Link of the Moment – Protest the PROTECT-IP Act

There’s hearings starting today for new legislation that could have dire consequences for the internet, and it’s likely to pass rather quickly if no one objects.  The short version is that it gives the government broad and ambiguously defined power to block access to and bring lawsuits against any site containing or linking to copyrighted material, as well as forcing advertisers (the lifeblood that makes most of the ‘free’ webcomics and blogs and whatnot possible) to cancel their funding.  From a distance that might not sound so bad, but in applications this act’s flaws are numerous.

This goes much farther than just stopping people from torrenting bootleg movies or sharing albums (both of which copyright holders already can, should, and have successfully sued for).  Remember, any site that contains or links to copyrighted material would be a target under this law.  No more startup blogs writing game reviews.  No more showing people that cool AMV you made/found.  No more protest videos set to kickin’ 70’s rock music.

Youtube.  Facebook.  Wikipedia.  All information sources for millions in America and billions worldwide.  All containing copyrighted material.  All likely to be sorely thrashed if this law passes.

‘That’s a worst case scenario’, you might say.  ‘Surely they won’t be irresponsible with this power’, perhaps.  I’d like to live in that world, but the truth of it is that the entertainment industry generally react to the perceived threat of the internet with all the patience and restraint of a honey badger.  Sadly, like most new weapons folks try to build against piracy it will primarily be wielded against folks who do little or no harm to the industry, and even those who help it by maintaining public awareness of classic games and movies and music and whatnot.  Nerd nostalgia tributes for the legends of old is great kindling to get everyone fired up when they put out re-releases and reboots and remixes all that jazz.

So in conclusion, this is one of those laws that could do a lot more harm than good.  It’s not the first and it won’t be the last; you may have noticed everyone and their uncle wants to legislate the internet now.  I think the next few years are going to be critical to what shape online communication will take in the future.  Legal precedent is a powerful tool; if this passes we’ll see a lot more me-too legislation come up in its wake.  I’d like to see more successful strides against piracy, but not if it means strangling the internet in its crib.  The idea of a worldwide communication network that allows people to communicate and share ideas with folks they may have never met in their lifetime used to be something of pure science fiction.  Today I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say it may be mankind’s most important, far-reaching, world-changing invention to date.  We’re more aware today than ever before of the political, economic, and environmental shape of our world, and we can still do better.  We can’t stop now.


Commentary – Fate of the World: Tipping Point

Everyone’s got a list of musts. A book you must read, a movie must see, a game you must play, etc. Fate of the World: Tipping Point by Red Redemption is, I believe, one such game. It manages the rare achievement of being fun, challenging, and educational all at once.

The stage is set in 2020. The world is facing increasing dangers from economic, environmental, and political instability. You’re the newly-appointed president of the recently-formed Global Environment Organization, charged with selecting policies and projects to turn things around and improve the fate of the world. Saving the planet is a pretty tough job; your power isn’t infinite, nor is your will absolute. If you don’t keep member nations happy they’ll resign from the GEO and take their funding with them.

The game begins with what I found to be a humbling view of Earth from space. Not a faction map or a spreadsheet, just our lonely blue globe floating in the void. Scattered lights of civilization grow and glow across the continents. You might see a few trouble spots. There’ll be more later. A lot more.

It’s all about making the tough decisions. Can you afford to divert resources from stabalizing the political climate in the Middle East to keep America and Europe happy so they’ll keep sending you the funding you need to get anything done? How long can you put off China’s air pollution while you try to build India’s infrastructure for the future? Do you patch the water shortages in southern Africa with a quick fix or employ a long term solution that will let millions die now to save billions later?

The number of people who live and die based on your decisions is just one of the many useful metrics at your fingertips. The smart efficient interface means all the information you need to make your decisions is usually just a click or two away, along with an internal wiki to define the game’s terms. I find I usually don’t win a given scenario on the first go, but at the same time I also feel like I’m learning more on every turn and looking forward to employing new strategies next time around. It’s tense and difficult, but rewardingly so.

