BioShock 2 — “A Pack, not a Herd”

24 02 2010

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Spoiler Warning: If you have not played BioShock or BioShock 2, this article contains spoilers. Big ones. I’m serious.

BioShock was far more than just a first-person shooter. It was a story told in architecture and voice-overs and character animation. BioShock’s underwater world of Rapture was actually a grand tour through the ruins of one man’s dream. Andrew Ryan was a man who believed — as most Objectivists do — that he had truly understood human nature, and he built a perfect society based on the principles of individualism, capitalism and the ultimate freedom, the ability to carve a life out of the wilderness and rise as far and as fast as your skills and abilities will take you. The tragedy of Rapture was the ultimate flaw in the Objectivist worldview – that human beings are not and can never truly be free because we can never be alone. We are social beings. We are fitted by the millions of years of evolution that shapes our nature to be pack animals, not solitary hunters. We are not cheetahs.

The tragedy of the splicers and Rapture itself is not that ADAM (the gene-modifying substance that gave everyone in Rapture amazing powers) caused the downfall of society, but that it merely accelerated the inevitable destruction of Ryan’s dream. ADAM and the powers it gave were, ironically enough, the ultimate fulfillment of Ryan’s philosophy. It gave everyone the opportunity to evolve in whatever direction they chose and the power to carve out a niche for themselves in the world and defend it against all comers. The end result of the Objectivist dream society resembles the Wild West – an anarchy where those who have the biggest guns rule and those too weak to defend themselves prove their moral unfitness by their failures. In Ryan’s world, there is no greater vice than altruism.

BioShock 2 takes the ultimate story point of BioShock and flips it on its head. It places you in the clunking boots of a Big Daddy and has you hunting through the still crumbling ruins of Rapture some eight years after the events of the first game for your “Little Sister.” Your foe this time around is Doctor Sophia Lamb. Lamb was a clinical psychiatrist brought to Rapture by Andrew Ryan to combat widespread depression and dissatisfaction in Rapture. The problem for Ryan was that Rapture’s philosophy was diametrically opposed to her own. Lamb is a collectivist. More than that, she’s a “communist” in the truest sense of the word. She views humanity not as a series of discrete individuals but as an extended family, a commune of essentially interchangeable parts where individualism is not only frowned upon, it’s a crime against group solidarity. Love is the universal possession of all humanity and to love one more than another is a tear in the fabric of society.

In BioShock 2, the player must battle against the Rapture Family, a collectivist society molded by Lamb to be the very model of a socialist future. Throughout the game, one is exposed through voice diaries to the tenets of Lamb’s philosophy and it’s here that BioShock 2 has its greatest success. I’ve rarely come across a more devastating critique of socialism than Sophia Lamb. This is a woman who understands the inherent contradiction at the heart of the socialist enterprise – that it’s not a society that can ever be realistically created by human beings. The fact is that for a socialist society to work, one must have a race of beings that are utterly selfless. You need people that can work for the good of all without a thought to their own benefit. You need people without individual attachments or families or loyalties to anything beyond the collective body politic. In short, you need a herd. The thing is, just as humans aren’t cheetahs, neither are we cows.

The solution that Lamb comes up with is far more monstrous than anything that Andrew Ryan ever did. Since humanity as it’s presently constituted is incapable of creating a truly socialist paradise, she will create a new breed of humanity that is capable of living there. She will turn her own daughter Eleanor into the mother of a new human race where everyone’s memory lives in everyone, where individualism as we know it has simply been bred out of the breed.

As Lamb herself says “Utopia will arrive when the first Utopians come to claim it.” Anyone familiar with the socialist ideal of the “New Man” knows the kind of horror that leads to – the socialist Utopia can only be built on a foundation mortared with the bones of non-Utopians. The existence of even one ‘counter-revolutionary” puts the entire socialist enterprise at risk. Lamb herself points this out to the player, cursing Subject Delta because his psychic connection to Eleanor Lamb has “infected” her with individualism, causing her to act in defiance of the Family’s wishes – the social imperatives first laid down by Sophia and hardwired into every member of the Family.

Comparing Jack Ryan and Subject Delta, the protagonists of BioShock and BioShock 2 makes for an interest study in contrasts. The first game had the player playing as a man who believes himself to be free only to find his mental conditioning has chained him in the worst sort of slavery imaginable. The second game has the player playing as a Big Daddy, a person so twisted and warped that all semblance of individuality and free will is supposed to have been eliminated. And in fact, it’s pointed out throughout the game that the reason you’re traveling to find Eleanor is that you literally cannot help it. You’ll die without her. Yet within your slavery lie the seeds of freedom.

The choice to kill or save the Little Sisters is the only truly free choice you have – in both games. The ultimate result in both cases is the same – you’ll pretty much be able to “win.” Therefore with no external consequences, only the dictates of your conscience can guide you. As they say, morality is how you behave when you think no one is watching. We may be a slave to circumstances but our reactions to circumstances can set us free, even at the cost of our own lives.

The odysseys of Jack Ryan and Subject Delta are great examples of the contradictions of the human animal. We are not cheetahs. We are not cows. We are wolves. We are pack animals playing a perpetual game of King of the Mountain. Just as a human alone is not a human, neither is a being without self-interest. Our entire history is a constant struggle between the pull of society and the struggle for a freedom we can never truly attain. Our nightmare is that we’re smart enough to understand this yet stupid enough to try and change it.

