Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Romney torture memo



Incredible, isn't it? I grew up on World War II books and movies, in which, of course, we were always the good guys. The Nazis tortured prisoners, not us. We were better than that. (And indeed, for the most part, we were.)

So it just blows my mind that Republicans support torturing prisoners of war. Honestly, how cowardly do you have to be to accept torture as government policy? Don't you think the Gestapo also thought it had good reasons for torturing people?

And yes, America has considered waterboarding to be torture for more than a hundred years. So let's not pussyfoot around with euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques." Torture is torture.

Kickstarter games


This graph really caught my eye at Rock, Paper, Shotgun a few weeks ago. It shows the amount of money pledged to computer games projects on Kickstarter the past few years. And that amount for 2012 is just the first six months of the year, apparently!

I believe it. Kickstarter is just too easy, just too convenient, and, frankly, just too neat to resist. At least for me. :)

If you're not familiar with Kickstarter, it's a crowd-funding website for all sorts of creative projects - art, music, books, video, even food. Fans can pledge to support a project at various levels of funding, to help that project get off the ground. As I say, it's not just games, not at all. But that's what I want to talk about here.

I suppose it's like buying a game before it's been made, although, as I say, there are always different levels of support. But this gives a game developer cold, hard cash, instead of requiring him to create the game entirely on his own resources and try to sell it later.

This means that even a niche project can get funding, if enough people want to see it happen. (And most of these are niche projects, I think.) There's always a project goal and a deadline. If that goal isn't met, your pledge is just cancelled. And the funding happens through Amazon.com, which makes it almost too easy.

In fact, it's very definitely too easy for me, I suspect. Frankly, back in the days of shareware, I'd sometimes buy a computer game just to support the game developer. Other times, I'd really plan to play it, but... well, even today, I buy more games than I actually play.

I've always done this with books, as well. I love books, and I love to read. But I've long had the very bad habit of buying more books than I can get read. Heck, sometimes I knew I wouldn't read them, at least when it came to used books. (I can't resist a good buy, either.)

I do the same thing with computer games. I've bought games I haven't even installed. I usually plan to play them, but not until I finish with my current game. Of course, by then, new games have been released. :)

And yes, I like to support independent game developers. Heck, the most expensive game I've ever played is one released as a free download. I've given more in voluntary donations to support Dwarf Fortress than any other game has ever cost me - not even close. Of course, I've actually played that one quite a bit, too.

Anyway, I got sucked into Kickstarter in April with Wasteland 2. Well, how could I resist? I loved the original Wasteland, although that was 24 years ago - pretty much the Stone Age in computer terms. And I guess I wasn't the only one enthused about a remake, since pledges totaled almost $3 million (the goal was just $900,000).

Of course, I pledged $50, when I could have received the game for just $15. Yeah, I was a bit too enthusiastic, I suppose. That wasn't the only $50 pledge I made, either. But eventually, I realized that I'd bankrupt myself if I kept being so generous.

Well, I might bankrupt myself anyway, since I can't seem to leave Kickstarter alone. Heh, heh. But at least I've been pledging at lower levels recently. That's something, isn't it?

The thing is, if you love games - and other projects are the same way, I'm sure - you have a chance to support the development of the kinds of games you want to see. Otherwise, you let marketing people decide what will sell the best, so you end up with a million first-person shooters.

Now, I think that indie game developers have been doing quite well on the Internet these days, since it's relatively easy, and cheap, to attract fans and sell a game that's download-only. And every so often, one of them hits it big. But the developer still has to spend years, in many cases, creating his game while also, you know, surviving.

With Kickstarter, a game developer can get the money to live on, and even to hire help, while finishing his game. That makes it far more likely the game will actually be finished. Of course, there's plenty of competition on Kickstarter, but there's plenty of competition in the game industry, anyway. There are no guarantees.

And there are no guarantees when you pledge your money, either (another good reason why I should keep my pledges small). Despite your purchase, the game might never be completed. Kickstarter is not responsible for that. It's just a risk you take.

A much bigger risk, in my estimation, is that you won't like the finished game. This isn't like buying a game which has already been released, a game where you can easily find reviews and other comments online. You're taking a risk in order to support the kinds of projects (not just games) you want to see.

Anyway, what kinds of games have I been supporting? Just this month, I've pledged a small amount to four games (well, five, actually, but I knew the fifth one wouldn't make its pledge goal - I was just trying to be encouraging, I guess).

Expeditions: Conquistador has already been funded, beating its $70,000 goal by 10%. I wasn't sure about this one, but I liked the emphasis on the storyline, I liked the combat, I liked the character management (and the fact that it's party-based, which is almost always my preference), and I liked the hints of exploration and resource management.

Note that Wasteland 2 had a goal of $900,000, and raised almost $3 million. Expeditions: Conquistador is only going to be spending $77,000 - and there are projects which ask for much less than that. You can't expect the same level of graphics, the same level of detail, the same... polish in all of them. Hopefully, though, we can expect a good game in each case. That's all I ask.

I pledged to Project Eternity, too. This game still has 16 days to go, but it's already doubled its $1.1 million goal. Well, this is another big-budget project by very well-respected game developers (Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Fallout, Fallout 2, Arcanum, etc.). It's no wonder this game has attracted so much support.

In fact, this is the kind of game which almost certainly didn't need Kickstarter to get made. But by using Kickstarter, they can make the kind of game they want, without worrying about back-office management-types dictating what to include (and what not).

Then, just today, I pledged to a couple of games with much, much smaller goals. M.O.R.E. promises an "old school turn-based 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate) space strategy game" with the "one more turn" appeal of Master of Orion 2. To tell the truth, I wasn't a big fan of MOO2, though I loved the original Master of Orion. And I can't say I like the alien art they show us there.

On the other hand, the game looks like it will include a huge, beautiful, realistic galaxy full of everything a space explorer could want. That part, I love. And I like old-fashioned kinds of games - especially turn-based games - that remind me of past games I loved, while also bringing them at least somewhat into the modern era.

This project still has 28 days to go, but it's raised four-fifths of its goal of $50,000. So I expect that this one will succeed. I'm not so sure about Arakion, the second game I decided to support today. That project has only six days left, and it's raised just $23,000 so far. But since its goal is just $25,000, it still has a good chance of making it.

Arakion seems to be the pet project of a single game developer, someone who has his own vision for a game and is working to create it. I just like that kind of thing, so it's very easy for me to give a few bucks in support. It's impressive, too, that one person could create all that. In many ways, it seems to be a lovely game.

I'm not so certain, though, that it will be a game I want to play. That's really hard to tell. I'm not sure I really like the character-development system, though it is unique, I have to give him that. And I don't know anything about the combat system, though he says that it can be played real-time, turn-based, or "a unique blend of both."

Well, as I said, Kickstarter just makes all this too easy, I suppose. And Rock, Paper, Shotgun makes it all too appealing, with their weekly articles on Kickstarter games. What can I say? I've always liked to support indie game developers. That's really where you see imagination, dedication, and the eagerness to try something new.

To close, here's a funny little video from Kickstarter - apparently, a combination of different video pitches from a variety of Kickstarter game projects. Enjoy! :)



Mitt Romney's real agenda



I thought this video clip was a good way to start. Unlike Mitt Romney, J.K. Rowling wasn't born rich. That makes a difference.

