b5, scifi, trek October 19, 2012 Jack 13 comments

On the DS9 / Babylon 5 Controversy

Note: It’s been a long time since I’ve watched B5, and I’m keeping an open mind. If you want to nitpick or bring up new evidence, please do so in the comments, I’d be happy to edit and expand the discussion.

On Reddit recently, I was defending my favorite of the Treks, DS9, against a horde of Babylon 5 fans that argued that Paramount ripped the entire premise of DS9 from material that J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) tried to sell to them long before DS9 was ever announced.

Do I believe that Paramount would be that unscrupulous? Absolutely. They’re a studio, and in the history of movies and TV I’m sure you can find plenty of other examples of assholish behavior. Personally, that seems like legal grounds to sue the shit out of Paramount, but JMS apparently didn’t want to taint either show with legal action. That doesn’t seem very businesslike, but hey. I can’t fault the guy for wanting to have more sci-fi on TV rather than less.

I’ve watched Babylon 5. I enjoyed it. I am not a conspiracy theorist however so I decided to look at the supposed mirror-like similarities between the shows and determine what I thought myself.

Summary

The first thing I wanted was a concise list of the similarities. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve watched B5 so while I remember the grand sweep of things, the details are little hazy. The best summation is a list I found in the IMDB FAQ for B5 and it goes a little something like this.

  • Babylon 5 involves a space station beside an artificial hyperspace jumpgate. Deep Space Nine involves a space station beside an artificial wormhole.
  • Both shows had human captains who would end up becoming figures of religious significance to a local race. Benjamin Sisko would become the Bajoran Emissary while Sinclair was Valen.
  • Both shows involved humans working alongside a recent enemy race: the Minbari in Babylon 5 and the Klingons in Deep Space Nine (although the friendly nature of the Klingons was established in Star Trek: The Next Generation)
  • Both shows would introduce a small, powerful, first of its kind warship at similar points in their third season: The Defiant on Deep Space Nine and the White Star on Babylon 5
  • Both shows featured female seconds in command who were hot tempered: Kira Nerys on Deep Space Nine and Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5
  • Both shows featured doctors who had strained relations with their fathers and who were hiding secrets: Julian Bashir’s genetic modification on Deep Space Nine and Stephen Franklin’s involvement with the underground and his stim addiction on Babylon 5
  • Both shows involved combat against mysterious foes who seemed much more powerful than the protagonists: The Dominion on Deep Space Nine and the Shadows on Babylon 5
  • In addition there are several names which appear in both shows such as Lyta/Leeta and Dukhat/Dukat..

Let’s get cracking.

The premise

Babylon 5 involves a space station beside an artificial hyperspace jumpgate. Deep Space Nine involves a space station beside an artificial wormhole.

This seems to be the most damning evidence that the premise of DS9 was ripped off. On the face of it, these are very similar. However, if you break it down, I’d argue that these are genre pieces.

Set on a space station. It seems suspicious that JMS would pitch B5 to Paramount and then, 4 years later, when B5 got the greenlight elsewhere, suddenly there would be a new Trek set on a space station. However, this ignores one fact and that’s that not only are space stations totally average in sci-fi and in fact are mentioned endlessly in TOS and TNG, but also that the human race has actually (in reality) put a number of space stations in orbit around earth. The Russian Mir space station was put up in 1986, three years before JMS’s pitch, and 7 years before DS9 started to air. It’s unsurprising then that TV sci-fi, especially in two franchises set in our future rather than in some alternate reality like Star Wars, would choose a space station. JMS chose it for B5 because it acts as a semi-neutral diplomatic area, DS9 chose it because it was a different take on a universe that had already had two shows about cruising the galaxy.

Set by a [transportation device]. This seems like a stronger argument than it’s base setting. Jump gates and worm holes? Basically the same thing, right? No… not really. In B5 jump gates are the mechanism for ships to enter hyperspace. They’re like highway on and off ramps and standard ships have to use the jump gate network to cross vast distances. Trek already had something like this, warp speed. The wormhole is different, it’s a one-of-a-kind link between two points in space that are vast distances apart.

This doesn’t address the core issues though. Regardless of technology, there’s still some transit feature next to the space station. But really, isn’t that an obvious device for both shows? B5 requires a jumpgate because otherwise it wouldn’t be very useful as a space station in a world where ships have to use them to cross large distances. In the same way, DS9’s story requires the wormhole because without it, it’s just one of a hundred different Federation space stations and not a very integral or interesting one at that. It’s one of the oldest literary devices in the book to have a trade point, a port, a bridge, a mountain pass in the setting because it gives a reason for exotic people and items to show up. In military stories, it gives a tactical weight to the setting. In short, nobody should be surprised that this is part of the base setting for either show.

What’s being left out. There are a lot of omissions in the setting that are left out of this argument as well. Like the fact that B5 was constructed by and for Earth, where DS9 was taken after the occupation of Bajor. Or that B5 is a node on an already known (locally, at least) network, where the wormhole basically puts DS9 on the frontier of an entire new and unexplored quadrant.

Most importantly though, the premise of DS9 from episode one is still exploration, albeit in a different way than previous Trek. It explores philosophy (Distant Voices, Life Support et. al) religion (Bajoran episodes, of which there are many) in addition to planets (ala Meridian, Paradise, Children of Time, etc. as well as introducing Trill, Ferenginar and New Sydney on screen). It takes two full seasons before the main antagonist, the Dominion, is even seen and almost another three seasons before the main conflict begins. At it’s core DS9 is still solidly in the one-off paradigm of TNG for its first 5 seasons, and even the longest Dominion War arc is only a handful of episodes long.

To B5’s credit, it’s the origin of the highly serialized sci-fi that would fit right in today, in the age of the DVR when all modern drama is serial as well. The story, as such, is also serial and has much more to do with the continuing machinations between the races on B5, Earth, Mars, Earthforce, Psi Corps and eventually the Shadows than it does with any sort of exploration. That’s not a criticism, it’s a fact. Where DS9 is more like a collection of short stories with the same characters but vastly different topics and tones, B5 is closer to a coherent novel with complex factions and subterfuge.

It’s here in the story, not the setting, is where the premise of shows must differentiate themselves. If you don’t believe that, then every modern hospital drama is a rip-off of ER, every cop show is a rip off of Hill Street Blues, etc. etc.

The religious undertone

Both shows had human captains who would end up becoming figures of religious significance to a local race. Benjamin Sisko would become the Bajoran Emissary while Sinclair was Valen.


First of all, the Minbari are not a “local race” except in the fact that they have residents on B5 – a human station -, but I’ll ignore that part.

Second, while Sisko as The Emissary is definitely religious, I don’t remember Valen ever being established as anything but a badass historical figure. I suppose the “Minbari not of Minbari” metamorphosis thing can be interpreted as miraculous, and there is the time travel but that could be equally attributed to science fiction as divinity. I won’t hinge my argument on that though, especially since I might just not remember.

The real crux here is that, while B5 does make use of religion occasionally, it’s not a consistent component of the overall story. The example that’s given here (Sinclair being Valen) isn’t even hinted at until the third season of B5 (episode 3×16, War Without End pt 1.) at which point Sinclair is not the (or even a) main character. It also didn’t air until May 13th, 1996. DS9 established Sisko as the Emissary in the first episode, which aired almost 3.5 years before then on January 3rd, 1993.

B5 fans might argue that JMS is just a genius and that this was his plan all along and part of his foolish disclosure to evil Paramount but I find that highly unlikely.

Even if the above doesn’t sway your opinion

It’s clear that each series has a vastly different approach to religion and again, that’s what matters more than a silly bullet point. DS9 is constantly expounding on Bajoran religion, Sisko being the Emissary is an integral part of the show. What with the orbs, the festivals, the vedics, the kais, virtually all of Kira’s back story, the Prophets and their role in the Dominion War, the Pah Wraiths and their cult. Even Dax’s death at the hands of a Wraith. DS9 spends a lot of on-screen time getting into the minutiae of Bajoran religion. In B5, religion takes a pivotal role by weaving it through the plot through Sinclair/Valen and prophecy as motivation instead of persistent set dressing, as exodist points out in the comments.

Working with former enemies

Both shows involved humans working alongside a recent enemy race: the Minbari in Babylon 5 and the Klingons in Deep Space Nine (although the friendly nature of the Klingons was established in Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Personally I don’t think this holds water for the same reason the bullet states. When DS9 started, the Klingons had been established as an ally for 5 years of TNG (and closer to 25 in-universe). If we take into account that the Klingons don’t start playing a major role until Season 4, then it’s even longer. The previous state of enmity isn’t even referenced in DS9 because it’s unnecessary.

Later, there’s a time when the Klingons and the Federation are at war again (thanks to the Founders), but that’s the nature of politics in drama and a separate case than working with a long-established enemy.

New armaments

Both shows would introduce a small, powerful, first of its kind warship at similar points in their third season: The Defiant on Deep Space Nine and the White Star on Babylon 5

First, the “third season” is misleading. DS9’s Defiant showed up in the third season premiere, on September 26th, 1994. The White Star class showed up (as far as I can tell from the wiki and the bullet) in the B5 third season premiere a year later on November 6th, 1995 although I guess the B5 fans can argue once again about JMS’s possible omniscience and subsequent foolhardiness in the Paramount office.

Anyway, a year after the Defiant, the White Star comes out with the ability to create a jumpgate at any point to get to hyperspace… sounds a bit like warp speed to me. Who’s copying who again? =P

In all seriousness this argument doesn’t hold weight for one reason: it’s an obvious necessity. Both shows are set on (relatively) stationary space stations, both shows have a looming threat (we’ll discuss farther down) so is it really a surprise that both shows introduce a new badass heavy fighter-type ship? Absolutely not. The main characters have to leave the station and do some ass kicking. It’s as simple as that.

But why a new ship, in either case? Because there’s a new threat that has to be answered with better, more agile hardware. In B5 human ships were a joke compared to the massive Minbari ships which in turn were a joke compared to the massive Shadows. In DS9, sure they could’ve used a Galaxy class ship but those were exploration, science and defense ships with massive crews. The Defiant, as Sisko says, is a ship with one purpose: war. It’s fast and it packs a punch.

Female First Officer

Both shows featured female seconds in command who were hot tempered: Kira Nerys on Deep Space Nine and Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5

No way! A 90s show with a strong female that doesn’t take any shit? And she’s close to the top of the hierarchy? Amazing. Forget the fact that Kira was essentially a guerilla terrorist shortly before the show began, and Ivanova was a figher pilot because, you know, that might actually differentiate them. This is more a result of out-of-universe culture shifting than anything in-universe in my opinion.

Dr. daddy issues

Both shows featured doctors who had strained relations with their fathers and who were hiding secrets: Julian Bashir’s genetic modification on Deep Space Nine and Stephen Franklin’s involvement with the underground and his stim addiction on Babylon 5

Seriously? Let’s break it down.

Both stations have doctors. That should have obvious reasoning on both sides.

Both characters have issues with their fathers… okay, but not only is that tangential to their overall story, it’s not uncommon in reality and it’s quite common in TV. Franklin’s father was a strict general, Bashir’s parents illegally genetically modified him as a child, Ivanova has an issue with her telepathic mother that committed suicide, Kira has an issue with her mom who was a traitorous comfort girl to the Cardassians, Quark has an issue with his mother because she’s so progressive, it goes on and on. The reason that people on TV have a lot of family issues is that it’s a familiar dynamic to every person in the human race. As such, I’m ignoring the father issues as too common.

Both characters have secrets. That is so vague as to be meaningless. Especially since on B5 practically everyone has secrets, that’s the sort of show it is. Again, not a criticism, in fact having flawed characters instead of Trek-ish ideologues is to it’s credit. However, if Bashir didn’t have a secret, then Kira would and the previous bullet would’ve been “tough female second in command with secrets” because Ivanova’s mom’s telepathy secret. If not Kira, then Worf would have secret and then it would be a parallel to Garibaldi’s secret Italian food addiction (or his dark period). The point is that two analogous characters having secrets isn’t a big deal. You know what other doctor has daddy issues and secrets? Dr. House. If I watched a lot of the other medical shows I could probably come up with other characters too but I basically despise them.

