King of the Hill

So Pathfinder: Kingmaker is actually pretty fun. I know that there were a bunch of bugs when it launched, but it’s been two years since then and I haven’t really noticed any so far. I think I may actually like computer role-playing game more than the classic Baldur’s Gate series (minus #3, which if I ever do get, will be years down the line).

The first reason I prefer this game to both Baldur’s Gate games is that I don’t need to install mods just to get it to look decent on current generation computers. I can read the text, I can zoom all the way in and see my characters clearly. I can actually see what they’re wearing instead of kind of squinting, and I can see the difference in clothes instead of the armour just looking like a slightly different shade. This is important to me since I like playing dress-up on these kind of games.

Second is that I understand the rules right off the bat. I’ve never played the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which is what Baldur’s Gate is based on, so I had to do a bunch of research to find out what stuff like To Hit Armor Class 0 was, and even when I did find out it was usually needlessly arcane and over-complicated. But the Pathfinder roleplaying ruleset is basically D&D 3.75 edition, so a bunch of stuff has been improved in the intervening 20-something years.

I’ve played a bunch of tabletop Pathfinder games, which also helps, but the game itself simplified the rules even more. It doesn’t have a million different types of Knowledge skills, all physical skills such as acrobatics and swimming have been subsumed under Athletics, and so on. I think all the options available can still be a tad overwhelming to a rank newbie but that’s more on the Pathfinder system itself needing, in my opinion, a really drastic streamlining and reconfiguration  (note that there’s a 2nd edition of the Pathfinder system which may have done this already but I haven’t tried it out yet).

Third is the turn-based combat. I initially stuck to real-time battles because that was how it was in Baldur’s Gate, but after trying out the turn-based fighting I’m not going back. Pathfinder in real life is obviously turn-based – six people rolling dice at the same time would get chaotic – and the CRPG just works a lot better when you follow this format as well.

Fourth is that I get to try out a campaign that I’ve been interested in for a while. Kingmaker is an adventure path in the tabletop RPG that I’ve wanted to play but haven’t found a group to do it with. This way I get to actually experience it for myself. Plus Wrath of the Righteous is already being worked on and that’s another campaign that I’d also like to try out.

I’d like to note that in Kingmaker you actually build a kingdom – you get advisors, build infrastructure like windmills and watchtowers, slay monsters threatening your land, and so on. However, I’ve yet to reach that part in the game and am just directing a party of adventurers as we explore the countryside. So I can’t comment on the kingdom-building mechanics yet, but the classic RPG party thing is already pretty good.

Anyway, I’ve got a Chaotic Neutral tiefling Inquisitor of Calistria leading a party consisting of an undead elf Inquisitor of Urgathoa, a halfling bard, a barbarian from the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, a half-elf Wizard Rogue, and a half-orc Magus. There are a bunch more party members I benched pending their full recovery from being brought back from the dead or just plain because I don’t like them, but I think I like having a party where almost everyone is a magician of some kind. This is a pretty fun party to play and I like what I’ve seen of this game so far.

Strongly Dislike the Police

Thanks to, you know, the thing, there have been a few ongoing discussions online and in other places about copaganda shows that invariably always show the police as heroes and minimize or erase real world issues of systemic racism, domestic abuse, etc among the police community.

The conversations reminded me of the show 19-2, which is set among the beat cops of a fictional Montreal police station. It does show moments of heroism – one of its best episodes is a harrowing depiction of cops responding to an active school shooting – along with regular work bullshit like the cops paying for a shoplifter’s frozen turkey because they didn’t want to deal with arrest paperwork. But it also shows cops being unequivocally shit.

The cops’ union rep, for example, is a wife beater. It’s not addressed in a single very special episode divorced from the larger story, either, but is an ongoing subplot over the series, and after an abusive incident so terrible that the violence can’t keep getting swept under the rug, the union negotiates a tearful public apology from the abuser to convince his wife to return to him, which is portrayed as exactly terrible an idea as you would think.

Another cop is an alcoholic and shows up to work drunk or hungover, directly endangering others, but when the protagonist brings it up with his partner, he’s told that reporting the problem is useless since the union knows how to address complaints which can make them seem without substance or taken out of proportion (of course implying that alcoholic cops are so widely found that there’s already a playbook for dealing with complaints about them). Yet another cop gets jumped by some youths and takes out her PTSD by being extra-violent to protesters later on while facing almost no consequences for it.

The biggest omission from the show, though, especially in light of the current protests, is its refusal to show police racism, at least in the episodes I’d seen. This reflects mainstream Canadian reluctance to discuss race beyond rah-rah self-praise for multiculturalism and the equally strong tendency to point to the US as being terrible and therefore that means things aren’t actually that bad (similar to the way white Europeans use the example of the US to avoid dealing with their own problems on racism).