Of course, some of the newly rich would still "scarper to the West Indies," would still hide their money in the Cayman Islands. Rowling is quite admirable in remembering what her country has done for her.

Well, Mitt Romney's country has done a lot for him and his family, too. But Romney was born into a wealthy, politically-connected family. Whatever struggles his ancestors might have had, he's experienced none of them. He might donate millions to the Mormon church, but aristocrats have always donated to their religion.

So where am I going with this? I know a lot of people who just assumed that Mitt Romney was lying during the Republican primary when he sucked up to the far-right wing. Well, sure, he switched positions entirely just to suck up to today's crazy Republican base. That's obvious enough.

But heck, that's what it took, right? Look at who he was running against - Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich. Think of the kind of people who would seriously consider one of them as President of the United States! (And most of them were leading in the polls at one time or another.)

Yeah, today's GOP base, filled with those old Dixiecrats - and people who think similarly - thanks to the Republican Party's notorious 'Southern strategy,' is batshit crazy. So is it any wonder that Romney had to pretend to be crazy, too? Surely, once the general election started, he'd shake that Etch A Sketch one more time.

But there are problems with that kind of thinking. For one thing, do you really want to elect a president who's that cynical, that manipulative, that willing to say and do whatever it takes, just to gain power?

OK, maybe that doesn't bother you. After all, Republicans have been very, very successful for decades with that amount of cynicism, from their 'Southern strategy' to abandoning their own health care plan the minute Democrats decided to go along with it, too. Voters certainly haven't seemed to object to such things.

But can Romney shake that Etch A Sketch again? I'd say that's completely impossible for him now, especially - and ironically - because his campaign did make that famous Etch A Sketch comment. It's not just that the loony Republican base would have fits (which they would), but that it would fit too well into the established narrative of Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper.

Politically, that would be devastating. So I don't think he could do that, even if he wanted to. And I don't think that he wants to. After all, if he does get elected, he'll have to work with his own party in Congress. And that party is filled with Tea Party extremists.

Now, Democrats will work with him no matter what. Just look at how many Democrats went along with everything George W. Bush wanted. But a president can't function at all without support from his own party. And just getting elected - once - is surely not the pinnacle of Mitt Romney's ambition.

Besides, he's already made that choice. He's made the same choice John McCain made in 2008, when McCain picked Sarah Palin as a running mate. Romney has picked a right-wing extremist as his vice-presidential pick, too. There's just no going back from that. He's made his choice.

And so, although it's taken me a long time to get here, that brings me to this article in Rolling Stone magazine (thanks to Jim Harris for the link):
It was tempting to dismiss Mitt Romney's hard-right turn during the GOP primaries as calculated pandering. In the general election – as one of his top advisers famously suggested – Romney would simply shake the old Etch A Sketch and recast himself as the centrist who governed Massachusetts. But with the selection of vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the shape-shifting Romney has locked into focus – cementing himself as the frontman for the far-right partisans responsible for Washington's gridlock.

There is no longer any ambiguity about the path that Romney would pursue as president, because it's the same trajectory charted by Ryan, the architect of the House GOP's reactionary agenda since the party's takeover in 2010. "Picking Ryan as vice president outlines the future of the next four or eight years of a Romney administration," GOP power broker Grover Norquist exulted in August. "Ryan has outlined a plan that has support in the Republican House and Senate. You have a real sense of where Romney's going." In fact, Norquist told party activists back in February, the true direction of the GOP is being mapped out by congressional hardliners. All the Republicans need to realize their vision, he said, is a president "with enough working digits to handle a pen."

The GOP legislation awaiting Romney's signature isn't simply a return to the era of George W. Bush. From abortion rights and gun laws to tax giveaways and energy policy, it's far worse. Measures that have already sailed through the Republican House would roll back clean-air protections, gut both Medicare and Medicaid, lavish trillions in tax cuts on billionaires while raising taxes on the poor, and slash everything from college aid to veteran benefits. In fact, the tenets of Ryan Republicanism are so extreme that they even offend the pioneers of trickle-down economics. "Ryan takes out the ax and goes after programs for the poor – which is the last thing you ought to cut," says David Stockman, who served as Ronald Reagan's budget director. "It's ideology run amok."

And Romney has now adopted every letter of the Ryan agenda. Take it from Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to the campaign: "If the Ryan budget had come to his desk as president," Gillespie said of Romney, "he would have signed it, of course."

One way or another, we won't be getting Mitt Romney, the moderate Republican who pushed through 'Obamacare' as governor of Massachusetts. There's a limit to how much an Etch A Sketch can do. Romney has made his choice, and it's with the far-right.

Rolling Stone continues with plenty of examples of their extremist ideology (and how they put politics above everything else). Here, for example, is what we've already seen on jobs:
Republicans in Congress have repeatedly put ideology before creating jobs. For more than a year, they've refused to put President Obama's jobs bill up for a vote, even though projections show it would create nearly 2 million jobs without adding a penny to the deficit. The reason? The $447 billion bill would be entirely paid for through a surtax on millionaires.

In addition, the Republicans' signature initiative last year – the debt-ceiling standoff – was a jobs-killer, applying the brakes to the economic recovery. From February through April 2011, the economy had been adding 200,000 jobs a month. But during the uncertainty created by the congressional impasse, job creation was cut in half for every month the standoff continued. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, the immediate spending cuts required by the debt-ceiling compromise are likely to shrink the economy by $43 billion this year, killing nearly 323,000 jobs.

What Ryan markets as his "Path to Prosperity" would make things even worse: The draconian cuts in his latest budget, according to the EPI, would put an additional drag on the economy, destroying another 4.1 million jobs by 2014.

Admittedly, with a Republican in the White House, they'll no longer be trying to harm America's economic recovery. But I'm not sure how much difference that will make. Look at all the harm they did by accident during the Bush administration.

Of course, that wasn't entirely by accident, either, I guess. Remember, Grover Norquist supporters were trying to bankrupt America as a way to force a smaller government on us, once that could then be "drowned in a bathtub," as he put it. (Frankly, that's always seemed a bit like treason to me, although it's certainly protected by the First Amendment.)

Besides, I don't think it makes sense to just assume that politicians aren't really as crazy as they seem. Indeed, they might actually be even crazier than they try to appear. Where would we be then?

As I say, that's just one example of many in this article. The Republican agenda is horribly extreme in all sorts of ways. Somewhere (sorry, I can't find the link), I was reading about Democratic consultants doing focus-testing on ads, who found that Independent voters simply wouldn't believe the truth about actual Republican policies.

Some ads polled poorly because Independents just wouldn't believe that Republicans in Congress had been that extreme, despite hearing verbatim the language in the bills they had passed. And they simply refused to believe that any major party candidate would support such things, even when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have clearly indicated that they do.

The truth was just so strange, so incredible, they wouldn't believe it. Both parties are about the same, right? There's not any real difference between them, is there? Sadly, a lot of Americans are this ignorant. Most people don't pay that much attention to politics. And of those who do, many of them get their information from Fox 'News' - in other words, nothing but Republican propaganda.

Anyway, that article ends with an important point:
The last time a Republican presidential candidate touted an agenda to cut spending, lower taxes, boost defense and balance the budget was Ronald Reagan in 1980. Like Romney and Ryan, Reagan didn't have an actual plan for his spending cuts – they were an accounting fantasy, openly joked about as the "magic asterisk." In the end, as promised, Reagan's tax cuts went through, and the Pentagon's budget soared. But the spending cuts never materialized – so Reagan wound up tripling the debt.