Now, if the secrets were in any way similar perhaps there’d be more to this argument but they’re totally different. Bashir’s secret is his genetic status, given to him against his will, that nonetheless allows him to perform superhuman feats of intellect. Franklin’s secret is his underground dealings and stim addiction. They’re completely unrelated and, on top of it, form episodes in the series that are vastly different. Bashir gets discovered and it brings up classic Trek philosophy of how we’d deal with genetic engineered humans, whether he deserves to retain his commission, who gets punished. Later, his genetically modified state is used when Section 31 shows interest in him, and also in a couple of (rather tiresome) episodes where he attempts to communicate with some genetically engineered misfits. Franklin’s secret stim usage causes him to resign the medlab, go on “walkabout” and return with new insight, a clear disgrace and redemption arc, a self-discovery.

The primary foes

Both shows involved combat against mysterious foes who seemed much more powerful than the protagonists: The Dominion on Deep Space Nine and the Shadows on Babylon 5

Once again, this is such a common trope throughout all literature that it’s almost not worth discussing. An existential threat to you and your way of life is the essence of drama. That’s why you watch 300, or Battlestar Galactica, or disaster movies like Armageddon, or Aliens, or Independence Day, or a slew of other shows and movies. You want to see the underdog defeat the big bad guy, especially when the underdog is your planet or species. This same sort of conflict shows up in each of the previous Trek series (the Borg, the Q, the Armageddon Machine). More generically, this sort of story shows up everywhere from Animal House (misfits band together to save their frat house from being destroyed) to Rocky.

As I’ve tried to point out in many of the previous blocks, it’s the execution that matters, not the surface trope level similarities and the Dominion and the Shadows are not similar at all except in their relative power to the protagonists.

The Dominion is much more straightforward foe. They have a massive standing force of ships and soldiers. They have an empire on the other side of the wormhole with a strict and known hierarchy. They encompass hundreds of worlds and races. In many ways the Dominion is a despotic version of the Federation, a parallel that I don’t think was used enough in DS9. Their great power comes from sheer resources rather than ultra-advanced technology beyond that of their enemy. Their motivation to attack the protagonists comes from the desire for conquest.

The Shadows, on the other hand, are an ancient race of beings that emerge every 1000 years to cull the weak races through bloodshed and thus form a sort of natural selection pressure. They have bizarre organic advanced technology but are somehow vulnerable to telepathy. They are the flip side to the Vorlon, a race with the goal of nurturing races to survive the shadow wars.

There are some similarities in their execution. Like their unsurprising use of cunning to undermine their foes, or their intense desire to exterminate the protagonists and… I guess their ability to cloak themselves? But none of these are specific enough to call one a copy of the other.

Names

In addition there are several names which appear in both shows such as Lyta/Leeta and Dukhat/Dukat..

Give me a break. Ask yourself this. If DS9 was really going to rip off B5, don’t you think they’d have the smarts to change the names?

Ugh. Leeta (DS9) and Dukhat (B5) are minor characters, in vastly different roles from their counterparts. In a context in which we’re not trying to paint DS9 as a rip-off, these might even be considered homage but as evidence of plagiarism they’re about as weak as it gets.

Conclusion

Look, I’m a fan of both series. None of the above should seem like a criticism of B5 itself. It’s a solid show and it was well written for the most part. It’s also got a totally different dynamic, arc, and execution than DS9.

I’ll admit that DS9 is my favorite Trek and thus it might seem like I have a dog in this fight, and I do, but I’m not trying to make the argument that DS9 is better, just that it’s not a rip-off. There are too many good writers that worked on the show and wrote too many good episodes (without analogues in the whole of B5) to dismiss them as plagiarists.

I’m all for fan theories, but this one just seems petty. Perhaps it’s the ultimate expression of the disappointment that B5 fans (myself included) feel about the fact that it got jerked around during production. I could see some people creating this theory because there is a seed of truth (JMS presenting B5 to Paramount before DS9 was in the works) and, if it were true, it would mean that Babylon 5 would’ve been just as successful as DS9 if it had the same level of backing.

In the end, I’ve found no argument that this theory is true except for some TVTropes level generic similarities. Even if I admit that it’s possible that Paramount guided the creation of DS9 with JMS’ manuscript in its back pocket, there’s no evidence (even JMS can’t tell for sure), and that’s still no reason each show can’t be original where it really matters: the story. The actual execution.

That said, maybe I’m missing some key point or piece of evidence. Maybe I’ve ignored parts of the show that are relevant. If that’s true, put it in the comments and we can continue discussion! I am open minded and convinceable if given the proof.

software October 18, 2012 Jack 6 comments

On Qtile

Anyone that knows my open source predilection also knows that I have a lot of obscure and elitist taste in software. The only thing that could make me more tech hipster is if my kernel/OS of choice was a BSD instead of mainstream Linux.

Case in point, my primary environment is a tiling WM written in Haskell, Xmonad. However, lately, I’ve been wishing for a bit more ease of use and a bit more flexibility in my whole base setup. With FOSS, whenever I have an itch, I try to scratch it one way or another.

Lately I’ve tried popular tiling WMs, like awesome and dwm. A couple of serious in-development ones as well, like subtle, i3, and musca. I still have a few to try, like spectrwm. However, for the past few days I’ve been really enjoying one called Qtile.

It’s written in Python, which is a major plus for me because it’s my dynamic language of choice. In the 21st century, window management isn’t even close to “intensive” and as such I think trading speed (from C) for flexibility (from Python) is clearly the way to go.

The configuration for Qtile is done in it’s native language. Xmonad is configured in its native language too, it just happens to be Haskell and my days of pure functional programming are long gone so I appreciate the ability to mess with code, configuration and plugins without having to re-learn a set of enigmatic operators. Tangentially, I also experimented with native config in the last major version of my own software (Canto) and it’s an extremely powerful configuration strategy. In part because the interpreter for your dynamic language is very powerful and (hopefully) well-designed and also because obviously the structures created in the configuration are simple to then manipulate in the code itself. In the end I started to migrate away from it because it’s hard to programmatically alter a configuration whether to convert to another version, or to save configuration done via a software interface. Qtile, and other tiling window managers, generally have no need to do either of these things if their initial interface is complete enough so I’m glad to see that I can execute arbitrary Python in the config and look forward to being able to construct my own layout capabilities.

Another advantage of Qtile is that it takes a more circumspect view of window management. Each piece of software doing one thing and doing it well is a great facet of the Unix philosophy but the lines drawn between functionality are arbitrary. Xmonad, for example, does literally nothing except manage windows (as you would expect). It does it very well, but it only has a bit of functionality to play nice with the other tools that most modern users would consider necessary (it’s capable of reserving space for bars / trays and it has capability to output text based on internal status). Qtile includes window management, but it also includes a configurable bar with status output, focused window titles, a clock and a tray. With Xmonad, achieving a similar setup to this requires setting up a loghook (interfacing with Haskell), and using two or three different programs in tandem (i.e. stalonetray for the tray, dzen2 for the bar, and that’s not counting any other status info like battery, memory, or cpu – all of which come with Qtile out of the box – which would inevitably require an app like conky to do in one place). Subtle, and to some extent i3 take this approach as well, but Qtile’s implementation is nicer, in my opinion. In effect you get more than the bare minimum of functionality which means you have less effort to integrate secondary components for the basic. Also, the Qtile widgets actually include a lot of the same default options which are passed through Python kwargs to each widget so it’s easy to keep your widgets’ behavior consistent and tweaked to your liking.

One really cool thing about Qtile is qsh, which provides a shell+filesystem like interface to your WM. It allows you to query what windows are on what screens, information about your configured bar, switch layouts, close windows etc. This sort of thing is very handy if you ever want to interact or squeeze some functionality out of your WM with a simple script instead of Python.

At this stage I have no criticisms of Qtile, which is saying something. I will however state that I haven’t been using it long and I’m still trying to learn the default keybinds (instead of porting my Xmonad configuration keys over — for the most part). One aspect I’m curious about is the multiple monitor support, but from the documentation it seems like even that usually neglected area, has good support even for things such as separate bars. We’ll see. My dual monitor usecase has faded in recent times.

All in all, it’s definitely worth a try. Especially if you’re looking a tiling WM that doesn’t force you to find other programs to get basic information.

gaming October 8, 2012 Jack 24 comments

On Why Tekkit isn’t as good as vanilla Minecraft

I was, admittedly, late to the game on picking up Minecraft, and only started with 1.2.5, but it doesn’t take very long for you to “get” it and see that it’s a very persuasive game. It’s simple in mechanics, yet deep in possibility. You harvest various things to make tools, to make buildings, to defend yourself from the native mobs and other players (if that’s how you play). As this very well known Penny Arcade comic (and it’s follow up) suggests, it’s a concept that will immediately click with a large subsection of gamers. It’s a game that takes a very minimal amount of training to pick up and play, but will reward those that learn a bit more. It’s even something I can play with (or just around) my six year old daughter and not have to worry about it showing up negatively in her subconscious years later too – a major bonus for a gamer dad used to the fare of killing demons with increasingly powerful weaponry or headshotting virtual human beings.

However, being an engineer, when I see some sort of technical complexity – like Minecraft’s brilliant crafting system – I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to take it to the next level.

Enter Tekkit, a collection of mods designed around adding a huge amount of technical complexity to Minecraft by integrating a huge number of machines and components, new concepts and recipes. From simple electric circuits, improved redstone, to computer blocks and nuclear reactors.

Where tekkit succeeds

When I first got going with Tekkit, I thought I was in nirvana. There are so many conveniences. The macerator to grind up ore and get double the ingots from a block. The electric appliances powered by wind or solar or geothermal devices connected with wires. The lovely amount of complexity of the electrical systems. The improved redstone. The automation potentials. This basic improvement in minecraft life is great and addicting. New ore and gems to tantalize you when you’re deep in the earth. New plants, new crops. New gadgets like automatic miners and jetpacks. New weapons and armor. There isn’t a single area of vanilla that isn’t expanded on.

Where tekkit fails

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for you to reach a point where the resources you’re going to need for your planned projects are going to be insanely vast. For example, my first goal was going to be to setup a force field to defend my little area. The recipe to create a force field doesn’t look too bad but its energy requirements are steep (as you would expect) when you’re protecting a large area. So, instead of tackling the complexity, or following a blueprint for a nuclear plant, I decided I’d just craft a HV (high voltage) solar array which would power my force field and charge a battery to keep the power up at night. Simple enough, this was all based on theorycrafting.

However, to create a single HV array would require 512 (8x8x8) solar panels. Each solar panel requires a generator, two circuits and some other easier to get components. Each circuit require copper wire, iron, and redstone. Copper wires require rubber. Generators require batteries, furnaces, and machine blocks (8 iron). The recipes aren’t hard, but for a single HV solar array I’d need something like 5000 iron and 3000 copper, 1500 rubber. These are rough, the tekkit wiki probably has real numbers, but the point is that it was clear from the get-go I wasn’t going to be harvesting these myself. To get 5000 iron I’d probably spend days of play time in mines.

And so I discovered the Equivalent Exchange (EE) part of Tekkit. It’s mod that, at its core, lets you echange many lesser valued items for one higher valued item. It’s a great concept because it means that all of that extra garbage you get from mining you can convert, losslessly, into another type of item. I can’t tell you how many stacks of cobblestone I’ve had from mining that just sit in a large chest waiting for me to use them because I can’t bare to let them go. With EE I’d be able to convert them into something I actually need. Sounds fair. After all, it’s in the title: equivalent exchange.

