Weekly status update [0071/????]

Yeah, the calendar says Sunday, but I haven’t gone to bed yet. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just writing this very late on Saturday night. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

  • I’m about a hundred pages from the end of the third book in Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, a set of seven fantasy doorstops that were recommended in one of the many “ugh Game of Thrones” threads that inhabit the modern Internet. It’s fine. Nothing mind-blowing, but its take on a fantasy version of France in the Middle Ages is plenty enjoyable. Most importantly, the series is completely written and books four through seven sit right next to my chair, ready for me to pick them up.
  • I finished up Chernobyl, which was excellent. I can’t recommend the official podcast strongly enough; it’s kind of amazing to hear the writer/producer of the whole thing point out the (intentional) factual flaws that make the show a better watch, not as some kind of back-pedaling “well I had to” sort of thing but as a frank admission that the story is fundamentally too complex in some aspects to be filmed coherently.
  • A bit over halfway through the second season of Deadwood, I am constantly reminded of just how good a show it was, and how angry I’m going to be when I get to the end of the third season. I still think The Wire is better, but not by much, and together they’re the two best television shows that have ever been made. So, uh, modern HBO: what the hell happened?
  • As last week, what little time I’ve spent with videogames has almost exclusively been with Everett Kaser’s puzzle titles. I created sixty-four maps/designs for his upcoming final game, partly because I wanted to put a small stamp on his last title and partly because there was a decided lack of bite-sized puzzle designs from the other folks cranking them out. I stopped there because 64 is a nice, round number, and I don’t have it in me to do another 64 to get to the next one.
  • I did put about six hours into Dragon Quest IX for the DS today, though. It’s only because some intrepid Internet hacker set it up so that you can download all of the exclusive online-only quests again if you set your DS’ Wi-Fi up in a particular way, and I wanted to take advantage of that before it inevitably goes away. The game’s fine? It’s very much Dragon Quest, for good or ill.
  • Yesterday marked my nine hundredth logged game of Dominion. I plan on writing a long-form expansion-by-expansion review once I hit a thousand. I suppose I like it somewhat. I also participated in an impromptu game night at Fercott on Tuesday, which was nice. Roll to the Top has become my favorite roll-and-write game, and I wish it were more easily available. It seems like the sort of game that should be in every Target and Barnes & Noble in America.

Given that it’s almost 4am, I, uh, should probably get some sleep… if only to let it become Sunday for real.

Not just one of our many toys

I hope Google Stadia crashes and burns. Hard.

For those of you not in the know, Stadia is Google’s cloud-based gaming platform. The idea is that you can take advantage of their super-powerful computers sequestered in datacenters all over the globe to stream digital delights to your TV or computer. No need for a console or high end dedicated gaming PC; as long as it can run Chrome, or is a modern Chromecast, it’ll be able to run Stadia.

There are a lot of genuine technical problems with the model. I beta-tested Stadia, and even on my desktop PC I couldn’t get consistent frame rates in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Never mind that I live less than three miles from one of their datacenters; the game would regularly hang for seconds at a time, and even when it wasn’t acting super glitchy the control lag was enough to make it feel floaty and disconnected. A large portion of the US still doesn’t have usable high-bandwidth Internet connectivity, making this sort of thing a non-starter for most rural areas.

But, no, that’s not why I want it to fail. I want it to fail because Stadia is the culmination of the “you don’t actually own the content” trend that’s been getting stronger and stronger over the years. Not only do you not own the game, you don’t even have access to the hardware the game’s running on. Once Google inevitably shuts Stadia down–and for those of you who fervently believe that this time, this time, Google won’t turn down a service prematurely: have I got a bridge in New York to sell you!–every game you “purchased” for Stadia will evaporate, turned to digital dust, never to be experienced again.

