Timely Game of Thrones Griping 8: The Offseason

By Bob Case
on Sep 4, 2017
Filed under:
Game of Thrones
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

With season seven now wrapped up, it would be good to revisit some of the things I said many moons ago, when I first started my epic journey of complaining about Game of Thrones. Basically, what started all of this was a hypothesis. I believed that the show’s audience was in the early stages of experiencing what Shamus refers to as “story collapse”If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s explained in this series of posts., and that, sometime during the final two seasons, full story collapse would occur, and the show’s reputation would suffer.

The `gitchy feeling` is my pet term for the feeling you get prior to story collapse.

The `gitchy feeling` is my pet term for the feeling you get prior to story collapse.

Was my prediction correct? So far, no. (However, there’s still another season for it to come true.) Instead, many critics did something I didn’t account for: they experienced story collapse, but their opinions on the show’s overall quality didn’t change.

The best (and daftest) show on television

Take this review of season seven from Vox, titled “How Game of Thrones season 7 went awry: The series is so intent on fooling its audience that too much of its storytelling no longer makes sense.” You can read the linked article if you want, but hopefully the title is enough to make you believe me when I say that it’s pretty critical. The author makes many of the same complaints I made in my reviews, and is bothered by many of the same things I was bothered by. “Right at the worst possible time,” he writes, “it’s become all but impossible to figure out just what anything on the show means.”

But then, after more than 1600 unminced words of criticism, the final section of the review starts with the sentence “Please note that none of this means Game of Thrones is bad.” Doesn’t it, though? To me, a TV show with nonsensical storytelling is a bad TV show. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

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Overhaulout Part 4: Mutations

By Rutskarn
on Sep 1, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Here’s a question for anyone who’s beaten Fallout 3: what role do super mutants, the most common and iconic enemy in the entire game, play in the main storyline?

Really take a minute. Spool through the mutant-laden story beats: the brawl outside GNR, the mission to the Museum of Technology, the cleansing of the purifier, the expedition to Vault 87. Really let it sink in how much time you spend trading shots with these geeks compared to, say, the Enclave: how much earlier you encounter them, how much more prominent they are, how much more of your resources they eat up.

Now ask yourself again: what role do they actually play in the story?

But we’ve summed it up, haven’t we? They exist. They exist again, again. They shoot and must be shot at. If you find-replaced super mutants with anything else at all, berserk killer robots or cold calculating mercenaries or a platoon of brainless body-snatching coral shrimp, the story wouldn’t really change much. Their agenda and origins and function are immaterial.

I don’t think it’s too fussily formalist to argue that your videogame’s earliest and most common enemies should have a stake in or relevance to the major conflict. I guess you could argue that they demonstrate the altruism of the Brotherhood of Steel by providing an opponent to be combated, but that is an extremely low bar. I’d argue it’s the basic function any antagonist at all would fulfill.

I don’t actually like this idea, and it’s outside the scope of my redesign anyway, but but for the sake of argument consider a Fallout 3 where the player and Brotherhood fought Enclave forces for the whole game. You arrive outside GNR and Enclave troops are trying to capture the radio station. Enclave troops destroy the radio dish to prevent GNR from broadcasting its alerts and organizing the Wasteland. Enclave troops have occupied the purifier searching for your father. Imagine a game, in other words, where the game’s actual antagonist is established as a threat before the midway point of the game. For all that you’d lose in enemy variety and the thrill of discovery and story nuance, isn’t it better to spend your time tangling with your family’s actual nemesis instead of a bunch of staggeringly irrelevant ogres?

There’s no way around it: before we go any further, we’re going to find something to do with our super mutants. Before I do, I’ll show my work and explain what I will and won’t change to get results.

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Twelve Years of Twenty Sided

By Shamus
on Sep 1, 2017
Filed under:
Landmarks

The blog is twelve years old today. A child entering first grade when I launched it back in 2005 would graduate this year. (Assuming they didn’t flunk at some point. You know how it is with hypothetical kids. Always letting you down, hypothetically.)

I like doing retrospective posts like this one because it gives me a chance to note the passage of time, which for me is happening at an ever more terrifying rate. On the other hand, it’s sort of annoying how the anniversaries are all bunched up in the same general part of the year. The Patreon anniversary is in June, my birthday is two months later in August, and the blog itself is just two weeks later in September.

