Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Video Games, the single greatest subterranean source of pop culture

Try to imagine for just one minute that you didn't watch movies at all.

All your friends would drop weird quotes and references you didn't get. Trends would come and go in popular culture, and you don't know where they come from.

Fractured fairy tales with modern references and winking jokes to parents would be the norm in the book publishing world and you wouldn't understand why (thanks to the popularity of Shrek, among others).

One day, everyone would suddenly be into science fiction and aliens out of nowhere and talk about how "science fiction is back" (thanks to Independence Day).

You'd wonder why, one summer, the big panic, all everybody seems to talk about are asteroids smashing into the earth (thanks to several movies with that topic back in 1990-whenever it was).

In short, you would not be aware of a lot of what's going on around you. You'd be dimly aware there's a subterranean force of great influence but you wouldn't know what it is.

Well, don't imagine any more. That's how I – and a lot of other people - feel about video games.

Until I got a friend that played video games extensively, a lot of things were going on around me that I just didn't understand. The comparison between movies and video games is totally apt because the video game industry reached a tipping point a decade ago where more Americans spent more money on video games than on movies. That statistic shocked me, but all the gamers that heard about it weren't surprised.

For example, it struck me as strange that starting a few years ago, every nerd friend I had started to be a Russophile, admiring Russian culture and the USSR. At first I thought it was because Russians were the last bunch of white people to be really scary and tough, and the USSR was their heyday and high point. And while that speculation may be true, the answer is because a lot of video games were made with Commie and Russian bad guys.

Also, when did zombie apocalypses get so popular, anyway? Suddenly every friend I had started quoting zombie survival manuals. Obviously they were inspired by the anti-consumerist Romero movies and the supercool cult films like Army of Darkness…but those have been around for decades. Why were zombies and end of the world zombie scenarios suddenly the hot property now?

I never understood zombies. They were mindless, dumb and made from boring assholes: former accountants and travel agents. Vampires are also very trendy now, but Vampires I get: Vampire stories are full of cool crumbling castles, fog, and gaslight, Victorian atmosphere. Vampires are aristocratic, sociopathic megalomaniacs with a hefty dose of scary sexuality. The good Vampire baddies have so much personality they totally dominate the stories they're in, compelling and repellant at the same time like good baddies should be.

By contrast, zombies are mindless so they're more a force of nature or inanimate object. The single thing you never want in a story is one where characters are opposed by inanimate objects without personality, like a door lock or a security system, for instance. Conflict is only interesting between people and personalities that want opposing things.

Remember all the sequels to the Mummy back during the Universal days, when the Mummy was basically a mindless, speechless corpse driven like a robot by anyone wearing a certain ring? Wasn't that much less interesting and scary than the original film where Boris Karloff was an evil sorcerer creep who could barely pass for human, but who was driven by lost love?

I don't understand zombies, but I did understand why a zombie apocalypse would be appealing, at least to others. It's for the same reason people love disaster movies. Freud said nobody ever thought about disasters unless they long for them to happen at some level.

It reminds me of the Reagan administration's attitude to nuclear war, Jesus, and the environment. Everyone remembers James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, and how, when asked what his office's strategy was to preserve national parks for future generations, said that as the Rapture and end of the world would come soon there was no need to try to preserve national parks long-term. Thankfully, Reagan's enormous cowardice was greater than his hatred for living things and no war happened, but nonetheless, there is a personality type that looks forward to the end of the world because it means an absolving of adult responsibility.

On the other hand, the very things that bore me about Zombies – the fact they have no personalities and are totally mindless – are the most appealing thing about them to video game designers. One of the greatest problems with video games is how the enemies never act intelligently, never take cover, and just run into gunfire and keep on attacking even when wounded. That may not make sense with human enemies, but with mindless hordes of neverending zombies, it's what makes them scary!

Not just that, but like with movies, if one video game does really well and is a surprise hit, everyone tries to imitate it. So before you know it, there were a billon zombie shooting games and all everybody was talking about were zombies.

