Friday, May 20, 2016

Doom (2016): worthy of the name

Doom (2016) is a game worthy of the title.

It doesn't waste time telling a story we already know, as was the problem with Doom 3. All that tedious buildup to a revelation we saw coming before we got to the checkout line. There is a story in the new game, and it is different from the original Doom's setup, but not by much. Instead of experiments with teleportation opening a portal to Hell, Doom (2016) has the UAC building a power plant to harvest energy from another dimension (which happens to be Hell) and convert it to limitless power for humanity. Naturally, something has gone wrong, and demons are loose on the base. It's similar, but just different enough to need to know what's going on.

Doom 3 tried to be suspenseful and scary, and the whole thing takes place in dark, cramped corridors. You almost never go outside, and when you do, your oxygen supply depletes so fast you can't even look around. Doom 2016 is vast and open, much of the game takes place outdoors, there is no air limit, and the game doesn't try to be dark and scary. It opts to be an action shooter, and it works so much better.

The "slow and scary" method might have worked for Doom 3 had it been a new story, but since it was the same as the original games, it became tedious. Too much buildup for a revelation that wasn't a surprise. Doom 2016 doesn't fall into that trap. The original 1993 game got away with being slower and suspenseful because the graphics were so groundbreaking at the time. Nobody had made a game world look so real before, and it stood out. Doom 2016 does not give us anything new in the visual sense, so it was wise to emphasize the action instead of trying to be creepy.

Movement in Doom 3 was like walking with a ball and chain around your ankle. Doom 2016 features fluid movement, making combat feel silky smooth and beautiful. It does kinda succumb to the trap of modern gaming in that everything is built around waves. You come to an area that's obviously an arena, you fight a few waves of demons, the wave ends, and you are free to explore until you come to the next arena, where a new wave begins. Rinse and repeat. You find very few enemies between waves, and this becomes predictable and routine quick. The format still works because the battles are oh so satisfying, but Id missed the chance to create dread by putting more demons around the world who aren't in an obvious arena. It means you know when you are safe, and you know when you need to gear up for a fight. This works against what Doom was all about--you should never know you're safe!

I also wish the dossiers and the elements of the thin story were delivered more in-world. Much of the story is in written documents that appear in your inventory after you fight an enemy for the first time, or visit a location for the first time, etc. It comes across as infodump rather than progression. The developers went out of their way to scientifically justify everything in the game with Star-Trek-style technobabble, so why didn't they make acquiring this information part of the world as well? Can't these things be downloaded at story-appropriate moments instead of simply appearing after demon fights or visiting a location?

Otherwise, it's very good. Combat is exciting, challenging, and diverse. The enemies move in so many different ways they always keep you guessing. The Glory Kills are a nice touch, and they are context sensitive, so there are a lot of different ways to tear a demon apart with your bare hands. (I think they're obviously a nod to the "executions" in the Brutal Doom mod. There's even an achievement called "Rip & Tear.") I was thrilled to see the return of the Barons, and the Cyberdemon is badass this time. He was a disappointing final boss in Doom 3, but he's an intimidating mid-game boss here. The final boss is worthy of being the final boss, too!

And the chainsaw is awesome!

It changes the identity of the player from an ordinary marine caught in an invasion to a clone of Master Chief, essentially. It seems inappropriate to follow in the footsteps of Halo, but it does provide a story-based reason for you and you alone to be able to gain health from the demons you kill. It leaves a lot of room open for more interesting follow-ups. Maybe the next Doom game will take place entirely in Hell. Since you are not a marine, you are not tethered to Earth, so it's possible!

This is everything a game bearing the name "Doom" should be. The story is basically the same, but just different enough to avoid a complete repeat of what was already done before. It has surprising moments of humor in it, a nice reward for the players who take a break from fighting to read the documents that appear in the inventory. The combat is beautifully done, even if the game broadcasts when it's safe to explore and when it's time to fight a few waves of demons. I will be playing this more than once!

PS--I'm disappointed we didn't get to see Super Turbo Turkey Puncher 4! I've been waiting for the next installment for over a decade!!!!!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ratchet and Clank (2016): the game

[Update: thoughts on the movie are at the bottom]

Most remakes attempt to fix what isn't broken, and thus end up breaking it. Ratchet and Clank (2016) is no exception.

There's a difference between following a format and following a formula. Let's face it. After Crack in Time, the R&C games have been forgettable and mediocre at best. All their games through Crack in Time felt like a format, and each one told a new story and did new things with gameplay using that format. Ratchet and Clank (2016) is the first time the series feels like a formula. It is lifeless, going through the motions, nothing unexpected, watered-down gameplay for the sake of attracting a new audience. An unnecessary remake of the past that has no character progression, squandering a good story by telling it through infobots instead of interacting characters. It forgets to tell the story at all!

The problem I have with the new Ratchet and Clank is that it's a remake of the original PS2 game. I didn't want a remake. I wanted the story to move on. I suppose it's the safest thing to do when making a movie based on your intellectual property: adapt a game that's already out instead of coming up with a new game, but they did not tell the story better this time.