Speaking of learning, the various potential futures and deadly disasters are based on real scientific research. Red Redemption has worked with Oxford Universety, OxFam, tcktcktck, Taking IT Global, and Finance South East to chart what sort of world we might find ourselves in with continued inaction (or ill-informed action). It is a sobering thought to consider that everything going on in this game is something that is happening or could happen to the world within my lifetime, and a lot of it ain’t pretty.  I’ve said in the past that what keeps me disinterested in many modern ‘realistic’ games is when they make a half-hearted attempt at maturity and just end up dramatizing situations that should be receiving far more reasoned discussion.  It’s the other way around here; FotW never lets you forget the gravity of your decisions nor the cost of failure, and hopefully gets you thinking about the real people who really do have to make these decisions and live in the consequences thereof.

I’m impressed that they managed to do this without turning it into a propaganda game. Nothing you do comes without cost. Many ecologically advantageous strategies bring new problems like lowered food or engery production. Advanced technology could save countless lives when properly applied, but desperate folks given access too soon may ignore the dangers and just make matters worse. And it won’t matter how much energy and how little emissions a country has from 4th generation fast-breeder nuclear reactors if they use the same tech to build missiles and nuke the world all to hell.

Fate of the World is an important game. Not just because I enjoy playing it, but because I feel that I’m gaining something by having played it. The scenarios that play out in the game mirror real events that the world will have to contend with in the very near future. I’d like to see FotW get more interested in these issues by letting folks tackle them in a fictional setting. Plus for the next few hours the game can be had for a song as part of an Indie Royale bundle, so get on it while you can. The world is waiting.

Link of the Moment – Sequelitis: Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X (Egoraptor)

Crazy busy this week getting ready for the annual church Christmas bazaar this coming weekend.  Baked goods and party games galore, etc.  That and some new fiction ideas developing (that I might try to blog about next week) haven’t left me much time to find something to review/commentate/blather on about.  Rather than cranking out a weak ramble to make deadline I’ve decided to share a video that’s deservedly being passed all around.  Egoraptor does great entertaining flash videos about gaming and various other things, and his new Sequelitis series looks at evolution (or devolution) from one series iteration to another.  The latest one highlights plenty of game design ideas that make me want to grab some game studios by the collar and say “Look at this, this is how you’re supposed to do it.”  Also has plenty of rough language, so if that bothers you…  Too bad, watch it anyway cause it’s a great little video.

Link of the Moment – GTA5

Grand Theft Auto 5 is coming. That’s essentially all most folks need to know to get in line for it. Rockstar does some high quality work, and if the previous game is any indication we’re in for another tremendous game full of explosions and Euphoria physics and social commentary. I’m hoping it’ll also not have the things about GTA4 that bugged me and possibly no one else, because a man can dream.

Don’t get me wrong, in many ways GTA4 is a legendary achievement in game design. Liberty City looks and feels like a real city that folks have lived in and dirtied up, and the Euprhoia engine helps the artificial populace give the place life. Indeed you can spend quite a lot of time just living a normal life in the game, hanging out with friends and watching tv and going out to restaurants and bars and shows and such.

In contrast however to all this amazing new technology, I saw a lot of design choices that as I understand it are the old way of doing things as far back as when GTA3 pioneered the modern sandbox game. Specifically I don’t much care for the way GTA4 handles mission design.

GTA4 deals heavily in scripted events that would feel right at home in a tense crime thriller, gunfights and car chases as far as the eye can see. However it felt to me like a good chunk of these, especially the bigger dramatic ones, were not as well-designed as they ought to be. Especially because it takes some of the wind out of a big plot moment when you have to repeat it so many times. There were a few times that the disc would have been on the way to the trade-in pile if not for my interest in seeing the next chapter of the excellent story.

When I bring this up I’m likely to hear two criticisms of my criticisms. The first is that it’s all a matter of skill. My critique is that the opposite is true; in the most difficult missions I often found it was foreknowledge, not skill, that would turn the tide. Foreknowledge often bought by bloody and repeated failure.

I dunno if it was actually worse in motorcycle missions or if it just seemed that way because just one impact would send you hurtling off your bike and into a game over screen. I recall one in particular where I had to tear through the city streets at high speed (following a car that was programmed to always maintain a set distance ahead of me despite its model’s speed and handling capabilities, natch) and at a particular point of the mission a bus would always come across an intersection and block most of it off.

First time through I naturally plowed into that bus at a speed sufficient to create molecular fusion between my face and the bus’ back tire. Next time through I tried keeping to the right while keeping my speed up to follow the vehicle. I wasn’t able to weave through traffic nimbly enough and the bus speedily backed into me, taking me out of the fight again. Third time I tried to go as slow as possible while still maintaining the chase… and this time the bus pulled out slow as well.