So I’m usually out of retrospective-y kind of things to talk about by the time this anniversary rolls around. I sometimes ask my Patrons for questions. This time Paul Spooner came through. The questions below are from him:

How are your allergies doing these days?

I’m actually doing fantastic. I got a new drug for my asthma. Breo might look like a 1980s science fiction prop, but it’s also a dang good medicine. It’s the only thing I take these days. August / September is usually the worst time of year for me, but this year I’ve barely noticed. I got a little sniffly like most people with allergies, but I haven’t had any asthma trouble. Which is good. I really enjoy breathing.

Any hope for a new book?

Here’s the thing with writing books: Per hour, the Witch Watch was probably the most profitable project I’ve done outside of working in an office. However, writing books is, on average, a huge loser for me. The problem is that since 2003 I’ve started something like six or seven books and finished just two. (Free RadicalWow. The Free Radical site gets more broken every year as (adherence to) HTML standards change. That site REALLY needs an update. and Witch Watch. I also finished How I Learned, but that’s not a fiction book and is kind of a different thing entirely.)

See, if a book stalls then the months I put into it were wasted. Meanwhile blog series are usually (but not always) much smaller in size. If I start to get sick of a topic I can wrap it up quickly and move on, and I’ll still get some content out of it.

I’d like to write some cyberpunk again. I’ve got tons of ideas for settings. I’ve got lots of cool characters. I do okay with dialog. But I struggle with creating the overarching structure. I have trouble coming up with that big thing for the characters to overcome, or with figuring out how they overcome it. I write good scenes, but bad stories. I think that’s why DM of the Rings was such a win for me. Someone else provided the structure, and I just filled in the blanks. Same goes for my Let’s Plays.

Or maybe I’m just too critical of myself. I analyze my own story and think, “A is too muddled of an idea. B doesn’t have a strong enough link between the protagonist and the struggle. C sags too much in the middle. D is way too obvious.” I’ll get a few weeks or months into a project, recognize the fatal flaw, and lose interest.

Any hope for a new programming series?

I dunno. I’ve been doing a little coding with a friend. I hope it goes somewhere, but there’s nothing to write about yet.


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Borderlands Part 7: The New Vault Hunters

By Shamus
on Aug 31, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

In the comments of the previous installment, a lot of people were surprised that I was moving on from the first game so quickly. The series actually evolved quite a bit in the DLC that took place between the games, and to make any sense of the massive change in tone you kind of need to look at the DLC. Specifically, people wanted to know if I was going to talk about The Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC.

Yes, I’m going to mention the DLC, although that won’t happen until next week. On the other hand, I’m not going to talk about General Knoxx.

Here’s the thing: I own the General Knoxx DLC. According to Steam achievements I’ve played some of it, but I have not completed it. However, I have no memory of it. I don’t even remember what character I was using when I played it. I kinda forgot that it existed until it came up in the comments. I’ve played Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot and I’ve been through The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned multiple times, but I’ve somehow managed to overlook the most popular DLC.

I’ve moved on to other games since writing this, so this series will need to continue on without covering General Knoxx. It’s fine. I think the other DLC gives us what we need in terms of bridging the gap between the two games. Yes, Knoxx introduces Athena and she’s important later. I’m sure we’ll manage somehow.

Anyway, with the slog of Borderlands 1 behind us it’s time to talk about Borderlands 2. Since this game is so much more character and story focused, let’s start with talking about our new heroes.

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My 70’s Suitcase Contents

By Shamus
on Aug 29, 2017
Filed under:
Column

If you missed the previous entries: Two weeks ago I proposed a thought experiment where we talked about what we would put in a suitcase for the people of 40 years ago. Then last week I outlined who I’d send it to, how I’d motivate them to share their discovery, and how I’d package the data. This is a very loose summary and you really should read those earlier entries before reading this one.

A note: In the previous entries I said I wasn’t going to talk “politics”. Some people found this ambiguous. I thought it was clear from context that I was talking specifically about American partisan politics, but some people went with the more formal definition. And yes, using the rigid definition the entire suitcase is political because the whole thing contains information that will be used to make political decisions. However, my immediate concern was to rip the red / blue labels off of everything to make the information more palatable to people all over the political spectrum. The issues will get politicized later by the people of 1977, but I’m not going to endorse one group or the other even if I personally favor one over the other. In the end, I don’t care which party acts on this stuff, as long as they act.

