Gamergate, Why Is This Still a Thing?

I saw the episode of Colbert Report where Colbert interviews Anita Sarkeesian and I was just shaking my head that this is still garnering media attention.  While I do not condone any of the death threats or harassment doled out by a small minority of people posting under the #Gamergate, I do think the media’s portrayal of the entire sequence of events is ludicrous and exaggerated.

The first thing that immediately annoys me is how easily a few disturbed individuals who happen to play games have somehow tarnished the good name of gamers everywhere.  You see this kind of stuff with Muslims all being portrayed as violent extremists when the vast majority are peaceful and law-abiding.  Usually the liberal parts of the media take pains to make this distinction, but those outraged by #Gamergate are mostly liberal feminists who seem very eager to engage in the same kind of broad demonization they argue against in other contexts.  There are even calls for gamers and gaming companies to harshly decry the insensitive comments of #Gamergate, just like every Muslim needs to make it absolutely clear that they do not condone terrorism every time a terrorist act occurs.  How about we just assume that most people believe in treating others with respect rather than asking them to verbally affirm it, as if that really does anything.

There are seven billion people on the planet, which means that in every particular demographic there are likely a few crazy people.  With the internet, these people can now freely amplify the deranged voices in their head.  You should ignore these people, not use them to draw generalizations about the population of which they may belong based off sharing a hobby.

But what about the death threats and harassment, how can you ignore that?  Unfortunately, in the modern age, I suspect most public figures are harassed and get death threats.  Life goes on because they are not dissimilar to those times you get really frustrated and claim “you are gonna kill Bob” because he let your favorite plant wither while you were gone.  If you took them all seriously then anyone of any notoriety should lock themselves in a panic room ASAP.  Like with all of life, we have to depend somewhat on the basic decency of the rest of humanity.  The problem is that as the population grows you get more yahoos even if the percentage of the population that are psychopaths stays constant.

The irony of the harassment and death threats, including the threat of a school shooting if Sarkeesian gave her speech, is that they are mostly their to garner attention for their utterer and the media has given them what they want.  On the deeper bowels of the internet we call such people drawing attention to themselves “trolls.”  You do not feed the trolls.  By which we mean, just ignore them and they will eventually give up and go away.  I know, this isn’t foolproof, maybe some of these threats are real, but you really can’t let the terrorists win by completely altering your life.  Sarkeesian backed down this time.  What about the next time she tries to speak?  A death threat worked last time, why not try it again?  I don’t have an easy answer for Sarkeesian, but you can see why we don’t negotiate with terrorists.

As for the actual discussion about the portrayal of women in games, it seems unfairly targeted at video games.  Every other media type is just as bad but since they are more established they seem to get more of a pass.  Where are all the good female stars of TV shows for instance?  Olivia Pope you say?  You mean the woman who is easily wooed by the sleeziest, most incompetent President imaginable?  I hear Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being touted as a strong female character.  Apparently being deranged and unstable and getting a boob job to impress a guy is “strong.”  It really sounds to me like nobody knows what they want when it comes to female characters, though I would just settle for more of them in starring roles.

Also some of the examples used by Sarkeesian and others are a bit dubious.  On the Colbert Report they used a scene from Dragon Age Origins where a villain was telling his troops to commit mass rape in a village.  Of course this is a game that takes place in a gritty medieval setting, a time period not known for its egalitarian treatment of women and where raping and pillaging were a common event.  Why are there no complaints about A Game of Thrones where similar things happen?  Oh right, because it’s a mainstream TV show now.  Even games in modern times would in fact be betraying verisimilitude if the ignored the myriad inequalities of men and women in the world today.  Maybe this is a worthwhile sacrifice, but seemingly calling for every game to treat women on the same footing as men comprises a seriously curtailing of creative freedom.