As I try not to close an article without a few book reviews, it's interesting to note that the notion of the apocalypse goes before the 20th Century and back into the 19th. The idea that end of the world scenarios were a common theme in the literature of the 19th Century is very surprising to a lot of people, but it just goes to show how nihilistic Western culture actually is.

The Death of the Earth. J.H. Rosny (1910). The Rosny brothers were the single greatest geniuses of science fiction Belgium ever produced, and they dealt with mankind's beginnings (as in Quest for Fire and the Xipehuz) and mankind's end, as with the Death of the Earth, a future billions of years from now without living things where mankind is aware of their end and resigned to it - it's scary to find a world where the entire "fire" has gone out from mankind. In the moving final pages, the untold billions of generations that passed on the earth end with a single pair of eyes that shut closed. One of Rosny's preoccupations (that of evil living minerals) is on display here, just like his greatest inhuman creations, the Xipehuz.

Beyond Thirty. Edgar Rice Burroughs (1915). See how far you can hear this shlocky premise before you crack a smile: World War I so totally destroyed Europe that hundreds of years later it was a totally unknown bombed out no-man's-land that reverted to stone age savagery filled with escaped zoo animals like lions. An American captain becomes the first to explore unknown Europe and saves a hot cave girl, the last queen of England. The idea World War I would have continued forever is laughable enough (as is the idea America would never get involved), but it's almost shocking to imagine the same ERB who wrote the gung-ho beat-back-the-devil Hun-basher Tarzan the Invincible would also write a story that tsk-tsks Europe for going to war and praises isolationism.

The Last Man. Mary Shelley (1826). When Napoleon was defeated, the bad guys won. The attempts to "franchise out" the French revolution and create a Republican united Europe failed, and the reactionary and aristocratic elements of Europe prospered. This was a lost generation of young geniuses like Byron crushed underfoot by snotty, dull and untalented moralists, and it doesn't surprise me the reaction to this novel about the end of the world would be horror by the Mrs. Lovejoy-types that ruled Europe. Basically, the Last Man ended Mary Shelley's career and remained forgotten until it was rediscovered a couple decades ago. Unlike Frankenstein, which was moody and atmospheric from the get-go, it wasn't immediately obvious the Last Man is about an end of the world scenario (my personal favorite failed prediction is the idea that Greece would still be fighting for independence against the Turks in the 21st Century), which made this story all the more shocking when the premise is revealed.

The Last American. J.A. Mitchell (1889). Some Persian explorers discover the lost city of Noo-Yok in America. Amazing to me how the cheesy conventions of the end of the world story are already here at this early stage: we even get a look at the crumbled Statue of Liberty. America and Western civilization is wrecked and mangled. What happened? The answer is something that would never occur to a 21st Century person: a weakening of the immune system that left us vulnerable to punishing winters. I guess the 19th Century was more rural than we thought. Thankfully, this book is short and its prejudices are innocent unlike the ultra-vile racist fascist Jean Respail's "Camp of the Saints," which has neither of those two virtues.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Are you a nerd poseur?

At what point is someone so non-participatory and unknowledgeable in nerd culture that no matter how they describe themselves they cannot be considered to be a true nerd? I mean, what's the threshold, the minimum passing requirement for nerd know-how? At what point does someone stop being a nerd and just becomes a poseur?

A nerd poseur! Until recently the very idea was laughably unthinkable. Who the hell ever heard of that? Until recently, nobody ever intentionally set out to be a nerd, the way people set out to be punk rockers or gangstas. Being a nerd was an accident, something that just happened because you were an outcast and outsider, and fantasy worlds, or math and science, became fixations to mentally escape a world that was unpleasant.

How things have changed! Nerd culture has taken over the world. Even attractive and wealthy people who never got an asthma attack in their lives try to be nerds. And comic book movies are Hollywood's biggest tent-pole genre now, the summer's bread and butter with two or three superhero movies a month. If you told me that would happen eight years ago, I would have burned you as a witch.