If there’s one lesson to take away from both BioShock games it’s this: beware Utopians. Lamb herself points out during the game that the word “Utopia” comes from the Greek for “no place.” Our current social turmoil is just a repeat of an age-old struggle between social controllers and the price of freedom – the realization that granting any amount of freedom to a society means that someone’s going to use it in ways we don’t like, often in ways that hurt other people.

I’ve raised my flag with those willing to pay that price often enough, but merely believing in maximizing human freedom as much as possible doesn’t make me an anarchist. I acknowledge that I am a social being. I am a member of the pack and I owe some sort of duty to the social body. The fact that Lamb and socialists like her are subscribers to a monstrous theory doesn’t make Andrew Ryan right. Like most of us, I’m stuck in the middle – far closer to Ryan than Lamb but forever trying to strike a balance between the two that can never be found.

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Avatar — The New Testament of the Church of the Left

26 01 2010

So against my better judgment, I decided to fork over a bit of my hard-earned cash to multi-gazillionaire James Cameron in order to take in his latest big-budget extravaganza Avatar. I freely admit that I came to the movie prepared to hate it. After reading quite a few of the reviews and seeing pretty much the whole story in the trailers (I liked this movie the first time I saw it when it was called “Dances with Wolves”) I was braced for the inevitable political sucker punch. I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be a James Cameron movie after all if it didn’t take a smack at conservatives, Republicans, the military, corporations, technology and contain the underlying Marxist world view that shows up in much of Cameron’s work.

Despite all that, I found myself enjoying the movie. Nobody does popcorn-chomping eye-dazzling action-packed spectaculars better than Cameron and Avatar shows off Cameron at the top of his game. The movie is stunningly beautiful. The world of Pandora is a lush Eden crafted with the eye of an artist and the latest in cutting edge technology to be completely appealing and wondrous to a crowd of people safely ensconced in a comfortable theater seat in a climate controlled environment (remember that, it’ll be important later). The incoherence and stupidity of the plot set aside, Avatar is a fun movie, essentially a beautiful sci-fi landscape painting created by a master.

What I found most interesting though, is that Avatar is incredibly valuable as a roadmap to the mindset of the modern left wing mind. It is, essentially, the New Testament to the anti-Church of the Left.

Allow me to explain that. If you’ve ever read the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, they predicted years ago the alteration in character that would come over American politics as Baby Boomers began to take the reigns of national power. Baby Boomers are a “Prophet” generation. Prophets:

“… are values-driven, moralistic, focused on self, and willing to fight to the death for what they believe in- and they can convince other people to join them in the fight. They grow up as the increasingly indulged children of a High, come of age as the young crusaders of an Awakening, enter midlife as moralistic leaders during an Unraveling and are the wise, elder leaders of the next Crisis.”

Thus what we’re dealing with in modern American politics is a Left that is no longer a political force but a religious one, one that recognizes no separation between the political, the personal and the religious and is not averse to using secular politics as a club to push its agenda. It no longer just defines itself by what it opposes (western culture, individualism, capitalism, Judeo-Christian religions, patriarchy, industrialism) but has congealed a sort of “anti-church” built on philosophical pillars every bit as dogmatic, irrational, intolerant and inflexible as anything proposed by a Crusading Pope.

Basically what this philosophy seems to boil down to is a classic return to Eden myth as portrayed in “Avatar.” This difference is in the character of that Eden. Rather than an impersonal and patriarchal sky god, the centerpiece of this faith is Gaia, the warm, matriarchal communal spirit of the Earth. This is represented in the film as a literal biological link between the Nav’i and the native wildlife as well as a bio-electric network that links all the planet’s life in a sort of communal oversoul. Humans have sinned against the Earth Mother through all of those things I previously mentioned. As the main character in the movie says, he comes from an Earth with no green, where the humans killed their mother — the goddess within the planet.

Once the tenets of the new religion become clear, so much of modern Left-wing thought also becomes clear. Everything from the zealous belief in global warming (persecution of “deniers,” humans as a disease giving the Earth a “fever”) to the Messianic appeal of Barack Obama, to the embrace of socialism, the sinful nature of unapproved extravagances (SUVs, fur coats, McMansions, processed foods), the attempted suppression of heretical texts (FOX News, talk radio), and the enshrinement of perfect equality (of outcome, not opportunity) as the be-all and end-all of social organization.

If there is a philosopher I loathe more than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I am hard-pressed to think of him. As awful as modern monsters like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn are, they don’t hold a candle to the influence of Rousseau’s theory of the “Natural Man.” Check out this passage:

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. ”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

That may very well be the most damaging passage written in all of human history and Rousseau’s fingerprints are all over “Avatar.” The Romantic and frankly racist idea that mankind in a state of nature is somehow living a better life than those who utilize technonology reminds me of a comment written by P.J. O’Rourke (paraphrased) about how the only people who call the jungle a rainforest are those who have never been there. The irony of “Avatar” is that Pandora is exactly what Rousseau envisioned — natural people living in harmony with the land, sleeping in a tree that literally envelopes them in love when they lay down for the night — and it took the most sophisticated technology mankind has ever invented to create it.

It’s no concidence that people like Cameron, who view the natural world through the windows of an 8,500 square-foot bungalow in Malibu or at the wreckage of the Titanic through the glass of their own personal submarine, have a Romantic view of nature. Like Marie Antoinette and her court who used to play at being peasants once a year in a suitably cleaned-up peasant village, James Cameron and his ilk sit at the top of technological pyramid supported by an enormous amount of infrastructure built by people who work harder for much less money in much less glamorous circumstances. Life for folks like Cameron is so nerfed and removed of it’s rough edges that they don’t even realize how utterly removed from the reality of life for 99.9% of humanity throughout history they really are.