But EE also comes with energy collectors that are able to absorb EMC (the “currency” of items) from sunlight. It becomes clear that when you can absorb enough EMC to basically replicate an iron ingot in a couple of seconds that this is probably the best way to get 5000 iron ingots without strip mining the planet.

So it seems all right then. Sure you’ve got uber expensive items, but you’ve also got a way to convert time spent doing anything into items. Just be patient and you’ll have enough EMC to pay for your ingredients. Problem solved, right? Sure, but at what cost? What reason do you now have to play the game if resources are meaningless with a little effort?

Why explore? Why face danger? Why delve into the caverns and discover underground strongholds and dungeons if you will never return with anything that you couldn’t have replicated? Why spend more than two minutes in the nether if you only have to get one glowstone dust forever?

You know what the most efficient strategy for playing Tekkit is, after you’ve got an energy collector and a condenser up to a certain efficiency? Go do something else and leave your character to idle nearby. Zero effort, guaranteed reward. I generated more diamonds in my sleep this way than I would’ve ever mined in days of gameplay otherwise.

I’m sure that I can afford the reagents to make that HV solar array now, but what’s the point? There’s no achievement left in creating it except for building a machine to crank out solar panels so I don’t have to put up with the tedium of thousands of steps I’d have to take by hand to create one myself. And I understand that designing such a machine is pleasurable, but if creating the components of the machine is just a waiting game for ingredients, why not go to creative mode and design it there? Similarly, if having 1000 diamond blocks is your goal for building your mansion of unparalleled wealth, why not just skip the few days of waiting (or less, likely, if you have a better collector/relay/condenser setup) and just do it in creative mode? Because you want to be “challenged” by sitting around waiting doing anything else for long enough? Because it’s an achievement to have replicated a mansion?

In short, by forcing us to get around resource gathering by making end-game level items insanely expensive, Tekkit has obviated the whole point of playing the game in survival mode.

Perhaps I’m unfortunate in being too obsessed with efficiency. Tekkit has a lot of great additions to vanilla, but I can’t bring myself to ignore the gamebreaking ones. If I can have access to unlimited resources, I can’t help but take advantage of them and, eventually, it makes more sense to keep upgrading your replicator setup than it does doing pretty much anything else. Perhaps I can just remove the EE mod (I am running a personal server after all), but then I don’t know how I’d deal with the insane amounts of material I need to pursue my grand plans. Maybe I could just force myself to ignore collectors, and only convert “honest” items into more useful ones? I don’t know. All I know is that, right now, the simplicity of vanilla looks a lot more challenging, rewarding and, thus, appealing.

scifi, trek July 23, 2012 Jack No comments

On TNG 25th Anniversary

There’s an event tonight that I’m looking forward to in the utmost: TNG 25th Anniversary in theaters.

It’s a couple of episodes, some behind the scenes footage, a sneak peak, and most importantly the chance to geek out to some classic TNG on the big screen in newly remastered high def.

The event, and the accompanying blu-ray releases over the next several years underline the desire that we trekkies have for a new series. After all, Enterprise has been off the air for 7 years now. The 2009 movie and its forthcoming sequels are enough to sate us, for now, but their glitz and sleek action don’t scratch the fundamental itch of a Star Trek at its best. I am not one that hates the new films, but I recognize that Trek movies in general have always been about trading some of the series’ best attributes (it’s willingness to approach philosophy with sci-fi, it’s vision of humanity and the Federation as benevolent keepers of a utopian society) for attributes that attract the laymen of Trek canon, the casual summer blockbuster ticket.

No, what Trekkies are thirsting for is another series. One with a set of characters we can grow to know well, like we feel we know Picard or Data or Riker or Geordie. One that takes us to new places with new challenges and, certainly, new foes. But what we have to remember is that 7 years of no series isn’t anything. There was a full decade between the end of TOS and the release of the first movie, almost another decade on top of that before TNG started. 20 years separates the series.

Now, 7 years from the truncated end of Enterprise, we hear rumors. We salivate over premises that, frankly, aren’t very strong. We are so desperate for a new series that we cling to these rumors and draw hope from them. Personally, though, I can wait. If we want to return to the halcyon days of Trek (like the 90s, which started and ended without ever knowing a day without a new Trek episode on the schedule) the first series to break the ice has to be phenomenal. It has to explode on the scene.

In this light, it’s easy to find a new respect for TNG. After a 20 year drought, 10 of which were filled with movies featuring the old cast, they had to come on, pay homage but, more importantly, find their own niche. They did this by advancing the timeline 100 years to a more mature, more organized Federation that focused more on a peaceful exploration with strict rules about non-interference. Simultaneously though, conflicts were bigger and badder, the stakes higher. TNG came in after 20 years of the same characters off and on and managed to up the ante on practically every front. Then, given 100 more episodes (more than twice as many) they managed to turn Trek from a series into a franchise that dominated TV sci-fi for another 15 years afterwards.

This is what I want. I don’t want another series. I want another era. If we have to wait for another 13 years to get the chance at having another 15 year age of Trek then I’ll wait. One good series is worth 10 ST: Cardinals or other proposed series.

Speculation

Taking the above to heart, what would a new series have to look like? First let’s try to distill what makes Trek Trek. Here’s my barest definition.

  1. The Future. This should be pretty obvious. I don’t think there’s much Trek in a modern day series.
  2. Human. Trek is inherently about humanity. Our journey through the stars and our trials and tribulations.
  3. Federation. Inasmuch as Trek is human, it’s also about a future in which we are banded together with many other species with similar ideals. Watching Trek without the Federation would be just watching sci-fi that happens to be in the Trek universe. Enterprise gets a pass because it was a prequel, but I think that ground has been trod.

Elaborating on the above, this is what I’d like to see in a new series.

Prime Universe. Abrams’ films are fine and exist handily in another universe which allows them to be considered wholly separate from every bit of Trek ’til now. Let’s take advantage of that fact and stick to the prime universe that’s already so well established.


Expand the Timeline… but not too far. Enterprise set a pretty firm range of dates for time travel becoming trivial enough that it’s regulated. Personally, I believe that once we get too much temporal flexibility, the premise will become too stretched. If time travel is an easy tool it means that you get infinite retries on the best outcome and nobody has to live with unintended consequences as long as they are in control of a time machine. Fortunately there’s about 600 years between the end of VOY (2378) and the temporal police of the 31st century in Enterprise, although I think time travel would’ve likely become a tool sometime before that.


Enterprise. DS9 is my favorite Trek even though it’s close with TNG and TOS, however I believe that DS9 was able to drastically change the core premise of Trek (by being on a space station rather than roving the galaxy) because TNG had given the series a good lead in. A new series should return to the Trek fundamental of exploration and diplomacy on the Enterprise to start on solid ground before considering a more studious (if rewarding) approach.

Another aspect of this point, and why it’s “Enterprise” and not “On a Ship” is that I want the core cast to be good at what they do, the best even. There’s a trend in TV and movies lately to have anti-hero or flawed characters. This was part of the ST: Cardinal premise that I thought was terrible. I want to see shining examples of logic, efficiency, and compassion. The traits that make us, as a species, great. I don’t want the same tired and conflicted main characters that you can find in every modern drama or sci-fi. I want to see my captain struggle to maintain or restore order in the galaxy, not struggle to get out of bed in the morning.


Crew Diversity. One of the great aspects of TNG was the ability to bring many viewpoints to bear. The TNG crew had plenty of humans, but also Troi, Worf, Data, and even Barclay to bring viewpoints other than human Elite Starfleet officers. TOS struggles with this in universe (Spock being the only non-human) but excelled in it out of universe (having a black woman, an asian man, and a Russian on the bridge in the late 60s). DS9 focuses on the Federation vs. Bajor contrast with Kira and various semi-regular Bajorans, but also includes Worf, Dax, Odo and Quark providing outside influences (coincidentally being on a space station instead of a ship is a definite plus in the diversity). VOY and ENT made attempts but were unsuccessful at accomplishing this, despite the seeds of possibility.


Screen Time. The final thing I’d like to see in a Trek series is a lot of screen time. These days, there’s been a definite trend toward short seasons. For the most part, this is good. If Game of Thrones has only 12 episodes to tell you a compelling arc, then you know each episode is going to be packed with content. Same thing with Breaking Bad, or Mad Men. The source of entertainment is the drama and the 12 episode season is very conducive to having drama dripping from every episode. But drama is not what Trek is about, at least not all the time.

Imagine cutting TNG down to twelve episodes a season. You have to ditch a full 92 episodes. Sure, you could start easily enough, forgetting bad episodes like Sub Rosa (my personal least favorite) but pretty soon you’re going to be cutting into episodes that are great, but not great enough. For example, The Measure of a Man. That episode would never get made if all 12 episodes had to be action packed drama fests. It’s too wordy and plodding. Yet it’s a great exploration into the topic of whether Data is human or deserves rights and, more generally, whether a human creation can ever have the same rights as humans themselves. Trek philosophy via sci-fi at its greatest would’ve never made it in a short season.

Now, I’m not saying that it has to be a full 26 episode season either, but whatever number, there needs to be plenty of time to ponder alongside the time for tension and drama. This is especially true if the new Trek follows the modern drama formula where each episode relies on the last. A Trek show has never been done like this (DS9 comes the closest toward the end), but this is not incompatible with having occasional one-offs and philosophical episodes that are woven into that framework.


This is roughly what I’d like to see, not only because it would please me, but also because I think it would provide a solid base for subsequent series and, therefore, another era of Trek on the airwaves. This is just a base however. I mentioned above that TNG upped the ante on virtually every aspect of TOS. While a modern series would obviously have the effects and make-up in the bag (even over 2005 Enterprise), it’d be tough to up the ante on TNG/DS9 era Trek. The story is going to be the deciding factor and that’s wide open for interpretation. This is why I can be patient. Anyone can make a show that fulfills the above criteria but it’s going to take a special someone to really make it awesome.

gaming July 10, 2012 Jack One comment

On Diablo

I really didn’t intend for this to be a gaming blog, but it’s all I want to talk about at the moment. Life is rough recently, so escapism is always on my mind =P.

I played D2 when I was in high school. I played it to death. Single player and on realms. I played it vanilla, LoD, and then, over the subsequent decade, I played it a number of times on the higher (1.10 – 1.13) patches with my wife because it was an easy game to play on laptops on wireless and have a blast.

It’s no secret that I was excited for Diablo 3. I had it pre-ordered, I followed the news on /r/diablo for months before release. I tried every trick in the book to get into the beta, and participated gladly in the open beta weekend. I ate it up. I leveled every class, tried for every achievement.

Two months out I feel disappointed like so many gamers out there. Everyone from D2 wanted D3 to be a lifestyle rather than just a game (as one redditor put it). We wanted a game that we could dump hours into and be rewarded handsomely with that great feeling of finding a truly awesome item. We wanted that feeling of being decked out in the best gear and after such a struggle, cakewalking through the hardest difficulty or the toughest PvPers.

I was frothing at the mouth because I remember having so much fun with D2, but it was a different time for me and for gaming in general. AAA titles, indie games, mobile gaming, lo-fi hits mean that there is a steady stream of fun games out there that we don’t need to rely on mindless repetition to continue to have fun.

In 2000 there were a large number of really great games, AAA titles like Baldur’s Gate 2, Thief 2, and my absolute favorite game of all time Deus Ex. But these were finite affairs to me, you played them, you beat them (sometimes multiple times) and none of them were very multiplayer friendly (DX multiplayer added later notwithstanding). D2 was a strong game in its own right and its repetitive although rewarding formula with PvP and a real economy were perfect to fill the gaps. 5 character classes, 99 character levels, three difficulties and, to top it off a major expansion almost exactly a year later. This combined with the fact that I was 14, with a whole summer stretching out before me, no car and few friends meant that I could not only plow through the other titles, but also dump hours and hours in to D2 to fill the time. It was the perfect storm.

