Archive for March, 2019

Superheroes, Women and Emotion

March 29, 2019

So, from another site I came across this post by Jessica Toomer that takes an … interesting take on Captain Marvel, focusing on the idea that she sees in the movie about the conflict between Captain Marvel’s emotions and potentially emotion-based powers and the Kree notion of emotionless honour. She’s fully in favour of emotion as a power source and guiding light, especially for women. I haven’t seen the movie yet — and probably won’t until I can get it cheap on DVD — but as someone who is Stoic-leaning — hence the name — I definitely have opinions on emotion, which is what I’m going to talk about here.

But, sadly, the first thing I’m going to have to talk about is how yet another feminist critic of a media doesn’t actually seem to understand the media she’s criticizing:

For many superhero flicks, a fight scene is a climactic atom bomb bursting with CGI effects, logic-defying action, a sarcastic quip, a kick-ass soundtrack.

It infuses stakes into a story, it delivers on an unspoken promise that draws fans to theaters: yes, there will be violence, come and marvel at it. Rarely does a fight sequence serve a larger purpose, one beyond thrusting characters into world-shattering realities or introducing audiences to the glossed-over destruction caused by our heroes awe-inducing abilities.

Um, no, no, that’s not true of most superhero movies, and especially not of any good ones. The thing is that superhero movies aren’t generally entertaining because of their massive action scenes. That’s what we have traditional action movies for. Instead, superhero movies are always built around some kind of core conflict, usually inside the superhero themselves, with the supervillain generally being there to highlight that core conflict. The villain, in general, has traits that reflect the overall conflict in the story, if they are the driving force in that conflict. So, usually, the villain will either be completely different from the superhero and so the clash will literally be between those two sets of values, or the villain will be what the superhero could become if they embraced the values of the villain, and so will indeed be their dark mirror that they need to overcome. What this means is that the final battle is ultimately the culmination of the conflict, tying directly into the theme and so always serving the larger purpose of settling the conflict and satisfying that underlying theme.

I can’t see how could miss that if she watched the other Marvel superhero movies. Civil War’s final fight is between Cap, Iron Man and Winter Soldier, and reflects the final dismantling of the Avengers — as was also hinted at in the big set piece fight between the two Avengers splinter groups — and has as its underlying theme the main motivations of the characters, for Stark to avenge wrongs and Cap to protect his friends. In Winter Soldier, the final battle is between Winter Soldier and Cap, and ends with Cap refusing to fight him anymore, tying back into his caring for his friends. The original Captain America’s final fight was the direct clash of Cap’s and Red Skull’s ideologies. The final fight of Spider-Man 3 was resolving the rift between Harry and Peter while opposing what Peter could have become if he hadn’t rejected the alien symbiote. The final fight in “The Avengers” is about the Avengers assembling and coming together as an actual team that can rely on each other. And in pretty much every movie that isn’t a cliffhanger, the final fight at a minimum includes these sorts of character resolving moments (Wanda deciding to use her powers at Hawkeye’s prompting in “Age of Ultron”, for example, or Doctor Strange winning his fight by being prepared to die over and over and over again to foil the villain’s plans). So, no, Captain Marvel is decidedly average in making the final fight scene more than just a stakes-raising fight scene by adding character points to it. All good superhero movies do that, because all good superhero movies have some kind of character conflict as their basic theme. That’s why they work and work better than simple action movies.

So, what, then, is Captain Marvel’s main conflict?

Carol, like so many women, is told repeatedly throughout the film that she must “fight fair.” And “fair,” in the case of the men she encounters both human and alien, means “void of emotion.” When we see Carol square off against Yon-Rogg at the beginning of the movie, we’re led to believe that detachment is necessary for any Kree warrior. It’s how this race of people survive and thrive. Nobility, honor, these are the things that matter most. That might be true, but it’s also a guise for a more sinister reality, one in which a man in power tries to stifle the abilities of a woman by equating her emotions with something negative, something shameful.

For Carol, her powers are directly connected to her feelings. She’s able to blast Kree warships from the sky because of her love for people like Monica Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her mentor on Earth, Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening). She’s able to battle Skrulls with iron-encased fists thanks to her rage at their perceived injustice. She’s able to channel her emotions into a weapon, and that weapon scares the sh*t out of men.

So, to sum it up, Captain Marvel has to learn to embrace rather than suppress her emotions. This … isn’t exactly a new concept in general media. In fact, in general there tends to be far more media where a person who is trying to be dispassionate has to learn that lesson than the other way around. So other than Toomer deciding to link it to a personal feminist interpretation, this isn’t all that new. Thus, it’s not really something that “scares the sh*t out of men” because a number of male heroes do it, too. Captain America’s greatest powers, for example, are his positive emotional ones, which are responsible for his getting the actual powers he does get, as Erskine points out that the serum enhances what they already have, and that a bully becomes even more of one but a good person becomes even better.

But let’s examine the notion of “fight fair.” Toomer presents that here as being a bad thing, but this is shaky because there are generally only two kinds of people who don’t want to fight fair: people who can’t win a fair fight, and bullies. Characters who want all fights to be fair and refuse to accept unfair advantages — even natural ones — even for themselves are seen as incredibly moral people. Potentially Stupid Good people if doing that causes them to lose key fights that they, as heroes, need to win, but Good nonetheless. Thus, in general, if you start off with a character or race that act this way but want them to be villains, you tend to make them hypocrites in that they want others to fight fair while not wanting to do that themselves, and usually if you do that the key is the hero realizing that and stopping them from cheating. But Captain Marvel is the one who has the potential advantage, and so it’s not that likely — from what Toomer says here — that he cheats, at least at the start of the battle. So it’s a very dangerous move to present a hero who has to learn not to fight fair without giving that a pragmatic twist, such as in the Kenny Rogers song “The Coward of the County” where the main character has to learn that sometimes you have to fight, and doing so isn’t the same thing as starting them or being violent.

So, what does happen at the start of that final battle?

Yong-Rogg, like every abusive, controlling partner, attempts to emotionally manipulate Carol into denying a part of herself in order to make him feel more comfortable. He demands she battle him without her abilities, just fist-to-fist, believing her emotion-fueled powers serve as some kind of handicap. He hurls words like “noble” and “honor” to demean the source of Carol’s strength, to make it seem like something that must be dampened, not nourished. He challenges her to fight on his terms, to adhere to his rules so that he can hold on to some semblance of control.

And Carol, in a true act of indifferent dismissal, silences Yon-Rogg’s commands with a photon punch that leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge. She doesn’t try to reason with her former mentor, she doesn’t feel the need to answer his questions, to justify her actions. She simply blasts her way past his bullsh*t with a sly smirk and a bigger message.

So, she uses her overwhelming power to establish dominance over him, with a smirk. That sounds like a bully to me, not someone whom many have tapped as taking Captain America’s place in the Avengers.

Look, there are a few tropes that are used in situations like this. I’ve already mentioned the hypocrite one, which reveals the demand as being an attempt to manipulate and nothing more. There’s also the trope that the demand for a fair fight is not necessarily hypocritical, but is done to achieve a greater purpose. In short, they challenge them to fight fair to delay them or achieve some other goal, with the hero seeing through that as the key. There’s also the notion of the “pragmatic hero”, where the hero scoffs at the idea of playing fair when the stakes are as high as they are. The scene in Indiana Jones where Indy, faced with a swordsman, draws his gun and shoots him instead of fighting him is the epitome of this scene.

