On Blade Runner 2049

Posted by on Oct 10, 2017 in Editorial, Other Geeks

On Blade Runner 2049

I cannot write about this movie. There’s no way I can explain to you, the reader, how I feel about it. I can explain the plot (which I won’t do), and I can talk about how faithful it was to the 1982 prequel, and I can talk about the “quirks” of the almost 3-hour film, but there is absolutely no way I can provide the most important part of the film in words: the atmosphere.

Without spoilers, 2049 takes place 20 years after Blade Runner, and while word on the street is that you need not have seen the 1982 original, the narrative is far more coherent if you have since a good chunk of the plot focuses on the fate of Deckard and Rachel and the consequences of their flight. 2049 is still primarily concerned with replicants, the genetically engineered labor force pioneered by the Tyrell Corporation and later adopted by the Wallace Corporation. After off-screen events that saw an even greater animosity aimed at replicants, Wallace convinced the population that his Nexus 8 line would solve the problems of Tyrell’s Nexus 6, but the undercurrent of distrust still remains — hence the continued need for the “blade runners”, special law enforcement branch that is tasked with “retiring” replicants who act up. Ryan Gossling plays “K”, a blade runner and himself a replicant who is only respected — not necessarily liked — by his superior officer.

The story is important and hasn’t been given away in any of the marketing materials, but at the end of the day, the plot felt less important the more one considers it. The original Blade Runner was all about the nature of being human. In 2049 they attempt to up that ante by making the question of the nature of humanity far more overt by throwing out questions about the “soul”, Biblical references, and more subtle cues that can be read about here (with spoilers). When the ramifications of Deckard and Rachel’s flight are made apparent early on in the film, it’s meant to be the focal point for the audience as much as it is for the characters within the film, but in writing this post, I think there’s a more important message beyond “what is human”?

The atmosphere of the Blade Runner movies is what I call “classic cyberpunk” (as opposed to the “nouveau cyberpunk” that tries to cut the dystopia with something more palatable, like Shadowrun‘s inclusion of high-fantasy). In these settings, humanity has worked itself into a species and civilization dead-end. Corporations rule from afar simply by convincing the population that they can’t live without their products. The pursuit of shareholder equity leads to the exploitation of natural resources to keep up with the manufacturing demand necessary to supply an increasing population first with creature comforts and later — when resources begin to dwindle — with basic necessities. Overpopulation causes growth both up and out: massive blocks of semi-highrises sprawling well beyond current urban borders offering the bare minimum of living space. There are fewer national borders as people move around the world towards inflection points of greater opportunity, which is an act that only serves to overburden systems that are already struggling to keep up. In between all of this, technology slides in not just as something to take minds off the oppressive situations of daily life, but as a last-ditch effort to give a dying species some last measure of solace as they decay alongside the world around them.

This is where the deeper message came from. In the Blade Runner films, replicants were designed as slaves we could feel good about. They weren’t considered human and could be tailored to the jobs that needed doing both on Earth and in the off-world colonies. The question the first movie asked was whether or not the experiences and memories served as the basis for emotions, and whether the ability to feel those emotions made replicants more human — or more human than human. 2049 takes that a step further, and that forms the crux of the actual plot of the movie (which I can’t explain for obvious reasons), along with questions about free will and the relationship between creator and created.

Still, what I came away with this morning after some reflection isn’t that these movies are about “what is human”, but rather “what does being human mean”? In the Blade Runner universe, humanity has brought Earth to the brink of destruction through wars and exploitation, stripping it bare to feed the corporate engines of consumerism — a fear that was much greater in 1982 when it was a possible future that’s no less scary in 2017 when it’s our actual present. Humanity has created colonies on other planets — 9, according to Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace — but it’s not enough for him. He believes that humanity should expand throughout the universe on the backs of replicant labor, and his all-consuming quest is to find a way to increase replicant production in order to realize that goal. He envisions trillions of replicants, which is what should demand a pause: wouldn’t that equal or even exceed the number of actual humans? And if subserviant replicants achieve superior numbers over their human masters, what could that mean for natural humans?