Also, lets be honest, the portrayal of men is equally objectifying.  Comics, movies, video games, anime and fantasy fiction are full of steroid-injecting tough guys with growls instead of voices.  It’s not dudes reading all the romance fantasy with covers emblazoned with hunky shirtless men.  There is just as much beefcake as there is cheesecake.  The “problem,” as much is there is one, is that video games are fantasy empowerment for their players and their players are still mostly male.  Men want to be play powerful, sexy men and interact with and dominate sexy women and I am sure women have similar fantasies.  Video games are a symptom, not a cause.  It’s like blaming manufacturers for putting sugar into everything, but they only do so because that is what people want.  Changing people’s view of the other sex is going to do a lot more to correct this than anything else.  Though good luck trying to change their fantasies from being about power and sex.

Finally, a comment about the suffix “gate” being attached to everything.  Watergate was a seminal moment in the politics of the USA as it involved an unparalleled breach of the trust we give to our government officials and the President.  It was also the name of the hotel where said event occurred.  Now, for reasons unknown we have taken the “gate” part of that name and appended it to every minor scandal.  It degrades the original scandal and shows a frightening lack of imagination by our news media and intellectual figures while also making no sense.


Wasteland 2 Review

Oh my.  How did they mess up a turn-based, post-apocalyptic RPG so badly?  The framework of a decent game is here, but at every step Inxile has made extremely poor decisions.  I don’t know how most of the mechanics in the game made it live considering the extremely long and public beta testing.  Unfortunately, this was also not a result of them spending resources on story, interactions, graphics or the user interface.  Pretty much everything here is a bit shoddy and I am extremely worried about Pillars of Eternity now.

Lets start with the character creation since that is the first thing most people will see.  There are attributes like Awareness and Speed and skills like Kiss Ass, Energy Weapons and Mechanical Repair.  The former have almost no effect on the latter despite common sense suggesting it should.  The lone exception is that Charisma works with the Leadership skill.  In fact there are 7 attributes but the only thing of import that they affect is the number of Action Points and your Combat Initiative which determines how often you get a turn.  That is seven attributes to determine two statistics, which means that most of them are far too similar.  The two attributes that don’t affect these stats, Luck and Charisma, are essentially dump stats unless you really want enough Charisma for all the possible NPCs to join you.  Seeing as they are all dull as bricks, I don’t see the point.  It might have been better to go with a pure skill system if this is the best they could do with attributes.

The skill system has the major flaw that there are just too damn many of them.  For instance, there are three speech skills: Hard Ass, Kiss Ass and Smart Ass.  Furthermore each is used like once or twice to any effect during the course of the entire game.  Why is there Alarm Disabling, Mechanical Repair, Toaster Repair, Computer Science, Lockpicking and Safecracking?  This should be at most three skills.  Why are First Aid and Surgery different skills?  Why does every weapon type need its own weapon skill?  Is using a blunt weapon that different from an edged one or just using your fists?  What do we gain from this fine granularity of weapon skills?

The worst part is that the skills vary hugely in their importance in the game.  Mechanical Repair and Disable Alarm can safely be skipped.  The speech skills are pretty useless too.  Among the weapons, edged weapons are the best melee until the end of the game when blunt takes over, but both pale in comparison to brawling endgame.  Still, melee is weak in general.  The Pistol skill is worthless, submachine guns are OK at the beginning and fall behind quickly.  Heavy weapons are useless because the game thinks that guns jam every 10th bullet and the ammo for energy weapons is way too heavy.  The real problem is that assault rifles are by far the best weapon for the entirety of the game.  Their range is comparable to a sniper rifle, but they can burst giving them the highest damage potential.  Sniper rifles take a ton of AP to fire while doing considerably less damage than a bursting assault rifle.  It may have been balanced if ammo were at all a problem, but the stuff is effectively infinite.

In order to make these skills useful the wasteland is littered with trapped and locked chests and safes.  Nevermind asking why you would place explosives on a chest you were trying to protect or why all of these things are just lying around when resources are so scarce.  Know that you will be spending far too much time disarming traps and unlocking stuff.  Then you will constantly be juggling items to stay under your weight limit.  On top of taking a needlessly long five seconds to use one skill, even at max skill you will still have a chance to fail.  In fact you will have a chance to critically fail and be unable to try unlocking the chest again.  So the game is built for save scumming for no good reason.  The worst part is that for the most part these things contain pittances like a few rounds of ammo, no matter how difficult it was to break in.  This entire setup caused huge pacing issues for me and endless frustration at loading screens and I cannot fathom why they chose this skill system and the multiplicity of locks and traps they put into the game.