Thank goodness you're one of those hot aliens, otherwise I'd never betray my own species for you.

At one point in the movie, the main character say that the Na’vi want nothing from us, that all we can offer them is “light beer and blue jeans.” Ya know, for the majority of humans who live lives as “natural” as the Na’vi, that sounds like a pretty good deal. We tend to forget that rattlesnakes, tornadoes, smallpox, a 35-year life span, 40% infant mortality and rancid food are also “natural.” These are all things that Cameron has never experienced but I guarantee that the Na’vi have. Of course, neither have I, but the difference is I’m appreciative of the collossal level of human ingenuity and industry that has worked for two million years to give me a really comfortable life and I never take it for granted. Nor would I make a movie that called me a monster for encouraging others to improve their own lot in life.

It’s not for nothing that Cameron is taking flak for his comments in Entertainment Weekly that he “likes ecoterrorism.” I’m sure he does — at least until it’s his own house that gets burned or his own movie set that gets sabotaged. For “kings of the world” like Cameron, money and jobs and economic disruption are just unfortunate things that happen to little people. They don’t really count anyway, after all. They’re just proles who’s major function in life is to fill theater seats in Cameron’s movies.

Indeed, it’s sort of ironic that even within the movie, the characters rely on a technological solution — transferring their conciousness into a cloned body — to get back to nature. Without that technology, they can’t even breathe the air. I think that’s a metaphor also, but not quite the one Cameron meant.





SimEarth: Global Warming and the Great East Anglia Geek Betrayal

1 12 2009

So, unless you’re living under a rock or are only getting your news from the mainstream media, you may already be familiar with ClimateGate. If you haven’t, in a nutshell, a bunch of e-mails stolen (or possibly leaked) from the University at East Anglia in the UK reveal a major pattern of lying, obfuscation and data fudging that casts a huge shadow over the entire theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming. This is not a small scandal either. East Anglia casts a disproportionate shadow over climate research and their findings make up a huge chunk of the data on which the work the UN’s IPCC and other climate scientists relied on to come to the conclusion that global warming is a huge threat that needs trillions of dollars and a complete realignment of the world’s economic and political systems to address.

Or maybe not.

Now I’m not a climate scientist or a statistician or even a computer scientist. That will immediately bring out cries from global warming’s true believers that I am therefore not qualified to comment on this issue and should therefore shut up. This completely ignores the fact that most of those doing the yelling are also not scientists and are no more qualified to comment on this than I am. There is however, one area in which I believe I am an expert — in geeks and geek culture and it was my knowledge of geeks that started sending up red flags on this issue a number of years ago.

One of the first red flags came when I first heard the phrase “computer models” offered as proof that AGW was happening. My first thought at the time was that I hoped that the climate model that these scientists were using was better than SimEarth, one of the forgotten “Sim” games created by Will Wright and Maxis back in the ’90s. The game modeled the Earth and the evolution of life based on James Havelock’s “Gaia” theory and allowed the player model various climactic and geological developments to build whatever sort of Earth one wanted.

As it turns out, the leaked emails reveal that the programs these scientists were using may actually have been worse predictors than SimEarth. According to the leaked e-mails — especially the Harry_Readme.txt programmer comments file — the code in these climate models was abominable. It was so bad that these guys were essentially making stuff up as they went along to make the climate models do what they wanted them to do — and sometimes to just make them work at all. They really were playing SimEarth and a lot of grandstanding politicians, glory-seeking scientists and radical environmentalists looking for their “emergency” went along for the ride.

What really set me off on the climate models was everything I read about how getting data sets impossible because the scientists in question did everything they could to hide the raw data and the details of the climate models they were using from skeptics. These were people who did everything they could to subvert the very peer-review process that is supposed to insure that science is reliable. That betrays everything that geeks usually stand for. I know geeks. Geeks welcome skeptical inquiry. Geeks are very into the whole “radical honesty” thing. I know plenty of engineers in the gaming biz and one of the most important lessons any PR person learns is “Don’t let engineers without media training talk to the media.” Otherwise your programmer will tell a journalist just how crappy your latest game is turning out. Scientists, like engineers, are geeks and it’s this welcoming attitude toward skepticism that’s supposed keeps the wheels of scientific research turning.

Global Warming was different. The more this issue dominated the media and government policy, the more red flags started going up. Calling skeptics “denialists” (subliminally bringing up the spectre of of Holocaust deniers). Demonizing those who question conventional wisdom on Global Warming. Burying, ignoring or evading questions that even a lay person could see poke serious holes in the AGW theory. Claiming that the science was “settled” when a growing body of evidence (including the statements of obviously reputable scientists) says it isn’t. Ignoring the work of statisticians (climate science places enormous weight on statistics) who said that the numbers of global warming just didn’t add up. Global Warming started to look more and more like a flame war on a gaming forum. Too many people had too much invested in global warming being real to ever admit that they might be wrong — and billions of dollars and a tremendous amount of political power are much better motivators than being right about which Final Fantasy was the best.

Finally comes this piece of news — much of the raw data that’s supposed to underlie these climate models was destroyed by the scientists involved. To go back to my SimEarth example, this is rather like dumping the source code and expecting everyone to just believe what comes out on the screen. It’s no longer just about the climate science — it’s about what was revealed about the statistical methods and coding methods of the scientists involved. There are a lot more geeks in those disciplines than compromised scientists and as people with expertise really begin to dig into these emails and the trail of tainted data spreads across the work of climate scientists around the world, it may at least bring some sense of balance back into something that was beginning to take on the disturbing overtones of a new secular religion with Al Gore as its high priest.

