Words and Chaos

Was Friday’s Update A Little Dour?

Cheer up. Here’s a 1920’s jazz cover of a Japanese bubble-gum metal song.

 

Because if my brain is full of fuck then so is yours.

Trump and Kim, the Nuclear Reactors

Cooling Before the Fallout.

Wouldn’t that be something to read in a history book years from now? Perhaps as an amusing footnote to the sudden end of humanity on the off chance that this spirals into World War III.

“Nuclear war was started in  2017 because a delusional brat and an egomaniacal man-child got into an international pissing contest.”

It won’t come to nuclear war, but the fact these two children lead countries, with nuclear warheads, and behave in this manner is astonishing. I actually would have bet on Trump to be at least be a tad more diplomatic than Pyongyang, given that, while he is clearly a slave to his infantile ego, someone has to have told Trump that nobody wins when nukes are involved, if he really can’t work that out for himself. Then again, you wonder if instantly reaching for the nuclear codes is all that far a jump for a man who all but opened his presidential candidacy by talking about the size of his penis.

As for Kim Jong-Un? He’s delusional. His entire life has been one long ‘you’re a god emperor’ brainwashing session. So when it comes to chucking nukes around, is anybody surprised that he’s so incredibly naive and blasé about it? Didn’t think so.

I’m, admittedly, no political genius, but given that that’s the reality, I think it behooves Donald Trump to attempt maturity in this instance. The reality show has perhaps become a little too real and bravado wilts in the face of reality. Even he should be able to set aside his narcissism long enough to acknowledge that. Kim Jong-Un is a delusional spoilt brat, which makes him more or less impossible to reason with, but given that he seems to believe himself beyond mere mortals, provoking him with threats of nuclear annihilation isn’t particularly smart either.

Perhaps simply ignoring his outbursts and letting the boy cool off would be the wise course of action? That is, of course, if Trump can reign in his ego long enough to stop acting like a man-child with something to prove.

A Novel Idea – Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

For July we took a look at Ernest Cline’s debut, ‘Ready Player One’.

This dystopian sci-fi-meets-nerd-nostalgi-trip proved a little divisive. It’ll be interesting to see what Steven Spielberg does with the film. I’ve heard it will deviate fairly significantly from the book and, personally, I think that’s a bad thing. I’m expecting those changes to essentially put a layer of sugar over everything that isn’t Hollywood about it. The appearance of the main character says it all, really. Easily digestible and reflecting nothing of the source material, which in this case is important because it’s the entire point.

Listen and download here:
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline.

What’s Words, Eh?

Well, I’ll be the first to admit that last post was a bit out of date before it was even posted. In my, somewhat pitiful, defence, the whole debacle kept changing on me, lasted a good while, and by the time it was pretty much done I was in Oslo without a computer. I didn’t take my laptop – it’s about seven years old, missing a couple of keyboard keys, and weighs more than I’d like it to for travelling. I’d have bought a tablet, but I’d literally be buying it for holiday use. Outside of holidays I can’t think of a single time I’d use one. I wouldn’t have really used my computer on holiday anyway – never stay in my hotel rooms long enough.

Anyway, enough whining and excuses. It’s been a significant amount of time since I made content for this blog. A number of abortive posts and scrapped ideas, etc. I tend to want to cover topics in decent amount of depth. Often that means a bunch of research, a lot of structuring and editing, and by the time I’m halfway done the relevance is long dead. I think I’m going to have to stick with them in future – for better or worse. It’s better than letting this become half a graveyard. All the same, I’ve not been inactive.

I set the personality generator to one side for a little while, while I went back and forth on generic vs specific traits, and the reasons why one sort might work better for random generation than another. In the end I think I’m just going to try to incorporate both and see how that works. Though that will take more planning and a bunch of restructuring, some consideration as to how much I want to split each chunk up, and so on. I planned out a structure for a scene generator a while ago. I need to put the pieces together. Probably after I’m done with the personality generator enough to be happy with it.

I’ve reworked some sections of the novel. I had to seriously rethink one part and that took a long time to get to something I was happy with – I just purely didn’t know where I was going with it. It was, story wise, necessary, but lacked anything beyond surface depth, and while I’m not claiming any sort of literary ocean floor, I would like something just a tad more sophisticated than ‘The thing happened and the guy did a thing and then the page turns here.’ The other thing was a part I haven’t even started on yet, but has been gnawing at me for a long time. I liked the general shell of it, but the details, in the end, wouldn’t fit right with the rest of the story. It ended up being out of place, so I took it and gutted it, and replaced it with something that works better. As usual, that means more questions, more things to work around, etc. I’m glad, because if you end up asking a lot of questions I think it means you’re on the right track. Either way, I’m happier with the result. We’ll see where it goes.

New podcast for A Novel Idea coming up. We’ll talk about the book of which the upcoming film is adapted from, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I’ve been thinking about developing the podcast a bit. I’d like to try and work some more sound effects into the mix as periodic background ambience – heavily inspired by the Sift podcast, which you should go and check out because it’s very interesting. To be honest, I’m not even sure if it’s still going or not, but there is some interesting use of sound effects there that I wasn’t expecting. It can be a little grating at times if they get it wrong, but in general it’s quite cool. It depends on how relevant I can make the background ambience, but that shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Now that the podcast is recoded in binaural audio I’m going to have to go back and work with the sound effects. Record some new ones, make some good use of the binaural mics. So there’s a fair bit of work to do, but if something’s worth doing, then you may as well do it right.

That’s it, you can stop reading now.

Grand Theft Auto: OpenIV Modding?

Take-Two to Think About What You’re Doing

Around the 14th of June 2017, the much loved open world criminal madhouse Grand Theft Auto V suddenly started to take a significant slamming in the Steam ratings. It tanked from ‘overwhelmingly positive’ to ‘mixed’ in the overall scores while recent scores displayed ‘overwhelmingly negative’. For a game with 240,000 reviews, that’s quite the drop in the space of a weekend. Whether you pay attention to the Steam rankings or not, this is the kind of change that is violent enough to deserve notice, especially for a title like GTA V. So what happened? In short: Take-Two Interactive, the publishers who own subsidiary Rockstar games and by extension GTA development studio Rockstar North, decided not so much to shoot themselves in the foot, rather to sever their leg at the knee with a scythe.

Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 22.13.15

GTA’s Steam reviews on 20/6/17.

At Liberty to Mod

If you’ve had GTA on your radar in any capacity over the last two years, on the PC, then you’re probably aware that it has developed a healthy modding community. While Rockstar Games have never released official modding tools for the game, the players have been only too happy to open the bonnet and start modifying and tinkering like a pack of overexcited auto-mechanical enthusiasts with unhealthy amounts of money to play with. Enter OpenIV.
Games with flourishing modding communities often result in players wanting to install multiple mods at the same time. Installing a single mod, or a handful, is often not too much trouble. When mods start to pile up it’s not long before you begin to have problems getting them all to work together. It’s almost always possible, but takes increasing amounts of work. To solve this problem, modders often create third party applications that help large numbers of mods run together. OpenIV’s mod management capabilities were so impressive that it could manage potentially in excess of a hundred at one time. When tools like this gain notoriety, modders tend to develop their creations with these mod managers in mind, the result being that individual mods often rely on these mod manager applications to run at all.
So when Take-Two Interactive slapped developer GooD-NTS and the OpenIV team with a cease and desist order, it was not the kind of under the radar action that would go largely unnoticed by the wider community.