In the original 2002 game, Ratchet doesn't really care about what's happening. Chairman Drek is stealing pieces of other planets to make a new world for his people, and we find out at the end Drek's company polluted their planet in the first place, so he made money destroying the planet, and then sells them the solution. (This isn't a spoiler; it's explained in-game on the back of a trading card you find before you even reach the point in the story when it's revealed!) Simple, easy, we know it up front, but Ratchet isn't interested because it doesn't affect him. He doesn't start off as the hero, but as a rather selfish person living an ordinary life. It's only at the end of the story that he gets invested in what's happening and becomes a hero.

The new game's story is basically the same thing, but it tries to save the big plan for a reveal at the end. It could have worked, but Drek doesn't have enough of a presence in the game to be a good villain. The rest of the story is so rushed i barely knew anything was happening. You know it's phoned in because a character has to explain the reason for Quark's betrayal when it happens, and we all saw it coming a mile away.

And the twist at the end comes out of nowhere... If you've played the previous games, you have a feeling it's coming, but we don't know why it's happening here, what the motivation is, or anything. Hell, I barely comprehended what Drek was doing. The story is so rushed and poorly shown it may as well not even be there.

Ratchet and Clank do not get to know one another here. They rarely speak to one another, so there is no spark of connection between the two. In this remake, Ratchet starts off as a hero, and he never changes. He's young and naive, and he seems to stay that way through to the end. There's no progression of character, no development. Watching this Lombax change from a selfish jerk into a hero in the original game was way more satisfying than watching this new version of Ratchet fulfill his dream of being a soldier for the galactic army.

The humor is largely absent. What few jokes are in the game are stale and lack any timing. Most have been done before.

The in-game cutscenes are lifeless. Even the cinematic cutscenes are flaccid. They're not as animated as they were in the PS3 games. Hell, they had more life in the PS2 games! In the PS3 games, they are full of expression and gestures. The in-game cutscenes were indistinguishable from the cinematic ones the quality of animation was so good. In their first PS4 adventure, you can practically see the rigging that yanks the corners of their mouths up and down, and characters stand straight as poles as they talk! They are lifeless and rigid. This is supposed to be a reboot, but graphically it looks like a step back.

I don't understand how they could fuck this up. The story was already there! All they had to do was tell it as it was, maybe change it so Ratchet becomes invested in the story sooner, update the level design to make it more organic and less like an obstacle course, add strafe, and there's your game and movie!

They made a successful transition from PS2 to PS3 in Tools of Destruction. That was the first R&C game I played, and I liked it even though I was unaware of the events of the previous games. They could have done something like that for the PS4 transition: make a new game that doesn't rely so heavily on the events of the previous installments so new players can pick it up and play. Instead, they remade the first game, but instead of doing it better, they only did it halfway, relying on the formula to carry the game instead of using it as a format.

All the R&C games after Crack in Time have been a rush job. Ratchet and Clank (2016) is Hollywoodized in terms of story and watered down in terms of gameplay. I hope it made a better movie than a game.

I didn't want a remake of the first game. I am fucking sick of all franchises going back and remaking their own past! Stop rebooting and remaking what was already done and just move on from the past! Stop being Star Trek and be like Doctor Who!


As for the movie: it's typical, not very funny or clever. There's no creativity in it. No spark. No character. Just a bunch of generic sci-fi/action plot elements we've already seen in other movies.

We barely know why Drek is destroying planets, and the twist in the games isn't in the movie, that Drek's company caused the pollution that destroyed the Blarg homeworld in the first place, and now he's making money solving the problem his company created. There was opportunity for some depth there, but because some giant corporations were behind this, they probably didn't want to make a movie where a corporation is the badguy.

Quark's betrayal has such a flimsy foundation. So he helps Drek destroy a planet just to make Ratchet look bad because he's jealous of Ratchet's popularity as a new member of the Galactic Rangers? What's the point of that if everyone knows he's working for Drek now? His goal should have been to make himself look better, and it's never clear how working for Drek is supposed to do that! It's a weak setup for an even weaker clichéd betrayal/redemption scene every movie seems to have. (Yes, I'm still looking at you, Zootopia!)

And why does Ratchet feel guilty about it? He didn't fail; he didn't cause that planet's destruction; Quark did, so why does he go home and sulk? It doesn't make much sense, but the producers needed a hero-hits-rock-bottom-and-then-gets-back-up scene. It's probably required in all action movies to be appealing to the largest audience, so they have to include it. Hell, we don't know enough about Nefarious to understand why him turning out to be the real badguy is such a twist! They could have developed these characters and built the world, but they failed to give anyone any kind of identity.

Instead, it just goes through the checklist of everything an action/sci-fi movie must have: Ratchet is the small town kid who has big dreams of adventure; Authority denies him a chance to join the army/rebels; kid gets his chance to prove himself and gets in on his own merit; Authority tries to put him back in his place but kid rises up and threatens Authority's position; kid's mentor turns against him; kid suffers defeat, has pity-party; kid gets Speech of Encouragement from friends and gets back up to make things right; mentor changes sides again. Come on, how many times have we seen these plot elements?!

How many production companies were involved in this? Four or five logos at the film's opening, and Insomniac isn't even one of them?! I think that's the problem. Too many companies had a stake in this, and it was in their best interest to make it as generic and mass-appealing as possible. The result is a paint-by-numbers sci-fi movie with no creativity. It could have been so much more.

I prefer the original PS2 game story. This remake doesn't tell it better. Even the humor is weak. There's no timing, and they don't go far enough with the jokes for it to be anything more than tongue-in-cheek. What happened to the good writing the R&C games had through the PS3's Crack in Time?! The same rushed writing and lazy gameplay has characterized every game since, and now the movie matches the way R&C has been going.