Fast forward 12 years. I’ve got a wife, a kid, a job, a mountain of bills and I still manage to put in more hours on gaming than the average 9-5er. But the difference isn’t just age, or means, the difference is that there are no longer any gaps. As gamers our attention is highly sought after. For reference, look at the wikipedia page for 2000 in videogaming versus the page for 2011. The criteria for inclusion on this list isn’t clear but if we condense the multi-platform titles and use them as a list of notable releases, it’s obvious that there are at least twice as many notable titles vying for our attention and that’s ignoring the vast amount of cheap but fun indie games that would further weight 2011 in comparison. The point is that now, in 2012, no gamer can honestly complain about having nothing to play. AAA titles abound. $2-$5 fun games show up on Steam every day and don’t even require decent PCs to play. Free to play MMORPGs are everywhere. That’s not even counting the huge backlog of video games from the past decade that you can pick up for a song (although in 2000 you had the entire 90s canon to fallback on too). Together with the fact we’re all older and have less time, there’s no need for a Diablo game to fill in your time between releases because there is no time between releases anymore

Without the need for an endless game to return to there is one thing that would hold a player’s attention in this cascade of games and that’s community. The reason that MMOs are so popular and have such a devoted player base is that you join and play with hundreds of other people, form guilds/factions/organizations as well as digital friendships. The same applies for FPS games with their clans. This social aspect is what makes players consider returning even after getting tempted away to another game for awhile. Ironically, social features – the very thing that might’ve redeemed D3 in face of a rocky start and its many other problems – are practically non-existent. The entire experience is isolating and many player actually complain that working with a group makes the game more of a boring grind rather than less because of the tendency for public players to be undergeared and uncoordinated. MMOs are now where people go to socialize, meet up, quest and battle. D3 offers none of those things compellingly. In fact, the lack of social features blows a hole in the end game that’s larger than just poor itemization. Without the ability to show off, get ranked, or PvP, what’s the point in continuing to optimize your gear? After all, you beat all of the story content before you even hit the half-way mark to level 60. Even if you want to beat it on the highest difficulty, that doesn’t take the best items with the best rolls in the game. Nobody grinds for hours and hours solely to beat end mobs just a little bit faster.

So, stripped of the role as a fallback game (because we don’t need them anymore), and stripped of the social features that entice players to return, what’s left? The answer is a pretty mediocre game. The gameplay and graphics are brilliant, but the story is a joke and the auction house has replaced the greatest feeling in Diablo (finding a great item) with the chore of gathering gold and going shopping.

gaming, scifi, trek March 16, 2012 Jack No comments

On Star Trek Online

I’m a huge Trek fan, if you didn’t know. I’ve watched every episode and movie. I know trivia. I have posters in my office, models, and even toys. Yep, I’m a trekkie and proud of it.

I’m also a gamer, but I’m resistant to the idea of playing an MMORPG. I played WoW back in the 2005-2006 timeframe when I had buckets of freetime in college and even then I started playing to the exclusion of all else. I was going through some tough times, what with becoming a father at 20, so I was more than happy to escape my regular existence (I feel I should note that I still managed to get middling good grades and graduate before all of my friends, but I could’ve done better). Anyway, a year or so of WoW addiction has put me off of MMORPGs because in the end I found the experience hollow, not to mention expensive.

So when Star Trek Online came out, my reluctance to give it a shot as an MMORPG vastly outweighed my desire to play a game in the Star Trek universe. I need another monthly bill like I need a hole in my head, really. Not to mention I had (and still have) a girlfriend and I had only one game-capable computer at the time. Juliette’s down with some game playing, but only if she gets equal time, or can play with me.

All of that changed. I built another desktop, and upgraded my first so they’re capable of gaming (we played Skyrim with high detail simultaneously). Then, two months ago, ST:O went free to play.

I’m still resistant. The idea of Korean MMORPG players letting their children starve to death in another room is a powerful reminder of the depth of game addiction and I definitely don’t have the time to devote to it now that I have a career and a family. But at the same time, the life of a parent can get pretty boring when you don’t have the time (or the money) to go out on a regular basis. Finding escape in media (Juliette and I have watched a large amount of Trek, as well as loads of other stuff), or at the gym is all well and good but both of those things can feel repetitive and unrewarding. Games are a good way to get around that, even if their rewards are fake. So, last night, Juliette and I installed ST:O and gave it a shot.

I can already feel the grip of it. I had trouble sleeping last night because of it. It was a lot of fun, and even though I’m only a couple of missions out of the tutorial and still only have a basic grip on the gameplay or strategy, I’m obsessing over it.

I never understood the free-to-play business model, but I do now. The reminders are all over in the game, from the people commanding massive starships, to the unlockable character customization that costs real money, to the Cardassian Lockboxes that require purchased keys to open. It would be so easy to lose track of how much real money you’ve spent. And yet, looking through the store, the items seem interesting and compelling and the prices don’t seem unreasonable when you consider what you’re getting. Most of the nitshit improvements are less than the price of a fancy coffee. Some of the smaller ships are $10-$15. The capital ships are $25 (or $50 for a pack of them, one for each class). They’re all transferrable to different characters on the account. And even though I’m wary of spending $25 on virtual property that’s only good as long as I play the game, I remember that I’m playing the entire game, legally, for free. That’s half of what I paid just to buy WoW 6-7 years ago, not even including the subscription fees. Now, clearly, this could spiral out of control. There are some things they charge for that I’d never consider, like customizing your bridge crew characters, or opening those Lockboxes, or expanding my inventory etc.. I’m not here to micropay myself into oblivion, but if I reach a high enough rank and I’ve gotten $25 of entertainment from the game (which seems likely after one night’s playing), I’ll probably be rolling in an Odyssey.

Overall, I think the game has channeled Trek fairly well. The space vs. ground event / skill set is pretty much how a Trek RPG should work I think and the style is dead on. The ships and environment look great, even two years out from launch. The ship controls take a little to get used to, but it’s managed to relate the universe well with stuff like setting the impulse level, the different attacks, and parlaying crew expertise into special techniques – all things we’ve seen on screen. It’s easy to pretend I’m Kirk or Picard at the helm of my ship with my trusty bridge crew.

That said, I’ve yet to get very far into the game and I obviously haven’t even touched the Klingon side of the universe, so I’ll have to reserve final judgment until I know how much fun I can have with it. I’m hoping that the separation between core gameplay and extra content is as well defined as it appears to me now, but I could be wrong as I get farther from basic levels.

Massive Edit

I now have a deeper understanding of the game, and have stopped playing. Some things I wanted to touch on since this is my space for reviewing things that cross my mind.

The Duty Officer dynamic (you obtain sets of duty officers like items, each one has certain attributes, you then send a number of these officers on offscreen missions that take a duration of real time to get various rewards and special XP) was really cool. It rounded out the game as a simulation of being a real captain because in the series you always see characters going to or returning from various competitions and conferences, or having special duty to optimize the warp core, or going on leave to Risa. It was a nice way for your characters to be working even while you weren’t playing the game and it was a draw to return so you could check on how your duty officers performed. It’s perverse how much I enjoyed sending my little figurine duty officers to settle trade disputes or help colonists, just like in the series. However, it could definitely use a tweak. I was disappointed that the duty officers never progress. They’re like a deck of trading cards, you can play them different ways but they never change, you have to trade up or find better ones to improve. I understand that this makes them a commodity for the player trading system (the Exchange), but I would’ve really liked it if the missions you sent them on changed their effectiveness somehow. Each task has certain requirements to even attempt and each comes with a chance of critical success, success, failure, or disaster. If the officers you assign have certain traits, you can improve your changes for any of the four. For example, if you send a Diplomat with the Telepathic trait, you increase your chance of critical success. Alternatively, if you send your crew on leave with just a bunch of stick in the mud Starfleet types you increase your chance of failure (apparently the rigid officers don’t have much fun alone – imagine a crew full of Worfs on leave). Now, that’s pretty neat alone, but I wish that some of these traits were more flexible. For example, you already gain a bonus for sending “Tactful” security officers with your Diplomats, because they don’t offend the relevant parties. It would be nice if you sent an officer without “Tactful” on the mission and, if it was a critical success (or some other criterion) he would learn something about tact and return with the trait. Of course there are some caveats, you could never gain the trait “Telepathic”, that wouldn’t make sense, and you’d have to add some chance of getting negative traits too. Overall it would shift the focus from passing around officers like trade commodities to molding an untested fresh crew into a great crew. That’s where you get your satisfaction. That’s when you’re officially role-playing Picard.

Another thing worth mentioning is the crafting system that seems to be compulsory in modern RPGs. I don’t envy the task having to somehow wedge a crafting system into a universe that’s built around mutual advancement and practically limitless energy, but the STO guys did a great job. The fundamental element of crafting in STO is exploration. To craft items you spend things like “Unknown Alloys” and “Tetryon Particles” that you gather from scanning unknown anomalies. To make a really great item you need a rare particle trace. You have Research Points that represent your skill at building these various craftables (ship weapons, ground weapons, hypos, deflectors, etc.). None of this really makes sense in the broader universe in which sharing research and effort for mutual gain is basically the cornerstone but what they accomplished is rewarding the sort of curiosity that you see in all Trek captains. Now when Kirk scans an anomaly he’s not trying to build a phaser array, but in the MMO world where no *real* exploration can exist, it’s a nice way to incentivize giving a nod to Starfleet’s scientific mandate by at least feigning curiosity. That said the whole thing is a fucking grindfest, which is basically what all crafting systems boil down to if there’s a need to farm reagents. You can certainly just do missions and scan any anomalies that you come across but that’s never going to be enough. You need 10 Radiation Samples (or other items) alone just to build the schematic for your end goal. Random chance isn’t enough to make all of the craftable items you want to make, and trading low level commodities is pretty much miserable. That means that you’re going to head to one of the unexplored sectors of the galaxy and sit around scanning anomalies for ages until you have enough of data sample XYZ and that’s flat out boring. Even getting your research points is a grind as you end up having to make items you don’t want or need just to get enough points to start making items of your class (this might be avoidable if you start crafting everything and scanning anomalies from day one).

That’s the problem I have with STO. It’s all to repetitive. I cranked up the difficulty to Elite and the ships and enemies successfully posed a threat to me, but the missions just blurred together into a paste. In the initial Klingon storyline there are some nice piece of writing – like meeting McCoy and Scotty in a past starbase that’s rendered just like TOS to defeat phase shifting beings that are exploiting a passing comet to prey on us – but the end result is that basically all the missions are [Space Combat][Ground Combat][Space Combat] with a wall of samey enemies and a linear set of objects to interact with between you and the end. It’s all phrased differently, the settings are all trivially different, but there wasn’t enough differentiation to hold my attention. Grinding mobs is where I think MMOs in general fall down, but MMOs like WoW have the advantage that if you’re going to churn through enemies they’re usually different from the last place. You move from undead to snake people to evil gnomes to ghosts to trolls etc. all in their own different setting, and all with their own skills and threats to your character. In STO, it was an interminable stream of Birds of Prey with basically the same attack, maybe a bigger one with Plasma Torpedoes or another minor variation. On the ground it was a stream of the same Klingon characters in worlds that looked too much alike. I will give STO points for the fact that combat is fun, and that it’s much more based on abilities you get from bridge officers or weapons than from your character alone (which gives you more leeway to experiment), but when I’m on the surface clearing out my hundredth group of identical Klingons, I’m looking for a little more variety.