Anyway, I had originally thought the show was just being anti-union, but in retrospect maybe it was being anti-cop union specifically. It’s rare enough to see the realistic bad stuff about police officers being shown in fiction that isolated examples stand out. It’s something to mull over regarding fictional depictions of the thin blue line separating us from the savage hordes of ourselves.

Starry night

Screenshot of Stars in Shadow showing options available to the player for planetary bombardment and invasion.

Feeling a bit rough today since I haven’t got enough sleep for the last few nights thanks to staying up too late playing Stars in Shadow. Folks, this is exactly the “Master of Orion 2 with nicer graphics and User Interface” that I wanted.

I’ve tried the Galactic Civilizations games (I think I played 2 and 3) and they were definitely decent turn-based strategy in space but they were a tad complicated. I mean, I spent hours just designing space ships (I made a Klingon bird of prey once). And most of the factions in Endless Space were different kinds of humans and robots so I kind of got bored with them.

But Stars in Shadow scratches my itch. It’s exactly as complicated as it needs to be for me to fire it up for a quick game on easy mode (quick being 10 hours straight on a Sunday, apparently) and I like the colourful cartoonishness of the art style.

Bottom line? It’s fun.

The Emotion Engine

So Tales From the Loop is actually good. It’s set in a small town where everything is centered around a mysterious research facility. The whole thing appears to take place in the 1970’s, except there are decaying robots in the woods and inexplicable sci-fi encounters are a part of life. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it looks like there’s a core cast of characters loosely intertwined in each other’s lives, but with the protagonists shifting in each installment.

Even if I hadn’t known already, I probably would have guessed that this was originally a Scandinavian property as its general tone is off-kilter and contemplative. I understand the concept books focused more on the kids, but the show probably didn’t want to come across as copying Stranger Things since they’re both science fiction period pieces.

However, it’s way different anyway, since Stranger Things is awash in nostalgia for a specific period’s consumerism and pop culture, whereas this show feels more like it takes place in a timeless 20th century of no particular decade.

Also, Stranger Things foregrounds its plot elements – stop the Demogorgon, the commies, the thingamabob – whereas this show is all about the emotional consequences of the sci-fi twists. There’s no technobabble solution for letting your best friend down or having your mother break your heart.

Anyway, this is a hearty recommendation from me.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset

I am a sucker for nostalgia, but I’m also a sucker for not working too hard to complete a game. As such, I’ve been playing adventures games lately and have come across two that I rather liked.

A dark figure in a hooded robe faces a set of giant stone hands rising out of the rocky ground, fingers steepled together. The tips of the fingers are also hands and some clasp together while others reach to the overcast and cloudy sky. The hands shelter in their centre a hooded statue, its face hidden in darkness and its body pierced by multiple swords. In the ground in front of the giant hands are more swords planted into the earth. in the background, rocky spires stab into the sky.

The first is Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, a dark gothic tale set in a bizarre fantasy world. It’s rather steampunk Gormenghast in aesthetics. It’s a classic point and click adventure, but it’s barely a game and the puzzles are really quite easy to solve. However, I didn’t really care because I dug the weird-ass shit I kept coming across. It’s just so dark and baroque. Most people on the ball will have long guessed the twist before the ending, but it really doesn’t matter. I completed this game before the present state of exception, but I think it should be provide decent entertainment in this time that demands distraction.

Around a room are arrayed strange gadgets - a hulking and aggressive military robot, a green hovercraft, a futuristic jet engine, and various other objects. In the corner stands a woman in a black leather jacket looking at a globe. At the top of the screen is the woman's portrait, which shows she is blond and sporting an undercut, with the left side of her head cut short to a buzz while the hair on top is combed over to flop over on her right side, reaching down to her eyes. At the bottom of the screen are various icons showing the items in the character's inventory as well as icons related to unidentified game options.

The second point and click adventure game is one I’m currently playing through. It’s called Whispers of a Machine and it’s a cyberpunk story set in Norway decades – perhaps centuries – after the golden technofuture of our dreams crashed to earth in some kind of catastrophic global backlash against AI. The world is much smaller, globalization is dead, and a train journey to a small town in the middle of nowhere is a big deal.

The protagonist is a cop from the big city sent to the sticks to investigate a murder and who uncovers a conspiracy that could shake the foundations of society. Along the way she meets several colourful characters that help her in her quest for the truth.

Yeah, this is basically the plot of like 70 percent of all police dramas. Like I said, I’m not looking to think too hard, so this story is just pleasantly formulaic. The cyberpunk thing gives it a fresh coat of paint so that it feels more novel than it would be if it was just another Scandinavian noir.