This analysis of stats leads to the atrocious combat.  Most of the time your group will be all balled up at the beginning of combat since it is rarely worth the considerable amount of effort to split them up before engaging.  Wasting AP moving is usually a bad idea unless cover is very close.  Thus by the end of the game you are mostly standing still picking off enemies from afar as they run closer to you.  XCOM this is not.  There are no special abilities and the tactical movement is essentially nonexistent.  The ambush system in the game is awful.  They will often all trigger at once or just fail to trigger for reasons unknown.  I should point out I was only playing on Ranger difficulty, which is right below the absolute hardest difficulty, but above the recommended setting.

What about the plot and roleplaying you ask?  Here is a summary of most of the game.  Go place radio transmitters around Arizona.  Now go place radio transmitters in California.  Gather cat litter and zeolite to pass our contrived attempt to gate content with radiation.  Learn about tired scheme for AI to take over world just like Fallout Tactics or Wasteland 1 or any other myriad sources.  Game over.  The overarching plot is really unmotivating and bland.

The individual areas are a little better, but most can be boiled down to there are two equally bad choices and you are forced to make one.  This is fine a few times, but literally every major decision in the game is like this.  You need to balance this with at least a few opportunities to bring good into the world, to actually fulfill the role of a Ranger bringing law and order to the people.  Instead these “dilemmas” often leave one feeling powerless and impotent.  If no matter what you do everyone is screwed why even make a choice?  Why continue playing?

The freedom to resolve situations is nowhere near as broad as in Fallout 1 and 2, but it is better than most recent RPGs.  What holds it back are some excessively narrow or even buggy triggers that often force you down paths you were just exploring or suddenly making everyone aware of your intentions.  When I find out the nuke is actually a dud, this information should not be broadcast to everyone in town.  But it is and an opposing faction decides to makes its move and my choice of who controls the town is made for me.  Stuff like this happens all the time and it makes my narrative power feel janky and buggy.  Unfortunately, dialogue is badly written and mostly consists of pressing all the dialogue options.  This is one area where Bioware has actually made some progress recently, though I dislike how they have shortened your options to emoticons in recent games.  Bioware games have natural dialogues rather than lists to exhaust.  Speech skills in Wasteland 2 add very little in the way of options and most things are solved with guns.  The NPCs are poorly optimized and have no personality.  You get some emotes and a quick ending screen for your party members and that is about.  None of them really even have a quest to flesh them out.

On the technical front, this game is ugly.

I think what really kills it for me is how terrible and frequent the combat is and the aforementioned trap/unlocking system that really slowed the game down.  You can’t avoid it because you never know where an important item may be.  So huge swathes of the game are joyless to get to the merely adequate roleplaying parts.   There are so many blatantly bad ideas it strangles all the good parts.  Inxile does not seem capable of even rudimentary analysis of their game systems and it makes me very wary of their future projects.  I cannot in good conscience recommend this game to anyone.

Superhero Morality is Super Wrong

I have been reading a lot of superhero comics lately, in particular Superman.  Now the best Superman stories rarely involve him pounding on an enemy because lets face it, he is Superman and rarely outmatched.  Rather, it’s some kind of moral conundrum or a chance for Superman to show he has more to him than just brawn.  However, the recent sequence of stories I am reading have mostly focused on moral conundrums and they highlight the absurdity of the superhero moral code.

Now for the uninitiated the superhero moral code is that you don’t kill EVER.  The reason for this is so that supervillains can keep coming back again and again and the comic book companies can sell more comics.  Wait… I mean it’s because superheroes can’t take justice into their own hands.  Whenever a superhero kills all the other superheroes get all frowny faced and judgmental.  Batman is particularly bad, if you don’t follow his moral code exactly he gets all pouty and wont talk to you.  It actually seems a bit out of character for Batman to be so stuck up on these things.  The role of righteous indignation seems more suited to Superman than the dark and scary Batman.  I guess he is a big softy under that black cape and cowl.