Toomer does not comment on the villain being hypocritical, nor does she show that there was an ulterior motive and, in fact, her feminist analysis doesn’t really allow for that as Captain Marvel has to be embracing her powers for the analysis to work, not merely noting that the demand is a trick. She has to see her using her powers as good and right there because they are good and right, not because they are needed in that situation. This, then, leaves only the pragmatic hero line, and explicitly a pragmatic hero who believes in using any means in order to win the fight, and here doing so even when it isn’t necessary to fight unfairly — as Toomer says that Captain Marvel knows that she could beat him fairly, but chooses not to.

The thing is, taking that tack says something about a hero. An example of this case comes from the Avengers comic books. In a set of Avengers and West Coast Avengers annuals, the Grandmaster sets up a competition between both Avengers teams and the Legion of the Dead to defuse a number of bombs that will destroy the universe, with the Avengers trying to defuse them and the Legion of the Dead trying to kill the Avengers. After the first round, one bomb has gone off — destroying 1/5 of the universe — and only Hawkeye and Captain America have survived the first round. The Grandmaster then reveals that he’s going to keep playing the game until they’re all dead and he wins. Hawkeye then decides to play on the Grandmaster’s love of games by taking two of his arrows and one modular arrow head, and asking the Grandmaster to choose one. If the Grandmaster chooses correctly, he can destroy the universe, and if he chooses incorrectly, he has to give up the plan. The Grandmaster, overcome by his obsession with games, chooses, and Hawkeye says “Congrats, Granny … you lose!” This gives Death — whom he had imprisoned — a chance to break free and end the game.

Afterwards, Cap asks Hawkeye what he would have done if the Grandmaster had chosen the right arrow. Hawkeye reveals that he had chosen the right arrow, but Hawkeye detached the head from it as he pulled it out of his hand so that the Grandmaster only say an arrow without an arrowhead on it and thought he had chosen wrong. Hawkeye says “The fate of the universe was at stake. What, did you think I’d be a cornball like you and play fair?”.

This establishes — although we did already know that at the time — that Hawkeye is a pragmatic hero, but also that he’s not to be trusted (Cap, as they resume the baseball game that was interrupted, tells Thor to watch Hawkeye because “He cheats”). We can’t be sure with such a hero what rules or principles they’d actually follow if they felt the situation demanded otherwise. The extreme end of this — to match the potentially “Stupid Good” of people like Captain America — are characters that you can’t rely on, like the Punisher or some versions of Wolverine (usually versions, ironically, before he did samurai training and so learned about honour). But a good example of that in the MCU itself is probably Tony Stark. The main clash between him and Captain America throughout the Avengers movies is that if Tony needs to break a few eggs to make the omelet of world security that’s exactly what he’s going to do, whereas Cap is going to try really, really hard to avoid breaking eggs. Most people seem to think that Captain Marvel is going to replace Captain America’s role in the Avengers, but her character as Toomer sees it fits Stark better than Cap. Which might be the point, as they might replace Cap with a new Captain America who fulfills those ideas.

This, of course, might make Captain Marvel an unreliable character. And basing her powers on emotions only adds to that because emotions are unreliable. Let’s return to the description of how emotions fuel her powers:

For Carol, her powers are directly connected to her feelings. She’s able to blast Kree warships from the sky because of her love for people like Monica Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her mentor on Earth, Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening). She’s able to battle Skrulls with iron-encased fists thanks to her rage at their perceived injustice. She’s able to channel her emotions into a weapon, and that weapon scares the sh*t out of men.

There are two ways in which emotions are unreliable. The first is that emotions are often disconnected from actual reasoning and so from how the world really is. We all know of phobias where people are inordinately afraid of things that can’t harm them anywhere near as much as they’d have to in order to make that level of fear justified, and we know that outside of absolute phobias people can fear things far more than they objectively should. Anger tends to overwhelm people and cause them to commit actions that are justified by the perceived wrong. Love can get people to not see flaws or defend people when they shouldn’t. All in all, emotions gets things wrong often enough that relying on them to recommend correct actions is always a shaky proposition. If Captain Marvel needs to generate them to use her powers fully, then she’s going to risk being wrong a lot of the time.

The second way is that if her powers rely on her emotions, then she’s going to have to generate the right emotions to do the right thing. What happens when she’s put in a situation where she doesn’t feel the appropriate emotions? What if she’s required to save aliens that she thinks in general are acting unjustly but don’t deserve to just be killed? Or, to follow on with the feminist theme, what if the people she has to save are privileged cis white men that she’s having a hard time mustering empathy or sympathy for? Will she fight at less strength and potentially fail because typically her emotions fuel her powers and skills? Or will she decide that if her emotions aren’t in accord with what she has to do her emotions are right and so leave them to their “deserved fate”? Either way, you won’t be able to rely on Captain Marvel to do the right thing, because she’ll be using unreliable emotions to power her heroism or, potentially, to determine it.

So let’s return to how this ties in to women and feminism:

It’s no secret that men and women argue differently. Gendered stereotypes aside, men have been taught to protect their masculinity at all costs, which means things like emotions are foreign and apologies are seen as a defeat, the metaphorical waving of a white flag. Women enjoy reasoning through problems; they often see the bigger picture in disagreements, they’ve been taught to empathize (and worse) prioritize others’ feelings above their own — which is why it’s so easy for men like Yon-Rogg to discredit women by attacking their emotional intelligence.

Um, to start with, men are the ones who are seen, at least, to enjoy reasoning through problems, which is what follows from a mindset that rejects emotions. This should be obvious, because of the long-running stereotype of women who complain to try to get sympathy and get frustrated when the men immediately jump to trying to figure out what the solution to their problem is. To be honest, I get that sometimes from my manager and co-workers where I’m just trying to tell them what’s going on so that they know and they keep trying to tell me how to solve the problem, almost always by telling me things I already know. So there is good evidence that women don’t reason through problems more and no evidence that they see the bigger picture. I will agree that women, stereotypically, tend to place more emphasis on coming to a socially-harmonious agreement than on agreeing on the right answer, while men stereotypically are more interested in coming to the right answer — which they in general think is the answer they like — than in ensuring that everyone is happy or on board with it. This is, of course, the reasonable conclusion from styles that focus on empathy vs reason.

I don’t recommend Googling “how men win arguments” if you’re not ready for the deluge of incel propaganda and blatant misogyny that follows. It’s … rough. But in reading through articles that promise to give “Tips For Winning A Fight With Your Crazy Girlfriend” or reveal “5 Tricks Girls Use To Win Arguments” it’s clear that, when it comes to confrontation, men see facing off against a woman as some kind of test of macho-ness. By viewing fights — both physical as in Yon-Rogg’s case with Carol, and verbal as with every woman’s experience with trolls online — as some contest to be won, men equate emotions as an unnecessary advantage in the war. Meninist heroes argue that, because men aren’t allowed to be physical with a woman — the natural progression of an argument that cannot be won definitively by either party, an underlying rule that keeps things civilized in our cave-man brains — they cannot win an argument. And when they’re thrown a curveball, like being forced to negotiate emotions, the futility of their resistance is made all the worse. Why?

Because fists solve things, while emotions just make them messier.

Okay, there’s a lot wrong here. The “Meninist hero” she’s referring to here is Jordan Peterson, but his comment wasn’t how she — and most people — present it. He was not advocating for the use of violence to solve disputes. What he was pointing out is that in any dispute between men, there’s a limit on how antagonistic they can be to each other because, if they go too far, then the side pushed too far will escalate the dispute into a violent one, and then the winner will be the one who is better at violence. Because there are also consequences for violence — in general, to both parties — in any formal setting, both sides want to keep the dispute non-violent, because they might not win if it goes to violence and both sides are likely to lose something if it goes that far. However, in a conflict between men and women, that’s not the case for women. In general, if a dispute gets violent, the man is blamed for using violence to end the dispute and so loses the dispute. A woman cannot generally win a dispute by lashing out violently, but if she can get the man to lash out then she can indeed appeal to others to have her seen as the winner. At least, to Peterson. So women can be as antagonistic as they want because the method men generally use to restrict that doesn’t function here.