As for me, I’m still a Global Warming skeptic. I don’t know that it’s happening, I don’t know that it’s not. But I do know a few things. I know that if global warming isn’t real, these guys deserve to be in jail because we may have just avoided a huge waste of time, money aqnd energy into solving the wrong environmental disaster when we really do have environmental issues to deal with. That’s always been my response to people who ask me “How could you be against cleaning up the environment?” I’m not. I consider myself a conservationist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold. If there is no global warming, we were about to destroy our way of life for a lie that might not even help with real environmental problems.

If it is real, these guys deserve to be shot. They’ve given environmentalism and the process of scientific peer review a black eye from which it may take decades to recover all while global warming really does wipe out our world. This is a real issue and our decisions have real consequences and we need better data than can be generated from a 20-year old video game.





Lunacy: The Madness of Twilight — New Moon

24 11 2009

So this weekend, I did something that I thought I would never do. I went over to a friend’s house and watched Twilight, the first movie in what is laughably called “The Twilight Saga.” The reason I did so was because they were “getting ready” to see New Moon, the latest edition of what threatens to be a four movie saga — possibly more given the massive box office numbers of the latest installment. I went because these are my friends and I love them and I love getting together with them. Plus my friend Theresa makes some awesome chips & dip.

Now full disclosure. About a year ago, my wife brought home the first Twilight book on CD. At the time I was working at GameSpy and I had a massive commute every morning so I spent a lot of time listening to books on CD they she would borrow from the library. She knows I like fantasy and SF and according to the book’s description, Twilight was about vampires, so she thought I’d like it. I didn’t know anything about Twilight either, so I listened to it — and I liked it. It wasn’t great literature by any means, it was cute in that “High School Musical” sort of way — it’s a romance aimed at tweeners that just blew up into this massive thing that defies reason.

The benefit of that was that by circumstance I happened to have read Twilight before it blew up into this big pop culture phenomenon and that offers an interesting perspective on it. When my friends and I got together to watch the first movie, about half of us are really into it, while the other half are what you might refer to as “haters.” The thing was that my friend Theresa actually had T-shirts made up that said “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” and she had gotten her husband a T-shirt that said “H.A.T.E. — Husbands Against Team Edward.” It was then that I realized that none of us was actually serious about this.

Here’s the thing, I know that there are people out there that really like Twilight and enjoy getting caught up in the hype of a phenomenon. We’ve all done it with summer blockbusters or best-selling novels or other “madness of crowds” moments. The thing is that the other side of that also enjoys it on a certain level. “Haters” are also caught up in the hype and they’re enjoying provoking the fans. Having listened to Twilight and enjoyed it and now joining the “haters” camp kind of gives one a bit of remove from the whole process. I’m having fun poking at all the Twilight lovers out there but do I truly “hate” the book? Obviously not, I already mentioned that I enjoyed it.

To me, the only real danger of something like Twilight is there are always those who forget that no matter what side of the “debate” you’re on, it’s all ultimately inconsequential. The fact is that young girls need their dreamboats. Team Edward and Team Jacob are just the latest in a long line of bobby-sox idols that stretch back through the New Kids on the Block to David Cassidy to Elvis to Frank Sinatra and Rudy Vallee. Twilight will fade, as all such fads do. If something like Twilight excites your anger to the point where you get really mad about it, may I suggest you take two spoonfuls of perspective and call me in the morning?





My Time on Remote Control (i.e. RIP Ken Ober)

19 11 2009

So I’m surfing around the ‘Net today when I come across this story relating the unfortunate death of Ken Ober. For those of you who aren’t as obsessed with the 1980s as I am, Ober was the host of one of my favoritest game shows of all time – Remote Control. For those of you too young to remember the days when MTV actually played music videos, Remote Control was one of the first actual “shows” on the network. The basic premise was simple – if weird. According to the theme song, Kenny was a kid who was obsessed with game shows so when he grew up, he decided to have his own in his Mom’s basement where all the questions were about his favorite topic – TV. It was funny and anarchic and boasted early appearances by Colin Quinn, Adam Sandler and Kari Wuhrer. The thing is, not only was I a fan of the show – I was also a contestant.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine. It’s 1990 and I’m a Junior at the University at Albany when MTV comes to campus looking for contestants. I go down to the Campus Center with a few friends and wait on a really long line to audition. When I finally get in, they make you take a pop-culture quiz and then get up and introduce yourself. The idea being that while you may know a lot of stupid and useless trivia (and really, I am the king of stupid and useless trivia) they also wanted people whose personality would come across well on TV. At the risk of sounding immodest, I have never accused of being a shrinking violet and I ended up getting on the show.

Come the day of the show, I took a bus from Albany down to New York City to the Harlem studio where the show was taped. Keep in mind that this was pre-Renaissance Harlem in pre-Guiliani NYC, back when it was the scariest part of a really scary city. When I knocked on the door, staffers ushered me inside the building the way you see police ushering hostages out of a bank when they’ve just been released as part of a hostage negotiation. The only thing missing was the bullet-proof blanket.