Blade Runner and 2049 movies prefer replicants to humans. Humans have destroyed Earth, which is obvious in every single establishing shot in both movies. In 2049 we see K flying back to Los Angeles: a continuous plateau of low-rise apartments cut with narrow thoroughfares that lead to the central district of corporate high-rise buildings. Those who inhabit these skyscrapers are the only ones who can see the sky, although there’s not much to see as the constant haze of acid rain clouds is everpresent. There is no good reason to live in Los Angeles, yet millions apparently do and are content to continue to live their lives in the neon canyons of the buildings that have been built up around them. This is humanity’s legacy. It’s what humanity has done to and for itself. Replicants, however, are genetically superior to humans. They are newborns in the epochal scale. Although they are initially used only as disposable resources — mirroring the general philosophy of practically everything in the Blade Runner universe — they express that “more human than human” tendency to position themselves as the inheritors of the humanity that actual humans put aside in their desire to exploit and expand.

We could call these movies “cautionary tales” of the consequence of human greed, but that’s doing these films a grave disservice. These movies are meant to be experienced, not just watched and absorbed and dissected for the first low-hanging-fruit moral that we can extract. Both Blade Runner movies are art house films, and while that sounds pretentious I believe it to be true. Each scene is relevant both to the plot and to maintaining a cohesion of cyberpunk oppression so that we never feel like there’s going to be salvation for anyone at the end of the line. The replicants have the best chance of extracting themselves from the decline of Earth, but humanity has already proven that its decisions and values make them unworthy of being saved. It’s a sad realization as a human who can’t transcend to become a replicant and adds to the layer of inevitable dread that these movies provide.

I both can and cannot recommend Blade Runner 2049. If you liked the first one, you will love this one. If you hated the first, you will despise the second. If you cannot sit for three hours filled with scenes of silence, long establishing camera angles, and (after having read this far) whiffs of director Denis Villeneuve’s French-level pretentiousness, you will be miserable. 2049 has a lot going for it, though, if you are open to it. It’s a beautiful movie even when it’s presenting the direst predictions. Although it’s difficult to consider how no dialog makes a performance, everyone involved on-screen did a fantastic job (even traditionally manic Jared Leto). Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a message movie or a blockbuster movie, but it is a thinking movie and more importantly, a feeling movie that affects the audience at various emotional levels when we open ourselves to it.


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MMOs on a Scale

Posted by on Oct 5, 2017 in Editorial

I had originally intended to leave a comment on Syp’s post today regarding the possibilities of adding role-playing to MMO quests, but in the process of trying to form a coherent thought that didn’t sound like a blog post in its own right, I realized that I should probably branch off an write a blog post anyway.

After reflecting on the most recent D&D marathon that was chronicled in the Adventure Co section of this very website, I came away with the impression that among those who had traded TRPGs for MMOs, there was a greater tendency to apply MMO approaches to TRPG situations than there was to take advantage of the open nature of TRPGs.

What’s an “MMO approach”, then? MMOs kind of exist on a scale of free-action somewhere between the “here’s a shovel good luck” freedom of sandbox games like Minecraft, and the “you have one job” rigidity of side-scrollers. While MMOs do have stories, as players we are always only passing through them. We are presented with an illusion that we’re “the hero” and that we are “making a difference”, but the story is already written. The only choices we can make are how long we want to dally on the road to the next milestone, and whether or not we want to interrupt our narrative consumption with some extraneous activity like PvP or crafting.

MMOs teach us that all problems are to be solved by figuring out a puzzle that’s probably been sourced from some other, more well-known puzzle (Tower of Hanoi, the Riddle of the Sphinx, etc), by collecting items, or more likely by killing something. Our D&D game, then, kind of progressed this way, or so I felt. We ran published modules, which in and of themselves don’t offer a lot of freedom, but the main benefit of an RPG is that if the GM or players want to go off the rails, they can (even with published modules), unlike in MMOs where there’s absolutely no room to go anywhere but the rails. Applying the MMO mindset to a TRPG means that conversation and nuance are rarely considered as means to an end, options are not explored despite having literally all the options that the theater of the mind can invent, and at the end of the interaction, sending someone home in a Zip-Loc bag is the best and most forthright way to get beyond the current obstacle.

