isn't enough to keep them quiet.

Donald Trump is saying nothing new.

Go back and read that again.  Understand this.  There is absolutely nothing new or novel in what Donald Trump is saying.  What he says is what the Republican Party has been saying for almost half a century.  The drumbeat of hate is old and powerful.

The difference, the only difference, is that Trump says it without the dogwhistles.  Where Reagan had to go and stand on the graves of civil rights workers murdered by local authorities and swear that he intended to let it happen again (all the while pretending that he wasn't advocating for racism and violence) Trump omits the bullshit.

The Republican Party is the party of Trump, Republicanism is Trumpism, there is no difference except in style and how openly the hate is expressed.

That sound you hear is the shrieking of Republicans who desperately want to think of themselves as good people, as people who don't support Trumpism, as people who want to pretend that they are shocked, shocked I tell you, to find hate festering in the Republican Party.

And it may be possible to be a good person and want lower taxes, or fewer regulations on business, or whatever other reason an otherwise good person may have for being Republican.  But it isn't possible to be a good person and seek to gain those things by the hate and violence the Republican party depends on.

Now, at long last, there is no more room for denial.  If nothing else the success of Donald Trump proves that the liberal critics of the Republican party were right all along, and I really wish we'd been wrong.  But facts are stubborn things, as Reagan once tried to say. The fact is that the hate, the violence, we liberals had long said was simmering just below the surface of Republicanism is real and is no longer content to stay under the surface.

Once the term "political correctness" was used by conservatives angry at liberals, but today it comes from conservatives angry at the Party elites who want them to keep the hate quiet.  They are tired of the pretense, tired of the strain of trying to pretend not to be violent bigots.

There is only one choice for Republicans who wish to be good people: leave the party.

Because it isn't just Trump.  Every single Republican up for election, without a single exception, is willing to use the hate that Trump embodies to achieve their ends.  Whether they agree with that hate themselves is irrelevant, anyone who would use the votes bought by the hate the Republicans so depend on is equally guilty.

And so is anyone who votes for such a person.

You can be a Republican, or you can be a good person.  You can no longer pretend that it is possible to be both.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Overwatch Open Beta, thoughts and first impressions: someone wants to replace Team Fortress 2. No grade for betas

First off, don't bother with my review, go grab the open beta and see for yourself.  If you've played any Blizzard game recently, you've got installed on your machine and trying the open beta is as simple as clicking the Overwatch section and hitting "Install".  It's about 6gb to download.

That said, here's my thoughts and impressions:

Someone at Blizzard wanted to replace Team Fortress 2, and they may have succeeded.

Not that Overwatch is a TF2 clone, far from it, but there's a lot of TF2 in the design of Overwatch, and a lot of things where it does what TF2 does but better.

Like TF2, Overwatch is a class based team shooter based around relatively short rounds.  A round that takes more than ten minutes is long.  Many games take less than five minutes from start to finish.

That sort of casual, drop in, drop out, sort of play is a delight in a world where many multiplayer games are designed around the idea of fierce competitive play for long periods and where dropping out after a short time is harshly criticized.

In addition to lightning fast games, the pace of the game itself is fast, a feeling helped by the fact that Overwatch is a much more vertical game than TF2 or most other FPS games.  Several heroes have abilities that allow them to get above the fray and rain death down from a superior vantage point. Snipers definitely have an opportunity to shine in Overwatch.

Overwatch also draws strongly from MOBA's.  The number of heroes and variety of powers far exceeds the usual found in an FPS and more are promised as development continues.  I find this to be a welcome addition to the team FPS idea.

Powers are all on timers, except for the ultimates which require dealing damage or healing to charge. No ammo pickups, guns need to be reloaded periodically but all that takes is a few moments for the reload animation to play.  The only truly limited resource in the game is health.

As in TF2, you can switch classes during a match, either after death or while in the spawn room. This allows for a more fluid play style than games that lock you into a class for the duration of play, and helps feed the feeling of Overwatch as a fast, flexible, game.

From a gameplay standpoint, Overwatch is excellent.  Like all Blizzard products, it is polished, runs smoothly on even slightly older hardware, and looks good.  The heroes aren't perfectly balanced yet, Bastion especially seems to be a bit OP when played right, but Blizz has a well deserved reputation for balance in multiplayer and while I'm sure that while they'll be more or less continuously tinkering with  balance in Overwatch I'm also sure that they'll get it mostly right fairly quickly.