The proper response is not the typical “Misogynistic!” rants, but to note that it’s actually not true. Because men would win any actual violent confrontation, women in general learn not to incite a man to violence in a dispute unless they know they have direct protection — usually from another man — backing them up. In general, women are more afraid of a dispute with a man turning violent than men are. Thus, men can use the implied threat of violence — even if that’s just getting angry — to intimidate women into backing down. Or, at least, some women a lot of the time.

This, of course, isn’t the right way to go about these things. My personal view is that two people who are having an honest dispute who are both acting honestly — and honourably — should be able to convince each other what the right answer is if there is, in fact, any kind of right answer, and so the right approach is to try to make things impersonal and focused on the facts of the matter, including the situation of the individuals involved. For example, in deciding what design to go with at work I do think you have to consider the fact that the solution you like might make things a lot harder for the other people which is a reason to consider using another one if it’s less work for you to do another one. Reasonable people should always be able to come to reasonable decisions and compromises that maximize correctness and the desires of everyone involved.

Violence makes this messier because it reduces the situation to whomever is the best at fighting, which is why there is so much effort to avoid actual violence in these sorts of things. Emotions also make this messier because the more emotionally attached you are to an idea, the harder it is to give it up. To use an example from Seneca, he tells a story of a general who was faced with a soldier who had disappeared and another soldier who was blamed for his death. Enraged, the general condemned the suspected murderer to death. Before the sentence could be carried out, the purportedly murdered soldier returned, as he had been on leave at the time. An officer rushed to the general to stop the execution as the soon-to-be-executed soldier was innocent. But, still enraged, the general ordered the execution to continue, the soldier who had been away to be executed, and the officer who stopped the execution to be executed. Strong emotions are self-justifying; we are likely to spin more and more elaborate rationalizations rather than give them up.

Thus, when someone lets emotions take over the dispute has gone to another level. What’s a man supposed to do, for example, if a woman breaks down crying in an argument? At that point, she’s likely not capable of reason, and an emotional display on his part isn’t going to get him — or anyone else — anywhere. Other than simply giving in to her emotional display, there’s nothing to be done. And deliberately advocating for using emotions to win fights is, in fact, an explicit admission that you can’t win them with reason or logic, despite Captain Marvel thinking that she could win it fairly. Add in how emotions often get answers wrong and it’s hard to see how emotions in an of themselves can carry the day here. She can argue that it’s not emotion but empathy that’s useful, but that’s not her argument with the Captain Marvel analogy, you don’t need to have actual emotions to have empathy, and empathy still gets things wrong a significant amount of the time.

Instead of engaging with trolls who demand we “debate them” in a form, a language, a medium they prefer, we just… don’t? I’d love to vaporize all the men who’ve insisted I “argue logically,” or “explain this,” or “justify my thinking” with and to them, but sadly, I lack the appropriate photon-blaster energy levels, so maybe it’s time to stop wasting energy on these men, period? Maybe, instead of defending our right to emotions that are integral and inherent to our species and gender, instead of meeting men on “their turf” by suffocating our own voices, we instead, like Carol, embrace our unique powers and unapologetically wield them to our benefit?

The problem with using emotions instead of using logic, explaining things, or showing and justifying your thinking is that emotional appeals only work when the other person feels the same emotions as you do. If they don’t, then your emotional appeal is going to be utterly unconvincing. Thus, you can only rely on this when you don’t really care about convincing them that your view is correct. This can only happen whether either a) you don’t need to them to do anything at all or b) when you can use the emotion to bludgeon them into doing what you want even if they aren’t convinced. The entire progressive/feminist line about “lived experience” is often used as the latter, as attempts to deny the conclusions presented are seen as denying the validity of the experience or emotions themselves, followed by demands to simply accept them and the suggested action without argument. Feminists often try to pull off the former with claims that they don’t need to educate people, but the cases where they really don’t care about the people they are talking to changing their behaviour are infrequent and so it always devolves into the latter case.

Men don’t rely on reasoning because it’s inherent to their masculine personalities. Masculinity does indeed allow for some emotions. No, they rely on reasoning because there are few positive emotions that are universally convincing and reliably reflect reality. You should be able to rely on logic, reasoning and the facts to convince people of anything that’s actually true. If you have to rely on emotions, then maybe that’s because what you’re asking for isn’t true.

Thoughts on “The Store of the Worlds”

March 28, 2019

I’m not a big fan of short stories. Even for a write that I like as much as Roger Zelazny I’ve always had a hard time getting through most of his short story collections. However, Robert Sheckley is an exception to that. Included with my original copy of “The Status Civilization” was “Notions: Unlimited”, a collection of his short stories, most of which I enjoyed and some of which I loved. When I bought a number of Sheckley works a while back, I also picked up “The Store of the Worlds”, a collection of his short stories. And then I didn’t read it. After finishing off “The Gripping Hand”, I decided to finally sit down and read it. There were some stories in there that I hadn’t read, and some of the stories in “Notions: Unlimited” weren’t there that I had liked — “Gray Flannel Armor” and “The Leech” being the two notable ones — but, overall, it was a good collection of Sheckley short stories.

Sheckley’s short stories tend to be on the cynical side, highlighting something that’s short-sighted or ridiculous in society and taking it to an extreme and yet logical conclusion, like dating in “Gray Flannel Armor” or love itself in “The Language of Love”, where the main character tries to overcome his inability to express his feelings of love by learning the precise language of love … only to discover that the woman he was doing it for is only someone that he is rather fond of. He mixes this in with humour, as at the end of “The Language of Love” the protagonist writes back to his mentor that he was now married to someone whom he felt “quite a substantial liking”, while his mentor mutters that all he could manage was “vaguely enjoyable”. But many of them take on more substantive issues, with “Watchbird” in particular taking on AI and automation, with the essential point being that relying on machines to learn things might well end up having them learn the wrong things, causing more problems than what they were created to solve. He also takes on prejudice in a very satirical way with “The Native Problem”, where a later traveler from Earth encounters a colonization ship who believes him to be a native and can’t be convinced otherwise, and so merely for self-preservation he ends up going along with it. Sheckley also does some more standard and direct science fiction with stories like “A Wind is Rising”. And many of his stories have unhappy or unpleasant endings, and rarely do you get an unqualified happy ending. So they aren’t stories to read if you’re trying to shake yourself out of depression.

Ultimately, though, Sheckley is unique in that he’s an author where, for the most part, I’d rather read his short stories than many if not most of his novels. This is not to say that his novels are bad, but that his short stories are really, really good. To return to my theme, the worst of his short stories are better than the short stories I read when analyzing the Hugo awards, showing just how far those have fallen over the years. I’m absolutely going to read this and these again.

Mechanics Shaping Story – Re-examining the Core Gameplay Loop

March 27, 2019

It’s been a while since I talked about an “Extra Credits” video. For the most part, this has been because I’ve generally had other things to talk about when it came to video games, but it’s also due in part to the fact that after the main presenter left the videos have focused less on more controversial issues in gaming and instead on pretty standard gaming things, which don’t leave me with a lot of things to say one way or another.