Anyways this code was put front and center when Wonder Woman killed a man that was mind controlling Superman.  Now Wonder Woman has this kind of weird incongruity in her character where she is sometimes written as striving for world peace and in others as a warrior princess.  This story plays off the latter.  However, she has a pretty good reason for what she did.  She lassoed said villain, which compels him to speak the truth, and asked him what would stop him from controlling Supes now or in the future.  He replied “kill me” so he obviously believed that was the only way he would stop and so she took him at his word and did so.

All of the other superheroes disagree with her decision, but it was probably the right one.  The usual cycle is that the superhero manages to subdue supervillain without killing him,  a miraculous task given this is often like two nuclear bombs fighting.  They put him in minimal security prison.  He inevitably escapes incredibly porous prison and goes on his next criminal rampage.  Thus 99% of supervillains are recidivists.  Every time they don’t kill a supervillain they have essentially consigned innocents to death at a later date since the villain WILL escape and he WILL go back to a life of crime.

Of course the governments in the comic books should step up and take this decision out of of the heroes’ hands.  Considering that most supervillains are mass murderers and recidivists with incontrovertible evidence against them, it might be time to instate the death penalty.  This is particularly true because they seem incapable of actually holding a supervillain.  At that point, to protect society you might have to kill them.  I am against the death penalty in real life, but almost none of these conditions hold in our reality.  Strangely, the death penalty appears to have been eradicated in the U.S.A. of comic books despite being on the books in over half the states of the real U.S.A.

The other problem with this view is that superheroes are already vigilantes, so it’s bewildering that they draw the line at killing.  Marvel’s Civil War grappled with this issue of heroes working outside the law and while its execution was lacking, it is certainly an interesting idea for a comic.  Instead of killing they engage in all kinds of morally dubious alternatives.  For instance, in Identity Crisis it is revealed that members of the Justice League had taken to wiping and altering the minds of supervillains and even Batman.  This was because they had learned the heroes’ secret identities and vowed to kill their friends and families when they inevitably escaped.  As you can see, they are also not confident in our ability to incarcerate supervillains and yet they still don’t kill them.  What is extremely peculiar is that they lobotomized the villains into merely less vicious villains and not into upstanding citizens.  It was like a catch-and-release program for villains so that the superheroes could still get their jollies off on beating them up.

Apart from altering minds, the heroes have also engaged in other ambiguously moral “solutions” other than killing.  They will hurtle villains through space, trap them in the Phantom Zone or put them in infinite teleportation loops, just to name a few.  I somehow doubt the justice system has condoned these methods of detainment.  Furthermore, many of these sound like permanent solitary confinement which many studies have shown is akin to torture psychologically.  But hey, at least they didn’t kill them!

Furthermore, most heroes subscribe to a “mean don’t justify the ends” morality or as Superman put it, he would not sacrifice one child to save millions.  I have already written about how the ends always justify the means in my post on macromorality; this is in fact the only way to judge the means.  If Supes actually made that choice he would unambiguously be in the wrong.  Strangely, I have never actually seen a superhero in such a dilemma, they always manage to save everyone.  Someone should do this.  I would read it.


Review: Shadow of Mordor

What a pleasant surprise!  The best Assassin’s Creed game is not an AC game!  Though considering the recalcitrance of Ubisoft to make ANY changes to the AC formula and in fact importing it into other games (see Farcry), it was really only a matter of time.  However, Shadow of Mordor still left in a lot of weaknesses from recent open world games, while showing some progress in making them feel a little more alive.

The best way to describe Shadow of Mordor is AC with the combat system taken from the recent Batman Arkham games set in a universe with Lord of the Rings trappings.  I say trappings because the storyline is pretty much an incoherent mess and the only other NPCs you encounter are orcs, I mean Uruks.  You should really think of it as an orc-killing simulator if you want to get any enjoyment out of the game.  Do not play this game expecting sweeping fantasy epics or you will be disappointed.