I’ve talked a bit about the Memory Hole here before. Sony and Microsoft and even Nintendo continue to move further and further away from physical media, from the ability to actually hold the thing you bought. One could make an argument that this console generation has never really had that ability, thanks to the ubiquitous nature of Day One patches; no one ever actually plays the game that’s on the disc any more, because the moment you pop it in your console downloads some 10 gigabyte patch to fix all the crap they didn’t have time to finish before the game got shipped off to mastering. I have extensive PS3 and PS4 digital libraries, and I know for a fact that some day, in the not too distant future, all of those games will simply no longer be available to me.

At least, some of them. Thanks to the hard work of emulator developers and pirates, some (but not all) of the digital storefronts have been cracked a bit, so that people can actually archive these games before they’re sacrificed to oblivion. The WiiWare store is done and dusted, which means that the excellent Rebirth series of Konami remake/reboots would be lost to the mists of time… except that pirates managed to crack it all and make them available for download. Yeah, you can tell me that we don’t have the right to those games after their market has been taken down… but I don’t care. I’m going to value preservation over corporate-mandated obsolescence every time.

It’s not just defunct systems that have this problem. Mojang, the Microsoft subsidiary that develops Minecraft, sent out a notice last week that their collaboration with Telltale Games, Minecraft: Story Mode, was going to start disappearing at the end of June. It’s not just going to become impossible to buy, which is one thing; it’s actually going to be removed from people’s libraries. The game will become an un-game, never to have existed.

That’s bullshit.

At least with my PS3 I can pull it off the network and play all of the games I’ve bought digitally, until the hardware finally fails. With Google Stadia, you can’t even do that. They control the horizontal and the vertical, the method of pay and the method of play. You are explicitly paying for ephemera when you buy a game on a cloud service, and I don’t like it one bit. One bit at all.

(Here’s where I politely remind you that GOG.com, which is unfortunately part of a company that makes some pretty terrible social and business decisions at times, at least has DRM-free direct downloads for any and all games you buy from them. As long as you have a backup scheme, you can actually keep these games. What a pleasant change.)

Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done about this ephemeralization. Physical copies are, by and large, a mental sop more than an actual solution; most games “log in” to master servers nowadays even if they’re single-player only. And the trend only seems to be getting worse.

Time to break out the SNES, I guess?

Weekly status update [0070/????]

Readin’. Less so the writin’ and the ‘rithmatic.

  • Yeah, lots of reading. After tearing through the Eternal Sky series, I read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It was fantastic, one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while. It’s a… re-telling, I guess, although without the modernization that usually implies, of Achilles’ rise and eventual fall, told from Patroclus’ point of view. A quick read-through of Wikipedia’s synopsis on the Iliad is helpful but not required. The book’s a romance, a tragedy, occasionally even a bit of a farce, but most of all just a damn fine read. Strong recommendation.
  • I also read Light of Other Stars by Erika Swyler and String City by Graham Edwards. The former feels like a mashup of a modern literary novel and sf, not quite great as either, but I enjoyed it well enough. String City is one of those books that seems like I should have loved the heck out of it–multiple dimensions, weird sf/fantasy, noir mystery–but it felt like considerably less than the sum of its parts. I was thinking last night as to why it felt that way, and the answer I came up with is that the plot felt weightless; gods and major figures die in large numbers around the main characters, but no harm ever seems to really come their way, in manners which honestly beggar belief. That’s impressive for a book with a Greek Titan in a major supporting role.
  • I’m still watching Deadwood an episode at a time; season one is nearly done. I’ve also been watching Chernobyl and listening to the official HBO podcast after each episode, with just the least one remaining now. Both are excellent, and I fully expect Chernobyl to do well in awards season this year.
  • My videogaming has been very light over the past week, with the little time I’ve spent devoted to Everett Kaser’s puzzle games. After doing a stream a couple of weeks ago where I played a puzzle or two of each of his “Sherlock series” games, I decided to explore one of the two titles in that series I don’t particularly like, Baker Street. It’s still not my favorite, but I enjoy it quite a bit more than I did just a month ago. I’ve also been doing some beta-testing of the next game Mr. Kaser is working on, which also happens to be the last one, as he plans to retire after it’s released. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a solid culmination of his work, and while it’s not my favorite I look forward to giving him money one last time.
  • Quite a bit of dominion.games, along with some actual in-person boardgaming on Tuesday. We played Transatlantic, which I now feel I can comfortably place in the “very good but not great” bucket, worth playing at most once or twice a year. I like the aggressive economic system, and it feels very different from Concordia (which is my favorite Eurogame of all time) despite sharing a non-trivial amount of that game’s DNA, but it has some design and production issues that make it harder to teach and harder to enjoy than its ancient-Rome counterpart. Still, I’m glad I played it again.