At first glance, “Mechanics Shaping Story – Re-examining the Core Gameplay Loop” seems like another one of those videos. After all, that mechanics and story can interact in good or bad ways isn’t controversial and many, many people have examined in many, many discussions just how the mechanics and the story can interact with each other to improve the experience or to hinder it. So is there much to say here?

Well, as it turns out, there is, because how the video talks about their interaction ends up overstating the impact and through that ends up discussing the influence of the core gameplay loop in a way that is a shallow representation of that loop and suggests loops that, in fact, are poor ways to implement what they want to implement.

The big thing that they use to drive the point home is Pokemon, pointing out that it was influenced heavily by JRPGs which were heavily influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, and the main gameplay loop in that one is essentially get character skills and equipment, go out and kill monsters for XP and loot, use that XP and loop to increase the skills and weapons of your character, go out and kill more monsters, rinse, repeat. As such, despite the fact that Pokemon presents it as trainers and Pokemon developing a friendship and the actual combat as being friendly competition, at its heart the game still has that violent underpinning that they imply it can’t really escape.

Before delving into that question, I think it makes sense to look at the example that they say broke this main gameplay loop, the tabletop game invented by their guest, called “Pugmire”. The original design wanted to keep the underlying D&D mechanics, but wanted to remove the more violent aspects of the core gameplay loop. And so the decision made was … to remove all XP and gold/loot from the game. Levels were only gained by doing things in the world and learning something, and not from gaining enough XP to level up. This, the video claims, makes options like bluffing and fleeing an encounter more feasible and so changes the overall dynamic of the game.

The first thing to note about this is that “Pugmire” is not the first game to use that sort of model. Amber Diceless, for example, does not give out XP for killing things nor do characters generally gain loot, and any additional character growth after character creation is at the whim of the GM. In one game of that that I modded, characters asked me to give out some points so that they could expand their abilities, which I did, but I had added items in the original character creation that could grant abilities but really were supposed to be used as plot and character points. The idea of removing XP and loot is not a particularly original one.

In addition, to get the effects that “Pugmire” wanted, you don’t even have to remove XP and loot. To use a video game example, “Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines” keeps XP and loot, but does not reward XP simply for killing things in the world. You gain XP for achieving things and completing tasks. In the game itself, in general completing tasks by stealth or by social skills gives the player more XP than doing it through combat. Also, the player has to manage their Humanity and Masquerade stats, and in general engaging in combat and killing things too frequently results in lowering those stats. If they fall too far, the character dies and the game is over. Thus, there are massive benefits for not engaging in combat and doing things like bluffing them, intimidating them, seducing them or sneaking past them, while keeping loot and XP in the game. So you don’t need to remove loot and XP to break that core gameplay loop.

Which allows us to return to Pokemon and note that it, itself, actually does break that core gameplay loop. Or, rather, it takes what that core gameplay loop actually is and applies it to a differing world or story. While most D&D games, at least early on, were all about killing things and looting their corpses, that was just the gloss on top of the actual gameplay, which was instead about characters going out into the world, facing challenges, using what they gained from those challenges to improve themselves, and then using those improvements to face more difficult challenges. JRPGs used that, in general, in service of their stories, where as you went along in the world you leveled up so that you could face the next challenge. Thus, the player grows in power, but they in general have to grow in power because as the story advances the stakes become higher and the threats become greater. You aren’t going out there to kill things and take their stuff, but to eliminate a threat to the greater community, a threat that keeps increasing and as you go along you learn things that make you better able to eliminate that threat. Sure, you do that by killing enemies and taking their stuff, but that’s only because they are directly in the way and, in fact, place themselves there. Your purpose is not, in fact, to do that. This is why D&D was able to evolve relatively seamlessly to a model where you can get the bulk of your experience from completing quests rather than from killing enemies in the world.

Pokemon takes that core gameplay mechanic and makes it family friendly, by stripping away the murderous gloss and recasting it entirely as competition. The goal for any trainer is to find Pokemon and train them in various ways for competitions, and then have them go out and engage in those competitions, learn from it, and so be able to participate in greater competitions at higher and higher levels. While the competitions themselves involve fighting and sometimes injuries and fatigue, the point is still the competition and not the violence. That makes the Pokemon model similar to Olympic level boxing, wrestling or martial arts. Your victories give you rewards, not loot, and you gain XP from winning competitions, not from killing enemies. This is in fact the core gameplay mechanic of D&D stripped of its war game gloss, and the failure to identify that makes them misinterpret what Pokemon is doing as well as misunderstand what needs to be changed to produce a game that doesn’t have its main rewards be on the basis of killing things. You don’t need to eliminate XP and loot, but only need to make it so that those things are given out on the basis of accomplishments and not simply for killing things.

When they try to give an example of a creative way to marry the gameplay mechanics to the story or feelings of the player, they again make a mistake because their analysis is too shallow. They use the example of the horror tabletop game “Dread”, which uses a Jenga tower as its main gameplay element. To take an action, players have to draw Jenga blocks and place them on top, and if they tip the tower then, at least, the character fails their action and probably dies. This does increase the anxiety of the players and provides a progression where later actions are more likely to fail disastrously and so are seen as more risky and, again, more tension-inducing.

The problem is that it’s increasing the wrong sort of tension and anxiety.

Shamus Young talked about this in talking about how killing players in horror video games might not be the best way to generate fear:

Consider these two types of fear:

  1. 1. Oh no! The grue is going to eat me! How horrible!
  2. Oh man. The grue is going to eat me and I haven’t saved in half an hour.

Now, if your goal is to just create a serious challenge for tenacious players to overcome (and some people really do like that sort of thing) then routine player death is a required component of that. But I think in most cases the extreme difficulty is part of a misguided attempt to make the game more frightening. You feel the first kind of fear when you’re immersed in the game. You only feel the second when you are not immersed. The first kind is the thrilling kind. The second is an immersion-breaking killjoy.

The Jenga tower’s tension is, in fact, an example of the second type of fear and anxiety. You aren’t feeling anxious because your character is in trouble and you’re hoping that they can overcome it. You’re feeling anxious because the tower is looking pretty rickety and you aren’t sure that you can move the required blocks to complete the action. At that moment, your anxiety is all OOC anxiety, not IC anxiety. The anxiety is not being caused by the situation inside the game itself or by the atmosphere it conveys, but simply by how you aren’t sure if you, as a player, are skilled enough to help your character avoid disaster. You aren’t really worried that your character will die, but are worried that you’ll pull the wrong block and knock the tower over.

Ironically, dice rolls work better for maintaining the right sort of anxiety and fear because they are nothing more than a mechanic for resolving the encounter, and so their anxiety level is determined entirely by the context. If you’re examining a dead body for clues, you may not care very much about the outcome of a roll, but if that’s the difference between life and death for that character you are probably going to feel very anxious about the result of the roll. With the Jenga tower, trivial actions might be anxiety inducing if it might tip the tower, and crucial ones might induce no anxiety if they are early enough in the game that you’re almost certain to be able to place all the blocks safely. This goes against what a horror game should be going for.

A video game that does this well, in my opinion, is Fatal Frame. The game involves a young teenage girl going to look for her brother, who has disappeared, in a haunted mansion. The character isn’t supposed to be some kind of combat veteran, and so the game doesn’t actually give the character any weapons. As Miku has the ability to see spirits, the game focuses on that by giving her a camera that she can use to see and capture the images of spirits to aid her in her investigation. As the camera can capture spirit images, it can also capture spirits, and thus is her primary means of defending herself against the ghosts. In order to use it, Miku has to drop into a first-person mode by raising the camera, which also limits her field of vision, which means that the ghosts might disappear from that and so be able to sneak up on her. This adds to the tension and fear of the game without making the enemies either heavily armoured or armed, and Miku can advance without having to find better weapons and so ending up a one-person walking ammunition dump.