In fact the sequence of main missions would be a major fault in the game.  It’s essentially a very long sequence of tutorials that locks a lot of the more interesting abilities until really late in the game.  For instance you wont get the ability to brand orcs and thus make them part of your army until the second map, over halfway through the game.  This tutorial aspect makes many of them feel a bit redundant or irrelevant; why am I hunting beasts with a dwarf as a main mission?  Oh right, so they can unlock beast taming abilities.  Said dwarf then disappears, seemingly having no other purpose except to unlock your skills.  He doesn’t even show up in the end sequence.

There are of course the other mainstays of this genre: collectibles and minor quests strewn around the map for you to collect.  However, they are clearly marked and there aren’t an enormous number of them.  I actually did them all, which I never do in these games, hoping they might provide some kind of gameplay perk, but alas it was just for experience points.  I guess there were a sequence of side missions where you free slaves (24 times, it got a bit repetitive) and in doing so the final mission kind of starts a rebellion and human slaves are a bit more aggressive towards their captors.  The rebellion should have been handled much better with more consequences and more variation than just “free the slave” missions over and over again.

What has people raving about this game then?  That would be the Nemesis system.  There are two maps in the game each with an orc leadership hierarchy of captains and the warchiefs above them.  Captains have a wide array of abilities and you can gather intel on them to find out their weaknesses and strengths.  They can rise up the ranks based on your actions or you can remove them from the hierarchy.  Occasionally they survive their murder and try to get revenge, though this is rare except for the one orc captain the game chooses as your arch-nemesis to haunt you throughout the game and returns in the final missions.  They will even comment on how you killed them or they killed you.

It becomes a bit more interesting once you can turn orcs to your side.  Now you can try to set up ambushes by turning regular orcs to your side and unleashing them.  Or you can turn captains and protect them so they go up the hierarchy and become stronger.  Now have them backstab warchiefs after ingratiating themselves and then said captains become warchiefs themselves.  It all sounds very cool.

And it is.  Except most of the stuff exists for no real purpose.  The first problem is that branding has no limits and as such is always preferably to killing orcs once you get the ability.  Second, what is the point of all these machinations when you can just go to the top of the hierarchy directly and brand the warchiefs?  Part of the problem is that the game is too easy later on and as such warchiefs don’t need to be softened up for you to plow through them.  If they were real terrors where you wanted a few captains on your side to even the odds it would work much better.  Finally, the only reason to dominate the warchiefs is to unlock the final missions which are appallingly bad with one of the worst boss battles in recent memory and a non-conclusion to setup a sequel.

You see there is actually a paucity of content if you don’t like just killing orcs and playing with captains.  Two maps that are devoid of interesting environments, a terrible set of tutorial missions and a bunch of collectibles is not much to sink your teeth into.  Playing with the orc leadership is essentially the entire game and while it is reasonably fun I want a bit more impetus to actually engage the system.

If I were designing this game I would put limits on the number of branded captains you can have rather than being able to mind control ALL of them.  Also no direct branding of warchiefs, Sauron has too much influence over them or some other mumbo jumbo.  Now you actually have to protect and shepherd your small number of captains into a warchief role rather than just going for the head.  Then I would let you do more interesting things with the warchiefs.  First every warchief gets a stronghold on the map and you can use your warchiefs to invade other warchiefs’ strongholds.  Occasionally have them invade your strongholds.  Finally, make sure the main storyline has appropriate perks and consequences for your ability to manipulate the orc hierarchy.  This would add a lot of motivation to actually play with the Nemesis system.

The other thing I would change is “missions” in general.  These open world games like to make you go to a mission start area and then limit you to a small mission area or you fail.  This is completely antithetical to “open world” and for most of the missions in Shadow of Mordor, it is completely unnecessary since the missions could just take place without any special setup.  Rather than a free the slave mission, just put some damn slaves down and let me do my thing.  Or rather than a beast hunt captain “mission” let me stumble onto the captain hunting a beast and do him in.  This would give me more freedom and if I have a captain or other orcs on my side nearby I can actually use them.  It’s a small change with an enormous shift in how “open” the world is perceived.

I guess what I am saying is that I hope the next game really builds off this because this felt more like a long tech demo for the Nemesis system.  Now that everything is in place a sequel that really stretches it could be amazing.  As it is, I 100% the game in about 25 hours and I enjoyed it, but a lot of that was built on false hopes that something more interesting would happen near the endgame.