A Criminal Lack of Judgement

Before I go on, it’s important to point out that it’s perfectly within Take-Two’s legal rights to to shut down mods if they see fit. Having never had any official input, the scene was always,as GooD-NTS himself put it, a “grey zone” despite Rockstar themselves offering support for the single player modding community. So the issuing of a cease and desist, purely on those grounds, is not such a problem. What did cause the overt controversy surrounding the action, was how wildly cynical it all looked and, to add insult to injury, how contemptuous Take-Two were with their justifications. Take-Two themselves have offered a token parroting of Rockstar’s support for the modding scene, but their reasoning for issuing the cease and desist order was accompanied by a, thoroughly ill-written and unchecked, accusation that the tool was responsible for allowing “third parties to defeat security features of its software and modify that software in violation Take-Two’s rights”. Sounds reasonable: Nobody wants hackers in their multiplayer. Except…

Letting off some Steam

… OpenIV has always been strictly single player oriented. Not to mention that if Take-Two are only just getting around to tackling the well documented hacking problem in GTA V Online, they’ve been very slow on the uptake.
Naturally, the GTA V community was not impressed. This action by Take-Two Interactive doesn’t read like a legitimate defence of its rights and properties, rather a contempt-fuelled attack on their own customers. This isn’t about modding. If it is about modding, then Take-Two and its legal department are shockingly out of touch; failing to do their basic research, which you’d think would be the starting point for a legal challenge, before wading in with its legal team and financial weight, like a pampered rich kid. Ultimately, it looks classless and greedy. GTA V Online is a cash cow and everyone knows it. It’s a good cash cow, don’t get me wrong, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be milked for everything it can produce. It’s not wild speculation to suggest that one reason Take-Two would want to attack modding is to forcibly drive attention towards GTA V Online and, by extension, their bottom line.
The community reaction was surprisingly coherent. Players flooded to GTA V’s Steam page and review bombed the game into the ground. By the 20th of June, the game had reached ‘overwhelmingly negative’ status, down from ‘overwhelmingly positive’. There was a petition that reached 79,000 people, but there’s a petition for everything these days and I doubt that Take-Two were ever going to care about that. What they should care about is the potential hit to their pocket. If people are going to the Steam page and seeing an overwhelmingly negative score for the game, they’re going to be hesitant to buy it. Especially as the overall score has now tanked to ‘mixed’. The implication is that the developers have started out moderately well, and then done something horrendous with an update. Wouldn’t be the first developer to do so.
Rockstar, themselves, have seemingly been more or less innocent. Supportive of mods in the past, they have since stepped in to, apparently, moderate the “discussion” between Take-Two and modders while reaffirming their own stance on the issue. On the 23rd of June, they wrote: ’Rockstar Games believes in reasonable fan creativity, and, in particular, wants creators to showcase their passion for our games. After discussions with Take-Two, Take-Two has agreed that it generally will not take legal action against third-party projects involving Rockstar’s PC games that are single-player, non-commercial, and respect the intellectual property (IP) rights of third parties.’.
They seemed to manage to get Take-Two to settle down just a bit. At least enough to put their legal team away. The overall tone of the message doesn’t actually seem to change anything at a concrete level, and I am extremely sceptical about future actions from Take-Two, but it’s nice to see Rockstar try. Leaving out the dodgy con-men that litter places like, the now defunct, Steam Green Light, development studios are often the ones in the games industry who are mistakenly targeted for the practices of their publishers. They often seem more in tune with the people they’re creating content for, whereas the publishers, sometimes, seem to be only vaguely affiliated with the concept of gaming. While I’m not expecting a business to avoid its basic function; the maximisation of profit, it would be nice if they seemed at least slightly in touch with their customer base from time to time. Just enough to throw together a cringe-inducing conference featuring someone in an energy drink costume, some ‘leveraging of influencers’ – Twitch streamers and Youtubers and content creators, sidelining a barrage of increasingly see-through buzzwords as if the human race were just another search engine.