This is especially true with the exploration quests. These are almost mandatory because you can get 1440 dilithium (which is a fair sum, not a fortune) every real-time day doing them and there aren’t that many opportunities to get dilithium (at least not at my level). The quest is easy, you go to one of the fringe places (the same places you grind for craftables) and you explore or aid three systems. The problem is that you only have to do it a couple of times before you see the pattern that exists in every one of these quests. There are the clear out missions, the missions where you replicate 10 of some commodity the planet needs, the collect 5 data samples missions, and the final and most tedious type: the away team aid mission. These away team aid missions sound like they’d be fun, they come with various different stories, like helping to investigate a murder, or dispelling a ghost story, but in the end it comes down to the same fucking thing. You land, you interact with a set of objects, possibly fighting off others in the way. Now you might think I’m being overly abstract because games are really just interacting with various things in various ways but when I say “interact with a set of objects” I mean you literally walk from one point to another scanning. Some missions that’s literally it. You walk from one giant mushroom plant to another until you’ve scanned 5. Done. Others are you walk from one monolith to another killing Klingons in between. There’s no drama. No dialogue. It’s just another theme on the same goddam template. Look, I’m not trying to say that STO has to procedurally generate actual alien worlds with civilizations and stories, but at least add some more entries to the cycle.

I’m not trying to condemn all of the writing content. I particularly enjoyed the DS9 arc (the Dominion fleet diverted in the end of the series shows up 30 years late and takes DS9), but even that was tainted but one too many step and fetch quests on Bajor to get the base running and suffered from a rather weak ending (getting a Founder out of Federation prison when – surprise – there’s a prison break). The TOS cameos were delightful as well, but that’s pretty low hanging fruit to impress a Trekkie.

In the end, I stopped playing. The thrill of space combat, the Trek references, the well done game mechanics and even the great job they did styling the game couldn’t make up for the repetitive nature of the game. Maybe there’s an explosion of good content later as the writers explored the boundaries of the engine, and maybe the PvP that I frankly couldn’t care less about redeems it for some players, but at level 21 I have lost the compulsion to continue. Perhaps MMOs really just aren’t for me in the end, and I’ve been permanently spoiled by rich single player games like Fallout and Deus Ex that are basically impossible to replicate in an MMO.

software February 9, 2012 Jack 2 comments

On Wayland, systemd and Convergence

One of the reasons the Linux desktop is making strides is that we are beginning to converge. One might look at the Unity/gnome-shell split, or the vast differences between GNOME/KDE/Xfce/Xmonad/etc. and think that that statement is a complete load. But look at the tech running our Linux desktops today:

  • IPC: DBus, very important as the foundation
  • Sound output management: PulseAudio, love it or hate it
  • Chat/messaging: Telepathy
  • Network management: NetworkManager
  • Notifications: DBus notifications

This isn’t even counting the defacto libraries that handle a lot of the less glamorous tasks on virtually every desktop Linux machine, like poppler for PDF display, or freetype2 for fonts, or components of the non-graphical GNU userland. And also not counting the various standards we almost universally adhere to, like EWMH (where possible).

Convergence provides us with great benefits. You might not like NetworkManager, you may prefer another, but it’s because of NetworkManager that major distribution installs all operate identically. Loading Ubuntu / Mint / Debian / Arch / Fedora with GNOME or KDE and immediately you’ll see what I mean. It fires up an applet, and the user just knows what to do. It’s got permissions, it just works. Compare this to the days before when each distro had its own crazy script crap with varying levels of interfaces and it’s the difference between night and day. Today I can hand my girlfriend – not a Linux expert by any stretch – her laptop with a default install of Arch w/ GNOME and she can hit the network. Not so long ago, I had a collection of bash scripts I tried to teach her to use.

Same with PulseAudio. You may believe that using straight ALSA is a better solution, but only until you have multiple sound devices you want to use. Or bluetooth headphones. Or want to do network sound. Or UPnP. Because the major desktop environments have converged around PulseAudio, they all operate similarly and have the same features. Settings in GNOME affect settings in KDE. Media applications can take advantage of PulseAudio’s features and not have to worry about fallbacks.

You may argue that Telepathy applications aren’t as mature or full featured as Pidgin, the classic IM client, but it’s getting there and has several interfaces across toolkits (or lack thereof), and integrated with greater flexibility. Clients written to use it get so much for free that it’s compelling.

Applications can be more featureful, stable, and interoperable when most of their functionality is shared in a backend. This was enshrined in the Unix Philosophy and forgotten somewhere along the way: separation of capabilities and presentation. These technologies aren’t perfect, they may not eclipse alternatives yet, but the important thing is that they’re agnostic of toolkit, window manager, or desktop environment. If you were to start another desktop environment today, there would be far less work to have a functional system today than 10 years ago because of them and that’s a win for every person that’s ever been unhappy with the state of their desktop.

The controversial part

I haven’t yet mentioned the two pieces of software in the title of this piece for good reason. Wayland and systemd are, almost by definition, not about convergence. If anything they’re about divergence as we, the open source community, have already converged on Xorg and sysvinit pretty definitively. However, these components are outdated and flawed. They form the basis of all the open source desktops, but we cannot allow that to force us into using them forever.

In the larger scheme of things, replacing these two pieces of software are part of what I perceive as a new push to converge on another component. The Linux kernel. These pieces are software are tightly coupled to it. This is the philosophy of their authors:


Kristian Høgsberg, creator of Wayland

FOSDEM 2012 Interview, February 2012
FOSDEM: Wayland requires Linux-specific features such as KMS and udev. Would it be much work to port Wayland to other free operating systems such as the BSDs? Do you know of any efforts or interest in this domain?

Kristian: It’s certainly possible to port Wayland to other operating systems, but they’ll have to provide the same level of infrastructure as Linux does. One of the things that went wrong with X was that we tried to pull too much of the OS into X so that we could run on every old platform out there. Or to put it more bluntly, bending over backwards for fringe platforms. There’s a real cost to that; the code gets encrusted in #ifdefs, codepaths that never get tested and bad architecture decisions such as userspace PCI bus enumeration and writing your own dynamic linker.

I also find that the Linux kernel has a lot of cool features that can make applications faster, safer and simpler, and we often don’t use those in the name of portability. There is an accept4 syscall that lets you accept a connection on a socket and sets O_CLOEXEC atomically. The epoll mechanism with timerfd and signalfd does most of what many complex userspace event loops do in many thousands of lines of code. We need to embrace all the new features the kernel offers and not insist on some outdated lowest common denominator.

Lennart Poettering, creator of systemd

Linux.fr Interview, June 2011
LinuxFr.org : Systemd use a lot of Linux only technologies (cgroups, udev, fanotify, timerfd, signalfd, etc). Do you really think the Linux API has been taking the role of the POSIX API and the other systems are irrelevant ?

Lennart : Yes, I don’t think BSD is really too relevant anymore, and I think that this implied requirement for compatibility with those systems when somebody hacks software for the free desktop or ecosystem is a burden, and holds us back for little benefit.

I am pretty sure those other systems are not irrelevant for everbody, after all there are people hacking on them. I just don’t think it’s really in our interest to let us being held back by them if we want to make sure Linux enters the mainstream all across the board (and not just on servers and mobile phones, and not in reduced ways like Android). They are irrelevant to get Free Software into everybody’s hand, and I think that is and should be our goal.

But hey, that’s just me saying this. I am sure people do Free Software for a number of reasons. I have mine, and others have others.


To me, this is exactly the attitude we need. FreeBSD and same-kernel variants are the only open kernels with any sort of desktop presence other than Linux[1] and it has a tiny fraction the number of desktop users. OpenBSD is still relevant in its own ultra-secure niche, but the desktop is a completely secondary goal. NetBSD is… well, NetBSD. The point is that the Linux kernel has quite a lot of relevant features, and many times the number of users such that it doesn’t make sense to warp the codebase of two of our most important components to function on them.

Wayland is a major win for the open desktop because it’s dead simple, performant, and in it’s 4 year life has already acquired features that are completely lacking in Xorg. It’s shed years of X11 cruft in favor of a solution that makes sense on modern open source desktops. We no longer live in a world in which it makes sense to optimize your entire display server for the off chance that the window is going to be remotely connected over a network when 99.99% of the time the application is going to be a local window [2]. The simplicity of this approach lends itself to leaner, faster software built on top of it. But the simplicity Wayland has achieved is from leveraging technology that isn’t present in non-Linux kernels. Apart from the tech that Kristian mentions in the quote above, FreeBSD (again – the most advanced w/r/t desktop capabilities BSD) lacks even rudimentary support for kernel mode setting (KMS) and other technology for this lightweight rendering in released code (although there are out-of-tree patches for Intel chips only).

Systemd too, taking advantage of the more featureful Linux-only u* tools and interfaces, shouldn’t have to be warped to support tiny tiny fractions of the community. If it did, and the device hotplug or cgroup functionality it provided couldn’t be relied upon, the higher level graphical applications would have to compensate, most likely by ignoring features or using messy fallbacks.

Pieces of the modern open source stack should be written to take full advantage of current technology (Linux[3]) and damn the rest. Not because I don’t like BSD, not just because it has so few desktop users, but because open source, at its heart, is a do-it-ocracy. In no other software ecosystem in the world do independent developers feel beholden to support ancient and rare configurations of infrastructure or to hold of on adoption until support can be universal. In no other software ecosystem in the world does it make less sense to do so. If BSD users want Wayland and systemd, the code is right there, waiting for them to start a patch set against them.

And for those that would say that I’m impugning the open source grail, the freedom of choice, I ask you what you are choosing? Why choose one piece of software over another? Because one does what you want how you want it done, and another does not[4]. I want to live in a world where the way my software works is completely separate from the way I work with my software. How it works (sending messages, emails, making sounds, connecting to networks, displaying images or webpages etc.) should be solid, featureful and, most importantly, independent from how I work with it (CLI, graphical, integrated into this or that, windows here, buttons there, flashing icons, popups and notifications etc.). I think that you’ll find that most of your choice has nothing to do with underlying technology and only with capabilities and presentation. Lets agree on capabilities and then we are free to choose presentation.

The time has come to take the final steps of convergence at the low level and the high level. To choose the best tech to standardize the underpinning technologies of our systems. Let’s drop the harmful pretense of equality and instead usher in an age in which we can all count on a modern kernel, a modern init, a modern display server and functionality that is separated from interface. Then, and only then, will we have created not just the Year of the Linux Desktop, but the Year of the Ultimate Desktop.

– Jack


[1] (Open)Solaris and kin could be considered challengers here, I see murmurs of better graphical support on the internet, but they’re incomplete in terms of driver support, and the number of desktop users is minscule even compared to BSD.


[2] Which isn’t to say that we don’t want or need the capability of using graphical apps over a network, just that we don’t need to cause crippling performance or design problems to accomodate it. That sort of functionality belongs in a plugin or a library. If anything, having it separated from the display manager just means it would be easier to tweak and perfect.


[3] And yes, this includes moving elsewhere in the exceedingly rare likelihood that Linux would ever be supplanted. It’s the year 2012, Linux has the greatest number of developers and users, has faced down all of its (prospective though bullshit) legal problems and has gained widespread support in markets outside of the desktop. As of yet there are no open contenders other than OpenSolaris and BSD, unless you want to count HURD, hahahahaha.


[4] Licensing is also a factor, but I consider that part of “how I want it done.”

gaming November 30, 2011 Jack No comments

On Skyrim

I don’t really want to spend much time talking about Skyrim. I’ve already written this post as a review, but in all I’m still forming my opinion so anything I say has to be tempered at this point. Instead of a review, I’d like to collect various points of thought.

Skyrim’s Strengths

Level Scaling

I never thought I’d say this about a TES game after Oblivion so royally fucked up on level scaling, but this is one (of many, as we’ll see in the next few points) where Skyrim learns much from Bethesda’s work on Fallout 3.

Like Fallout 3, the level scaling is appropriately tailored to quests leaving random encounters at a standard level. This means that, unlike Oblivion, there are no road bandits wearing daedric armor, but the main questline will provide challenge for you at whatever point you decide to pursue it.