If it didn't work for Reagan, says his former budget director, it would be foolish to assume Romney and Ryan can do better. "The Republican record on spending control is so abysmally bad," Stockman says, "that at this point they don't have a leg to stand on." Indeed, the last GOP administration turned $5 trillion in projected surplus into $5 trillion of new debt.

No one doubts Ryan's determination to slash the social safety net: Of the $5.3 trillion in cuts he has proposed, nearly two-thirds come from programs for the poor. But when it comes time to eviscerate the rest of the federal budget, Stockman says – funding for things like drug enforcement and public schools – Congress will "never cut those programs that deeply." In short, the rich will get their tax cuts. The poor will be left destitute. But America will be driven even deeper into debt.

That, at heart, is the twisted beauty of the plan being championed by Ryan and Romney: The higher Republicans manage to drive up the debt, the more ammunition they have in their fight to slash federal spending for the needy. And the more time they waste trumpeting their "fiscal discipline," the more the nation's infrastructure will continue to crumble around them. Squandering two full workweeks of the congressional calendar on votes to repeal Obamacare has cost taxpayers $48 million. That's nearly the same amount of money now needed to repair cracks in the Capitol itself – spending the House GOP has refused to authorize, out of anti-governmental spite.

As I say, that's an important point. Mitt Romney says that he'll slash spending (and eliminate tax loopholes, too). But he refuses to say what he'll cut, because a lot of the spending - and most tax loopholes - are politically popular.

Well, they'll be just as popular after the election. And time after time, we've seen these vague promises from Republicans that don't pan out. Indeed, it has been to their political advantage to increase the deficit - as they've done since Reagan - because that makes their message about cutting spending even more popular. If they actually did it, though, that would be unpopular.

And when you consider that Grover Norquist supporters have been trying to bankrupt America, in order to force smaller government on us, what makes you think that the Republicans will do anything they promise, especially if it's not politically popular?

Oh, they'll very definitely cut taxes on the rich, just as they did during the Bush administration. That's the one thing you can count on. But they won't cut spending where it's popular among their supporters (and most of it is popular, when you look at where America actually spends your tax dollars). And they're not likely to eliminate popular tax deductions - i.e. pretty much all of them - either.

After all, if they were willing to do that, they'd admit it now. They're not willing to be specific, because that would be unpopular. But it will always be unpopular. And there will always be another election coming up.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part 3

Willam Mageborn, with Iona, his faithful housecarl

OK, I'll start talking about Skyrim now.  :)

In my first two posts (here and here), I reviewed the previous Elder Scrolls games. That's because I wanted to give some context to my comments about this one - and in some cases, compare them directly.

Make no mistake, I'm enjoying this game, though I have some reservations. And maybe I should point out that I've only been playing for three weeks. My character is at level 25, I've only explored around Whiterun, Winterhold, and Riften, and I've only played a mage. This is just a preliminary assessment.

The first thing you notice about the game is the superb graphics. Well, I just bought a new computer, and I'm playing it on the ultra-high graphics setting. It's really beautiful. And I'm using a headset, too, with Dolby 7.1 surround sound. Every character in the game speaks, and I can easily pinpoint the direction of sounds (very helpful in combat).

Clearly, Bethesda has spent a great deal of time and money on the graphics and spoken word support, and it shows. If that's what you want from a game, you'll be happy. Even for me - and I'll readily accept anything above ASCII graphics if the gameplay is good - it's a plus to explore a pretty world.

But there's a downside. Fancy graphics make it harder - more expensive, certainly - to create destructible terrain. In Skyrim, I can cast a fireball into a wooden stable filled with straw, and nothing will burn. I can't kick down the flimsiest door on the most rickety shack in Skyrim, let alone hack through the wall.

I can't even bash down a wooden door with a two-handed war hammer, or chop it open with an axe, and we could do that in the earliest Elder Scrolls games. Partly, this is a problem with expensive graphics, and partly it's a design philosophy with a lack of options, which I always find troubling in a game.

Now, none of the Elder Scrolls games have had destructible terrain, that's true. But I remember how much I loved walking directly into the huge cities of Daggerfall - and, even better, finding other ways to get inside when the gates were locked for the night. (I would levitate to the top of the wall, then cast Slowfall as I jumped down the other side.)

Whiterun at night

In Skyrim, the cities aren't even big enough to justify that label - you can barely call them towns - but you still can't do that. There's a cut-scene now, when entering Whiterun and Riften, at least. And if you can't enter through the gate, you can't get inside at all.

The cities are small because of spoken voice support, too. If you need to draw unique characters and hire voice actors for everyone, there's a real limit on the number of people you can put in a world. And even so, we end up hearing the same lines over and over and over again.

It's Iona, not Lydia, in the screenshots here, because I thought I'd lose my mind if I heard "I am sworn to carry your burdens" from Lydia one more time. Hey, it was great the first time I heard it, but after a million repetitions, it gets old.

And it's great to hear bandits talking among themselves - or, more often, talking to themselves when there's no one else around - when I'm sneaking through a cave. But when every bandit everywhere says the same things, that starts to ruin my immersion in the game.

The thing is, these are inevitable downsides to fancy graphics and sound support. As computer capabilities have gotten better, we've certainly gained in graphics and sound. But we've also lost some things. Not all of it was inevitable, either. Some of it is entirely about design decisions.

I'll get to that in a bit, but let me mention one thing that Skyrim does better than the last two games - they've changed that screwy leveling system. You still improve skills by using them - and I love that - but they've got a new skill perks system in Skyrim.

Now, I'm a mage and, so far, I've only taken perks from various magic skills (plus once or twice in Sneak and Alchemy). So I can't comment about the perks from other skills. And indeed, I have some real problems with the details of the perks available for a mage. But, whether it's perfect or not, this series needed that change.

My biggest problem with Oblivion was that it was too much like Morrowind. I felt like it was the same game pretty much, not a new one. Skyrim is different, because Bethesda was bold enough to try something new. I really like that.

In other ways, they kept what's worked well for the series. I already mentioned how skills improve with use. The other traditional feature of Elder Scrolls games is that enemies level up with your character. Some people don't like that, but I do, because it lets me explore anywhere I want, whenever I want.

I love that freedom. Skyrim is a big world (if nowhere near as big as Daggerfall), and I get to decide where to go. As a mage, I've spent a lot of time near Winterhold. But when I got tired of the ice and snow (and, especially, the constant wind noise), I just headed south to Riften.

Our summer vacation :)

So far, I haven't been anywhere near Solitude or Markarth or many of the other parts of Skyrim. And if I get tired of playing a mage and decide to start over with a different kind of character, I'll probably head that way, instead - getting to see brand-new places. As I say, I love that freedom.

I also like the fact that I start to see new monsters as I level up. That helps keep the game fresh. Now, humanoid enemies only get stronger (and carry better equipment) as you level up. And there's not much difference between one wolf and another, or one bear and another, except that some are tougher. But you do start to see brand new enemies, too.

I like that,... but I must admit that earlier games did it better. I could be wrong, but there seemed to be a much bigger variety of enemies in earlier Elder Scrolls games. (There was a much bigger variety of everything, I think, including skills and spells.)