It may be the best videogame to movie adaptation to date, but that's not saying much.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Carpal tunnel

I've written a dozen books, lots of short stories, lots of blog posts and reviews and journal entries. I've pretty much lived at a computer desk since high school. In all this time, I have never had carpal tunnel syndrome. Now I'm typing with a brace on my right wrist and am contemplating buying one for my left wrist if the strain doesn't ease up.

I switched from my computer desk to putting my laptop in my lap and sitting on the couch downstairs, hoping getting away from the mouse and keyboard will help.

I don't know what I'm doing different. I've written many books at that desk and never had a problem. Roommate suggested it could just be age, and I can't discount that possibility. I'm a little embarrassed I let this happen. I kinda prided myself on 20 years avoiding carpal tunnel, and now here I am, in the middle of writing another book, I got this slowing me down.

Here's hoping this works and it doesn't get worse. I do not want to be crippled.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

New Story: Discus Dog

This is a sample of a published short story. Read the whole thing in “Claw the Way to Victory,” a new anthology of sports stories available on Amazon:

Sports... but with animals as the players.

(My story is actually part of the Kindle sample. Read a longer preview there!)

"Discus Dog"
by James L. Steele


Eighteen players jogged onto the field. Nine of them wore red and grey uniforms, the players a mix of three canines, four felines, and two reptiles. The logo on their shirts depicted a hurricane moving the continents out of its way. The Force.

The nine on the other team were all wolves. The logo on their black and yellow jerseys was an image of a salivating, canine muzzle snapping shut. The Pack.

The two teams met in the center of the field with the referees: two squirrels, one horse, one sheep, and one elk. The teams stood in opposing lines, facing one another, meeting each other's eyes. Nobody on either team was under three hundred pounds, and they wore no pads or helmets.

One wolf in a black and yellow jersey, labeled 24 Rett, stood in line with his team, sizing up the cougar across from him. The feline was grinning at him, licking his lips. Greg growled, hopefully not loud enough for the refs to hear. He didn't want to mess up on his first pro game.

The head referee had switched on his microphone and addressed the stadium packed with one-hundred-thousand spectators.

"Welcome, everyone, to Barnett stadium! Once again, it is Discus season!"

The stadium roared and cheered. Greg broke his eye contact from the cougar and observed them, probably looking like a real rookie on camera. It was his first time in a stadium this large.

"Back from training in the deep south, where the weather is hot and there is no rest for the weary, The Force!"

The team wearing red and grey postured in ways according to their species: some howled, others roared, others opened their mouths and hissed at the opposing team, who stood still and waited ceremoniously for their turn. Greg could barely keep his composure.

Five years in little leagues, twelve years on school teams, four years playing college level, and it actually happened. He had been recruited into one of the most exclusive pro Discus teams in the National Discus League. The Pack only recruited wolves, which meant he wasn't just playing Discus anymore. He was part of history. This was his childhood wet dream come true.

The equine referee now broadly gestured at Greg's team. "And back from training in the far north, where the only shelter you'll find from the elements is under your fur, The Pack!"

Now The Force stood at attention, and The Pack postured and howled together at the same pitch, making a sound that was audible even over the cheers and roars of the spectators.

The equine referee turned to all sides of the stadium. "Welcome to the season-opening game!"

Greg observed the crowd again. Canines, avians, equines, felines, rodents, ursines, and every other genus was in the packed stadium. Millions more watched by high-definition broadcast.

The referee continued the introductions, getting the spectators worked up. The stadium was full of energy, and it fed the players. Right now, Greg felt like he could tear a hole in the walls of this place. It took everything he had to stop himself from drooling in anticipation.

Greg grinned, feeling giddy as a puppy. He had been training hard for months, loving every minute of it, packing on forty pounds of muscle, building his chest, neck, and jaws. He'd been told bodybuilders envied his jaw muscles, and he would probably get some kind of endorsement deal for that alone, but first he had to prove he could play. He wasn't in doubt about that anymore.

The equine switched off his mic and walked up and down the gap between the two teams.

"All right, you animals, here are the rules. Blood happens, and claws and teeth are okay, but no intentional wounds above the shoulders. Do not use the coin as a weapon against another player. Do not use the stadium walls as a weapon against another player. Do not..."

The players pretended to listen. Everybody knew the rules, but NDL policy stated the rules must be stated at the start of every game. This whole time the players stared at each other, making subtle gestures of the ears, muzzle, tail, and any other part of the body they could get away with. Everyone had to stay still for this part, but they could make subtle taunts.

The cougar was licking his nose, raising one lip and flashing a single fang at Greg. The cougar's jersey label read 67 Agani. Greg countered by biting down on an imaginary coin, flexing his jaw muscles, showing them off. If Agani noticed, he didn't show it.

Finally the referee retreated to the sidelines, and out of the team entrance walked the emcee, carrying the coin.

As soon as he saw it, Greg drooled. Everyone on his team did. He'd learned to associate the sight and smell of that disc with pleasure and accomplishment, and already he wanted to run up to that fox, knock her down, and clamp his teeth on it.

The master of ceremonies this game was the state governor. The fox wore formal attire, a blouse and skirt. Greg wasn't sure how she was able to lift the coin without toppling over; she didn't look like she had an ounce of muscle on her. She was downright comical walking with that thing.