So if MMOs can push their mindset into TRPGs, can we reverse the flow and get TRPG-level freedoms into MMOs?

I think we already have them in sandbox games like Minecraft or in the “survivalbox” genre. These games provide the framework and the tools but impose no narrative. The stories are the experiences of the players, not the experiences of the characters, so the decisions we make as players affect the game world: who or what we kill, where we build, and how we treat other players. But that’s not “role-playing”, that’s dicking around with self-sourced goals. Very few — if any — survivalbox games offer any kind of tools for players to create these structured, in-game narrative threads for players to “role play” through, so while survivalbox games can offer a lot of players the ability to play together using mechanics without reservation, there’s no purpose except in what the players devise for themselves.

On the opposite end of the scale, then, we have more simplistic games such as platformers and side-scrollers. In these types of games, we don’t get freedom, but we don’t expect freedom: we expect a score. A lot of MMOs lean in the direction of using loot as a primary driver. In some ways it subverts any narrative the game offers, even becoming an impediment for those players who’d rather blow through content to progress in the ways that matter to them. When the acquisition of loot and the importance of gear is the agreed upon (and even designed) as the real reason to play, there’s no need for free-form decision making. So long as players (and developers) believe in and seek out this kind of game, having the absolute best role-playing options in any MMO isn’t going to have a high ROI.

I don’t think that MMOs can accommodate free-form choice model. If they did, they’d look like survivalbox games. That’s not a bad thing because a survivalbox game with MMO structures like quests, dungeons, and raiding would be kind of cool…but also kind of impossible. The reason is the “Ms” in MMO: Massive and Multiplayer. MMOs must offer the same opportunity to all players, and in order to do that, no one can seriously affect the game world with a lasting consequence (unless you’re a dev/designer). TRPGs deal with small-party cause and effect in a world of complete on-the-fly imagination, so as happened in our D&D game, if the players blow up a flour mill in the course of a mission, that’s OK (although the villagers will probably starve because of it). In an MMO, if blowing up the flour mill is an option, we know that the flour mill will be rebuilt in the next fifteen minutes so other players can take their turn in destroying it. The only alternative is to instance the world based on individual player decisions, but I don’t think we’re at the technological point where that’s feasible, even if our reality operates on that exact principle. 

It’s kind of weird because everything old is becoming new again. We have the GM mode of Divinity: Original Sin II which offers the mechanical handling of number crunching while staying out of the way of the narrative and is probably one of the closest CRPG games offering that TRPGs do. Beyond that, if we want to really provide a video TRPG experience, we need to gaze way back to the days of MUDs, MOOs, and other text-based CRPGs. Anyone could jump into these games, but certain people from the community could be promoted to craft the world and create experiences for the players. These could be one-off adventures for players in the right place at the right time or could be world-changing events that everyone would have to deal with when they completed. I’m not sure why we haven’t moved more forcefully in that direction, considering the earliest MMOs like Ultima Online pulled so much from those early CRPG adventure games. Maybe we’re getting there — I’m thinking of games like Legends of Aria which allow for custom rulesets, or even the most advanced mods for Minecraft — or maybe we haven’t gotten there because of the potential for people to use such tools to harass and annoy one another, or more importantly to unbalance the game world, specifically between players who use such systems to “twink” their characters and their friend’s characters beyond a mechanical “level appropriate” load-out — once again, ignoring any pretext of narrative in favor of loot and power.