Plus, I remember in Arena and Daggerfall how I'd hear a new enemy, off in the darkness of a dungeon somewhere, and not know what it was. It would sound scary, especially since I'd know it was something new, so the anticipation was wonderful!

I don't get that in Skyrim. I almost always see creatures before I hear them, and the creature sound effects aren't much, anyway. Sure, I can hear wolves howling and bears snarling, and that's great. But all wolves and all bears sound the same. Even when they're a stronger variety than you've encountered before, they don't seem any different.

Maybe this is about realism, I don't know, but in many ways, Skyrim is actually less realistic than earlier games. The towns are so small, the few farmers seem to grow only a half dozen potatoes or cabbages to feed the whole province, bandits outnumber ordinary citizens by far - you really can't justify much in this game by appealing to realism, can you?

But let me mention one other thing I like about Skyrim - the modding system. One advantage in waiting almost a year to play this game is that there are a lot of mods out there. And they make it very easy to use mods, too (especially, I must admit, on Steam).

If there's something you don't like about the game, chances are that you can find a mod to change it - or make one yourself, if you're that ambitious (I'm not). That's really a benefit! Of course, player-developed mods are, um,... diverse. :)  (For a really hilarious example of that, check out this Week of Madness series at PC Gamer!)

Exploding chickens and naked, anatomically-correct NPCs might be entertaining, but you can break the game pretty easily. On the other hand, you can also change what you don't like about it - or even just freshen up Skyrim when you get a bit tired of the vanilla game.

I haven't installed many mods, and I don't intend to - not for awhile, certainly. But it's good to know that option is available.

So far, I've installed (all using Steam's easy subscription service) "Leveled Merchants' Wallets," which increases the amount of money available in shops - because it's just annoying to have to run everywhere to sell my loot - and "Camping Lite," which lets me carry a tent and bedroll, so I can set up camp in the wilderness at night. Note that the nights in Skyrim are beautiful, and plenty well illuminated, but I usually prefer to sleep at night and explore during the day.

I've also installed "Mounted Follower," which will give my follower a horse whenever I mount up, although I haven't tried it yet. (My character hasn't yet acquired a horse.) So I'm taking it easy with mods - and making sure each one works before I try a new one.

But whether you want to modify minor details in the game or just go all-out (hopefully, backing up your saved game files first!), it's entirely up to you. And mods can add a lot of gameplay. Check out this ongoing project to mod all of Morrowind into Skyrim! Now that's impressive! (I want to see Daggerfall next. Heh, heh. Admittedly, they're also doing Oblivion, it seems.)

So, graphics and sound support, a big world with leveled opponents, a new skill perks system, and great modding support - those are the things I like about Skyrim,... with some qualifications, as noted. What don't I like? That will have to wait for Part 4. :)

___
Note: Here's Part 4, the conclusion of this series.

Wake the f**k up!



It's Samuel L. Jackson, and definitely NSFW. So if you want the bleeped version, watch this one, instead.

My thanks to John Grayshaw for the link.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mitt Romney's reboot


I thought it was time for some political cartoons again. Let's see how Romney has done since the convention.

As the above cartoon indicates, it actually started at the convention, with Paul Ryan repeating one blatant lie after another, Mitt Romney refusing to provide specific answers to anything, and finally - today's Republican Party in a nutshell - an angry old white guy arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.

So where would the Romney/Ryan campaign go from there?


Well, first was Mitt Romney writing off half of America. Sorry, but he can't be bothered with the little people.

Of course, as Fox 'News' pointed out, that conversation with his millionaire backers was from way back in May. Heck, Romney has probably switched positions multiple times since then, huh? But the image stuck with him.


I didn't figure that would hurt him much, since people always think the free-loaders are someone else. But I could be wrong.


And sure, he tried to apologize...


And he tried to change the subject...


But he tried just a little too hard, using a time of national tragedy to score political points - and lying about it, to boot!


And then, in another flip-flop, he explained how we didn't need health care reform, because everyone could just go to the emergency room!


Most recently, what does Romney do to change the subject? He indicates he doesn't understand why you can't roll down the windows in a passenger jet!


Remarkable, isn't it? Romney seems to be channeling George W. Bush. President? I'm wondering if he should even be let out of the house on his own!

Clay Bennett probably says it best of all:


Who knew an Etch-A-Sketch was such a dangerous device?


And he's still got the debates to get through. Is it any wonder Republicans are panicking?


Democrats shouldn't get cocky, though. Republicans have been busy redistricting and working as hard as they can to discourage voting, especially among Democratic constituencies which aren't known for being reliable voters, anyway.


The best bacon cartoon yet!


This, of course, refers to the forecast bacon shortage next year.

You know, I knew global warming was going to be bad, but I didn't realize it would be this bad, that we'd end up short of bacon! What next?

Oh, yeah.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bacon shortage?



Oh, man, this is going to be an absolute disaster! A global bacon shortage? What am I going to do with my tomatoes next year?

I've been upset enough at how expensive bacon has been this year, but it sounds like it might be worse in 2013. What will I do? Can my arteries survive going cold-turkey?

Note that I love Ana, but she's simply wrong about this. Calm down? How can I calm down??? And "bacon is the most over-rated food on the planet"? Oh, Ana, how could you?

Well, I guess she's not perfect after all. Wow! Ana Kasparian is flawed! I would never have believed it.

But I guess I'll forgive her. :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part 2



(Note: Part 1 of this - mostly talking about Arena and Daggerfall - is here.)

The third Elder Scrolls game (skipping Battlespire and Redguard, which weren't nearly the same thing and aren't included in the numbering system) was Morrowind, released in 2002. In the screenshots above, you can see how much difference six years meant to the graphics!

And Morrowind was, indeed, a great game. And yet,... I was disappointed that Bethesda hadn't continued with the procedurally-generated content they'd introduced in Daggerfall.

It wasn't that Morrowind was too small - I never did get to everything in the base game, to say nothing of the two expansions. But I liked the feeling that Daggerfall gave me, that it was a real world out there, most of which I'd never see, let alone influence.

And procedurally generated content doesn't have to be just the terrain and the buildings. People, too, are similar enough to have the same needs, yet plenty diverse in how those needs are expressed. I was very disappointed to see a mainstream game developer move away from the promise of that, leaving it to individuals working with far fewer resources.

There were minor disappointments, too. I loved riding horseback in Daggerfall, and driving a wagon. You could park your wagon outside a dungeon while you went exploring, then fill it with loot from the doorway, without ever leaving the dungeon.

That was far more realistic than carrying multiple suits of armor on your back, and it was also convenient. Let's face it, one of the real draws of an RPG is gathering loot, both to use and to sell. I guess we're all mercenary in that way, huh? Making that difficult, even for the sake of realism, is just annoying.

In Daggerfall, it worked well and it was realistic enough, too. Plus, I loved the sound effects - the clip-clop of my horse's hooves and the jangling of the harness - as I rode through town. (Of course, when it comes to riding a horse, and even fighting on horseback, no one has done that as well as the original Mount&Blade. I really don't understand why not.)

Finally, I have to mention the snowfall:



(Please note that that's not the original music from the game. If you want the original, check out this video. I would have posted that one, except for the screwy "dancing" he did.)