Governor Shields stopped at the sideline next to the referee and waved to the crowd. The equine addressed the stadium again. "Tossing the coin into play this game, Governor Paula Shields!"

The stadium cheered. Greg heard a few jerks booing. Greg couldn't take his eyes off the coin, which was covered in sponsor logos that would become illegible by the time the game was over.

Governor Shields waved to the crowd a few more times, then held the disc close to her blouse and cast. Greg was surprised she could throw it any distance at all. The disc sailed between both teams, flipped halfway over and hit the ground rolling.

The coin was in play.

Both teams charged one another and dove for it. The tiger on The Force bent down, opened his mouth and snatched it up in his jaws. He ran for the opposite goal, muscular arms shoving a couple wolves out of the way. All around him players rammed one another, raking each other with claws across the shoulders and legs and chest. Greg chased the tiger.

A wolf from The Pack leaped onto the tiger, hugged him around the arms and took him down to the turf, rolling, snarling and howling. The tiger's mouth popped open and the coin rolled. Greg had been running parallel to the tiger and veered to snatch it.

The cougar dashed up from the other side and bent over the coin. Greg growled, flashed his teeth and rammed the feline on the shoulder. He reached down and snapped the coin up in his jaws, never slowing down for a moment.

He didn't know why they called it a coin. It was an oblate disc the diameter of his head, and it weighed thirty pounds. Greg barley felt it in his jaws as he tore down the opposite end of the field. He ran with his arms close to his body to make it harder for anyone to latch onto him with their jaws or hands.

Around him, wolves collided with other canines and felines and reptiles. Claws swiped chests, dogs fell to the turf, and felines dropped and rolled. Greg veered away from a knot of approaching canines. He had the feeling he'd held onto the coin for long enough, so he wound up his neck and pitched the coin through the air. One feline leaped into the air and tried to intercept, but missed, and the coin came down. One of his fellow wolves leaped in the air, and caught the coin in his teeth, neck muscles bulging from the strain.

The action flowed away from Greg. Players caught up to one another, tackled each other, traded blows, separated, and ran after the coin again.

Something solid and feline slammed into Greg, knocking him down to the turf muzzle-first. His training had conditioned him to turn his head to the side so he wouldn't break his muzzle, and he landed with the weight of a built cougar on top of him.

A feline growl rumbled in Greg's ears. The wolf rolled over and shoved the cat off him. He leaped to his feet, crouched, and squared off with the cat. The cat continued licking his nose, loving his rookie scent. Nobody did things like this to him in the college games and it caught Greg by surprise, but the reaction was surprisingly natural.

Greg charged. Agani faked right, but Greg didn't fall for it. He plowed straight into the cat's chest, hugging him around the waist, and took him down. Claws gouged into Greg's back, ripping his jersey and gouging his skin. Greg howled. His first instinct was to go for the face, but he had to hold back. He raised a leg and dragged his claws against whatever flesh his foot was near. The cat snarled, raking his claws across Greg's back again.

Felines had an advantage over canines in how sharp their claws were. A canine's claws were meant to grip the turf while running, not to claw opponents. Agani had Greg right where he wanted him.

Greg rolled off Agani, dragging his own claws across his chest. He heard fabric ripping, and the wolf felt a little twinge of pride. He sniffed the air and found the coin. It was in a reptile's mouth, coming straight for them. He glanced at the scoreboard and saw neither The Pack nor The Force had scored yet. Greg tore across the field, straight for the reptile. Just above his own heartbeat, he heard the stadium cheering.

Every member of each team bled from somewhere. The smell of blood ignited something in Greg. He didn't understand it. Something about being in a group, fur matted with blood, made him wild with excitement. It's what got him into this sport, and it's what paid his way through college.

Black and yellow collided with red and grey. Reptiles, felines, and canines singled Greg out and tried to cause some kind of injury to take him out of the game. Sometimes he slashed them with his claws, sometimes he tackled, and sometimes he merely squared off with them, posturing and snarling and sometimes drooling.

He knew it would happen. As the rookie, they would of course be all over him. He was ready. Greg was three hundred and forty pounds of canine. He could lift one-twenty with his jaws alone, and not many canines could top that. Eventually, eight of the players on The Force realized Greg was no rookie to push around, and finally left him alone.

Only Agani remained. He was always around. Whenever Greg got the coin, the cougar was there, slamming into him, knocking him down, stealing it and his chance to score the first goal of the game.

A packmate tackled one of The Force's canines and sent the coin rolling across the field. Greg was there. He bent down, snatched it up in his jaws, and bolted for the goal. This time, he did not pass to someone running ahead of him. There were too many others around, too much interference. He clamped his jaws tighter and ran as erratically as possible.

Agani tackled him from the side, throwing Greg to the turf and lying on top of him. The coin popped out of his mouth and rolled. Agani licked the inside of Greg's ear and growled. Greg growled and shoved Agani off with one arm. The cat stumbled away, still licking his nose at Greg. The wolf wanted to rip that smile off Agani's face.

They took off running after the coin at the same time, keeping stride. Greg tried to lose the cougar, but the cat stayed with him. The wolf growled the whole way, letting the scent of the coin push his endurance to its limit.

