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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To EVE or Not To EVE

Posted by on Oct 9, 2017 in EVE Online

To EVE or Not To EVE

EVE Online is a game I should love, but I hate it, and I love hating it, but I also hate that I love to hate it. We have a complex relationship, EVE Online and I. I was in the beta, played for a year or so after launch, before people started getting wise to the meta-game, but I played it “wrong”. My skills were all over the place, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make money. After a long absence, my friends and I made a concerted effort to jump in together, and we finally got our act together enough to earn some decent pocket change, but we were eventually run out of town by the kind of asshattery that EVE is so good at promoting. I had vowed that after that, there would be no reason to return again; I had played my fill, knew what it was about, and it certainly wasn’t about anything that I agreed with.

Of course, “never say never” is not just an adage, but a way of life. The 2017 EVE Fanfest happened/is happening as of the time of this writing, and there have been a few announcements of worth. One is that there’ll be an EVE-themed mobile game that sounds a lot like Ingress, although without the location services. The other is a whole suite of updates that focus on PvE, the part of the game that the hardcore EVE players probably wish didn’t exist (I can’t imagine how they’re taking this announcement right now).

Among the bevy of changes is the introduction of increased pirate activity in high-security space. Pirates in EVE had always been used as one of the primary PvE targets in missions, and sometimes as irritations for miners who just wanted to strip rocks in peace. Now, however, pirates are getting a shot in the arm. They’ll be opening forward operating bases in high-sec, and they’ll be attacking faction mining operations. Pirates will now actively harass players with negative pirate-faction standing, which should help fulfill CCP’s desire to make pirates behave more like real players.

EVE has a lot of stuff to do for those who want to do it, but a lot of that stuff is engineering degree-level complex, with a lot of little UI numbers and icons that help to make everything seem way more complex than it should be. Thing is, I like that. I like the feeling of coming to grips with the systems that are unnecessarily complicated because it feels like what doing these activities in a sci-fi setting should feel like. But at this point, if you miss a release and the accompanying explanation on how to use the new system, you’re behind the 8-ball. Missing one results in a scramble to catch up; missing several is like going to college if you decide to take that route. Honestly, I have no idea where or if there’s a resource out there that explains everything up to now, because my furthest progressed character can Do Stuff, but I’m no longer sure how.

I’m considering signing up for a month to see this new Lifeblood expansion which is due out at the end of October, and that might be enough time to reacquaint myself with the depths of the game. Unfortunately, I’m running solo, which in EVE is very much like a “tourist” status: yes, I can see the sights, but I won’t be able to get any of the true EVE experiences that I would in a group. I don’t think that EVE will ever be my “forever MMO”, but I think I like to return on occasion just to see what I’m missing, and also to remind myself why I’m missing 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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