It was timed to the approach of the player so that it would always back across the intersection at such a rate that exactly this space will be open at exactly this time. This vexes me because the only way to know where that space will be is to get lucky or die and observe.

This is all well and good for some, but for my part I prefer the sort of challenge where I can attain victory through planning, attention to detail, and good reflexes. Demon’s Souls was great about that. Brutally unforgiving of mistakes, but it very rarely killed you unfairly; keep your eyes open and you can see every danger coming.

Naturally I still died approximately eleventy hojillion times because this is Demon’s Souls we’re talking about, the game that uses player suffering as an alternative fuel source, but it made victory all the sweeter because I had to be smart to achieve it. I’d rather spend all day preparing for and running a flawlessly executed mission than spend an extra hour chewing on a fetch quest through ignorant trial and error.

The second criticism of my criticism that I hear often is that well of course going off the rails gets me killed, you can’t expect to do whatever and win. Well, to a point I kind of can if it’s a game like GTA4. It’s a game all about having the freedom to do anything and everything.

I’m not expecting the game to adapt to every possible idiotic thing I could possibly do, but in an open world game there ought to be possibilities. It feels to me a bit like a football game where they set up a story about an underdog team winning the superbowl, but then victory is difficult or impossible unless you use a particular sequence of plays and execute them in just the right way. And it’s difficult to figure out the sequence aside from trial and error.

Good of example of this later on, there’s a mission where you go up in an apartment building with a sniper rifle to provide cover for a gang meeting or drug deal or something (I forget what the meeting was about but there was a meeting). First time through I’m watching it go down through the scope and I see a guy reach into his jacket. I think he’s going for his gun and I peg him, mission failed. Turns out he was getting out a cell phone, as I find out on the next playthrough. But the other guy does get out a gun and shoots the guy I was supposed to protect. Mission failed.

Next time through I keep a bead on the guy that I know through foreknowledge is gonna pull a gun, and as soon as he goes for it I peg him… and mission failed. Why? Because I killed him before he started shooting, therefore I messed up the meeting. You have to let a guy shoot at the guy you’re protecting before you shoot back or you fail.

And I’m not even gonna go into how many missions went from regular hard to Nintendo Hard because I’d come out of a building expecting to drive off in the getaway vehicle I brought with me and instead be forced to use some rusted-out old clunker that’ll handle like a lethargic cow on top of an anesthetized cow.

Or how failing a mission leaves me standing in the street with my cops after me and no health and little ammo, all of which I have to take care of before I can try again instead of just clicking ‘retry’. It already autosaves when you start a mission. Just load that save.  It can’t take that much programming time to add a prompt to the game over screen for ‘load last save’.

But I digress.

What I find especially tragic about all this is the glorious possibilities granted by the Euphoria engine. Many of my favorite moments of GTA4 came when the game went off the rails. When it let the game world just live and let you get into crazy shennanigans just by virtue of how the world reacts to you driving around like a maniac and shooting your way out of trouble.

I remember one mission very early on being a tense and amazing experience. I dunno if it was scripted or if it just happened that way but it was aweome. I think the goal was to take out some gangers or something. I forget how it started but at some point I’m tearing down the street shooting at gangers’ cars who are in turn trying to shoot at an allied NPC’s car I think, and halfway through it the cops get in on the action. At this point I’m trying not to hurt cops if I don’t have to, so all three factions are roaring down a busy highway while I try to shoot up the gangers’ cars, not hit my friend’s car, and evade the cop cars because I don’t want to shoot them. And then afterwards I have to keep rolling in my tore-up car to try to lose the police pursuit. It felt natural and freeform and it was awesome.

So, that’s the sort of tomfoolery I hope to see in GTA5. I want to see them really embrace the possibilities of Euphoria and their world-building technology. I want to see missions that reward the player for thinking things through and coming prepared rather than punishing them for not having psychic foreknowledge. I want less taking my cousin out to play darts and more fleeing the cops in a stolen car that’s on fire while I’m trying to shoot down a chopper during a sweet jump.