I know I made a big deal about how hard it would be to stuff the suitcase full of scientific data, but that was just to illustrate the tradeoff between size and accessibility. In truth the limiting factor here isn’t cubic volume or storage formats, but time. My time. If I’m working alone then there’s only so much time I can put into this. I still need to earn a living and I can’t spend years of my life on this thing.

How long does it take to track down a study, convert it from barbaric PDF to (say) HTML, and then track down all the studies it cites and do the same for them? How long will it take me to figure out what studies are most important? Remember I also need to check and see if a given study is in dispute, or has been disproven. Doing this kind of research across multiple domains for 40 years worth of progress would be an immense task.

I’m just a guy. Maybe a friend can help out, but one of the parameters of the exercise is that I don’t have access to any special resources. I’ve gotta do this myself, by hand, one study at a time. At this rate, it could take me months to fill even a single DVD with “studies”.

And like I said last week, I don’t think the scientific stuff is the most important stuff. Science is cool, but you can save a lot more lives with (say) warnings about natural disasters, diseases, and famines. For me the science stuff is just the icing.

Before we talk about the contents, we need to talk about…

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Timely Game of Thrones Griping 7: Achievement Unlocked – Season Seven Complete

By Bob Case
on Aug 28, 2017
Filed under:
Game of Thrones
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

Welp, we’re finally here. The season finale, clocking in at 81 minutes (not counting the behind-the-episode stuff), has to tie up two main storylines: the whole “show Cersei a wight and negotiate a truce” thing, and the Arya-Sansa-Littlefinger tango in Winterfell. I’m going to give each its own section.

“Why Are We Here?” – Cersei

That’s a good question. The only reason given that Queen Daenerys and her Dothraki-Dragon-Unsullied three-way tag team didn’t just knock over King’s Landing in the second episode was a very unspecific handwave about how it would cause “too much death,” so for me this entire storyline was built on a foundation of frustrating vagueness from the get go.

In the middle part of the season, Cersei scored several victories over Team Dany via a combination of Euron’s teleporting fleet and Tyrion’s misguided belief that Casterly Rock was tactically important. So now that the Lannisters are back in the game, Team Dany can’t go north to fight the Night King and company, because Cersei will retake… something.

What exactly will Cersei retake? Near as I can tell, the only things Team Dany controls are Dragonstone and Casterly Rock. And considering that what looks like all of the Unsullied show up at King’s Landing, I’m not even sure she controls Casterly Rock anymore, or if anyone even cares about Casterly Rock anymore anyway.

Jaime and Bronn start the episode with a conversation where they try to say the word `cock` as many times in every sentence as possible. I smell another writing Emmy!

Jaime and Bronn start the episode with a conversation where they try to say the word `cock` as many times in every sentence as possible. I smell another writing Emmy!

As for the Vale, the Stormlands, and Dorne, there’s no indication at all what’s happening in any of them. So, absent a truce, what exactly is Cersei going to reconquer with her armies? Oh yeah, by the way: that’s “armies” – plural. The only Lannister army that I’m certain exists is the one Jaime led back from Highgarden, and they were devastated by dragonfire and Dothraki. But now Cersei makes multiple references to her “armies” that everyone on Team Dany takes at face value.

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Overhaulout Part Three: Time Bomb

By Rutskarn
on Aug 25, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Quick housekeeping note before we progress: these posts represent what I’d call a first draft of our revised Fallout 3 storyline. I’m jotting down notes for one-off revisions that I’ll share in the final post, but I also reserve the right to retcon lavishly as we go along. Dialogue is written for general effect, not for poetry, although I’m certainly trying to approximate the correct tone and content. Might I say again, at the risk of belaboring the point: actually writing a videogame is so much harder than what I’m doing in this series. 

We’re coming to the first major multi-part quest of Fallout 3, “Following in his Footsteps.” Core design purpose: allow players pursuing the main quest to rapidly uncover the central hubs, conflicts, and NPCs. Secondary purposes: provide a sense of mounting mystery by drip-feeding information and “you just missed him” teases about your father, expose player to selected sidequests that create a huge (not to say inflated) sense of player empowerment. On all accounts, the finished product rates a very qualified success.

