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.





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.





GoG Thursday: The Red Baron Pack

8 10 2009

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Once upon a time, back when we still thought the ’90s were going to be awesome (which they really are only in comparison to the ’00s) there was a company called Dynamix which was the best there was at what they did. Unfortunately what they did was create computer simulations, a genre that has the distinction of making the adventure game genre looking healthy and robust which is why they’re no longer around. There was a time though, when simulation, especially flight sims, were a commercially viable genre and flight sim fans eagerly looked forward to a wealth of product on store shelves that simulated everything from helicopter flight to battles between nuclear submarines. It was into this genre that Dynamix launched Red Baron, the subject of today’s GoG Thursday (which is actually a bit late due to circumstances beyond my control.)

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Here’s the thing about Red Baron — unlike most flight simulators before or since, it would successfully straddle the line between a scarily realistic flight sim with all the physics and turn ratios and airspeed drag and the sheer white-knuckle excitement of an arcade shooter. The game had excellent simulation characteristics for the era and faithfully modeled over 20 different planes of the era. If you weren’t a flight-sim junkie though, you could turn on and off different characteristics that were giving you trouble, making the planes as easy to fly as you needed.

The real joy of the game was in the campaign mode. Playing the Red Baron campaign mode it becomes obvious that it had a significant influence on LucasArts’ X-wing and Tie Fighter games. The game’s campaign would allow you to fly on either side of the Great War and would track your performance, giving you promotions and allowing you greater latitude in selecting where you wished to be posted and what planes you would fly. When you consider that most of the campaign and “the world” you fought in was presented mostly through static text screens, the game did a remarkably good job of immersing you into the rarified and psychotically dangerous world of the World War I flying ace.

The down side of the game was that the enemy AI wasn’t particularly good, even for the standards of the time. The team made up for that by making each mission in the campaign a sort of puzzle to solve. It wasbn;t enough to just fly around shooting down planes at random. You had to develop spatial awareness and understand what was going all around you. Certain enemies had to be destroyed first, you as a pilot had to be at certain places at certain times and certain objectives had to be protected or destroyed (shooting down observation balloons was as harrowing as the Death Star run). It made the game frustrating sometimes because it could be tough to figure out exactly why you’d failed a mission. Since much of the enemy actions in missions was hardwired, it also made replayability a bit of an issue but oh those tense moments when you’re pulling just enough Gs to avoid a blackout and a German fighter is getting a bead on you… It was exhilarating.





Review: MySims Agents @GameSpot

3 10 2009

My latest review is up at Gamespot — MySims Agents. As a series, it’s not quite where it needs to be, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. If you’ve got kids, they’ll love it and you’ll have a good time playing it with them.

Check out the review here!.

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