Modifying the value of a game

So we’ve established a possible reason as to why Take-Two would possibly take this sudden aggressive stance towards the modding community. I would be very hesitant to suggest that encouraging and cultivating a modding scene could possibly outweigh the profits of something like GTA Online. I will say that actively opposing a modding scene, particularly if one has become an established part of the series as a whole, as it has with GTA, is a bad move from more or less every standpoint.
Developers have complained that people can go to Youtube and simply watch their games these days, removing the necessity for anybody to purchase them in the first place. There’s an entire ‘game X the movie’ subcategory of videos based around exactly that. While there are various arguments surrounding this issue, it’s a larger topic than I’m willing to get into here, not to mention the fact that others have done a far better job at explaining that argument already than I will. Regardless my personal stance remains that modding can help alleviate the problem of customer conversion. Modding a single player experience can be a way in which you convert viewers to customers. It can act as the weight that tips people over the edge. If you know that you can watch a specific pre-ordered sequence of events that will be the same, regardless of who’s playing and when, then you might feel less inclined to pay for that experience, because you already know what’s going to happen. Again, that’s a far larger and more nuanced conversation for another time, and I’m not willing to attempt to boil it into a paragraph. Suffice to say that there’s space for all mediums and varieties of narrative development in gaming, but for the moment let’s keep it on track. Some games, some narratives, require a linear narrative to work and there is nothing that deviation or dynamism can add to them. Regardless, supporting the ability to mod new content into a game is never a drawback. If you can add new static content, like a series of levels or a mini-campaign, or throw in new content that is not predictable, then you’ve got something that people can engage with even if they’re already watching it on Youtube. Modders are eager to develop new content, so supporting those efforts can only help the conversion process; not just by virtue of the aforementioned content development, but by the power of word of mouth and increasingly important community goodwill.
Games like Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld are built around this idea of non-linear content: You have, more or less, a set series of actions that occur in any given scenario, but the timing, specifics, and the way their individual interactions can affect the world around them, are unpredictable and compelling. You can have, broadly, the same experience as the Youtuber you were watching, but it’s never going to be quite the same. The dynamic butterfly affect nature of those interactions creates engaging emergent gameplay. Similarly with open worlds and sandboxes like Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft, the content is not all predetermined even in the base game. Therefore, you get a slightly different experience every time, and the more you allow extra content to be added to the game, particularly with AI and active entities, the wider the scope for variety and engagement is, and by extension the weightier the draw. These emergent interactions are the basis for narratives and memories that gamers tell each other about. If you see something amazing happen on a stream or a video, and you know you’ve got a chance to have something similar but not exactly the same, you’re more likely to invest because you’re invested in the potential for stories. It’s why battle royale-esque multiplayer games, such as Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, are becoming a significant part of the market. X3, Rimworld, and Dwarf Fortress are just a handful of notable games that thrive on this factor: The unpredictable emergent narratives and memories that they create through their multiplicity of interacting components.
X3 Albion Prelude’s developers, Egosoft, are notable for their encouragement and facilitation of modders and for good reason. There are deliberate holes in the market of the base campaign, which players are encouraged to exploit and use to make money. There are specific abandoned ships and trinkets that can be found and used by the player. It’s a vast universe driven by the “Global Decision Engine”, which keeps track of the economy, removing and adding objects to sectors in an attempt to keep things smooth.
As it turns out, this is actually a problematic solution. Interesting scenarios are created, not by trying to fill in the gaps, but by letting those problems run, impact other parts of the game, and see where the resulting conflicts, created in those gaps, go. When two people lack a resource, but only one source of it is available, the result will inevitably be some form of competition and conflict. There are a number of broad ways in which these conflicts can be resolved. In an ideal world some level of representation for each of these is modelled, to whatever level of abstraction, in the game mechanics.
In an ideal world, the AI should be able to attempt to resolve the problems it encounters, successful or not, using those mechanics, and not simply brute forcing artificial equilibrium into the game setting. Of course, this isn’t an ideal world and the amount of work needed to create a multifaceted simulation like that is impressive to say the least. Aside from the amount of work required, this kind of simulating can be pretty heavy on a processor even today, and I’m talking about a game that came out in 2008. Still, my point stands: By using this sort of brute force solution, the potential for dynamic situations is stifled and emergent scenarios are not allowed to develop, which in turn can lead to stagnation. This applies, not just to X3, but to all open worlds, sandboxes, and settings which claim to allow the players freedom or “living” dynamic environments.
In X3 the conflicts between the races are, ultimately, muted. The Xenon and Kha’ak serve the purpose of a unifying alien threat, though neither seem particularly fleshed out. They both fill the boring ‘destroy the universe because reasons’ niche, and there’s the usual ‘they don’t communicate,’ handwaving, but they make for consistent cannon fodder in the vanilla game, so I suppose what the hell… There are, however, mods that do a good job of expanding on them, making them competitive with the main races in the games, and this works particularly well with conquest mods, allowing these two “threats” to actually feel like threats. In the vanilla game, the most threatening thing about the Kha’ak is their ability to introduce pointless apostrophes into perfectly good nouns (boing).
The problem with attempting to run a prebuilt campaign in a freeform sandbox is that requires the sandbox to look a certain way, or for the campaign to be able to dynamically react to every variable introduced during playtime. The latter isn’t happening anytime soon in a convincing way. Returning to the previous example, even X3’s dynamic economy isn’t that dynamic. While you can profit by exploiting holes in the market, you can’t actually impact the wider economy. You can’t blockade a sector, even if you blow up every single ship visiting it from outside, and destroying stations simply means new ones are spawned in. The AI doesn’t have to spend any resources for its actions, thus your actions in the universe, though they look impressive on the surface, are utterly devoid of meaning or impact as a result. Once you look past the surface, the rigidity of the machine starts to become stark in its conspicuousness. You are forever impotent. This is where modding helps.
There’s no real way of completely liberating the economy, but you can do a lot to liven up the universe and take off the restraints. There are various mods and overhauls to the game that make the factions play not-so-nice with one another. The introduction of specific war zone sectors in the Albion prelude expansion meant that modders took that functionality, limited to a few sparse sectors in the base game, and expanded it onto the entire map. The previously peaceful, but canonically hostile, factions were suddenly actually at war, able to spawn fleets in and conquer territory from one another. Add in another mod that takes faction actions and adjusts their relationships on the fly, and you can end up with some interesting scenarios. X3 was never really attempting to simulate an entire political landscape with consequences and economic warfare, so much as it was attempting to simulate an economy and imply the wider consequences. Turns out that you can have both; it’s entirely possible and it’s brilliant. It’s what makes me think of going back to X3 every now and again, years after Albion Prelude was released in 2011. It’s why I purchased it a second time on Steam: Purely because of that modding support and functionality, that allows so much depth to be added to the game. I wouldn’t have stuck with it, nor bought it again, if the modding wasn’t there.
Unless you’ve got the balls to really let go of the reigns, even the largest sandboxes become boring.

Game over?

Around the start of July, OpenIV was reinstated, and the download button returned to the mod’s page. Before Take-Two finally relented on their decision to take down OpenIV, its creators actually ended up admitting that there were ways in which OpenIV could potentially be used by hackers to access and modify the online component of the game. This was a significant change of tone and one that undermined both mod creators and the user base, despite the tool genuinely only ever being intended for single player use.
Take-Two Interactive has since shut down two online cheating tools, Force Hax and Menyoo – about half a month after they went after the single player mod tools. Why didn’t they start with this? What was the line of reasoning taken that made them ignore individual problematic mods and people, a problem that has apparently been prevalent in GTA Online for years, before randomly going after a popular single player modding tool? The result is that this just looks like an unnecessary display of force, intended to intimidate and silence. Only it was directed at the wrong people and Take-Two didn’t look so impressive after it backfired in a spectacular and embarrassing fashion. It’s like a bartender spitting in your drink, and your reaction being to then walk down the road and punch a coffee shop barista in the face.
This isn’t a case of collateral damage, this is just another example of heavy-handed arrogance by another corporation taking its legal team out and expecting everyone to simply bow down. If they wanted to actually do something about a loophole they’d discovered in the software, all it would have taken was a simple act of reaching out and discussing the problem. Like mature people. If OpenIV were uninterested in cooperating, then Take-Two would have had a more sympathetic basis to start making legal threats. As it is, they’ve massively damaged their reputation and their brand, not to mention the longevity of their game, by being excessively militant with their response straight out of the gate, especially after being so passive up until that point. They haven’t taken any responsibility for their past complacency. Even now that OpenIV has admitted that there is the capability for its tools to be used in order to tamper with GTA Online, it doesn’t make Take-Two Interactive look any better.

Nobody is against shutting down hackers and cheaters in online games. Well, apart from the hackers themselves, but they don’t count so who cares? The fact that OpenIV effectively outright lied about the potential for exploits in the tool does not reflect well on GooD-NTS, but at the same time, the focus on single player content has been consistent throughout the tool’s development and so it’s unreasonable to lump OpenIV in with the likes of Force Hax. It’s not exactly rocket science to suggest that you should work with your user base, modders included, and not against them. You make money that way. Take-Two Interactive do not have an excuse here, they’ve attacked their own customers and forced their own publishing house to mediate the fallout, because it looks as if they’re more interested in short sighted bravado and intimidation than they are the end user experience of their customers. As the result, even with the reinstatement of OpenIV, I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire farce has significantly damaged the long term revenue that could have been maintained, with minimum effort on their part, from sales of Grand Theft Auto V.

You meet a stranger…

Describe me like one of your French girls.

My apologies, I have been silent. I have, however, been at work on various projects and ideas. One of those is my character generator. I have fully moved onto the character details portion of the generator, which is coming along fairly well.

To get there I had to complete the description generator. I have. There are some minor things that I have left out in the interest of not getting bogged down. At this point, everything I wanted in the generator is there, and anything else is a cool idea but not integral. So I’m putting a lid on it for the moment because I’d like to get to the more interesting parts of the generator: The character details.

So consider this version 1.0 or 0.5… I don’t have a version-by-version point list, just a lot of bullet points that I’m working through. The general idea is to generate a full character, and from there just expand on the presentation of that. At the moment it can be almost dry and mechanical, which isn’t fantastic for evoking strong images. In the end I want to try and incorporate simile and metaphor in there. With random generators controlling metaphor and simile I’m expecting some very dada-esque description, but, regardless, that’s a while away. The syntax is still a bit odd in places, but I think that’s going to have to be addressed once I’ve got all the pieces in place, and perhaps just a side effect of trying to account for as many things as this generator does.