It's hard to believe now, given how poor the graphics seem these days, but I just loved those gentle snows in Daggerfall. Even Skyrim doesn't come close to that, not that I've seen, at least. Skyrim has blizzards, snow whipping past the character and constant wind noise, which gets so annoying that I've had to turn the environmental sounds way down.

Snow in Daggerfall was peaceful and lovely, even during a desperate battle. (And note, in that video, how you can walk or ride directly out of the city through a gate, with no cut-scene. You can't even do that in Skyrim, though the cities are much, much smaller. As I noted in my last post, that just blew me away when I played the game. Even better, there were other ways to enter a city, when the gates were locked.)

Of course, snow wasn't everywhere in Daggerfall. Different provinces had different terrain, different climates, different building styles. And snow is hardly a reason to play a game. But it was something I missed in Morrowind.

And then, early in the game, as I was exploring just outside of Seyda Neen, a thunderstorm rolled in. I had the speakers turned up high - for the sound effects - as usual, and I almost jumped out of my chair at the first crack of thunder. Then the heavens opened up and rain poured down!

It felt so real that I immediately tried to run under cover. Obviously, I didn't want to get wet. :)  Of course, the game wasn't that real. But I found myself avoiding low areas, because I didn't want to get bogged down in the mud. The game wasn't that real, either, and I knew it. But my immersion in the game was so good that I tended to act as if it were.

I loved that, and I loved Morrowind in general. I spent most of my time just exploring the world. Well, I don't usually follow the main quests very far. But I did a little of that. And I joined the Fighters Guild and the Mages Guild, the Imperial Cult and the Imperial Legion, among others, and I completed many of those quests, too. It was lots of fun.

Now, I wasn't a fan of the blowing dust of the Ashlands, not at all. In a way, that was like the blowing snow of Skyrim. I like strange locations, but I want pretty ones. I want beautiful sights, even in very dangerous areas. And blowing dust or snow is just annoying. Still, there were plenty of beautiful sights to see (and if the dust was blowing, I could always wait a day for the weather to clear).

One other thing I liked about Morrowind - much better than in Skyrim - was that there were multiple ways to get around. There was no "fast travel" per se in Morrowind, but there were multiple ways to travel quickly from one part of the province to another.

You could take a silt strider - a giant insect you rode from city to city (though we never got to experience that, or even see it, unfortunately) - or a boat. You could teleport between mages guilds. If you completed a quest, you could teleport between propylon chambers elsewhere in Morrowind, too.

You were almost always close enough to one of those to travel quickly in Morrowind, but you stayed in-game by doing so. That's not the case when using the "fast travel" system of Oblivion or Skyrim. And although you can hop a wagon in Skyrim, that seems to be the only other option.

What happened to teleporting between mages guilds? Of course, there is no Mages Guild in Skyrim, but why did the technology have to disappear, too?

There were lots of things I loved about Morrowind, including the Athletics and Acrobatics skills that disappeared in later games - and many great spells like Levitation, Unlock, and Slowfall that have likewise been abandoned, apparently in an attempt to make later games as simple as possible.

One of the things I didn't like was the screwy leveling system. The basic idea was still the same, that you'd increase skills by using them, and that this would increase your character's level. (Enemy level increased with yours, which I liked, since it meant I could explore all I wanted, right from the start. And as the game went on, you got to see new creatures, which kept the game fresh.)

But you really had to know what you were doing with the leveling system. You pretty much had to game it. Otherwise, you'd increase in level too rapidly, without the skills - or the high attributes - necessary to survive. Some skills were very, very easy to increase, but, though useful, they wouldn't necessarily keep you alive. Others were quite slow to increase.

So instead of just picking "major skills" and "minor skills" to fit your character, you had to game it - at least, I did, since I'm not very good at 'real-time' combat. For example, I couldn't afford to make Alchemy a major or minor skill, even though it was very, very useful, and I practiced it all the time.

Well, that was pretty much why I couldn't make it a major skill. It was just too useful - for making money, not just in combat - and too easy to raise. In fact, I maxed out my Alchemy skill while I was still a low-level character, it was that easy.

Likewise, your Athletics skill increased just by moving your character (well, when running, but walking was painfully slow), so you couldn't afford to make that a major skill, either. And you had to make sure you'd increased enough skills based on different attributes so you could increase those attributes when leveling, too.

That part of the game was awkward, but it was just a minor issue, really. Certainly, I ended up loving Morrowind. I was still disappointed in the direction they'd taken the game after Daggerfall, but Morrowind was probably a better game (and far less buggy, as well). Much as I loved Daggerfall, I really can't complain about Morrowind.

But The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released four years later, and I'm afraid that was a disappointment. Ironically, I was disappointed mostly because it felt like I was just playing Morrowind again. Much as I loved Morrowind, I wanted a new game, not the same one I'd been playing for years.

Oh, there were minor changes, but almost all for the worse. The world felt much smaller. There were fewer spells. The skill system hadn't changed much, and that was something that needed to change. Otherwise, it seemed just like playing Morrowind in a different setting, without some of the details I'd liked in the previous game.

And the Oblivion gates were fun the first time I entered one, but not so much after that. It was an ugly realm - by design - and I don't much like to play in ugly settings.

But the worst thing about Oblivion, I think, was that my actions didn't seem to change anything. (True, this has been a problem throughout the series - and in almost all RPGs, in fact - but I guess I expected better in Oblivion.)

One of the first things you do in the main quest is to rescue Kvatch by closing the Oblivion gate - the first gate you encounter - that's opened near the town. Afterwards, everyone in the province recognizes you as "the hero of Kvatch." That was neat.

But what was not so neat - in fact, it was hugely disappointing - was that Kvatch stays a burned-out ruin afterwards. The residents of the town stay in their tent encampment on the road outside, even after you've closed the gate. They never return to the town and start rebuilding. They don't even leave and start over elsewhere. Nothing changes.

And that's a huge problem in a game where you're supposed to be helping people. Nothing you do seems to make the slightest difference. Why couldn't we see Kvatch starting to rebuild? Why couldn't the surviving townspeople have at least folded their tents and moved back into town?

Even if they'd have pitched their tents in the town, as a temporary measure (needing a place to sleep that hadn't been trashed or burned), at least that would have been something. At least you could see that your actions had mattered to them.

It was great to be called the hero of Kvatch afterwards, but my actions didn't seem to make the slightest difference to Kvatch families. So I could never get interested in the world. I didn't like the Oblivion side of things (inside the gates, I mean), although I did close a few of them. But mostly, I just wandered around.

And that was OK, but it was too much like Morrowind, without the neat locations and story and other features of Morrowind. In fact, out of all the earlier games, I remember Oblivion the least, even though it's the most recent. Nothing in the game really stood out for me. Later, I went back and played Morrowind some more. That was a lot more fun.

(Admittedly, I didn't try any of the Oblivion mods, and modding is something which has to be considered a huge plus in these games. If you don't like something, chances are you can find a mod - or even create a mod yourself - which will change it.

(Of course, if you rely on mods to change a game, I have to wonder if the game shouldn't just be a construction kit for mods. I've talked about procedurally-generated content in Daggerfall. Why couldn't you create something like that simply as the basis for a mod construction kit? You probably couldn't get 60 bucks for it, though.)