Level Mechanics

The core reason that level scaling didn’t work in Oblivion was that the traditional TES leveling scheme didn’t fit with it. As a refresher for those of you that didn’t play Oblivion for awhile to get ramped up for Skyrim, in Oblivion you chose 5 major skills (in Morrowind it was 5 major, 5 minor) and your advancement through those skills determined your character level. In theory, this means that as your knight character hacks and slashes (advancing Blade, Block, etc.) he levels as he becomes more effective.

The reality of the fact was that it was possible to exploit the game with what amounts to the converse of the above. By “poorly” choosing your major skills (i.e. choosing magic skills for a character that will never cast a spell), you could artificially keep your character level low and the enemies would be (in)appropriately weak. This was a functional strategy because in Oblivion, character levels didn’t mean anything. Sure, you got to dump some points in attributes and skills, but if the alternative means enemies don’t get any stronger, you’re no worse off for foregoing character levels all together.

Well, Skyrim puts an end to that. You no longer choose your major skills, it levels you up based on your advancement through skills overall.

Perks

As part of the level mechanic updates, the addition of Fallout 3 style explicit perks was great. TES has always had perks, but previously they were always very subtle to the point of being useless and they were associated with reaching a new skill plateau, so there were only 4 for each skill and you just got them automatically. For magical skills, the perks were always the ability to cast higher level spells… which is nice, but aside from having marginally more powerful spells in your arsenal, it doesn’t really affect your gameplay.

With Skyrim’s system, you get a perk point each level, and each of the 18 skill trees has around 10 different perks. Like Fallout, these perks have certain requirements (either skill levels, or previous perks), but – most importantly – they can obviously affect your gameplay. Suddenly you can craft better stuff, or you hit 25% harder, or have new moves, or your shield blocks elemental damage, or spells cost half as much. These are significant changes and, because you spend finite points to get them, there are significant choices to be made as you level up.

The result is that a level in Skyrim is something that you don’t want to skip, even if you could, which is a marked change from Oblivion, and even Morrowind, where leveling was almost completely irrelevant in the face of skill levels.

Character Level and Performance

These basic improvements (overall skill level focus and perks) mean that character level is now a rough approximation of effectiveness… if you’re playing right. This relationship is the cornerstone of a level scaling system that works, but it also has some flaws that we’ll talk about with craft grinding.

Skills

In addition to the perks mentioned above, the skills have been streamlined as well. Morrowind had 27, Oblivion 21, and now Skyrim has 18 individual skills. The changes are mostly positive, like having One-handed and Two-handed skills separated instead of Blade and Blunt (which in turn were great improvements from Morrowind having a skill for every weapon type). The previous game’s questionably useful mysticism magic school has had its effects merged into other trees (conjuration and alteration, I believe). Mercantile seemed useful before, but having to level it through bartering was boring and the differentiation from plain old Speechcraft was tenuous at best. They’ve been wisely merged into a unified Speech tree. Lastly, the separation of sneak/security into sneak/lockpick/pickpocket is interesting.

I haven’t explored all of the skills, but the perks for them appear to be useful.

Smithing

I was really happy that they added in a smithing craft. The previous games included the “Armorer” skill, which allowed you to repair armor, but that’s clearly not the same. Being a melee character, it’s nice to run around in armor you create, swinging weapons you create. That’s more vanity than anything as you can pretty much find basic armor and weapons anywhere. The nice part is being able to further improve these items as your smithing skill improves to give you a bit of extra edge.

Procedural Generation

Skyrim incorporates a fair amount of randomness into the game, particularly with loot from bodies and chests. That dates back to Oblivion in TES (I believe), but it seems more prevalent now and it’s typically an antidote to quests being identical between play throughs.

Procedural generation is new, as far as I know, and it goes much farther to decrease repetition between play throughs. It doesn’t effect the main quests or some of the richer scripted events, but for things like bandit raids and thief missions, or assassin missions it’s trivial to set up and it adds a whole new level to the game. You could effectively play for hours after completing every quest line without doing the exact same quest twice.

Of course, in execution, these are a little dry. Especially when compared to the richness of the game proper. Some of them are… questionably difficult as well. For example, a procedural thief mission I got, I literally walked into the target house retrieved a conspicuous item and walked out… all while the owner was pleasantly chatting. He didn’t seem to mind that this item, which probably hadn’t existed in his home until I got the quest, was being “stolen”. I’m not sure if he was bugged or what, but the other missions were essentially adding rewards for shit I’d already be doing. Procedural bandit quests just mean you get an extra sum of gold for killing everyone in a randomly chosen local dungeon. I imagine it’s similar with procedural assassin quests, but I haven’t done any yet.

More interesting are the subtly procedural quests. Particularly quests that have a little more story to them but can take place in a number of different locations. Getting the Helm of Winterhold was subtly procedural. The quest text was spoken and rich, but the place I had to go to reclaim it changed and, most interestingly, the type of enemies I was retrieving it from changed too. Bandits the first time, necromancers the second.

Both examples are definite wins for replayability.

…It’s TES

The rest of Skyrim’s strengths flow directly from its parentage. TES games always have a huge scope and a plethora of things to do and items to obtain. Alchemy, enchanting, buying property, moral choices, many character types and playable builds. Skyrim is a solid entry in the TES lore and I haven’t even come close to finishing the game.

Skyrim’s Weaknesses

The Interface

Bethesda went the minimalist route with Skyrim’s interface and aesthetically they hit the mark. Functionally… not so much. There are already mods to correct the PC interface, particularly the inventory interface, but like Oblivion Skyrim seems to suffer from consolitis.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the character creation screen. The row of options at the top of the very first interface screen should function like tabs, but instead function like a slider. I theorize that this is due to the fact that it was designed with using shoulder buttons on a controller to navigate, instead of a mouse.

Similarly, there are a number of places, particularly in dialogue and crafting screens, where the interface appears to lose track of the mouse. Clicking seems to activate whatever is selected, but moving the mouse doesn’t necessarily change selections. The result is that you don’t really know what you’re clicking on which is doubly frustrating because the mouse makes it extremely clear what you want. I’m hoping this is what they’re fixing in 1.2 with “Mouse sensitivity issues”, although that could also be the atrociously low mouse sensitivity by default.

There are other oddities, like clicking outside of the black left sidebar inexplicably closes the interface, so you have to be very careful when selecting things there.

Overall, Bethesda also missed opportunities to use screen real estate wisely because they were designing for you to be 10 feet away on a couch instead of sitting right in front of a monitor. For example, the dearth of information in the inventory screen. 50% of the screen is taken up by a picture of the item you’re currently selected, but all you see about the other 1000 items you’re carrying is their name and some symbols regarding whether they’re equipped or more powerful than what you have equipped. In Oblivion, and the UI mods for Skyrim, you at least got a brief summary of the item from the list view. This makes it much easier to make choices about, for example, what you’re going to drop when you’re overencumbered, because you don’t have to select each individual item to see how much it weighs.

The last little nit is that when you pickup/drop/purchase/sell items from a big stack, it prompts you with a slider to ask how many. Why I can’t type a number here is annoying. Sliders are also used in the character creation screen to choose between presets. Sliders are probably the worst possible idea for mouse users, but the only controls that makes sense for console users.

The Craft Grind

Crafting, especially the new smithing craft, is hard to level without grinding. Part of the problem here is that, in previous games, the crafts were much less skill dependent. Alchemy, for example, was more effected by your intelligence attribute and the apparatus you used to create the potions than it was by the skill level. Without an intelligence attribute (or attributes at all), and no apparatus, alchemy effects are entirely based around perks (and thus skill and character level).

The problem is, with the focus on perks instead of getting gear or souls, you are forced to get your crafting skill level up to improve. Makes sense, but it’s not a smooth slope like it is with other skills. You have to go out of your way to craft. To some extent alchemy doesn’t suffer from this flaw as you’re creating potions that are disposable and there are reagent everywhere. If you experiment to find the reagents’ properties, and otherwise just craft potions for yourself or to expend reagents, you can build alchemy fairly easily — especially if you’re not afraid to use potions.

Enchanting has a similar flow if you just gain levels by disenchanting or charging enchanted weaponry with soul gems.

Smithing has absolutely no flow whatsoever. There’s no way to level it with any reasonable speed making only items for personal use. It’s also hard enough to find the reagents (ore) in large enough quantities just by adventuring, so you’re likely to be going out of your way to mine, which isn’t too much fun. The point is that if you plan on creating yourself a set of armor and a new set of weapons at every tier of smithing, and upgrading them every time you can, you’re not going to have enough smithing tasks to make it from one tier to another. The solution? Make iron daggers over and over. Almost the definition of boring.

For smithing, and even for the other crafts that have some semblance of skill, you’re probably going to end up creating items for no other purpose than to up your level. It’s possible to pace yourself by forcing yourself not to buy the reagents to do so, but nonetheless you’re going to be cranking out daggers, potions, and enchantments you don’t need if you want to get those levels. That sucks.

This is a persistent problem with TES, but it was previously been mitigated by equipment and by the fact that when you level you got to dump points into skills. In Oblivion you could theoretically get to 100 Enchant without ever enchanting an item or filling a soul gem. It makes no sense, and people would most definitely grind in that game, but you could do it. Here you’re forced to grind, to some extent.

Because I’m a fan of the new level system, I would’ve liked to have seen these problems addressed with crafting quest lines. To introduce you to smithing, the Whiterun smith has a basic quest to show you the ropes. Why couldn’t that continue? There should be quests to mine ingredients (tangentially I think you should get some smithing experience from mining and smelting in addition to the proper crafting), or forge so many X for the war effort. That would not only allow you to do quests to smoothly gain levels, it would also give you a reason to make things more interesting than iron daggers. If you were given special ingredients to fetch from hostile areas it would even mix leveling your smithing with your other skills.

Bugginess

Bugs have plagued every release Bethesda has put out since Arena and Skyrim is no different. I’ve seen items floating in the sky, people in sitting positions slide into their chairs from across the room. A friend of mine saw a mammoth fall out of the sky and die right in front of him. I’ve had fetch quests that had to be done twice, inexplicably. There are texture issues and crashes too. Going to the internet, there are apparently some other bad bugs that I’ve had the good fortune to avoid.

Overall

Overall Skyrim is a great game. Out of the gate, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but much less so than Oblivion was. Bethesda’s greatest strength is its mod friendliness. It extends the life of every game by being open to new content and allows players to correct (real or perceived) problems. The upshot of Skyrim is that it’s a solid release, but every single one of the complaints and bugs will eventually be addressed. Whether it’s by Bethesda or the players is irrelevant.

Right now, the game has its flaws. A year from now (or, rather, a year from when the “Creation Kit” is released), the game will be verging on perfect.

brewing September 30, 2011 Jack No comments

On Brewing

A couple of friends of mine, David and Otto, came down from their various corners of the world this past weekend. It was great to reconnect with them. It’d been years (since I got out of college almost 4 years ago) since we’d been in one place. It was a good time to be sure. Juliette and I tried to take them around Austin, to check out some of the local flavor. Otto had been here before for a festival (a common claim for many music and tech fans), but we largely stayed out of downtown. The appeal of 6th street is somewhat lessened now that school is back in session and we weren’t exactly looking to hang out with college age douches students out to get drunk fast and cheap. We hit places like Freddie’s, Dolce Vita, South Congress, Mount Bonnell and a cool little brew pup co-op called Blackstar (which I will probably return to, even if I don’t become a member).

Tangentially, I’ve been playing a lot of Dwarf Fortress of late (I’ll talk about that in another post, perhaps) and drinking a lot of beer and those two things have turned my brain to homebrewing, with a little inspiration from Wil Wheaton‘s adventures with his son. I was planning on getting a basic equipment set for myself (via Juliette) for Christmas, but it just so happens my two friends are homebrewers as well so I decided to advance my plans. Besides, when it takes about a month to turn around a batch of beer (give or take depending on style), it’s better to get started early. This way, I can have a batch ready for the three major holidays (Halloween, Skyrim Thanksgiving, and Diablo 3 Christmas).