The somewhat novel thing about this game as a game is its mild inclusion of RPG elements. You can choose to be empathetic, aggressive, or analytical, and each path opens up new choices and new abilities which structure the way you solve puzzles in the game.

But the game itself doesn’t stray too far from the way point and click adventure games worked in their 90s heyday. The graphics are a bit nicer, but not as nice as Tormentum, and definitely not as nice as my gold standard for graphics in 21st century adventure games – Memoria, that rich and lush visual feast.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no specific technical limitation that demands adventure games remain pixelated as hell like they were back in the Sierra On-Line days. I understand that many developers use the program Adventure Game Studios, which in its base configuration can’t output images in very high resolution, but surely there are workarounds for this issue.

The graphics aren’t a deal-breaker, though. I find playing this game rather fun and will continue to the end. I recommend it for everyone who wants a quick and easy adventure game to get through.

The Anointed One

I watched all of Messiah on Netflix, and man, I really liked it.

As you might gather from the trailer, the show is premised on the question, “What if the messiah returned today?” However, the trailer makes it seem like the character depicted is definitely Jesus Christ returned, whereas the show plays coy on whether its central figure is actually divine or whether he’s just a brilliant and charismatic leader using religious fervour and magic tricks to push a revolutionary agenda. As one of the characters on the show even points out, this same question of saviour or con artist would have been applied to the historical Jesus (if he existed) by his contemporaries as well – the character herself comes down on the side of Jesus being “a populist politician with an axe to grind against the Roman empire”.

Messiah begins as follows: as the Islamic State lays siege to Damascus (which is in rebellion to Bashar al-Assad), a street preacher appears claiming that despite all evidence, Daesh shall soon be destroyed. Immediately afterward, a great sandstorm covers the city for an entire month, breaking the siege and demolishing ISIL’s supply lines. Throughout the storm, the street preacher continues to proclaim the supremacy of God’s will, gaining himself followers, and after the storm clears he leads 2,000 people into the desert (and, it’s implied, away from the Syrian government’s retaliation). The people are all Syrian Palestinians and the nameless preacher, now called “al-Masih” (messiah), has led his starving and unarmed followers to the Israeli border to claim the right of return for Palestinians ejected from their homeland.

And this is all in the first episode. The show quickly gets very global in its setting and shows the tentacles of empire, moving between the centre and the periphery, from the site of imperial actions in the Middle East to the source of those actions in the US.

I realize that it’s possible to imagine a horrifically tone deaf Law & Order-style ripped from the headlines hour of TV from the description I’ve given, especially considering that the show’s producers are Mark Burnett of the Survivor reality series and Roma Downey, the lead actor of Touched by an Angel, and considering that this producer couple have apparently made mawkish and pandering Christian-focused sentimental shows.

With that in mind, it’s surprising that the show is actually politically engaging. I mean, just to run through a few plot points – Jesus Christ (potentially) returns to earth and gets interrogated by Shin Bet. The CIA sends out its agents to dig up anything to discredit the messiah. Upon meeting the president of the US, our Lord and Saviour tells him that the path to world peace means withdrawing US troops from all overseas deployments.

The interesting thing is that the question of al-Masih’s divinity is actually immaterial to much of what he says and does. Is he a Russian asset sent to destabilize America? Maybe just some radical with an axe to grind against the American empire? It doesn’t matter, because empires are immoral and you don’t need possess divine wisdom to see this. 

I realize, though, that I may be projecting more of own politics onto the show than what it wants to say by itself. For one thing, the show is mostly told through the point of view of a CIA agent, and she is basically what the CIA sees itself as: a passionate defender willing to make the hard choices in defense of the ideals of the Republic. Instead of, you know, Keystone Kops bunglers using unsurpassed money and brutality to enforce hegemony.

Thinking on this further, the show expresses discontent with America but is unable to fully grasp or articulate the causes of America’s sickness. It steps in that direction by using the language of millenarian religion but is unable to move further beyond individual moral failing to larger structural causes. However, it’s possible that the show will go further with that thread in a potential second season.

I admit that a large part of my enjoyment stems from having studied a bit of Biblical theology once upon a time. My religious studies class and I would discuss what it would have meant for a Palestinian Jew to be decrying Roman occupation and criticizing collaborationist elites, while keeping in mind that the Romans wouldn’t have given much of a crap about factional distinctions and probably thought Jesus was just one of countless desert nutjobs who needed killing for the Pax Romana. The show basically took those discussions and set my class’s imaginings in the 21st century. And of course the other part of the show I like is the whole poli sci/international relations nerd crap.

