The truthiness of politics

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

I've been quiet for too long here- and this is the one place I know I can come and say whatever I want and not have to worry about it bleeding over into my job or my place in the community. It's a slippery place, balancing yourself when you want to be screaming about what is happening in our world.

But this election- and I'm only going to pick on the Republican side here so be forewarned - this election is scaring me.

It scares me because when Donald Trump began this campaign, I thought he would never be taken seriously. I mean, really, how COULD he? The man has no political experience, no moral compass, no real morality or integrity when it comes to business. He really stands for the 1% wealth we all screamed about when the Wall Street crisis hit. He is someone who gains his power because of money and it's money he earns on the broken backs of everyone he uses and steps over- the companies that lost money - the people out of work. He has managed to survive poor business choices because our system rewards those with too much money to punish- he manages to have a following because of his very irritating 'truthiness'. And no one could take this seriously. But they have. They are.

Colbert coined the term 'truthiness' because of Fox "news", and "he defined truthiness as preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true."

What we have in our current political arena is a lot of truthiness. I've never really seen anything like this before. I'm seeing friends fall into this- posting things on social media that they never research, never look into, never even think about. Just knee jerk reactions to anything that mimics the truth they already WANT to be true.

My father was a Republican his entire life and would never have voted otherwise. And because I wanted to defy his politics- I registered Democrat the day I turned 18. But even then, he would tell me to NOT vote based on what a person says. Read their platform- he would tell me- read what their party's agenda is. THAT is what you're voting on. Not a person. A machine. An agenda. A platform.

People who have somehow decided it would be 'fun' to watch Donald Trump say what he wants from the porch of the White House has very little real understanding of how politics work- how our political system works. We will be the laughing stock of the world if he wins this election. Even his own party knows and understands that- and are baffled and confused about how to stop this ridiculous train he has running.

The joke will be on the American people- and on the complete and utter collapse of any kind of progress towards our common goals - if this man is elected.

This can't be serious? Can it?
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Fallout 4, Undertale, and the Importance of the Nonviolent Option

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Look at these two games! They're practically identical!
It’s in the tail end of 2015, which means it’s time for yet another think-piece on Fallout 4. Not surprising – I, like many others, have spent the last few weeks diving unapologetically into Bethesda’s newest gorgeously realized, densely-packed post-nuclear sandbox. However, due to circumstances beyond my control (there are two other guys in my house who are also fully absorbed in the game, and they own the PS4s, so I'm outta luck), I’ve found myself working through a little game called Undertale in my down-time. Admittedly, I’m a little late on the Undertale bandwagon, but I find it’s just as easy to get absorbed in that game’s 8-bit, adorably-twee-but-secretly-quite-dark world as it is to get absorbed in Bethesda’s blackly comedic monolith.

It’s weird how the two games compliment and mirror each other: both are RPGs, both involve protagonists who are accidentally catapulted into a quirky world full of colorful characters that they don’t understand, and both end up shaping and redefining that place through their actions and their interactions with the residents of that world.

And both of them have an interesting relationship with violence.

Just one example of the unrelenting brutality of Fallout 4's comba -- wait, that's the wrong screenshot!
Undertale is, at its core, a story about violence, and that core is reflected in the gameplay. Every battle presents you with a simple option: Fight or Mercy. Neither option is easy – they both require some time and footwork to pull off – but regardless of which approach you take, the battle ends the same way, with a big “YOU WIN!” and a handful of gold and/or experience. Trying to Fight through your enemies ends up being something of a brutal grind, on par with your standard 8-bit throwback RPG. However, if you take the time to examine them, you can figure out their personalities, why they’re fighting, and (more importantly) how to resolve the fight peacefully with the Mercy command. Immediately this sets the game apart from other RPGs, by having nonviolence always be an option – one that challenges and engages with the player just as much as, if not more than, combat does.