Political Correctness No Longer Requires a Reason

I was reading this article and was struck by how the news media that I read seems to take offense at things and then just assumes everyone should immediately understand why and agree with them.  If there are comment sections, the people that fail to get riled up about some statement or attitude are branded as privileged white males that can’t understand the horrors of living in a first world country as a woman or a minority.

For instance, the 5 “crazy” quotes in the linked article are just thrown out there without analysis except a reiteration of the fact that yes women are underrepresented in media.  How that interacts with any of those quotes is nebulous.  I find the glibness of these quotes more irritating in a lot of ways than the actual quotes.  Let’s tackle each in turn.

Pete & Pete is an amazing show; who cares that it was made by white people and is about white people? That’s not important. What’s important is, how good is it? Some of these other shows — My Brother and Me,Diego, and Legend of Korra — it’s great that they’re bringing diversity into it now. Fantastic. But you know those shows are not nearly as good as Ren and Stimpy, which was made by all white people!”

Obviously the most wretched thing about this is holding Ren and Stimpy up as a good show.  I personally agree that the quality of the show is the most important factor, ahead of diversity.  Seinfeld and Friends are all white casts and better than any of the more recent comedies with more diverse casts.  Unfortunately, our society is setup such that white people hang out with white people and black people associate with black people.  Thus most shows portraying reality should actually be fairly monochromatic.

The counterargument here is that all white and predominantly male writers/crew/etc. is probably not guaranteeing the best.  It ignores too much talent.  But does Vox say this?  No, you are just supposed to be mad that this guy had the audacity to point out that the best shows yet created are products of white people.

“Why does someone who’s making something about a black person need to be black? Why does someone making a show about an Indian person need to be Indian? Why does someone making a show about women need to be a woman? If you’re making something about an alien, you don’t need to be an alien to do it.”

This seems pretty self evident to me.  If we only let people write about people very similar to themselves we would be a much poorer society.  The real problem is that minorities and women don’t have as many opportunities to share their work and viewpoints, not that they are innately superior.  Again, Vox seems to take offense at a rather innocuous statement without taking the time to explore what it glosses over

“If I were Indian or Jewish, for example, and watched something where the characters are Jewish or supposed to be, and if it’s not specific to that, then I start to wonder, ‘Why are they doing this?’ It becomes blackface.”

This one is by far the worst quote.  It assumes a very WASP standard and any deviations need to be justified by exploiting the differences with that standard.  However, I suspect most families in the U.S.A. are pretty similar such that a Jewish family sitcom doesn’t need to have every episode be about Jewish holidays or full of Yiddish.

“To just shove it in there because, ‘Uh-oh, we need diversity,’ is silly and a little disgusting. It needs to be the best people working on the best shows. They happen to be white, that’s a shame. They happen to be all guys, that’s a shame. No one says this about sports — they do sometimes, the owners — but sorry, that most basketball, football players happen to be black.”

This is much like the first quote, except that he says it in a pretty obnoxious way.  Tokenism is about as bad as just ignoring diversity.  The final line reminds me of a recent Donald Trump quote on I think the Daily Show where he tells a female TV reporter that the reason she has her job is because she is pretty.  Unfortunately, being above average in attractiveness is a very important qualification for being in TV news, especially for women.  Trump was of course being crass, but honest.  Somehow we are supposed to be mad at Trump for stating the truth, rather than all the other things that conspire to make sure only attractive females are put it on TV.

“My agent: woman. My editor: woman. My publicist: woman. The most successful genre is young adult novels — 85% of which are written by women. That discussion doesn’t really come up when it’s the other way around. It is 2014 now. It’s not 1995.Political correctness needs to change.”

Well this is just irrelevant personal experience and a made up statistic along with a glib remark about political correctness.  Nothing to get the pitchforks out for.

My point is that the liberal media seems to have gotten lazy and just throws things out there and expects its readers to become outraged.  That isn’t good analysis or news for any subject and particularly not for one as sensitive and nuanced as this.