One of his packmates snatched up the coin and ran for the goal line. Greg followed, cougar right beside him, knocking down everyone who came near him. He body-slammed the tiger as he tried to pursue, knocked down one of the reptiles, and kept pace. Greg kept everyone off his packmate except one. He couldn't shake the cougar. The cat matched him move for move and kept pace. Agani didn't even seem interested in the coin, only in staying with Greg.

A wolf in red and grey charged up the side with the cougar and slammed into Greg's packmate. The coin flew from his mouth and rolled. Greg dashed by the fight, bent low, opened his mouth, and grabbed the coin. Agani tackled Greg from behind. The wolf crashed to the ground, cougar rolling behind him. Greg did not let go of the coin.

As soon as the stadium stopped spinning, Greg stood up and found the goal line. Before he could take a step, Agani clamped his jaws on the other side of the coin and pulled. The cougar had a powerful grip, but Greg was not intimidated. He pulled back and anchored himself into the ground with his claws. Now Greg had the advantage. His packmates fought The Force, keeping them off him while he played tug-of-war for the coin.

Greg was so close to Agani, he saw his reflection in the cat's eyes. The cougar pulled. Greg pulled back. They spun in circles, snarling and bleeding from various places on their bodies. They raised their arms at the same time and clamped fists, trying to push each other away. The cat was strong, but so was Greg.

The stadium cheered, some chanting his name, and Greg let their cheers and screams feed his muscles. He snarled louder. He pushed harder. He dug his feet into the soil.

The feline suddenly twisted. Greg fell to the ground, still holding onto the coin. Their eyes were still locked, their scents mixed in his nose. The cat wrenched his neck again, and the coin slipped out of Greg's teeth. Greg snarled and rolled to his feet, chasing the cat's tail to the goal line.

His other packmates were busy taking out the other members of The Force. Now it was just Greg and Agani. Greg hated the cat's scent. He hated the cat's ugly pink nose. He hated his face, and that short, yellow fur. The feline was all that stood between him and the goal, and he had Greg's coin. It was up to him to keep Agani from scoring a goal, and Greg would not blow this chance on his first pro game.

The cheers and stomps and howls and screeches of the audience filled his muscles and quickened his legs. He closed in on the cougar. He caught up to the tail. Greg reached out, wrapped his arms around the cat's waist, and twisted to the side. He and the cat fell, rolled, and twisted together.

The cat was a threat, and he had to keep this threat from coming back and stealing their coin again. Greg opened his mouth and lunged for Agani's throat. The cat didn't scream; he merely went still. Greg felt relief. He stood up, followed his nose to where the coin rested, picked it up in his jaws, turned, and ran across the field to the goal. The stadium became thunder.

Greg crossed the line and stood at the goal, arms at his side, holding the coin in his muzzle, turning to all sides of the stadium. His first game in the professional league, and the first goal of the game was his--the first goal of the season. He lived it up. He tossed the coin in the air and caught it in his teeth again and again. The stadium cheered louder each time.

Greg turned down field. Both teams were gathered around Agani. The cat wasn't moving. The front of his throat was missing. Greg just now realized he had swallowed something while he ran to the goal. His muzzle dropped open. The coin fell from it and plopped on the grass between his paws. A bloody mouth-print covered some of the sponsor logos.

Both teams were glaring at him. Greg glared back. He swallowed again, tasting feline blood.


---read the rest in “Claw the Way to Victory” on Amazon.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Seek the Original: The Big Short

91% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

The Big Short
By Michael Lewis

A jaw-dropping, no-nonsense account of what led up to the financial collapse of 2008 and the recession that followed. Anyone who wants to blame homeowners for taking out mortgages they couldn't afford, or government rules that required banks to give mortgages to people who shouldn't have them needs to read this history of the subprime mortgage scheme straight from the mouths of those who were there when it happened.

Here's a Wall Street guide to making lots of money:

1) take mortgages, package them into bonds and sell them to investors on the open bond market as Asset-Backed Securities (ABS)

2) take the worst of those bonds and package them into Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO).

3) Use your clout to convince the ratings agencies to assign these CDOs the same rating as US Treasury bonds to make them appear as sound investments.

4) Sell insurance policies on those assets called Credit Default Swaps (CDF)!

5) To keep up with demand, give lots of loans to people who don't deserve them. Housing prices are going up, so tell the borrowers (would-be homeowners) not to worry if they can't make their payments after the interest rate goes up; they can simply refinance and use the new value of their home to pay the principle.

6) Reap even more rewards off the fees for refinancing.

7) Package the loans, sell them to investors, and then sell more insurance on those assets! Home prices are perpetually rising, so you'll never have to pay up!

It went on so long, and prices kept going up for so long, that people never thought they'd fail. The people running the largest banks genuinely believed the ratings on those assets, that they were riskless. Everyone was making so much money off this machine, and it never seemed to end.

The book tells the story from the point of view of some of the men who saw the collapse of the subprime mortgage industry coming, and bet against it.

It is an infuriating read, and that's what makes it so good because it's what was really going on behind the scenes of the financial collapse--cutting through all the speculation and political spinning. It's nothing I haven't read before in news articles and such, but this collects the details in one place and it puts the whole thing in perspective. Wall Street did not see it coming. They had no idea what they were doing, what those bonds were, what the CDOs were, or anything. The banks went out of their way to bury that information because the products they were generating were worth so much, and making so much profit for everybody, as long as everybody believed they were bulletproof. The brokers didn't know what these things were; the CEOs didn't know; the traders didn't know. It was deliberately complicated for the purpose of masking how risky the bonds and derivative products actually were.