Fallout 4, by contrast, does have nonviolent ways to get out of situations, but they’re few and far between. Bethesda, in designing the game, clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the gunplay (perhaps realizing that combat has always been one of the weakest parts of their games, dating all the way back to Morrowind’s bland hacking-and-slashing). It shows: combat is visceral and deeply satisfying, and using a sniper rifle to explode a Raider’s head from a quarter-mile away in slow-motion has lost none of its Grand Guignol-style appeal. The guns all feel solid and hit with the right amount of force, the enemies are diverse and well-designed, and for once the places you fight them in feel interesting. Bethesda employs a lot more verticality in the setting than we’ve seen in prior games, forcing you to fight uphill battles, find good vantage points on rooftops, and utilize the environment to get a tactical upper hand. And it’s just unforgiving enough that you have to pay attention to stuff like that: charging into a fight Call of Duty-style usually ends with you getting blown to smithereens. Basically, the combat just works. To quote Tony! Toni! Tone!, it feels good.

So, with that in mind, the dearth of nonviolent options makes sense, and I believe it had to be intentional on Bethesda’s part: for one, it guides you (or forces you, if I’m being uncharitable) into experiencing their shiny, retooled combat system. For two, it reinforces the brutality and unforgiving nature of the game’s grim setting: no, you can’t solve all of your problems by hugging them out. In the wasteland, it’s kill or be killed.

I did find myself wishing that there were a few more problems that I could hug out, though.

Both Fallout 4’s Lone Survivor and Undertale’s Human protagonist are ciphers: built purposefully vague so that you can project your personality onto them. This allows both games to mold themselves around the player’s actions to an extent – but even though Undertale’s system is more simplistic, I found myself feeling like I had more agency in it than in Fallout 4’s. For all its bells and whistles and nearly endless customization options, I felt my play style straining more against Bethesda’s design. You see, I had originally envisioned my character as a sort of charming rogue: more apt to solve problems with guile, subterfuge, or diplomacy than at the end of a gun. Thus, I put most of my attribute points into Charisma, Agility, and Intelligence. But even just ten hours into the wasteland, any pretense was gone: it had molded me into a merciless killing machine. Most quests fall into the World of Warcraft, “go to X location, kill Y enemies, get Z reward” pattern, and almost everything in the Wasteland attacks on sight, trying to gank you just for the street cred. Oh, sure, how I killed these enemies was a little different than the norm, but I wasn’t the charismatic, crafty scoundrel I had originally planned to be: I was a sniper, cold and ruthless. That isn’t to say I wasn’t having fun – I was having a blast – but it did feel like the game had forced me into a combative mold by its very design.

Fallout 4, unafraid to ask the tough questions like, "Do you Hate Newspaper?"
It doesn’t help that Charisma, even despite Bethesda's extensive  revamping, still feels like a dump stat, and the dialogue system has been rightly criticized as overly vague and limiting. Most special dialogue options always have a chance to work, and you can quicksave in conversations, so these options can be “save-scummed” until you knuckle through to a success even with low Charisma, and the higher-level perks the attribute gives you are unimpressive or redundant. One of them prevents you from getting addicted to alcohol and drugs, but there’s already no shortage of convenient options to get rid of addictions if/when they ever do pop up. The abilities to take hostages and charm wild animals into subservience are…situationally cool, but again, don’t feel particularly useful when the game already provides you with plenty of companions, both man and beast (and robot, and robo-man, get the picture). The biggest benefit Charisma provides is allowing you to unlock more options for the colonies you set up across the wastes: hiring provisioners, establishing trade routes and building shops in your towns, which is valuable, but hardly feels worth the sizable investment (unless you’re me. I adore the colony-building minigame). It has comparatively little impact on the game as a whole, as you will still end up shooting your way out of the vast majority of the jams you get into.

Compare this to even earlier games in the series – Fallout 3, while derided as the beginning of Fallout’s “CoD-ification” (and yes, being similar to the most successful game franchise out there is seen as a serious insult in gamer-dom. We’re a weird bunch.) still had plenty of chances for you to bluff or intimidate your way out of situations to resolve them nonviolently, or at least with a minimum of violence. Both of the main baddies in the campaign could be talked out of their nefarious plans if your Speech skill was high enough. Its immediate follow-up, New Vegas, had even more options to double-deal, negotiate with, and wile your way around the dozens of factions that were vying for control in the dusty Mojave. You could still murder everything you came across, but you had the option to solve disputes without shedding any blood, rudimentary and boring though those options could be at times.