Let me describe to you something that happened to me when going to see Green Lantern with four or five supposed nerds.

Of the lot, I was the only one that read or knew anything about Green Lantern comics. Now that in and of itself doesn't mean anything since there are many different kinds of nerds into different things, and anyway, I'm more of a True Believer myself. Alright, no problem.

Then later on, there were promos for remakes of two old-school cult movies: a new Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (which many consider to be the best one of the lot) and Fright Night.

I was the only one that knew either of these were remakes. Now, Green Lantern is one thing but that's the point at which I started to wonder if something was up.

If I could go on a digression here for a minute, I don't see the point of remaking Fright Night, because as enjoyable a movie as the original Fright Night was, it was all the more interesting and original in the context it was released. The year Fright Night came out, slasher movies dominated horror films and it had been over two decades since Hammer made any of their gothic horror films. It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time in pop culture where the classic horror monsters like Vampires were so passé and old fashioned, that a vampire-themed monster horror film was incredibly refreshing and a change of pace.

That's the entire movie: a guy thinks his neighbor is a Vampire and because supernatural-type horror and Vampires are so laughably off the pop culture radar, nobody believes him – not even the pathetic has-been host of an old-timey horror show. It was like the Kingdom Come of gothic horror, with old school guys, wrinkles and all, come back to show the punks how it's done. Don't you get it? In a world of True Blood where Vampires are popular and everywhere, the entire idea behind Fright Night makes no sense.

The worst was yet to come, however. In conversation I brought up Lord of the Rings, and I realized that in a group of five nerds, I was the only one that read the entire series. It reminded me of that Twilight Zone episode where the ending was a guy realizes everyone in a bar is a werewolf but him. My God, even science fiction and Heinlein fans that hate fairies and dragons, who have never thrown dice with more than six sides in their lives…even they have read Lord of the Rings.

I mentioned before there is an absolute bare minimum needed to qualify as a nerd. Would anyone disagree that Lord of the Rings would be on there?

I doubt anything will come of this observation, though. When gangsta rap went mainstream, a lot of people became gangstas who didn't have the credibility to pull it off. In short, their sincerity was in question. The reason nothing like that will ever happen to nerds is nerds, as outcasts ourselves, we understand what it's like to be excluded from things and nerd cultures have an anxiety about ever excluding anybody.

Say you're a nerd and that's enough to be one – whether it's true or not.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hero System Review Tuesday: "The Ultimate Vehicle"

This book was written by Bob Greenwade (who the hell is that?) and Steve Long. This is both an accusation and assignment of blame.

I saved this one for last because this one is quite possibly the worst book put out for the entire 5th Edition, which is irritating because it's one of the most necessary. It is the only truly unplayable book ever released for 5th Edition, and possibly the worst thing ever put out under the Champions/Hero System title.

The book is full of baffling headscratchers that make it practically unusable. My favorite is how practically every single jet vehicle has an enormous -1¾ limit to represent they have a damaging effect when their movement power is in use (jet planes burn things behind them).

Something having a damaging effect has a limitation on it? It's like a "limitation" one of the deviously sadistic minmaxing "Knights of the Dinner Table" crew would come up with, simultaneously saving points and doing damage. Heck, I have no idea where they coughed up the outrageous -1¾ figure because in the superhero genre book, doing property damage under you when you use your earth-movement powers is a miniscule -¼ if it's a limit at all, and I don't think it is. I've always been of the opinion that if someone else has to pay the cost of something, it's not a limitation. Call it a limitation version of the "tragedy of the commons."

By the way, destroyers and submarines only have a "mere" -¾ limitation for their damage-dealing screws and propellers. While manatee-killing is a very real problem facing our oceans, I somehow doubt your player characters will be inconvenienced at the -¾ level by the occasional contact with "Nature's Speedbumps." By the way, in a perfect example of how limitations in this supplement were assigned by throwing darts at a wall, airplanes with the very serious problem of stall velocity only have that as a -¼ limitation (which affects turn mode, requires constant movement, and can be a disaster in the event of Drains) and requiring a takeoff and landing is a -1.