They should not be allowed to do shit like this unrestricted, but they can and they will do it again, knowing the government will be there to bail them out for their mistakes. They were bailed out, but the homeowners were foreclosed and laid off. The people responsible for the financial crisis walked away rich. I read entire chapters with my jaw in my lap it's so absurd and enraging.

It should be the definitive guide to what the hell happened in 2008. We sure couldn't tell then, but now we know what those bastards did to us, and they still get Fox News to blame the government for putting too many restrictions on the market, and the homeowners for being irresponsible. The Big Short shows that apart from the Fed's decision to keep interest rates low for so many years, the government had nothing to do with it; Wall Street did it to itself. They played games with the money system, exposing their own firms to outrageous risk, made the taxpayers and shareholders pay the price, and walked away rich. Those financial institutions deserved to collapse. They should have. Perhaps it would have given something better a chance to rise up in its place.

This book makes me so angry, and I loved it. Don't read it expecting great characters. Don't read it expecting to identify with what's happening, or root for the underdog, or cheer the fall of the villain. Read it to get a grip on what happened in 2008, and just how ridiculous it was. Nobody knew what hit them, even the people on the inside. Now we do, and we are pissed.

compare that to...

The Big Short
starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell

Considering the filmmakers had to make something as uncinematic and uninteresting as mortgage-bond derivatives engaging to an audience--and considering they also had to get the audience to identify with hedge fund managers betting against the mortgage industry, it does a very good job.

Really, how is the audience supposed to feel about these people? Bunch of guys who are already rich trying to get richer? Like, why bother? For the typical moviegoing audience, these people are all nuts. They inherited, they got money from a lawsuit, or something, enough to set them up for life, and all they want to do is start a business investing other people's money (a hedge fund)?

But much like the book, the people are not really that important. What's important is to communicate just how absurd the subprime mortgage bond and derivative market had become. It's so ridiculous and outrageous, and watching how these hedge fund managers react to it puts us on their side right away. The visual aids and narrative asides and narration all work very well to tell this story.

I'm impressed most by Steve Carell's performance. He is playing against type here, and he does such a good job as Mark Baum. The film's only true belly laugh, for me, was watching him in a strip club talking to this topless stripper about her mortgages! It shows exactly who these people are, and what motivates them.

Christian Bale's performance as Mike Burry is also striking. He, too, is unrecognizable as this socially awkward man struggling against challenges that are very difficult for outsiders to grip. The stressful world of hedge fund managers... investing other people's money... how do you get across something as undramatic and nonvisual as worrying about an investment? He does it well, though the filmmakers totally failed with the glass eye thing. Mike Burry has a glass eye, and it's established at the beginning of the movie, and yet Mike's eye moves normally all through the movie. Why bother establishing it if they weren't going to show it?

All the players in the movie make a lot of money, and though the motivation for why they want to make more money when they already have more than enough is totally lost on the audience, the one thing pulling us through is learning just what the banks did, the stupid risks they took, and how clueless everyone was about the whole thing. People were too busy making money to realize it.

In the end, they get rich, but nobody feels good about it. Baum's misgivings about what they had done may or may not have been what the real man thought, but it does give the movie's events a poignant point. Steve Carell's character says it best at the end: there was a time when fraud didn't work. Things always go South eventually. When the hell did we forget that? Now here we are... The people who perpetuated this mortgage scheme walked away rich while the homeowners were foreclosed, and none of it was illegal. In light of all this knowledge for why the banks were in such trouble, the bailout seems stupid. Why would we want to bail out these smug idiots??

Be angry, people. This is why we're in this mess--not because a bunch of irresponsible poor people tanked the economy, or because the government put too many regulations on banks and forced them to give loans to people who didn't deserve them--but because a bunch of Wall Street people stuffed portfolios full of risky mortgages, sold them to investors as AAA bonds, repackaged the worse of those mortgages as a different sound investment, sold insurance on those securities, and then got taxpayers and investors to bear the risk while they themselves got rich.

It should be a call to arms about the necessity for regulation and proper oversight. It should be a revelation that we cannot trust people acting selfishly to do the right thing for everyone. What's best for a company as a whole (to say nothing of the economy) isn't always what's best for the individual. What happened in 2008 should be the swan song for Ayn Rand's ideology.

Instead, banks are more powerful than ever, and large corporations have even more control of the government than before the crash. It's starting all over again. The theater in which I saw this movie was empty. The 2008 mortgage crash is one of many topics people still aren't angry enough about.

I applaud Adam McKay for making a movie out of this. It should have been a cinematic disaster, as it's little more than people talking on cell phones and in small offices about the mortgage-backed security, but the sheer absurdity of it all is more than enough to keep the audience's attention. It's a good adaptation of a nonfiction book about real events and the real people who were part of them. I wouldn't call it an entertaining comedy though. It's a movie with a message, and it succeeds in getting its message across, despite the likes of Fox News trying to shift the blame and convince us everything is just fine and nothing needs to change.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

I'm sick of the gun "debate" in America

Some people seem to equate requiring any kind of background check as taking away Americans' right to defend ourselves. Some people want more control.

Personally, I think the whole debate is a distraction from the real issue. The root of the problem is: guns are legal in America, therefore there will be shootings.

