Friday, September 22, 2017

Bring on the Bronze

I'm afraid that this weapon and the person
who wields it are both ahistorical.
The mediterranean bronze age (3200 B.C. to 600 B.C.) is one of those oddly neglected eras in history when it comes to representation in entertainment media.  Sure, there has been a few movies ("Troy" and "Clash of the Titans"), a little bit of fantasy literature ("The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"), and a few games (Apotheon and Rise of the Argonauts), but not anywhere near the amount of attention medieval Europe gets.  What's more, the little we do see set in the region tends to be iron-age Rome or the Crusades.  It's a shame because there's no real reason why we couldn't have a Game of Thrones style epic set during that era.

I think one of the most common turn-offs is the titular metal - bronze.  It's weak compared to iron, but has some beneficial qualities that are often overlooked.  For one, it's possible to make bronze weapons really sharp you can shave with them.  In fact, bronze razors are a common artifact found in ancient tombs.  It's easy to mold thanks to a relatively low melting point.  The optimal ratio for weapons is a simple ten parts copper to one part tin.  Castings that feature a thick ridgeline along the spine of a blade can greatly strengthen the weapon, as can tempering the edges.  Iron will completely rust away over time, but bronze only takes on a red or green hue with age and neglect.  It's perfectly possible to clean up and still use a bronze sword that has been buried for thousands of years.  Bronze also tend to bend rather than shatter like iron.  One of the net positives of this is if the weapon gets tweaked it can be straightened without any special tools.  So, for reasons such as these it's easy to see how bronze became so popular.  It's not as good as more recently discovered alloys, but it is a big improvement over flint or plain old copper.

Hey!  You got Dynasty Warriors in
my Greco-Hungarian epic!
Considering how ancient they were, the societies of bronze age were surprisingly advance in places.  There were written languages, trade networks, centralized governments and settlements that had sewers, as well as aqueducts to supply fresh water.  There were carts and chariots although fighting from horseback had yet to catch on mostly because horses were smaller back then...not to mention the saddle, stirrups, and horseshoes had not been invented yet.  There's also the simple fact that horses can pull weight a lot further and faster than carrying an equivalent load on their backs.  Ships traveled by sails or oars though the galley was a single deck affair.  So, what does all this mean for video games?  Well...simply put, it means would-be developers can have a lot of the things they like to include in games; world exploration, highspeed action, ship battles, secret messages and interesting urban centers (such as acropolises and ziggurats).

There were bronze age axes, spears, arrows and bludgeoning weapons.  Slings and stones were also quite popular, as were swords curved like sickles or shaped like leaves.  There were even bronze age rapiers though they, like most bronze-age weaponry, were shorter than the middle-ages equivalent.  Size might actually be one of the big reasons why developers pass over the era.  It seems like the preference in gaming is to exaggerate the dimensions of most weapons to the point that it looks silly.  Some of the blades found in skyrim are so wide they look more like paddles for rafts than swords for fighting.

The phalanx hadn't been invented yet, but the concept of closed ranks of armored soldiers had been pioneered by the Sumerians and quickly adopted by the other major powers of the day.  Individual glory was a big part of warfare as was polytheism and henotheism (see the campfire conversion between Subotai and Conan about their spiritual beliefs for a great illustration of the mindset that dominated that time period).  The term "king" was also used liberally at that time (in large part because there were no other ranks of nobility) and really just meant the boss of a particular region.  Theoretically, you could carve out your own kingdom if you could scrape together a band of 50 or so able-bodied and well-equipped soldiers.  In that sense there was a surprisingly degree of social mobility although just because you're a king doesn't mean you're not a vassal of someone even more powerful.

Anyway, I think I've established that the time period is full of gameplay and storytelling possibilities.  So instead of yet another For Honor or Life is Feudal copycat, how about more games with gods, monsters and a generous helping of bronze?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Cyberpunk TBA

When it comes to subgenres cyberpunk has to be one of the most varied.  It's origins are rooted conceptually in the novel "Neuromancer" by William Gibson, and visually in the film "Bladerunner."  Oddly enough, most noteworthy entries don't really follow the format very closely (if at all).  "Akira," for example, has the moodily lit city at night, but forgoes bionics and cyberspace for bikers and psionics.  Another film, "Inception," has technology that allows people to share dream-spaces (basically high-res versions of cyberspace), yet lacks any of the signature visuals typically associated with cyberpunk.  Cases such as these make it hard to really define the conventions of the subgenre.  The best summary I've ever heard is, "High tech meets low life."  Almost every cyberpunk story involves criminal activity in a big way.  The technology on display also tends to be the kind of thing that might actually be possible sometime in the foreseeable future.  Granted, what actually becomes viable down the road is far from certain.  Cybernetic enhancements, wherein mechanical limbs are superior to organic ones, are still a heck of a long way off.  "Ghost in the Shell" has the concept of a human brain in a robot body.  At first it might sound like a plausible scenario not-so-many years from now, but it quickly becomes silly once you consider all that grey matter needing oxygen supplied by red blood cells, which in turn must be replenished by bone.  On top of that nutrients must be supplied which means stomach, intestine, liver and kidneys.  Replacing certain internal organs, such as the lungs and heart, with artificial substitutes is currently within the realm of possibility, but there's no way anything (short of a sprawling chemical refinery) can do the job of a human liver.  It's a common failing of science fiction writers to drastically undervalue the complexity or, for lack of a better term, "engineering precociousness" of the human body.