In the end, this is all meant to spark ideas more than it is to be taken wholesale. Nobody writing a character would ever, nor should ever, describe a character in the detail or fashion that this generator presents them. So without further ado:

You meet a stranger…

Frailty, Thy Name is Weapon

 

Snap your fingers, snap your gorget.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released recently. One of its more controversial ideas was the weapon durability system. Predictably, Nintendo overstated the wear and tear of weaponry and armour by laughable amounts in an attempt to hoist the system onto people. They managed to implement the system in such a way as to turn it into a tedium inducing cycle of busywork, as opposed to an element of risk management. There are too many developers, especially in these days of bar filling “survival” games, who seem to mistake dull routine for gameplay. We’ve traded old-school MMO grind for survivalist grind. Instead of collecting ten bear arses, we’re collecting ten twigs. How did we get here? There’s space for all sorts of ideas in game mechanics, and experimentation should be encouraged by the consumer, but only so long as the mechanics compliment the gameplay. Unfortunately, the average weapon durability system doesn’t. It’s yet another percentage meter to keep track of, rather than a dynamic part of the underlying mechanics that can change the direction of an encounter or player priorities. There are ways that weapon durability can actually improve a game, but they have to be thought of in terms of complimentary gameplay, not in terms of vacuous time sinks.

Weapon durability gives you more room to be uncomfortable. You can use that discomfort to balance out the problem of unchecked power creep. The potential for weapons to break mid-fight causes you to reassess not only current circumstances, but also your approach to each subsequent encounter with more caution or forethought. It encourages preparation and back up equipment. Alternatively, it can switch the flow of the fight and force the player to change their play style on the fly. Suddenly a fight you were winning turns against you and you have to either fall back on a secondary weapon and press on at a disadvantage, or run.

When I say ‘run’ I mean actually run as a means of escape and get to somewhere safe. If you only have to tab into a menu, click a new item and auto equip/switch, in the style of Skyrim, then you’re doing it wrong. Pulling a claymore out of your underpants should take a little bit of time, come with an animation, and open you up to an attack when you’re being careless, if you’re going for that kind of system. The same goes for consumable items: Scarfing a bottle of potion or eating a leg of lamb should happen in game time not in a menu. It’s cheesy and exploitable. If you’re trying to emphasize danger and survival, then you’re not allowed to teleport things into player’s hands and stomachs. With all that said, weapon breaking can’t be forced into every fight. It can’t happen every other fight or third fight and so on. Weapons and armour are there to take blows, so unless you’re trying to fend off a sledgehammer with an ornamental rapier, there’s no reason why your defences should shatter every three seconds. It doesn’t help or add to the gameplay and it’s utterly counter-intuitive to what is often laughably referred to as “realism.”

Dwarf Fortress added weapon and armour durability mechanics relatively recently. It is one example of durability mechanics done right. It really did change the game. Post update, industries really mean something. Let’s say you produce ten sets of top tier equipment for your soldiers in fortress mode. If you know that they’re all there for eternity then that takes away any incentive to care about producing more equipment any further than trade. In a game where production is a large chunk of the core cycle, it’s important to keep it relevant beyond turning everything into a gold equivalent.

With weapon and armour damage, you’ve got to think about how much you’re selling versus how much you’re holding in reserve for invasions and re-equipping soldiers. In adventure mode it made castles more important. You have a reason to keep an eye out for them now, as a way to resupply and replace equipment. Previously, you could just walk into any old castle and find a highly effective weapon and armour set right off the bat, which would give you an advantage that would never end. As a result you’d never really hesitate before getting into a fight with a giant penguin. You’d just grab the steel knitting needle and off you went. With item durability in place, blindly wandering into a goblin fortress or necromancer tower isn’t the best idea when you know that eventually your armour is going to buckle under the blows of a hundred enemies. The armour protects you, as it should, but you’re not a god. And you never should be.

While Dwarf Fortress also suffers the same fragility problems that crop up in most durability systems, it gets away with it because the AI plays by the same rules that you do. That’s the other thing that weapon durability systems often lack: they don’t apply to other parts of the world. Just you. So you don’t get ever get to be the guy who breaks the weapon and then chases down the enemy. This is another reason people get so frustrated with these mechanics: There should be two edges to this blade; you should have the opportunity to do something cool but instead the mechanics can only ever hinder you in particular. If you’re going to have a rule then apply it to everything.

Blood Omen II had weapon durability mechanics and it was another instance where I found that it added to the game. In an otherwise mediocre adventure, made better by some satisfying voice acting and an unwillingness to sacrifice character for genre cliché, the weapon breaking did add a slight depth to the formulaic combat system. Because my big looted sword could only take a certain amount of punishment and would break after I repeatedly blocked attacks, I approached each fight with a bit of forethought. If I was just tackling a grunt, I’d use my hands or focus on dodging, but if I ran into something more substantial or faster, I would switch to the weapon, preferring the raw damage output over a considered parry and counter. When I didn’t have a weapon and came up against one of the tougher enemies, the absence was noticeable.

It’s good to put the protagonist in trouble. Otherwise what’s the point in them? When the game is structured around a linear narrative, regardless of the size of the corridor, then we already anticipate the end: Kill the boss and triumph. In the case of Zelda, we all know it ends up with the Master Sword anyway. But we’ve already played with the Master Sword for 16 games. We get it: It’s the bog-standard heroic phallus. Get out of the way. It’s just more interesting to be using, or have the choice to use, all the other weapons and armour. If we’re aware of the destination then the journey needs some hooks.

Of course there are those who will rail against mechanics like this. I wonder if that’s simply a backlash against games outside of a specific niche, daring to offer some danger. This isn’t some semi-covert, ‘git gud’ elitist braying. A game shouldn’t have to hold your hand in order to engage you. In recent years there has been a period where gaming has dug itself into a power fantasy hole, and then refused to climb out of it. More recently there has been a push back against that, fuelled by successful games that understand the concept of difficulty as a part of an experience, rather than just cheap difficulty for the sake of difficulty – think Diablo III’s launch and the abysmal gear-check hurdle grind difficulty setting ‘Inferno’. A better understanding and experience of mechanics and expanded technical and AI capabilities have increased our ability to develop game difficulty that feels natural, not just cheesy and frustrating like Mario Kart’s rubber-band AI. As technology grows, we’re in a great place to capitalise on this. Now that we can take advantage of increased processing power and memory, we can build interesting physics and AI systems. Developers no longer need to rely on just upping the amount of damage taken or implementing dull damage-sponge enemies.

Dark Souls is, as ever, the obvious one: You’re very rarely out of danger, every enemy can always hurt you, and becoming careless can be death; but the games don’t exclude you from being very powerful. Killing Floor II doesn’t increase its difficulty simply by giving its monsters more health it gives them more abilities. That’s a fairly obvious but fantastic way of increasing difficulty. Instead of just increasing the amount of spent bullets, the player has to adapt to increasingly varied and less predictable behaviours. XCOM 2, while renowned for its RNG, isn’t a game of chance. A certain part of the core gameplay loop is the negation of RNG and swinging the odds in your favour. That’s arguably just a part of any tactical process, but it doesn’t detract from the danger or success of the game’s systems. You prioritise enemies based on their abilities, you choose your attacks based on your circumstance, you take advantage of the procedural terrain to negate the effectiveness of the aliens. While I have some reservations about certain mechanics, I have at no point felt that everything boiled down to chance. Every move you make is dictated by your situation at the time.