Pictured: An exciting thing.
And that right there is the problem, I think: from gaming’s very beginning, violence has always been the easiest and most immediate way to engage with the player. The power-trip you feel in Pac-Man when you snag that big dot and turn the tables on your pursuers by devouring them whole, the gratifying feeling of getting the sword and slaying that giant yellow duck(?) in Adventure, blowing up the space invaders in…Space Invaders – the common logic follows that violence is hard-coded into gaming, because violence is dramatic and exciting and easy to design for. The nonviolent option is always less interesting: usually, you press the right button, and then skip whatever fun fight the game had planned for you. It’s anticlimactic at best, and actively removes content from the game at worst...right?

Well, here comes Undertale, to fly in the face of all that logic. In Undertale, it’s the violence that’s rote and deadening, and it’s actually far more interesting to use diplomacy and empathy to resolve fights. It imbues each and every enemy with its own unique personality, and asks you to think critically in order to get past them. A blind dog that can only sense things when they move, forcing you to stand still whenever it tries to attack, and then move in to pet it when its guard is down. An insecure ghost who you can encourage and compliment to build his confidence until he becomes your friend. A memorable early boss fight that forces you to simply withstand their attacks and refuse to fight them until they realize they can’t bring themselves to kill you, and they let you go. By enabling you to interact with these characters on a personal level, it deepens the world and allows you to build an emotional connection to it, so that fundamental decision – Fight or Mercy – starts to carry some real weight.

I guess you could murder this adorable ghost. If you wanted to. You monster.
This probably took a lot of work on behalf of Undertale’s lone designer, Toby Fox, and it might seem prohibitively difficult or unreasonable to ask Bethesda to deliver that same level of depth to every single enemy and character in their vast, densely populated wasteland. But they’re close already: the enemies in Fallout 4 all have their own unique strategies and attitudes, and it’s not too much of a stretch to see them adding a diplomatic/speech component to dealing with those different types. The hulking Super Mutants, as you might imagine, are psychotically aggressive – firing wildly at you, screaming insults, and throwing suicide bombers your way. Maybe a show of strength or a successfully intimidating roar makes them stand down, retreat, or even compliment your might? Raiders are canny, hanging back and hiding behind turrets, mines, and grenade traps. Maybe if you bluff them into thinking you’re not worth the trouble, they’ll leave you alone – or if they have some kind of personal problem (a rival gang, a missing ally, damaged defenses in their base, etc) they can even ask for your help? Complex logic problems or paradoxical statements could freeze certain robots in their tracks, bribing mercenaries could get them off your trail or even send them back to deal with whoever called down the contract on your head, loud noises could bait herds of Feral Ghouls away temporarily, etc. There’s a lot that could be done, is my point, and all of it would have the same effect as Undertale’s system: making the setting feel more vibrant and alive, and forging a personal bond with the player.

In fairness, Bethesda’s already done a lot to make Fallout 4’s world feel less static than other sandboxes they’ve made; and their ability to tell little, compelling stories in that setting is as strong as ever. However, that emotional component still isn’t quite there, despite your character having a back-story that is rife with potential for it (you watched your whole hometown including your spouse die, got catapulted hundreds of years into the future, and are searching for your kidnapped son – so much opportunity!). Bethesda worlds have always felt a little sterile and artificial, and Fallout 4 makes great strides to remedy this, mostly on the strength of the colony-building, but having the option to interface with the rest of the game world on a level beyond just “shoot and loot” would put it over the top, I think.