I think in order to achieve this level of content a game would need to be built with the primary focus being on the toolset and not the game itself. While I have recently discovered the modding tools released by Larian to create areas for DOSII, the tools are sufficiently obtuse to someone who doesn’t have the professional vocab that Larian devs/designers have, meaning that the tools, while powerful and exciting, aren’t going to help someone who just wants to set up a quest line for her friends to run through over the weekend, and then maybe offer it for other players to build upon/use themselves. If the tools are easy but powerful (a tall order indeed) then the game can be and survivalbox as it wants to be, as players can find or set up a server that suits their external goals of providing an experience that meets their game-internal goals. That needs to be the focus, then: good, easy to learn and use tools that can be employed by the end user to create professional designer-level experiences within the framework of the game. Beyond that, players would need to accept that yes, the game may become imbalanced. Players may (will) abuse the system, but there will also be those who take the responsibility seriously and create something that can offer more freedom than the current crop of MMOs are able.

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Samsung’s Head Mounted Display

Posted by on Oct 4, 2017 in Editorial, Hardware, Virtual Reality

Samsung WMR headset and controllers

Samsung has thrown its hat — head mounted display — into the virtual ring. Starting on October 6th we’ll be able to order their new Windows-compatible “mixed reality” device with controllers for $499, putting it on the same price-footing as the technology’s recent forerunner, the Oculus Rift.

There’s a lot of HMDs hitting the streets these days, from Acer, Dell, and HP to name a few, all which are lining up behind Microsoft’s MR nomenclature, and all with lower system requirements, higher resolution, and lower prices than the flagship HTC Vive. The Samsung Odyssey HMD above will be displaying at 1440×1600 per OLED eye screen, with a 110-degree field of view. The other recent HMDs are displaying at 1440×1440 with a 95-degree field of view, according to an article on The Verge. The Oculus and Vive displays are only 1080×1200 each and have the 110-degree field of vision. In addition, the Odyssey, like the second gen HMDs, do not use external “lighthouses” or markers that need to be placed around the room, and instead, rely on internal tracking in order to help orient the user in real space which makes these HMDs far more portable than their first gen counterparts.

I’ve been really on the fence about PC VR. Prior to now, I would have preferred the Vive mainly because of its tight association with Valve, and because of the BS surrounding the Oculus. However, the price was always going to be a sticking point, even after I upgraded my PC to be able to handle the technical needs of either device. Being as these two devices were “first gen”, only having two options, and the admittedly lackluster software available made it relatively easy to pass up knowing that if VR caught on in any way, there would be another wave of devices that were easier on the requirements, easier on the wallet, and that there would hopefully more reasons to have a VR device.

Mainly it’s been the reasons, though. The PSVR is pretty good; better than the Samsung Gear or anything requiring a cell phone to handle the duties of a binocular display if we want to create a hierarchy. Thing is, I don’t really use the PSVR very much, and I can’t decide if it’s that I’m not using the PSVR, or that I’m not using the PS4. I suspect that it’s the latter because if I could get myself to sit down for the console, I could easily use the headset. In looking at what’s available for the PC, the offerings are of an order of magnitude more plentiful, although a lot of the software is still “game jam” level quality and barely above the fidelity that we had during the Lawnmower Man era of VR. There’s promise — always promise — in projects like Sansar from Linden Labs, makers of Second Life, which places Sansar in exactly the right place for wider VR adoption. Microsoft recently acquired AltspaceVR which is already pumping out shared VR spaces. Although both Altspace and Sansar are bringing the stereotypical VR experiences that we envision when we hear “virtual reality”, they’re also going to have to deal with the Brave New World of a more physical sensation in an era where 4chan exists, something that visionary Raph Koster is already talking about. That’s not appealing, but it’s something we must confront and deal with if we want to have these Nice Things.

I have two days from the posting of this article to consider my options in regards to the Odyssey if I want to get in on the pre-order bandwagon before the first round is sold out. As someone who loves technology, the thought of VR and MR is exciting as hell. From a practical standpoint, though, I’m not entirely sure that it’s worthwhile, and that bothers me. No, I’m not looking for something to throw money at, but I also don’t want to see a technology dismissed — again — prematurely. I want VR to do well, and I feel that supporting it when it needs it the most is a good way to show that, but I also have enough pricey tech gathering dust and I don’t need to add to that pile.