It's fast, varied, vertical, and altogether fun.

Overwatch is also a welcome change from so many FPS games in that it has female characters at all, and moreover only Widowmaker the sort of hypersexualized female character you so often find in games. Even better, there's a bit of variety in body types.  Zarya is a beefy, muscular, woman and while she's the only one who isn't basically the thin waif type, it's unfortunately true that even a single non-waif woman in the gaming world is praiseworthy.  And she's fun to play.

The hero lineup is still a bit of a sausage fest, out of 21 heroes, 8 are women, a bit more than a third.  But that's at least a step in the right direction.

I'll admit, after less than three hours playing, I'm ready to buy it.  I don't know if Overwatch will actually replace TF2 as my go to game when I don't know what else to play, but it could happen.  And regardless, the time I spend playing Overwatch is time I'll be having fun, which is the whole point of gaming.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Homeworld, the best space RTS you (sort of) can't buy. And the sequel you can. And the mod that's free.

and Homeworld 2
Grade: B+ and C
Platform: PC, Mac
Genre: Space RTS
Steam: Remastered $34.99
Released: 1999

Homeworld Complex Mod

For fans of the genre Homeworld was a jaw dropping experience when it was first released in 1999.  This was the era of dial up internet, the Pentium III was the new big thing, and a good computer would have around 128MB of RAM.

And what Homeworld did with that was nothing short of amazing.  Fully 3D, free camera, free moving, space RTS.  It may not have been the first, but it did it better and more impressively than any of its predecessors.

It also featured a good story with good characters. Funny how that makes an otherwise merely good game better, isn't it?

Even for an era when games came in large boxes with manuals, and if you were a serious gamer you actually read the manual (usually while the game crawled through its agonizingly slow install), Homeworld came with a truly massive manual.  In addition to covering the controls for the game, the manual included a brief history of the Kharak (presented from an in universe POV), a discussion of the events leading up to the construction of the Mothership, a lecture on the social and political structure of society on Kharak, in depth tech specs of every Kharak ship in the game, and an explanation of why there's a woman named Karan S'jet floating in a tank of goo with all her nerves pulled out of her body and spliced into the computer core of the Mothership, and why she's always talking to you.

After a brief tutorial, for those who hadn't read the manual, the game explains that not all Mothership systems are fully online but that they're ready for the hyperspace test, and you get the truly nifty hyperspace effect taking you to the first real mission. Which ultimately results in the Taiidani fleet bombarding Kharak and killing everyone there before you can jump back.

As far as explanations for why your ship is isolated and doing all this stuff with no backup go it's a pretty good one.

The story takes you through a number of interesting environments, which takes some doing since the game takes place in space and space is mostly empty, while you discover why the Homeworld was attacked, build up you strength, enlist allies, and ultimately kick Taiidani ass and retake the titular Homeworld.

We'll skip the Yes! song at the end, it wan't very good.

But the little details that helped build the story and characters were excellent.  Heidi Ernest voiced Karan S'jet in her person as Fleet Command well (and never did any other voice work again), Michael Sunczyk put some real emotion into the voice of Fleet Intelligence, and the incidental chatter from fighters and larger ships as they went about their assigned tasks not only helped you stay aware of the situation but also added some personality there too.

The mechanics had their problems, but ultimately people overlooked those problems because the game was utterly amazing.

You can't buy Homeworld today.  Or, you can't buy it from any big name store.  Maybe if you hunt you can find a CD somewhere.  But just buying Homeworld is no longer possible.

You can buy Homeworld Remastered, and that will include the original Homeworld, as well as the remastered versions of Homeworld and Homeworld 2.  If you can get it running on a modern PC, I'd recommend playing the non-remastered version of Homeworld 1, though the remastered version of HW2 is just fine.

The reason for this is because the Homeworld Remastered release only actually updated the Homeworld 2 engine, and it tries to run the original Homeworld as an unfortunately rather poorly implemented mod.

In a way, this makes sense.  Homeworld 2 was indisputably a technologically superior game, so updating only the Homeworld 2 engine for modern PC's rather than wasting resources trying to update an inferior engine is a reasonable course of action.  Regrettably they didn't bother extending the engine to include the necessary physics for Homeworld 1, or even to accommodate the Homeworld 1 ships.  There were significant mechanical differences between the games, and things that were fairly important to success in Homeworld unfortunately often don't work so well in the remastered version.