Horror games that make the primary method of defense running away and hiding like “Clocktower” and “Haunting Ground” also do this, by making it so that the character and the player, in general, all want to do the same thing: run away from and hide from the monsters that are facing them. In real life, people aren’t going to be likely to see zombies, ghosts, or hideous monsters and demons and decide that the right thing to do is draw their guns and calmly target their weak spots. When the only choice is to run away, then players will be running away just as the characters would, which then does better align the gameplay and what feelings the game is trying to get the player to feel.

Thoughts on “Agent Carter”

March 26, 2019

Watching “Agents of SHIELD” was certainly something that I wanted to do, but it wasn’t something that I was really anticipating. I had watched parts of it, had been looking to get the DVDs, and had enjoyed rewatching the first season more than watching it, but for the most part when it showed up on Crave when I signed up to that I saw it more as a chance to watch it and get caught up/finish it than to watch something that I had wanted to watch for a while now. “Agent Carter”, on the other hand, I really wanted to watch. I liked the character of Peggy Carter, and liked Hayley Atwell, and while I had only watched part of the first season — and had some problems with it, to be honest — I was looking forward to seeing how that season played out and how the hyped second season turned out.

So it pains me to say this: “Agent Carter” sucks.

A big part of its problem — and what I had noted in my watching of the first season — is that, like “Seveneves”, it tries to go for a Social Justice message and badly, badly botches it. Carter has to face rampant sexism in the SSR, despite the fact that that somewhat contradicts the impression given in the other material, although that can be explained by her eventually earning the respect she deserves. She and every other woman in the story pretty much faces rampant and obvious sexism at pretty much every turn. Sure, that’s probably somewhat close to accurate in the time period and setting that things are in, but it also leads to the next issue with it: it’s not depicted as casual sexism at all. Instead, all of the sexism comes from and seems to support the characters that are, in fact, actual and complete jerks: Thompson, the one agent, the guy in the automat, and a host of others. But giving jerks sexist actions only supports the idea that those characters are jerks, and so raises the notion that maybe they aren’t acting that way because they are sexist and reflecting the sexism of the time, but just because they know that it pushes Carter’s buttons. In short, maybe they’re more trolls than sexists.

Making them jerks and then presenting the sexism in a way that reinforces that they are jerks as opposed to reflecting casual sexism also works poorly because a lot of the time the show ended up trying to make them at least a little bit sympathetic. This is most seen with Thompson and the agent noted above. For the latter, he gets unceremoniously killed in the line of duty, and everyone — even those he was a jerk to, like Carter — feel bad about that. Except all that we’d ever seen of him was that he was a complete and total jerk, and we don’t even really get a feeling that he was a competent agent nonetheless. So it’s hard to really care about his death. Thompson gets an arc and even a potential explanation for his jerky behaviour, which they then undercut with him taking the credit for Carter’s work at the end of season 1, and having him take over the office and remain a jerk. Then he comes out to Hollywood in season 2, is seen as a potential villain as he’s associated with an influential Senator who is obstructing Carter and is part of the conspiracy and seems to be wanting to recruit Thompson into it. Then, Thompson turns on the conspiracy and is instrumental in taking it down. And then he gets shot and likely killed at the end of season 2. Again, for that to work we’d have to actually like him, and any good will he gained in season 1 was lost by how he treated Carter at the end of that season and at the beginning of the second season, especially since his sexism does seem to follow him into the other season.

We also end up with overly competent villainesses that are complete monsters and yet that we seemingly are supposed to feel sympathy for. The assassin in the first one seems to enjoy killing and playing verbal games with Carter, but inherits Black Widow’s semi-sympathetic agent backstory and is brought back in season 2 after being defeated in season 1 to work with Carter and gets away in the end, which we’re not supposed to worry too much about. This despite the fact that she’s the most competent and vicious killer in the season. The show tries to hide this a bit by having her try to use a dentist’s office to spy on the SSR, and have her kill the dentist there only after he hits on her. This, however, is another eye-rollingly ham-fisted attempt to show sexism — there were some men who didn’t try to solicit sexual favours in that time period — and weakens her as a villain unless you believe — as the rest of the show indicates — that she was going to kill him anyway, making the scene pointless. I’m not inclined to feel much sympathy for a psychopathic killer, regardless of her gender, and she’s in no way a feminist avenger type where that sort of thing could be establishing a character trait. As for the villainess in season 2, she’s incredibly intelligent and constantly praised as being an absolute genius, and many scenes seem to be set up to make us feel sorry for her despite the fact that she’s as ambitious and amoral as her husband … and likely even more so. There is no reason to make her that incredibly competent. She merely has to be more intelligent or at least more motivated than her husband for that to work, and so the effusive praise comes across as trying to make her a supremely intelligent woman hampered by sexism and potentially justify her actions as railing against that. It doesn’t work because she’s too immoral for us to care about that way, and it’s not subtle enough to work as that sort of commentary anyway.

Oddly, the offhand comment that the black scientists was hired not so much to give him a chance as to be disposable works better, even though, again, minorities and women did get chances if they could prove that they could provide things that no one else can.

There was no need for any of this. Carter could have been accepted into the SSR on the basis of her background and relationship with the Howling Commandos. If they needed conflict between her and the SSR, they could have easily justified it on the grounds that the show provided: she was close to Howard Stark and might even have been recommended to the SSR by him, and they’re trying to bring him in because he’s a traitor. They could easily have suspected that she was a traitor, too, and suspected that she was trying to foil their attempts to bring Stark in. Since she was, indeed, trying to do that to some extent, this would have set up the interesting dilemma where she was torn between helping Stark and betraying the people who had accepted her in a world where accepting a woman for such jobs wasn’t in any way a given. Instead, they had to go with the less interesting dilemma of Howard Stark being unreliable, shady, and using her without letting her — or Jarvis, it seems — in on what was happening to raise conflict there.

And the villainesses would have worked better as monstrous villains since they were willing to do monstrous things without really feeling any qualms about it.

But the big problem with the show, in my opinion, is that the writers simply couldn’t grasp the idea that they weren’t writing a full series and so only had a small number of episodes to get their points out. Season 1 was 8 episodes, and season 2 was a whopping ten. With seasons that short, you can’t afford to waste time on things that aren’t furthering the plot or the characters. Making characters like Thompson unsympathetic but then trying to redeem them is something that you just don’t have the time to do in seasons that are that short. From the Social Justice angle, it meant that they didn’t have the room to be subtle and so were so incredibly unsubtle that it was immediately noticeable and, well, annoying … and it still took up time that could have been better spent elsewhere.

The worst time-waster, though, was, the insipid love triangle in season 2, between Carter, the wounded solider, and the black scientist … although it really ends up being four people with Violet in the mix. (As an aside, it’s really interesting which names I actually remember, since I’m not bothering to look them up.) There was no need to have a love triangle at all, and in fact there was no reason for Carter to have a love interest at all. That the seasons are so short means that the scientist has to pretty much ask Carter out as soon as they meet, and while it’s pretty in character for Carter to not care about race, the fact that the rest of the world is not that enlightened means that his doing so would risk him becoming a target for violence for being “uppity” and hitting on a white woman. This triangle is also inconsistent with the presentation of race in the show, not only because of the risks associated with inter-racial relationships but because on their first “date” he takes her to a club that primarily focuses on black performers and draws a predominantly black crowd … and no one at all pays attention to them being together despite the issues for black people around dating white people. Oh, and they also don’t notice the white assassin trailing them, nor care at all about white-as-rice Jarvis attending on a not irregular basis. It seems that race only matters when the show wants to make a point about it, and gets completely ignored any other time.