Getting back to the point: There’s an edge to knowing that your weaponry can break alongside a refreshing forced change in pace and play style. Switching from one defence to the next based on what you have to hand is more frantic and compelling. Forcing a player to run if they underestimate their enemy or overestimate their own abilities keeps the player from becoming complacent. Jim Sterling argued that forced variability of play style is no real choice. While I get where he’s coming from, unless you’re getting nothing but very specific items, then you should theoretically be able to stick to a broad play style – quick and nimble, heavy and hard hitting, etc.

Of course, if it’s balanced poorly, the mechanic becomes nothing but a frustration. If a weapon snaps like a twig at the first sign of impact then that’s a problem. If a piece of armour is rendered useless in three hits, that’s a problem. In general, we build our expectations roughly comparative to the ones that we might have of reality. That means that we don’t expect hardwearing combat equipment to feel anything but. If it doesn’t, then all sense of significance goes out the window. Put simply: If your player is holding a weapon then it should feel like a weapon. Revelatory, I know.

Take the survival horror genre, for instance. It’s a genre that is built around making the player vulnerable. To that effect it either doesn’t give you a weapon of any kind, or downplays the effectiveness and availability of protective measures. That’s not a license to equip the player with a Styrofoam crowbar. If you want to leave an impression then you make the crowbar feel like a crowbar. Weighty and impactful: The kind of thing that would put a large man on the ground without a problem. It’s something that the player can latch onto, it’s a point of reference, and it’s a measurement by which they understand the rules of the world. And then you give the player an antagonist that doesn’t care.

I’m just adapting writing functions here. It’s more or less the same idea, just on an interactive level. For instance, you can emphasise the sense of danger by giving your player human opponents to start off with. It’s something they instantly recognise and understand. That gives them the idea that they have control and thus some power. Then you introduce something that is outside of their frame of reference and doesn’t obey the rules that they’re used to. That takes control away from them. Suddenly they’re vulnerable. As an aside, that doesn’t mean take away the rules – there should always be rules, even if the player, or the reader, doesn’t explicitly know them. The reaction isn’t to discard the crowbar as useless; the reaction is to cling tighter to it. It’s all they’ve got – it becomes more a talisman of hope than a means of survival. So you’ve taken the danger into a psychological space and given them something to anchor themselves with. Then you take that thing away. Better yet, you destroy it. When you take an item away from a player they will hold out hope to find it again. They’ve got something to latch onto and they’re not going to give it up. They will expect to find that crowbar later on. That’s their safe place. If you break the crowbar then it’s useless. It’s gone. It’s not coming back.

The problem with overly short gear durability is that players aren’t given an incentive to use items, nor an opportunity to get attached to them. Attachments are meaningful if you have the ability to lose them. If gear durability is too low then players don’t use what you give them even if they pick it up. They will use items against bosses and that’s more or less it. If they’re doing that then you’ve failed. You should take all the items and replace them with a stick of dynamite. All you’ve done is set up a wall and given the player some explosives. Items should alter the way you approach a scenario, they should lend themselves to a play style. If, for example, your weapons are just short lived high damage objects, then they lose their identity. They become an amorphous, but easy, way of dealing large amounts of damage to a miscellaneous barrier in the shortest possible timeframe. Nobody likes health sponges because all they take to beat is the repetitive mashing of a button. That’s what your bosses become and your items are just ways to reduce the amount of time you have to mash a button for.

That’s not a gameplay mechanic: It’s a means of reducing the risk of RSI.

In this era of day one DLC and hotfix patches, adjusting the balance of item durability isn’t beyond possibility. It’s not impossible for features and mechanics that start out as a tiresome negative to become an immersive addition with the right tweaks.

Weapon durability systems should, at their core, be a means of depriving a player of a comfort zone. While this may seem to go against design philosophy, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as an impediment to fun. It simply depends on whether the mechanics interact with, and add to, other features of the game. There’s a good reason to keep your player off-balance and put them in uncomfortable situations: It keeps them alert and engaged with the game. If you give your players a very powerful item and they know that it has a limited number of uses, its inherent value goes up so long as it isn’t restricted too severely. Go too far with restrictions or overspecialise and your item value goes down. If you have unlimited access to a very powerful item then the value of everything goes down, because if there’s no chance of loss then there’s no diminishing of a player’s ability to dominate all circumstances or remain invulnerable. As a result the power is endless and, in a counter-intuitive twist, stops having meaning.

Where games can fall down is simply to overemphasise durability to the point where it is not a mechanic so much as it is a chore. If you are constantly worrying about item damage after every single use, then the system is not adding anything to the experience. There’s a significant balancing act to systems like this, pacing the availability of items, encouraging their use, differentiation, etc. Jim Sterling accurately called out the endless supply of banal bar filling that pervades survival games in his ‘Babysitting the Survivor’ episode of the Jimquisition. All too often developers seem to approach item durability in this manner; viewing potentially novel mechanics as simply another bar to keep topped up, when they should be doing anything but.

Weapon and armour durability can be an effective tool in creating an immersive experience so long as developers have the guts to take things away, and work item durability in as a complimentary system rather than an endless source of arbitrary busywork. It can keep the variety and the danger in combat regardless of player advancement, and thus keep the player from becoming complacent. As a result you keep the tension, and you can potentially wind up with some incredibly memorable emergent gameplay moments and stories. This is the strength of item durability, and by extension, a willingness to take things away from the player. As long as it can be implemented effectively, it should be encouraged. You have to be willing to both give and take away. That’s a rule for writing and it’s a rule for games, too.

 

 

 

 

There Is Only Chaos: Alpha, Beta, Whatever

Maturity begets integrity.

A month into Trump’s presidency and the new American president is causing as much of a wave in the White House as he did on the campaign trail. While I have my reservations about the rash of post-election protests, much as I do sympathise, Trump is certainly a polarising individual. His ‘grab them by the pussy,’ comment, in particular, remains in the spotlight. Not without good reason. It’s hardly a fitting comment for the leader of a major world superpower, with his hands on the nuclear codes. Well, depending on who you ask, anyway… At the time of the leak, Nigel Farage, that paragon of authenticity, passed it off as ‘alpha male boasting’. In the wake of the election of such a personality there seems to be a rise in a kind of red pill style conservatism, revolving around delusional machismo, branding everything unaffiliated with the label ‘cuck’, and attempting to boil all of masculinity down into a rudimentary food chain of sorts.

There’s a sad contingent of people, mostly males, who insist on dividing all other males in the world into categories of dominance. It’s not a particularly expansive categorisation, neither is it particularly in-depth. There are just two columns for the entire 3 billion or so males on the planet: The alpha and the beta. It’s a kind of simplified flat-pack easy-assemble worldview that offers comforting direction to boys who don’t want to think too hard about their actions, perceptions, or their significance in the world, but still want to feel like someone of consequence. The kind of person who will fight you for the first place in front of a mirror, but will chug a stein full of bull semen before taking a long look at themselves.