Don’t get it twisted, either: Fallout 4 is a great game, and part of what makes it great is Bethesda’s commitment to making sure that there is no “wrong way” to play. In previous installments, leveling up came with no shortage of apprehensions and anxiety – making sure you distributed your skill points wisely, worrying about taking the wrong perks, or taking your perks in the wrong order, but in Fallout 4 gaining levels is an absolute joy. Every option is a valid option, and the game seems to tailor the combat to be both fair and gratifying regardless of how you spend your points. I hope that Bethesda expands that approach in their next game, be it Fallout 5 or The Elder Scrolls VI, and follows that line through to the non-combat gameplay. They cribbed notes from some of the best in the business for Fallout 4 – the influences of Mass Effect, Destiny, Telltale's The Walking Dead, and Minecraft are readily apparent – so let’s hope they crib a little from Undertale next time, and give us some nonviolent options that are just as satisfying and rewarding as the slow-mo exploding-head routine.

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MCA Big Rock Hits of the 70’s

Friday, September 11, 2015
MCA Records was a leader in signing and distributing some of the biggest rock stars back in the seventies. From Elton John to The Who, their stable of artists were a major influence in the soundtrack of my youth. Today’s pick six is some of the great hits from that era. Enjoy.

Don’t Do Me Like That - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: No list of consequence wouldn’t include Tom Petty. I know Tom had his problems with MCA over the price of his records, but he along with Jimmy Iovine on the boards, released music that has stood the test of time.

The Real Me - The Who: Influential iconoclasts The Who dominated FM AOR stations in those days. They have plenty of songs to choose from their golden days, all guaranteed to hit all the emotional notes of being a teenager.

FM - Steely Dan: Of course I would include Steely Dan. Progenitors of Jazz/Rock fusion, their smooth sound lulled me to sleep on many a night.

We’re Here For A Good Time (Not A Long Time) - Trooper: A nice jam from a band that is not easily remembered. A slight Jamaican vibe permeates this song that sums up the feeling most of us had

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting - Elton John: True story, my mom turned me on to Elton John. She must not of listened to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics very closely. This is yet another catchy tune from the prolific pair.

She Flies On Strange Wings - Golden Earring: I know Golden Earring is best known for the great Radar Love, but this song has just stuck to me all these years. I think it’s the guitar. You have to admit it’s pretty impressive.

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Supergirl Pilot Preview and Review

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
PREFACE: I had the good fortune to catch the pilot for Supergirl at Chicago Comic Con, and thought I'd share my thoughts. This is a review of a show that airs on October 26th, so a few things could change between this preview and the actual pilot. Additionally, obviously SPOILER WARNING (not that there's any huge revelations in this first episode) for both Supergirl and kinda Flash and Agent Carter. You have been warned. HINT: If you'd like a TL;DR version of this review, scroll down to the grade (about three quarters of the way through the article) and read on.

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And Now for Something Completely Different

Tuesday, August 11, 2015
We haven't had Random Python in years! So here you go, The Tale Of Sir Robin.
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Here I go, I'll tell you what you already know

Saturday, July 25, 2015
I just discovered these guys via Apple MUSIC, which I adore. I have never used a streaming service, so I can't really review this because I am enamored with the idea of having a huge music library a mouse click away. These guys came from a For You playlist called 6:00 AM Morning Glory. The For You playlists are awesome for finding new bands and rediscovering old favorites.

This is a gentle love song for my dear wife on this Saturday morning. Here is Angus & Julia with For You
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Friday Pick Six- Women of Motown

Friday, July 24, 2015
When I was younger I loved Diana Ross and the Supremes. They were glamorous and their songs were wonderful. I was too young to appreciate many of the other women coming out of Motown at the time, though their music has surpassed the Supremes as I've grown older. For me, many of these women sing with pain- depth- struggle. They are women whose voices are raw with emotion and whose messages do talk of love but also speak of strength, survival, resilience.

For Friday's Pick Six- some great women voices from the Motown years.

Diana Ross and the Supremes - Love is Here

Martha and the Vandellas - Heat Wave/Nowhere to Run

Tammy Terrell - I cried

Gladys Night and the Pips - If I were your woman (I do LOVE this song!)

Mary Wells - You Beat me to the Punch

The Velvelettes - These things will keep me loving you

And because I love it- a bonus track of Tammi singing with Marvin Gaye:

 You're All I Need to Get By

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