OK, next time, I promise, I'll actually start talking about Skryim. :)

___
Note: Here's Part 3.

Emergency rooms: Romney's new health care plan



Mitt Romney, 2010: "When [people without insurance] show up at the hospital, they get care. They get free care paid for by you and me. If that's not a form of socialism, I don't know what is."

Mitt Romney, 2012: "We do provide care for people who don't have insurance. If someone has a heart attack, they don't sit in their apartment and die. We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital, and give them care."

After all, emergency rooms are free, aren't they? Ambulances are free. Emergency personnel are free. Even roads are free. According to Republicans, we don't need taxes, because all of these things just... happen. How dare you suggest that our tax money is necessary for anything?

But this flip-flop isn't "incredible," as the people in this video clip call it, because this is exactly the problem that Romneycare/Obamacare was designed to fix. If people can get free healthcare at emergency rooms, they won't bother to buy health insurance when they're young or have little to lose.

If you don't have a lot to lose in bankruptcy, or if you're young (and therefore less likely to have a catastrophic illness), why not roll the dice? If you lose, you'll still get health care, but the American people will pay for it. This is, after all, a civilized country. And people dying along the side of the road are so messy...

If you can't get health insurance, because of a pre-existing condition, the same thing applies. Indeed, before Obamacare, insurance companies could - and often would - dump you if you got cancer or some other expensive illness. Well, it's a lot more profitable to insure only healthy people.

You can require that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions, but if you do that, no one will get health insurance until they get sick, and health insurance companies would go broke. That's the reason for the mandate in both Romneycare and Obamacare. Mitt Romney pushed for that mandate - before he started running for president in today's crazy GOP - and for good reason.

Note that Romney didn't invent Obamacare. That was developed in a right-wing think tank as the free-market, insurance company-friendly, Republican health care plan. When Romney pushed for it in Massachusetts, it was mainstream Republican policy.

And it stayed the Republican plan right up until the Democrats decided to compromise and adopt it, too (which is usually how Democrats 'compromise'). Instantly, it became 'socialism.' To Republicans, their own plan became 'socialism' - simply because they were determined to oppose everything the Democrats supported, no matter what it was.

From day one, during the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, the Republican focus has been on denying Barack Obama a second term. And to do that, they had to make sure that he couldn't accomplish anything, no matter how badly that harmed America.

After all, it was Republican policies which collapsed our economy. When Barack Obama took office, the economic collapse looked to have no bottom. It was already the worst collapse since the Great Depression, and it didn't seem to be slowing down at all.

Barack Obama stopped the collapse. But if he'd been able to quickly fix our economy, repairing in a few short years what George W. Bush had taken eight years to destroy, that would have been the end of the Republican Party. So they've been dragging their feet ever since, desperate to keep America's economy in the toilet.

Note how Mitt Romney, whose only fixed belief is in his own ambition, flip-flops at every gust of wind. Well, there's a good reason why Romney is a Republican. It's because they all put their political ambition ahead of everything else.

The whole party has done this, at least back to their 'Southern strategy' of deliberately appealing to white racists in order to take the South from the Democrats. When the Democrats did the right thing in supporting equal rights for racial minorities, despite the damage it would do to them politically, Republicans cynically took advantage of that.

And Republicans have done the same ever since. As I say, there's a good reason why Mitt Romney is a Republican. He's just as cynical as all of their leaders.

Mitt Romney at Univision



This isn't an isolated incident. If the media won't play ball with a candidate, they lose access to that candidate. And the media all know that.

Republicans already favor Fox 'News,' because they know the interviewer won't be asking any tough questions. Indeed, Fox people will be pushing as hard as they can for the Republican candidate. No attempts to be "fair and balanced" there!

They know they've always got Fox in their corner, so they play hardball with everyone else. They'll put some topics off-limits, and if the interviewer still asks tough questions, the whole network will suffer after that.

In this case, what was Univision going to do? They had air-time to fill. They had advertisers expecting Mitt Romney. The media need Romney far more than Romney needs them.

Indeed, Mitt Romney would be doing a lot better if no one had ever heard of him before. A generic Republican - a fantasy Republican - has generally polled a lot better than specific Republicans, and Romney would have a better chance of winning this election if he'd just kept his mouth shut.

Of course, he's doing his damnedest to stay unknown - keeping his tax returns a secret, his policy positions a secret, those tax deductions he supposedly wants to cut... all still a secret - but he'd have been better off never leaving his house, opening the door, or even answering the phone until election day.

Too many people are learning too much about Mitt Romney.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The pirate infatuation at Fox



Of course, this was all a complete lie:
“TOO BUSY FOR ISRAEL / PRESIDENT FINDS TIME FOR PIRATE, LETTERMAN,” Fox and Friends’ screen read Thursday. “This pirate got a sit-down in the Oval Office yesterday,” Fox and Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade said on-air. “So much for the Middle East peace. The White House doesn’t even have time to meet with Israel, but the president got a private sit-down with a pirate yesterday in the Oval Office. Sorry, Bibi,” Steve Doocy added.

One small problem: the photo was taken in May 2009 for use as a joke during the White House Correspondents’ dinner.

Is there no limit to how low Fox 'News' will sink in order to push their right-wing politics? Is there no anti-Obama lie so obvious and so stupid that even Fox won't play it up? I really doubt it.

TPM goes on to note that:
The Fox and Drudge headlines allude to Obama reportedly denying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to meet during the United Nations General Assembly. The White House, according to the New York Times, cited scheduling conflicts as the reason the two could not meet. Instead, Obama and Netanyahu recently spoke by phone for about an hour.

Incredible, isn't it?

"Of Men and Monsters" by William Tenn

(cover image from Amazon.com)

"It doth not appear, from all you have said, how any one virtue is required towards the procurement of any one station among you; much less that men are ennobled on account of their virtue, that priests are advanced for their piety or learning, soldiers for their conduct or valour, judges for their integrity, senators for the love of their country, or counsellors for their wisdom. ... I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth." - Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

This quote prefaces Of Men and Monsters (1968) by William Tenn (pen name of Philip Klass) for good reason. It is literally the case that human beings have become vermin, living in the walls - and even the furniture - of the enormous aliens who conquered the Earth long before.

But it's an appropriate quote for other reasons, too, as the book's young hero, Eric the Only, discovers.

All his life, Eric has been a proud member of Mankind, a strong front-burrow tribe of 128 people. ("The sheer population pressure of so vast a horde had long ago filled over a dozen burrows.") He can rattle off the Ancestor-Science catechism he's been taught from infancy, and he's ready for his ceremonial first theft from the Monsters, after which he'll take his place as a Male Society warrior.

Eric's entire life has led up to this. And afterwards, he knows exactly how the rest of his life will go, too. He believes everything he's been taught, and he knows exactly what it means to be a part of Mankind.

But that's not what happens. One blow after another turns Eric's world completely upside down. Much of what he's been taught all his life is not true. And Eric ends up a hunted outcast, instead of the respected adult he always expected to be.

This is an entertaining adventure story, but Eric's struggle to overcome his primitive, superstitious upbringing makes it more than that. All his life, Eric has been a typical tribesman. He's known nothing but that life.

He's even gleefully participated in the torture of captured Strangers:
One thing about it, however, everyone knew. On it would be enacted a moving religious drama: the ultimate triumph of humanity over the Monsters. For this, the central character had to fulfill two requirements: he had to be an intelligent creature as the Monsters were, so that he could be made to suffer as some day Mankind meant the Monsters to suffer; and he had to be nonhuman as the Monsters were, so that every drop of fear, resentment, and hatred distilled by the enormous swaggering aliens could be poured out upon his flesh without any inhibition of compunction or fellow-feeling.