One problem is that by this point in the game the player is invested in one question: why did our father leave the Vault? Soon we’ll learn that he actually brought us into the Vault years ago, and the contrary question becomes equally enticing: why did he go there in the first place? Why was he even permitted inside? There’s no point in speculating. You don’t have the facts to do, so you can hardly be expected to get it right. It’s perfectly well to motivate the player by promising to answer these questions later over and over again until your father is discovered and all is revealed, but surely it would be more inspiring to dole out clues and little revelations more regularly. Even as early as the first town, we should be laying groundwork that will stir the mind for a first playhrough and ring like a bell every time thereafter.

But you know what else the game doesn’t foreshadow? Nearly everything, including the central hooks that come in without ceremony midway through. By the time the Enclave shows up to seize the water purifier, the player needs to have a very clear idea why this is a bad thing on both a personal and regional level. That the early portion of the game teaches neither especially well and in fact seems disinterested in either point is one of the storyline’s more arresting failures.

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Ding 46!

By Shamus
on Aug 24, 2017
Filed under:
Personal

I am now suddenly a year older, because that’s how birthdays work. So far 46 is a lot like 45, only slightly moreso.

I’ve been trying to get in shape. Again. And for the first time in my life, I’m having success. I mean, I was in really good shape in 1990 when I rode my bike for miles every day, but I was 19 years old and people that age are basically invincible superheroes with no common sense. But this is the first time I’m having success with fitness as a mortal adult with physical limitations.

I dropped a bunch of weight a few years ago when I had to decommission one of my internal organs. The weight loss was a nice side-effect of the surgery, but it’s been creeping back up over the last decade.

I’m generally not very good at judging my body shape. My wife has a tall mirror in our bedroom, but it never occurs to me to look at it. Sometimes I’d look down at my body and think, “Yeah. Looks like my gut is starting to stick out a little. I should probably fix that.” Then a year ago someone took a candid picture of me. My reaction on seeing the photo was, “Wow. Is that really what I look like these days? Am I that wide around the middle now? That’s really bad.”

In the past I tried to get in shape according to conventional wisdom: Diet and exercise. I switched to eating crappy, unsatisfying food and got myself a treadmill. But crappy, unsatisfying food makes for a crappy, unsatisfying life. Anyone can eat salad today. But eating saladIn this case “salad” is shorthand for all of the various foods that are good for me but no fun to eat. basically forever? Sooner or later I’d say “screw it!” and eat an entire pizza. I’m sure dieters will be familiar with the resulting cycle of frustration, bingeing, guilt, repentance, and misery.

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My 70’s Suitcase

By Shamus
on Aug 22, 2017
Filed under:
Column

Last week I proposed an exercise: You can send a package back 40 years and have it delivered to one person. But sure to read the original post to get all the parameters. At the end, I posed four key questions:

  1. Who gets the package?
  2. How will you entice this person to examine the package, take it seriously, and distribute the information according to your wishes?
  3. How will you store information in the suitcase, and what format will you use?
  4. What information will you send them?

My proposal is going to be very USA-centric. It’s hard for me to think globally about the pre-internet (and almost pre-consumer computing) world of my childhood, so here I’m just focusing on what I know. This creates an interesting question for people in small countries: Will you send your suitcase to your own country, or will you send it to your favorite global superpower?

Also, this post got to be really long. I’m going to answer the first three questions this week, and question #4 will be next week.

As a reminder, I’m really building this proposal under the assumption that I’d actually have to do it myself. Some people are taking a more liberal approach to the exercise by saying, “It would be best to send them gadget X and information Y,” without worrying about how they would pay for X or obtain Y. I’m not going to suggest sending things I can’t get all my my humble self. That means I’m not going to send them 100 smartphones, because I can’t afford 100 smartphones. I’m not going to send them classified information, because I don’t have access to that either.

And finally, I’ll admit that last week I did a bit of a fake-out. I presented my original assumptions from when this idea first came to me. “How can I give them a bunch of technology?” It took me a few weeks to realize that if I really wanted to help people, technology wasn’t nearly as useful as information on natural disasters, disease, war, famine, and the final installment of Mass Effect. I thought I’d make myself look clever by pointing this out here in part 2, but quite a few of you noticed this right away. Thus I am left looking not-so-clever. Such are the hazards of these sorts of thought experiments.

I suppose this shows that if you do find yourself involved in some sort of time-travel scenario, you should ask your friends for advice in case you’re overlooking something important.