On the other side, the wounded soldier who had been interested in her in the first season now has found someone else, Violet, and actually plans to ask her to marry him … a marriage that gets scuttled when Violet uses her incredible intuition — is it Women’s Intuition, perhaps? — to intuit that he’s in love with Carter and leaves him. The problem with this is that from all that we know about Violet she’s nice, sympathetic, understanding, capable and in love with him. Her getting pushed aside for Carter doesn’t make us feel happy that the “right people” got together, especially since Carter is snark personified — seriously, she snarks so much that she really should have gotten a few “Babe, not funny” lines at times and so was actually quite annoying — and so other than her being the main protagonist and having some bonuses from previous movies there is no reason for us to want her to beat Violet out here, and having Violet run home and leave her job after helping Carter when she gets impaled seems like her really get the short end of the stick.

All of this despite the fact that Winter Soldier establishes that Carter and Stark eventually got together …

The biggest example of how this wastes time is that at the start of the second last episode, with everything needing to be wrapped up, the show stops for a lengthy musical number that’s all about the love triangle, taking up time that could have been better spent on something that was, well, interesting. The previous episode also, at the same time, set up a clash between Carter and Jarvis by having Jarvis try to kill the main villainess for almost killing his wife and wounding her so that she can no longer have children, which then has to be resolved in this episode as well .. despite the fact that the scene does nothing to further plot or characterization other than establishing that the villainess can’t be killed by guns. It also shows how inconsistently Jarvis is portrayed, as he has a background that should make him competent and in some sense battle-hardened, but he is often portrayed as being as cowardly and incompetent as C3P0 is in the Star Wars movies, and at times is presented as someone who wants adventure and at others as someone who is afraid of his own shadow. If this was done consistently, it would be okay, but it seems to be done whenever it is convenient, which hurts the character.

Carter is also at her self-righteous and annoying best in that argument, as when Jarvis blurts out that people around Carter tend to die — and immediately apologizes for it and seems to genuinely regret saying it — Carter turns on him and accuses him of just wanting the adventure but never actually having to face real loss … despite the fact that it is far more consistent with Jarvis’ character in season 1 that he wanted to help Carter and might have been a bit bored with nothing at all to do but didn’t really offer to drive her around to get into an adventure and also despite the fact that his wife was just almost killed because of what Carter was involved in. And this gets resolved by … Jarvis telling Carter that his wife can no longer have children, which for some reason counts as real loss or the risk of real loss so that Carter instantly apologizes. It’s a ridiculous scene that does nothing for the plot or characters and is only necessary because of an odd move in the previous episode. In a longer season, this could be built up to more and done more subtly, but here it’s in the second last episode and comes up with no build up at all, and we have more important things to do than settle this non-conflict.

Ultimately, the writers wanted to do too much with the time they had and failed miserably at it. “Agent Carter” set up for a third season that it never got, and it didn’t deserve one. I am never going to watch this show again.

The Joker’s Wild

March 25, 2019

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “The Joker’s Wild” by Christopher Robichaud. It examines whether we can consider the Joker to be morally responsible for the heinous acts he commits. Unfortunately, Robichaud focuses on the idea that the Joker can’t be held morally responsible for his actions because he can’t be considered responsible for his actions, by arguing that the Joker doesn’t really have the capacity to make proper or informed choices. This means that he has to spend a lot of time discussing general issues over free will and if we ever have any kind of choice and what makes an actual proper choice, which always ends up causing the discussions to descend into a morass that it is very difficult to escape from.

I think I can frame this interesting discussion much more simply by focusing on the “moral” part of moral responsibility, and asking this question: Is the Joker like a kleptomaniac, or like a psychopath?

Kleptomaniacs can’t be considered morally responsible for their stealing because ought implies can, and kleptomaniacs cannot help but steal the things they want to steal. They are subject to overwhelming urges to steal things, urges that they can resist only with heroic efforts of will that no one can be expected to make consistently. Kleptomaniacs get these overwhelming urges that they cannot reasonably resist even when they don’t what the things they are stealing, get no benefit from stealing the item, don’t get a thrill from stealing the item, when stealing the item will cause them great hardship, and when they desperately don’t want to steal the item. This also applies to moral considerations, as even if they consider stealing to be morally wrong and desperately desire to act morally and not steal the item, the urge is there regardless and overwhelms them, causing them to steal the item anyway. As they cannot stop themselves from stealing no matter how badly they want to and how immoral they consider it, they can’t be considered responsible for their choice, as ought implies can, and there is nothing they can do to avoid acting immorally. This is a case that many hard determinists ignore when arguing that we have no actual free will, as they ignore the critical difference between someone like a kleptomaniac and someone who steals because it gives them a thrill, which can be best described as the kleptomaniac doesn’t want to steal, while the other person does want to steal. This is also why Batman deciding to throw his Batrang — to use an example from the essay — is a free choice whereas once the Joker pushes the button to make him do it when he decides not to it isn’t (let’s put aside the questions of events outside of Batman’s control as mentioned in the essay, as I find those questions misguided).

The Joker does not seem to be like a kleptomaniac. He never expresses any desire to not commit his heinous acts, nor does he ever show any remorse for doing them. In all of his actions, the one thing that is consistent about him is that he seems to be enjoying them and certainly seems to want to be doing them. So we won’t be able to use the kleptomaniac to argue that the Joker is not morally responsible for his heinous acts.

What about psychopaths? One of the more interesting results about psychopaths is that they seem to be amoral, as they consistently fail to properly make the moral/conventional distinction. What this means is that they don’t seem to be able to distinguish moral actions from conventional ones, and so are critically impaired in determining what it means for something to be a moral or immoral act. Thus, it seems that they have difficulties distinguishing between moral and immoral acts. If they can’t tell what would make an action moral or immoral, then they can’t be held morally responsible for their actions, not because they aren’t responsible for their actions, but because they, themselves, have no way to determine if an action is moral or immoral before they take it. They are incapable of morality, and again ought implies can.

The Joker, in some of his more common characterizations, does seem incapable of determining what is or isn’t moral. He does things because he considers them funny, or to make a point. It’s quite conceivable that if the Joker found acting morally or treating people nicely fun or funny, he’d do that with no more thought or regret. It’s conceivable that the Joker really doesn’t know what it means to be moral, has no way to develop that ability, and honestly doesn’t care about morality anyway, one way or the other.

Thus, the best argument you can make that the Joker is not morally responsible for his crimes because he isn’t capable of acting morally at all, no matter what choices he actually has. Thus, the Joker isn’t morally responsible for his actions not because he’s not responsible for them, but because morality can never play a role in determining what actions he takes. Whether this makes him more or less sympathetic is up to the reader to decide.

Not-So-Casual Thoughts on Brexit

March 22, 2019

So, I have BBC World News as part of my cable package, and so I’ve been able to follow Brexit a bit. Or, rather, I’ve heard a bit about it, because even after listening to specific attempts to explain what’s going on for some reason it’s rare that anyone ever really spells out what the issues really are here. With Theresa May running off to try to get an extension after giving a speech where she reiterated the EUish rhetoric that the MPs have said what they don’t want but not what they want, this is a good time for me to give my general impressions of what’s going on.