(This was not my episode, by the way. I never managed to get a tape. If you know anyone at MTV, please let me know)

The staff itself was very friendly and they put us through a pre-show briefing in the Green Room. They also offered us as many Cokes and/or caffeinated beverages as we wanted. They wanted us to be “up” for the show. That wasn’t really a problem. I was so nervous that I had half a can of soda and my hands started shaking. They then gave me the best advice any game show contestant can receive – watch the light! The thing about game shows is that they all work pretty much the same way. The contestant’s buzzer is locked out until about a second or so before the host finishes the question. Then the light comes on and your buzzer is live. If you buzz in before the light comes on, you’re given a half-second penalty. That prevents the contestant from just pressing the buzzer over and over again. That means that even if you know the answers, the winner of a game show is usually the person with the best timing. I was thrilled – all those hours I wasted on Pac-man and Space Invaders was finally going to come in handy!

The other two contestants on the show were a guy named Doug and a very pretty girl named Lem. Lem kind of froze up under the lights but Doug was a pretty tough competitor. Its been a lot of years so I don’t really remember too many of the questions I was asked, but I do remember Colin Quinn and Susan Ashley (I was on during Season 5) re-enacting a skit from the Honeymooners and the question from “Mr. Baggy Pants.” “Knock, Knock.” “Who’s there?” “Hatch” “Hatch Who?” And the answer was, of course, “Gesundheit.” Along about the middle of the show before the commercial break they had what was called “Snack Time” where they would drop some kind of food on your head. In my case it was Hostess Sno-Balls. They were stale in case you’re wondering. I finally ended up winning on this question in “Brady Math.” “Greg and Bobby are hung on a hook in a meat locker by Sam the butcher. If their body temperature is currently 84 degrees, how long have they been hanging on those hooks and how many kids are still waiting at home?” Yes — I got it right.

The bonus round on Remote Control during the 5th season was that they strapped you to a wheel and spun you around while you tried to guess what artist’s video was playing on tiny TVs at your head and your feet. This is actually much more difficult than it sounds. I managed to not throw up and named six out of the nine videos, so I think I did pretty well. I ended up winning about $1,800 worth of prizes including a stereo, a dozen CDs, a portable TV, a set of really cool (in an ’80s kind of way) set of speakers with pulsing neon lights in them, a pair of Rollerblades and a pair of British Knights sneakers (remember British Knights?). On the way out the door, Lem asked me for my phone number, which I forgot to give here — I’m still kicking myself over that one.

This story actually has kind of weird post-script. A few years later I was working at my first job out of college and I’m paired up for training with another new hire. All day long I keep thinking this guy looks really familiar. He says the same of me and we’re wracking out brains trying to remember where we know each other from. Camp? School? College? Did we attend the same Hebrew School? Finally he looks at me and says, “Did you ever see a game show called Remote Control?” Yup, it was Doug, the other contestant. It really is a small world.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah. Remote Control was a really awesome show. Rest in peace, Mr. Ober. I had a great time.





What if Videogames Had Died in 1983?

18 11 2009

I really like Kyle Orland. As a games journalist his quiet ambition for pushing games journalism beyond what it is is matched an underappreciated talent. Sometimes though even a good writer can miss the boat. That’s what I think happened in his interesting but underthought series of What if? articles at Crispy Gamer. In the articles, Orland attempts to look at key gaming moments and ask what might have happened had a different course been taken. Some of the questions he asks are interesting ones — What if Magnavox had decided to enforce Ralph Baer’s patent for a “television gaming apparatus” and gone on to become the almost monopolistic holder of the video game industry through its Odyssey 3 system? What if Nintendo had never released the Game Boy? That sort of thing. It’s an interesting concept, but Orland doesn’t really think some of the implications of the questions he’s asking through.

Take for example his segment on what if Atari had avoided the videogame crash in 1983 and gone on to face Nintendo. He posits that a forward thinking Nolan Bushnell pushes the development of the Atari 2700 — a more advanced console replacement for the 2600 that would be backward-compatible with 2600 cartridges. The console takes the market by storm and Atari survives to push upstart newcomer Nintendo into a corner of the market by 1990. What he misses in this posit is that the Atari 2700 actually existed and it was a disaster. It was called the Atari 5200 and while unlike the Orland’s fictional 2700 unit it wasn’t compatible with 2600 cartridges, that wasn’t really the deciding factor in its eventual death. The 5200 had the horsepower to compete against both the Intellivision (which it was designed to destroy) and the Colecovision (which had more graphic power but horrible controllers). Even without the backwards compatibility, the 5200 was certainly no disaster right out of the gate and after the unit was redesigned to accept 2600 cartridges could have been a success under the care of a competently run company.

The issue was really the glut of poor Atari 2600 software, the proximate cause of the great videogame crash of 1983-84 from which the Western industry almost didn’t recover. Orland’s 2700 system — even with backward compatibility — doesn’t address this problem. Indeed, it actually makes it worse because one of the first things a 2700 user would do would be to buy the bargain basement software that was currently flooding store shelves because it would be cheaper than the newer 2700 software. That would have killed the 2700 through word-of-mouth much faster than the 5200 died in the real world thanks to corporate stupidity and neglect. The institutional rot at Atari was already a foregone conclusion by 1983 and the innovation that eventually saved the Western side of the business – the Nintendo Seal of Quality – only came about because the fledgling Nintendo of America had learned the lessons of the crash. Without the crash, it’s extremely doubtful that Atari would have come up with the idea of licensing third-party software developers for the 2700 by virtue of the fact that they never thought of it for the 5200.