People uploading their consciousnesses into a computer is also one of those cases of "it might as well be magic."  Our current understanding of the human brain is pretty limited.  Even coming up with a way to get an accurate picture of the wiring, let alone copying it, is something that still eludes neuroscientists.  I have a feeling that even if they were to crack that particular nut, it would be incredibly difficult to translate all those neural pathways and connections into the binary language of computers.  At the very least I would be incredibly surprised if the file size for a person's brain came out to anything less than hundreds (if not thousands) of zettabytes of data.

Want to defeat a bunch of cyborgs?  The easiest way might be to simply cut off their supply of electricity.  Without it they won't have any way to power their machine bits...and don't get me started on issues associated with waste heat dissipation.  Another classic example of not thinking things through is your average cyborg with prosthetic arms picking up a car and throwing it.  Maybe it looks cool, but in real life it would result in dislocated shoulders and/or a crushed spine.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution does address this sort of thing to some degree by having the main character's superhuman abilities toned down along with bionic reinforcing across the shoulders and back.  Then again, if you're playing Shadowrun, who cares?  In a setting filled with elves, dwarfs, orcs, trolls, dragons and magic, why worry about realism at all? depends on what kind of story the author is trying to tell.  Oftentimes the appeal of cyberpunk is its closeness to the world we currently live in.  Bigotry, corruption, and exploitation are common thematic elements of the subgenre.  They're also the kind of thing that resonates with many because it rings true.  Before it was called cyberpunk the term "tech noir" got passed around a lot as a descriptor.  While I won't got into the definition of noir, I will say it gained a lot of popularity by "telling it like it is."  In the case of cyberpunk I think its strength lies in "telling it like it will be."

Friday, September 8, 2017

Monetization of the Dead

This topic has been converted pretty thoroughly by Jim Sterling and Totalbiscuit, but I feel compelled to dedicate a post about it on my blog simply because it bothers me that much.  Just to make sure everyone is up to speed, one of the heads over at Monolith Studios passed away about about a year ago from brain cancer.  By all account he was a well liked guy whose death was considered a great loss by many of the studio's employees.  Monolith collectively decided to make a tribute in the form of a character modeled after him that will appear in their upcoming release Middle-earth: Shadow of War.  Supposedly the character will come to the rescue when the player is in dire peril.  It's a nice touch, but there's a problem with all this, Monolith Studio's producer is Warner Bros.

In case you don't know, WB has a fairly tarnished reputation - loot crate driven microtransactions in a full-priced games, attempts to manipulate media coverage, and the abandonment of the bug-riddled PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight.  There's more, but for the sake of brevity their poor industry practices have brought the publisher down to level Ubisoft and Konami.  In other words, WB is some of the worst the industry has to offer.  Not helping matters is their handling of Monolith.  In a backhanded attempt to improve PR, the aforementioned tribute character is being offered as paid DLC through Steam.  After Valve takes their cut the remaining proceeds go to the family of the deceased.  It's not a great arrangement, but I could get behind it if it weren't for the fine print.  Specifically, purchases made in six states in the USA along with anywhere else in the world don't actually go to any charitable cause whatsoever.

In essence, WB is trying to make a little extra money off the death of a cancer victim.  It is, in my opinion, disgusting.  It also underlines how cluelessly greedy WB really is.  They could have simply said for every sale of this particular DLC they will donate the full amount to the family or, barring that, a reputable cancer charity.  Alternatively, the DLC could have been free; honoring the dead man in the same way a statue in a park or a bust in a university does.  Of course if that's too much work then a simple "In loving memory of..." at the end of the closing credits would have sufficed.  However you slice it though the current setup at WB is a mix of avarice and ineptitude of the lowest order.  One wonders if anybody calling the shots over at WB has even read any of J.R.R. Tolkien's works.  If they had they probably would have noticed the similarities between themselves and certain villainous characters that appear in the stories.

So the question is (metaphorically speaking), will WB perish by their own folly like Ungoliant, at the hands of a hero like Smaug, or will they redeem themselves after a fashion like Thorin Oakenshield?  Sadly, I don't have access to Galadriel's Mirror so we'll just have to wait and see what comes to pass.  Personally, I'd be happy with any of the above...