And let’s start with that speech, because it completely demonstrates just how badly May has failed at this. Determining what MPs wanted was, in fact, her main priority. It was essentially her job throughout the process. That she’s saying that she has no idea what MPs actually wanted at this late stage is incredibly, incredibly bad for her. She really should have known what they wanted by now or, failing that, known that their wants weren’t something that could be delivered. She went off to Brussels to get a deal, and came back with one that as soon as the details of it were released everyone was saying that it couldn’t pass. After it was defeated, she kept going back to get new deals and kept coming back with ones that it was obvious to everyone — except perhaps her — that it couldn’t pass. And if she was saying that she didn’t know what MPs wanted, she really needed to have a plan for figuring it out before she went off to plead for an extension. The rumour now — I just saw it on BBC World News — is that the extension deal she’s working out now is likely going to be contingent on her deal passing. This is the deal that had less support than a vote on leaving with No Deal, and so she’d be putting forward a deal that she should be aware that MPs don’t want. So, despite her rhetoric, it seems that she doesn’t know what MPs don’t want as well as not knowing what they want. Or she’s hoping that the deadline will get them to take her deal despite, again, more MPs saying that they’d rather No Deal than May’s Deal.

Okay, so what is at issue here? Well, I’m sure anyone even remotely paying attention to Brexit can immediately answer that question with “The Backstop”, but what does that, in fact, really mean? As best as I can understand it, the issue starts with the fact that everyone involved wants the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to remain open. As the two are currently part of the same economic union, that’s currently really easy to do. But after Brexit, Northern Ireland would be part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland would be part of the EU, and so they’d have different rules for a number of things, mostly around movement of people and goods between the areas. And that would suggest that some kind of border security would be needed to manage those different rules, which is what no one wants. So the current solution on the table — as best as I can understand it, so don’t quote me on this — is that for the time being Northern Ireland will follow EU rules, and the UK will provide a “backstop” where on entering the UK from Northern Ireland the UK rules would be applied. This is supposed to be in place for a set time until a better solution can be worked out. As far as I can tell, most of the relevant bodies are okay with this idea, even if it isn’t ideal.

Which leads us to the problem with May’s deal, including her latest deal. As it stands, again as best as I can tell, the backstop has to stay in place until the UK comes up with a solution that the EU finds acceptable, at which point the backstop would end and Northern Ireland would move back under UK rules. The EU, reasonably, wants this because they, I assume, don’t want the UK to come back in two months with a half-solution and say that it’s all fixed. On the other hand, the UK reasonably doesn’t want to have the EU veto a perfectly acceptable solution because it’s not the one they wanted, or because some members want to put the screws to the UK a bit more. This is why the Solicitor-General saying that the latest deal still allowed for the EU to veto removing the backstop was the death knell for the latest deal.

While I might be being naive, I have a thought on what seems like the best deal to make everyone merely grumble about the situation. The Republic of Ireland would use EU rules. Northern Ireland would use UK rules. No one would check at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland what rules the various things followed. The whole island would essentially be a “free zone”. The UK and the EU would have the option to create backstops of their own if they wanted to restrict people or things from entering the EU or UK proper, but since they already have to do checks for things coming from other countries that shouldn’t add that much more overhead. If there are things that are too problematic to pass directly through the border, then the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have to agree on those rules and how to enforce them.

The most obvious flaw in this plan is the risk of “smuggling”, where products are shipped to either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland and then snuck out into the UK or EU proper. The backstops help with this, but another solution would involve perhaps some extra “Country of Origin” paperwork or other agreements between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Probably the worst issue is that this might encourage the complete reunification of the two nations — since they’d be closer to each other than to the other jurisdictions — but the cultural desire for the two of them to remain either independent — the Republic of Ireland — or in the UK — for Northern Ireland — would probably prevent that.

But even if this solution isn’t workable, the fact remains that politics are also playing a major role in this. Some MPs don’t want Brexit to happen at all. Some EU officials don’t want the UK to leave, or at least want to make it as difficult for them to do so as possible. Some MPs actually want to leave with No Deal. All of this is making a pretty complicated process worse.

Brexit is a bit of a mess, and is confusing itself. After months of loosely following it, this is the best I can do.

Thoughts on “The Gripping Hand”

March 21, 2019

“The Gripping Hand” is the sequel to “The Mote in God’s Eye”, written 20 years later. Up until this time, the Moties have kept sending ships through what’s essentially a jump point, and the Humans keep blowing them up. However, a supernova is about to erupt changing the location of the point, potentially allowing the Moties to come through and set up shop, and since they reproduce constantly — if they don’t reproduce they die — letting them into this sector instead of bottled up in their home system risks them breeding enough to build up an army that they can use to expand and eventually take over the entire Federation. So they rush some ships to stop them, including their — as Spock put it once — “Nixon” character, who is someone who hates and distrusts the Moties and so is someone people will trust to arrange an agreement with them. Also along are two children of the captain from the first novel, and a spy-like character, also from the first book, who can act like an operative most of the time and is, without a doubt, the most interesting character in the book.

The ultimate resolution relies on them having found a way to provide birth control for the Moties, and then having to arrange for that to be accepted by them. This is a very convoluted task as the Moties have moved into space and are constantly fighting each other for any advantage they can get, and so this all spawns large battles. This set-up ends up being the biggest weakness of the book, in my opinion, as the most interesting parts of the entire series are the political and social aspects, and the battles get in the way of that, both by taking up time that could be spent there and by keeping the main parties apart for much of the book. The book benefits from us already knowing that the Moties are untrustworthy — which was a major problem in the first book — but then this deal relies on them being somewhat trustworthy, and it has already been established that any Motie leader who can find a way to retain an advantage will do so, and so we can’t guarantee that the birth control modification will be used, even though the sympathetic faction wins.

I think it would have been better if the Moties weren’t set up to be so blatantly untrustworthy and competitive, but instead were set up to be more resigned to the inevitable cycle. As highlighted, their “Crazy Eddies” were people who kept trying to end that cycle and always failed — usually making things worse — which is why they were called crazy. So locking that in as their mindset, and a resistance to changing the cycle, could have easily provided the drama without making the Moties completely unreliable and untrustworthy. The possibility of expansion when they find out about the other planets and working faster-than-light drive — their tests of their version always failed because the other end of the jump point was inside a sun, which they couldn’t survive — could have caused many of them to decide to try to break the cycle through expansion, and thus the threat caused by nothing more than their overbreeding. Then the main conflict could follow from that, as some want to maintain the cycle, and some want to break it, and they keep fighting each other over that. When the birth control method is revealed, this allows for a new way to actually break the cycle, and that fact could be used to change minds as appropriate.

Anyway, this book, I think, is slightly more entertaining than the first one, although I think its overall plot has less to it and less detail as we know too much going in. So it’s more action-packed and reactive than mysterious. Still, again this is a book that I might read again.

Now, before reading these books, I had no idea that the first one was nominated for a Hugo Award for best novel in 1975 (it didn’t win). Do I think it deserved that? As a book overall, it’s not one that I would nominate, although the fact that I’d read it again puts it above the ones I have read. But in reading the comments on it (read them here) it seems like the interest was based on the unique first-contact scenario and how the mystery was built around a new and yet familiar biological aspect, with a unique society built out of that. And I can agree that that was done well, and is indeed the most interesting part of the book. For me, though, the books bored and frustrated me enough to overwhelm that, and I dislike the standard warlike interpretation of that situation. So it’s a nomination that I could see, even if I probably wouldn’t have done that myself.