As expected, we find that the depiction of the alpha males is a parodic example of self-perpetuating gender stereotyping played straight. I don’t want to fall back on a tired cliché, but the image of the grunting Neanderthal lumbers to mind, only with none of the charm. Conversely, the grovelling weedy nerds of the world, again as expected, represent the beta male. It’s a foregone conclusion that each of these hapless oestrogenic wonders secretly aspire to be just like the alphas, if only they could get off World of Warcraft and give negging a chance. Most amusing is that these grossly oversimplified caricatures are held aloft as if they were real. The loud obnoxious character who attempts to hold court, rather than engage in conversation, is held aloft as someone to aspire to. This person is, apparently, revered and respected as opposed to being a massive turn-off. See, the problem with a person, of any gender, who constantly attempts to dominate all social scenarios, is that it quickly becomes apparent how pervasively insecure they are. That’s why they need to have themselves validated at all turns and why all eyes must be centred on them at all times. Unfortunately, nobody goes out for a drink with the intention of babysitting.

Take Trump’s consistent grandstanding. His need to have the attention forever focussed on him is all too apparent. He is so insecure that he has hired people to clap for his speeches. How about photos of him sitting in a golden chair in front of a golden wall? Comedy Central had to repeatedly scrap the jokes they’d written, because Trump couldn’t quite understand the point of a roast – the humour. Instead, he insisted that they talk about his wealth… Naturally, bankruptcies were off limits. Leaving aside Trump and his chronic narcissism, this constant need for validation and attention doesn’t inspire the kind of image that one would associate with an ‘alpha male’.

Five minutes of mild contemplation is sufficient to illustrate how utterly absurd the entire alpha-beta concept is in the first place. It works with other animals because most of them don’t have much in the way of an advanced social structure. It doesn’t work with humans for a number of reasons, but working within this paradigm, let’s examine it:

Do you know any men who are going to actively identify themselves as ‘beta’, given the social implications? Me neither. Not all men can be alpha so there must be some beta men. However, if one man is alpha then the majority of those around him are presumably considered beta. If each of them in turn thinks of themselves as alpha, than the alpha male would have to be beta. They cannot exist in both states at once. All of them, as the self-presumed alpha, are betas in someone else’s perspective and so they cancel each other out. The conclusion is, as usual, that a man who brands himself an ‘alpha male’ is merely overcompensating with a psychological crutch. Within that shallow paradigm, you’re not an alpha in that case. An alpha wouldn’t need that crutch.

People talk. About you. People you hate, people you like, people you love. Your enemies, your friends, your family. Whatever your social presence or connections, people talk about you. Braggadocio is the spurious pup yap of the immature boy who never left the playground: A loud, limp cover for feared impotence. It’s as facile as the alpha-beta nonsense. Alpha male boasting doesn’t happen. They don’t need to. Other people talk for them.

I know, I know. The only reason I’m writing about this in the first place is, of course, that I am simply an angry beta male. Constantly friend zoned, blue balled, whining about it on the Internet to a disinterested handful of faceless strangers. Meanwhile I spend my time kotowing to the looming feminist matriarchy that is slowly taking over the world because of a surge in regressive left leaning cucks. I do this with the shrivelled hope that, upon their eventual dominance and the overthrow of all Y-chromosomes, one of m’ladies will favour me enough to grace me with a pity fuck. Any day now.

Let’s dispense with the alpha beta rhetoric. Social power dynamics in human relationships, even among creatures as simple as us menfolk, are somewhat more complex than a binary sorting hat. It’s not solely about chest thumping and flaccid bragging. As with all human social hierarchies, the variables work on multiple levels are affected by any number of external and internal factors, and the points of dominance and power shift depending on context. I’m not well read on animal social group dynamics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those too, were slightly more convoluted than the proposed alpha-beta model. Of course, the reality is simply that none of this exists. It’s the psychological equivalent of homeopathy for the pitiful and puffed up.

Perhaps it would simply be more effective to take an honest look at yourself every now and then. Perhaps go so far as to actively do the hard work to improve yourself, rather than simply shouting about how great you are, despite nobody, not even you, believing it. Of course, that requires somewhat more work than constantly trying to bark the loudest and inflate your chest like a cheap helium balloon. Perhaps that explains why these types desperately cling to the chest thumping. There isn’t the stamina, tenacity, or mental alacrity to work on anything more difficult than a two-dimensional binary system more concerned with the volume of the bark than the power of the bite.

Character creation: Lose the Lists.

Because people are more than attribute collages.

Creating a character is a seemingly straightforward process, but every writer runs into times where it can be difficult to know how to flesh them out past an initial idea, or sometimes simply where to start. It’s just an unfortunate wall that you run into. Like almost all problems in the 21st century, it’s instinctive to turn to Google, our eternal babysitter, for the answer or some easy inspiration. You come across a lot of lists this way: ‘100,000 questions for characters’. Those lists can seem like incredibly detailed and in depth studies of character and personality – how could they not be: There’s 100,000 questions! That’s more than the MBTI and that other personality quiz you took last Sunday, on Buzzfeed, put together! In actual fact they usually devolve into tedious lists of minutia and quirks that rarely tell you anything important about your characters. What’s the use of knowing who were there parents are, what ice cream brands they like, what their favourite colour is, their national tax number, and so on if it doesn’t provide you with anything you can use?

List like this give the illusion of a fleshed out characters. They don’t actually provide a great deal to draw on – how many of those 100,000 notations will you remember? How much of it will come in handy when you’re writing? You can sink a lot of time into filling out those mammoth lists and it will feel like you have put in a lot of work at the end. Technically you have, and your patience is commendable is nothing else, but not all work is created equal.

The key is picking a few relevant questions and then running with them. Common starter question: Who are their parents? On its own, it’s not a useful question. You can provide names, perhaps a profession, but nothing particularly useful. So from there you could ask, ‘what was their relationship like?’ When you’ve answered that ask ‘why?’ Then you can go from there: If the relationship is good, what would it take to destroy it and how does your character react when their trust is broken? Conversely, if the relationship is bad then what would it take to fix it? If nothing, why not? And you can’t shrug your shoulders or give some piss thin excuse, ‘They just don’t feel like it’. That’s a cop out and it’s not helping you. You don’t have to answer right away, but if you give an answer then you have to give a good one.

Another common question: What are they scared of? On its own, not too useful. It gives you a surface level discomfort to throw at a character. They see a spider on a wall, they scream and attempt to hit it with a wood axe. After you’ve decided what they’re scared of, again ask ‘why?’ ’Why’ is always your go-to question. It gives you more to work with, context, and add depth that can use to expand on the ways you manipulate those fears. What do they do when they’re confronted with their fear? How do they react? Do they curl into a ball? Do they accept their fate in a stoic manner?

This works for all of these questions, fear is just a good example. Other suggestions: What do they do when they like someone? How do they display affection? The same goes for animosity or hatred. What do they do in a confrontation? What kind of drunk are they?

Of course, the most basic of these questions is more or less just the root of your story: What does your character want? More importantly, how are they going to get it? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? The answer to that doesn’t have to be ‘everything’. It’s both obvious and amateur dramatic. It’s the cookie cutter approach to raising to stakes. It’s like all those overblown antagonists with world conquest or destruction as their aim. It doesn’t make sense most of the time. Just as very few people actually want to destroy or rule the world, very few people are willing to sacrifice everything they have to get what they want. Even if they say they are. The nuance and depth come from putting a limit on what a character is willing to do or sacrifice, and forcing them up against it. Alternatively, they can be use to subvert expectations. If a character claims that they’re willing to give up everything, then one thing to do with that is put them in a situation where they’re not willing to sacrifice as much as they want others to believe, or believed themselves. You can learn as much about a person from what they’re not willing to do as much as what they will.