I have a seven-volume door-stopper fantasy series to read now. Wish me luck!

Here’s a book thing: The Eternal Sky series by Elizabeth Bear

I find most fantasy novels tiresome. They rely on a well-worn set of tropes: the plucky village kid that’s secretly the savior of the world, the mysterious wizards making use of ill-explained magic to worm the author out of whatever poorly-written corner they get stuck in, the portents and prophecies and projections of way-too-stable fallen empires that somehow come perfectly true at just the right moment.

And yet.

I think a lot of that exhaustion comes from the repeated returns to an over-dipped well, that of traditional Western Europe. There’s only so many times that you can read about another not-quite-Arthur or almost-Jeanne d’Arc before it all becomes something of a blur. There’s quite literally a whole world of mythopoeia out there, and yet the vast majority of the stuff available in the English language leans on a tiny subset of story and culture.

In many ways, Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky series is very traditional fantasy. The first book, Range of Ghosts, starts with a young man surviving a battle he should not have survived, and if you don’t think that he’s destined to become a key figure in the battles to come you definitely haven’t read (or watched) very many things. The villain of the work all but strokes his mustache in his very first scene. And there is magic galore, dragons and rings and ancient battlefields and dark portals to lands unknown.

And yet.

Part of the series’ appeal, at least to me, is its mining of a completely different vein of mythic substrate. Ra Temur comes from a culture based on the Mongols, not the English or the French, and his obsessions are those that make sense for a child of the steppe: horses, bows, travel, clans. Other characters hail from analogues of Tibet, China, and a fascinating alternate-universe Middle East that I wish had been afforded even more detail over the relatively slim1 trilogy.

The worldbuilding is strong, evocative, and detailed in the right ways; it leaves you wanting more but mostly satisfied with the glimpses you get of this other world 2. The metaphysics is quirky–there’s a thing going on with the skies of the various nations that, honestly, turned me away from the books the first time I tried to read them, several years ago–but impressively consistent, in a manner that makes one thing of science fiction or the more rigorous works of Sanderson than the traditional high fantasy “anything goes” style.

Also appealing is the fact that these books are decidedly modern, even if the characters within are often constrained by the cultures and customs in which they find themselves trapped. It has characters and tropes that almost certainly would bring accusations of “virtue signalling” and “social justice” out the mouths of a particular class of reader… if that class of reader’s worldview could handle well-conceived stories written by gasp a woman in the first place. It also manages to swerve aggressively around several weary genre standards, even as parts of it come off as nothing but traditional; I particularly like its treatment of a One Ring-like plot device, and appreciated the pointed jabs at just how convenient it is to talk shit about empires from the enlightened distance of our egalitarian, there-are-no-problems-with-modern-democracy future.

Plus, you know, they were just flat-out solid reads, with interesting characters, complex (but not too complex) politics, and a deep sense of the right amount of mystery to both reveal and conceal. Upon finishing the third book, I was both glad of the end and left wanting more. And in this world of crappy endings, what more can you ask for?

[If you’d like a peek into the world, Strange Horizons has a short story available, set (and written) slightly earlier than the novels themselves; you can read “Love among the Talus” here.]