So with my friends to help me, particularly Otto who’s been doing this in one form or another since college, we went to Austin Homebrew a local brick and mortar store that, you guessed it, sells all you could ever want for homebrewing beer, wine, and even soda. Judging from some vendor lists online, this type of place isn’t exactly unheard of, but it is a rare convenience. Especially considering that it’s literally 10 minutes away from my house. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded what a cool city this place is and homebrewing definitely seems to fit the Austin character. This is probably the most beer friendly city I’ve ever been in and I’m from St. Louis the erstwhile home of Anheuser-Busch.

I was really surprised with how dead simple brewing ends up being. It’s basically like making tea, then making soup, then letting your yeasty minions turn that sugary soup into tasty alcohol. It’s really just like any other food recipe, albeit one that takes longer and requires ingredients you don’t find in a grocery store. The process is also extremely variable. You can be pretty much as involved in the process as you want. They actually sell “canned” beer kits (which I initially thought was some sort of way to end up with cans of beer) in which you literally just mix some buckets of premade ingredients into the fermenter. No cooking (aside from boiling the water) required, and a bit less special equipment (no huge stock pot, no hydrometer). Sounds kinda boring, but it’s literally one step up from just buying your beer at the corner store. In the process we used, the grains were already malted and the yeast was ready, but we still created the wort ourselves. It is possible to malt your own grains though and even culture your own yeast. Hell, you could become entirely self sufficient and grow your own grains and hops too although you’d probably still have to rely on others for any special flavor ingredients. Anyway, the point is that the level of control you have over your personal involvement is great.

On top of that varying level of time commitment, there’s also a huge variety of equipment. Even one half brew in, I can see that people’s setups are vastly different. Reading through the Homebrew Talk forums, it becomes evident that a lot of these folks have very complex (and very expensive) setups. Kegging, kegerators, burners, wort chillers, fancy fermenters, carboys, parallel sets of equipment for “pipelining”, bench cappers, taps etc.. I got started for about $150 (a fermenter, a carboy, an auto-siphon, tubing, bottle wand, some caps, a hand capper, a manual, an airlock, some sanitizer, a huge steel stock pot, a thermometer, and a hydrometer), not including the first batch ingredients. But virtually every step of the process can be improved and simplified. Some people will stick with the basic investment. Others will spend thousands of dollars. Me, I’m waiting to see how my first batch turns out before thinking of improvement, but there’s definitely room for it.

The last thing I’ll mention is the economical point of view. Each five gallon batch turns into roughly 50 bottles (not equivalent to 5 gallons, you do end up losing some volume). Taking everything into account, the ingredient kit, the water (I didn’t use tap water, even though the helpful dude at the supply shop said Austin water was okay), the ice, even the caps, my first batch cost about $36. Roughly speaking, and not counting your time investment (that’s the fun part), or nitshit like stove gas, that’s 72 cents a beer. This batch is Belgian White, which is like a Blue Moon, which costs about $17 / 12 or $1.42 per beer. The cheapest, worst beer I would ever drink in a that-or-nothing situation, Lone Star, is about $9 for 12 or about 75 cents a beer. So there are basically three possible scenarios:

  • Best case scenario: The homebrews are as good as people say they are and I didn’t fuck it up. The price of a homebrew bottle is half that of its store bought counterpart.
  • Mid case scenario: The recipe sucks or I made a critical mistake. As long as it’s drinkable it’s still cheaper than Lone Star.
  • Worst case scenario: It’s undrinkable crap that even time won’t fix. I’m out $36 but hopefully I learned something in the process.

It’s hard to think of in pure economic terms for a hobby, but I take two things from this. First is that it will take about 5 good batches (214 beers, assuming similar quality) before the cost of the basic equipment is overcome by the savings on beer. One more batch to pay off the bottles if they’re kept in rotation. Not half bad considering you can brew for years with the same equipment provided you keep it clean (and don’t break your hydrometers). Second, it means that it makes financial sense to be constantly brewing. If a homebrew beer was more expensive than its counterpart then brewing would be a special occasion thing. As it is I’ve already got plans to buy two batches of bottles and another ingredient kit as soon as my first batch is out of the fermenter. Of course, this is all in rough numbers and it assumes that I’ll be cranking out the same beer (I won’t be) and I’ll never fail a batch. Really, as with any hobby, it’s hard to quantify the enjoyment or the reward of actually doing it. I’m just glad the math seems to be in my favor.

All in all, I’m looking forward to partaking in homebrewed beer in a couple of weeks. It definitely isn’t for the impatient (or the broke) but so far it seems like a fun, economical, low maintenance and hopefully delicious hobby.

gaming August 29, 2011 Jack 2 comments

A fan’s review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I just completed my first play through of the new Deus Ex game, Human Revolution or DX:HR for short. I guess you could also call it DX3, but that might confuse some of the folks that disavow that Invisible War ever existed.

I was, and am, a huge fan of the original Deus Ex. In 2001 it was a truly original game and I consider it, easily, my favorite videogame of all time. I’ve played it through maybe five times all together (and a few times I didn’t finish) with strategies varying from soldier, to hacker, to spy, to pacifist, to knife only psychopath (although I had to upgrade to the Dragon’s Tooth towards the end, and I didn’t count a couple of the “boss” type characters which had to be taken down with LAMs or GEP rockets). I can remember some of the original Deus Ex levels so well I could probably reproduce them faithfully from memory.

Invisible War was a forgettable sequel. I remember virtually nothing of the storyline, the character, or the mechanics thereof. I just know that when I finished it, I decided to erase it from my memory and pretend, as a lot of other internet gamers, that it never happened. It was less a Deus Ex game and more a botched product of the then dying Ion Storm (RIP). However, I was encouraged when the pre-release buzz was building for Human Revolution started and the developers seems to have their heads screwed on right, and they acknowledged that Invisible War was a failure. To see my favorite franchise fall short again would be enough to make me lose hope that it could ever be done right again.

So, with that bit of history and personal opinion out of the way, here’s what I thought of the most recent volume of Deus Ex.

Gameplay

As I mentioned, a lot of the pre-release hype convinced me there was hope for the game. Admittedly, some of it made me question the future, but overall I believe most of their choices came off better than I expected.

Augmentations

The first thing I was disappointed in in pre-release was that there were going to be no skills. In the original, you had skills, which were upgraded with experience, and augs, which were found and upgraded using various canisters you had to find throughout the game. Skills included things that you or I could accomplish, stuff like weapons accuracy, melee skill, swimming, hacking, medicine, etc. Augs, just like in the new game, practically gave you super powers.

All in all, I think they combined the two systems well, although they accomplished it partially by stripping the need for a lot of the skills. For example, swimming is moot because there is no water. Medicine is pointless because you regen. Melee is done away with as there are no melee weapons. The remainder of the skills were rolled into augmentations. Lockpicking (although mechanical locks are now unheard of and lockpicks don’t exist), computers, and electronics were all rolled into hacking which is very well represented in the tree with three separate branches. “Environmental Training” was condensed into a rebreather augmentation that lets you resist toxic gas. Weapons skills are now handled all together with an augmentation that increases accuracy while moving.

A lot of the old favorite augmentations came back too, like cloak, and silent running. Dermal armor has taken the place of the shield. Regen is now a built-in augment you have from the start (bolstering the no-health approach of the game, which also rendered the medicine skill moot). I didn’t get the chance to use any of the advanced retinal augments but they sound similar in concept to the original as well.

There were also some cool additions to the augmentations too. The Icarus Landing System lets you jump from any height and take no damage. High enough and you get a neat bubble effect and you can optionally stun everyone around you — although I never got to use that feature. The social augmentation sounded neat to open more dialogue options. You can gain the ability to punch through (some) walls too which is definitely a plus for path finding. Then there’s the neat offensive augmentation, the Typhoon, that allows you to expend Typhoon ammo and cause a shockwave of death. Very cool, although it sucks when used against you =).

Really, I didn’t end up missing skills and the game does fine with just the augmentations.

The XP Problem

I really didn’t like the fact that XP got you augments though. I know they rationalized it in game with the fact that you were somehow “awakening” your augments with experience, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. How does me doing an arbitrary action like finishing a mission suddenly entitle me to the ability to cloak? I understand it’s just a mechanic, but perhaps it would’ve made more sense to have canister-esque items for the baseline augmentations (the things you have to spend two “praxis points” to open up), and then XP would allow you to upgrade within the tree the baseline augments open up? (If you haven’t played the game, this essentially means that you’d have to find a canister to get cloak, but you could upgrade your cloak’s efficiency through XP points).

The core of the problem here is that XP is too easy to get. My first (and only for now) play through was non-lethal stealth. I got XP left and right, hacking systems, completing sidequests, getting bonuses for finding secret ways in. Every takedown (we’ll get to those later) was easy XP. Then you get a massive bonus for getting through a level without triggering an alarm, or getting noticed. To top it off, you can even buy these points for credits!

By the end of the game, my stealth Gandhi had more “praxis points” than I knew what to do with. I ended up spending my last 5 points maxing dermal implants that reduced damage 45% and made me immune to EMP. This on a character that almost never got shot… only because I had literally nothing else worthwhile to spend the points on. I had maxed hacking (the capture and stealth trees, fortify was pointless then), maxed my batteries, maxed cloak, maxed my storage capacity and lifting strength, could run silently and jump nine feet into the air… I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to the augmentation screen and found, oh wait, I have three points waiting to be spent.

This abundance of augmentations also factors into the game because you no longer have to make any tough choices. In the original game, the canisters each contained two augmentations and you had to choose between the two irrevocably and they had to be installed by a bot so you couldn’t just hang on to the canisters until you decided which was more useful. Some were easy choices just based on your play style (Combat Strength probably isn’t important if you’re going to be shooting people up, for example), but others were very tough. Do I want my augmentations to all take less power (Power Recirculator) or the ability to upgrade one aug on the fly (Synthetic Heart)? Do I want regeneration (energy expensive, but useful for all damage after the fact) or the ability to absorb fire/plasma/energy attacks? In either case you can’t have both. DX:HR doesn’t force you to make these choices. Every augmentation is open for you and you can just carry around three of these praxis points to use at any time. Get to an area with EMP? Oh I guess I’ll just “awaken” my augmentation for EMP immunity. Thanks!

The Pointless Augs

There was also an entire stealth tree that seemed pretty much pointless too, which was disappointing. Mind you, I was playing on the hardest difficulty (although I’m sure some would say I was cheating at it because I turned on the reticle) and it was never an issue to “mark and track” my enemies. You can see them all on the radar, so who cares? I don’t need to know how much noise I’m making… if I’m crouch walking I’m being quiet enough. I don’t need to see the visual range of my enemies because I can see what way they’re facing on radar. It’s saying something that my stealth character made it all the way through the game without a single point in the general stealth tree. There are also some others that seem a bit pointless… like the HUD telling you how long until enemies’ alarmed status ends. Doesn’t really help you at all, since you can see when it ends anyway, it just tells you how long you’re going to have to wait. It’s not like it’s ever more than 30 seconds anyway. I feel like I should point out that the original had some questionable augs too, like Aqualung, Environmental Resistance, Radar Transparency (unless you suck) etc.

Still, the above gripes aside, the augs — although too easy to get and the XP system makes 0 sense — were fun to use and enhanced the gameplay as they should. I would’ve liked to see most of the same augment technologies just with fewer opportunities to get them to add to the challenge. Maybe a sliding XP scale instead of getting praxis points so regularly.