These follow up questions tell you meaningful things about your character’s state of mind, where they’re likely to put themselves in the world, their expectations of people, what they are likely to respond to and in what way, etc. It’s all about how they approach and act in a given situation, and the reasons for those responses. You don’t need 100,000 of these questions to get a far deeper understanding of your characters than you would by filling out one of these excessive lists. All you have to do is dig past the surface. It takes longer per question, you’ve got to think harder about each one, but you can get more memorable substance from just a few in depth questions, than hundreds of random attributes or lists of adjectives. Characters are like psychological experiment patients. The unethical kind. Put them in a situation, see how they respond. You’ll get more out of it.

The Atrocity Exhibition – Crashed Cars, Blue Balls

“For Talbot the explosive collision of the two cars was a celebration of the unity of their soft geometries, the unique creation of the pudenda of Ralph Nader.”

Forewarning: The following article contains spoilers.

Where do you start with J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition? The author himself suggested anywhere. Quite literally open the book at any page, flick through it until you find a paragraph with a title you like, and go from there. It runs along the same thinking as the cut up technique popularised by William S. Burroughs, who inspired Ballard. Burroughs actually provides the introduction to the copy I have. It’s experimental through and through and it doesn’t blush about it. You know you’re dealing with something different from the get go.

I first read it in my early twenties. A professor recommended that I read Ballard, Spanbauer, Hempel, etc. My writing reminded him of theirs. In retrospect I’m flattered. The Atrocity Exhibition stayed with me. Something about it was entirely unsettling, but I had trouble putting my finger on precisely why. Skip forward several years and it was still stuck in the back of my mind like a splinter. So when it came time for my book group to draw up a list of books for 2017, I decided to put that one down. I wanted to pick it up again and see if I could get anything more out of it a second time and with a few more years behind me. I also simply wanted to see what my friends would do with it. So I gave them the disjointed oil stained vulva that is The Atrocity Exhibition.

The Atrocity Exhibition follows Travis down the exhaust pipe of his mental breakdown in a Picasso meets Brazzers dystopia. He’s trying to start a self-contained psychological World War III. The purpose of this is incomprehensible, but it does seem to serve as the initial vector for the prevailing themes.

The structure of the book proves intriguing. Ballard describes it as being made up of ‘condensed novels’. The rest of us would call them paragraphs. There is some argument to be made that the title is deserved, but it flies in the face of all identifiable aspects of a novel to suggest that it can be justified and so in the end it just sounds pretentious. The argument that each of these individually titled segments can stand on their own falls apart when you come across, with consistent regularity, another section that makes little to no sense without context. They can quite easily be contained to a comment on a thought, some observation of another character, or simple description. No one is identified, no context given – alone it would be nonsensical. It would be fine in a continuous format, but if you’re aiming to create what essentially boils down to continuity driven micro fiction, then a story requires more than that. As for even standing on their own – well, they don’t. They more often than not tie into the preceding and following paragraphs. Ignore the aggrandised title.

On the note of Ballard’s suggestion to hop from paragraph to paragraph at random: don’t do that either. Especially if you’ve never read it before. It’s hard enough to get to grips with this book just reading from cover to cover. There is a chronology to it, the chapters and paragraphs follow on from one another in a sagging stagger from start to finish as Traven’s mental state becomes increasingly unhinged. It’s a bizarre, confused, and unsettling journey, but not once did I get the impression that Ballard had pulled a Slaughterhouse Five and jumped around the timeline.

The most consistent problem with The Atrocity Exhibition is simply the content. I went from cover to cover both times I read it, but I still can’t tell you for certain that I didn’t read the same paragraph multiple times over. I didn’t backtrack, but I consistently ran across the thought that one section in chapter 2 or 3 looks much like another in chapter 7 or 8. I wasn’t alone in this. Ballard’s protagonist shuffles from apartment to car crash to non-descript suburbia and around again ad nauseam, ruminating on geometry, social events, and sex. It’s not without purpose or reason as Talbot does not differentiate between the curve of a thigh and a bit of roofing. As a study in odd perspectives, it’s second to none but it’s not so much a story as it is a long corkscrew down an obsession with mathematical abstracts, decontextualisation, and pop culture repeating like an Andy Warhol filtered through a Gauntanamo Bay kaleidoscope.

Talbot’s aim to decontextualize everything resembles a sort of heat death of the universe scenario. This is where the structure of the book compliments the content. The fractured incoherence is disorientated and confused. The cyclical themes and sporadic jumps between characters and view points all mirror his mind and its endless looping around mathematics and pop culture. It is a fantastic and effective method of putting you into his headspace. At the same time it’s a car crash for a narrative. Picking through the jagged scrap of the plot I found characters blurring into one another, scenes and themes becoming so homogeneous and indistinct that they are ultimately irrelevant. This may be a deliberate play to the structure, but it also destroys any semblance of drama. I’ve written before about the necessity for peaks and troughs in a narrative. It’s hardly a revolutionary concept, but Ballard almost completely does away with it. Perhaps I’m too much of a literary philistine to appreciate the stylistic nuance or some such, but in experimenting with structure he has gutted the story. The narrative is a straight downward line, there is no point at which you are wondering what happens next: you always already know. Then again, the plot lines are buried beneath the rambling prose in any case, so it’s difficult to say precisely how much any of it matters.

When the plotlines do emerge they don’t go very far. Doubly so for the brief moments where sub plots seem to exist. The narrative parameters are more less defined by Toboggan’s mental state, which makes concessions to nothing beyond mathematics, pop culture, and sex. As such, that makes up the vast semi-coherent majority of the book. It’s extremely interesting in theory, but in practice the obsessive circling prevents it from going anywhere worthwhile. Maybe Marilyn Monroe’s left nipple at a thirty-degree angle to her sternum, sodomising JFK reimagined as a Mercedes-Benz, under the succulent curve of a glistening bridge arch is an interesting concept the first time. It has lost all novelty by the thirty-fifth.

When notable plot points do come up, it’s all very sudden and short lived, and then they are submerged again just as fast. There are characters that feel like they should have been doing more, they were actively invested in Timbuktu’s problems, but none of them seem to have any agency or ability to impact on him. They follow him around and then they disappear. It’s not like you couldn’t filter them through his distorted mental space, but instead Ballard has them erecting billboards and reconstructing car crashes, through which Traven wanders until he’s had enough musing on the angle of a bent fender and shuffles off to compare it to the slant of an Ikea desktop.

Whenever the characters do anything there’s no significance. At times he may as well be the only character in the novel. That seems to be part of the point; the world is reminiscent of a nihilistic paradise. The problem is that nihilism doesn’t remove any and all response to every instance of stimuli. People respond to things regardless of philosophical setting. If they do not because of the setting then there’s no point to them being there. The only person who seems to respond to anything is Travers’ wife, and her small internal conflicts were engaging. Tombola is a write off and nobody else has any investment. The wife’s conflicts, predictably, don’t amount to anything, but she’s practically hysterical in comparison to the rest of the cast. You can contrast unresponsive setting with responsive characters and vice versa, but you can’t just have a continual blank space accompanied by narration. These people don’t and it makes for a book in which nothing is allowed to happen. Even the moments that should be focal points of drama are bled of any impact. Novotny takes up a great deal of book space as a walking, thinking, elastic concubine equally as detached as Travis and yet there’s no comment on that. There’s no interaction or friction. Despite being dragged across every motorway in the States, Novotny remains utterly unfazed by anything around her. Koester steps out of the background for the space of a chapter, there’s a quick burst of drama and then it just sloughs away. There’s very little to grasp here. Melodrama is bad. No drama is worse.