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Myth for our Time

There are certain pieces of entertainment media that maintain an important ecological message far beyond their years; the novel "Dune," the anime "NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind," and (since this is a blog about video games) Myth.

Not to be confused with Mist, this is a series of three games, the first two of which were created by none other than Bungie Studios...before they became famous for the Halo franchise.  The first entry Myth: The Fallen Lords is my personal favorite in terms of story, while the second Myth: Soulblighter improves on the gameplay of the original.  Sadly, the third game was outsourced and is just all around bad.  It should probably be forgotten.  So how do these games play?  Well the genre is a little bit difficult to classify.  It's somewhere between an RTS and MOBA, but also has a few RPG elements woven in here and there.  The setting is your typical middle-of-the-road fantasy world wherein the big bad has all but won.  The narrative framing device comes from the journal of an ordinary soldier fighting in the war.  Stylistically, I've heard comparisons to "The Black Company" novels by Glen Cook although I think most people who play the game will be reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings more than anything else.  After all, Myth features things like treants, dwarfs, a dark lord, and a heroic wizard.  On the other hand there are some original aspects to the setting as well (such as The Tain, Myrkridia, Trow, Fetch and Ghols).  The plot mostly revolves around "The Legion," a melting pot of warriors from a variety of different backgrounds.  On one extreme you have shirtless claymore-wielding berserkers, while on the other end there are robe-wearing journeymen who use plant roots to heal the wounded.  Rounding things out are the Fir'Bolg (stand-ins for elven archers), dwarves armed with explosives and surprisingly ordinary swordsmen complete with mail hauberk, surcoat, nasal helm and heraldic shield.

The opposition is even more varied and includes ghostly peltasts called "soulless" that float over the terrain, as well as the aforementioned fetch that can shoot lightning from their fingertips.  However, the backbone of the armies of darkness are the thrall, axe-wielding zombies basically...Stages in which the player is charged with defending a fixed position against advancing columns of these foes are by far my favorite mission type, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of on-screen carnage.  Of course planting satchel charges and creating killzones is great fun, but equally exciting is targeting the shuffling timebombs known as "wights."  Hit them with a couple of arrows and the resulting explosion, created by these bloated walking corpses, causes the ground to ripple and can kill or paralyze anything caught in the blast radius.  Some other units also have interesting secondary abilities; thrall can pass through (or hide in) deep water, archers can release flaming arrows, ghols can pick up objects on the battlefield and throw them.  As you might have noticed, the bad guys have more interesting units.  Thankfully, players do get the chance to try them out in multiplayer.

Contrary to my usual gaming habits, I did play quite a bit of Myth and Myth II online.  In part it was because of Bungie's free, easy-to-use matchmaking service (a rarity in those days).  There was also a ranking system although I never made it past the lowest crown tier.  There were also some interesting mods for the game, including a vietnam multiplayer total conversion and a developer-endorsed fan-made single player campaign for Myth II entitled "Chimera."

Despite the vast array of features offered, when I think back on the Myth series my fondest memories are of the names of each unit and the accompanying flavor text.  The game tracks kill counts in addition to the number of mission survived for each unit.  These forms of experience affect movement speed, attack rate and even hit points.  One way to make the later levels easier in Myth (aside from turning down the difficulty setting) is to make sure more units survive earlier on - thus allowing them to become veterans.  So, in a sense, each of the player's units starts to take on their own personal history and value.  The names are also evocative and reflect the culture from which that unit came.  For example a berserker might have a name like "Eirik who Jams the Gates of the Underworld," or "Tyrgeis with a Shirt of Scars," while a journeyman might have a name along the lines of "Eight Flint Deer," or "Twelve Eagle Falling Sun."  Meanwhile, swordsmen have old English sounding names such as "Duncan," "Avis," or "Owen."  One particular race of foes called the "Bre'Unor" only appear in one level, but their bone armor, flint weapons, pet wolves, monolithic shrines and nocturnal ambushes made a lasting impression on me.

The flavor text made visible by selecting a single unit hints at a much deeper and richer setting than what actually makes it on-screen.  Steve Jackson Games actually ported over the setting to G.U.R.P.S. (Generic Universal Role-Playing System), but the sourcebook was oddly lacking in details.  Particularly with regards to the cycle of light and dark.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but the setting of Myth follows a 1000 (or possibly 500) year pattern of civilization rising and falling.  The concept is kind of interesting considering the mediterranean followed a similar course with the bronze age collapse in 1177 B.C., followed by the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., and now with war in Syria, civil unrest in Egypt and a major financial crisis in Greece one wonders if this simply isn't the third time around.  Even the "Leveler" takes on a quasi-symbolic importance in that the creator of one age is the destroyer of the next.  It's all too topical considering recent matters having to do with fossil fuels and climate change.  Did Bungie intend their IP to convey that sort of allusion to the real world?  I don't know, but there's no denying its relevance even to this day.