Bottom line? If there’s a second season, I’m definitely watching.

Seeing like a State

Somewhat surprised that one of the themes of Terminator: Dark Fate is that all cops are bastards, but here we are. There are absolutely no good police in the movie’s world – at best they’re just violent thugs, and at worst they’re being used by a murderous inhuman intelligence. Speaking of which, the movie implies that we are already ruled by a murderous inhuman intelligence, we just call it the state. Surveillance everywhere, violent agents enforcing brutal rule, machines of spying and death flying through the skies watching and killing with impunity.

The movie actually had something to say, which is one of the reasons it’s way better than the last couple of Terminator movies. I think it’s not as good as the first and second movies in the franchise, but it’s head and shoulders above the movies between T2 and this one. By the way, it just ignores everything that happened in those in-between movies, but since the central premise of the franchise revolves around time travel I think we can forgive this arrant retconning.

I felt the movie started to drag once the action climax kicked off. It reminds me of most Marvel superhero movies – the part where stuff blows up at the end is there because it’s supposed to be there. I didn’t expect the movie to end in an emotional argument full of psychological drama between all parties but I did want to care whether the protagonists would get their way.

But I keep watching Marvel movies anyway since I’m a sucker for dork shit. It’s the same for this movie. I think overall it’s entertaining and a decent time at the cinema.

AZN represent

Always Be My Maybe stars Ali Wong as a celebrity chef who goes back to San Francisco to open a restaurant and hooks up with her asshole ex/childhood friend Randall Park.

Movies starring stand-up comedians can be completely terrible – what do they know about acting or writing a narrative? – but Ali Wong used to write for Fresh Off the Boat so she knows something about funny stories. Wikipedia indicates she majored in Asian American Studies, which also explains why her observations on race can be rather incisive. The movie was also directed by Nahnatchka Khan, who I will always and forever associate with Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (this is a good thing by the way).

Anyway, I actually did laugh several times while watching this movie. In a more formulaic romcom, the story would be about one or both childhood friends being with partners unsuitable for them and the climax would be them finally admitting their feelings for each other, but this one explains why the original breakup when they were younger might have actually been better for our female protagonist until the male partner could get over his shit. Also there was an unexpected celebrity cameo that I’m totally on board for.

So, bottom line: I liked this movie.

Kung fu TV

Warrior is the shit. It’s a violent kung fu spaghetti western that’s so very over the top. It’s set in 19th century San Francisco and I think is basically what Bruce Lee had wanted the original Kung Fu TV show to originally look like. The protagonist is literally fresh off the boat from China, but unlike other FOBs he knows kung fu and starts kicking racist ass as soon as he arrives.

The show has a lot about the politics around Chinese immigration at the time – the way politicians stoked working class racism at lost jobs, the way the Irish workers shat on those lower down the ladder than them, the way the rich businessmen gladly exploited the Chinese, the resentment the Chinese had against their oppression, and the gangsters and criminals who didn’t give much of a shit as long as they profited. But all this is expressed in modern-ish language (in fact, very hip hop language), and thanks to the magic of TV we hear English when the Chinese characters are talking all funny among themselves.

Did I mention the show is violent? Because it is. It’s what I wanted out of Into the Badlands and damn if it doesn’t deliver. If nothing else, just watch the opening, it’s stylish as hell. I like the whole 70’s kung fu movie poster thing.

The angel of combat

I liked Alita: Battle Angel. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the original manga, and I was rather concerned that a sprawling story would end up condensed into an abbreviated mishmash of various plot points set up to justify gratuitous and boring CGI action scenes.

But Robert Rodriguez pulled it off. I’m please with the narrative choices he made in taking a comic book story that unfolded over years and turning it into a regular length movie. Apparently James Cameron’s original script was 180 pages.

From viewing the trailer I thought it might be odd to see a big-eyed manga character interacting with actual people, but I quickly got used to it in the actual movie. I can see why the character of Alita was entirely CGI because of the numerous action scenes of cyborg kung fu – any live-action actor (Rosa Salazar, specifically) would need to be replaced by a computer-generated model when the fighting started, but there would have been a noticeable transition between the real person and the computer one. Having the character be completely CGI prevented this uncanny valley-tude.

It’s disappointing but I expect the movie won’t see a sequel. It appears not to have been a gigantic hit with the US market, though it’s been doing gangbusters overseas, especially in China. It made money but not Avengers money. I’m not even really put out, since even though the ending of the movie calls out for a continuation, what’s there is still satisfying on its own.

And my take-away from the whole thing? Alita is a quite decent action sci-fi film that I thoroughly enjoyed. If enough of you watch it, we might see Ed Norton in the sequel.