More importantly, Orland misses one of the real “what if?” scenarios that jumps out of Atari’s crash and burn – the fact that even if Atari had managed to survive the great crash it would not have gone on to face off against Nintendo – it would have survived by becoming Nintendo! In 1983, Atari under the “leadership” of Ray Kassar was on the verge of inking a deal with Nintendo to distribute Donkey Kong on home computers – a deal that was designed to be the precursor to Atari distributing Nintendo products outside of Japan. Given that Nintendo’s reason for wanting the deal was Atari’s impressive worldwide marketing apparatus, it’s entirely likely that the Famicom (which became the Nintendo Entertaiment System in the West in our world) would have been Atari-branded. That would have been the Atari 2700.

The problem with that scenario would have been – once again – a glut of poor software. Without a Nintendo Seal of Quality and a system of third-party licensing, there’s no doubt that crappy software for the 2700 would have flooded the market soon after the system was released. Regardless of the quality of the games that would be produced by Nintendo itself (we’re assuming that Atari would recognize Miyamoto’s genius and not try to slap a license on Super Mario Bros., by no means a slam-dunk), the 2700 would soon be buried in a bunch of crappy Chase-the-Chuckwagon clones. Atari would still have collapsed – albeit a year or two later and this time it would have taken Nintendo’s hope of Western expansion with it.

The result would have been a videogame drought that makes our crash in 1983-84 look like the glory days of the PS2. Nintendo in our world had a hard enough time getting into retail because of how badly retailers had been burned by the crash – they invented R.O.B. the robot specifically so they could call the system a “toy” rather than a videogame. After the crash of the Atari 2700 there isn’t a retailer in the Western hemisphere that would have touched a videogame with a 10-foot pole. Most Atari 2600 gamers would have either moved on to PC gaming as I did or simply forgotten about gaming altogether – except for dropping some quarters into the occasional old Pac-Man machine at a local 7-11 (the arcades also hit a big slump in this period from which they never really recovered). It wouldn’t have been the “end of videogames” but it’s entirely possible that gaming would never have become the relevant cultural force it eventually became. PC gaming could never have taken the place of console gaming because it wasn’t gaming that drove the adoption of the PC – it was spreadsheets.

In my mind, the true frontier of videogaming in such a world would probably have been the handheld system. In that case Nintendo, burned by the failure of the 2700 would have focused on expanding its Game & Watch line of products, introducing the first GameWatch Boy in 1986 (later the name would be shortened to just GameBoy) packed in with Tetris. About a year later the GameBoy would be rivaled by NEC’s Turbo Express and the two handheld systems would split the market between them, though NEC played second-fiddle to Nintendo until about 1995. Atari’s Game Gear – a joint venture between them and Sega – never managed better than a distant third in the marketplace.

In 1995 however, NEC would expand the capabilities of the TurboExpress by utilizing its heft as a consumer electronics company to link the TurboExpress into the burgeoning “multimedia” revolution by incorporating PCLink capabilities that allow users to download applications – including music and video files – into the newly renamed “TurboPod.” Eventually the TurboPod relegates the Gameboy into a niche as a mere gaming toy while NEC faces off against its real competition – Sony’s new line of Digital Walkmans that perform similar functions utilizing technology developed by Apple.

I think somewhere in that world I’m playing a lot of pinball.





Sanitarium and the ObamaCare Debate

11 11 2009

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OK. That headline is really just Google fodder looking for Obamacare search traffic, although reading the announcement about the release of Sanitarium at GOG.com did make me think about our current health care debate in a weird way. If you’ve never heard of Sanitarium, that’s a damn shame. It’s one of the most underrated and tragically ignored games of the 1990′s. It was put together by the Dreamforge Intertainment and published by ASC Games, the outfit that was working on an action game version of White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse that showed a lot of promise and still stands up as one of their finest titles. (Spoiler warnings ahead!)

The basic storyline is as cliched as they come. You’re a man who awakens as a patient in a horrible sanitarium, your face covered by bandages and you have no idea who you are or how you got there. The staff tells you you’ve survived a car crash suffered during an escape attempt and that your memory will return once you recover your sanity. What follows though, is a truly surreal journey into insanity as you as the player keep shifting in and out of bizarre worlds and the very shape of reality changes while you struggle to recover your memory. As you play, you as the player will find yourself in a 1950′s small town being absorbed by an alien invasion, an Aztec village being threatened by a hostile god, a strange house being haunted by ghosts and a hive of intelligent bees on an alien planet. Even your identity keeps shifting as you change at intervals from a scarred man to a ten year-old girl to a four-armed alien warrior to a living statue.

What makes Sanitarium amazing and still timely though is what all of these different worlds have in common. As you play, a thread between these different worlds begins to emerge, all of them relating to your shrouded past and to why you’re in that Sanitarium. There’s also some interesting commentary on the nature of pharmaceutical companies in a for-profit health care system and the realization that the true horror you face isn’t supernatural at all — it’s the very human emotion of greed and what some people will do to protect a profit margin. It posits a drug company that will murder a researcher who develops a cure for a deadly plague because it threatens to cut into the profits generated by the stopgap drug that merely allows you to live with the disease.

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Here’s the thing, though, the commentary in Sanitarium misses out on a very important point in the for-profit world of medicine — or the for-profit world of anything. Yes, there are unscrupulous people who will do anything to protect an individual company, but I’ve discussed health care with too many people who seem to believe that it’s the profit motive itself that’s the problem, rather than the illegal or criminal actions of an individual to protect a particular set of profits. Put simply, profits are the engine of progress. Even if we could magically create a socialized medical system that actually worked, it would bring medical research to a grinding halt. When doctors and researchers make the same money as McDonald’s fry cooks, you get the same quality of doctors as McDonald’s gets workers. Remove the chance to profit, remove enlightened self-interest from the equation and you put the kibosh on the chance for cures to AIDS, cancer or anything else that currently plagues us. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.