For this purpose, outlaws were absolutely ideal since all agreed that such disgusting creatures had resigned their membership in the human race. ...

Everyone had their chance. All, from the chief himself to the youngest child capable of reciting the catechism of Ancestral Science, all climbed in their turn upon the Stage - or Theater - or Scaffold - that the women had erected. All were thrilled to vent a portion of Mankind's vengeance upon the creature who had been declared alien, as an earnest of what they would some day do collectively to the Monsters who had stolen their world.

This is Mankind's faith, Mankind's culture, Mankind's society. And Eric is fully a part of that society, expecting to continue as a proud adult of that society, right up until he's declared to be an outlaw. And then he faces that hatred, that religious hysteria, even from the young woman who'd hoped to become his mate.

As I say, it's just one body-blow after another for Eric, who has to survive not just physical threats, but the wrenching mental adjustments he must make.

The premise of the story - aliens so huge that human beings can live like mice, like cockroaches, in their homes - isn't at all plausible. But a premise doesn't have to be plausible. In science fiction, you just accept the premise for the sake of the story.

And it makes a great story. Human beings have survived, and they even remember bits and pieces of what used to be, but it's just mythology now. Science has become religion, magic, superstition. Primitive tribes call themselves "Mankind," with all other humans being "Strangers" likely to be killed on sight.

They live in alien walls, stealing food from alien storehouses. "Outside" is completely unknown, and they suffer terribly from agoraphobia even when they venture from their burrows into Monster living spaces. And to the aliens, they're just vermin.

There are a lot of clever details here, like "auld lang synes" meaning "years," and the erroneous misquote by superstitious primitives that "the cages of sin is death." And the ending is pretty clever, too.

But it's the early part of the book that I admired the most, with its young hero struggling to overcome a lifetime of conditioning and religious superstition. Well, the whole thing is a very good read.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Romney critic faces excommunication

Do you really think you want to combine politics and religion? Here's a Mormon who faces excommunication from the church for being critical of Mitt Romney!
David Twede, 47, a scientist, novelist, and fifth-generation Mormon, is managing editor of MormonThink.com, an online magazine produced largely by members of the Mormon Church that welcomes scholarly debate about the religion’s history from both critics and true believers.

A Mormon in good standing, Twede has never been disciplined by Latter Day Saints leadership. But it now appears his days as a Mormon may be numbered because of a series of articles he wrote this past week that were critical of Mitt Romney.

On Sunday, Twede says his bishop, stake president, and two church executives brought him into Florida Mormon church offices in Orlando and interrogated him for nearly an hour about his writings, telling him, "Cease and desist, Brother Twede."

Mormon leaders have scheduled an excommunication "for apostasy" on Sept. 30.

This is why we don't have a  theocracy in America (not yet, at least). This is why we separate church and state.

Of course, Twede had to hide his identity at MormonThink.com anyway. The phrase "witch hunt" is used for good reason, a tragic reminder of our religious history.
“I told them I hide my name precisely because of things like this,” he says. “I said, ‘Look how fast you got to me.’ I know a lot of members don’t want their life disturbed. In the Mormon church, if you’re not part of the uniform group, you are ostracized.” ...

“When they interrogated me, they denied that they were on a witch hunt, but they kept asking me, ‘Who are the other individuals you work with on MormonThink?’” he says. “They continued demanding that I tell them. But I didn’t.”

He's lucky they can't use red-hot pincers these days!

But this also demonstrates why you shouldn't belong to faith-based groups. Criticism of any kind is anathema to religions, because they all have faith they already know the truth (even though different religions disagree vehemently on what that truth is).

What good is criticism if you won't use it to correct your mistakes - heck, if you refuse to recognize even the possibility that you might be mistaken? Religions value faith, not skepticism, for good reason.

Science values skepticism, because scientists want to be corrected if they're mistaken. But religions can't afford that. Skepticism is too dangerous to religions built on the sands of wishful-thinking.

But facing excommunication for criticizing a presidential candidate? It's pretty clear that Mormon leaders think they'll have the president in their pocket, if Mitt Romney is elected.

Admittedly, this doesn't seem to be just about Romney:
Twede started contributing to MormonThink about four years ago and says he was recently asked to be managing editor when the former editor resigned after also being “confronted and pressured” by the Church leaders, according to Twede.

“Rather than go through the excommunication, he resigned for family reasons,” explains Twede, who notes that after the former editor resigned, LDS leaders kept it quiet. “They didn’t want anyone to know about MormonThink. They wanted him to take the site down.”

What's the difference between a religion and a cult? Size, only size. A religion has more members, more money, more property, more power. But it's just a cult at heart.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Willam Mageborn, Skyrim hero :)

I've been playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim lately - finally, after getting a new computer. Yes, the game was released almost a year ago, but I wanted to wait until I could play it with the highest graphics settings. (Note that the screenshot above hardly does it justice, but I wanted to show you my character.)

It's been lots of fun, as I knew it would be. Of course, that doesn't mean I like all of the design decisions. I've played all of the Elder Scrolls games, and I wish they'd taken a different direction in some ways.

So I thought I'd talk about that, at least at first. (This will be a multi-part post.) But don't get me wrong, I'm really enjoying Skyrim. And it brings back fond memories - very fond memories - of the previous games, as well.

I didn't grow up with computer games. I'm much too old for that. But I fell in love with them in the 1980s. The early games were turn-based pretty much by necessity, but since I hadn't been playing them from childhood, that was my preference, too - also from necessity.

You see, I'm bad at 'real-time' games - really bad, even now. I might be better than I used to be, but I'm never going to be really good at them. I preferred party-based, turn-based RPGs, because they were more about strategy than about eye-hand coordination.

Not only am I bad at such things, I really prefer to think about what I'm doing. Even when I play games like Skyrim, I always play a sneaky character, someone who can think carefully about what he's doing. Of course, if I were better at reacting to surprises, that might be different, too, I don't know. :)

As time went on, as computers got better, we started seeing fewer and fewer turn-based RPGs. Developers took advantage of better graphics by making first-person games - single-player, 'real-time' games, where quick reactions and good eye-hand coordination were essential. That's not me.

The first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, was released in 1994, and it was 'real-time.' But I bought it because I'd heard that the game would pause when you opened your inventory. A character could switch weapons, drink potions to heal himself, and, frankly, stop and think, even when in the middle of a desperate battle - so that even an inept player like myself might be able to play it.

And that turned out to be true. I loved it. My preference was still for turn-based, party-based RPGs, but Arena was a new experience for me, and a great one. Here's an example, part of a YouTube playthrough. It's hard to believe now, but in 1994, these graphics were great. (Well, 1994 is a long time ago in computer years.)



Even better, for me, were the sound effects! Different creatures made different sounds, and you could hear them in the darkness around you. Doors opened and then closed behind you, but some enemies could open doors, too. You could hear monsters, and know that they'd sensed you. You could hear doors opening and know that they were trying to get to you.

Unlike in Skyrim, where even ancient crypts, unexplored for centuries, are somehow well-lit with oil lamps, most of the ancient ruins in Arena were dark. You could see the immediate area around you without the annoyance of carrying a torch (an excellent gameplay decision), and some places were lit for good reason, but ancient ruins in general didn't have modern lighting.