No Health

Probably the most controversial of the additions to the new game was the fact that there is no health. Well, there is, but you regenerate constantly by default which means that, like a lot of newer FPS games, if you get shot you just have to hide for a bit to get better. Initially I didn’t have a problem with this system. In fact, considering the setting of human augmentation it seems to make more sense in DX than anywhere else. However, in retrospect I can say it removed a lot of the urgency from situations. If I was feeling lazy and there was a single enemy, I’d just sneak up as close as a I could and then charge to do a take down, fully cognizant of the fact that if he gets a shot off, all I have to do is sit on my ass for 20 seconds. That is unless he head shots me or has a powerful enough weapon…

In the original DX, you had all sorts of fun because you were damaged. Getting through the next scenario might not be difficult but if you were out of medkits and had 10 health, getting through suddenly becomes a lot more challenging. There’s nothing like sneaking up on an enemy knowing that if he turns around it doesn’t matter if he’s armed with a feather duster, you’re fucked. Then there was fun stuff like, if you were hit in the arm enough, your aim got all wonky. If you were hit in the legs, you were slowed to a crawl. None of that happens in the new game, and it’s difficulty shows it.

Cover System

Another change was the addition of a third person cover system. Honestly, this change was very well done and a welcome modification of the original game play. In the original game, you had the ability to lean around a corner to scope out what was there, but the cover system allows you to have a much better idea of what’s going on around you. On one hand, it’s kinda bullshit because you can see over walls that you’re crouched behind, but on the other hand I imagine it as sort of an extension of the main character’s intuition. The ability to see a room, see the enemies, crouch and still piece together what’s going on based on sound. Besides, you’re equipped with a radar system that can “see” practically everything, so why not?

The bottom line is that the cover system is just a formalization of the techniques you’d use in the first game if you were any good at it, and the ability to move quickly between cover is a definite improvement over the first game in which you’d crouch walk instead of doing a leaping somersault.

Take Downs

Related to the cover system you also have a third-person take downs. As a melee aficionado, I was disappointed that the game eliminated melee weapons. However, I’m still conflicted about it. The take downs were nice, very cinematic and also very useful. I would’ve have been able to complete a non-lethal stealth play through without them. Really I’m only apprehensive because they were so easy to achieve. Walk up to one (or two with an augmentation) guys and, provided you have enough energy, it’s light’s out. No finesse required, other than getting close to them without getting your head blown off.

In the original game, it was difficult to make it through with a knife or a baton. I can’t count the number of reloads I’ve had to do because I snuck up on someone, uncrouched and then fucked up the execution of a melee “take down” in the original.

I also don’t get why a takedown takes the same sort of energy as your augmentations. I mean, does it take as much energy to punch two dudes out as it does to turn invisible for 3/5/7 seconds? Maybe, but I think if they needed to limit the amount of take downs you could do (they did), then I think a cooldown period would’ve done the job better. Particularly because it’s tough to gauge how much energy you’re going to need in situations. For example, if you wanted to cloak and take someone down you need to make damn sure that you’ve got a full energy bar left by the time you reach your target or you’re just going to stand there.

All in all, I could take them or leave them. The take downs were fun to execute, even if they were too easy, and I suppose it makes sense that a consummate badass would be able to snap your neck or choke you out pretty much on a whim.

Boss Fights

This is also the first time DX has had true boss fights. In the original you had climactic moments, and you killed a lot of important NPCs who were tough and armed like bosses, but there were no true bosses. Personally, I’m of the opinion that boss fights are contrived and this was no exception. Perhaps it makes a bit more sense considering the story line and the whole idea of augmented super warriors, but if they would’ve stayed true to the original and just integrated them into a level it would’ve been a lot more fun and a lot less frustrating than a true boss “arena” complete with ammunition and usually a novel way to destroy your foe. Not to mention it would’ve probably been a lot more challenging if they just showed up in the middle of a level and fucked you up instead of having the whole cliched cut scene.

The other point I’ll make here is that while the game did a good job making sure that the rest of the game was doable without killing anyone, when it came to the bosses you were forced to be lethal. I don’t really have a problem killing the bosses and sparing their lesser guards, but it was a huge pain in the ass to arm myself with lethal weapons at the beginning of each boss fight. For the second boss in particular it was extremely annoying that I had to find lockers, drop non-lethal items and ammo out of my inventory so I could pick up a machine pistol and some ammo … all while being chased. I guess that’s what I get for being non-lethal and having to kill someone.

Hacking

Hacking is one gameplay addition that I think the designers did right and better than the original. The hacking minigame was a challenge and different each time. It added a level of difficulty to opening a door that wasn’t present in the first game (where all you had to think about was “do I have enough skill/lockpicks/multitools to do this?”). It was nice that sometimes I could break a level 5 system without an alarm, and sometimes a level 2 system would alarm right off the bat and make you sweat. I enjoyed all of the hacking in the stealth play through.

Omissions

There were some other, minor, gameplay elements that I would’ve like to have seen in the new game, although I can forgive their omissions. I would’ve really liked to have seen ammo types, although since ammo is now an inventory item and you’re always at a loss for space that might’ve been annoying. Melee weapons would’ve been a plus as I mentioned before although similarly an inventory problem. Weapon mods were sufficiently scarce, but didn’t apply to enough weapons. With my non-lethal play through virtually none of the mods would apply to my tranquilizer rifle so I put them all on my reserve pistol. Some wouldn’t make any sense (damage, silencer), and it came with a scope, but why can’t I have a laser sight? I think the only mods I could actually apply to it were the reload speed mods.

None of these are that important however.

The World

First off, let me say unequivocally that the level design was great. The levels provided numerous paths to take for virtually every scenario. The city hubs were atmospheric and suitably dirty and complicated. The facilities were well thought out and believable. The game seems to do squalor and sophistication with the same ease. This was a hallmark of the original Deus Ex, although the original seemed to tend toward the dingy post-apocalyptic side of the spectrum for the majority of the time. Perhaps I am just unaccustomed to the current state of PC gaming, but I was very impressed with the look and feel of the game.

The world told of through the various scattered e-books (not datacubes yet, I guess), newspapers, emails etc. seems realistic and, importantly, it seemed to connect well with the world of the original. There are a lot of juicy references for old players, like Manderley, TTong (who you actually get to see at one point), and the NSF.

That said, the immediate world that you play in seems much smaller. You globe trot, which is important for a Deus Ex game considering the original took you all across the world, but three of these locations you only see as a singular level. Albeit a singular, well-designed level, you still don’t get a chance to venture out before being choppered elsewhere. That’s similar to the first game where the only cities you truly explore are New York and Hong Kong, (I guess you might be able to count Paris, although it’s different) but there were many many many peripheral locations in those cities and between your visits to them. The original had much more content and had many more levels without a lot of time being spent doing pointless side-quests. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised in the age of DLC.

To make things worse, it seems like most of the places you visit don’t have any real secrets to find. The original had many little nooks and crannies to explore unrelated to the advancement of the storyline. To give an example: In the original Deus Ex, there was actually a very small secret MJ12 facility beneath the streets very early on in the game. You don’t encounter MJ12 as part of the story until much later, but if you find it you raise questions like “who the hell were those dudes with Roman numerals on their helmets carrying combat rifles in the sewers?” They weren’t part of any quest at that point. No one ever directs you to the facility, you just have to find them on your own. Now, I could be making an ass out of myself because there very well could be secrets like this in the new game. In fact, it could be rife with them but I can say that I didn’t find anything that surprising and I was looking.

The core issue I have with the immediate world is that it was too efficiently designed. There are different paths and doors to hack, storage units to break into, etc. but almost everything is there for a purpose. Every ladder, every vent, every corridor is there as part of some type of quest. Too many times I was called back to a room I had already broken into (the hacker in my character can’t stand a locked door) for some scripted event to happen. Without the reward of finding new places and secrets, I almost felt as though it was pointless to explore since the game would effectively take me to every place worth going. That’s not a good feeling in a Deus Ex game.

The Story

This part has spoilers for both Deus Ex and DX:HR [skip]

Finally, the story. Deus Ex had a lot of strong points, but its story was the strongest. It was vast in its scope. Your point of view shifted wildly as you played through the game. You were surprised and betrayed and truly felt the effect of your choices.

DX:HR tries to pull off the same feat. It does a much better job than the sequel-that-shall-not-be-named, but I still ended the game disappointed. I feel like I anticipated every twist and turn. The first time we heard of Pan… Pan… Panchaea? However you spell the arctic research facility, I knew I was going to be visiting it. The LIMB clinic biochip replacement because of the glitches? I knew that I should avoid it. The instant that it was revealed that Dr. Reed was “dead” I knew she wasn’t (although I admit I doubted myself when reading her autopsy).

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I can never play a Deus Ex game for the first time again. Maybe I’m just not 15 anymore, but I’ve convinced myself that it’s more than mere experience that’s made the difference.

I felt that the choices that I made were of much less consequence than in the first game. This might be another place where I’m making an ass out of myself because I’ve only done one play through so I haven’t really seen how things could’ve turned out, however I feel that I have a grasp on the scope of the choices. On re-evaluating the choices in the first game I guess that they didn’t really have much effect on the overall story, but they had a psychological effect and they weren’t always obvious. The best example from the original is that I didn’t know, until my third play through (or so) that you could stay back (despite his urging) and save your brother, Paul. I always just assumed that I was supposed to run and he was supposed to die. Admittedly if you save him or he dies it has little effect in the long run (in one mission you have to recover his body if he’s dead, otherwise you don’t that’s about it — other than having him around your home base) but it’s psychological. I saved my brother, that’s important. Another big choice in the original was to kill Agent Navarre in the airplane. Basically you’re choosing whether you defect from UNATCO now or later, and the difference is very slight in the overarching storyline, but psychologically at the time of making the choice you feel like you have reached a giant fork and that feeling is all that’s important. DX:HR evoked no such feelings and each choice was obviously presented. The choice whether or not to frame Taggart is fun, but it’s effect is immediate and you never feel like it’s going to change the next steps of the game in any important way. Same with the biochip replacement.

I also mentioned betrayal. In the original Deus Ex, there was nothing more mind-blowing than escaping a prison complex full of secret police only to realize it’s in the basement of the department you used to work for. Yep, this super secret prison is actually right there where you happily and obliviously worked for the first couple of missions. It was totally shocking. That’s not a twist you can anticipate just by being aware of common cultural tropes.

The story suffers from the same fatal flaw that the level design did though. It’s effective and not much more. I can say that the story left me in the dark in terms of what I was going to be doing next, up until the very end. I didn’t know I was going to Shanghai until I was two minutes from being there. When I woke up in a cargo pod in Singapore, it was news to me. The story does have that going for it: it got me from one place to another with a purpose. If this was any other game that would be enough, Half-life even made its name doing this. But this isn’t just any game, this is Deus Ex.

The original story dealt with the Illuminati, the world government, secessionists. Conspiracy on an unknown number of levels that you had been thrust into as a wildcard. This story attempted to weave those elements into it (the Illuminati are mentioned, the crazy radio DJ ranting about the Bilderbergs, etc.) but failed to really make me feel like I was taking part until the last minute. In essence, the new storyline was attempting to weave conspiracy and corporate espionage into the main story, which was the most basic and utterly over done classic save-the-girl storyline. Here’s the true problem: JC Denton was a government operative that felt betrayed by the system that created him. JC was out for Truth with a capital T. The Truth to destroy those that had made and subsequently deceived him. Adam Jensen, as much as I loved playing him, was a bodyguard trying to get his woman back.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, this game was a lot of fun. I’m already planning another play through because, despite the fact that the choices were obvious and anemic, I’m interested in how the game changed and how it would play if I couldn’t open literally every door and hack every computer I found. It’ll also be nice to try out some of the more aggressive augmentations. Perhaps on this run through I’ll discover secrets and realize my previous statements are false or come to a greater appreciation of the game in general.

All in all, it’s worth it to check out, even if it isn’t as good as the original. This is definitely not a game that will be forgotten and it gives me hope that the next iteration will be even better. Hopefully, with strong reviews and sales, we won’t have to wait another 10 years either.