It's also insane what they choose to give a limitation. I can't literally think of any occasion damaging exhaust is a problem, but I can think of one big limitation on planes: someone smashes or gums up a wing the whole thing goes out of control and flies like a filing cabinet. No Restrainable-esque limitation for that, though! Restrainable is, incidentally, a -½ limit, so stall velocity is a lot more damaging and gives you back a lot less. Good going, Bob Greenwade.

This reminds me of an old aviation joke. The job of a propeller is to keep the pilot cool. Turn it off, and watch him sweat.

It gets worse. The character sheet for the M1A1 Abrams tank has a DEF of 20. Now, stop and think about that. That means that on the balance, a 100 Active Point Energy Blast, or STR 100 character, will not do any damage at all. Hell, even Grond, the Champions Universe's Brand X answer to the ultrastrong Incredible Hulk, has STR 90. Considering the point value for above average, powerful superheroes is 70-90 Active Points in a power, that means a single M1A1 tank can easily shrug off an entire party of higher power player characters. Considering RPG-7 rounds, which do 4d6 Killing damage, can mangle a tank on a straight-shot, this is a little amazing.

To quote Jason Sartin: "saying this book should be burned is an insult to fire."

Oh yeah: elevators, missiles and torpedoes are built as vehicles. What?

Personally, I always thought having to pay points to have headlights and an FM radio was really pushing it, so you can imagine how delighted I was to see that an Anchor (an anchor!) actually is something boats have to pay points for! Really!

You need to charge players to have elevators and anchors? I'm actually surprised the book doesn't make you pay for bathrooms. Things necessary to the normal functioning of a vehicle aren't worth points.

I expect better from published materials than this amateur hour stuff. This book is typical of where new players go insane with the Hero System, and I mean literally insane because it is nothing short of a mental illness: they figure they have to pay points for everything, and I mean everything.

I remember once a player wanted to play a fish themed aquatic hero that tasted bad. You know how there are some fishes that taste bad and predators automatically spit them back out? He went crazy with how to represent something so trivial, including Mind Control with Persistent.

I was like…"For the love of God, Brian…Mind Control? Really? If we really, really, really want to make this something other than a zero-point feature, like red hair, we can buy it is as a low level perk, like the Fuzion did. Sure, it was a bad game and an unworthy heir to Champions, but at least it handled stupid stuff like this pretty well."

One player of mine wondered if he had to pay points for another player character as a Follower or Contact.

Another thought he might have to pay points to be a dark-skinned character because he was then pretty much immune to sunburn.

This is where you can go literally insane with a system like Champions – if you're wondering if being a lightskinned redhead is a disadvantage or advantage or start paying points for boat anchors, you have literally lost perspective and gone totally mad, a full-on mental disorder. The Vehicles guide totally embraces that madness. It's like the Necronomicon for the simultaneously clueless and anal-retentive.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, no other book used the rules in the Vehicle Guide (someone correct me if I'm wrong and the fantasy books did – I didn't read them and really, neither did anybody else). Nobody else gave an insane (-1¾) power break to every single jet vehicle. Nobody else treated elevators and anchors as things you have to pay points for. The Vehicle Guide is isolated from the rest of the entire system in a way that makes me think of the court orders on registered sex offenders.

There's a howler on practically every page. The "flying carpet as a vehicle" idea was, um, interesting, especially for something that is pretty much a textbook example of an OAF at most. Let me know when you can roll up and carry with you your Volkswagen beetle, though.

On that note, the book also broke the 11th Commandment of the Hero System: thou shalt not build suits of power armor as vehicles! I could see powergamers the world over lick their chops hungrily at this ugly, broken, heretofore nonexistent precedent. That's the part that baffles me...despite it being a book on Vehicles, it's a little unclear on what counts as an actual vehicle at all.