But it's good enough to play if you can't get the original running.

And then there's Homeworld 2.

HW2 was a better game mechanically, no one will disagree.  Little annoyances from HW1 were eliminated, small craft were more logically handled, the controls were smoother, and the engine vastly better.

It's just a damn shame they didn't have a good story to go along with all the technological improvements.

First they made hyperspace into a weird mystic BS thing, retconned the hyperspace engine from HW1 into a mysterious macguffin, and basically made the whole thing a bit silly and blah.

It was still an ok game, but not great, merely average.  Which is a disappointment considering how amazing the original was.

But Homeworld 2 did spawn one of the better mods to have ever been created.

Homeworld 2 Complex changed virtually everything about HW2, from ship stats to adding new ship models to changing resourcing and it made the AI purely vicious. The result was a PvP game that was enjoyable, and above all difficult.  The mod developers continued work on the mod from 2003 until Remastered was announced, and then started work on making their mod work with Remastered. There is an active Complex playing community today, 13 years after HW2 was released, and it still remains a fresh, entertaining, way to be blown up by people with more skill than you can ever dream of having.

So buy Homeworld Remastered.  It's fun, the sequel isn't bad, and the mod is fantastic.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Portal 2, or how a sequel can be pretty darn good

Portal 2
Grade: C+
Platform: GNU/Linux, Mac, PC, 360, PS3
Genre: Physics puzzler
Steam: $19.99
Released: 2011

With the runaway success of Portal, an sequel was inevitable.  And unlike a lot of sequels, Portal 2 was a great game.  So why, you ask, have I given it only a C+?

C, of course, is average, and I consider Portal 2 to be a step above average.  But not, like Portal was, three steps above average.  Average, after all, is an entertaining and engaging game well worth playing.

In some ways Portal 2 is a significant improvement on its predecessor.  For all that Portal was groundbreaking, it was rather sharply limited.  There were only five elements available for the puzzles: the portals, buttons, boxes, turrets, and energy pellets.  The only reason Portal didn't become repetitive was that it was also extremely short.

Portal 2 kept the portals, the buttons, the boxes, and the turrets, and it added a slew of interesting elements that allow for more elaborate and varied puzzles.  Replacing the energy pellets with the thermal discouragement beam was an excellent idea because the thermal discouragement beam is such a more versatile game element, and also since it isn't a single activation element like the energy pellets it allows for more complex puzzles right off the bat.

They also added repulsion gel, propulsion gel, hard light bridges, excursion funnels, discouragement redirection cubes, and aerial faith plates.  The possibilities may not be limitless, but the success of the user designed levels shows that the new elements allow for many more possibilities than the designers had originally thought of.

From the standpoint of being a better physics puzzler, Portal 2 has Portal beaten hands down.

Where it doesn't do so well is in atmosphere.

Don't misunderstand, Portal 2 keeps the dark humor of Portal, it has snappy well written dialog performed by a stellar voice cast.  The Cave Johnson recordings alone justify the purchase price of Portal 2. 

For me though, it falls a bit flat when compared to Portal.  The creepy edge of Portal is gone, and perhaps it couldn't have really been kept. 

Unfortunately they also left out the solitude, and I think the game suffers as a result.  

In one way they'd never have been able to truly recapture the feeling of isolation and solitude from Portal, on your first playthrough it is possible to believe that Chell is the only thinking being in the entire facility.  GLaDOS initially comes across as a malfunctioning but non-sapient computer, and the slow realization that she is self aware, intelligent, and actively trying to kill you is a major factor in the tone and creepy value of the first game.  And of course that couldn't be maintained in the second game.

Perhaps it was because they realized that the sensation of true isolation from the original couldn't be recaptured that the designers decided to stick you with a companion for most of the game.  Stephen Merchant's Wheatley pops up almost immediately after the game begins, and when he isn't tagging along and telling you where to go, GLaDOS is.  As a result, for me at least, Chell feels more like a puppet used in a conflict between the two AI's rather than an independent agent.

Even the ending song reflects the shift from subtle menace to overtly stated intent.  

And perhaps that's for the best.  A game that tried, and failed, to maintain the atmosphere and creep factor of Portal wouldn't have been as good as one that went in its own direction.  Regrettably, that new direction just didn't grab me as much as the original did.

Which doesn't mean Portal 2 isn't a great game and well worth the price.  It is.  It's just that while it plays better, it doesn't feel as amazing, which is why it only gets a C+.