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Fortnite’s Change of Focus

Posted by on Sep 14, 2017 in Editorial, Fortnite

Fortnite’s Change of Focus

I’ve sat on these thoughts for a few days now, regarding Fortnite‘s new “battle royale” mode. What’s that, you ask? What’s Fortnite, you ask? Well, Fortnite was a co-op game about collecting resources to build a fortress that you had to defend from waves of monsters. You could fend them off yourself, but the purpose was to create a defensible structure complete with traps and obstacles that would at least slow down the hordes while you sliced, shot, and blew them up. I found this game fun, although the title is still in early access and needs a lot of work.

Some of that work, according to the folks at developer Epic, apparently includes adding a whole new game mode out of the blue. The battle royale mode is best known for Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, which is one of the hottest titles in videogamedom right now, especially for streamers and folks who watch them.

Here’s my armchair calculus.

Fortnite kind of came out of nowhere and didn’t have the AAA fanfare that even a lot of indie titles receive these days. Being in EA is also a load of kryptonite for many people. This meant that Fortnite wasn’t exactly blasting out of the gate, although a lot of folks who have played it liked it well enough. Mindful folks agreed that it needed work, but that would come with time. EA means that nothing is final and that things that are broken will be fixed, things that are missing will be added, and things that are rough will get polished.

Instead, Epic has decided to tack on an entirely new game mode to an unfinished game, making the game twice as unfinished. I suppose this is their purview as the owners and operators of the game. To say it came out of left field is an understatement: it just kind of showed up one day and was patched in on the next. If social media is to believed, people are loving it — but of course I’m only seeing the word of mouth promoted by the official game account, and they’re not going to publish Tweets like these:

The account assures folks that the BR portion of the game was actually developed (somewhat in parallel, I guess) by another group, which gives the impression that it’s a skunkworks project that the internal teams thought was cool and polished enough to offer to the customers. In short, work on the original PvE portion continues, and I think it’s safe to assume that this PvP mode will also continue to be developed.

So if another unaffiliated Epic group made the BR version without sanction, and if the vibe I have that people are enjoying it more than they enjoyed the base game turns out to be true, then what does that mean in the long run? Will the rogue developers merge into the official Fortnite dev team? Will development take longer now that the original team has to maintain two totally different game modes? Or…something else?

The fear I have is that if the BR mode proves to be more successful and has greater “engagement” than the original PvE mode, then Fortnite is going to assume the BR mode as the primary while the PvE mode atrophies. I’m sure a talking head from Epic would engage his marketing engine and assure me that I am wrong and that they are committed to [some vague words about making the game the best it can be, which is boilerplate non-assuring assurance]. To be frank, even if they said “we are not dropping the PvE, nor will we allow it to flag, ever”, I’d still shake my head. We’ve all been around long enough to know that what’s present one day isn’t guaranteed to be the case tomorrow and what people say means absolutely nothing. Exhibit A: FireFall, the game that was everything and then nothing until it became literally nothing ever again. I mean, the freakin’ BR mode literally came out of nowhere. As far as intent goes, Epic has already added mechanics to reward people who stream Fortnite, which shows that they place stock in that avenue of promotion; As I am writing this, 10 of the top 12 Fortnite streams on Twitch are playing the BR mode. It’s what people are going to see, and what is going to garner people’s attention. They’ll be attracted to it because of its PUBG-ness, and then maybe they’ll find there’s a PvE mode, which they may ignore or they might create YouTube videos about as if they are revealing something undiscovered.

If BR mode is what makes Epic money, BR mode is what Fortnite will become. Of course, that’s not the game I paid for. Had it been or even included a BR mode from day one, I would have given it a hard pass for the same reasons I’m miffed today. Why not RTS? Tower defense? MOBA? Epic chose to go after the latest hotness because it’s the latest hotness on the street and on Twitch, and because, as they state in their reveal video, they’re “big fans” of PUBG and BR games which pretty much doubles-down on the whole “we did it because we thought it was cool, not because we planned or even really thought about it much” vibe. Meanwhile, the original game still needs love (and is no doubt getting it…for now). I have no faith that Epic isn’t going to favor the new child over the firstborn, and that does make me angry (because this is not what I paid for), but it really just makes me sad. I mean, I can’t be super angry when I have other games to play, really, where the developers actually stuck to what they aimed to do and didn’t simply get distracted by the latest fad.