As previously mentioned, it’s difficult to tell who’s who some of the time. Many of them are so undeveloped that they blur together. Some are called different things at different times without contextualisation. That works for Tuberculosis because we spend most of the time in his head. The background characters are otherwise unimportant for the most part. Save for a few of them, who reappear with enough frequency and do enough to justify their existence, the cast is largely forgettable or even unidentifiable. Who they are and what they are doing is consumed by the continuing torrent of psychobabble. I can’t remember at which point in the book it is made clear to us that Koester and Vaughn are the same person. It may well have been, but it was clearly not something worth remembering. He pops up for a brief abortive love-triangle-esque sub plot with Maybe-Maybe-Not-Novotny and Takes-Two-To-Tango, and then fades into the background again. I can’t tell you why he was relevant or what his purpose was. Furthermore, Koester only seems to be Vaughn when he’s having a Mr. Hyde moment, but in all other side references he is Koester. I would assume I was just being dense, but I can’t remember a description to link the two names together – they exists as separate entities. Vaughn’s sudden violent and potentially rapey turns are ripe for expansion and exploration. But not to Ballard. Continuing the trend: They go nowhere. Even after his exciting bit of agency and drama he goes back to doing not much. On the rare occasions that we get significant action in The Atrocity Exhibition we are left with no consequence and it kills the desire to keep going.

Speaking of which, Travis kills Novotny. It’s a spoiler but it’s so insignificant that it almost isn’t. She presumably dies, but then springs back up like a comedy clown in the subsequent chapter. I’d have suggested that maybe she’s just another hallucination, but other characters can see her, too. The best I’ve got is that he either didn’t kill her, or every instance of Novotny is a different woman given the same name by Tiramisu. The problem is that there’s nothing to indicate that any of this is the case. So what’s the point? Every time the hint of plot development appears it is attacked by the Hounds of Tindalos and never seen again. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but it’s deflating: The longer the book goes on the more of slog it becomes.

And then there’s Dr. Nathan. Dr. Nathan is the exposition man. He is there to give people some context and explain what’s happening. Without Dr. Nathan, even Ballard seemed to realise his book was all but impenetrable. His second role is to project sex onto everyone and everything. His assistant stands with her legs apart? She wants the D. A man in the hall lights a cigarette? He wants the D. Standing on a rooftop observing a pedestrian woman walk along the road? She is so sex crazed that she’s practically leaving a trail! It goes from creepy to absurd and just ends up being amusing. I can only assume that Ballard was deliberately trying to illustrate the idea that Dr. Nathan is projecting so hard he could rent himself out as an IMAX cinema.

It’s not hard to see how some could view Ballard’s novel as merely the work of a controversy peddler, equipped with some books on maths, medical anatomy, and architecture, sprinkled with cultural references to tie into the time period and hit a few nerves. While The Atrocity Exhibition certainly is trying to hit some nerves, it’s not merely a banal blending of sex, violence and smarter-than-thou cultural references. Pretentious, perhaps, but not soulless. For a start, the book isn’t actually that explicit. If he was going for shock he could have done so with ease. Instead, almost everything is given via impression and suggestions, leaving you to fill in the blanks. You’re the filth; don’t blame the book. But in taking the human and compartmentalising it until it is inhuman there are reflections of consumer and celebrity culture: An uncomfortably accurate illustration of how a person can be segmented into a dozen or more separate parts – hair, face, thighs, chest, back, arms, etc – and stuck on a hundred thousand billboards for people to digest. We have unwittingly become products in Ballard’s world. Arguably, since its publication in 1970, that fiction has long since become a reality. There are also nods to Vietnam and the unfiltered media bombardment that accompanied it. Like the book, the Vietnam War saw a continuous escalation of confusion and violence. News outlets were more than happy to pump it into homes across America, the repeated exposure numbing viewers to what was previously overwhelming. With all of that said, much of this book is heavily rooted in its own era. Unless you lived through the 60s, or you’re already well versed in the history, the constant references will most likely be lost on you, which directly inhibits what tenuous threads of interest there are to grasp. Nobody wants to stop reading every five minutes to research yet another personality, media reference, or historical event.

When I try to come up with key events in The Atrocity Exhibition, none of the ones that stand out amount to much. I’m not asking for Broadway fireworks, but I would have preferred a journey worth taking. Every now and then subplot ambles out from under an overpass and looks like it means business. Inevitably it just pisses onto the nearest vertical surface and shuffles out of sight again. Travis and Koester are doing something interesting all of a sudden, what’s going to happen next? Nothing. Jackie Kennedy is sodomising the Royal Albert Hall and Traven is trying to make that mean something. Even when Xero and Klein appear, Ballard refuses to seize on the opportunity for something interesting. By that point, yet another blurry tangent about geometric death tantra is as exciting as floorboards. These two characters, of all the opportunities, were ripe for using as an expansion and further exploration of Traven’s mind – they are his hallucinations! But Ballard doesn’t do it. Instead we just keep slumping inexorably forwards to no great purpose.

We end more or less where we started and it feels hollow. It’s just presented in a less coherent form than what it starts out with. While an ending like that isn’t a bad thing, the journey doesn’t do enough to make it feel significant. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho didn’t ‘solve’ anything in the end, but there was just enough response and consequence to Patrick Bateman’s actions that it left you with something concrete. I like stories or scenarios that take something enjoyable, comforting, or safe, and turn into something that is not. That is the type of thing The Atrocity Exhibition excels at. Unfortunately it plays the same note too many times and the effect wears off fast.

The World War III thing gets lost after a couple of chapters, I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure it’s long forgotten by the time these Xero and Klein show up. Aside from that it’s just more dissociative lists, deliberately disconnecting human experience from itself, reducing it to a collection of stock build-your-own modules. That way of viewing sex as a series of interlocking and shifting angles wasn’t something I’d considered before and it’s uncomfortable to do so. Probably because it’s not that far a leap in perspective. We’re all aware that a human is, more or less, an assemblage of shapes. We just don’t normally think of ourselves in those terms. To take that depersonalisation and throw it into one of the most personal situations you can find yourself in leaves a jagged impression. Who’d have thought you could do that to an orgasm?

Much as I’ve ranted at this book, I don’t hate it. It still stays with me. It’s perhaps trying to be too clever for its own good. I’m glad I read it again; it hasn’t lost its bizarre charm. I do enjoy the end result. Everything comes together as a whole in a distorted oil and semen smear of words and impressions. A dirty collage built up from hundreds of inconsequential frustrating scraps. But I’m trying to find a reason to suggest it and I can’t. It’s nice but it’s the literary equivalent of blue balls. It’d be disingenuous to claim there isn’t a climax, but by the time I got to it I wasn’t interested anymore.

Could you conceivably condense this collection into a less repetitive and tedious read? Yes. But you’d lose something in doing so. The obsessiveness is the point. Perhaps it’s simply a flawed idea or has to be taken only as impressionist literature. That, in essence, is what The Atrocity Exhibition boils down to. A free fall down the spread legged entry into the engulfing hole of a fractal vagina as concept of world, reflected in a hundred thousand erogenous curves, crumpled bonnets, and apartment corners.

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