You can require background checks all you want, but most people who commit shootings are either not insane, used someone else's gun which was purchased legally, or have no prior record. So long as guns are legal in America, people will use them on one another.

Stop arguing that bad people will find a way to kill with or without guns and the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and face this fact. Take a few days to let it sink in. The United States has a gun problem because guns are legal, not because bad people keep getting their hands on them.

We're never going to use guns to overthrow a tyrannical government, or stop a mass shooting. They may be good for home defense, but let's face it: most burglaries happen during the day, while you're at work. As long as guns remain legal in America, people will be shot. That's it.

I don't have a problem with guns. If you want one for home defense, that's fine. If you want a hunting rifle, that's also fine. But with this freedom (which is not unique to America, by the way. Plenty of other nations have guns, too) we must accept that people will be shot, and there is no way to separate the good gun-owners from the bad ones.

The second amendment was about states maintaining their own militia, not individual gun ownership. It was written before the modern city even existed, let alone weapons that can fire more than one shot per minute.

At the very least, it needs to be updated to adjust for the changing times. Regulation and moderation is not the same as infringement. But as long as business interests keep shaping our politics, the powers that be will always twist the argument into an emotional one.

Stop it. Let's all please stop being shocked when another shooting happens. Let's stop arguing the same things again and again and just accept that this is an inevitable effect of gun ownership as a right.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Fallout 4: Why I supported the Institute

Fallout 4
(a review with spoilers)

I love the Fallout games. I played Fallout 1, 2, 3, New Vegas, and now FO4. A retro-sci-fi world blown to hell by nuclear bombs, and now you must survive in it. Fallout 4 begins with a pre-war man frozen in a Vault and then thawed out 200 years after the bombs dropped. He witnesses his wife murdered and his infant son stolen. Now he climbs out of the Vault and into a bombed-out, radioactive Boston. There your character learns the people are paranoid of something called "Synths," androids that look so human they are taking the place of human beings. Nobody knows why, only that they come from a place called The Institute.

(At first I thought the plot resembled the Sega CD game Snatcher, but it's only superficial. At least we found out what the snatchers were for by the end of that game. FO4 can't claim that honor.)

I was overpowered by level 12. I could kill a Deathclaw with a combat shotgun by level 15. Almost never died past that point, even without power armor. This game is even more unbalanced than Skyrim. Caps are easy to get, good weapons and armor are so easy to find you almost never have to modify or craft anything, and there's so much stuff in the Commonwealth you'll never have a problem upgrading your weapons and armor or building anything. I reached the point where nothing is impossible so fast it's a letdown.

Character motivation is a bit of a problem, too. You do one thing for someone, and they want to make you their king. My character joined the Railroad for no good reason, helps the Minutemen even though he has no vested interest in doing so, and is offered to join the Brotherhood of Steel after doing one mission in which he mostly hides behind the guy with power armor and a laser rifle. This is a problem in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, but I think the fact that the player's character is voiced this time makes it more noticeable. When your character isn't voiced, you're free to imbue your own motivations onto him/her. Not so when he has a voice and a personality of his own.

Equipment no longer decays, which makes the game way too easy. I know it didn't decay in the first two games, but that's apples to oranges. Having to replace your shotgun every few dozen shots in a turn-based combat game would have made it more complicated than it needed to be.

The lack of skillpoints also makes the game too easy. Merging skillpoints with the perks system streamlines the leveling, but it means your character comes out of the Vault an expert at everything except lock-picking and hacking, and you merely add perks to make him even better at those things. Under the old system, you were inexperienced with weapons until you leveled up and added skill points to each category, and only then did your accuracy and damage inflicted improve. In Fallout 4, somehow your character knows how to aim a gun, use a missile launcher, handle a minigun, make weapon mods, use and maintain power armor, and cook Deathclaw Steak straight out of the Vault. It's not roleplaying. It's what Doomguy would be if Doom 3 had been an RPG.

In spite of this, I liked the main quest at first, and the sidequests were good as well, except for the settlement quests. They get tiresome quick. The whole crafting thing is tedious and ridiculous. No more ridiculous than your character somehow being able to carry a minigun, four rifles, three shotguns and thirty grenades on his person, but there's only so far you can take videogame logic before it stops being fun and starts being stupid. Somehow I can take wads of old paper money and turn them into beds?? I can build generators that never need refueling? I can build new houses by scrapping the ruined structures in each settlement? Come on, it's a Fallout game, not Simcity.

That the NPCs expect you to do everything for them is aggravating. If they needed me to do everything myself it would be ok, but no, they EXEPCT the player to do everything! Why do I have to go and clear out those ghouls? Why ask me to build you defense systems? Why ask me to build you a generator? Why can't you people do it? What are the Minutemen doing in Sanctuary that's so important they can't?!

It kinda gives people a false impression of what a military General actually does. He doesn't go out and fight bad guys himself; he orders others to face the enemy for a greater cause. Hell, real leaders don't do everything themselves. They tell others to do things for them! Leaders coordinate other people and then take the credit for their work; they're not some Übermensch who can do everything alone.