To be fair, not even Sanitarium makes the argument that Big Pharma and insurance companies are in a giant conspiracy to suppress the cures for diseases in the pursuit of profit. That game is mostly a thriller about an evil pharmaceutical executive — an individual who commits multiple criminal acts. They leave that to big budget Hollywood movies, Michael Moore and a delightful conspiracy theorist of my acquaintance who will wax rhapsodic on how we never landed on the Moon. I leave their arguments in the Sanitarium where they belong. But even making that argument betrays not only a blatant hostility toward capitalism, but a profound misunderstanding of how capitalism works, how research works and eliminates even the possibility of finding common ground in the health care debate.

Even if a company does manage to Silkwood a particular invention, there are too many other companies out there working along the same lines who will eventually make the breakthrough. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, he merely made the light bulb so good it became commercially practical. If some candle company had had Edison murdered, the light bulb would have been discovered by one of dozens of other researchers working along the same lines.

None of this, by the way, should stop you from checking out Sanitarium if you can. It’s a genius game that never got the credit it was due. At





On V, Obama and the Worship of the State

5 11 2009

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So I watched the premier of the the “re-imagining” of “V” on ABC last night. The series is, of course, a retread of the early-’80s vintage piece of sci-fi cheese that starred the Beastmaster, Jane Badler’s sexy shoulder pads and the blonde chick from The Greatest American Hero. The storyline remains the same. A race of aliens that look just like human beings land on Earth bearing a message of peace and an offer of technological assistance in return for our friendship and a chemical they need to survive. Naturally there’s more to the “Visitors” than meets they eye and as they insinuate themselves more and more into our daily lives, they gradually begin to assume a fascist control over our world, sparking the inevitable rag-tag resistance filled with photogenic rebels.

The good news is, the re-make is actually quite good. I enjoyed it and since everybody knows by now that the aliens are actually carnivorous lizards disguised as humans, the producers wisely chose to get that minor revelation out of the way in the first half hour and move on to the real meat of the story which is apparently a criticism of the Obama Administration and the cult of personality which has grown up around our President — particularly the slavish nature of the mainstream media. It’s tough to miss if you’ve been paying any attention at all to, like, life since the coming of The One. At various points Anna, the leader of the Visitors, makes pretty speeches to the frightened citizens of Earth, addressing themselves to protesters against the aliens’ presence, telling them that embracing change is difficult but that we must resign ourselves to it and promising them all kinds of goodies if only they’ll place themselves in the Visitors’ caring hands. At one point, Anna tells reporter Chad Decker (played by Party of Five’s Scott Wolf) that the Visitors would like to become the Earth’s sole health care providers — literally offering us “Universal” Health Care.

It’s Wolf’s reporter character that makes the criticism most obvious. Decker is a pretty-boy talking head on a cable news channel who has dreams of being a real reporter (a story idea he comes up with is praised by his boss and then handed off to another journalist while Decker is directed to return to his TelePrompTer). Yet when presented with an opportunity to be a real reporter, Decker muffs it — twice. First he actually shuts down fellow journalists who have the temerity to ask Anna some semi-tough questions, telling them to “have some respect.” Having shown himself to be pliable, Decker is then offered the opportunity for the first one-on-one interview with Anna where he’s told to “not ask any questions that might put us in a bad light.” When he objects, he’s told his big exclusive will be cancelled unless he plays ball. He does so and delivers a softball interview, only to be offered an ongoing exclusive arrangement with the Visitors that basically turn Decker into Anna’s Chris Matthews. On accepting this arrangement, he’s actually told by one of the Visitors that “sacrificing one’s principles for the greater good isn’t a bad thing.” That, of course, could be the motto for the Obama Administration.

The big thing though, is the worshipful attitude that the public begins to adopt about the Visitors. They are literally the “Deus ex Machina” — the machine out of the sky that has come to solve all our problems. It’s also the element that’s most changed with the original series which was a pretty explicit analogue for Nazi Germany and a forceful fascist takeover. The difference is mainly in tone. Rather than an explicit takeover, the new series seems to be more about gradually conditioning the populace to depend upon the Visitors for everything and turning gratitude into worship. It’s not for nothing that one of the lead characters in the new series is a Catholic priest who is dismayed rather than overjoyed by the suddenly filled pews in his church (he disagrees with the Pope’s acceptance of the Visitors as God’s creations by pointing out that rattlesnakes are God’s creations too.) He realizes that times of strife can awaken religious longings in people in search of security — longings that can be subverted by those looking for power by replacing God with the State.

It’s this theme that resonates most strongly with Obama. Now before the objections start, I am NOT comparing Barack Obama to Hitler or a Nazi. What I am saying is that — as Jonah Goldberg points out in “Liberal Fascism,” — both American liberalism and fascism share intellectual roots. Both are ultimately concerned with the proper ordering of society and the proper redistribution of wealth along regimented, almost militaristic lines in the interest of complete equality and fairness of outcome. The problem with that, of course, is that that is incompatible with individual free choice, so naturally that’s the first thing that has to go. There’s also the idea of the State as cornucopia — the font of all good things. At the heart of this idea is the belief that it’s the responsibility of the state to care for its citizens in loco parentis, — a key point of contention for those like me who would like the State to stay the Hell out of our business.