One of the pleasures I still remember from Arena was of casting a Light spell at the distant darkness. The light would travel ahead until it hit a wall, lighting up its surroundings as it went. It was really neat. (Of course, you could cast the spell to hover overhead, too, so it would follow you around.)

The above video shows one of the first dungeons, and it's mostly rooms and corridors. But there were much larger places in some dungeons. You could cast long-lasting spells in Arena (none of that 60-second nonsense we see in Skyrim), so you could have a magical light illuminate your way. Of course, that would make it easier for monsters to spot you.  :)

That combination was great! The darkness was frightening, especially with the scary sound effects. But you could easily light up your surroundings to enjoy the scenery, too. (And every character could cast spells, so you didn't have to be a mage in order to light your way.) There would still be darkness elsewhere, of course. And you could hear all the scary things which were wanting to kill you.

Note how, in the video above, different monsters make different sounds. As you explored, you'd regularly hear something new, and you'd know that it was probably something more dangerous than what you'd faced so far. That anticipation really added to the game.

I mentioned long-lasting spells, and that was one of the highlights of Arena (something missing from later Elder Scrolls games). I especially remember a long-lasting "Absorb Magic" spell, which was hugely useful later in the game, when many enemies cast spells.

I could cast an Absorb Magic spell and keep it protecting me as I explored. It wouldn't absorb all enemy spells, but enough to be an effective defense and to keep my pool of mana full, so I could cast healing spells whenever necessary.

Did that make the game too easy? For some people, no doubt it would. Of course, you didn't have to use it. And for me, I loved the experience. I didn't finish the game (I almost never finish RPGs, because I get bored after awhile and move on), but I came a lot closer than I usually do.

Unfortunately, later Elder Scrolls games changed that. In fact, spells in general have become annoyingly brief in Skyrim. I'm playing a mage character, and it's lots of fun, but 60-second defense and conjuration spells are quite annoying (not to mention ward spells which seem to be completely useless).

Another Skyrim screenshot

Arena wasn't too different from other RPGs in some ways. You gained experience from killing enemies, and your character would level up that way. Also, the main quest was rather typical of RPGs at the time. You had to explore several big dungeons in order to accumulate parts of a magical staff, which would allow you to defeat the villain of the story and restore the rightful emperor.

There were other locations in the game, and you generally had to complete a quest in order to proceed to the next main-quest dungeon (the dungeon in the video is part of one of those preliminary quests, in fact). That part seemed pretty standard. Well, I really enjoyed Arena, but it was the next game in the series which really blew my mind.

I've already blogged about Daggerfall, and I don't want to repeat myself too much. You can check out my previous post for the details - and for some video clips - if you want. But Daggerfall took the Elder Scrolls series to a new level.

For one thing, in that game - and in succeeding Elder Scrolls games - skills increased by using them. Your character advanced in level that way, too. You didn't have to kill monsters, necessarily (although combat was inevitably the biggest part of the game). You advanced by using your skills. And the choice of which skills was up to the player.

Daggerfall dungeons were at least as spooky as those in Arena, with similar sound effects and enemies which would open doors to come find you. (Admittedly, they were also too big, and too hard to navigate - although Skyrim dungeons have gone much too far the other way.) But Daggerfall felt like a real world. The world was huge - twice the land-mass of Great Britain, with 15,000 locations - and much of it was seamless.

Oh, the inside of buildings and dungeons were separate, but overland, you could just walk around exploring. You could see a town in the distance and then walk right into it! You could see a city in the distance - and cities were also enormous - and either enter through an open gate or levitate up and over the walls, in either case without a cut-scene.

You could walk from town to town, or even from city to city, if you had the time, and you'd encounter people (in the daytime, at least; ghosts or other dangers at night), roads, farms, dungeons, caves, crypts. You can't imagine how wonderful that seemed!

Of course, you can do the same thing in later Elder Scrolls games, but for 1996, that was just incredible. And the Daggerfall world was far, far bigger than in later games. Daggerfall was procedurally generated, but, unfortunately, Bethesda abandoned that in later games. That's such a shame!

Sure, most of the buildings, dungeons, and landscape of each province in Daggerfall looked alike (the provinces had different architectural styles and different terrain, as I recall), but this game was just the start of procedurally-generated worlds. I would have loved to see what mainstream game developers could have done with that.

And these days, the increased focus on expensive graphics and spoken word conversations, while impressive, has several downsides. It's hard to make destructible terrain when you spend so much attention and so much money on fancy graphics. (And therefore, you can cast a fireball inside an old wooden shack - or even at a pile of straw - in Skyrim, but it won't burn.)

Spoken words require expensive voice acting, plus you have to know what to say. You can't use the character's name, as you could if the player were just reading such conversations. More importantly, you have to know what the player is going to do, at least to the extent of various options. You can't let the player do anything you didn't predict.

Well, none of that was in Daggerfall, either, and I can't claim otherwise. But in some ways, Bethesda turned away from the promise of Daggerfall, and I think that's a real shame, much as I enjoyed the succeeding games.

OK, this is enough about Daggerfall. Read my previous post if you want more. And it's enough for this post, too. I'll continue this later. For now, I've got to play some more Skyrim. :)

___
Note: Here's Part 2.

Rush Limbaugh blames feminists for his tiny penis

Of course, Rush Limbaugh blames feminists for everything, but... don't you think this is getting a little personal?

Quite frankly, the very last thing I want to think about is Rush Limbaugh's penis!
So no matter how much I may revile the conservative broadcaster, I think I should take this moment to express our condolences to Rush, lest we be the happy men who neither see nor hear others in their time of illness and misfortune…
"I think it's feminism. If it's tied to the last 50 years — the average size of [a male's] member is 10 percent smaller than 50 years [ago] — it has to be the feminazis, the chickification and everything else. Give them time and they'll blame Bush. But air pollution versus feminazis? Ha!"

Limbaugh was referring to an Italian study which purported to show a 10% decline in penis size over a 50 year period and laid the blame on weight gain around the waist, alcohol consumption, smoking, stress and environmental pollutants. None of which are problems for Limbaugh, of course. In his case, it was definitely the Teeny Weenie committee of the National Organization for Women that's causing shrinkage.

But no matter who or what is ultimately responsible, let's keep Rush in our thoughts as he goes through this difficult time.

Obviously, in Limbaugh's case, it couldn't be weight gain, alcohol consumption, or smoking, right? And what could he have to be stressed about? (Oh, yeah, his tiny penis.)

But is it really "feminazis" casting magic spells on his private parts? Maybe it's just shrinkage:



Stay out of the pool, Rush (please, please, stay out of the gene pool) and you might be ready for your fifth wife (I see you're doing your part to 'defend marriage') any time now.

GOP guide to voter ID laws



Seems easy enough, doesn't it?  :)

Homer Simpson votes



Funny and plausible, huh?  :)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Barack Obama, internal and external



I love Barack Obama's thoughtful, intelligent response here. This is why I vote for him. (Well, and because the Republicans are completely batshit crazy, of course.)

But much as I like that, I kind of like this translation, too:


Is this what Barack Obama is really thinking? Probably not. But it's what I'd be thinking, if I were in his shoes, I suspect. :)