If caps weren't so easy to get, and you didn't know where to go to find out what happened to your son, then you'd have a reason to get involved with all these groups and do work for them. But since it's so easy to get rich in this game, and you know exactly where to go and what to do, you have no reason to join the Railroad, or the Brotherhood of Steel, or the Minutemen. It wasn't an issue in Fallout 1 and 2 because there was no stuff to collect and sell for easy caps. Getting caps was a difficult task, and you didn't know where to go or how to accomplish your mission. You had to complete quests to level up so you could improve your accuracy with guns and progress with the main quest. There's no necessity in the Bethesda Fallout games, so character motivation remains a huge problem.

The game is much more combat-heavy than the previous installments. There are fewer terminals to read and fewer local stories to find. Hell, there are only 3 Vaults to explore, and nothing in Fallout is more fun than discovering how evil Vault-Tech was! We only get a little bit of that this time. In Fallout 3 and NV, you had to go through the entire Vault to find out what the hell was going on, and the story was spread out across multiple terminals. In FO4, you find a terminal at the beginning of each Vault that outright explains the Vault's purpose, and nothing else. No buildup, no living the madness yourself before you get an explanation. The game is underwritten and over-actioned. There's somebody to fight around every corner, even outside of Boston, and wow it makes exploration an arduous task compared to Fallout 3 and NV.

I enjoyed the main story a lot more than Fallout 3 or Skyrim (but not more than New Vegas) for a while, but the further I progressed, the more the lack of character motivation bothered me. I'm not vested in any of these factions. I don't like how I was FORCED to be an important agent in the Railroad, leader of the Minutemen, and leader of the Institute! I didn't want to be any of those things, and I have no reason to go along with it!

In fact, the Minutemen become annoying by the end of the game. They preach a message of how we have to help each other to make life better in the Commonwealth, but they don't do a damn thing to help anyone! They expect me to run around the Commonwealth and do their dirty work for them! Defend this settlement, retake their old castle, build beds for them, build defenses for this settlement! Screw them! You people aren't doing anything but lounging around in Sanctuary! Get off your asses and practice what you preach!

There's no proof that the synths in the Institute are mere slaves and need to be liberated. The Railroad has a goal, and it's an admirable goal, but I went inside the Institute, and I don't see any enslavement, oppression, abuse, or hints that the Synths inside want to be free. To me, they seem to be just machines. What's the reward for guiding a Synth to freedom but condemning them to a life wandering the Commonwealth dodging bullets? That doesn't sound like much of a liberation.

There's no indication that the Institute is doing anything bad. After all that trouble to get inside, all I know about the Institute is that they plan to create robots to populate the post-war world, but so what? How does this save mankind? Do they plan to wipe out biological life, or upload it into machines, or merely recreate it with computer programs? I've been all over the Institute, and I find no terminals with useful information, and nobody gives more details, so I can't tell what exactly they're planning to do. I'd actually be all for uploading. That sounds like an improvement. How is this bad? Is there more to their plan? What about the FEV experiments? Why is there no option to ask about them? Information is not being withheld from me. There just isn't any.

There's even less reason to get involved with the Brotherhood of Steel. I wasn't interested in them from the start because their goal seems to be martial law, but for what? The Brotherhood has been an ambiguous faction since game 1, so I didn't feel bad becoming their enemy. Your character has no reason to join them because doing so does not help him find his son!

Without more information about what each side's goal is, how can I make a decision about which faction to support? While I don't expect the factions to be black or white, I was hoping for more details about what they're doing. I was at a loss for whose side to be on. It's the lack of information that bugs me, not the ambiguity. I'd be all for ambiguous good guys and bad guys if I knew more about them so I could weigh the pros and cons and choose who to support, but the game doesn't give enough context to do so.

Again, underwritten and over-actioned. As many reviewers on Steam have pointed out, Fallout has become an FPS with RPG elements instead of the other way around. It actually made the game less fun as I continued the main story. The only reward for progressing is special loot. In previous Fallout games, more story was your reward for exploration. Loot is not a good reward when you're already overpowered; it makes you feel like that journey was a waste of time because you already have five good weapons and armor with special bonuses. More of that does not satisfy. I wanna know more about these people, and the game provides no details.

I sided with the Institute. Because your character's son is in charge of it, it is the only faction you have a reason to join after seeing the war zone that is the Commonwealth. I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be the wrong choice, but it's the only one that makes sense.

So I reached the end. I killed everyone in the Railroad, blew up the Brotherhood of Steel, was surprised I didn't have to destroy the Minutemen, and there is no multi-part ending sequence showing how the choices you made affected various areas of the Commonwealth. No information on what the Institute does without opposition, and what it means for the future.

No matter what you do, the ending is the same, and you never learn the consequences of your choices. What absolute bullshit. Much like the dialogue "trees," all choices converge on a single path to the same end. Why bother being able to choose which faction to support if the end is the same?!

Sure, it's a good shooter, the action is good, the details are great, and the conversation system is so much better with cinematic angles (but worse for a maximum of 4 dialogue choices that have no effect on the outcome of the conversation), but there's no writing, or roleplaying. Fallout has been dumbed down! It's the next generation of consoles; they could've done even more with the storytelling and the branching choices! But there's no story. There are no more details about each faction. There is no reason to side with any faction. Nothing you do changes the ending, and you never find out what the Institute was planning, and how the Commonwealth fares depending on which choices you make. Fallout 4 forgets to be a Fallout game. It's a good action shooter, but there's nothing underneath to support it. What a disappointment.

Now that the game is over, there's nothing left to do but try and romance a Deathclaw.