Of course, bringing this up irks Obama supporters no end. Thin-skinned as our Dear Leader seems to be, they seem offended by the idea that a mere science fiction series might be criticizing Obama or worse — pointing out the almost religious cult of personality that’s grown up around him — so they do their best to dismiss it. I’ve heard everything from the fact that this re-make was in development before Obama was elected to it being a mistake to read too much into an action-adventure series to the fact that the storyline is a pretty solid match for the original. The last seems pretty ridiculous to me. It’s like saying that the new “Battlestar Galactica” wasn’t about the War on Terror because the original series was a sci-fi re-telling of the Book of Mormon (which it was, by the way.) As for not reading too much into it — this is science fiction people. This is the genre where, as Rod Serling pointed out, “A Martian can say things a politician can’t.” Metaphor and allegory are as natural to the form as rockets and rayguns. Why get so upset? I got over the Anvilicious “red energy is the source of all evil, blue energy is the source of all goodness” political commentary in Astro Boy. You can get over this.

The original “V” showed the “1984″-esque face of fascism — the “iron boot stamping on a human face, forever.” The new one shows the kinder, gentler sort of fascism, the “Brave New World” –esque universal nanny state. It’ll be interesting to see where they go with it and whether Obama’s supporters can be as tolerant of criticism as they claim to be.





Dragon Age and Tolkien’s Orc Problem

4 11 2009

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So now that it’s up, I can tell you that one of the reasons blogging has been so light for the last week is that I have been hip deep in reviewing Dragon Age for G4. It’s brilliant and amazing and I spent close to 50 hours over the course of five days playing through it and I’ll probably do it again with a different character. If you’d like to read the rest of my take, check out the full article on the G4 Web site. This particular post isn’t about the quality of the game, which is beyond question for me. It’s about the problem that I had with the Darkspawn, the main threat to the world the player faces.

Here’s the problem. Like the Orcs or goblins in Tolkien’s world, the Darkspawn are an embodiment of absolute evil. They are like locusts, driven to destroy, unable to be negotiated with and seemingly incapable of any higher desire than to burn, crush and destroy and make more of their kind. In short, they’re a typical rampaging fantasy horde that exists merely to provide sword fodder for the player to hack through millions of them without the annoyance of feeling guilty. That bothers me. I don’t like unredeemable fantasy monsters. It was one of the awful influences of Tolkien that turned me off of fantasy for many years.

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Now, I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported wars in the real world knowing that real people on both sides would suffer horrible deaths and injuries because of it. Even as I did it though, I never bought into the simplistic propaganda that those on the other side were irredeemably evil or anything less than human. War is a serious matter, requiring serious deliberation with full appreciation of the consequences of legally sanctioning the killing of other sentient beings. Even when the cause is just, the process is tragic. Like my recent bout of guilt fighting the Morroval in Moria, I’m wondering how to feel about the Darkspawn I’ve killed. (Yes, I know they’re not real and that “it’s just a game.” That’s hardly the point, is it Captain Metaphor?)

What makes the moral simplicity of the Darkspawn especially glaring in Dragon Age is the incredible level of characterization the other races and societies are given. Every character and race in the game has realistic, multi-layered set of motivations. They’re not purely good, nor are they purely evil. Even the “villain” the player faces throughout much of the game is given a believable, though twisted, sense of moral purpose for the actions he takes in defense of his homeland. In fact, at one point one of the character’s henchmen, when asked about the actions she takes, scoffs at the player. “It’s really easy to be an adventurer,” she says. “No one weeps for the death of an ogre. It’s much harder when you’re facing enemies who look just like you.”

She’s right and it’s to the game’s credit that despite the threat they pose, the Darkspawn are actually in the minority of the foes you’ll face. One of the toughest choices you’ll face in the game is deciding which side of a Dwarven royal succession struggle you’ll support — knowing that whichever way you choose, you’re going to have to kill a lot of dwarves whose only real crime is choosing to support the side the player didn’t pick.

No such grace is granted to the Darkspawn, though. They are sword fodder, there to be killed in order to rack up the experience points. Yet the darkspawn wear armor. They carry swords and medical supplies. Clearly they have a culture — someone must be forging this stuff — and value life, their own if no one else’s. Who are they? Are they sentient at all? If they’re nothing but locusts, then they’re not truly evil, are they? This was the reason why in Sufficiently Advanced Magic I chose to avoid having an “evil race” and made sure to explain the motivations for why two nations are at war. I have my sympathies and they come out in the book, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to retire Tolkien’s orcs once and for all.





Blogging will be a little light for the next week.

30 10 2009

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If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the last few days, no, I’ve not been off snogging in a love nest with Sarah Palin — as enticing as that prospect is. I’ve been offered a position as Senior Editor with Nexon.com helping out with content and helping run the official Web sites for a whole bunch of great games. I’m really excited about it but before I begin my new position, I need to clear up all of my freelance and project work. That’s where I’ve been — neck deep in a couple of really big RPGs that I can’t talk about and preparing for Halloween and a whole bunch of other stuff too.

I’ll be back blogging near the end of next week, in the mean time, here’s a couple of links to my latest articles:

My review of the PSP version of Naruto Legends: Akatsuki Rising on GameSpot

My review of the PSP version of Obscure: The Aftermath on GameSpot

My latest “basket of kittens” guest post for L.A. Parent on sports games for kids

A really sexy picture of Catherine Bell designed to pull in traffic:

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See you in a few days!







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