Link of the Moment – Cooking Comically

This week has been rather busy.  I’ve been making some decent writing progress, though not quite enough yet on good blog topics.  There’s also be successful chili-based experimentation, thanks to a nifty cooking blog by one Tyler Capps called Cooking Comically.  There aren’t any recipes yet but the ones that are there are pretty groovy, and the presentation is neat as well.  Plus rumor has it he may be putting together a full cookbook of this stuff.  Have a look, then go make yourself some excellent chili to tide you over til I come up with something interesting to write here next week.

Writing – What has it got in its pocketses?

Anyone who’s joined me for a round of tabletop gaming can attest that I take a nearly inconcievable amount of time on character generation (or chargen, as the hep cats say). My tendency to overthink why certain pieces fit together a certain way has been known to hold up both my writing and my gaming (which I suppose is a form of co-operative writing). For example yesterday I sat down to write a quick chapter in which a fellow needs to get into a building, have a scrap, and then get thrown out a window. Seemed simple enough. But then I started to wonder at the whys.

He should probably have a kevlar vest. And a helmet. What kind of helmet? Motorcycle? Nah, then he can’t see up. But a hockey helmet would seem unprofessional. So motorcycle helmet it is. He should probably have some gear too. Handcuffs, pepper spray, that sort of thing. Should he have a gun? He’d probably decide he either doesn’t need it or doesn’t want the temptation to use it. But is that a decision he’s come to before the story or a development to be seen on-camera? Maybe it’s in a flashback. And hey wait. Where does one find a building that gangs can meet and conduct illegal activities in that also has a fourth floor window for the forthcoming defenestration?

Show, don’t tell, as they say. As refrenced in the title (a question I ask my players whenever I have them gather ’round for chargen), I find you can tell a lot about someone by what they carry with them and what they prepare for. One might pack an old-fashioned revolver because she can repair them easily and weapon jams are rare. Another might choose one with the largest ammo capacity, not particularly interested in gunning folks down so much as providing plenty of suppressing fire to discourage folks from shooting at his allies. Yet another might not know skidoo about firearms, simply picking the biggest shiniest handgun he can find in hopes of intimidating his way out of having to get into a firefight at all.

The rest of my character’s gear might range from a few recreational items for a socialite to some multipurpose gadgets for a tech guy to a vast shopping list of wilderness survival gear for a ranger (a byproduct of my time in the Scouts). Plenty of characters have a family heirloom or seemingly insignificant trinket that turns out to be critical to saving the day at some point. But what I find most interesting are the things people keep that have no value beyond the sentimental.

I forget what it was that I was reading (or maybe watching even) but there was this scene where someone figured out that this other guy was a spy because his wallet only had money in it. No movie ticket stubs, no business cards, no pictures, etc. Just a façade without personality. Everyone’s got stuff they carry around just because. In most of the MMOGs I’ve played I usually have at least one bag full of random nicknacks and keepsakes from friends. Sometimes items of great monetary or strategic value that will never be used as such because I don’t wish to part with them.

Your character’s keepsakes can say volumes without having to say much as well as being a handy spark for plot arcs. An old knife that’s been worn down and resharpened so many times that it barely has any toughness or edge left to it. The doorknob from an old house that burned down a long time ago. A key to a safe deposit box whose contents are unkown but that you are set to inherit in ten years. A bit of wood you’ve been whittling off and on for a week, though you haven’t decided into what yet. The white king piece of a chess set custom-made for the Czar. The wrapper from a brand of candy bar they don’t make anymore.

I could probably keep on with that forever but you get the idea. You can give your chargen a hearty injection of character development by asking the right questions.

Writing – Mustache

My stab for this week at the 100 Word Weekly Challenge. My first thought was to do one about a soldier pacing back and forth guarding the Tomb of Unknowns at Arlington. Seemed kinda like cheating because a good chunk of it would be his internal monologue about the guard procedure. But then a bit of googling said that soldiers aren’t allowed facial hair. So I started over. And then another googling revealed they’re allowed mustaches after all, just not big bushy beards and such, but at that point I declared ‘pleh’ and went with something a little different.


Frost gathered on his mustache as it often did this time of year. It wasn’t quite cold enough for snow, but plenty enough for his breath to make phantoms in the night air. As usual, the stark autumn chill did little to keep the streets clear this night. The next wave approached. Searching flashlights preceeced the semi-ordered mob, advancing upon his position in a vague formation as he pulled his mask down into place, grinning beneath it. They fanned out as they approached his position, shouting their mighty battle cry in unison: “Trick or treat!”