First Thoughts on “Knights of Pen and Paper”

March 20, 2019

After finishing off “Sunrider Academy” and “Monster Prom”, I was poking around with the games I own and decided to play “Knights of Pen and Paper”, which is essentially a PnP RPG simulator. You create some players and characters and insert them into a game with an actual DM. Then you go around and travel to various places and do quests. There is, in fact, an actual story here, although it was difficult to figure out that there was one originally because the game wasn’t all that clear about how to trigger it. But you get the DM commenting on what’s happening as well as NPCs making comments and the players making comments on what the NPC is saying and so on and so forth.

The biggest advantage of the game is that essentially you play as both DM and players and so when combat occurs — except for boss fights — you get to choose the challenge level you wish to face. This means that you can make things hard or easy and so at least try to guarantee that your party survives it if you’re someone like me or that you have a challenge if you aren’t. So far that’s making the game work pretty well for me.

The graphics are essentially old-style 8-bit graphics, which works well-enough. The story doesn’t seem to be anything epic at the moment, but is serviceable enough. In theory you can have up to five players in the party — there are five chairs by default — but at the start two of those are locked. You earn gold that can be used to buy things like snacks and the like for the table but I have no idea what that does and haven’t tried it yet. I also expect that you can buy better equipment for the characters but have found no way of doing that yet.

So far, it’s entertaining enough. There’s more to it than there was in “Monster Prom” and the mechanisms are less annoying than “Sunrider Academy’s”. Not a classic, but I got it all really cheap on sale and so far it’s doing the most to be worth the price of the GOG games I’ve been playing recently.

Thoughts on “Rose Red”

March 19, 2019

In looking at some of the Stephen King movies — more on those to come in later weeks — I decided to watch the miniseries “Rose Red” again. Now, this miniseries is special because it’s one that I have owned myself for a long time and that I really, really liked, so much so that I have the book of “The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer” — a prequel to the miniseries — and enjoyed it as well. So talking about it here isn’t really going to be an analysis to see what my impressions of it were and if I like it and would watch it again, as having watched it repeatedly already I certainly will watch it again. So what I’m going to do here is briefly talk about why it really works for me, as it hits my preferences, but also why that might make it something that others won’t be as fond of.

When it comes to horror movies and ghost stories, I tend to like the ghost stories themselves and the history of the events better than the actual scares themselves. The biggest example of this for me is the original “Blair Witch Project”, where I absolutely love the documentary part and find the “lost in the woods” part boring. It’s also why I like “Silent Hill: Revelation” a lot better than most other people do. “Rose Red” really pushes those buttons for me, as a lot of the first parts is building up the history of the house itself so that we can understand what we’re seeing when the house wakes up, and done in a documentary style, as the person who is organizing expedition takes everyone around the house and explains the history, with others filling things in as they go along.

But like the movies I already mentioned, this ends up minimizing the scares during those portions. It’s essentially a campfire ghost story without the creepy atmosphere. The miniseries slips some creepy things in in-between to keep it from being completely a documentary, but it is sort of like the “Revelation” approach except that the creepy events are less random. So someone who is there for the scares is pretty likely to be bored during those scenes, and while they do pay off later by allowing us to understand what we’re seeing it’d certainly be a valid complaint that knowing the background doesn’t add enough to the scares to be worth the time setting them up takes.

And it seems to me — at least from watching the other horror movies that I’ve watched — that most people aren’t all that interested in the exposition, but are far more interested in the scares themselves. Which is fair, since I’m quite aware that I’m not a standard fan of horror movies. However, it seems to me that too many horror movies, in response to this, have moved far too far in the other direction, focusing on producing constant scares rather than on setting anything up, even making the scares nonsensical in terms of the plot but ensuring that they happen. Again, I think “Revelation” falls into this, as it really does seem like many of the horror scenes are simply there to provide one to break up the exposition, especially since many of them don’t really follow from any exposition that we’ve already had and aren’t used to lead into the next stage of the exposition. But it seems like this approach doesn’t really satisfy anyone, as people like me will find the scares too random to appreciate while those who are most interested in the scares will find them a poor payoff for sitting through all of that exposition.

While there is a good case for saying that preferring providing scares over exposition is pretty much just providing viewers with what you advertised, I also wonder if a big part of this focus is because we have better special effects that we can at least seem to rely on to generate more scares and/or disgust, and at least a fear that people aren’t patient enough to sit through the exposition and so will be turned off of the movie if it tries to do it. The problem is that the special effects scares fade as we get used to seeing it, requiring them to keep increasing the gore to satisfy newly jaded viewers, while also turning off people who simply can’t take that level of gore. And all the while they miss out on the extra horror that can be added when we really understand what’s happening and so can feel frightened on that basis. Again, in my analysis of horror movies my common complaint is that we don’t understand what’s going on and so are more puzzled than scared, or feeling that none of this makes sense. While you don’t really want to spend all your time simply telling people things, having people decide that this makes no sense will drag them out of your movie and so diminish the scares just as much.

So, “Rose Red” is a really good miniseries for me, but if you don’t like expository horror, you’ll probably find it boring.

From the Mean Streets to Baker Street

March 18, 2019

So, the next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is “From the Mean Streets to Baker Street” by Francine J. Sanders. Unfortunately, this essay isn’t all that interesting philosophically, as at best it’s a literary analysis that compares noir private detectives to Holmes, and at worst it’s a personal essay as Sanders talks about what she liked as a child and how that changed as she got older and became a detective herself. So let me focus on one aspect that can be discussed philosophically: the search of justice.

Sanders implies that for Holmes his main thrust is solving the mystery, while for the hard-boiled detectives it’s to make their opponents pay. She later comments that for the hard-boiled detectives it’s more a search for justice than it is for Holmes. But this isn’t a safe argument, as for the most part those detectives are more concerned about vengeance than they are about justice. In fact, one of the things, it seems to me, that is the hallmark of that genre is the fact that everything is in general personal. One of the things that might be appealing to Sanders is the fact that those works spend a lot of time focusing on the personal lives and personal struggles of the detective itself. That’s why much of the time the mystery is based around the detective and his own personal stake in the mystery, and why all of those detectives have major flaws that come up in the course of the story. The board game “Android”, based on that genre, honours this by making personal stories one third of the points you can score, while making personal strengths and weaknesses critical components of the gameplay … while making it so that the murder mystery itself is more of a framing device than a major component, as there is a murder but there’s no actual solution to the mystery itself (garnering accusations that the detectives are actually “framing” their preferred suspects).

For Holmes, it’s much less personal, and so it’s clear that in general it’s not personal attachment or a need for any kind of vengeance that drives his desire to solve the crime. Thus, he is more likely to be interested in the pursuit of justice itself rather than pursuing a personal motive. And yet, it is reasonable to suggest that he really is more interested in solving the mystery rather than seeing the perpetrators brought to justice. I believe that it is implied at least once that the reason he’s a consulting detective is entirely because that’s the only field where he could exercise all of his capacities, not because he feels a fundamental need to bring criminals to justice, and if I recall correctly there’s at least one case where the perpetrator escapes justice and Holmes is more satisfied that he eventually solved the mystery than outraged that they escaped justice.

The detectives who are more adept at solving crimes — Holmes, Poirot, Marple, and so on — do tend to come across as more interested in testing their capabilities against the best rather than in pursuing justice, but on the other hand the noir detectives seem more interested in their own personal interests and concerns than in justice itself. While a concern for justice does in some sense underlie their choice of career, that is often overwhelmed by those secondary concerns. So perhaps we can’t really say that either of them are all that concerned with justice, but manage to achieve it anyway.