Anyway. Enough preamble. Here is my proposal…

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Timely Game of Thrones Griping 6: Disappointing Zombie Dragon

By Bob Case
on Aug 21, 2017
Filed under:
Game of Thrones
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

Whenever I review an episode of Game of Thrones, I have consider both my personal reactions and those of a hypothetical “average” viewer. I don’t personally like the show anymore, but most viewers do, and I have to account for the fact that my reactions to any given scene or episode are probably not the same as theirs. Then I have to take into account the fact that I don’t know the reactions of the average viewer yet. I watch the episode on Sunday night and then review it right after, and generally speaking other reviews aren’t up yet.

So honestly, I operate in a fog of guesswork. I know what effect each scene and line had on me, but I don’t know what effect it has on people who still like the show, and/or those who still “trust” the writers, for lack of a better word, or what effect it has on those who watch the show casually, for entertainment, and just don’t really fuss over the small stuff.

I also have to decide what order I’m going to write the review in. Like, do I do it in strict chronological order, scene by scene? Or do I divide it up by location, or by character, or by some other factor, or by some mix of all the above?

Now, at this point some of you may be thinking, “Wow, MrBtongue is even more solipsistic than usual today.” You’re not wrong. Here’s the thing: I have to make the decisions I described above on-the-fly, with very little to guide me, so it’s always a little sloppy. I mention this not because I assume you’re all fascinated with my creative processWhy wouldn’t you be?, but to explain why this review is a little more disjointed than usual.

Order of Operations

I’ve decided to organize this review thusly: first, I’ll cover the mission north of the wall to retrieve a fully functional wight corpse. Then, I’ll cover the extremely obnoxious Arya/Sansa conflict. Then, I’ll provide a recap of the season so far to prepare you for the season finale next week. We start with the mission north of the wall.

This is a cool shot. It reminds me of the shots of the Fellowship traveling in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The way that the characters are overwhelmed by the landscape does well to set the mood.

This is a cool shot. It reminds me of the shots of the Fellowship traveling in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The way that the characters are overwhelmed by the landscape does well to set the mood.

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The Best of YouTube Part 3

By Shamus
on Aug 20, 2017
Filed under:
Random

Here is the end of my list. The usualy disclaimer remains: The order is less about quality and more about viewing habits. As in: How quickly do I pounce on a new video from this creator when it pops up in my feed? Yes, that’s a vague, unfair, and poorly-justified basis for a list. But that’s what you get when you make these kinds of lists.

Let’s do this…

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Overhaulout Part Two: Wasted

By Rutskarn
on Aug 18, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Last week I made the argument that Fallout 3 could have had much more interesting and effective writing while still appealing to its desired audience. One criticism I received was that New Vegas received a lukewarm reception from some of the most ardent F3 fans—and what was New Vegas, if not Fallout 3 written more interestingly and effectively?

Well, quite a lot. Let me be as explicit as possible: in this exercise, I am not trying to write New Vegas. That was a game that didn’t appeal to F3‘s broader audience simply because it had no interest in pursuing Bethesda’s design sensibilities. Obsidian wanted a morally-ambiguous political meditation explored through a basically linear zigzag through its curated gameworld. Bethesda wanted a tightly-linear main storyline with a baroque good-versus-evil narrative that serves as a tour guide to an otherwise totally open gameworld full of little disconnected vignettes to explore. There was no reason either game had to be written well or poorly based solely on development goals. You can argue that Obsidian’s priorities attract a better class of writer, or that Bethesda settled on the approach it did for want of strong narrative designers, but I’d argue success or failure in either case is hardly baked in at the conceptual stage.

If we’re taking one Obsidian-y action item on board, it’s the idea that a story’s conflicts should all reflect its theme. Last week we settled on a major theme to explore: it is good for the powerful to give strength to the weak. This week we’re going to mix in a theme to accompany, complicate, and inform this idea: there’s no free lunch. Whenever we feel tempted to boil a conflict down to “Should you give bread to the hungry because you want to be a good guy or just jack up the prices for evil karma points,” we can complicate the choice to a greater or lesser extent by asking something like: “If you give that bread away, how will you get everyone more bread?” In an Obsidian kind of game, we’d be asking that question constantly; the intense dilemmas would be half the point. In this Bethesda-style game there’s no reason to put that much pressure on the player, who’d probably rather make a straightforward choice and get on with the story and exploration, but being able to at least point to that tension and acknowledge the existence of scarcity will go a long way towards making characters and factions more interesting.

Speaking of “making characters more interesting,” I think it’s time we had a serious talk about the main character of Fallout 3. That would be James, aka Liam Neeson.

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