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End The Influencers

Posted by on Sep 11, 2017 in Editorial

It appears the Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg is at it once more. Over the weekend, the popular live-streamer casually dropped the n-word while playing PUBG, and naturally, it did not go unnoticed by the Internet At Large. I was only made vaguely aware of it through reactions of the people I follow and had to look up the specifics this morning, but this post had already been knocking around in my head before the details were made clear. Clearer, I should say.

The video games industry likes chasing shinies and the somewhat recent adoption of the term “influencers” is the latest example. Like so many things these days the term “influencers” has no specific meaning, but we know it when we see it: a person, usually a young, attractive person, using his or her own know-how and personality, employs technological tools available to them in this day and age to garner a large following of other apparently like minded people who tune in to watch, listen, or read what they have to say and what they do. People tend to like these people because they appear personable, and are either good at what they do or are so comically bad at what they do that they’re actually good at what they do (welcome to Irony 2017). Companies like these people because with the right partnership details, they can gain access to a potential pool of thousands to millions of new or existing customers through hip, non-traditional channels.

It seems to me, though, that this non-traditional marketing scheme is just a minefield of bad decisions for game companies. When they contract these kids to promote their products, they’re applying the old world constraints (i.e. threats to the partner’s livelihood by pulling sponsorship) to new world players (i.e. people whose audience is loyal to them, not the company). Unless there’s actual legal action that a company can leverage to decimate the content creator, it doesn’t seem to me that losing sponsorship is going to affect mega-streamers like Kjellberg in the slightest. In fact, I don’t think Kjellberg’s antics are going to have much of an effect on his viewership. On top of that, the younger these partners are the less…let’s say “refined”…they potentially are. When pre-teens are making extremely popular Minecraft videos, then any company willing to go after anyone carting around significant viewership is probably going to willfully overlook the fact that these partners aren’t going to understand how to behave in the best interest of the company that’s sponsoring them (which has got to be a concern for the company, even when it’s not for the kid).

I think we instinctively know the dance that companies engage in when they partner with these “influencers”. First, they’re excited to announce the partnership, because it’s a message to the existing audience that they’re “cool by association” if their celebrity is willing to endorse their product. Things might go well forever — there are legions of straight-up legitimate content creators out there who people love for all the right reasons, don’t get me wrong — but when they fall apart, they fall apart in spectacular fashion. Kjellberg had partnerships with Disney and YouTube until his anti-Semetic “comedy” garnered widespread attention. People who were quick to claim that they never cared about him suddenly had an opinion on Kjellberg (as is the way of the Internet), yet he kept on trucking. In light of his recent public debacle, we’re getting reports that other companies are put up DMCA take-down notices of his playthroughs of their games, leading me to wonder why they didn’t do that during his first public firestorm. But once again, he’ll be extremely popular; in fact, there are already cases of people saying that his behavior is “typical gamer behavior”, and while it might not be your behavior, nor is it my behavior, it must be someone‘s behavior because millions of people still don’t see enough of a problem with him to abandon him. Do the math. The sad and pathetic math.

Personally, I think it’s about time companies started examining their attachment to “influencers”. It’s a stupid concept, anyway, and it’s leading to a culture where if you’re not someone you’re no one. I and others have talked about Fortnite‘s “Streamer Missions” as a mechanism which withholds gameplay perks from those who can’t or doesn’t want to participate in streaming culture, and on some levels it’s creating an environment where those who are “useful” to the companies are elevated and expect that everyone else is just a wallet that opens on the “influencer’s” command. If companies want to continue to take their chances that their latest wunderkind isn’t going to burn their brand down through association, that’s their business, I suppose. As someone who’d been gaming for over 30 years now, I’m old-school enough to prefer a company that’s interested in fostering its own community through, you know, not hiding behind shitty kids just to get easy access to a ready-made army of consumers. I just don’t get the feeling that companies are all that into my and my demographic, though.

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