I feel a little guilty going after elevators, flying carpets and suits of power armor built as vehicles because though it was a misfire of an idea, and one that might have been responsible for the big change in 6th Edition where it's impossible for a vehicle to have a vehicle, nonetheless it had the guts to think outside the box. It was a misfire, but a spectacular misfire. When you go off the beaten path, sometimes you find new things never seen before. On the other hand, what happened here was this book went so far off the beaten path it got so lost that Jimmy Hoffa couldn't find it.

Another one of my favorite bits was how every modern fighter plane had both electronic countermeasures (bought as a Suppress) and electronic counter-countermeasures, which is bought as a Suppress for Suppress. When I explained this to my game table, there was an awkward moment because my players assumed I was joking and then realized I wasn't. One of the most pursued and pointless chimeras of the Hero System is figuring out the "correct" way to build something, but if everyone you explain how you built something responds with a "wait, seriously?" you're probably not doing it right.

Anyway, as even a casual Tom Clancy war porn reader would tell you, the pace of avionics development is so extreme countermeasures useful in one decade are out of date and nearly useless the next, though the book treats countermeasures as an absolute set number for every vehicle. They mumble something in the back about how this is probably not a good idea, but no guidelines are presented.

There are moments where I seriously wonder if the guy that wrote this ever actually played any tabletop games ever in their lives. The "missile lock is bought as a Detect" gave me that feeling in that it makes characters aware of something incredibly obvious, especially if you're playing on a map, which by the way, 5th Edition Champions assumes you are.

Imagine this at your game table.

GM: (moves enemy planes onto the game map) "Captain Rick, just when you think you're in the clear, your radar screen flashes with the red of hostile MiG fighter planes. You can see them screaming through the air at you and their muzzles flash."
GM: "Roll your Missile Lock Detect."
PLAYER: (rolls dice) "7."
GM: "You get missile lock from the enemy planes."
PLAYER: "…Really? Gee whiz, I never would have guessed, almighty GM. That was 5 points well-spent. Can I roll Combat Piloting or do I need a Detect (Ground) so I don't hit it?"
GM: "Yeah, yuck it up, smartass. They're heading right for you."
PLAYER: "Hey, you know missiles are vehicles now, right? You *DID* put them on the initiative chart…right?"
GM: (grumbles, as he rifles through his papers and places missile tokens on the map)
PLAYER: (watching) "Well, I'm sure glad I rolled that all-important Detect. By the way, I'm using my electronic countermeasures."
GM: "They use their electronic counter-countermeasures."
PLAYER: "I use my electronic counter-countermeasures."
GM: "Alright, I got a 36 on one and a 42 on the second and…damn it, what subtracts from what again?"
PLAYER: "I'm not sure. By the way, I spend my next phase doing a flyby so I hit a MiG with my Killing Attack exhaust."
GM: "Good thing for you no manatees can fly, or that limitation would *really* sting right about now...."

See what I mean when I say this is unplayable?

In conclusion, authors of the Ultimate Vehicle, Bob "Who?" Greenwade and Steven "I should know better" Long, I hate your product more than any other book ever released for any system ever, and that includes that World of Darkness splatbook "Gypsies" that gave a real-world ethnic group superpowers.

By the way, I was just as confused by the name Bob Greenwade (who the hell is that?), until I did a google search and discovered this book is his only published RPG work except for some Haymaker! fanzine articles. On his personal page on Haymaker! he's humbly self described as having a "genius-level IQ," which considering "The Ultimate Vehicle," I *really* doubt. The worse a game designer, the greater and more insane tendency to make extravagant claims about themselves. Remember when the creator of SenZar said he could punch ten times in a second and had a nothing short of superhuman weightlifting bench?

(Note: Pardon the lateness of this review, which didn't come on a Tuesday.)